It must have been the muffled hustle of rush hour, combined with laziness-inducing grogginess, that made the half-hour or so at the Sealdah canteen (yes, ‘restaurant’ would be putting it too charitably) seem like a blur. Not that the coffee we had did us any good. ‘Dishwater!’ one of us exclaimed, while the other passionately reminisced far better brews from establishments around town. Neither of us knew what lay beyond Hasnabad, the last – and easternmost – station on the Calcutta suburban rail network. Except, of course, Bangladesh. Given that our previous trips were mostly smooth and hassle-free, it was natural that we expected this sojourn to the border to turn out likewise.
Until reality so rudely intervened…
When travelling to spitting distance of the Bangladesh border, kerb service is not to be expected. A touch of fearless decision making, a touch of spontaneity and a BUCKETLOAD of patience is the order of the day. Our day out on the banks of the Ichhamati river on the Indo-Bangladesh border, was a prime example of things not quite going according to plan (not that we had much of a plan anyway). As well as, of course, the hilarity that ensued.
We started off like clockwork. An easy train to catch – the 9:28 am Hasnabad Local; dilute, insipid coffee at the station mess (sic) as we had reached a tad early, and a short walk to the foremost carriage got us the best seats in the house. An interesting point to note is that our ticket was procured from the self-service kiosk instead of the booking booth with the mile-long line – a testament to the fact that Bangalis, on average, are more intent on running their mouths than using their hands. “Dada, haath chalan!” anyone?
And hence began the longest train ride we have till date been on within the course of a single day.
For one of us, whose wanderlust originates in expansive videogames, these trips have brought to attention this thing called “distance”. Within the city, we don’t seem to register distance, as travel is always punctuated by short auto hops and slightly longer bus journeys where we are too busy trying to not get trampled or squashed, to bother about how far we are really going. On a train, however, one isn’t allowed this luxury of not noticing distance, as the names of stations get stranger and stranger, and the crowd gets thinner and thinner, both physically and figuratively. Some stations were, well, crabby.
Some were abandoned.
The miles melted away quick enough, and our journey to the final stop on the line took us a little over 2 hours – the average travel time to Salt Lake during Pujo – but the sheer magnitude of our displacement was awfully apparent.
Nevertheless we took a quick stock of surroundings, and almost getting shoulder barged by a cycle carriage carrying loudspeakers, we began our journey towards the border proper. Our target destination was Hingalganj. A MICROSCOPIC town (if it merits the title) on the Indian side of the Ichhamati river.
Of course, we encountered interesting things.
Getting to Hingalganj entailed taking a country boat across to what is known as Par Hasnabad.
This area has an ingenious, corruption proof ferry system, which is probably corruption free due to its being a tad incomprehensible. One rupee at the pier, and another rupee to the boatman – so simple! Ticket machines be damned. But having survived so, the ferry ride was pleasing to all senses, the gentle rocking of the boat, the puttering of the boat engine, and the cussing of the passengers who couldn’t make it onto the ferry because someone decided to bring a motorcycle on board. This, as we learned, was the norm.
All the above, with a dash of Bangal-twanged conversation among our co-passengers, blended well with the scenery.
Upon disembarking, we made our way through a warren of alleys to what passes as a bus stand.
A point to note is that the roads here were surprisingly better than those we encountered in Dakghor, if anyone recalls that trip, regardless of its distance from urbanity. Or perhaps because of it. Said distance seemed to have little to no effect on cellphone connectivity. Which is rather peculiar, if you live in this part of the world.
Here our plan was hit by a bus. Or rather, a lack thereof.
So instead of luxuriating in the back seats of a large long distance bus (as both of us kept joking, albeit wistfully), we found ourselves, already bleary from sleep deprivation, settling for an overcrowded Toto, which is a somewhat roomier glorified version of our commonplace auto.
Once again, DISTANCE punched us in the face. Tired as we were from hanging on for dear life on the Toto, the endless landscape on either side of the road stretched on with a surprising lack of monotony. Ever feel like you are tired of watching the same repeating pattern of countryside ? Forest, farmland, grain field, forest, farmland and so on ? Trust me, you would prefer that to a constantly shifting view, going from farmland to brick kiln construction, to cemetery in a space of a mile.
We disembarked from the death trap with significant cricks in the neck, at Hingalganj. Once again, we did not factor in the fact that we might need to find our way to the riverside. So we did what any traveler would do. We picked a direction and began walking.
Now I’m relatively sure there was a better way to get to the riverside. One which would lead to a ghat and a few people to talk to and get to know the place from, but as it would turn out, we were lazy. And tired. So instead of walking long enough for what in our books would count as a ‘visitor-friendly’ place, we decided to cut through a lumber-work hut, which fortunately (unfortunately for the workers) had an open gate and a tiny path which led all the way to the riverside.
We saw our chance, took it, and …. well….. The Bangladesh border says Hi.
On the way back, of course, heatstroke began to set in. And this time, we did find ourselves a bus, though not as large or as luxurious as we had envisioned. And so ensued our perusal of all the shop windows and captions that graced the paan-stained walls of every building we passed on the way back. Most of it is lost to the haze-induced stupor, but a highlight would be misreading “the dear valley” (which happened to be a school, incidentally) as “the view of the valley” and the ensuing debate about “mountains” (yes, it is what you think it is) was along lines more utilitarian than aesthetic.
Of course, one of us couldn’t help but leave them a souvenir. Since role reversal is a favourite topic.
We ran into our old enemy, “Discount Cornitos”, and having had nothing else to munch on, joined the dark side briefly.
Heatstroke is good when the station names are hilarious of their own accord (see photos above), though I don’t think our co-passengers shared our enthusiasm.
Upon finally making it back home, both of us had a moment to repose, and think about how far we’ve come. Both metaphorically and physically. The times we shrug off distance in the bustle of the city like it’s nothing may be beneficial for the everyday rat race, but in the long run, it really boxes us in. Maybe the next time we catch an auto, we won’t think of beginning and end, but of where we go in between. Because, let’s face it, minus the hike and the hidden bylanes, the Ichhamati is just a river, and Hasnabad just a town, and not even a very scenic one at that.
Next time you travel, spare a minute to think. It’s not just about the miles you cover. It’s a journey, full of beautiful things.
And after all, isn’t life itself a journey?