Dipuda and the annual summer holiday

Shivaji Dasgupta
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Darjeeling city

Representative image

New Delhi: Lest you be misled, Dipuda is neither a brotherly relative nor a political dada. Instead, the abbreviation of Digha, Puri and Darjeeling.The three preferred summer hotspots of the indulgent Calcuttan, much before the liberties of liberalisation.

For me, the precursor of the week-long fun fiesta was a deceptive white envelope. A letter of intent from the manager of BNR Hotel in Puri, a hostelry embracing the high seas. Every afternoon, on the way back from school, we sought this evidence from a lazy mailbox. Quite like a seasonal kalbaisakhi, it took its time to come.

It was simply a typewritten response to a parental query. That, indeed, the desired hostelry was prepared to receive this particular family, amongst several desiring others. True to its otherwise frugal state-run parentage, the note was manually typewritten on grammage that could not evade a PDS scanner. A red herring indeed, for those not in the know.

As the rusty suitcases emerged from the closet, one more superannuated companion was summoned. The holdall, a boisterous circular entity when full and a timid piece of nothingness when on an empty belly. It contained the necessary pillows and bedsheets, as the fare supplied by the Railways was clearly from the mortuary cadre. Armed suitably, the Ambassador taxi was summoned on the chosen day, the guffawing Sardarji a happy prelude to happier times.

Unlike its current slick IRCTC cadre, Howrah, or any other station, was in legacy mode during the 1980s. The last mile, post the river crossing, was EM Forster’s India, where transportation from Mesopotamia to Uttarpara coexisted in mery tandem. After much hullabaloo, the platform was identified and with a little help from the muscular coolies, on secondment from Bajranga Vyamagar, the compartment was occupied. Courtesy considerate parentage, it was usually First Class, albeit without air conditioning, a luxury beyond imagination.

The open windows brought to life a sense of India that is concealed by the generous confines of the Vande Bharat, or Tejas for that matter. Multisensorial beyond the imagination of the metaverse, with sights, sounds and smells competing for the Ballon d'Or. A late-night check-in was Kharagpur, renowned for its macabre red alu dum and soggy puris, supple beyond the subtle. Early morning would be Cuttack and Bhubaneshwar, a dramatic change in the dialects and an enhanced sense of urgency. Khurda Road, where the line diverted to the South of the Vindhyas, was renowned for its engine change. A resounding thud confirming the restoration of the Steam Age, as we branched off to a lineage tributary.

Puri station, in my riotous imagination, was close enough to Port Said of the P&O Lines, as well depicted in ‘Death on the Nile’. Passengers were blitzed by the cronies of the Pandas ( emissaries of Lord Jagannath), as past associations were sought and newer bonds solicited. It took aeons to access the cycle rickshaws and finally, when done, the trailer was well nigh done and dusted. For soon, very soon, we would encounter the magnificent fragrance of the Bay of Bengal, beyond any that could be curated by Christian Dior, or cronies more articulate.

The BNR Hotel, run by the Railways, was an institution ahead of its time. Conceived in the 1920s as a logical accomplice of the railway track extension, Puri was marketed as a summertime beach haven for Europeans. Beyond the limitless yet limited confines of pilgrimage traffic, the erstwhile staple of these climes. It was straight out of an Agatha Christie ensemble, a collection of curiosities infiltrating the premises, not just routine paying guests. A perfect setting for Murder at Styles, conceived at a comparable venue, Savoy at Mussoorie.

At the magnanimous gates, we were welcomed by the Manager, way beyond the ‘General’ in today’s scoping. Mr. Nayak and Mr. Chaudhuri, two I remember so well, in their stipulated uniformity of white shirt and the semblance of a necktie, railway rigour et al. Quite remarkably, most rooms were not air-conditioned, in deference to a time-honoured tradition of Britishness. Salubrious airs cannot be tempered by non-state actors, especially when connected to the American Willis Haviland Carrier. The sea had a job to do and like Geoffrey Boycott on a first-day Headingley pitch, the job would well be done, and done well to boot.

Sea bathing was indeed the highlight of the holiday, aided by lifeguards with ornate caps, phonetically termed Nuliyas. They were numbered, as per hotel rules, and allotments were assigned as per experience and continuity. Time slots were early morning or evening, as the ravages of the summer denied the utility of the entire day. Urban, or rural, legends thrived on folks who had dared to confront the High Seas without authorised Gunga Dins and succumbed to the ages.

The cuisine, however, was spectacular, designed by forces beyond conception. Breakfast was deified by the bacon, sourced from the eldest ideologues of Stuart Hogg’s New Market. Then, the crispy toasted bread, sublime yet slender, in caged silver. Eggs were sunny side up, no surprises for a destination unfairly favoured by the rays, else nested lovingly in the egg cup. Porridge was paired with cornflakes, the past masters never out of the radar.

Lunch was curried by flavours, not just spices. The dal belonged to the Spice Route, resonating with aura. Fish, charmingly ironic, was the Hooghly Beckti escorted by responsible icicles from Calcutta, sahibs suspicious of unaudited sea fare. Whether simply fried, elegantly Orly or daintily Meuniere, the sensibilities were fiercely protected. As were the melodies of the mutton, the Bawarchi embraced the Masalchi in a poignant handshake. Dessert was the piece de resistance, homemade ice cream breaking bread with elegant repartees. Vanilla, Strawberry or the SER Railway Cup, served in significant weightage of gravitas. Not to forget the papadum, beyond mere phonetic percussion.

Dinner, suitably bridged by Four PM tea cakes, was elegant, as much as possible. The roasts were in attendance, chicken or lamb, while the ovens did justice to the species of Pisces, mayonnaise and cheese playing tanpura and sarangi. Himalayan Ice was the showstopper, Baked Alaska in other climes when the lights of the dining room were dimmed to elevate the moods of the gentry. Menus were typed with clinical precision, and errors of spelling were shunned like intrusive salts in the episodes of courses. Not just finesse in dining, but the rituals in designing were fundamental to the polka dot experience.

On a holier note, It did help that the Jagannath Temple was effortlessly attractive to children. The walk inside was filled with curiosities, not least of which was the battalion of monkeys. Miniature versions of the formidable deities became much-cherished memorabilia as did the attractively packed ‘khaja’, the official dessert enjoying an ethereal shelf life. While elders performed the more serious spiritual obligations, there was truly magic inside for everyone. Sufficiently energetic, while never bereft of gravitas.

Like all good things, the summer holiday would soon meet its maker. The last day or two was undeniably tragic, the waves like the fado in Lisbon and no longer the carnival in Rio. We clung on to the final precious moments as if grains of sand, like Rose Dawson in The Titanic. Most aptly, the return train was slotted late in the evening. Darkness makes the sea a faceless blob of nothingness, no longer the avalanche of all things living.

As the train reached the outskirts of Howrah, the unscheduled suburban waits seemed unfairly sadistic. Prolonging the crumbs of a crumpled fantasy, to be denied for an entire year, at least. Manfully, many like me deboarded the train to cross the river, the sea, alas, was a mere metaphor for the raging masses.

In this age of UPI affluence and MakeMyTrip choice, vacations are often plentiful. Yet denied the technicolour majesty of the solitary summer vacation, the crown jewel of a middle-class calendar. Nobody clearly wants a rewind to miniature spending power but a ‘Yaadon Ki Baarat’ encore is surely pleasing. Especially, when summer is playing a chanceless test match knock, no signs of retiring hurt.