Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Montage of Mongpong and Mungpoo

Monsoon had just hit the city and beat the long tyranny of summer heat. It was a sudden plan to go out and enjoy some fresh monsoon showers amidst uninhibited nature. The sanctuaries had mostly been shut down by then so we decided for a West Bengal Forest Development Corporation cottage in an obscure place called Mongpong. The place is not much heard of but its vicinity to the city of Siliguri was a major reason for selecting it so that in case of any sudden strike by the Gorkha Janamuti Morcha (and there was some political turmoil after the submission of Justice Shyamal Sen Committee report on the jurisdiction of Gorkha Territorial Administration, which the GJM rejected as 'biased and insulting') we could come back without any hassles. I had just come back from my Kashmir trip so I could not afford any more leave and Anirban's planned tour of Sandakphu before that had to be cancelled due to health issues; hence it had to be only a weekend getaway. Anyway, a couple of days are enough for this kind of short trips. In a way, this trip was kind of a consolation for Anirban's earlier futile tour plan.

It was so late that most of the New Jalpaiguri bound trains were already booked. Fortunately we got the tickets for both onward and return journeys in sleeper coaches and thankfully due to the rains, the days of our travel were not unbearably hot. An AC cottage was booked from the WBFDC office near Wellington Square in Kolkata and the booking clerk told us to inform the caretaker about our arrival time in advance so that he could arrange for our food. WBFDC runs four cottages at Mongpong, all of them named after the names of birds. Two of them are air-conditioned (Kalij and Tragopan) and the rest two (Monal and Cuckoo) not so. We were provided the cottage named Tragopan. In hindsight, I think there was no need to book an AC cottage as we hardly used the AC and also it did not function properly at times. There is a forest bungalow too at the back which is more spacious and more luxurious but that is out of bounds for the general public.

So after the day's work on Friday, Anirban and I reached Sealdah station to board Kanchankanya Express which arrived at NJP right on time at 8:30, next morning. I had done some enquiry on travel forums and following the suggestions of the experienced travellers on this circuit, I knew that the easiest and cheapest means to get to Mongpong was a Dooars bound bus. We took a shared auto-rickshaw to the Mittal Bus Stand and a Samsing bound bus which was leaving just then. Since both of us had a small backpack each, it was easier for us to avail ourselves of the public transport system. And the bus was almost empty; so it was a pleasant ride. It was drizzling outside and the ride through Sevoke Road with lush greenery on either side was a charming one. Soon we reached the colourful Sevoke Coronation Bridge. Here we took a right turn and after crossing the bridge, Mongpong was not far away. The distance of Mongpong from NJP is around 30 Kms and from the Sevoke Bridge it is only about 7 Kms.

We got off the bus near a police check post. From there we walked for about 300 mtrs on the right hand side to reach the cottages. It was only 10:15 am but luckily our cottage did not have any occupant from the previous night and Basanta, the friendly caretaker, had already made up the room for us. After freshening up and consuming a simple lunch we ventured out to visit the Teesta river bed which was visible from the cottages. Basanta showed us the way to take to reach the river bed. After an initial steep slope, there was a train track nearby and after that we had to walk on the edges of some farm land and through muddy tracks to get to the river bed. On the way we passed by some generous patches of green fields with sheep roaming around freely and a range of small hills at the background to complete the scene. A few local huts with a few domesticated animals like the cow or the hen were also there. It was amusing to notice that a few locals were playing with mobile phones and clicking pictures of each other. It is indeed true that most people now in our country enjoy using mobile phones even when the more basic amenities are yet to reach them. A lone shepherd was wandering near the river with his herd of cows and an uncharacteristic umbrella to shield him from the sun or may be from the showers. It had been drizzling in the morning and by that time the light was getting faint with overcast condition and patchy white clouds were flying all over.

Teesta is infamous for its calamitous monsoon floods but it had not swelled up considerably and gone past its danger levels due to slow monsoon. The river bed comprised a large stretch of stones and pebbles with a silhouette of hills in the far side. A rail bridge was at the other end and a train passed by while we were taking rest sitting on a large stone, adoring the flux of Teesta.

Basanta had advised us to take a path adjacent to the rail bridge on our way back, that would take us to the main road. A few young men were taking bath on the bank of the river on that side and they told us to cross the bridge to get to the main road. In the beginning we were a little apprehensive but then we noticed a few locals strolling mid way on the bridge. A railway personnel was also walking on the bridge probably inspecting some fault as he was carrying a range with him. We asked him whether it is safe to cross the bridge on foot and he said its perfectly alright and he also started walking behind us for some time. Since a train had just passed so there was no possibility of another one passing right then and also there was a manned railway crossing at the end of the bridge which was open. But when he told us from behind that if in case a train comes we should move away from the track and give room for the train to pass, we panicked a little since there was not much space on either side of the track. Yes, there were some extended sections where one could stand without any threat but they were few and far between. We hurriedly walked the rest of the bridge in a brisk pace although there was no sign of any train in the vicinity. Looking back in hindsight it seems a foolish idea to cross the bridge when we could just follow the railway track on the other direction and return to our cottage.

The other big problem that we then faced was that we had come a long way away from Mongpong and we did not even know that. After walking for a long time along the highway we finally reached the Sevoke Bridge. It must have been about 5 kms that we walked and that too very slowly since there was much traffic on the busy highway and we needed to watch out for the vehicles.

Just before the bridge is located the renowned temple dedicated to goddess Kali, known as the Sevokeswari Kali Mandir. We made a stop at the temple to regain our lost breath. Anirban was hopeful that we could make all the way back to Mongpong on foot only. May be he was still secretly thinking for his failed trek to Sandakphu but I was skeptical about whether my body could partake another long walk after the day's toil. We tried to catch a bus or a jeep from the bridge but they were too few in number and fully crowded. After some time when I was also starting to think about the walking option, like an angel came along a school bus which was almost empty and it took us to our destination in a matter of minutes.

Basanta welcomed us with tea and snacks and we realized how hungry we had been after all the walking which we are not accustomed to in our busy city lives. We took early dinner in our room as there was nothing much to do after sunset and we remained mostly confined to our room till the next morning.

The next day we would check out at noon and the return train from NJP was at nine o'clock; hence the full day was at our disposal. We inquired about possible places to visit and after a brief chat with Tamang, the driver of the car that Basanta had arranged for us, we zeroed in on Mungpoo. So, after taking lunch, we packed our bags and hopped into the Maruti van that Tamang had parked outside the cottage. After crossing the Sevoke Coronation Bridge, we took a right turn towards Kalimpong. From Siliguri, the small hilly town is located about 52 kms away.

The road to Mungpoo was an enjoying one and as we were moving up the hill, the clouds started playing with us. At one point of time we were completely engulfed with clouds and we were practically driving through layers of cloud and the visibility became very low. Again after some time when we were further up, the cloud cover was beneath us and the hills on the other side looked beautiful emerging from the clouds. When we reached Mungpoo, it had started drizzling and our umbrellas became useful when we got down at the Rabindra Bhavan.

The town of Mungpoo earned its name for Cinchona plantation and the first Government Quinine factory was set up there in 1864. However the place became famous when the Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore visited the place four times between 1938 and 1940. Tagore used to stay at the residence of his protégé and philosopher Surendranath Dasgupta's daughter Maitreyi Devi, who in her own right is a renowned poet and novelist. Her husband, quintologist Manmohan Sen was then serving the Government Quinine factory and their residence was his official bungalow. Later it was converted into Rabindra Bhavan, a museum containing Tagore's photographs, paintings, writings and other memoirs related to his stay at Mungpoo. Maitreyi Devi had also published a book titled “Mungpoo-te Rabindranath” documenting an account of his stay at Mungpoo.

Shishir, the caretaker of the museum is an interesting character. In spite of being a Nepali, his Bengali is very good and he has a gripping knowledge on Tagore and his association with Mungpoo. He actually provides tourists a guided tour of the bungalow though he clarified in the beginning that he is just the caretaker. A second group, consisting of a man and a woman were accompanying us. Amusingly, during most part of our stay, Shishir kept playing Rabindrasangeet from his mobile phone speakers creating a perfect atmosphere and surprised us by quoting pieces of many verses from Tagore's vast sea of writings.From him we came to know that during the days of Tagore, the road was motorable only till the town beneath which was 12 kms away and the septuagenarian poet had to be carried in a palanquin and he claimed that his grandfather was one of the carriers.

Once we entered the bungalow, the first thing we noticed was an arm-chair with a portrait of Tagore on top of it. The bard used to relax on that very chair and observe the lovely view outside. There are many original photographs of the poet decorating the walls of the bungalow. Some of them are with Maitreyi Devi and her sister Chitrita Devi amongst others. Some of the pictures have worn out like the one which is mostly damaged barring the face of one gentleman which Shishir claimed to be Khsitimohan Sen, father of another Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. There are some rare pictures as well like the birthday celebration of Tagore in 1940. It is said that he penned many poems including “Janmodin” while staying at Mungpoo.

Another room had some paintings drawn by Tagore but they were not originals. Probably it is he who was amongst the first to introduce modern art in India and it is unbelievable that he started painting only after completing sixty years of his illustrious life.

I remember a funny incident here regarding the other group who came from Kalimpong. A section of the wooden floor of the room was damaged and the caretaker warned us not to go there. He later recounted how one of the wooden planks gave way to a British tourist (who was, well, stoutly built) and how he broke his hand falling down under the wooden floor. While narrating this episode, Shishir referred to the lady from the other group and mentioned that he was even healthier than her. She, who is probably an actress as it seemed from her conversations, was a little healthy no doubt and passed her prime age but she was desperately trying to look young and bubbly and she did not take it well that she was being referred to by someone as not having a perfect figure.

There were some copies of letters written to and by Tagore during his stay at Mungpoo. One of them, addressed to her daughter-in-law, was an amusing one where Tagore had compared Maitreyi Devi to a dacoit and portrayed himself as a helpless victim who had been kidnapped by her.

The bathroom contained an innovative bathtub with the option of hot and cold water flowing simultaneously. The study room featured a wooden desk that the poet used and some of his personal belongings like the easel and the colours that he used for his paintings, a paperweight and a pen stand made of bamboo which was designed by Tagore himself. The bedroom consisted of a box bed with a back support, unusual of its time, which Shishir claimed to be designed by Tagore's son Rathindranath.

The garden outside contains a magnolia and a chhatim tree amongst others some of them were planted by Tagore himself. It also contained a bronze bust statue of the bard.

Shishir was complaining that the government does not provide sufficient funds for maintaining the place and restoring the photographs which have started to worn out. He did not spare anyone from the ruling party TMC, the earlier Left Front government, Congress party of the centre or the GJM for being callous of not doing enough to preserve the place as it should have been. He told us that even the Viva Bharati did not pay much attention to his pleads of restoring the photographs. He also drew our attention to the fact that there is no electricity in the bungalow now although it was there during Tagore's stay more than seventy years back. He had even approached the Maitreyi Devi's daughter for doing something for the place. I asked him why he is not approaching the Chief Minister directly who is such an admirer of Rabindranath. He informed that CM paid a brief stop at the bungalow during her visit to Kalimpong but she was surrounded by bureaucrats and party-men all along. But he was hopeful that may be some steps would be taken in the right direction by the new North Bengal Development Minister. What impressed us about the man is his realization that preservation of Rabindranath's memories should be above petty politics and there should not be any Bengali-Nepali devide on this. We seconded him with the reminder that Tagore is called “Viswakavi” or the poet of the whole world and is not limited only to the sentiments of Bengalees alone.

Before we left, Shishir requested us to write something in the guest book. That itself has some historical significance as it contains writings by some eminent people including Maitreyi Devi and Tagore's daughter-in-law Pratima Devi.

As we were coming back we stopped for a while at the local monastery which is just in front of the PWD bungalow. Usually I find monasteries to be quiet and peaceful but here there was many people from the surrounding enjoying their evening tea. May be it serves as the community meeting place during weekends. They even invited us to have some tea with them.

The weekend was meant to be a leisurely retreat but it turned out to be an eventful one but at the same time very enjoying also. I hope that the hills of Bengal remain peaceful in the coming days and political agitations do not mire its charm and the innocence of its people.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Kolkata Kaleidoscope : St. John's Church

On a pleasant morning just at the beginning of winter, I planned to visit St. John's Church, the third oldest and one of the most distinguished churches of Kolkata reminiscent of the British Raj. Saibal and Anirban were my partners in this venture. The church is located near Dalhousie Square in the north-western corner of Raj Bhavan, precisely at the intersection of Kiran Shankar Road and Council House Street. We had to pay a minimal entry fee and a parking fee for our car. It seemed that not too many people visit the place regularly since the bemused security guard asked us whether we were coming from outside the city. Although I have heard that it still holds Sunday services, it is improbable that many people attend those as the church is situated in a largely commercial neighborhood.

The land on which the church is built was donated by Maharaja Naba Krishna Deb of Sovabazar. The founding stone was laid by Warren Hastings, the then British Governor General of India, in 1784 and the church was inaugurated in the presence of Lord Cornwallis in 1787. It initially served as the Anglican Cathedral of Calcutta and was the first Anglican church in the city. Modeled by architect Lt. James Agg, on lines of the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in England, the church is built with brick and stone and often referred to as 'the stone church'. The portico with lofty pillars and the tall stone spire holding a giant clock along with the imposingly large square base make an impressive architecture. Inside, the main altar is a simple one and to its right is a colourful stained glass window.

To the left of the altar, hangs on the wall, the famous painting of 'Last Supper' by England based German artist Johann Zoffany. Unlike Leonardo da Vinci's rendering of the painting by the same name, Zoffany's 'Last Supper' has a distinct Indian touch like the sword or the spittoon and even it is believed that some of the disciples of Jesus were modeled on real life Britishers of then Calcutta. The painting was restored in 2010 by the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan India in cooperation with the Indian National Trust for Art and Culture Heritage. In Fact if my memory serves me right, I came across in the newspapers a few years back that during the restoration part only the identity of the artist was revealed and it was hitherto unknown that he had been to Kolkata.

All along the walls of the church are memorial tablets mainly of army officers and civil servants besides other prominent citizens of the day. Interestingly many of these tablets too has some Indian-ness reflecting in them. A wooden arching staircase on the right connects the first floor but it is now out of bounds for the general public.

The church compound also has a cemetery, probably the oldest Christian cemetery of Calcutta and many tombs and memorials of renowned persons are to be found here. Once we exited the church building from the left side, we came across such a memorial dedicated to Lady Canning, the wife of British Governor General and Viceroy to India, set up in 1861. Her name has been made immortal after a popular sweet was named after her in Bengal. Some of the other prominent people whose tombs we noticed included Lord Brabourne, Goveror General and Viceroy of British India.

At a far end of the ground is located the circular dome shaped tomb of Frances Johnson, a famous wealthy socialite who married four times and died in 1812 at a ripe old age of late eighties. She was popularly known as 'Begum' due to her close association with Amina Begum, the mother of Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, Siraj-ud-Daulah.

Not far from it, is the mausoleum of Job Charnock, a trader of the erstwhile British East India Company, who is popularly regarded as the founder of the city of Calcutta. Back in 1690, he set foot on the city which then comprised three small villages namely Sutanati, Gobindopur and Kolkata. Traditional belief is that he combined the three villages into the city of Calcutta but this theory is also challenged by many, especially the Sabarna Roy Chaudhury family and there had been a High Court ruling as well contradicting this opinion. Charnock only lived for two more years and died on 10th January, 1692 according to the date on his gravestone. However, from other reliable sources it is evident that he died in the year 1693. This discrepancy is attributed to the old calendar system by which the new year begun in March. The simple white two-storied mausoleum has an octagonal base with a dome shaped roof, arched doors and a balustrade of short peaked arches. The mausoleum, which has an evident effect of Indo-Islamic architecture was erected by Charnock's son-in-law, Sir Charles Eyre and the epitaph is inscribed in Latin.

Another interesting cenotaph is the Second Rohilla War Memorial, which comprises a circular dome shaped roof supported on twelve Doric pillars and contains a plaque with the names of many British soldiers who were killed in the Second Rohilla War of 1794.

Also located in the church compound is an obelisk with a wide base which commemorates the controversial Black Hole Tragedy of Calcutta. In 1756, after Sirad-ud-Daulah siezed Fort William from the British, it is said that the prisoners of war were confined in a small and poorly ventilated room and many of them died due to suffocation. John Holwell, who was a survivor of the incident narrated that 123 out of 146 prisoners died overnight. However, many historians have questioned the veracity of Holwell's account and feel that his version is highly exaggerated. Some even rejected the authenticity of the entire episode. Nevertheless, after Robert Clive defeated Siraj in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, Holwell built a memorial near the present day GPO in Dalhousie Square area to commemorate the victims of the Black Hole Tragedy. At some point of time during 1821, the memorial was broken or removed and Lord Curzon during his vice-regency (1901-6) commissioned a replica to be built in 1902 which was later on relocated to St. John's Church compound.

Contented after spending an hour in the peaceful church where we were the only visitors surrounded by so much history of the city of Calcutta of the colonial time, we stepped out to the busy modern city which is now rechristened as Kolkata.