Last night, there were fireworks – red, green and golden – erupting in the black sky above Rajbari Dighi. Hindi party songs reverberated from all directions and melded at the point where I stood alone on the veranda, surveying the horizon speckled with a hundred trees raising flag masts of scanty leaves.
New year’s day fell prey to the eternal suburban lull of lazy, sunlit quietness. Still, something extraordinary needed to be done today.
It takes around thirty minutes from our place in Jalpaiguri to reach the Dooars. The criss-crossing roads, bolting into Guwahati, Siliguri and Darjeeling are strewn with villages that escape the attention of tourists visiting North Bengal. My parents and I weren’t tourists. And, we were not simply visiting North Bengal.
It was a moderately hot morning, when the tea stalls and grocery shops started opening on Rangdhamali More. You see, it takes habit to recognize the villages. One minute you’re driving, you see a wrinkled, sweating man pulling a cart of bamboo, you see bare winter farmland glowing a sandy yellow with cows and goats grazing, and the next minute, you have crossed that village and emerged into the next one.
One moment, a green signpost read Jorakadam; a few heartbeats measured by small, sparse tea gardens and tin-roofed houses later, another signpost concluded the territory of Jorakadam.
The long cemented roads, which ran like the strap of a sling bag down the body of infinite, golden farmland, were, every once in a while, flanked with large tea estates.
Crossing Raipur tea estate, we stopped at Joypur tea estate, and walked straight into the arterial alleys of a heart of dense shrubbery. For a while, my parents and I walked in three different directions, three minuscule spots of red, blue and black in the midst of the expansive green. It was silent, except for the many-layered chorus of cicadas, and the constant call of a rooster, probably from a farmhouse in nearby Natunbasti. Sometimes, the sonorous sound of a hidden birdcall spilled into the limitless sky in broken echoes.
As we made our way onwards, a group of girls dressed in myriad, bright colours cycled past us. We followed the same track until small houses bearing the signs of “Forest Directorate of West Bengal” manifested in the midst of humble, rural homes, and we finally plunged into the striped pattern of shadows filtering in through tall trees. We stopped for a moment in the middle of Bodaganj forest, commanded by the haunting way in which obstructed midday light ravished the thatched roofs and naked brickwork of the village houses.
A car full of Bengali passengers stopped and asked us for directions to the Bhamri Devi Mandir. Not only did we feel like locals within ourselves, but the northern gleam had certainly seized us, to make visitors feel like we knew the nooks and crannies of the place.
The group of young girl cyclists were replaced by three young boys on cycles, who were also making their way towards the Mandir. In fact, on reaching the site of the sanctified area, we found a couple of buses filled with enthusiastic picnickers and hordes of parties on cycles getting ready to spend their new year’s day on the open area around the Mandir.
We made an about turn, and retraced our tyre marks. Women laid paddy out to dry on the side of the road. Women travelled from field to field with a child on their hips. Younger women ventured into the tea gardens, in full summer wear, because the sun shone very hard.
Near the village Jorakali, we stopped for my father to take photographs of a sprouting of mustard flowers in the midst of dead farm ground. I got off the car and started walking. Despite it being a hot day, cold breaths of winter swirled around my feet, making them feel bare and my sandals, feathery and almost nonexistent.
Think about how you feel when you run into your bedroom after a long day, and how unflinching is the desire to jump into those familiar sheets, face-down. It was the same magnitude of a different colour of the same feeling, which made me want to squat on the road where cars seldom rode, which was only beaten with the feet of modest natives.
I felt like a native, a soul that has always been in love with the way the thin spears of bamboo rise into the boundless blue blanket of cloudless days, the way the tea gardens fluff up in vivid green in the monsoon season of the second flush, like a bird nested at the corner of a branch during heavy showers, and the way the piping of songbirds ring through the everlasting languor.
A lean man walked by, with a child in his arms, his head a messy, uncared for volume, and the entire landscape seemed to flow through them. He was the only character in motion in my line of vision – everything else was a jumble of ripe colours.
It was not hard to be a native here. Love is necessary and familiarity – the fact that everybody knows everybody – comes with the suburban (nay, rural, at times) touch.
Heaving with northern love and sensitivity, we made our way towards Gosala More, where the three prongs of the road forked towards Guwahati, Jalpaiguri and Siliguri. As we took the middle road, we saw black drongos and kingfishers swinging on the telephone wires.
With noon drifting past, village women sat on their frontyards, drying their hair in the sun, after a bath. Children made make-believe swings out of branches of trees, while infants sat on their mothers’ laps, gazing at us as we drove past.
A goods train was being unloaded at Jalpaiguri Road Station. That was a definitive pinch, nudging us into believing that the reality of an urban city lay ahead of us two days from now. The railroad stretched onward into a dusty haze. Life in Calcutta shall ensue soon, but the railroads are constant – as Jack Kerouac mentioned, there was nowhere to go but everywhere. Going home seldom put the traveller to sleep.