Wednesday, April 19, 2006

315 UP to BANKURA

Come Sunday evening, Howrah station beckons us once again to her ample bosom. After having the customary dinner of rotis and vegetables with a fish occasionally thrown in, I leave for the station by 8.30pm, availing myself of public transport. Some of my colleagues are already assembled there by the time I reach and some follow me. By 10pm we are all assembled for our journey and we while away the time discussing any topic this side of Jupiter.

Mr. S. also nicknamed ‘the manager’ is a jovial pathologist of some fifty summers. It was he who informed us that the Professor of Pathology, Mrs. K.M. has developed a new stain which is identical to Gentian Violet but called Genital Violet instead! Mr. A.G., who continuously chews ‘paan’, nods his head approvingly to all manner of ambiguous propositions; it is difficult to decipher what exactly are his views on any question. Once while discussing the immortal passage from Kalidasa’s ‘Meghdoot’ where the forlorn lover remembers the time when he had laid his wearied head on the naked thigh of his mistress after a vigorous bout of love-making, Mr. A.G gave the rather recondite analysis that a woman’s thigh was a much better resting place than anything farther north. Talking about women’s thighs, wasn’t it Hamlet who was desirous of laying his head on Ophelia’s thigh?

Our resident humour-monger, the slattern Sabitri, who earns her livelihood by begging, drops in to ask of the manager about his latest matrimonial conquest. She habitually teases him of his polygamous behaviour [not true of course] and the hapless manager has no other recourse but to send her off with a one rupee coin. The rest of us simply relish and devour the manager’s discomfiture.

Its time now to board the train 315UP and our convoy proceeds toward platform number 11. All of us are accommodated in coach S3 and we head for our respective berths. By 10.40 pm our train is on the move
and we make our beds to lie down. Very little is required for our comfort but winter necessitates woolens to keep ourselves warm. Our journey is more or less hassle free except on those occasions when a political party holds a rally in Kolkata on a Sunday. Then the rabble of ticketless travellers tries to get in our compartment and we labour to keep them out. We are ably helped in our endeavour by Mr. Choudhury, the T.T.E.
Mr. Choudhury, very dear to us, rather short in height but wide in the midriff [like Caesar we do not favour “lean and hungry” T.T.Es] is a veritable Good Samaritan and never fails to wake us up at Onda, which is a ten minutes traveltime from Bankura. That reminds me of the occasion, when, during my absence, most of my colleagues were carried beyond Bankura. Mr. Choudhury was not on duty that evening.

There is a bit of excess rush in winter when many board the train for an excursion to the hills of Purulia. Youngsters from college go as a group and keep us awake the whole night singing songs and making merry. It happened once when a bumpy jolt forced a traveller on the middle bunk to tumble down. Mercifully he was unhurt. On the 25th of December last, only three of us were travelling by train, the others were having their annual vacation; and the train was as punctual as usual. We reached Bankura at a quarter to four in the morning. There were no taxis available on that frightfully chilly night with the wind biting and blowing, and the three of us had to walk the whole distance to our quarters braving the scrotumtightening cold.

Bankura is indeed pleasant in winter but summers are horrible. In the nacreous morns of winter, when sunlight and shadows dapple the city, Bankura is at her pristine best. It is a thousand pities that very few venture out for a morning walk; the cold, it seems, is formidable and forbidding. But for those bold enow to face the elements there is no time like a wintry morning to seek inner solace and to stand upright in the sight of our Maker. We are rewarded adequately; we are able to experience the tectonic shift occurring in our lives between the drudgery of our existence and the sublime bliss that awaits those who keep the covenant; the fast approaching andropause of the flesh and the long delayed andropause of the mind. Summer is an altogether different kettle of fish; a sizzler, if indeed there be one, and there is water scarcity to boot.

The other day I had a lesson in humility. It was early in the morning, at daybreak; I was up and about taking a morning walk, as is my custom, when I felt like having a cup of tea from a roadside stall. Few stalls were open then and in only one someone was fanning the flames of his coal oven. The shopper- keeper’s assistant brought out a dish containing the previous night’s leftovers of potato fries [known locally as Aloo Chop ] which he scattered to the pigs and dogs scavenging the ground in front of the stalls. There was a mad scramble between the dogs and the pigs for the leftovers with a murder of crows pitching in. I can hardly believe my eyes now, for I saw a woman emerging out of nowhere, as if a psychopomp, shooing away the birds and mammals alike and partaking herself of the food from the ground however besmirched with dust they might have been. She put them to her nose, sniffed it, found they were not all that putrid and promptly wrapped them in the folds of her saree and vanished from where she came. She never came to me begging for alms and I am not certain if she was not in the Lord’s mind when He said “I was hungry yet you did not feed me.”

An early morning walk before the crack of dawn is invigorating, refreshing and rejuvenating. There are very few vehicles on the street at that hour; only a few bullock carts and buffalo carts ply loads of hay. I really pity these magnificent beasts, the mainstay of our rural economy. Underfed and underkept, they are made to lose their ballocks to our cupidity and ungrudgingly carry out their master’s service till their dying breath. Shall Maneka Gandhi do something? The word ballocks reminds me that Hitler had only one, which is neither here nor there; but just imagine what would have happened if he had the customary two?

Near the Bankura Police Station I often come across a robust, auburn haired he-goat rummaging the dustbins who stinks horribly of a provocatively erotic stench. Quite a fine specimen he certainly is and must have sired innumerable progeny by now; a cheeky Satyr that would have given Casanova a run for his money.

The free ranging pigs are everywhere goring the earth for juicy tubers and occasionally harrassed by the mongrels. Being chased by a vicious canine, a pig once bumped into me and was bewildered at the impact: he raised his face and the moon shone brightly on him. I realized I had seen this face before; in fact his was the most recognisable face of my childhood: the face of Albert Einstein. I had a feeling he understood the mystery of the universe, he knew who built the pyramids, but alas! If only he could talk.
Bankura like all cities surely has its vices but unlike Kolkata there is very little extortion. Street smart thugs do not approach house builders for donations nor do they insist on supplying the building materials however of poor quality they may be. This is in stark contrast to the browbeaten Kolkatan who is left to fend for himself and who has no freedom to choose his own hardware store. I only pray that Bankura keeps alive her undefiled virtue for all eternity. During the Autumn festival, Durga Puja, there is hardly any arm twisting or furburger tweezing by the roving gangs of subscription collectors. Even the small transport operators, men who run aoturickshaws and trekkers, are courteous with modest auri sacra fames.

In the field of education Bankura is a shining beacon. The students do exceptionally well in the school leaving examinations. The Christian Mission Schools for boys and girls have a reputation to keep and they do their job sincerely. The Christian College with its sylvan surroundings is a landmark in Bankura and I was delighted to know that they impart education to a significant number of tribal children at concessional rates.
The Pricipal Mr. Richard Bajpaie, is a self-effacing gentleman [no stiff upper lip, no putting on airs] and also a minister of the church. No, I did not ask him his views on the doctrine of trans-substantiation, gays in church service or same sex marriages; reckon, I shall ask when I meet him next.

There is a laid back lifestyle, reminescent of the early 1950s, and the men and women are not glued to their idiot boxes as is common in Kolkata. People do pay courtesy calls and there is much time for a tete-a tete and a family get-together. Come to think of it, home grown Bankuraites are very civil in their approach to strangers and the aged are shown due respect and decency.

It is a marvellous fact that though a district capital, Bankura does not boast of any redlight area. It doesn’t have a proper brothel, in a manner of speaking, although a few savvy whores can be had for the asking in the seedier areas of the city. I am informed by my dermatologist friend that the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases is unbelievingly low in this jewel of a city. The answer certainly lies in the rather simplistic reason that Bankura is far from the National Highway and the floating population of truck drivers and fellow travellers is remarkably scanty.

Bankura is a strong contender for the last bastion of innocence in West Bengal. I was astonished to learn from quite a few women that the nearly-vanished Edwardian art of coitus-interruptus is still practised as a method of family planning : “he always withdraws in time, he is such a sweet darling”.

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