Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Siliguri connection

Calcutta still manages to throw up a few pleasant surprises. Sealdah station was one of them. Was there last week to board the Darjeeling Mail for a team meeting at Siliguri (NJP). The new platform was so much more cleaner than Howrah. It’s far less crowded and even at the entrance one could find place for parking a car.

West Bengal is probably the only large state in the country that never had a second large urban center to boast of. Older District Towns like Burdawan, Behrampore, Malda had long passed into irrelevance. And, Bidhan Roy’s vision for creating alternate industrial centers and satellite townships (like Durgapur and Kalyani) to take the pressure off Calcutta – never fructified in the hands of successive governments.

Siliguri redeems this reputation to some extent – though’ more by default than anything else. Without any real manufacturing industry to boast of (despite the Left Front Governments half-baked attempts to create industrial zones such as Dabgram) and tea being on a decline, it has really thrived on dubious cross border trade through Bangladesh and Nepal.

But, it was nice to see some signs of economic resurgence. For a long time – The Sinclairs was the only livable hotel in town. Now, it has a smart new 4 Star The Royal Sarovar. 2 large malls and multiplexes have come up. But, the real eye-opener was a 400 acre gated community – Uttarayan – very tastefully laid out over what once used to be a tea garden.

But, the Bagdogra airport is a shame. It’s the second of the only 2 commercial airport in the state and as the gateway to the entire North Bengal, Sikkim and Bhutan it has a sizeable traffic – a large number of them being foreign tourists. Now with the advent of the low-cost airlines – the number of flights have gone up exponentially. It has only one X-Ray Machine at the security and only 2 boarding gates. As it’s essentially a Defence Airport – commercial flights operate only around noon time – when it turns out to be a veritable mess – not entirely unexpected considering that Calcutta is only a shade better. The Dhaba kind of atmosphere and food in the airport cafeteria run by the Employees’ Co-operative (in true Marxist style) completes the picture.

The Darjeeling Mail itself was a nice experience. The AC I coach was one of the best I have traveled on - in recent times. New and well kept – the beddings were laundry fresh and the toilets in great shape. We were some 11 of us together crammed inside a 4 berth coupe – gorging on fried chilly chicken from Chung-Wah over Old Monk and Whiskey – followed by Kasha-Mangsho and Rooti.

The weather in Siliguri is still very pleasant in the evenings – slightly nippy but not sharply cold any longer. Just right for a grand meal of Chitol Maacher Peti, Mourola Maccher Chocchori, Chyapa Shutki’r bharta (sourced from a local restaurant called ‘Bong Connection’) in the open terrace - warmed up by generous doses of distilled spirits.

These are moments when you feel – life’s not so bad after all – even in an impoverished state. So you tell yourself – stop cribbing and enjoy what you have !!

Read related Blog: Gorkhaland Express (by clicking here)