We finally reached Kolkata after traveling by Azad Hind for around 30 hours. Few amongst us were coming out of Maharashtra for the first time and their reactions were worth noting. So excited was Shubham that he used to loudly utter one word after every few minutes jumping simultaneously in his sit. ‘Didi’ he would exclaim suddenly and then remain quiet for a minute or two. Then, out of nowhere, he said say ‘Roshogulla’ and again went on silent mode. After a few minutes ‘Ganguly’, silent, ‘Howda bridge’, silent, ‘Tagore’, silent, ‘Eden Garden’, silent. At least, these were some positive notes. Later on he switched to ‘Sharada scam’, silent and then even ‘Bangladesh.’ It was so funny watching him… after 20 minutes or so, he stopped as he must have felt emotionally exhausted.
Our first visit was to Shri. Santosh Nimbalkar (IPS) currently posted as ADCP Airport, Kolkata. He had made our local arrangements. We had a fantastic chat with and he also delivered a very motivating speech. Answered almost all of our questions patiently and gave us sufficient time. In the end, he kept insisting us on asking more till we ran out of questions. The topics ranged from his earlier postings in Maoist areas to many of West Bengal’s current issues – law and order, political and otherwise.
Our way back to Howda station was a unique experience. The rear axle of our Sumo broke down bringing the vehicle to grinding halt. The PI then arranged for another vehicle. Meanwhile we had lost precious half hour. And then were we stuck in the notorious Kolkata traffic. One vehicle went ahead with the police banner while the replacement vehicle was being driven by some civilian, who was not so dashing. For travelling around 10 km distance, it took around 2 hours. We almost missed our train by hair’s breadth.
During the second stay at Kolkata on our way back, we consciously avoided Kolkata traffic. It needs some serious work. The trams are actually useless for they travel very slowly, don’t carry many people, are poorly connected and act rather as speed reducers in the midst of the roads. Premier Padminis and Ambassadors are plentiful everywhere. The oldest Metro rail in India is in Kolkata but its expansion is so slow that it has only one north-south line, leaving most of Kolkata unconnected. Even on the famous Hooghly River, there are only three bridges, one of which was built before independence. Vidyasagar Setu, built relatively recently is so badly designed and located that it has created additional problems instead of solving some. Downtown infrastructure is also very pathetic. Only the area around erstwhile Fort Williams is in good shape. Just a stone’s throw away from the Park Street starts Chowrangi Lane with all its ramshackle houses on both sides, with semi-open gutters and roadside hawkers selling food to no one. If you want to shoot Mrinal Sen’s Interview (1971) or Kharij (1982), it can be done very cheaply as there is no need of any film studio or set. You can go in any alley and start shooting. Nothing has changed since then. Some old buildings, same old hoardings and same old people with same old behaviour.
I had an opportunity to see the hinterland of West Bengal in 2010 when I had visited Shanti Niketan. The road was so tardy and the scenery around was so gloomy. Even Kabi Thakur’s (Tagore’s) Shanti Niketan is in disrepair. The whole West Bengal appeared so lifeless then. This time, we visited Sundarbans. The boat fare for around 400m ferry ride to cross one Ganga channel in the delta region to reach an island was beyond my comprehension. It was mere Rs 1..! Anything above that and people either can’t afford to pay or the old communist habits won’t allow. Such artificial depression of prices has stopped the growth. Thankfully this time we did not face any habitual bandh or hartal. The whole region starting from Canning to Godkhali is like another planet. The bounties of nature have turned into a curse. The region once had issues of Malaria and communication. Even today, half of the homes seem not connected to electricity grid. The roads were not paved but of bricks. The vehicles were custom-made – by attaching one small diesel engine and a chain to a cycle. There are no dredgers and thus no all-time river-channels to cross islands. One has to depend on high tide for ferries to get started. Everything is very slow. People do watch TV and know all that is happening around them. But nothing reaches them. There is only one ambulance-boat which does not work after sunset. If on some island a medical emergency erupts, it’s all in the hands of god till the morning with high tide. Even the Sundarban tourism seems not to have benefited the local populace. Some guides are from local villages but most of the forest machinery is from elsewhere in Bengal. The boat-riders are locals but there are hardly 40 boats giving employment to less than 200. And total number of guides is only 40. The Royal Bengal Tiger can’t even support 1000 families..! In addition to that, there is a continuous migration to this inhospitable terrain, from Bangladesh and from lower Odisa where living conditions are even more precarious. These people have made many islands in Subdarban their home and delivering services at their house-door is very difficult.
Minor forest produce has long been the mainstay of these people. Some communities are acknowledged for their skill in collecting honey. These people are awarded licenses by the forest department. Almost every small roadside vendor had bottle-full honey on sale. Sundarbans also produce timber – hard as well as soft – used from local boatbuilding activity to some newsprint. We could not meet any local government official. On the positive note however, we noticed three things giving us some optimism. First, fresh water is so easily available there that they take rice thrice a year, like in Kerala. (Sometimes though, floods bring brackish water into their fields and make those useless for some years. This is a severe problem there.) Secondly, many of the houses are using solar panels. And lastly and most importantly, almost every house had devoted a portion of their plot for horticulture – they grow beautiful flowers and vegetables – probably for Kolkata which is around 90 km away. Things (and people too) are moving but the pace is excruciatingly slow.
But this was all while our way back home from Arunachal. We took Kamrup Express to reach Guwahati where we received our ILPs and then by bus it took us around 10 hours to reach Itanagar via Tezpur.