Last Sunday, the day after our nation celebrated our 62nd Independence Day, my family and I headed to Kharagpur – it is about a two and half hours drive from Kolkata and largely unremarkable – except for its one world famous landmark – IIT KGP and one triva question: it has the longest railway platform in the world. Overall Kharagpur is quite unabashedly moffusil or semi-urban, and that makes it such a refreshing change for city slickers (including me). What was quite remarkable about the trip was that it was a quick refresher on life and all things that make it worth living.
In Kharagpur, my father’s aunt lives with her family – her husband, brother-in-law and her eldest daughter. The eldest daughter (my aunt – my father’s cousin) is about forty five years old and a spinster. (She was a "forcep" baby...) My grandaunt and the others are well above the senior citizen age threshold. The night before, my father gave her a call and told her that next day we would be coming to visit her. We should be reaching by mid-morning and we look forward to meeting them after a long while. As India has moved along its quest for “development”, family – especially “extended” family, has started becoming an alien concept. Us urbane folk have become quite comfortable seeking solace in our “spaces” and our frenetic schedules with no time for worthless social niceties such as taking time out for the family. I am guilty as charged. Our plan was that we would take lunch along with us, meet our relatives, have lunch and leave before dusk.
The drive to Kharagpur was very pleasant indeed listening to Bill Bryson’s “The World as Stage” - William Shakespeare’s biography – (yes I have become too lazy to read these days!!) in the comfort of my dad’s Honda City sailing smoothly on India Shining’s only remnant – the Golden Quadrilateral project. This stretch of highway from Kolkata to Kolaghat is a glimpse into what we as a nation can achieve if we put our minds to it. Sadly, we are too busy minding our own business and filling our own pockets – apna to bas yehi ek kaam hai, ram naam japna, paraya maal apna… Anyway, back to the drive – it was truly outstanding whizzing by the soothing green landscape of the countryside brilliantly offset by grey pregnant skies; and only stopping for a scrumptious breakfast of stuffed paranthas and anda bhurji at Azad Hind Dhaba (a franchisee of the original made famous by Maqbool Fida Hussain).
Despite the herd of buffaloes that slowed us down as we entered Kharagpur, we reached on time as promised. The hearty welcome made the visit more than worth it. What touched me the most was how simple yet complex human emotions can be. I have never seen my father so relaxed in recent times. He looked at peace with the world stretched out on the straw mat on the floor talking to his aunt about an era gone by. When my father was growing up, he and his parents and three siblings shared their two bedroom flat with two of my dad’s uncles, two aunts, his grandmother, a cook, a servant and a paying guest who had a bedroom to himself! Incredible, isn’t it? Today I am ashamed to say, I sometimes feel the need to shut the door of my own room at home to be in my “space”…
Lunch was a huge surprise and I mean huge – my grandaunt had cooked an old fashioned Bengali feast: Mangsho, Pulao, Cholar Daal, Luchi, Begun Bhaja, Potoler Dolma, Raita, Salad and Mishti! We were just blown away to say the least… she must have toiled for hours for us. Post lunch it was time for siesta – another old Bengali tradition. We got up around tea time and left for home some time later.
The drive back was quite uneventful - I finished the rest of Bryson’s book and reminisced about a day well spent – sometimes “chilling” is not a bad idea.
Another incredible sight in Kharagpur that I liked a lot was the puja of Mother India as a goddess in true Bengali tradition - almost like how we worship Ma Durga when we celebrate Durga Pujo – complete with the colourful pandal and loud music (of course Lata Manageshkar singing Aey mere watan ke logon…) – giving Her company from the chowk nearby was the freshly painted statue of Netaji, proudly holding aloft the tricolour. Who said Indians were only patriotic when we watched cricket or when Shah Rukh is “detained” in America?