Dawn is just breaking in the eastern steel town of Durgapur on this delightful Sunday morning, different from the rest in that India has just won the Cricket World Cup and this unpretentious little town is in the grip of a pleasant hangover. The hard mud on the streets is stained with colour, and posters of various members of the Indian cricket team at different stages of their careers flutter in the balmy morning breeze.
At the small, shabby bus-stop at Benachity, there is no news-stand; or perhaps there is one whose owner is still lying in a victory-induced stupor, reluctant to be awakened from his thrilling dream-like reality into the more pragmatic demands of his work. The compact, colourful, slightly dubious-looking bus we have just boarded creaks and groans as the passengers trickle in, settling themselves on its very tiny seats. The driver and conductor linger outside in the fresh air for a last whiff of their cigarettes before shutting themselves in for the long, rather unsettling five-hour drive on not the best roads in the country.
A festive atmosphere is palpably visible even on the almost deserted streets; last night’s revelry has left clear signs of the transports of delight that this town has been sent into, thanks to the exploits of a bunch of much venerated men on the cricket field. As always, sport has proved its ability to unite and uplift, and what can be more fitting in India than securing the most prized possession in the game played in every street, nook and cranny of its tiniest village! A bus passes ours, accoutred in festal adornments, a largely blue poster of Indian cricketers pasted on a corner of its windscreen. Elsewhere, ashes lie thick on two clay lamps on a platform, in front of garlanded, tilak-adorned posters of Zaheer Khan and Sachin Tendulkar- the prowess of the cricketers on the field has indubitably been aided by plenty of prayers.
The bus sails down a section of the Grand Trunk Road, NH2, before taking a detour- which actually lasts almost the entire length of the journey- through various hamlets in West Bengal’s Burdwan district. (Burdwan was actually Bardhaman- I assume an Englishman couldn’t have cared less about the correct way to pronounce the name of an obscure Indian district during the long years of colonialism.) On the highway, this early, vehicles are few; predatory birds swoop down on carrion- probably a stray dog startled by a truck rearing down on it full throttle. Automobile repair shops begin to raise their shutters slowly and send out for their first tea trays.
The ancient springs and joints of the bus creak with the shrillness of a bird in captivity as it jolts over practically non-existent roads, stopping with a sudden jerk in the middle of nowhere to pick up a passenger. We are in the heart of rural India, which, though untouched by much progress and hard-pressed to eke out a proper living, sees tea stalls displaying bright packets of potato chips and sachets of shampoo concocted by foreign experts. A man goes out to relieve himself on a thinly wooded slope; elsewhere, women gather dung in baskets and pat it onto the mud walls of their thatched huts. The drying fuel bears imprints of the fingers of their work-calloused hands. The ’road’ presses past cowsheds where men are having their first glasses of tea, and a warm, not unpleasant dairy odour wafts in through the open window. Breakfast is being made ready in tin-roofed shanties, golden jalebis and samosas sizzling sibilantly in large, soot-blackened cauldrons. It is a hard life here, but these men and women work uncomplainingly. Their brown faces break into ready smiles, and they don’t frown or wince as they pack themselves tight, skin rubbing against sweaty skin, paunch getting in the way, in these tiny buses (or on top of them). The women wear the brightest colours imaginable, their washing fluttering in the wind or spread out to dry on grassy slopes consists of sarees in the loudest hues of yellow, purple, orange and green. They bathe in small muddy ponds and wring their clothes out in the same infested water; these are the people who will play a major part in deciding the future of the state in the forthcoming elections. Greedy vote-seeking frenzy is in evidence on the walls of low-roofed buildings in the shape of crudely-painted party symbols and slogans. Party flags, alternating with the Indian tricolour brought out for the World Cup, are stretched out between poles. What has been done or will be done to improve the lot of these villagers is an open-ended question- the most untrained eye can see the lack of basic amenities in these villages even during a fleeting trip through their roads.
The sun is beginning to rise in the sky and tinge the cool morning breeze with its warmth. The sky is a cloudless, hazy white, forming a pretty complement to the dazzling green of the paddy fields. The smooth low carpet is furrowed by brown irrigation channels, and out of the seeming smoothness startlingly rise small copses of trees- which came first, the trees or the fields? The countryside is generously dotted with ponds, their surfaces glistening and untroubled in the distance, but textured by ripples as they come closer and catch the rays of the sun.
Village follows village on this narrow trail, and occasionally the bus breaks out in relief on an almost unhindered course on a series of potholes, the only obstruction coming in the form of stray goats that wander into the path of “civilisation”, before squeezing itself into yet another hamlet and rubbing shoulders with cycles and motorised rickshaws. The bus halts for a while at Katwa and allows a number of vendors to come on board: ’Pepsi’ in orange, cola and lemon is being sold in the shape of ice candies in narrow tubular plastic covers, as are various other candies, the wares being called out in Bengali in strident, confident tones. Having disgorged most of its burden, the bus sets off again with that last, heartening burst of enthusiasm that comes from knowing that the destination is not far away. Alas, this is the worst stretch of the journey, the most nerve-wracking and joint-wringing of all, and it is with mixed feelings and slightly enervated enthusiasm that we disembark at the rickshaw-stand in the pilgrim town of Nabadwipdham.