Pravin Gandhi: Teesta – Torsa experience – on way to Manas Tiger Reserve
The Teesta -Torsa experience
1st leg: Calcutta –> Manas Tiger Reserve in Assam on the India-Bhutan border; then –> Gangtok, Sikkim; then –> Pelling/Hillay/Varshay/Sombarey; then –> Darjeeling; and back to Calcutta. Click on any of the links.
Little did we know, that the adventure would begin from the 1st leg itself
We left Calcutta’s Sealdah terminus by the noon train, the Teesta-Torsa Express, named after two Himalayan rivers of North Bengal. We had to change to another train at Alipur-dwar at dawn the next morning. Some hours out of Calcutta, the train was pulled into a sideline, among fields and a small, typically Bengal village with its own pukkur (pond), dotted with water lilies.
Since it was a single-track system, other trains crossed and passed us at regular intervals. One of them was the train that we were to change to! I just watched in astonishment as I saw it pass. I walked to the driver of the train who just shrugged, “This is also an express train with equal priority” he said “I can only move when I get the green light”.
Meanwhile there didn’t seem to be any consternation among other passengers in the train. It seemed that some sleep-inducing or mesmerising spell had taken over. I sat on the tracks next to our stationery train and surveyed the scene, and felt an amazing calm come over me.
It was weird, like a hypnotic trance, everyone and everything around me, the huts, the leaves of the trees, the wind, the train and even Time itself was motionless. It seemed that Nature and all forms of life were having a lazy siesta.
We must have halted there 3 hours before the train hooted and we continued on our journey. I cant forget the image of the little hamlet for ever.
Storm in a thali (dinner): Our compartment had a group of youth who were escorting one of theirs to his wedding. There was loud merriment and singing. Amidst this din, our dinner arrived. After tasting a curious curry in the dim light, I told my wife, uh-oh, this is not vegetarian. When the attendant arrived for the payment, I raised a storm and asked to see the contractor. When he came to us at the next station, we confronted him with the monumental bungle of serving non-veg food to a vegetarian family. He was deeply disturbed and shouted “Oyoyoyoyo”, slapped both his cheeks, and tried to explain frantically in his native language. this brouhaha was great entertainment to the co-passengers who were all talking at the same time to each other, to the contractor and to us. After much discussion in the compartment, one person came forward and told us one word, “Jackfruit” . So it was jackfruit curry! We gave out a sigh of Ohhh and the co-passengers also murmured collectively at our realisation.
Another day of adventure: We reached Alipur-dwar (gateway to 7-sisters, the group of North-East states of India) at noon instead of dawn. Our connecting train had long gone. The station-master told us that we would reach the Barpeta Road station only in the evening; and that there were no places to stay at Barpeta Road. Uh-oh! While my family had lunch at the canteen at the station, I took a cycle rickshaw into Alipur-dwar, and came back with the verdict that there was no place to stay at Alipore-dwar. The station master asked us to move on Bongaigaon where there was a big oil refinery and there would be a hotel. So we boarded the next train and reached Bongaigaon at sunset. Indeed there were two hotels offering similar small, basic rooms. There was no place to eat except a sweets-shop and we dined on Rassogollas and Gulab Jamuns, lol! All night my wife and I stood over the heads of our sleeping children and swatted mosquitoes which came in wave after wave to have their fill of human blood. It was an unequal battle.
Reach Manas Tiger Reserve, “Wow!”: We were only too pleased to take an early morning train, getting off at Barpeta Road, the railway station for the Manas Tiger Reserve. We had missed the vehicle that we had booked to take us to the forest, by one whole day. We were advised at the station to go to the Forest Office. At the Forest Office, we were impressed to meet the Forest Officer who had just returned from a United Nations conference on wild life in Geneva, at his nice cottage full of interesting trophies and pictures, which served as his home as well as office. He was a top IFS officer and delight to talk to. He told us he didn’t want the park to be very popular for tourists, and actually discouraged it considering the fragile environment and endangered tiger. He arranged a vehicle. On his advice we went to the market and bought potatoes, onions, eggs, and other provisions to give the cook at the forest lodge.
A two-hour drive brought us to the forest lodge at Manas Tiger reserve and immediately felt blessed to be in such a calm, tranquil, serene place and congratulated myself on my serendipity – my aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.
Pravin Gandhi, author, “One at a time – short stories to muse by”