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 (http://antyodoyanathashram.org.in/) 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.