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Sarat Chandra Chattopadhay: In search of a name through rural Bengal.

A name is your very identity. And yet, you do not have the power to choose it and most often do not have the power either to change it. Does a name really matter? Are our destinies shaped in any measure by the name we are given? Do we imbibe anything of those who we are named after? If yes, do we also imbibe something of those, who we were named after, were named after in the first place? I do not know and let’s admit it, neither do you. What I do know however is that, for long now, I have been doused by curiosity to know more about this man, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhay. In my IIM Calcutta interview, my name struck a chord with the Bengali professor and we had a pleasant conversation on culture. On my first day in campus, as I was being handed the keys to the hostel room, the sombre security man, upon noticing my name, looked up, broke into an unexpected smile, and insisted that I visited Sarat Chandra Kuthi, across the Hugli. And so it was almost inevitable that I would one day visit this place.

I wondered then, who I should make this little trip with; before realizing that some things are meant to be done alone, and this was one of them. And so I set off by a rickety old bus to Howrah station. No matter how many times you have been there, as you step down onto the subway, the first sight of the multitude of humanity sweeping past, overwhelms you for an instant. It was no different this time. I maneuvered past this mighty horde and made my way to the ticket counter. After much misunderstanding and mutual frustration, I finally wrote down ‘Deulti’ to make the man at the ticket counter understand my destination. He sniggered and taught me how the name was pronounced. So much for my Bengali roots. The ticket was priced a paltry Rs 15 for a distance of 50 km. The Indian Railways is a truly amazing institution.

And so I boarded the Howrah-Midnapore local. Kolkata is a unique city, in that, the filth and squalor of its slums gives way to pristine greenery within almost 15 minutes of the train leaving Howrah. A train journey in India, especially in the Non-Ac compartments is seldom boring and this proved no different. I got down at Deulti station. It was 12 noon and the sun was blazing hot, nevertheless, I fired up my GPS and set off on my 5 km trek to Deulti.

This was Bengal as I had not seen before. Far away from the bustling streets of Kolkata, and even the highways of interior Bengal, this was a mere walking track passing through paddy fields and brick kilns. Like so much of rural India, this too was sadly impoverished land. While the paddy fields themselves were rich with produce, the houses were shabby and the kids scrawny. Still, it was a pleasant walk as it was interspersed with water bodies and coconut trees. Goats and ducks, dogs and cows staked just as much claim on the pathways as human beings. As I sweated it out under the harsh sun, the sight of an ice-cream vendor provoked great relief. It was only after I had finished greedily gobbling up the mango flavoured Rs 2 Ice-Cream, did I think about the hygienic implications. But well, I figured that all those kids were doing just fine, and anyways the immunity system does need a bit of working over every once in a while. Further, it did evoke some great memories of childhood. Ice-Cream is truly the greatest invention of mankind! Another interesting observation was that the Bengali men really seemed proud of their bods; but then again, shirtless is probably the most sensible option in the sweltering heat. There were also a few shrines dotting the road. One was particularly interesting, a suitably fierce looking Kali Mata standing on Lord Shiva. It did seem scandalous and I wonder what the story really is. The women of Bengal always amaze and impress me greatly. This might seem normal and unremarkable to the Bengalis but a woman sitting in the front seat of a shared auto is not a common sight in other parts of India. Even here, amidst the villages, the women raced past in their Hero cycles, sometimes with the men-folk riding pillion, with great abandon and confidence.

After an enjoyable one hour walk, I reached my destination around 1 pm. Only to find it locked. Disappointed and somewhat panicky, I’ve asked around and was relieved to be told that it would open at about 4 pm. Still, I had over three hours to kill and I wondered what I would do. It was then that I spotted the river in the distance. There were paddy fields though to manoeuvre before I could make my way to the river bank. Well they were not going to stop me and after getting my jeans suitably muddy and my sandals adequately damaged, I found myself on the river bank. It was a pretty sight with the water sparkling and the river bank having coconut trees among the paddy fields. After my little adventure, I decided it was time for rest and so I spread a newspaper and settled down to read the ‘English Passengers’. It was a most enjoyable few hours, filled as it was with rare solitude, only ants, egrets and cows proving a distraction every once in a while. In the distance, far into the shallow river, a couple were spending what seemed some quality time, happy to be far away and to be lost in their own world. The book itself was most interesting, with the wild Tasmanian landscape and the boisterous London streets proving to be a delicious contrast to my peaceful and gentle surroundings.

Finally, I got up and made my way to the ‘Sarat Chandra Kuthi’. Mercifully, this time, it was unlocked and I was welcomed by a scowling caretaker, who looked not a day less than 70 years. Undeterred, I went about exploring the house. It was by no means very large but had a very impressive fa├žade and I later learnt that it was built in the Burmese style. The caretaker, initially so taciturn, proved to be surprisingly loquacious, when I told him I came to the place all the way from Hyderabad because I was named after the great man. He gave me a guided tour of the place. Though the man knew no Hindi and spoke only Bengali, I could often make out the gist of what he was saying. The rooms were sparsely furnished but they were preserved well and the place seemed to exude a curious vitality. It was not hard to imagine the place once throbbing with vitality, the now cobwebbed Charka being spun religiously or the writing desk being used by Sarat Chandra to pen down one of his numerous classics. In fact, the caretaker informed that freedom fighters used to meet here often as Sarat Chandra was then the president of the Howrah branch of the Indian National Congress. Also, it seemed that, from the window of his writing room, the beautiful Rupnarayan River could be seen flowing by; little wonder then that his writing was so inspired. Now, however, the river has changed its course, and only the paddy fields are visible from the window, no less beautiful nonetheless. After thoroughly seeping in the history of the place, it was finally time to leave. Though, not before, posing with the statue of Sarat Chandra. I overcame my embarrassment and requested a local to take the picture. Though he acquiesced readily, he was rather perplexed when I fished out my college nameplate from the bag and posed with it. It read ‘Sarath’.

By now, it was 5 pm and I was tired and in a hurry to get back to college. It being evening, there were a lot more people around and some stared curiously. I marched on steadily though and reached Deulti station in good time. I was looking forward to a relaxing journey back but alas it was not to be. Unlike in the morning, the train was packed to the rafters and it was a miserable two hours journey. It was a jolt back to reality and normalcy and I had to get down at every station to let other passengers disembark and embark, though it seemed that there were always more people getting on rather than getting off.  

It was back to the yellow taxis of Calcutta and the beautiful lakes of Joka. The entire day had cost me a total of 146 Rupees but I was left richer with some memories and a deeper connect with my name.

Thank You Sarat Chandra Chattopadhay.  



The Yellow Taxi and the Howrah Bridge: Two icons of Calcutta
A great multitude of humanity sweeping past

Brick Kiln
Which way to choose? Both look promising!
A water bodies exuding charm and mystery
They own the road too.
The fierce Kali Mata standing on Lord Shiva
 




 


 
The Spider seemed keen to explore my bag
The shimmering Rupnarayan River
 .


Getting a vantage position: As only a monkey can!

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