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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Mumbai Trip Day 1: Travails at Siligudhi

(I have restarted the series on Mumbai trip after unexpected surge in interest of readers in two short pieces that I posted earlier.)

To me, a journey to India means many things. One is a journey from one of the most turbulent and unstable South Asian country at geopolitical periphery to the regional center, an emerging Asian power. The other is to a land where most of our forefathers (including my own father) made a living by escaping the hunger of barren lands in Nepali mountains. They sustained their lives through the robust economic activities in the plains of India first under the British and then the Independent India.

Now the largest traffic of Nepali migrant workers has been diverted to the Gulf countries because of the boom in the energy economy of the deserts. Yet Nepal's relationship (and dependence) with India has not significantly diluted. From the poorest and most illiterate Nepalis from the Far-West who cannot afford the exorbitant fee of brokers in Kathmandu for a Gulf opportunity to the thousands of girl children and adolescents who fall prey to the smugglers to be sold in the sex market, and to the not infrequent fools hoodwinked by sinister criminals to sell their kidneys as way out to poverty; India forms the doubtless destination. In every journey to India, it is usual to find an illiterate migrant worker being harassed and extorted either by the petty criminals or, as frequently, by the Indian police personnel especially near the borders with Nepal. On the positive side, India today forms an attractive destination for thousands of Nepali students and skilled workers and this time we were also travelling for a high-end training in the financial capital of India. Even though the Delhi pilgrimages of the Nepali politicians come to controversy and are frequently derided, that has formed a vital political process in Nepal, both in the times of change and the stagnation.

Unwholesome: the industrial Mumbai sends all its sewage to Sea and  the beach bears the burden
This time, I was travelling into India proper after about 5 years. Many things had changed including the power equation in the center and many states of India. Yet many more things were the same. This time we were entering India through West Bengal from the eastern border of Nepal. Crossing the Kakarbhitta bridge was a new experience for me. Later on, this border crossing was to prominently feature in Gaura Prasain's book 'Mera Jeevanka Pana' (she hoodwinked the women-smugglers there to escape after being solidly trapped by them).

Costliest residence in earth worried about ecology? Grass sprouts at the back of Ambani  house
After a tough bargaining with the driver of a Tata Sumo, we started the journey inside Indian territory. Soon I was excited to discover that we were passing through Naxalbari, the famous/notorious place from where the today's Naxalite movement in India derives the name for having been triggered by a famous incident in this land half a century or so back. Even though the leftists were routed in the last elections in West Bengal bringing the by-now-all-powerful Mamata Benarjee to power, this part of land away from Kolkata seemed to have little impact of the change of guard at the center. The most noticeable things for a traveler were the intractable potholes in the road. As the evening set, the vehicle swerved through some unusual short-cuts in the villages as my mind was filled by the legacy of Naxalite movement in India.

Mumbai under construction? Two of many skyscrappers under construction
Our first disappointment of the journey came as soon as we reached Siligudhi: the train which was to come from Guahati had been delayed by four hours or so. Having dinner in the local hotels was the most logical thing to do. The incomers in front of the train station were being literally dragged by the agents of the hotel. The first hotel we tried turned out to have the kitchen and the horribly unclean toilet very close to each other. When we tired to leave, the erstwhile polite waiters turned suddenly hostile: they had paid the driver who dropped us there a cut of what we would pay there for food!

Dhobighat: which features in the Aamir Khan movie 'Dhobighat'
Siligudhi is the crucial link between the central and North-Eastern part of India, and also the route through which millions of poor Nepalis tried to seek their fortune in the relatively sparsely populated North-East over past many generation. Naturally, this apparently friendly place with Nepali as the native tongue of many people is where the naive Nepalis are recruited, often forcibly, for some of the most unwholesome activities. From the agents of the Bhutanese forcibly recruiting hungry and miserable migrant Nepali workers to construct their first highway with bonded labor (poignantly depicted in Govinda Raj Bhattarai's 'Muglan') to organized gangs drugging the young women at railway platforms to swiftly transfer them to brothels (Gaura Prasain was herself the victim of it), this city formed a lucrative business place.
Clout of Sena: One of the omnipresent posters of Shiv Sena in Mumbai

Exhausted with cold, tiredness and endless waiting at the platform, we were forced to wait longer as the train was delayed even more than announced earlier. Compared with many stations we were to see, the Siligudhi train station was much more clean, one could say spotless. The book stalls, one of the inherent attractions of such platforms, were disappointingly cachectic and I had to devote nearly half an hour to find the latest issue of 'Tehelka', the magazine with flawless track record for investigative journalism in India.

Finally, the train came and we boarded around 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning. Satisfying ourselves with the Chiura and fried chicken brought from Dharan, we slept in our berths, ending the first day of the journey.

(To be continued in another post).

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