– as part of a special series on road trips through India –
At a specific time in the morning, the Ganga looks like something Monet would have painted, albeit in black and white. I don’t know why, but, this is where I always feel the true road trip begins – over Nivedita Setu, with the summer greyness from 6 AM in the morning, and songs from the 1990s.
The road has always been the prime source of possibilities. At the first fork, the two prongs of the road stretch towards Bombay on the left, and Delhi on the right.
We took Delhi Road, our journey, however, stretching on only till Shantiniketan. This wasn’t the first time that we were shutting the door to our jobs, examinations, and other dusty responsibilities behind us, to go there – the reason behind our frequent trips being the fact that we travelled here by car.
You can do anything when you’re on your own, and you don’t have to schedule your flights of inspiration according to train schedules.
Crossing the inevitable traffic jam at Dankuni, we plunged into the green and golden glory of NH 2. The infinite mustard-yellow farmlands of rice teased in and out of our view in between a thick row of trees.
Having our traditional breakfast of hot kachori and lyangcha at Saktigarh, our conversation was translated into each other’s favourite Coke Studio songs for the rest of the way.
(My parents and I don’t exactly get to spend hours with one another in Calcutta; so, sometimes, my playlist serves as a bridge to all the gaps that these trips may not cover – suppose, I choose a song that reminds me of something that happened in college, and I would proceed with a story I must have missed telling them all semester; suppose, I put on a Punjabi Sufi track, and they get to know that lately, I have been reading Punjabi verses on the Metro. Mainstream conversations can get awkward, I know.)
Here’s the thing about the highways of Bengal. You can sit down with easel and paint, or pen and paper, anywhere you want, and the highway will invariably love you back. We stopped somewhere in between villages to take photographs, and saw trains ribboning over the blossoming golden farmlands. Young men with sunburned skin whizzed past us on bikes. Trucks with number plates describing Punjab, Andhra Pradesh (‘Must be carrying fish,’ my mother claimed), Orissa, Nagaland (‘Must have crossed the hills of North Bengal on the way,’ my father asserted), Maharashtra criss-crossed their way through the shades of blooming gulmohars and mango trees.
Panagarh was a thread of semi-hectic rurality held at both ends by toll booths. At one point, we drifted through the heat into Rajbandh before realizing that that road led to Durgapur. Our saviour was a sweaty man on a bicycle, dressed in all white, his T-shirt bearing the words “Durgapur Cricket Club” in thick, bold letters of blue, and the automated voice on Google Maps.
We passed by villages, one after another, lives collected in small plots of land each comprising a tea shop, a few houses with thatched roofs, some with tin roofs, and the resident groups of men whose belly-scratching philosophies came and went like the teasing clouds. Maro, Debipur, Beldanga, Jharul.
With the promise of rain, we crossed a trembling bridge over Ajay river, into Birbhum district. Graam Bangla, rural Bengal, the folios of open sky and red dust containing the rustic verses of our cultural lineage.
We made sure that we would reach Shantiniketan before noon, but the heat was ever faithful to the season. However, the thick jungles of Ilambazar made a beautiful canopy over us. We merged with the daily lives of the people there. Women in thin cotton sarees, carrying heavy bags and stacks of bamboo, waited for battery-operated toto rickshaws at the edge of the red dust roads. Young girls with ponytails fastened with red ribbons raced against our car on their cycles.
Kamarpara, where we were supposed to stay, stood at the edge of a wide U-shaped road, fields stretching on one side as far as the eye could go. The morning after, when I was walking alone towards the roadside hotel where we were to have breakfast, I saw two Santhali women, their cloth dresses pulled over one shoulder, hair tied tightly into a bun, standing on the side of the road, waiting, like I was, for the trucks to pass.
Rural Bengal never fails to surprise you with its nakedness, I realized, after perhaps a thousand trips here. It touched me more, because, somewhere, I could feel the roots of the vulnerability sprout against my own skin. People are so simple here. Perhaps they have no choice – perhaps we have no choice in the city but be complicated. Who knows? But when the knots come undone, underneath the whistling trees, you tend to question everything.
We caught up with our sleep at the prettiest house at Aamar Bari, at Kamarpara, on the outskirts of Shantiniketan, before leaping into our car for an afternoon drive towards the abode of peace.
This was when the rain came. Thick plumes of dark clouds descended over the road leading on to Khowai, and I watched as a faraway flash of electric purple sank into the farm on the side of the road.
The hailstorm came in thick shards when we stopped at a tea shack on the road. I didn’t carry my camera on this trip, and, ignoring the fact that I was getting severely drenched, I raced down the wet earth, the tea leaves in my small plastic cup swimming in rainwater. It was time for a live Instagram video.
All photographs have been shot on a Samsung Galaxy J2.