Friday, 16 August 2019

Crested Waves and the Sand Specked Periwinkle: A Weekend Trip to Shankarpur


I crawled into the car after my daughter Nirjhorini, mentally checking whether all the necessities had been stowed inside the luggage bag. The bag seemed a bit bulgy for a single night's trip, but in a journey involving my five-year-old, drawing books, crayon sets, and dolls were a must in addition to the usual stuff like clothes, slippers, medicines, raincoats and umbrellas. Nirjhorini's breakfast, mid morning meal and lunch filled up their respective Tupperware or steel tiffin boxes and awaited in a cloth bag for their turn. My husband Subha drove steadily through the highway and village roads and succeeded in reaching Shankarpur by early noon.

On approaching the hotel, we got an expansive view of the sea swelling and soaring and pouncing on the whitish sand. Soon after lunch we settled on the cement seats grooving a certain stretch of the beach. Swooning us with their strength and timelessness, the waves rose, wrapped themselves with foam and blended with the white meshed water embracing  the sand.


At the onset of evening, we trotted through a clump of pines and eucalyptuses, the growing darkness swathing us and unnoticed pine cones arching our feet. Walking away from the shade of trees, we traced the foamy outline of the crashing waves, the water channeling between our toes and the deep roar of the sea sweeping over our senses. Unlike most beaches I had been too in recent years, the Shankarpur seashore was studded with seashells. Delighted at their variety, shapes and colors, Nirjhorini squatted down to pick them. I joined her too, reliving childhood memories, when any trip to the seaside meant a considerable addition to my container of shells back home. We stood in the sea, the advancing waves splashing against our legs and drenching our clothes. It sprayed at our eager eyes and leaped into our unconsciously wide smiles. Whenever the water receded, we felt a unique and slightly ticklish sensation under our feet as if the sand was shifting from where we stood. However, we had to take a few swift steps backwards as the thrust of the sea was scaring our daughter. As the darkness thickened, we returned to the hotel, a cool breeze messing up our hair and the seashells clattering in our packets. Nirjhorini craved to be with her crayons and me with the bottle of Vodka.


The next morning, me and Subha took turns to bathe in the sea as one of us had to stay away from the water with Nirjhorini. Subha had a whale of a time, frolicking in the sea. When my turn came, I tiptoed between the seashells, taking care not to crush them or prick my bare feet and waded slowly into the tumbling waves. I sprawled on the bed of wet sand, clinging to one of the scattered rocks to ensure that I am not washed away. Then I stared at the sky, layers after layers of foam flecked water enveloping me, relieving me of the heat and stress and the nag of unfulfilled wishes, ushering me into the realm of unchallenged bliss.

Before heading for Kolkata, we took a peek at Digha. The waves were much smaller and the crowded sea beach lacked the serenity of Shankarpur. However, we fulfilled the purpose of our visit by treating ourselves to delicious fish curries in Purbasha restaurant. The pomfret fish curry Subha had ordered, won our taste buds with just the right amount of sweetness, spiciness and salt. After being polished off from the plate, the thick gravy continued to garnish our thoughts concerning food and happiness and remained as the perfect coating to the memories of the trip.


Saturday, 6 July 2019

Darkness Rises: Persecution of the 'Other'

A popular trend in our society and politics is to demonize and then persecute those labelled as the 'other'. In most cases the 'other' happens to be someone from a minority religious community or a so-called lower caste or someone who speaks a language not native to the region. Sometimes the 'other' tag might even rest on an individual or a group for differing in age, educational qualification or lifestyle. In the worst cases, the viciousness towards the 'other' results in murders. In less horrifying but nevertheless inhuman scenarios, the hatred manifests in isolating the 'other'; depriving him/her from the opportunities for education, livelihood, even companionship and parenthood. The hatred and its expressions are always justified in the name of culture (as if culture has been static since the dawn of civilization or any culture is above the tenets of humanity), tradition (as if there had never been any toxic traditions that were rejected with the progress of time and declared as illegal) and religion (although no religions encourage deceit or cruelty or mindless ostentation over kindness and empathy). Not too long ago in my past, I had been a target of insurmountable hatred. I could never comprehend why I got identified as the 'other' as there were no differences concerning religion, caste and mother tongue between me and my tormentors. Although I managed to escape, by luck or divine providence, from the virulent outcomes of this hatred, the scars refused to heal. It made me realize that if someone like me - educated,  salaried and more priviledged than many of my countrymen - can be at the receiving end of such senseless atrocities, what sort of injustices have to be borne by the marginalized on a daily basis. Another positive takeaway from my experience is, perhaps, a greater sensitization against all forms of oppression, narrow-mindedness and unconstitutional behavior directed at the 'other' even if the reason for his/her categorization is not connected to mine.

Monday, 25 February 2019

Flow of the Breeze to the Flight down the Falls: My Trip to Jhargram and Ajodhya Pahar

The tepid sun of winter tracked the weed free spots of ponds to gauge its sheen. Our car growled over the many bridges across the endless rivers. My arms itched to cuddle the droopy-eyed puppies snugging quietly by the sequestered road corners. My husband, Subha was at the wheels. I fed our daughter Nirjhorini from time to time during the long journey - first rice, dal and boiled potato, then juice, after that bananas and finally biscuits. Accompanying us were my father and maternal uncle.

The tourist accommodation we had booked for our stay in Jhargram was named Jhargramer Rajbari although it was not the residence of any former kings, but a brand new complex situated beside the actual palace. After the procedures at the reception, we passed through a spacious dining room, crossed a short bridge over a narrow blue pool and spotted the cottage allotted to us. The two-roomed blocks overlooked a large square pond surrounded by evenly spaced trees. There were swings, slides and see-saws on a stretch of green next to the pond. Nirjhorini sprinted to the swing, and after several ascents towards the boughs of trees, with her shadow playfully cloaking and uncloaking the grass flowers, she leaped out to explore the slide and the see-saw. It was a Herculean task to coax her away from these delights to get her ready for lunch and then confine her to the dining chair through the lengthy meal of rice, dal, alu bhaja, vegetable curry and majher jhol.                                                             

In the evening we visited the palace of Chilkigar, a sprawling dilapidated building. I had visited this mansion when I was four years old - same age as Nirjhorini. I remember lunching with the former Maharaja's son, who is now no more. A royal scion, who was playing cricket with other young men in a barren expanse adjoining the palace, informed us that some of his family members still inhabited the building. However, only pockets of darkness greeted us when we let out gaze sweep across the doors and the windows. I looked helplessly at the plastic packets and cups littered at many places against the walls and even inside the deserted, cobwebbed rooms on the ground floor, wishing this splendid mansion was better maintained. Nirjhorini was of course determined to barge into the palace and take a look at all the ruined artifacts lying about. She refused to believe that none of us had the keys. The palace temple, though, was spic and span. Our visit coincided with the beginning of arati. The interiors of the stone temple glowed mysteriously in the dim light of bulb and the flickering flames of lamps. The old walls resounded with the zestful tinkling of prayer bells and the clanging of cymbals.

A five minutes car ride took us to Kanak Durga temple. The presence of a designated parking space, drinking water, toilets and lights along the road leading to the temple indicated at efforts to develop it into a proper tourist attraction. We followed the road, walled by the forest on both sides and passed by a children's park, now shrouded in darkness, before arriving at the clearing where the temple stood. There was a sand covered platform in front of the shrine. We took off our shoes and stepped inside the abode of the Goddess, as the priest conducted the arati, swaying a burning lamp in front of the deity with the rhythmic twists of his hand. Unlike the previous temple, here the sound was not produced by bells and cymbals, but it emanated from a box like device. Somehow, the tune sounded more war-like than devotional. When asked how such a device came into the temple, the priest's assistant replied that it had been gifted by someone, whose identity he was not sure of. We suspected the music box had been donated by one of these recently spawned fundamentalist groups intent on creating divisive sentiments.                                           

When we returned to the tourist complex, blue and violet lights twinkled along the edge of the pond and intensified the shimmer of the water, and it seemed as if we had walked into a fairyland.

The next morning, before setting out for
Purulia, we took a stroll in the Jhargram Palace premises, admiring the flowers dotting the well-maintained garden and watching the birds fly off from the tops of the towering trees. A defunct fountain, encircled by potted plants, and two old temples (they were locked at the time of our visit) in the camaraderie of trees also caught our interest.

The trip to the top of the Ajodhya Pahar in Purulia took the greater part of our day. Reaching the hotel (Akash Hotel) when the birds were swooping down to their nests, we looked out of the wide windows of our room. The hills were in full regalia - draped in greenery, veiled by mist, and crowned by the setting sun.

Subha, Nirjhorini and myself were staying in one room while my father and uncle shared the adjacent one. Both had an adjoining balcony. Soft moonlight seeped into the fibers of our woolen as we stepped in our balcony at the time of sunrise. For the next few minutes, we shuttled between the two balconies to gaze at the full moon from one and watch the spreading red glow of a-soon-to-emerge sun from the other. Finally a dazzling red crest appeared behind the trees and revealed more and more of itself with each passing moment, transforming the deep valleys into receptacles of its colors, which in turn, pricked by the sharp edges of hills, leaked the light down to the trees and all over the landscape. Ambling to the other balcony, we were surprised to see the moon afloat in the sea of sunlight, though only for a few more seconds.

The next couple of hours were a whirl of activities that included bathing Nirjhorini and myself, feeding her omelette and toasts and finally settling down for my own breakfast. Nirjhorini's meal was interrupted several times by her frequent leaps from the chair. While chasing her round and round the dining room with the plate, I was aided by an aquarium, which at least prevented her from dashing to the swings outside.

After packing Nirjhorini's mid-morning and late afternoon meals in small steel containers, we set out to explore Ajodhya Pahar. Our first stop was Bamni Falls. We climbed down a steep rock cut stairway to reach the waterfall that scraped its way down the rugged hills and threaded through the greenery below. The place was thronging with tourists, who clicked photographs and drenched themselves in the frenzied sprays.

Our ascent up the stairs was a little exhausting. We gulped down cold drinks, bought from the vendors who had built makeshift stalls on a comparatively gentle stretch of the slope. Their wares included bamboo and wooden ornaments, hair clips, vases and showpieces. Our next stop was at a road bend that presented us a captivating view of a sparkling reservoir several feet below. As we descended down to the edge of the water body to luxuriate in its beauty from close proximity, we spotted the stream that was flowing into it and decided to trail the curly strip of water. Nirjhorini demanded to know where the quicksand was. She wished to step in it first and then be hauled up by us. Treading on sand and wet rocks, skirting gnarled branches of dead plants, we reached the source of the stream - the voluminous Turga Falls. The water roared down, sparking off white streaks of current and lashing at the boulders in the course of its strides.


The village named Charida is famous for its Chhau dance masks. It was a pleasure watching the villagers at work: one drawing an eye on a clay face with a perfect sweep of his finely pointed brush and another needling shiny embellishments to the crown.
Drawn by the tranquility of Matha Forest, we wandered about, crunching on the fallen sal leaves. Encircled by the saplings, we gazed up to watch their forebears reach the sky while enveloping us in an intricate communion of their shadows. We were determined to catch a glimpse of Pakhi Pahar before the sun disappeared summoning all its light within itself. Luck favored as we reached the spot on time and stepped out of our car to stare at the birds with outstretched wings, etched one after another by artist Chitto Deb on the steep surface of a hill.


Marble Lake, a deep pit born out of quarrying, was another visual delight with its glittering waters and semi-geometric shape. Back in the hotel room, we rejuvenated in the flow of conversations, in the clink of glasses and the gleam of Scotch(bought from Kolkata). We had ordered some snacks. The chicken pakoras, French fries and crispy mushroom were any foodie's wish fulfillment, thrilling our taste buds, enhancing the pleasure of the sips in between and living up to the splendid experiences of the day.

Carols floating in from a distance eased us into the misty dawn of Christmas Day. We rushed through our ablutions, breakfast and packing as we intended to spend the better part of the day in Gorgaburu, the final spot in our itinerary. About an hour long descent down the torturous roads of the hills took us to the eco-resort set up and maintained by a Kolkata based elderly couple and their daughter. We were led to a hut made of mud, topped by a roof of bamboo and straw. The plot was brocaded by a strip of flowerings shrubs - in full bloom. The reign of plants was interceded by a couple of benches and a tiny pool showcasing a mirror-work of water amidst tassels of aquatic weeds.


Black and white patched ducks waded in a square, muddy pond in front of the dining shed, which was a two-minutes walk from our hut. The fluttering of colorful flags stirred up a Carnival feel. Other holidaymakers stepped out of tents that also belonged to the resort and were lined up along the red path running by the pond. These tourists, too, sauntered to the dining shade and queued up at the long narrow table where the various items were arranged, like in a wedding buffet. After a delicious vegetarian meal(rui machher jhol was available too) comprising of rice, dal, alu bhaja, begun bhaja, ghee, paneer-r dalna, chutney and papad, we hurried to the river bank lest we missed the scenery, which would soon be swept under darkness.                       

Subha made the best of the last traces of sunlight by clambering up the boulders to explore a hill. In a matter of minutes, the dense bushes patching the slope blended into the approaching dusk. The river water rose in dark ripples in emulation of the dark curves of the hills. A couple of hours later in the evening we gathered in the dinning shed to sip tea and sink in the company of the other tourists. Their warmth and friendliness overruled the fact that we had just met. A surprise waited for us in the form of spicy alur chops with muri-makha. We were also treated to cakes as it was Christmas. To my delight, Nirjhorini, who is not too fond of cakes, gnawed up one fairly large slice without fuss.

Despite the breathtaking beauty, like in many regions of India and even parts of Kolkata, the poverty in these hilly villages is unsettling. Bare-bodied children roamed about in the cold, squabbling over a packet of plain biscuits. Here, unemployment and lack of education fosters alcoholism. Dearth of medical facilities lead to untimely deaths. Family planning, too, seems to have remained an alien concept. It is not uncommon to find six-seven siblings walloped by hunger and clawed by diseases, while both parents perished in alcohol.

The next day, on our way back to Kolkata, we took a detour to visit Gangani, a gorge carved out of the red soil by river Silabati and other natural forces. Popularly known as the Grand Canyon of Bengal(though I despise such an epithet and the general tendency to compare anything/anyone remarkable in India with something/someone in a developed nation), Gangani is located in the small town of Garbeta. The surface of the earth, resembling a series of giant waves, is tufted with sparse vegetation, sprinkled with wild flowers and furrowed by natural, shady pathways.

We returned home at 11 PM, hungry and tired, but buzzing with the vibes of the wondrous trip. Subha had driven all the way from Kolkata to Jhargram, Jhargram to Ajodhya Pahar and back to Kolkata. He had also taken us to all the marvelous places in the vicinity of the spots where we stayed, sometimes maneuvering through the constricted village roads and sometimes along the steep hilly paths. Our exhaustion sieved out all lurking stresses, letting us flow into a peaceful sleep, which in turn, molded us for our next day's challenges.

Monday, 5 November 2018

A Trip to Belpahari


It was a whopping six hours long car ride from Kolkata to Chirakuthi ashram in Belpahari. On entering the ashram premises, I spotted a nylon mesh swing hanging from a Lokhhitaru tree and pink hibiscuses peeping from the gaps framed by the branches of different plants. I carved my way through a crowd of colourfully dressed villagers to bundle our belongings inside a three-roomed (two bedrooms and the office) hut. While rinsing my daughter's hands from the tap water in the washroom, I heard the bustle outside grow louder and couldn't wait to be a part of the bonhomie. The villagers who had assembled for the community meal settled down on the clean, open corridor that ran along the front of the hut connecting its rooms.  Lunch items - rice, dal, vegetable, chicken curry and chutney - were scooped out of large steel buckets and served on sal-leaf plates. The first batch comprised of children only, the smallest of them had their mothers hunched behind to help them erect miniature hillocks of rice that could easily slip into their tiny mouths. The meal would be followed by the distribution of clothes collected from many generous people in Kolkata, inspected to ensure there were no tears or stains, packed in large cardboard boxes and bags, and crammed inside the boots and backseats of the cars which brought us and the other volunteers from the city.

My daughter Nirjhorini found immense delight in the swing and wrangled with a village-boy to be the sole occupier of it. Not to be daunted, the little boy, named Shibesh, stuck to his ploys of dethroning her and finally when he got a chance, he established his proprietary over the swing by pulling it up and coiling it around the branch of Lokhhitaru, out of reach of my daughter. I consoled her by taking her out for a walk, promising she would get another turn at the swing before we set out for our return journey to Kolkata.

The narrow, red-earth road winded past similar looking mud huts, skirted round dense clumps of trees and branched to explore the meadows. I noticed the village lacked water bodies although they were aplenty in other parts of Bengal.

The ashram, which is engaged in empowering the impoverished Shabar tribe populating this region, consists of a couple of longish huts with thatched roofs, a small, cemented, rectangular pool for the ducks, two tinier pools – created out of tarpaulin covered ditches - for cultivating Azolla, and several flowering shrubs. Founded and managed by Swapan Maharaj, its activities include imparting education along with nutritious Tiffins to around a hundred children (from four to fourteen years of age), providing dry food to ten poor families, distributing garments to the villagers during Durga Puja, arranging medical camps, and training the youth to attain a means of livelihood so they emerge victorious in the ultimate fight against the scourges of hunger, disease, ignorance and alcoholism plaguing their families. To achieve this objective, the ashram has started sewing lessons for girls and supported some in completing their nursing training; enrolled several teenage girls and boys in CIPET(Center Institute of Plastic Engineering and Technology), involved the women in making jams, jellies and pickles under 'PHAL UDYOG' department and is growing a fruit orchard to create more job opportunities for the villagers. It has bought a few cows and plans to build a large cowshed to address the problem of malnutrition among the locals and also to facilitate some of their employment. I am humbled to be one of the (several) contributors to this noble endeavour undertaken by the monk Swapan Maharaj, who formerly belonged to the Ramakrishna Math. I am also inspired by my mother,  who, despite her ailments, had toiled relentlessly to convince the children to embark on the path of education and encouraged their mothers to attend the adult literacy classes. She has also been instrumental in developing their sewing skills.  

We reached an open air school, trailing the sun baked road and traversed a grass less expanse, at times concealed by the shades of towering trees. On returning to the ashram, Nirjhorini dashed to the swing though another little girl in a bright yellow and red frock was also trotting towards it. She soared high, with her eyes to the clear skies, occasionally rocked by my mother, sometimes even by Shibesh and finally she vacated the swing for the little girl. I am indebted to Mrs Monica Sengupta, a tireless soul dedicated towards empowering the downtrodden though this ashram and many non-profit organizations, for taking the initiative to arrange the trip to Belpahari, which granted me an opportunity to experience the upheaval of this often difficult voyage to freedom from deprivation.  


Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Love Jihad: Is interfaith marriage a ploy to convert?

The motive behind a marriage might be anything but love. It could be money or status or the desire to further one's career prospects or the need to flaunt an attractive spouse. Or the simple reason that the prospective bride/groom happened to the first one in the array of faces and profiles in a matrimonial site to fit the criteria of his/her idea of a life partner. Or the only one willing after countless rejections.

In some cases, especially in a country like India, the motive is made explicit by the demand for dowry. On the other hand, a man who had not asked for any dowry will certainly gain financially, even though not immediately, from the marriage to the daughter of wealthy parents or a self-made woman with a lucrative career. The same applies to a woman marrying a professionally successful man or the son of one. No matter what jealous gossip-mongers would like to say, the motive behind such unions might not be money after all. Or might be. The point is if Mr X and Miss Y decide to marry, it is impossible for a third person to know the motive. Then how is it that when two people belonging to different religions wish to marry, entire villages/towns/political outfits/newspaper readers/random Facebook users, who do not even  know the couple personally, jump to the conclusion that the man's motive is to convert the woman to his own religion?

The common accusation against men from the minority community who choose their wives from the majority community is that they have brainwashed the women. Such a statement is infuriating for more reasons than one. When a man fancies a woman he will try to impress her (unless he is a rapist)  - influence her into thinking that he is the most suitable partner for her by highlighting his strengths and concealing his shortcomings. Through thousands of years, that is how couples have courted, settled down and produced off springs. To call his natural inclination to woo a woman 'brainwashing' just because she happens to belong to a different religion is preposterous to say the least. Moreover, it considers women to be hapless creatures robbed of any agency or intelligence. It overlooks the fact that a women might be self-assured enough to make the first move in a relationship and that it might be she who had sought to impress the man - in the words of those who oppose their union 'brainwashed' him.

When two people fall in love, they will naturally wish to spend their lives together. It is nothing but an act of cruelty to separate them in the name of religion/caste/tradition etc. Romantic feelings can develop between two people who study/work/travel/play together or even steal glimpses at each other at a bus stop. It is also against the interest of the nation to prevent members from different communities from interacting with each other lest they fall in love and marry. Such restrictions can only breed intolerance, discrimination and terrorism and is against the very idea of individual freedom cherished in every civilized nation.

It is no surprise that people nurture a lot of affection for their own religion as it is an intrinsic part of their identity, but it escapes me how the same people, many of whom are highly educated and well placed professionals, harbor no love for the constitution which is also indelibly linked to their national identity and which grants full freedom to every individual to chose their own partners irrespective of religion, community and caste.

The self-appointed guardians of religion who think their religion is under threat because of certain marriages which they refer by the strange term 'Love Jihad'; people who would violate the law and the constitution and cause untold emotional distress to young people in love to prevent such unions perhaps should pause for a moment to ponder that when their religion had survived the many twists and turns in history, the series of foreign invasions, the shifting of tastes and territories, and probably happens to be the oldest surviving religion in the world, practiced from the times of the Indus valley civilization (as far as I am aware none practices the religions that were prevalent in ancient Egypt, Greece or China though the religion of ancient Persia still has a few but highly distinguished followers in India), how can it be crushed into extinction by someone's choice of a life partner.

To force apart two people who intend to marry(or had already married) is against the principles of kindness, respect and justness which are embedded in all religions. Even in the epics venerated by all such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the bullies get defeated in the end. Ravana was punished for trying to impose his will on Sita and the Kauravas for depriving the Pandavas of their rights. People who disrupt marriages (nowadays even friendships) through mob violence and other forms of intimidation might be enjoying popular support from certain outfits and some bigots like themselves on social media, but they can never be considered as true believers of their religion.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

My Musings on Valentine's Day

I was in the 7th standard. I stepped inside my school premises, located the queue of girls belonging to my section and hastened towards it, when one of my classmates stretched out her hand to shake mine and wished me “Happy Valentine’s Day.” Before I could comprehend what it was, I found the other classmates wishing the same to each other.

In a few hours, I came to know all about Valentine’s Day though I was not sure whether it was supposed to be celebrated between lovers or with anyone one may love including one’s parents. My classmates insisted it was the latter: studying in an all girls’ convent and being chaperoned by our parents at all other times ensured that we never had any boyfriends, but we too wanted to partake in this grand phenomena called Valentine’s Day.

For the next few years on Valentine’s Day, after returning from school I would unzip my bag, spread out the books and exercise copies on the central table, switch on the TV and click the remote to select MTV. Listening to romantic numbers by Boyzone, MLTR, No Mercy, Elton John, Backstreet Boys, Carpenters, Cardigan, Celine Dion, Shania Twain and many others, I would try to replicate the Life Science and Physical Science diagrams in the lab book for my homework, negotiate with numbers to solve Mathematical problems and wonder whether I would be asked out for a date on Valentine’s Day next year although that was impossible due to the above mentioned reasons.

In India, there is a lot of controversy surrounding Valentine’s Day, which I find absolutely unnecessary. To those who criticise it as an import of the West, I would like to ask whether they have shunned everything that had originated in the West. Don’t they attire themselves in Western clothes? Don’t they eat or drink anything that is not native to India? To those who frown upon it saying love is not just for one day, I would like to tell that yes, we love our partners everyday but due to the busy schedule, we might not get time to go out of our way to express it. So it’s nice to have some occasions when we do something special for the person who is sharing his/her life with us. So what’s wrong if one celebrates Valentine’s Day just like one marks other occasions like birthday, marriage anniversary and any other day of some personal happiness? I agree with those who say that Valentine’s Day has been introduced and popularized in India for commercial gains. But is that stopping anyone from taking it to a more meaningful level if one wants to? As for commerce, what’s wrong if one avails, as per one’s budget, the delights that shops and restaurants have to be offer? We all survive by selling something – whether it is knowledge, software or diamonds.

I can understand that this day might be painful for those who had just suffered a breakup/rejection/betrayal by their partner. I have been through such low phases too. I think the best way to deal with such a situation is to stay away from TV, radio and social networking sites and indulge oneself in an activity that it is devoid of even the slightest whiff of romance.

Coming back to myself, I will have to remain confined in my office cubicle for most part of the day. After that, I will definitely rustle up some delicacies for my husband – that will be special for us as I rarely cook on other weekdays.


Sunday, 14 January 2018

My visit to Antyodoy Anath Ashram: An Oasis of Beauty and Harmony

Swathed in woollens to resemble two oversized pupas, my daughter and myself hopped into the back seat of the car. My husband was at the wheel: it was a pleasure to be driven around the streets of Kolkata before the office going traffic took over the thoroughfares. Punctuated by two meal breaks for my three year old daughter Nirjhorini and a sumptuous breakfast at a dhaba, our journey to Pausi village took more than four hours. On reaching the ashram I got swept into a flurry of activities revolving around my daughter. Once she had been bathed, changed into a fresh set of clothes and fed with rice, dal, aloo bhaja and fish curry, I turned my attention to the beauty of the sprawling ashram comprising of two blocks, a park, a playground and a couple of ponds. The most remarkable thing about this ashram is that one is gripped by an immense sense of positive energy as one strolls through its premises, interacts with its children and observes the staff engrossed in their diverse duties, yet attending to the needs of the visitors. Nirjhorini dashed to the swings and squeezed herself on the wooden seat beside an ashram kid. Once she was done with swinging, it was time to play with a ball. While an ashram boy, who was slightly older than her, could aim a fine kick, Nirjhorini was content with picking up the ball with her hands. They streaked across the playground, under the watchful eyes of my husband, who had to intervene whenever the ball rolled dangerously close to the pond. A little way away from the ashram, a slender blue-green river hummed along, setting to tune the whispers of the fast growing saplings of eucalyptus and fir. 

This was my second visit to the Antyodoy Anath Ashram ( but it was the first trip for my husband and daughter. The orphanage, set up by Mr Balaram Karan and his family, provides food, shelter and education to around one hundred children, besides running a school for the other villagers and arranging medical camps for the poor. Other than academics, the children are trained in music, dance, painting and sewing. A little distance away from the ashram, Mr Karan has established an old age home as well.

We jaunted to Mandarmoni in the evening. It took us around two and a half hours to reach there by car. Fastening our scarves and zipping up our jackets, we traversed the considerably wide beach to reach the sea, which rushed out to us in a multitude of frothy curls. In the darkness, my eyes found the fuzzy white crest of the rising waves and the faint outlines of a blinking lighthouse. Unwilling to wet my socks and shoe clad feet at this time of the year, especially since I was suffering from cold, I scurried back as the water ran past the embedded sea-shells and gave me a chase down the shore. As the sea receded in jest, the foam bubbling along the indented edge of its drape, I tiptoed towards it, the soft wet sand squishing under my shoes. After enduring the tussle between our clothes and the sea-breeze - one struggling to keep us warm and the other conspiring to freeze - we nipped to a tea shop that was stacked with varied kinds of merchandise including plastic balls for kids. Sipping hot tea, and munching on onion pakoras, prawn and crab fries, we stared into the nothingness above the horizon and answered to Nirjhorini’s innocent queries, which were inexhaustible like the stars.
Dinner was served at the Mandarmoni guest house, also owned by the Antyodoy Ashram. After polishing off the fabulous thali, my husband drove us back to Pausi down the narrow, winding roads, the cloak of darkness frisked only by the streetlights and nothing else. A room had been arranged for us on the first floor of the old age home. My daughter, who had dozed off in the car, woke up with a loud wail as we stepped inside the room, and demanded that she be taken back to our home in Kolkata. Much to our embarrassment, her cries got louder, snatching the sleep from the aged inmates of the house. Finally, my husband managed to lull her into sleep with a self-invented tale of a sea-captain and a baby. We crept under the spotlessly clean blankets and closed our eyes in blissful exhaustion.

Swilling glassfuls of date palm juice, offered by one of the caretakers, I watched the winter morning seep between the serrations of the coconut leaves. Low swells of water broke slowly in the ashram pond, framed in green by the reflected trees. One of the elderly inmates extended her warm hand of friendship to me. Nirjhorini found company in the housekeeper’s daughter – one was below ten and the other around fifteen. They raced in the corridors, sprinted up and down the stairs and pranced about on the roof from where we got an extensive view of the rippling ponds separated by lacy strips of green. After completing my ablutions and helping my daughter complete hers, we settled down for a hearty breakfast of crisp round luchis, begun bhaja and potato curry. Then we drove back to the ashram, where we soaked ourselves in the gaiety of the children, who kicked the football, swung their cricket bats, smacked the shuttles and bounded after one another. Some of them darted out to cuddle my daughter, gave me a peek into the hostel rooms and regaled me with descriptions of their lives and activities. Paintings showcasing the exceptional skills of some of the amazingly gifted ashram children adorned the walls of a spacious hall, where a sit-and draw competition had been held the previous day. Stepping inside the office room, I discovered that CCTV cameras were capturing everyone’s movements in the corridors and the compound to ensure protection for the children. Moyna, Mr Balaram Karan’s daughter, was receiving guests, supervising the cooking and coordinating the different activities of the ashram with superhuman efficiency.

After a delicious lunch, it was time to bid goodbye. I took a lingering glance at the frolicking children bonding in the sunshine warmed compound, the stout buildings and the glimmering pond water before picking up our belongings. We hopped into our car with a halo of memories, the pristine laughter ringing in our ears, and a whole new world throbbing, breathing, evolving and orbiting the stagnant sphere of our familiar realm.