Over the last couple of years, I have been trying to convince Baba to take more frequent breaks from his routine and go away for short weekend tours. He went on three such breaks last year, and January 2017 started on a good note with another weekend trip, this time with me tagging along. After much deliberation and changing and tweaking of plans we zeroed in on a two-night sojourn to Digha and its surrounding beaches.
Baba came over to Kolkata on Friday morning. It was a freezing winter day in Durgapur, Baba tells me, and he spent the first hour shivering in the car. His day started before sunrise, and he was at Kolkata by ten. A short freshening up later we were ready to set off.
Kolkata traffic can be annoying; we took nearly fifty minutes to get out of the city and start on the highway. To our utmost delight and not a small amount of surprise, the road to Digha turned out to be fantastic. It was wide and smooth as glass for long stretches, reminding Baba of the roads he had found in the ’States. We passed a little town called Nandakumar on our way, and I could not stop giggling at the name. I think of the ubiquitous chubby Bengali mama’s boy when I hear names like that. Then there was Contai – how the British had managed to turn Kanthi into Contai is a mystery to me. As we left the national highway and moved to the Nandakumar-Contai road, one thought that kept coming back to me was the striking similarity between different regions of India. At different points of the journey I found strange resemblances with the Kalimpong bus depot, the road towards Malan Dighi from Durgapur, and even the road from Srinagar to Pahalgam! But of course, travelling through Bengal’s countryside has a flavour of its own, something that has to be imbibed with all one’s senses.
We reached Digha at around three thirty in the evening after a four-and-half hour drive, including two short stops for refreshments on the way. Before checking into the hotel, Baba and I decided to stop at the Old Digha beach for a short stroll. The late afternoon winter sun and a mildly chilly seaside breeze made it a wonderful experience, and a particularly lovely photo that I took of a starfish embedded in the wet sand added to the charm. Around this time, Baba and I realized that neither of us had packed in appropriate clothing for romping around in the sea. We could only look at each other and grin sheepishly, but as it turned out eventually, the water was far too cold for any serious frolicking among the waves anyway, so we had not missed out on much.
We took a wrong turn and wasted some time going in the wrong direction, but Google maps came to our rescue, and soon we reached the hotel where I had booked our room. It was Hotel Seagull, and it was actually right next to the beach we had first stopped at. The hotel has to be reached through a narrow alley, and though it has a shoddy looking façade, the room turned out to be decent enough. There is a large “No outside cooked food allowed” notice at the entrance, a funny rule which I have no idea how they plan to enforce. Another notice read ‘Card swipe machine out of order’.
Soon enough we were back on the beach. The beach at Digha has been embanked to prevent erosion of the shoreline. The long promenade – aptly named Saikat Sarani or ‘beach lane’ – was a veritable shopping arcade and park rolled into one. Hawkers lined the walk with all sorts of beachside wares – faux pearl jewellery and shell artefacts to metal instruments and bag stalls. And there were a wide variety of scrumptious looking seafood on display; fried shrimp and pomfret and lobsters and crabs. My mouth kept watering at the sight and the aroma, but Baba pointed out that fish were the commonest source of food poisoning, so we decided to keep away from the fare. There was also a Madur Mela going on, a ‘mat fair’ where the indigenous mat makers of Bengal were displaying and selling the beautiful mats. As part of the fair, there was a cultural fest underway, and we saw the performance by a group of Raibenshe dancers. Raibenshe is a traditional form of Indian folk martial dance performed by males only. Their show included a number of hair-raising acts of acrobatics and complicated structure formations involving standing on top of each other and even on poles and earthen pots. It was a fascinating performance quite worthy of international recognition; it is a pity that we Bengalis have chosen to forget so much of our cultural heritage in our constant aping of Western practices.
We got to witness the changing of tides in the sea. As the night progressed, the waves came closer and got louder and bigger. Soon, the shoreline was under water and the waves travelled up the embankment. Looking out at the dark expanse of water before me, I felt a deep sense of peace and contentment. That is the magic of nature; the closer you get to it, the more comfortable and content it makes you feel. And yet, it holds the power to destroy life within moments. It is a small wonder that man has always feared and worshipped the forces of nature.
Back to the hotel and a quick dinner later – Hotel Seagull serves rather unpleasant food by the way; the palak paneer we ordered smelled of fish – we were sound asleep. It had been a long day, especially for Baba, and we relished the thought of a good night’s sleep. That was not to be however; we woke up with a start at the ungodly hour of five in the morning, jolted out of sleep by the blaring of the megaphone. We had noticed right at arrival the previous evening that the megaphone kept playing really loud music incessantly. There was a puja taking place. The manager at the hotel told us that they were celebrating Ganga Utsav, which is apparently the only big festival for the people there, and so they would continue playing songs and chanting mantras on the megaphone for three days. So much for a peaceful and quiet weekend!
Saturday was a very crowded day. It was Poush Sankranti and it seemed that the entire population of Digha had come out on its streets. There were busloads of tourists heading into the city from Kolkata. The electric vans that were the local mode of transportation were constantly on the move. We spent the day exploring the other beaches near Digha. Our first stop was Udaypur, a lovely stretch of virgin beach that has been preserved in near pristine conditions. The sea was calm and the sun was bright and the cold winter air made us shiver as we stood knee deep into the ocean. Udaypur is definitely much better than the Digha beach. In fact, both Baba and I agreed that it was the best among all the beaches we visited. From Udaypur we continued to Talsari, which is in Odisha, though it is within a twenty mile radius of Digha. It is beautiful how seamlessly we crossed over to another state without any noticeable difference in landscape or demographics. In Talsari we found that people had the annoying habit of taking their motorcycles on the rocky pathway along the beach, causing a whole lot of trouble for wayfarers. The meaning of the name is self-evident: there is a palm forest skirting the beach, so it is quite literally a talsari!
Back to West Bengal, and it was time for lunch. We came back to Old Digha and stopped at a snazzy little cabin pretty close to our hotel. I was bent on eating crab, but they had run out of crab, so that is the one regret I have about our trip! Later, we continued on our journey and headed for the Mohona, the place where the river met the ocean. This was a fishers’ colony of sorts. The entire way we could get wafts of the odour of stinking fish. On our way we passed a fish farm where rows upon rows of shuntki fish had been hung out to dry. There were thousands of fish hanging from fences, and the surprising thing was that no crow or hawk carried the fish away though they were out in the open. We also saw large fishing boats being built, and they were named after various Hindu deities. One was called Baba Naru Gopal – the name gave Nandakumar a run for its money!
Next up was Shankarpur, which was another ten kilometres or so away. This too was a pretty beach, but nothing remarkable. What stood out was how we were stopped on the way by a group who were collecting money for some puja or the other. After Baba had made his contribution, they were supposed to let us pass. But there was this man on a bicycle who stood right in front of our car, looking completely unwilling to move. The local men had to physically push him away so that we could continue on our journey. It was a funny interlude and made me wonder how drunk the man had been. After Shankarpur we went on to the last beach for the day; Tajpur. There were a number of homely looking resorts on the way to Tajpur that we decided we could visit some time. The path passed through casuarina forests, and Baba and I found to our surprise that both of us had an irrational fear of bear attacks whenever we saw such forests. Can fears be genetic too, I wonder? The Tajpur beach had a long shoreline, and it being low tide, we walked a fair distance into the sea. The striations formed by the waves were remarkably intricate, giving me more photo ops. The Tajpur beach was my second favourite from the trip after Udaypur. We watched the sun setting into the ocean, and then we headed back to Digha after a tiring but fulfilling day. On our way back, we were stopped by the police for a random check. Baba was asked to produce the car papers, and the cops seemed irate at his producing them easily. The man asked him why he had the papers ready at hand; had we been stopped for another check right before this?!
That night we went out for another walk on the saikat sarani. Baba reminisced about the two times that he had visited Digha earlier, once as a little boy and another time when he was around my age. Digha has changed a lot since then, he said, and the change has been for the better. It is cleaner and better maintained, and the law and order problems that had been rife in the area are now mostly under control. Digha had garnered a bad name for harassment faced by tourists, especially couples. But now it seems it is a safe place to visit even for groups of youngsters. The beach has security cameras and a guard tower where policemen keep constant vigil. A tea seller told us that the beach was open till eleven at night and even after that families often sat there without facing trouble from the authorities. Dinner was at another small restaurant right next to the place where we had had lunch. The proprietor of this restaurant was a garrulous old man who seemed to resent the new restaurant that had recently opened next to his and was now stealing many of his customers with their flashy décor. He grumbled at length to Baba that night, and again next morning when we went there for breakfast.
After a quick breakfast on Sunday and one last walk down the beach, this time on the opposite direction, we checked out of the hotel at around eleven and headed for Mondarmoni. This was our final stop before we drove back to Kolkata. Mondarmoni is a much advertised luxury seaside spot with supposedly the longest beach in the country at fifteen kilometres. We found it to be a gross disappointment. The entire beachfront was covered with construction sites and hotel walls. The beach was nothing to write home about. We wondered at the popularity of the place, and agreed that coming to Mondarmoni by itself would have been a bad idea. The only noticeable thing about Mondarmoni was that we found a variety of dead sea life washed up on the sand – from a leach-like worm to tiny crabs to a torn turtle fin and even a small sting ray!
This concluded our weekend getaway, and soon enough we were on our way home. The drive was as pleasant as the first time, but it seemed to take less time, as return journeys are wont to do. We were back home by five thirty even after a short detour to Park Street. It was a sweet getaway, a welcome change early in the semester. Baba got his much deserved break, and he has gone back to his classes now with a refreshed mind.
Next up is Pondicherry in mid-February, and though that is still a month away, I cannot seem to wait for it!