Call of the Dooars


I have always wondered where my love for nature comes from. The answer came to me as I was standing in the middle of a stream with cold, clear water lapping around my shins: I was born to it.  The first twenty years of my life were spent in the Dooars, the sub-Himalayan terai region of northern West Bengal. It rained everyday for six months and as a result the greenery was extravagant. It wasn’t uncommon for us to see the Kanchenjungha from our classroom on a clear day. The mountains always loomed large over my hometown and on nights you could spot the twinkling lights of Kuseong and Darjeeling. Nature was in reality, at our very doorstep.

Birds I shot from the window of my parent’s house using my mother’s Nikon P610 camera that boasts of a 60x optical zoom

The somewhat lackadaisical attitude I had towards the unbridled nature right at my doorstep waned as I moved my boxes to Delhi. Over the last few years, as I became increasingly enamoured with birds and the art of watching and photographing them, I was reminded of Gajoldoba, barely an hour away from Siliguri. Gajoldoba, spoken about in hushed tones by ornithologists professional and amateur, is a reservoir created by an irrigation dam across the Teesta river as it emerges from the mountains. The reservoir, in turn, creates a vast wetland to which migratory birds are attracted in large numbers. This time, I had to check it out.

Our small little getaway for the day. Switch to satellite view for a better understanding of the landscape

The drive to Gajoldoba is as rewarding as the place itself. For most of the way, you follow a lovely road that runs beside one of the many irrigation canals. To top it off, both the road and the canal cut through dense forests and tea estates. We couldn’t have chosen a better time to visit. It was a hot, dry week, bang in the middle of the monsoons. The sky was at its bluest and the green was at its greenest. Talk about getting lucky!

On this day trip, we avoided the highways and stuck to the smaller roads that, like rivers, snake through the region. The roads took us through villages, duck ponds, inundated rice paddies and of course, a river every few miles. If you happen to travel through the Dooars in July-August, your nostrils could be assaulted by a musty smell wafting in from the water bodies. This is a result of bundles of jute plants fermenting in the water. As the stalks ferment, the bark transforms into the strands of golden fiber that we are familiar with. Outside every farmer’s house bales of the golden  fiber are set to dry. Public infrastructure, like the bridges below are also extensively used in the process.

Some villages and many rivers later we reached Lataguri, the small town on the edge of Gorumara National Park. A road from here cuts through the national park and if you are lucky, you can catch an elephant or a bison crossing the road. Almost halfway through the road is a small outcrop of phallic rocks by a small stream. Local imagination has turned the stones into lingams and as a result people leave small offerings – fruits, flowers, rice, etc – near it. The part time priest of this ‘temple’will tell you (should you run into him) that often elephants can be seen visiting the temple, ‘worshipping’ the stones with their trunks. Not very surprising considering some free food happens to be found here on a regular basis!

On the other edge of Gorumara, just past a small village and a host of architecturally unimaginative resorts lies the small bridge over the river Murti. During the winter months the sand and pebble banks of the river is very popular with picnicking groups. But this being the warm season, the spot was refreshingly devoid of the tourist meelee. It was perfect, therefore, to wade out into the cool, fast flowing stream and stand there, contemplating where one’s love for nature came from.

In spite of the heat, there were a few people here, chilling themselves and their beer bottles in the water. A group of uniformed students out on a school trip also seemed to be enjoying themselves. The most fun, however, was reserved for a bunch of kids from the nearby village who were splashing around in the water. They would clamber up on the embankments, run up and canonball into a deep pool in the river – over and over again.

After watching them do this for nearly half an hour, I asked one of them “How long do you plan to do this?”

“Until the sun goes down” promptly came the answer.

It was past mid-day by the time we were done talking to the river jumpers and perhaps not unsurprisingly severe hunger pangs had started to set in. Our driver knew a local restaurant, one of the many unnamed ‘line hotels’ that dot the highway, in the nearby town of Malbazaar. The restaurant itself was a simple affair – tables, benches, soot in the ceiling, people sharing tables, etc. There is a particular way of ordering food at these line hotels; the moment you sit down, a vegetarian thali will be set in front of you. This usually involves a generous helping of steamed rice, one-two veg curries, a portion of crisp potato fritters (aloo bhaja) and a bowl of dal. On top of this, at extra cost of course, you can order from a selection of fish curries, mutton and chicken dishes.

A couple of tips: If you are on the road in Bengal, choose a busy ‘line hotel’. The busier the joint, the fresher and the better the food. Sometimes even the veg dishes have bits of fish for taste. So if you are a vegetarian, please specify this with as much clarity as possible before ordering. In most places, additional helpings of rice or even the dal are absolutely free, so if you need more make eye contact with the waiter, point to your plate and hope for the best.

 

After a very satisfying lunch, we proceeded eastwards on the last leg of our journey. We were to cross the Teesta again, this time over the mighty Coronation Bridge, which is undoubtedly one of my favourite spots on earth. My school was very conveniently halfway between my home and the bridge and on days when the pursuit of scholastic excellence did not seem that appealing, we would slip out and cool our heels at the bridge. From the bridge, a steep track leads down into the river below. In the dry season, you can sit on the exposed rocks and sandy beaches by the side of the river and watch on as time, much like the aquamarine waters of the Teesta flows swiftly by.

Completed in 1941, the bridge was thus named to mark the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937. The gigantic single span has since then connected Siliguri with the rest of Northeastern India. Years later, this same graceful span rendered a 5 year old kid speechless on a sunny winter afternoon. Almost 25 years after that fateful first encounter, I stood on its ramparts, on a warm monsoon afternoon, flanked my father and my to be father-in-law.

To be honest, this day trip was an attempt to show (and show off) my little corner of the country to someone who is to soon be a part of my family. My father is the son of a farmer and although he did not follow his father’s profession, did maintain close ties to the land. As I grow older, my attachment to this land I call my own grows increasingly stronger.

My land is as bountiful as it is diverse; it has lofty mountains, plunging valleys, dense forests and open fields. My land is excruciatingly romantic, yet somewhat unpredictable. My land has inspired poets and nurtured bloody revolutions. And I would like to believe that if you get to know my land, you would get to know me.

Amen!

The Dooars Nostalgia – Part I


I didn’t know I loved the earth
can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it
I’ve never worked the earth
it must be my only Platonic love

– Nazim Hikmet, Things i Didn’t Know i Loved

When i was in Siliguri, being what every geeky Bengali teenager was like, i tended to take the bounteous nature around me for granted. Sure, there were the occasional trips to Darjeeling, Gangtok or the forests; sure there were the winter-time picnics in Sevoke and Murti, but the sense of belonging had not developed.

Then came the big shift to Delhi. Then came the longing for home. Whenever i managed to get back, i would spend almost all the time in our little apartment, without even feeling the need to step out. This was back in college when i had not yet tasted the charms of travel.

Then came my job. I still maintain that this was probably the best thing to have happened to me. I discovered photography and i discovered travel – two things that have gone on to define me ever since. My initial travels were in central India across Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, but it was not long before we got a project on West Bengal and images and experiences of a not too distant childhood came flooding back.

A trip to North Bengal was soon planned and with gentle manipulations on my part, it was extended to cover almost all parts of the Dooars region of North Bengal over a period of five days. I only realised this later, when i was back in Delhi, that it had been a return to the familiar sights, sounds and smells. It was a a long chain of deja vu’s.

I was accompanied on this by my boss Swati. We landed in Siliguri on a sunny October morning and were met at the airport by my dad who had arranged for a car (a brand new Tata Sumo Grande) and a driver for our trip. We intended to reach Madarihat by the end of the day. Madarihat happens to be 141 kms from Siliguri and is the gateway to Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, home to the largest number of Indian Rhinoceros in India after Kaziranga National Park in Assam.

We got out of Siliguri after a quick lunch at home and headed to Jalpaiguri via a smaller back road that cuts off from the bridge over the Teesta canal at Fulbari, south of Siliguri. Fulbari is famous for its pantuas, otherwise known as gulab jamuns and needless to say, we stopped at one of the many sweet shops for a taste. Luckily we had some fresh of the pan and still warm. See, i am not a big sweet fan so any comments i make will not do justice to these dollops of heaven. Here’s a pic instead:

Delight, some say!

From Fulbari we followed the road to Belacoba, a small town known for another sweet, cham-cham (no translation this time). For the first part the road ran along the canal. Autumn had just set in the pujas were just around the corner. It is that magical time of the year, when you suddenly feel light-headed for no apparent reason. The sky was a clear shade of blue, and there was greenery everywhere. The kaash flowers had just started to bloom and the forests opened their gates to tourists after the customary monsoon hiatus. Everything had been washed clean, awaiting the daughter’s return.

Autumn country!
Cotton candy heads!

The paddy fields were a shade of emerald washed in the first dew of the year, the rivers were calm, reflecting the skies above. There was harvest in every barn and yearning in every heart.

Paddy fields back home!
…of the skies above and the skies below
The Fisherman

It was the day of Vishwakarma Puja. Vishwakarma, one of the 33 crore gods that my ancestors created, is the lord of everything mechanical. On our was to Belacoba, we passed a group of tea estate workers transporting the idol to the factory where he was to be worshipped. While the god was on a truck, the mortal retinue followed, armed with incense, drums, gulaal and a very infectious urge to break into a jig!

In the name of the lord!
Beedi-in-mouth euphoria
Euphoria, your garden variety

After Belacoba, we hit the badly potholed Siliguri-Jalpaiguri highway and in some time reached the bridge over the river Teesta just as the sun was going down over the horizon. The mile-wide river was broken at places by sandbanks and spanned by a road bridge and another for the trains. I spent my early childhood in a small town called Falakata, deep inside the Dooars. Every weekend, we would make trips to Siliguri to meet friends and family, and every week the bus would cross the river. I would usually be asleep on my mother’s lap, but somehow managed to wake up to see the Teesta. The river amazed me. At four years old, it was the biggest thing i had seen. Now, more than 20 years later, it seemed even bigger.

The Teesta Bridge – Just as i remembered it
Teesta!

Darkness descended suddenly, like it always does in my land, except for the crimson afterglow still lingering in the fluffy clouds. In an hour we would reach Madarihat and check into the Jaldapara Tourist Lodge. In a day, the ardours of travelling, taking notes and shooting would catch up and dilute the feelings of being back home. In a week, i would be in Delhi, worrying about what to cook, when to service the bike and what movie to watch next. Till then, just like the afterglow, the familiar sights and sounds and smells persist. Just like what Colin Hay said. ‘yes, this is as good as it gets’.

Afterglow
After-Afterglow

PS: In the next part of the Dooars story, we explore Jaldapara and Buxa, two of the most famous wildlife destinations in the Dooars.