New Jalpaiguri Diary, 25th April 2011

It’s morning 5 AM over the endless plain. You wake up in the train and resume your pondering about what is wrong with Bengal – too many Bengalis and too few hills. The complete failure of my co-travellers in the Uttarbanga Express to shut up in the night and the complete failure of the landscape to show any variation from itrs green fields and green pools really gets on your nerves. And we’ve only reached Kishanganj (where the brief transition from Bangla to Urdu script on railway platforms provides momentary visual relief). New Jalpaiguri, which I want to reach is still far. Jhalmuri, which I don’t want to reach out for, is all around me – that which didn’t spill crunching in people’s mouths, that which spilled crunching under their feet.

The sun gets a little more westward, my train a little more eastward, till I’m at some station whose name I would have forgotten had I not had Google Maps to find out that it was Rangapani. That’s where the train came to a complete halt because it was ahead of time, and it had to reach New Jalpaiguri on time at 7 AM. I’ve known trains skipping minor halts because they were late, but this was a new phenomenon.

So you reach New Jalpaiguri, dodge and dismiss the porters, lug your bag (stuffed with a sleeping bag that would prove inutile) and your coster-fitted suitcase up the ramp and across the long (really long) foot-over-bridge to the station entrance. And there you stand fending off the legion of industrious and hard-working beggars trying to get you to release the leftovers of your meal (sorry, I had nothing to offer). And then you get your bearings.

There is a stand for taxis going to Gangtok, taxis going to Darjeeling, cycle-rickshaws going to Siliguri city. Taxi-drivers are not to be found there, for they are almost on the platforms yourself, trying to transfer your luggage (and by extension, you) to whichever destination they need passengers for. Your volition to go there doesn’t seem to count much. So you dismiss them all (having to raise a sharp, acidic South Indian voice once or twice) and look for a PCO.

Yes, I looked for this anachronism. Because my mobile phone did not have any ‘signal’ in it, because I didn’t put it on roaming. Just desserts you must be saying, that I’d have to go without telephony throughout this vacation. You might have a rethink and say that might be in fact, a good think. But I’m an Indian, of the type that needs to keep the family back home updated about my movements. And I also had to track down the BNHS people who were to ferry us from New Jalpaiguri (henceforth, following the universal practice, known as NJP) to Lachung. Us, being I and the other members who had signed on for the North Sikkim Nature Camp, that was the magnet that drew us to Sikkim in the first place.

Roam, dodge rickshaw, stumble, rebalance shoulder bag, adjust the handle of the suitcase, roam, roam, roam to look for a PCO. Find one. Yes, I actually found one. Parts of Red Bengal actually had these relics from the 80s, for which I must be thankful. (When I come next time with a mobile that has roaming properly activated, I shall of course haughtily look down upon PCOs. But not for now.) Wait till the Bengali lady before me has finished conversation. But Bengali ladies do know to finish conversations quickly when they are paying for it, and allow impatient South Indians with enormous moustaches to get on with theirs. Two conversations, telling Dad that I have landed, and telling the BNHS guy that I have, um, landed.

Now, wait, wait, wait at the platform to which I trekked back, after a repeat of the dodge rickshaw, stumble, rebalance shoulder bag, adjust the handle of the suitcase exercise as before. There’s a PCO at the platform itself, but there isn’t any sign of the guy whose presence allows it the designation ‘public call office’. Curse, curse, curse. There’s also a Sulabh thingy, but I can’t use it because the guy manning it will not keep an eye over my luggage. No explanations. You take your luggage into the toilet and do your business, or you don’t do your business.

Well, so you don’t do your business. Instead you go looking for the BNHS guys. Those two middle-aged women huddled under the tree looking like they don’t belong here? Could they be other camp members? The cap and shoes seem to indicate, the age doesn’t. The Sikh gentleman sitting a little away from them, could he be one? Or is he an amry officer?

Well, hesitate, approach, hesitate, approach, finally swallow your hesitate and go ask, “BNHS”? The answer is a resounding yes. So much for stereotypes. I was being age-ist and Sardar-ist. Remember to kick oneself when no one is watching. So I have company, I needn’t wait alone in the rain. I can wait together with other people, in the rain.

So here I am, shuddering in the morning rain with strangers. Luckily the BNHS people turn up and our vehicles are arranged. There’s a round of hasty introductions (the formal ones. The informal ones we’ve already begun on and learned about our grand-daughters and allergies). Then we dump our bags in the two sturdy Maxx-es that will take us to Lachung, and go to dump some breakfast inside us, so we can last that journey to Lachung. And the rain pours down even heavier, so we must look for a restaurant while trying not to panic about our water-non-resistant cameras and vegetarian preferences.

So we troop into Vaishnav Something Something (sorry about not remembering) to order breakfast. Alu-parathas it is, although I would have liked to try out Motor Ponner (some instinct, against the evidence of the eyes, seemed to suggest I would end up getting matar-paneer, a dish which is contempt-inducingly familiar). While we wait, a great deal more socialising. During which time, I figure out that Manpreeth (the Sikh gentleman) is a vegan, which is why he forewent the dahi which must be had traditionally with the parathas. And then we get served out breakfast – a dish of alu-paratha, served with, (and this is completely true) – a potato curry.

And now I have run out of steam (but not memory), so will carry on in the next blog-post.


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