Many moons ago, in my exuberant youth I discovered a place called Jhajha in Bihar, while travelling with my cousin by train to Burdwan. It was dusk when our train reached the Jhajha station which had a 2 minute halt there. I saw a romantic laid-back place at the backdrop of a rising hillock where people were moving about in their own leisurely pace. I marked the place in my memory to come back and explore later.
Back in Delhi, I narrated the beauty of the place to my friend Gora who happened to be like minded and we decided to venture to the place at the first opportunity. Opportunity in terms of money and time came once my internship with the advertising agency got over and I had some money saved. We bought two tickets of Purva Express to Jhajha Junction. The clerk at the counter gave us an odd look and asked twice for confirmation of our destination.
On the appointed day we boarded the Purva Express with lot of anticipation. The journey was ordinary, event less and we reached Jhajha Junction the following day around 3pm, the train was on time. We got down and went to explore the town and look for a hotel to stay. We hailed a rickshaw and asked him to take us to a hotel. The rickshaw puller looked at us and said “Panch rupaiya lagega babu” meaning it will cost us Rs.5/-. We agreed and sat on his rickshaw with our two small bags. After about 3-4 minutes he stopped in front of a dhaba and announced that the destination has been reached. We looked around and couldn’t find any hotel except the thatched roof of a very unhygienic eating place. On questioning, he said that it was the best hotel in the town of Jhajha! When we explained to him that we needed a place to stay, he said that the only place to stay is the Dak Bunglow as there are no other hotels in Jhajha. We requested him to take us there which he obliged. While riding through the town, we realized, Jhajha was perhaps the most backward place that we have ever ventured till then. It had only one metaled road that started from the railway station, circled the town and ended where it started, the station! The Dak Bunglow happened to be at the opposite end of the station.
After much searching for the caretaker, we found him sleeping in his hut at the corner of the plot. We requested him to let us stay overnight, but he was adamant that he cannot let us in without proper permission from Patna. No amount of cajoling or bribe could change his mind. We had no option but to go back to the station and perhaps spend the night at the platform only.
We had two options, one to go back to Patna or proceed to Kolkata. Patna had the advantage of Gora’s sister residing there but as luck would have it there was no down train to Patna before morning. The ticket counter guy said that Toofan Express from Delhi is running late and is expected in about 30 minutes. We asked for two first class tickets not wanting to jostle with the crowd in any other carriage. He said that he can only issue an ordinary ticket and that we can get the desired ticket from the TC in the train. We bought the tickets and waited for the train. The Toofan Express, quite contrary to its name chugged into the station after one hour and we got into the first class carriage which was surprisingly empty barring a few births. We found ourselves a coupe and settled down. After a while, the TC came and asked for our tickets. We told him that we have ordinary tickets and would like to buy the first class tickets upto Howrah. He was very upset that we have boarded the first class carriage with ordinary tickets but agreed to arrange the tickets at the next junction station, Jasidih. We bought tea and pakodas from the vendor and made ourselves comfortable. Jasidih came and went off, but there was no sign of the TC, we were worried that if some other TC comes, he might offload us at the next station. We found him chatting with his colleagues in the next coach. When we asked him for the upgraded tickets, he said, “I will get you the tickets from Asansol”.
By the time, we finally reached Asansol, it was well past 7 in the evening and from there to Howrah even a super-fast train takes minimum 3-4 hours. We asked the checker again for our tickets. This time he said, “Come with me, I will get you the tickets from the counter”. Gora went with him while I stayed back. After about 15 minutes Gora came back and said, “This TC is really stupid, the counter guy told him to issue us the tickets on his own but it seems he does not have the challan book with him.” As we were talking, the TC came and announced that he will give us the ticket when we get down at Howrah.
The train was in no hurry to take us to Howrah on time and stayed put for some more time at Asansol station, apparently giving way to other trains that were running on time and perhaps more important in the railway’s scheme of things. We bought more snacks and ate as not sure what time we would reach our destination.
It was 9:30 pm when the train reached Burdwan junction, still 2:30 hours at least away from Howrah. We were really worried whether, we will be able check in to a hotel in Calcutta (Kolkata) at midnight. My aunt’s house is in Burdwan and I have been there a number of times, knew the route to the house from the station. I suggested to Gora that we get down at Burdwan and stay overnight at my Aunt’s place and proceed to Kolkata in the morning. He instantly agreed and we got down at Burdwan. The TC arrived immediately and demanded to know why we have got down there. We explained that as the train was running late, will not reach Kolkata before midnight, making it impossible for us to hunt for a hotel. Therefore, we are getting down to stay overnight at my aunt’s place. We offered him to pay for the first class tickets provided he issued us the tickets then and there. He was obviously unable to do so and felt very frustrated and yelled at us to get lost. We laughed at him and made our way to my aunt’s house.
My aunt and cousins were both surprised and happy to see us and insisted that we have dinner. The household had already finished their dinner but my bhabi made some simple dinner for us. Post dinner it was time for adda which continued till very late and everyone was amused by our adventure and made fun of our romantic nature. One of my cousin works with Eastern Railways and I requested him to arrange for our return tickets which he promised to do so in the morning.
In the morning after breakfast we went to the station with my cousin to book our return journey tickets. We wanted to return at the earliest opportunity but could get the reservation in Rajdhani from Howrah after 5 days only. We decided to stay for a day in Burdwan only as it would have rude to turn down the request of my aunt and cousins. We spent the day roaming around the town, checked out the Bijoy Toran, Burdwan University where my cousin was doing her Phd. We tried out Sitabhog with Mihidana, a famous sweet delicacy of Burdwan and variety of cutlets.
Next day early morning, we bid our goodbyes and left for Kolkata to avoid the office goers’ rush in the Local EMU train. We had no intention of meeting our relatives in the city because of the paucity of time, instead, as suggested by my cousin, we would check in to YMCA hostel at Chowringhee or Esplanade. On reaching Howrah, we came out and crossed the Ganges in the ferry service, again advised by my cousin, keeping in mind the mad rush and traffic jam on Howrah Bridge. We were dropped off just behind the All India Radio building and from there we took a taxi for the Metro Cinema, Esplanade. The YMCA is situated above the Metro cinema where we found ourselves a room shared by two more persons, it was a four bedded room. Our plan was to stay for a night and take the early morning bus to Digha, a tourist spot on the coast of Bay of Bengal, so it did not matter. We freshened up and went out to get some grub which was available in abundance in the city. We have heard about Shabbir’s mutton rezala, a mutton dish that was their specialty and very famous across the state. The place was quite full but managed to find a place to sit. We ordered chicken biryani and mutton rezala, two portions. The biryani served was unique because it had boiled potatoes and egg besides the mutton pieces but very delicious as was the mutton rezala. Much later I got to know that the biryanis in Kolkata are always served with potato and egg and is christened as Kolkata Biryani.
The Metro cinema was houseful for all shows that day putting an end to our dream of watching a movie in Kolkata. In the evening we walked down to the Maidan and had Phuchka (Golgappa) and Aloo-Kabli, a speciality snack of Kolkata made of boiled potato and Mattar. We also saw the Victoria Memorial, The East Bengal Football Club (being fan of that team), the Lal Bazaar Police Station and the Writer’s Building before returning to our night shelter. We also purchased our bus tickets to Digha with scheduled departure at 5 am the following day. Back at the YMCA, we had a quick dinner of Egg Curry with rice and requested the reception to wake us up at 4 am. We paid up for our stay and other consumables.
We were up well before 4 am and ready to move out in half hour. It was difficult to get a conveyance at that hour so we decided to walk the short distance to Esplanade Bus stand from where the buses to Digha plies. The journey to Digha was without any incidence or adventure. The bus stopped at a roadside hotel at Kolaghat for refreshment. We decided to have egg n bread and downed it with hot tea, the safest option at such places. There was usual heavy traffic once we reached Contai but after that traffic was light right upto Digha. Reaching Digha, we realized we have come at a wrong time of the year, the heat was scorching and the place was practically deserted. We checked in West Bengal Tourism Guest House.
After freshening up, went to the beach precisely for 15 minutes and rushed back to the guest house. The weather was unbearable; it was hot and extremely humid. We ordered beers to quench our thirst and had chicken n rice for lunch. And more beers, a total of 4 (650 ml) bottles each. Then we slept till 6 in the evening.
Getting up we went to the beach once again and this time it was high tide, the Bay of Bengal furiously came rushing at us with all its might only to subside at our feat. It was first experience of seeing the sea for both of us and it seemed like we were in a trance watching the vastness of the ocean. Wherever you look it was but water only. We spent over an hour walking on the beach and chitchatting. The place was unusually quiet with very few tourists around and even fewer locals. When it became dark and the water level started to reach our knees, we decided to head back to the guest house. We washed up the salts that had formed on our feet and ordered beer and some snacks in our room. This time we each finished off 6 bottles in a matter of 2 hours. The manager knocked on our door to check if we would like to have dinner as the kitchen would close down for the day soon. There was no room service available, so we had to go over to the dining room for dinner which was simple dal, rice, aloo bhaja and egg curry.
Next day, after breakfast we checked out and headed for the bus stand to return to Kolkata. The journey back was again without any events. The bus stopped at the same hotel but we only took the tea and settled down in our seats. We reached Kolkata around 8 in the evening and once again headed to the YMCA. This time we were lucky to get a room to ourselves on the top floor. It was the only guest room on the floor, rest of the floor was terrace (except for a few staff rooms at the other end) from where one can watch the Esplanade skyline right up to the Victoria Memorial. It was beautiful.
After settling ourselves in the room and freshening up, we decided to go out to the Park Street and have some Mughlai Food. We were hungry as we had skipped our lunch. We devoured the Biryani and mutton Roghanjosh at Aminia, one of the best foods till date. After dinner we roamed around the Park Street area which seemed like a fair ground with milling crowds, some in a rush to reach home and others on their evening out. Even the New Market stalls were all open at that late hour and doing brisk business. We were tired not so much for the bus journey but the humid weather having sipped out all our energies, so came back to the hostel. The cold water bath did wonders to our souls and made us sleepy. We kept the main door to the terrace open but locked the wire-mesh door so that cool breeze from the Maidan could fill the room. This was the last night of our adventurous trip; next day evening was our train back to Delhi.
There were nicely tucked mosquito nets in each bed to prevent mosquito bites and make us sleep soundly. In Delhi, we never needed such arrangements and as such have never slept under the nets. It was a novel experience for both. We locked the main entry door, kept the bathroom door slightly open to let the light filter in to work as night lamp and got into our respective beds. My bed was to the terrace side and Gora’s towards the bathroom side. Thereafter we cracked a few jokes and before we knew both had dozed off into deep slumber.
I do not know what time it was but I woke up with a startle as I heard Gora calling my name. I asked him, “What happened?” but there was no reply, only his snoring reached my ears. I looked at his bed and in the light emanating from the bathroom could make out that he was in deep slumber. I dismissed the idea that I had heard my name being called as my dream and turned towards the terrace side to sleep again.
And froze! I lost all my sense and sensibilities, for there was someone standing right outside the wire-mesh door and looking in the room. I tried to shout but no sound came out, my voice was gone too!!
I do not know how long it was but after a while, I realised that the figure outside is not moving at all, it was still as wood. With much effort I regained my composer and called out to Gora. The figure outside the door still did not stir at all, but Gora woke up and asked why I have woken him up. I muttered under my breath, “Look outside the door, there’s someone standing outside.” He got up immediately hearing me and looked at the door pointed out by me. For a moment he too was dumbstruck but quick to regain his composer and switched on the terrace light. And then burst out laughing! I too started laughing.
The main wooden door to the terrace opened outside on to the terrace and it seems the breeze from maidan has made some hotel linen to fall awkwardly on the open door which in the dim light was giving the impression that someone is lurking outside our door. Gora yanked the linen and threw it on the terrace. And we slept through the rest of the night peacefully. But the incidence remained embedded in our memories and Gora even today pulls my leg because of it.
In the morning, we had our brunch, checked out and headed for the Howrah Station to catch our train to Delhi. Our youthful, romantic escapades had finally ended.