We Bengalis fancy being an wanderlust breed. In a country that’s famously vacation starved, we pack our bags at the slightest opportunity and move out. With 24×7 work environs getting the better of most of us, long vacations are often a rarity and a weekend escapade from the concrete jungles comes as a breather.
Winter in Kolkata is a misnomer. It barely lasts for the last week of December and early January when Bengalis pull out their naphthalene-scented woollens from the bottom of their wardrobes. Over the years, the ubiquitous monkey cap has given way to smarter clothes that make winters more pleasurable.
It was supposed to be an overnight picnic but not quite so. I and some of my friends had toyed with the idea of this picnic but were rather late in selecting the spot. Vacations, these days, are planned months in advance and not many choices were left for us. We finally zeroed in on Piyali, a hamlet, considered the gateway to the Sundarbans.
I frowned at what Google Maps revealed. The 71km distance from my home in Salt Lake to Piyali showed nearly three hours to cover. That’s an average 24km per hour. Having driven extensively in my state and beyond, single roads were not alien to me. But what was served beat all my imagination.
As we left the greater city limits at Baruipur, the road, or the lack of it, was riddled with potholes, and it soon resembled a thousand-hole golf course. Even driving in the second gear was a pain. I am not unfamiliar to bad roads. But this was probably the worst. Call it coincidence, Chris Rea’s Road to Hell played on my car stereo, and I was left smiling. Only the last few kilometres up to our hotel in Jamtala were in drivable condition.
What caught me by surprise, while driving the entire distance, was the large-scale infiltration of Bangladeshi immigrants in these parts of West Bengal. You don’t need to ask them. Their mere appearance bespeaks of their nationality. What was more surprising, was the lack of women on the roads and marketplaces that we crossed, which perhaps indicates the pre-birth sex determination and female foeticide that’s rampant in the hinterland. The government’s much hyped ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (save the girl child and get her educated) campaign was a cropper here.
But all bad dreams come to an end and I was hoping for a better fortune as I got off my car at Koyal Complex, our hotel, with a searing back pain. The hotel—if anyone desires to call it as such—had a vanishing manager and no attendants. The entry was through a less than two feet wide gate. It was still under construction with no lights or railguards along the staircase. The rooms had only the barest of furniture: a creaking bed, a plastic table, and a hand mirror.
But the real horror was waiting to be unleashed in the washroom (no pun intended).
The toilets, except one, had no seat cover. There were no buckets, no soap. You had to ask for everything, as if it was a privilege. Worse still, the exhaust vents of the washroom opened in the bedroom itself and after some time the stench inside the room became unbearable. In one of the other rooms allotted to us, a friend of mine discovered dried human faeces on the sidewalls of the commode, caked from time immemorial. Even the hold of the commode had excreta floating on it.
Taking up the issue with the hotel owner was more horrific than the washroom horror itself. He bluntly refused to hear us out, and at one point of time, took pride in misbehaving with his guests. Somewhere over the years, we Bengalis lost our voice for a genuine diatribe, and there were more spectators on the scene to enjoy the heated argument. There was a better room on the same floor. Asking for it was received with a blunt “No.” Only after much cajoling and threats of a police complain, was the room given to us, which was in fact a kitchen converted to a bedroom.
The drive up to the Piyali riverside was another nightmare. If there were potholes earlier, this time we had stones jetting out from the roads, and for the better part of it. Terrible was an understatement here. The government tourist lodge at Piyali, where an armed robbery was carried out in 2015, was shut. Locals had earlier informed that such crimes are commonplace in the area and they advised us not to stay after sundown. The riverside itself was littered with picnic waste and in some places it reeked of foul smell.
Back in the hotel, none could sleep for the night. The beds were uncomfortable and the linen dirty. I tossed and turned, and a couple of times went outside for a walk in the lobby which was marginally more comfortable than the cold and mosquito bites inside. BTW, the lobby had sofas covered with white bedsheets stolen from AC compartments of Eastern Railway.
We checked out of the hotel next morning. Our destination was Kaikhali where we had booked a boat for a trip on the Piyali and Matla rivers, and the mouth of Bay of Bengal. Out from the overnight confines of Koyal Complex, it was a welcome breather. Frayed nerves were calmed and shifting ourselves inside the boat to balance the vessel was fun. We went to Jharkhali Tiger Project, India’s first tiger rescue centre, where straying and injured big cats from the mangrove were rehabilitated. The children in our group had fun and that brought the smiles back on our faces.
Lunch was prepared by our cook Debnath on the boat itself. This was perhaps the only takeaway (not literally though) from the entire trip. The country chicken curry was finger licking good and we ate to our heart’s content.
Debnath, more popularly known as Debu, needs a special mention. Here was a man who was a professional to the core, could take immense workload, and more importantly let his work do all the talking. The day we reached Piyali, I had a hearty talk with him about his life and work, while he prepared lunch for us to be taken to the riverside picnic spot. He had many interesting stories to tell. But I will keep that up for some other time. He cooked our food for the entire trip.
Image: The Better India
The road from Kaikhali to Kolkata was better. Potholes were minimal. It was again a single road with people spilling over from the sides. But it was at least drivable. Having left Kailkhali at around 4.30 in the evening, we reached home a little before 8.00.
A few final words for all those intending to travel to Piyali or Kaikhali. Do not book any private hotel in the area, unless you are absolutely certain of their facilities. The WBTDC lodge, bang on the Kaikhali riverside, is the best option. The area resembles a mini-Digha on weekends with a largely similar crowd. Some boats have facilities of overnight stay but avoid them because of questionable security and if you have senior citizens and children in your team.
Thankfully, unlike Digha, there are not many private lodging options at Kaikhali because of the fragile Sundarban biosphere ecosystem.
And that is a blessing.
All images, except as credited: Gopal Naskar