Sunday, 27 November 2016

Aaro Aakash…….A Memologue of Leisure - Guest Post - Sunetra Lahiri

Dokka, the cottage for two where we stayed
I met Uday Hazra at a photography exhibition where he was one of the exhibitors. Till date I do not know exactly what he does for a living except that he is a writer, graphic artist, and photographer, has a philanthropic bent of mind and owns ‘Aaro Aakash’ which is neither a hotel nor a resort but rather a property having one big and one small cottage that he kindly allows his friends and relatives to stay in. Adjacent and older than ‘Aaro Aakash’ is ‘Anek Aakash’ but that property is for his personal use. He has been asking me to visit 'Aaro Aakash' before it becomes another concrete jungle and the sky becomes just a figment of imagination….. So this February before the summer heat became too much we, myself and my friend Lily, decided we would take up his offer.

We board an early morning train from Sealdah for Bolpur, Shantiniketan. It’s a grey day, cool; we refresh ourselves with paper cups of hot lemon tea from a passing vendor on the train.  It takes about three hours to reach our destination.

'Aaro Aakash'….10kilometre from Bolpur station is in a village – Kamarpara. The property is looked after by Basuda, the manager and Lalda, the cook and odd job man. They both live in the same village within shouting distance of the property. Basuda drives the brand new white Maruti 'Omni' and picks us up from Bolpur Station. When we reach 'Aaro Aakash' we find it picture perfect - rustic, organic, basic; the charm lies in its simplicity. Dokka, the cottage for two, lies at the end of the property separated from a bigger cottage beside a pond and amidst abundant greenery. Dokka has an open front porch. It has a swing, an old armchair and a charpoy. I stake claim to the charpoy much to my friend’s amusement. Lying on the charpoy watching a sun bleached February sky as sharp little neem leaves float down soundlessly to the ground is cathartic. The breeze, still cool with barely a hint of the coming summer, making gentle music as it passes through the trees. It is a moment of unmitigated bliss.

Ekka - the first cottage in Aaro Aakash

I look at my companion – who has quite recently finished her PhD in Philosophy. For four years while she was writing her thesis we did not travel much because of her commitments. We are kindred souls and need to dive deep into quiet to rejuvenate. This trip was her birthday gift to me. Sitting on the swing engrossed in a book she had carried all the way from home, content, peaceful and silent, she is the perfect travel companion – unobtrusive and non-invasive. It has always been like this…..the treasured company of someone in perfect tandem with your rhythm.
The door separating Ekka from Dokka

Lalda comes ambling down the narrow path…. Lunch is ready. Food is simple, fresh and hot, served with love on huge steel plates with matching glasses on reed mats laid on the raised table in a little thatched hut with mud walls. Rice is heaped on our plates. There are dishes of dal, vegetable curry, fried eggplant, and fresh water fish curry. We protest because we cannot eat so much. Lalda is disappointed to find how little we eat; he says the water is good, it will make us hungry and we should eat more. We smile, trustingly drink the water and soon are too full to think about evening tea.

There is nothing much to do and that suits us fine. We lie down on the porch furniture like languid overfed lizards of which there are too many and varied to notice. When I return and tell him about the burgeoning lizard population, Uday-da, who is rather passionate about the environment, ecology and all things that have life, says, “it’s their home too.” 
An abandoned abode on way to Lakhi Sayar
Towards evening, before the twilight slips into deep dusk we venture out to explore Lakkhi Sayar - a large water body. Much before coming here we have avidly followed Uday-da’s Facebook page which was full of photographs of the village, 'Aaro Aakash' and Lakkhi Sayar. It’s just round a bend in the road hidden by a little ridge about 500 yards from the gate. We climb easily, nimbly like the black goats grazing about. It’s a beautiful sight….a solitary boat at the edge of the bank, the sun reflected in broken ripples, birds wheeling and settling among dark trees on the far bank while darkness descended slowly. Like true amateurs, we try our best to capture the mood but must be content with the image etched on our mind. Along the winding path back to 'Aaro Aakash', we meet some village women returning from a day’s work in the field - colourfully attired, their sweat soaked vital faces glowing in the rays of the setting sun. 
The lone boatman  of Lakhi Sayar - the waterbody near Aaro Aakash

We return back and Lalda serves tea with biscuits. We refuse his offer of “telebhaja with muri” (deep fried pakoras with puffed rice). Lily sits on a weather beaten wooden bench in front of the other cottage sipping her piping hot beverage while I amble about busily taking pictures of the surrounding. The previous guests had left that morning so we were the only people on the property.

We spend the evening on the porch surrounded by Mortein coils. The place is mosquito heaven, surrounded by trees and water bodies. My friend reads articles and stories she has collected for just such an occasion. She is a good story teller, her voice smooth with the correct intonation. It’s a moment of … nirmal anand….. We are quite unaware of time till Lalda comes hurrying down the path carrying a hurricane lamp and announces that dinner is ready. The hurricane lamp brings back memories of a bygone time in Calcutta when whole portions of the city would be shrouded in darkness due to load shedding, lighted only by these glass lamps. They would get sooty every night and cleaning them out every day was a ritual. Somehow exams and homework and my childhood evenings will always be linked with these lamps – the smoky smell of kerosene and the acridity of singed hair when we leaned too close to the glass, our eyes full of sleep from the torpid heat and humidity.

After dinner we wander back to our porch and feel that it’s too early to turn in. But there’s not much else we can do. We call home and report that all’s well, finish our nightly rituals in silence, climb inside the mosquito net that Lalda has so thoughtfully hung for us over the bed, a low wooden chouki without headrest pushed against the wall near the window which looks out on the porch. We try to sleep but end up chatting instead, our body clock attuned to a more urban routine. We talk late into the night. What did we talk about? I cannot remember. Inconsequential nothings, I guess.

I wake up early, take out my camera and go out onto the porch. It’s eerily silent. The sun is a mystery – it’s there but I cannot see it. Fog lies thick and deep among the trees.  I sit down on the armchair and try to be one with the silence. After a while I take a walk, feeling the cool gritty soil underfoot. There is dew on the straggly grass that glistens like pearl. Faraway through the cotton-wool silence I hear the tinkling of cow bells. I do not know what hour it is, only becoming aware of time when   I see Lalda emerging through the fog, as if by magic, from some other dimension, carrying tea in a thick glass, asking when we would require hot water for our baths.
Subarnarekha - the bookstore everybody goes to

After breakfast Basuda drives us to Shantiniketan. We have been here before so we do not waste time doing the usual touristy things. We visit 'Subarnarekha', the bookstore near Viswa Bharati University, where one can find anything from the downright crowd pleasers to the esoteric to vintage to rare moth eaten books and out-of-print journals. It’s not very organised. Books weigh down overburdened shelves and are also stacked   on the floor standing in precarious piles and in every nook and corner. It is difficult to walk about in the narrow spaces. There are a few people in the shop and it is an intricate ballet negotiating the narrow spaces between books without knocking each other over. I let my friend spend a happy hour in the proximity of books without trying to venture in much myself for I’m clumsy and quite capable of causing an accidental book avalanche. The owners are laid back, “sukhi” people, who do not seem very interested in selling anything. In fact we waited a good while before the shop was opened, a little after 11 am. But the shop survives, I guess, because of the passion of a select clientele – those people who have such love for books that they are willing to rummage through dust and countless volumes stocked ad hoc, hoping to find one gem to add to their ever increasing library. 'Subarnarekha' is something of an institution. It’s been there for more than 30 years. Everyone’s been here from prominent Bengali writers, academicians and students – it’s a popular haunt of the intelligentsia.

We look at roadside shops selling myriad things from jewellery to clothes to saris to trinkets, leather bags, accessories and souvenirs but nothing catches our eye. We head to Alcha, the store in Ratan Pally whose owner Keya Sarkar is a friend. Alcha has a good collection of bags, saris and scarves, all locally sourced and manufactured. There is also a restaurant of the same name nearby, run by Keya’s husband Satish who makes lovely Spanish omelettes, slated to reopen soon with a revamped menu.

Fourteen years ago, I and Lily had been to Shantiniketan. We were young and broke. We had been to all the usual places in a cycle rickshaw which is now being slowly replaced by Totos, the Indian version of the Tuktuk. We head for Konkalitala because my friend Lily is a temple hound. I look around trying to find the familiar road that wound through the pristine countryside, stretched to the horizon on both sides. We had been there in monsoon and there had been an eerie calm before the storm, the sunlight falling through golden edged clouds making everything glitter. Now the road and the surrounding area around the temple have changed dramatically. Development has come to Shantiniketan. The horizon is no longer visible. All we see are ugly structures on either side. It’s no longer picturesque or pristine but we go nevertheless. After my friend offers puja to Goddess Kali, we get back to Shantiniketan, hungry.
We find a place to eat. We are sceptical about the food, being quite put off by the strange décor and not very clean washrooms. With much reluctance, we order Chinese. The place is understaffed and the few waiters are busy running about. Almost all tables are taken. We infer that it must be a popular joint. When our orders arrive, we find food is surprisingly good and non-greasy. We take our time over lunch and linger a while, finishing our fresh lime sodas. Then it is time to return.
Village road near Aaro Aakash

Basuda drives us back to 'Aaro Aakash'. It takes about half an hour. The silence embraces us like a cloak. It’s a little hot but not very. The late afternoon is spent lazing about on the porch. We fall asleep in the gentle heat. When I wake up it is nearing twilight. We must have napped for the better part of an hour. I wake up my friend and decide that we would like to explore the other side of Kamarpara. Cameras in hand, we walked down unpaved village roads clicking photos of whatever catches our fancy... The porous laterite soil sticks to our sandals. Though there is teeming life in every house for we can hear the low hum and chatter, babies crying, radios and we can smell the smokiness of coal fire in preparation for the evening meal. The roads are deserted except for stray dogs, an occasional cat, an old woman sitting at the entrance of her hut…..a young man returning home on his bicycle….. I’m delighted to find tortuous, gnarled trees which look as if they have been there since the beginning of time. We wander farther than desired, almost two kilometres from 'Aaro Aakash' and then decide that it would be prudent to return as it would get quite dark. Without streetlights -- we were not carrying a torch-- it would be difficult to negotiate these unknown roads.

We returned soaked in sweat to hot tea and village gossip. Lalda is voluble, talking about Uday-da’s generosity and philanthropic work and all that he has done for the village people. The evening rolls into night…. It’s been just two days that we have been here but we feel that we have been here longer than that. This place is timeless…in the sense that every day is much like the previous day so if one were not very careful it would be easy to forget mundane things like time, one’s spatial existence, the virtual reality of things….We do much the same thing as the previous evening. We speak of this and that….n’importe quoi….yet it makes us happy. Both of us, in our city avatars, are busy people - she with her academics and I with designing collections.

When I met Lily she was working in a school in another state and we only got to meet during vacations. I was once an avid letter writer and our friendship began through letters. We are bound by our love of travel, books and music… She is partial to Hindustani Classical Music particularly Ustad Rashid Khan and Pt. Ajoy Chakraborty while I have a more wide ranging interest but am drawn towards instrumentals and jazz. I have a modest library of books and I have shared the best ones with her. Her own stock of books is different – related to her studies though she does read Bengali journals and magazines voraciously. Both of us have enormous respect for the written word.

When she moved back to the city, we met more often. Lily is a good listener and, in the beginning, I had much to tell her but familiarity of all these years of being together has made words superfluous. Much like the art of writing letters, the art of conversation was dying. Sitting in that quiet place we were trying to resurrect it. We were surrounded by darkness, the sound of crickets, an occasional firefly flitting about. We consciously avoided using our mobile phones and realised that it was not very difficult. I was going through a very personal upheaval and Lily’s presence was calming.

Life like a many armed octopus, each arm leading outward to a whole universe of new worlds and returning back to a single source.....thoughts begin and move into an eternal, unfinished journey winding and weaving through a myriad of other worlds…...

In a world full of little moments –
Tucked in a fragrance, a feeling, a phrase......
Weaving a rich tapestry –
Of everything;
And sometimes nothing at all,
You bring me closer to my Earth.

We had forgotten what pleasure it was to have these kinds of rambling conversations amid unending silences without having the guilt that time was running out and things had to be done.

But time did run out in the virtual real world and the next day Basuda drives us back to Bolpur station where the waiting iron monster inexorably take us to the city and to our separate routine lives.

Sunetra describer herself as is eccentric; a philogalist, librocubicultarist, amateur author and artist who is brilliant in unimportant things. She trained at NIFT to become a designer while life had other plans. She is happy to be pottering about her workshop finding fault and complicating the lives of people who work for her.