Sunday, March 14, 2010

For a change

The Bengalis called it “change” for short – meaning a change of weather and place. They’d say - “change e jacchi” – literally, going for a change (sic) - “Ektu jal, hawaa badal korey aashi”. So, in winters they’d move base to what was colloquially referred to as the “West” (Paschim) – small towns of Bihar (now Jharkahnd) - Deoghar, Madhupur, Hazaribagh, Ranchi – sometime even as far as Banaras. In summers – it would be to the sea-side of Puri or Gopalpur (Ganjam, Orissa) or to the hills in Darjeeling and Kalimpong. It was bit like the old colonial concept of shifting capital for summers or winters – or the European custom of heading out to the Riviera or the Alps. The self styled “aristocrats” had their summer or winter homes at those places. Others would rent a house or have long-stay arrangements at hotels ( the more “well-to-do” in places like the BNR in Puri or The Windamere in Darjeeling). Though we were nowhere as privileged – going on long vacations was still very much the norm even in ordinary middle-class homes.

So, I don’t remember ever going on a holiday that was less than - at least - a fortnight (something we can't even imagine in today's work-life)। Usually – my father would take leave in the period intervening between Durga Puja and Kali-Puja (Diwali). Quite often, we would travel to Allahabad – where my mother’s younger sister and her favourite cousin lived – and from there head-out in a larger group in another direction. Thus, we toured the Kumaon Hill circuit of Nainital-Ranikhet-Almora, the golden triangle of Agra-Jaipur-Delhi and, on another occasion, parts of Madhya Pradesh covering Khajuraho-Jabalpore.

These were not very organized or planned trips। Travelling in 2 or 3 jalopie-loads (squeezing in 6, sometimes 7 or 8 including children into the old Ambassadors and land-masters), it was like picnic on the road with its fair share of misadventures. Practically every second night we would have to find a new place to camp or pitch a virtual tent at a Circuit Houses, Forest / Dak Bunglows, PWD Rest-houses or the Guest House of a Government Undertaking – greasing the palms of the chowkidar or seeking the benefaction of the junior local officials – or at times make way into the Holiday Home of a company. Sometimes, we were lucky to be able to make use the house of someone distantly known through a relative or friend.

Deem-er Dalna and Dak Banglow Chicken Curry

Rarely did we have a cook accompanying us – so it was usually the women who had to swing into action no sooner had the luggage been dumped into the rooms. While the rice and dal (part of the dry ration and provisions that were carried) was put to boil – couple of the men would scurry to the market for vegetables (and, on a good day, country chicken - otherwise it was mostly eggs for “deem-er dalna” click here for recipe) and their evening’s quota of whiskey (Aristocrat and Black Knight being the preferred brands of those days) . Breakfast would almost always be of bread, boiled eggs and the mandatory banana for the kids. Lunch on the road would naturally have to be in Dhabas – but in towns we would get to ‘splurge’ at a ‘family restaurant’ ( the high points being Kwality’s or Jone Hing in Lucknow, the Niros or LMB in Jaipur – even tho’ the last mentioned was purely vegetarian – and the likes of them) or in the cafeteria of a Tourist Lodge. (For recipe of Dak Bunglow Chicken Curry Click here)

the original 'time-share'

But, there was also a second format of holidays that we followed. Every other year, we would choose just a single destination to go and drop anchor for a month or so. The choice of place would, per necessity, depend on the availability of someone’s house who was willing to let it out to us (usually for free – the ‘token’ reciprocation would be in the form of a dinner invitation at home on our return) . Coming to think of it – this was, perhaps, the older form of ‘time-share’ holidays.

Normally – 2 families (presumably, like minded and compatible) would travel together (3 were a crowd and too many variables to accommodate), as apart from providing the ‘social’ critical mass not only did the holiday economics worked out better as the ‘overheads’ could be split – but also the logistics due to the comfort of numbers. Besides, traveling in a group broke the monotony of long train journeys– often extending beyond 2 nights (tho’ air-fares must have been a fraction of what the ‘low cost airlines’ of today charge, it was not an option even for the most affluent).

On reaching the final station of rest, we would go about setting up a temporary home almost like new immigrants. Life would quickly fall in to a routine – be it the long walks in the mornings to the market at other end of town or the gentle trudge in the evenings to the Military Farm Dairy to get cream for the strawberries. We would very soon be on familiar terms with not just the local grocer and baker – but, at times, even the best tailor of the place from whom – for some inexplicable reason – my uncle decided to order a suit and had to make umpteen rounds to get the fit exactly right. In the process, the rest of us too – including the ladies - had some piece of winter clothing stitched from him. On the weekly trips for encashing Travellers’ Cheques ( as there were no Credit Cards or ATMs then) – the Bank Manager – would not only give us sight-seeing tips but also, occasionally, share little nuggets of gossip about celebrities who would come for escapades to some tranquil hide-outs in the vicinity. . Before long, it would be time to leave and we would go about bidding farewell with a promise to come back soon – which, at least for then, were meant genuinely.

Charing Cross in T Nagar

One such holiday – we had enjoyed a lot was in Ooty circa 1973. Took my father there – at the end of our trip to Wellington, Coonoor, earlier this month - after a gap of nearly 37 years. It wasn’t such a good idea – because, within 3 months of my Mother’s passing away, it only brought back for him a flood of old memories. We drove down Havelock Road to see the house where we had stayed (that belonged to a leading stevedore of Madras). It was now in shambles and a slum had sprung up around it. Shinkows – which, I believe, is not a patch of its old self - was shut for renovation. Among the old shops only Chellaram’s had retained some of its old character – Mohan’s was now like any other touristy shop at a hill station. Charing Cross could easily pass off as a junction in T Nagar, Chennai. Everything else – not surprisingly – had changed beyond recognition with the exception of a few tucked away secrets like the King’s Cliff. What we could manage for him was a panoramic photograph of Ooty shot in the 70s from Elk Hill mounted on the wall of the reception at the Ooty Club – which itself had stood still in time.