Against All Odds

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Against All Odds

It is said that the Ganga descended from the matted locks of Shiva so that the impact of it hitting ground did not destroy the land. The architect of this damning feat – Kapil Muni, in whose name there is a temple. At the estuary, crisscrossed by several tributaries Shivas’ locks come unbound –  so to speak. The languid river enters the sea, the sweet of its waters mixing with the salt. Marshland & sea, human & wild, 54 islands big & small, inhabited & uninhabited.

The Sundarbans, was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1987.

It is also the place I had set my heart upon. Plans were made & unmade. Plans that came a cropper due to some inexorable wheel of karma.

I had wanted to ‘island hop’ but seeing local conditions the idea was dropped. Everything it seems is loaded against the traveller. You have to be one crazy, intrepid wanderer to come along.

As I must have been, surely.

I arrived at Bakkhali Island at the south western tip of the archipelago sans hotel reservation – only because – everything in this bastion of communism is routed through Calcutta.

The direct bus from Esplanade departed at 8 am & took 5 hours via Diamond Harbor, Kakdwip & Namkhana . The fare, all of Rs 78/- it halted at random for the convenience of locals with no planned halt for toilet, food or water. I semi dozed most of the way the countryside being largely non descript. It being December when the crops were already harvested & fields bare. There were acres upon acres of tawny, seared ground.

Hotel rooms there were aplenty but none, it seemed for the lone & weary traveller. Nobody told me why in so many words but it was the unwritten, unofficial rule that was followed to the tee. The policemen on the island were of no help either. What did they care for a single woman ?  I soon discovered it had something to do with a spate of recent suicides in sundry hotel rooms.  “ Would I come all the way to commit suicide?  Here? I could do it outside the police station. And well I might if I didn’t get that room fast.

The Govt owned Bakkhali Tourist Lodge relented but not before trying to scuttle me off some place else where the tariff was lower ‘For your own good madam….’ But temperatures both outside & inside were soaring & so we clinched a deal without further ado. Room No: 7  it was. Spacious, neat & clean with running hot water, television & room service. A veritable haven. I didn’t fail to praise it to the skies every time I ran into Mr. KK Kanjiwal, the manager.  “ Don’t forget to tell the higher ups in Calcutta “, he’d say. I swore I would. We soon became friends, my stay extending from one night to two, to four. I could have stayed on forever. Two hoots to  ‘No Singles’.

Bonbibi,Lakshmi,Durga,Sithala

Bonbibi,Lakshmi,Durga,
Sithala

Fish mongering

Fish mongering

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After a terrific fish curry – rice lunch & rest it was time to scour the isle. What better way to get oriented than on Sikantos’ motor van, a contraption that ingeniously aligned the desi thela/ van to a motorbike. Sikanto was to be Man Friday for the duration of my stay here. He is young & well informed, knows the islands like the back of his palm & speaks a smattering of both English & Hindi. Today it will be a trip to Frazerganj  & Henry Island. With the cool evening breeze blowing in the face it is really quite enjoyable.

The 3 kms stretch to Frazergunj goes past the silver sands of Dolphin beach, lines of Casuarina trees, windmills & paved paths leading to hidden tribal villages. It is a harsh existence indeed but the people seem content & happy. Perhaps because they are as yet simple & unspoilt. The islands have electric power but lanterns are lit in most homes, as electricity is unaffordable. Saw lots of kid lamb & goat reared for a living. The people are mostly farmers, fishermen & honey catchers. There is a junior school miles out of town & a clinic almost 22 kms away. The staple diet is rice, dal, veg & fish. There is no crime to speak of, the 2 policemen at the chowki being a mere presence.

Frazerganj has a deer & crocodile park managed by the department of Forests. A quick halt there & off we go to Benfish harbor to catch a ferry to Jambudwip. The charges are Rs 800 for a 2 hour ride on a motorized barge carrying about 15 persons. We are 10 of us so we each pay Rs 75/ – The waters are a light sea green, choppy & turbulent. With blue skies above it is exhilarating especially when the barge nears a mohana, which is, literally  where diverse streams of water & current converge. The barge sails along a coastline of Mangroves. It is forbidden to disembark but one can clearly see what must be at least a zillion red crabs on the silver shore.

The sands at Bakkhali are silver too but its  nice long beach with canopied benches is sadly littered. There are stalls selling fresh fish & tender coconut & there are chairs, if you can believe it at Rs 5/ an hour. Some enterprise this!

I have come in search of a Bon Bibi temple. Following the lampposts along the periphery I walk past the last one then take a left turn into a forest of dense Sundari trees. The temple, also called Bishalaksmi is bang on –  a simple corrugated structure. It opens from 7 to 12 noon for rituals performed by Thakur Maharaj . The temple has images of Durga, Lakshmi, Sithala Devi, Ganga & Bon Bibi who is the patron of forest dwellers. She is perhaps the closest one could ever get to creating an Islamic deity. But the many worshippers are oblivious to the Muslim connection, if any. The writer Amitav Ghosh has given a sample rendering of what he terms a mantra, in ’The Hungry Tide’.

“ In Allah’s name I begin to pronounce the Word

Of the whole universe. He is the Begetter, the Lord To all His disciples. He is full of mercy

Above the created world, who is there but He”

on Henry Island

on Henry Island

Sundari & Bani trees

Sundari & Bani trees

village huts Bakkhali

village huts Bakkhali

A narrow creek leads to Henry Island. Less than 5 kms from Bakkhali it is a magical space with an abundance of deer, wild boar, birds & trees. There are nature walks & the  beach is the best in the area. Limpid pools reflect the green of the leaves. The island has solar power & tiger prawns bred by the department of Fisheries. The watchtower offers a panoramic view of jungle, beach & water. Beherkhedi & Lothian Island  (populated by the royal Bengal tiger)& the ocean in the distance. There are cottages, named after trees of the forest-  Mangrove, Sundari, Bani – at Rs 700 a night, with advance booking – only through Calcutta, of course.

“ Teerth Sthan Baar Baar / Gangasagar Ek Baar” chant the pilgrims waiting to board a ferry to Kachuberia at the northern end of Sagardwip The journey thereafter would continue by road, another 35 Kms to Gangasagar at the southern most tip of the island where the Kapil Muni temple stands, at the confluence of river & sea. Most of the pilgrims have visited the  river along its path from mountain to sea. At Gangotri, its source, at Haridwar where the mountain river splashes into the plains & again at the Sangam in Allahabad where the Ganga & Yamuna meet the mythical Saraswati. A ‘darshan’ of the river meeting the sea is for most the penultimate.I must be the only person who is not a pilgrim  but I also want to see the waters meet & mingle.

It has taken the better part of the day already & here I stand with jostling crowds on a narrow pier at Lot 8 waiting for a  ferry that promises never to come. It is expected to every hour but there is this play of tides – jwar bhata / ebb & flow – because of which 2 earlier ferries were cancelled leading to an unprecedented rush. Why, I wonder, is the man at the ticket counter giving out tickets & swelling the crowd? To think that Gangasagar is a mere 72 kms from Bakkhali but short distances make for long journeys, as connectivity is poor. For the greater part of the day one has been juggling road & river transport, ferry & bus, bus & ferry doling out Rs 13 or Rs 8, at times even 50 paisa to cross a ford or a creek . The time taken enormous.

It is noon almost, the heat over bearing. I make a quick calculation. Would it be worth the gamble were I to manage the river crossing now ? It would take me an hour to the other side of the river & another hour to the southern most tip of the island. I had been on the road for 5 hours already. There is also the matter of return. To journey back before the various river crossings close & before the last bus departs from Namkhana. There is always the option of staying back for the night but what if there is a ‘No Singles’ policy in place here also?

Standing in line I make up my mind. It is impossible to turn around & walk back because the chanting crowd behind me is humongous. So I simply squeeze myself between the barricades & ouch …land safely  on the other side.

Gangasagar, for me was never meant to be.

My free advice to those who may care to listen. Visit the islands if you must. And only if you are already in the general vicinity. No point scampering across  half the globe. My visit was interesting but a tad of a let down. The downside of living by books & dreams I suppose. ‘The Hungry Tide’ being the culprit in this instance.

Dec 2012

a motor van

a motor van

Bakkhali Tourist Lodge

Bakkhali Tourist Lodge

jostling for Nirvana

jostling for Nirvana

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enjoying the chill

enjoying the chill

www.wordpress.com/sudapoedia47

www.wordpress.com/sudapoedia47

 

 

 

 

The same shit – another day

Athens  May 15,1997  Forget the housework and come to Greece. I spent 9 awesome days here soaking in  the atmosphere in a lazy /hazy kind of way Be it weather, food,wine,culture. Or people most of all.  It was delightful in a hedonistic kind of way. And the  Mediterranean It was ………the bluest of things blue.  

In the midst of it was one onerous task to perform, which was to reconfirm our onward tickets  to Tel Aviv  – with El Al of course . And going by past experience the sooner this was done the better. The tourist  information booth gave us a listing of all the airline offices and  all except    El Al had addresses on a prominent street in the heart of town. Theirs was in some dark secluded corner in a remote part of town. We located the building & laughed our way up on the lift for there was neither a sign nor a clue and when the lift halted which was in the middle of a nowhere kind of landing the doors remained locked & barred for quite a while before opening mysteriously. Facing us was a door  that was electronically secured. After pressing the buzzer & a little bit of an exchange with somebody on the other side of the wall we were  allowed to enter. Our tickets reconfirmed. Check in instructions reiterated. Everything is cold, courteous & efficient. There are cctv cameras around. Gawd ! our every move was watched. Wonder what they made of the laughter. This is paranoia  at its worst ( especially if you remember it is pre 9/11)

May 19,1997  Athens   We had a morning flight at 09.35 but knowing how hardnosed our favorite airline was decided not to take a chance but to arrive early for the Gestapo style of questioning & be over & done with so as to relax & enjoy a  steaming hot mug of coffee. But it was not to be. El Als’ brochure should read : “ How to make enemies & lose friends”. The  persons tasked for the questioning are complete ignoramuses. Persistence and courtesy – yes, but they lack both education & skill &  act  as if the whole world is out to get them.

So this time round my session  lasts  precisely 40 mins / no exaggeration .And it went like this:

What do you do ?  I am a housewife

What does your husband do ?  He is a colonel in the Indian army

What is the proof ?  I show my defense I card – A lot of other cards spill out in the bargain.

He turned the ID card around. Misread it deliberately or perhaps by mistake and actually psyched me into believing it was long past the expiry date mentioned in the document. “ See  See” he said showing the date of issue. (thank you Mr. Leon Uris ) This required some sorting out. And sorting out we did with frayed nerves & rising tempers. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out an Indian woman backpacking alone. He asked to see my other cards.  This I pointed is my club card. ‘Club’, he repeated in consternation. Never mind I said.  You won’t understand. Clubs are a hangover of our British past.

And whats  that?  This is my IYH card & this last is my Israeli embassy card I said hoping it would soften or impress him. I studied Hebrew for a year at the Israel embassy in New Delhi. It was to be part of the Israel experience. But  the plot had gone so horribly wrong that it had completely the opposite effect.  Mr. Smart looked foxed & got into a sudden panic. What other languages do you speak ? Hindi. English, Italian…I rattled off. He quickly broke into Italian leading to some banter  Italian.  He wanted to know why I was studying Hebrew. Why not Greek for instance. It’s just a language, for heaven’s sake. I will someday but for the present it is Hebrew. Totally exasperated  by now I told him that I had had enough. The joke was over. It had carried on too long. Never again El Al

May 22,1997   Ex Tel Aviv. Flight to Heathrow London. Surprise  Surprise. The  airport encounter is friendly & nice. Must never be too judgmental The devil doth change. Or was it because this was a ‘departure’ ?

May 31,1997  Ex Heathrow to Tel Aviv for the final lap of the trip visiting Jerusalem once again. Also Ein Geidi & Massada. Reached the airport very early as usual around 1830 hrs. My bag got ripped open and by the time it was done with it was already 9pm & time to board the flight. My mistake was that I had allowed a  young Israeli student who was the daughter of some high official to use half of my baggage trolley. I had a single rucksack & she several packages big & small. I did mention to her that I hoped there would not be a problem with the interrogators. She said not to worry. That she would manage. Which she did’nt. Landing me in a soup.

Is this entire luggage yours ? No (truthfully)

Whose is it then ?  I tell them pointing at the girl

How long have you known each other ? We just met

Are you carrying any electronic items ? No ( with anger rising inside me )

Anything for anyone? No again ( more anger /some disgust)

Sorry but we have to check your bag.  I am made to wait in a separate enclosure while they rip it apart inspecting each and every object. Mr  efficient comes running back holding a tiny clock that I had bought in London. You lied he accuses. You said  you had no electronic  goods  Which is the time I came to realize that there  must be  some difference between electronic & electrical that I was unaware of and told him so. He eyed me suspiciously asked where the battery was. What did I care. How was I to know. One uses stuff & changes battery when it is time to do so. I don’t know I said.. You don’t know. You don’t know he repeated in disbelief. How  is it ?  I don’t know. Now do what you can. And that was final. He came back holding a  wrapping paper  that had a design in the Hebrew script. Once again . You lied. You carried something for someone. What is this. I know nothing. And I don’t care. Now go to hell & do as you must. It’s sick. Sick  Sick. And the dinner on the flight is  lousy

 

June 3,1997  If I should forget thee O Jerusalem   The stones of the buildings acquire a soft pinkish hue as the rays of the sun ascend & fall. And Ein Gedi. And Massada. Such beauty, grit & courage. But it’s time now to head home. Back to New Delhi India. It’s going to be hot this time of the year. But wait, wait, wait. I’m at the Ben Gurion airport & my rucksack is turned inside out and all my belongings put back together again. My crime ?

Which places did you visit ?

Jaffa.Jerusalem,Tiberias,Tel Aviv, Ein  Gedi, Massada and…..Bethlehem

You visited   Bethlehem  also ?  

Yes ( very very calmly)

On the flight back a  pleasant Israeli official is seated next to me. He has visited  my country several times and has kind words to say about it. He is eager to share my experience in his country. Well, the country is great I say, politely. And the people are lovely but I did not like travelling El Al. When I had finished narrating my experiences  he had this to say :

“ As you know we are surrounded by enemies who will do anything to drive us into the sea. All this security is for your safety. You don’t know our enemies. Some years ago there was this incident of a British girl travelling to Israel on holiday. She was pregnant & like you she was travelling alone.  She was questioned & cross examined just like you. She said her husband & she had panned this holiday together but she was travelling alone because of last minute changes. Her husband had business commitments and would be joining her later. Where did he work ? In Jordan. What nationality was he ? Jordanian. The officer requested the lady to wait  while her luggage was checked. “ sorry but it will only take a while “ What did they discover in her bag ? A bomb – believe it or not – . The lady herself was not aware of it. She had been married 2 years & was pregnant.  Her husband did this to her. So like I said  the checking is for your own safety.  Our enemies will stop at nothing “

Lehitraout