The Bengali traveller


back to issue

THE Bengali is a great traveller. Yet the concept of travel for pleasure is of comparatively recent origin. It is difficult to think of a Bengali Marco Polo though Dipankar Srigyan travelled to Tibet in the tenth century to preach Buddhism. There was, of course, travel for trade, but for most, travel was a pilgrimage.

Bankim Chandra’s classic novel Kapalkundala describes events of late sixteenth century Mughal India. A group of pilgrims are on their way back from the Sagar island in the Bay of Bengal. Their boat is adrift in the sea in thick fog. The worst is feared and there is much lament. An elderly pilgrim complains about his business losses. Nabakumar, protagonist of the novel, chides the man, ‘Such journeys should not be undertaken by men burdened with worldly care.’

‘But one comes to the Sagar to honour religious vows. Why have you come?’ the old man questions Nabakumar.

Nabakumar recites from Kalidasa’s Raghuvansham. This is how Rama saw the sea and the coastline from his aerial chariot after rescuing Sita on his way back from Lanka. Nabakumar has made the perilous journey to see the sea. He must have been one of the earliest Bengali travellers who had travelled for pleasure. He was an exception.

Travel for the sake of travel, for curiosity and discovery, for excitement and pleasure, came to India much later. Like so many things, the idea of travel is a gift of the British; the anglicised Bengali babus took to travel by horse carriages even before the railways arrived in India. Their travels were made possible because of the institution of dak bungalows. Bholanath Chunder, travelling in 1860 from Calcutta to the Punjab, writes in his Travels of a Hindoo:

‘These dawk-bungalows are, in point of fact, miniature roadside inns on the European model. The principal building of masonry, one storey high, with a high-peaked roof of thatch or tiles, stands in the middle of a green plot. It consists of a suite of three or four rooms, one of which is appropriated to the purposes of a bath. In a corner of the compound lie the kitchen and the outhouses, and adjoining them is a well, generally of excellent water. There are beddings and furniture nearly as good as in the houses of decent townsfolk. The eatables and drinkables are good enough for nutritives in their way. The Asiatic has nothing to show like these bungalows.’

Bholanath Chunder then proceeds to write about their halt in a dak bungalow in Bihar.

‘It was near nightfall – over the pure, cloudless sky was the glow of the last light. The breeze, bland and perfumed by the odour of the wild flowers, came in soft cool gushes. It was one of those calm and delightful evenings which we went out to enjoy by spreading a carpet on the green sward surrounding the bungalow. To heighten the enjoyment by a sauce piquante, we had each passed round to us a glass of that beverage, which was brewed not from the Vedic soma plant, but from the English hops – accompanied by that sovereign luxury, that never-failing source of refreshment to the weary – the invaluable hooka. Shortly after dark, dinner was announced… with white tablecloth, knives, forks, plates, dishes and napkins set on the table…’


Of the various accounts of boat journeys, Ishwar Chandra Gupta’s Letters of a Traveller Friend serialised in his own newspaper, Sambad Prabhakar, round about 1850 are the most outstanding. He was Bankim Chandra’s guru, pioneer editor, biographer, and the first Bengali author to live entirely by his pen. He made this boat journey through East Bengal to see the forests of Sunderban, and to get a taste of the sea. As far as I know this was the first bit of travel writing in Bengali.


Another great traveller was Debendranath Tagore. Rabindranath, writing about his father in Jibansmriti, tells us how his father was away most of the time, returning occasionally with a foreign servant. Foreign, of course, meant outside Bengal. Dalhousie introduced the railways in the 1850s and by the turn of the century trains made travel easy and romantic. Heroes of novels, including the ubiquitous Devdas, were always taking trains to the ‘West’ at the slightest provocation. West, for some reason, always meant North India – the vast Gangetic plains and the hills beyond.

By the turn of the century, though travel became commonplace for the affluent middle class, it remained strongly hierarchic. First class was for the British or really rich Indians. The Maharajas had their private coaches and trains. Second class, one step down the ladder, was for the not-so-important sahibs and upper middle class Indians. The Inter class was for the salaried middle classes, specially those travelling with large families. The third was taboo for the bhadralok. One would rather borrow money than travel third.

Although the Bengali got anglicised in terms of education, ideas and so on, the majority did not change their lifestyles. A famous lawyer knighted by the British was travelling first class with his family. It did not take long before the compartment was transformed into their home. Relaxed, almost in undress, after a sumptuous snack, they were talking, dozing, reading, looking out of the windows. The train stopped at a station. A pucca memsahib walked in. The Anglo-Indian guard explained there was no room in the other first class compartments. Imagine the great lawyer’s discomfiture (the memsahib wasn’t actually very happy either) but there was nothing that he could do. A little before the next stop, he said something to his eldest son in Bengali. He was a rather hirsute young gentleman in his twenties. The train rolled to a stop at the station. The young gentleman was bare-bodied. He crossed over to face the lady, his arms upraised. The memsahib couldn’t fail to see his body hair bursting into incredible luxuriance under the armpits. Swallowing a horror-stricken shriek, she got down from the coach never to be seen again. The young gentleman in time became a well-known Indian leader.


The institution of long vacations – the summer and the Puja holidays for schools, colleges and courts – brought in the concept of a ‘change’. This word in its special sense has now become a part of the Bengali language. Going for a change doesn’t signify just travel or even a change of air – it means travel undertaken for the improvement of one’s health. So the trek to the mountains and the seaside started. Even if a Bengali is reasonably healthy, he generally believes that there is ample scope for further improvement of his health. More often than not, the yardstick is his capacity to eat and, having eaten, the capacity to digest the food unequivocally, so that he may eat some more. For the Bengali traveller, this is the most important aspect of his travels, particularly when such travels are presumably undertaken for a change. This is how Chotanagpur became a region of the Bengali mind. But more about that in a minute. Going to the mountains would mean one was going to Darjeeling, or the smaller, slightly lower hill stations of Kalimpong and Kurseong. These afforded a clear view of the Himalayan peaks of Kanchanjunga and Mount Everest – fleeting in summer but more reliably visible in autumn – lovely trees (all planted by the sahibs), superb vegetables, big red juicy raw cardamoms, succulent pork chops, ham and bacon, fresh butter and cheese. For the anglicised Bengali, there was nothing like Darjeeling, where a bit of riding and marvellous walks improved the appetite.


Affluent Bengalis built their bungalows. The shining blue dome of the Burdwan Maharaja’s mansion, Cooch Behar’s splendid lawn in the Jalapahar heights, comfortable homes built by C.R. Das and Sir Jagadish Bose were landmarks in a place where the majority spoke Nepali. During the season, regular races were held at Lebong – one of the highest race courses in the country, where the ponies had their tails braided with gay ribbons. Buddhist pagodas, the red-hat and yellow-hat lamas, fluttering prayer flags, the somnolent chant and sombre religious music of drums and horns, the colourful processions and above all the pleasant poverty-defying gaiety of the hill people would rub off on the visiting babus, and their children would return to the city with cheeks pinked by the wafting Himalayan mists. There was Shillong – Assam’s old capital – now Meghalaya’s, the headquarters of the North East Council (currently India’s biggest hill station) where Dr. B.C. Roy established the first hydel generation plant below the picturesque Bishop’s Falls. Shillong was the setting for Tagore’s Sasher Kabita (The Last Poem), a romantic but daringly modern novel for its day.

The sea-side invariably meant Puri in Orissa. The famous Jagannath temple was, of course, an added attraction. For the anglicised affluent there was the magnificent railway hotel on the beach. Now there are scores of small hotels catering to the Bengali palate. The average Bengali is averse to sea-fish, and though the white sands would glitter with the silver of fresh catches of sardines, mackerels, and sprats, he would only be interested in the prawns. In the old days the babus had their own bungalows just as in the hills. In fact, Abanindranath Tagore relates how, when his family decided to visit Puri, a bungalow first had to be built for their sojourn.

But neither the cool hills nor the splendid surf fully answered the Bengali traveller’s search for a ‘change’ in terms of miraculous digestive properties. This was found in the wells of Chotanagpur – especially in the Santhal Parganas. The water was absolutely incredible. As we say in Bengali, one could digest a stone. With its sylvan landscape, low hills, brooks and rivulets, cheap and fertile land, and salubrious climate, bungalows erupted all over the borders of Bengal and Bihar.


This time not only the affluent, but a much broader segment of the middle classes joined the fray. Scores of places with names like Mihijam, Jamtara, Karmatar, Madhupur, Simultala, Giridih, Jhanjha, Deoghat, Jassidih are dotted with pretty bungalows built by other generations. The bungalows always have names. Sans Souci, Hill View, Rose Villa – shades of British suburbia. Occasionally more pompous names such as Ghose Manor or Banerjee Castle. It is only fair to point out, however, that ‘Raipur House’ in Simultala was built by Lord Sinha of Raipur (not to be confused with the Shukla fiefdom in Madhya Pradesh), the only hereditary peerage created in India by the British Crown. But the most popular names – the names that are engraved in marble in every other bungalow – are Matri-Smriti, Matri-Sadan, Matri-Dham bearing witness to the Bengali’s overwhelming Oedipal drive.


Many of these bungalows have now largely fallen into disuse. Today’s travellers prefer more distant destinations and, in any case, very few have the means to set up a vacation home. In more leisurely times families used to visit with large retinues, sometimes staying for the autumn and a good part of the winter. There was much coming and going, and relatives, friends, and friend’s friends, all were welcome. The bungalows would have large compounds – the boundary walls dotted with elegant eucalyptus trees. Roses grew easily and the ochre earth would be covered by a carpet of fallen petals – white, yellow and all shades of pink and red. Dwarf papaya trees would bend with the weight of fruit, and every bungalow had a sort of orchard with guava, mango and custard-apple.

The permanent caretaker was generally a Santhal mali – like a sculpture carved out of black stone. He made bows and arrows for the children, slaughtered the chickens, looked after the garden. The Santhals were like mythic figures – handsome, gracious and courageous. Their neat villages, the beauty of their women, their simplicity and order gave one a sense of well-being that somehow transcended one’s discomfort at their obvious poverty. But there was something in their black skin, unrevealing eyes, the throb of their distant drums in the evenings that evoked a strong feeling of atavism for one’s own tribal past.

The pride of the house was, of course, the well. In terms of digestive effectiveness, some wells were considered better than others, even though the distance between the superior and less superior well would sometimes be no more than a couple of hundred yards. Every one drank a lot of water – to work up an appetite, and after meals as a carminative. There is a vast baroque house in Jassidih with an elaborate garden full of statues – nymphs and dryads lining the gravel paths. The well in this property is reputed to be one of the best in the area. Water from this well is sent regularly by train to the Marwari owner in Calcutta. They say the Nizam, one of the richest men in their world in his time, used to travel with his own drinking water from the Osmansagar lake.


With such water and with the Bengali’s declared predilection for good food, the major part of all activity would be predictably culinary. The first part of the morning would be spent searching for the day’s food. Interesting variations of the walk to the daily bazaar would be to go to some nearby village market which generally assembled once a week. All these places provided easy grazing – so there was never any dearth of good milk, pure ghee, and a whole range of simple but delicious Bengali-style sweets. The initiative would always be taken by the menfolk – most of whom fancied themselves as expert cooks, although their cooking would always be limited to meat (goat) and chicken curries, or what they chose to call stews.

Incidentally, very few Bengali kitchens would allow the cooking of meat, specially chicken, inside the house. So the cooking would be done in the garden or some mysterious corner adding a festive atmosphere to the whole operation. The stew would be a more lightly spiced, a watery version of the curry with whole onions and tomatoes thrown in. The chicken curry, however, was just a generic term for culinary self-expression covering the whole range from the barely edible to the divine. This would include kormas, dopiazas, rezzalas and long would be the arguments in favour of squeezing the juice of ginger, garlic and onion rather than using them in the usual ground paste form. Each had his own approach to marinating with a general preference for sour curd.


But the chicken curry which swept people off their feet was a simple one deriving its inspiration from the cooking style pioneered by the sailors in East Bengal steamers. The best cooks in India were the Baruas from Chittagong. The Baruas ruled over the kitchens of the maharajas, sahibs, clubs, army messes, Jesuit Fathers – they were the last word in Anglo-Indian cuisine. Fragrant rice (Bengali rice is always light because the starch is washed off) and hot chicken curry – ask anyone who has travelled in East Bengal and he would probably tell you that he has never eaten anything better. The Santhal Parganas chicken curry is close to the steamer curry in flavour and texture except for the chillies. The steamer curry was irresistible and one kept on eating while tears rolled down one’s cheeks. It was difficult to stop. There are some eats, such as roasted cashew nuts, golgappa, etc. with the same peculiarity – a kind of seductive, persuasive titillation of the palate that leads one of shameless gluttony.

The Calcutta bhadralok would never eat rice at night and his taste for chilli was nowhere near his more desperate brethren from East Bengal. The Calcutta babu would only eat what they called maida at night. Dainty triangular paranthas fried in ghee, or more commonly, luchis – those fluffy paper-thin ephemeral puris, a kind of extremely small, white, blushing, flour puff ball fried in ghee. The Bengalis don’t know how to make chapattis and atta had come to Bengal in the wake of rationing and PL 480 wheat. On rare occasions when they did eat chapattis, they were made of flour, liberally coated with ghee on both sides. So maida and chicken curry would be the culinary climax of the day. The hissing pressure lamps would be put out, and the jewelled vault of the sky would hold us rapt, listening to Tagore’s lilting melodies.


There was romance in the air. If one did not fall in love with the girls in the neighbourhood, there was always the twilight promenade at the railway station (the equivalent of hill station Malls) where the girls preened and pranced. If one did not fall in love with a handy cousin, there was always some young aunt or other. The age of lust was yet to come and the language of secret love wove surcharged patterns through the indolent day – a deliberate mistake at a game of cards, the clever unnecessary sacrifice of a chess piece, a miraculous moment of togetherness at a picnic, glances, gestures and songs learnt from popular films. There was much reading and talking. Grown-ups would talk like characters out of Russian novels – enveloping the young in a nebulous vapour of politics, literature, philosophy and, above all, the meaning of life.

In memory, all the nights were moonlit and all the days offered shade. Dappled light, shade, parchhainya – fugitive from the hunting sun – the sun is there, you can see beyond the hills, lazy drone of the bees, sound of cattle-bells, yet the sun is not there under your tree – a peaceful balmy shade as mysterious as the shade you see on the faces of some of our women. Innumerable stories, novels, poems, films, plays have evoked the Santhal Parganas. For the Bengali traveller Chotanagpur is a region of the Bengali mind.

They used to fly Dakotas those days. We were on our way to Imphal. Doljatra in Manipur was supposed to be the most elegant festival in India. The plane had difficulty landing at the Silchar airport (miles out of town in the middle of nowhere) in squally weather. The small airport building (or was it a biggish hut?) was already jammed with passengers waiting for flights. The suspense was short. Soon all flights were cancelled including ours to Imphal. The rain was pouring down in thick sheets. If you want to watch rain, come to North-East India. Passengers scrambled to get into the small airlines bus. Soon several were standing. Irate males, querulous females, babies yelling with irritation at not finding the nipple. Everyone travels by plane in N.E. India. The bus arrived at the bank of the Barak river. Normally a ribbon, it now heaved, writhed and rolled like a mythical snake. The bus gingerly rolled on to the diesel ferry. The rain went as suddenly as it came, the monsoon was still more than a month away. We were all inside the bus. The ferry chugged to the other bank and stopped. A kutcha road snaked up the high embankments.


A truck was making its journey in groaning first gear. We waited. The truck disappeared around the bend. Our drivers switched on the ignition. Before we knew what was happening, the bus was sliding back into the river. The iron chain at the edge had snapped. The moment is clearly etched in my memory – the smell and taste of that moment of certain death. Suddenly the bus was motionless. The front axle had got caught at the edge of the jetty, and the bus hung at a precarious angle half in the water and half outside. Passengers jumped into the water, a few swallowed a bit of the river, there was noisy panic, but by the time the bus went under (in a couple minutes), all were home and dry. A few had minor injuries. A plump, elderly gentleman in a dazzling sharkskin suit had managed to save his huge box of cake from Flury’s, Calcutta. I vividly remember his dazed and funny expression.


The point of this anecdote is not to tell a survival story but to stress the fact that even twenty years ago journeys into North-East India were quite frequently uncomfortable. In spite of a lot of change – you now get a Boeing from Calcutta to Imphal five days a week – the basic element of uncertainly still predominates north-eastern journeys. Recently I bumped into a friend at Gauhati airport whose flight to Silchar had been cancelled due to bad weather. We ourselves had arrived from Imphal nearly four hours late. The friend had been touring north-eastern India twenty days in the month, for two decades, selling cigarettes. Apparently there are fourteen air pockets over the hills between Silchar and Gauhati. So the Fokker doesn’t take any chances.

Earlier in the year we were stranded at Agartala as some flights had been cancelled and we couldn’t get any seats. We had to hire a station wagon and drive for two days to get to Gauhati via Shillong. A picturesque journey no doubt, but it plays hell with your schedules. How much of these difficulties are due to bad weather, how much due to the indifference of the airlines (airfares in North-East India are cheap and highly subsidised) – I don’t know. Dr. Bhupen Hazarika says Delhi’s concern stops at Patna. Trains are almost non-existent. It is perhaps because of this that large areas in North-East India retain some of their traditional charm.

To go back to our accident-interrupted journey to Imphal twenty years ago. Next day the plane flew over emerald hills which turned to a mineral red as we approached the Imphal airport. We flew down over the heads of grazing cattle and Imphal appeared very pastoral. There was a hotel of sorts where an American woman was staying permanently. She was already a fairly advanced student of Manipuri dance. I believe she returned to the States with a handsome Manipuri youth, no doubt to continue her lessons in Manipuri dance. As far as I know, no foreigners are now allowed to visit Manipur. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the most striking thing about Manipuri culture is its dance. Dance not only as an expression of joy but dance as spiritual expression, dance as a whole way of life.


On the day of Holi, we woke early. In the East you don’t get up by the watch. There was a slight chill in the air. Dozens of little groups were forming, presently to go in little processions to the Govindji temple, part of the palace complex. Grave-faced elders (a lot of them looked like Sachin Dev Burman) in pure white – flowing white dhotis, kurta, chaddar draped around their necks and graceful white turbans on their heads. Other groups were in vibrating pink and lemon yellow. Some of the women were in saffron. I wish some of the Hare-Krishna cultwallahs could learn from Manipur the grace and dignity of the Nam Sankirtan. Under a huge shed by the temple they gathered. A group would rise and sing, moving gracefully all the time. Others would squirt sprays of colour on them. Their spotless clothes, now polka-dotted with bright colours, would take on the beauty of abstract paintings. The strange wails and rhythm of the music would soon grow hypnotic, accentuating the contemplative trance on their faces.


They would visit relations. In front of the family elders, they would prostrate themselves on the ground – the whole scene as if unfolding in slow motion, a case of the ridiculous elevated to the sublime. It is easy for a Bengali to read Manipuri hoardings and newspapers as they use the Bengali alphabet. The language, however, is of the Tibeto-Burman group. The juxtaposition of the familiar alphabet and the mysterious phonetics, though highly surrealistic, is only but a part of the many cross-currents of this bizarre subcontinent. At some stage, Vaishnavism came to Manipur from Bengal, the king’s proselytisation leading to Bengali culture heavily lacing the religious and cultural life of the valley. Even now, in spite of the political demands for an indigenous script, most people over forty speak Bengali. With the arrival of the British came the Christian missionaries who converted most of the tribal people in the hills. The majority of the valley people – the Meiteis – are devout Vishnavs. The Vaishnavite sandal mark (rasakeli) is still very much a daily ritual, but pre-Hindi Manipuri culture exists with qual vitality and relevance.

By this time, I am, of course, tenseless – twenty-year old memories making an amalgam of various visits including the three I made this year – the images obtaining a pictorial autonomy almost free of time and space. Thus a winter dusk of pale mist, a tall woman in white robe walking under a white umbrella (to protect herself from the dew), a few more in similar habit, some with white bundles on their heads – an image devised by Kurosawa. A procession of Manipuri Muslim ladies on their way to some village bearing gifts for relatives for some ritual. Again, a village road alight with fireflies – we followed the sound of music and arrived at an opening. Women were dancing in a big circle – from girls of four to white-haired ladies in their eighties (you don’t see much grey hair in Manipur although people live long).

The dance was a part of the Lai-haraoba festival of the Gods – an elaborate ceremony spread over several days and nights. This is pre-Hindu. Each area has its own god and Lai-haraoba is Manipur’s biggest festival. I have heard it said that there is no ceremony more beautiful anywhere else in the world. To come back to the summer evening. Everyone had that expression of beatitude, an expression that reminded one of phrases like ‘peace that passeth understanding’ or ‘a touch of that which defies description’. The movements were slow and simple as in all Manipuri dance but of almost unbearable grace. The mayibi (priestess) was, of course, the most graceful dancer. An elderly man dressed in rich clothes (reminding one of the dress worn by the kings of Siam and Cambodia), his turbaned head keeping time to his country violin, danced alongside. Horn loudspeakers sent out cascades of ululating song towards the hills. Soon the petromaxes were lit, dangling from bamboo structures, casting eerie shadows.


The grace was now gone, the music had grown a bit frenetic, the mayibi was in a trance. She had now become an oracle, a prophetess of doom. She would forecast what was in store for the village – the health and welfare of the people, the nature of the harvest. The hysterical wailing went on for some time. Someone handed her a decorative polo stick and a white polo ball. Still, totally in a state of trance, she moved, a strange tableau mostly in white. After a while she hit the ball. Anxious eyes watched the flight of the ball. It went wide over the heads of a group. They looked visibly relieved. If the ball hits someone, it is an evil omen. Someone would retrieve the ball and hand it over to the moving, dancing, entranced mayibi and this would go on.


One knew it was all mumbo-jumbo, the metallic speakers had already introduced a shrillness that prevented one from soaring, yet the spell was binding. A little distance away people were selling snacks as they do all over the country, in the light of smoking kerosene lamps. It took the careful eating of fried koi (a fish which is killed only just before cooking and has very tricky side-bones) and the tartness of the sauce – a mixture of chopped onions, tamarind, plenty of chillies and some herbs – before we returned to reality and left for Imphal.

There is a legendary Manipuri tale where the dowager queen warns the prince to be careful about people with sharp noses and large eyes. Such people today are found everywhere in Manipur. On our way back from the Subhas Bose memorial at Moirang, we stopped at the bazaar for tea. The shop is owned by someone from a village near Gorakhpur. The single-chair hairdressing saloon next door was run by someone from a village in Bihar. There is even a dhaba of sorts on the Tiddium Chin Road at Churachandpur. The food was bad but there were quite a few of the Central Reserve Police knocking down dozens of tandoori rotis with some nondescript sabji. You can buy Ajinomoto from Thailand and a score of other imported (smuggled) things, including cane hats from Burma, if they are not suspicious about you. The main road is straight as an arrow lined by shops and reminds you of the American westerns. A powerfully built Kuki in dapper clothes stood in the sun picking his teeth.

After you pass Dunhill store and Apollo store, your eyes get locked into some unknown script on a signboard. Judean Photo Studio, the Kuki explained. The hieroglyphics are Hebrew. I remembered seeing a cottage up in the hills named Zion cottage. Yes, there are three hundred Jews. One Mr. Daniel had been the proselytiser. By this time, the proprietor of Judean Photo Studio had joined the conversation. ‘We are spiritual Jews. Not physical,’ he said. I don’t know what he meant but perhaps he was trying to tell us that they were not circumcised. There is no synagogue but there is a prayer hall. We moved next door to the Great Eastern Book Store. There were some religious tracts in Paite including the Bible. From Gutenburg to some lonely missionary in the Manipur hills, the history of printing is the printing of the Bible. To misquote Dostoyevsky: If there is Jesus, everything is possible. Some of the other titles I remember were by Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardener (surely close competitors to the Bible), love letters, a lavishly produced book for executives based on the monthly bulletins of the Royal Bank of Canada, and J. Edgar Hoover’s book against communism.


The place is full of Mizos – migrants from Mizoram – hard working, gay, secretive people. Some young people put up a show for us, the famous Mizo bamboo dance. The girls were very beautiful and sturdy – strong but extremely feminine. The dance called for perfect timing. Some girls squatted on the ground each with two bamboo poles, one group facing another. Two other groups sat similarly on two other sides, forming a square chequer-board pattern with the poles. A mod youth strummed on his guitar – the little song would start slow, the crouching girls keeping time building rhythmic patterns by banging the bamboo poles, the dancing girls weaving in an out of individual chessboard squares. The tempo would build up never losing its melodic lilt as the sure-footed girls danced with total concentration. One slip and the moving bamboos would smash their feet. A touch of danger always seems to improve the performance.


The hill people, owing to the missionaries, seem very westernised, at least superficially. Many of the young wear smart imported clothes, and their hair styles are also very modern. In comparison, the valley people are still strongly entrenched in their own tradition, though the narrow streets of Paonabazar and Thangalbazar in Imphal are noisy with current pop hits. But both in the hills and the valley, one is overwhelmed by the vigour of the women. Every house has a loom, every women works. Yet they seem to have gone beyond women’s lib. They have the rights but they remain so feminine. There is no coyness, only charm. The handloom bazaar, the main market at Imphal, and scores of other markets and stalls you see throughout Manipur are run entirely by women. Middle-aged women and elderly women, after they have raised their children, get a bit bored with housework and take to enterprise.

It is truly Chitrangada country and the Mahabharata story does indicate a society where women have enjoyed this autonomy for a long time. Chitrangada sings in Tagore’s dance-drama of the same name ‘I am Chitrangada – not just an ordinary woman.’ In Manipur every woman seems to glow with the pride of being a special woman. In fact, at first glance it may appear that women do all the work. You will see them fishing in waterlogged paddy fields using bamboo contraptions similar to the ones in Cochin, but much smaller in size. A gentleman with us from Delhi who had spent his childhood in Chittagong, got very excited remembering how he had caught fish with similar contraptions in the canals of the Karnaphuli river.

There is so much to say about Sikkim and Bhutan, Tripura and Nagaland, and the tribes of Arunachal. There is so much that provokes enquiry. Why do the Khasi in the Meghalaya hills and the Mundari in South Bihar happen to be languages of the Khmer group? Why is the Naga so dynamic? It is a many-splendoured world of infinite variety in the north-eastern hills. But like so many other places in India, this is a vanishing world.


The Bengali traveller meanwhile is alive and well. He is now a regular travel-maniac. Travel has spread to the lower middle classes, to the working classes in Durgapur and Asansol. After food, travel remains his next most important priority. He will merrily spend his hard-earned bonus money for the annual trip. Travel is now highly institutionalised. Package tours and reserved trains, some of them fitted with special kitchens for fussy widows, cater to the people’s needs. You will see bent old ladies at the Kulu fair, rotund matrons riding ponies in Khilanmarg, cackling children in the caves of Ajanta. Outside the 5-star orbit, Bengalis today are the most gregarious travellers in India. Yet you will find only a very few of them travelling next door to their neighbours. As the poet has said, one roams all over the world searching for beauty, but one never stops to look at the wonder of a dew-drop on a blade of grass.


*Reproduced from The Invincible Traveller edited by Raj Thapar. Vikas, 1980.