Soul searching in Shantiniketan

5:06 PM

“Without new experiences, something inside us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.” 
  -Rituparna Mukherjee shares with us her solo journey to Shantiniketan

I  have always had planned holidays. I knew where I was going, who I was going with and what I was going to be doing there.  I knew on what dates my tickets were booked, I knew who booked them. So when I decided to take off to Shantiniketan – a suburb located four hours away from the city of Kolkata, by myself, on a whim – everyone was to say the least, surprised.

I don’t know what had gotten into me.  I guess you can say  I was mightily bored and needed adventure or excitement in some form. And seeing that I did not have enough resources to go to, say, Egypt on a whim, I chose Shantiniketan. I briefly pondered the merits of Mandarmani, a sea beach also located about 4 hours away, but decided against it as I had already been there 5 times with different people.

Shantiniketan is a sleepy town. It was the home of our very own bard-with-a-beard- Rabindranath Tagore who wrote much of his famous literature in one of his many houses. Since I had never been there, I decided it couldn't hurt to have a look- see about the place.

Informing my mother that I was headed out to Shantiniketan for the weekend – much to her astonishment – I packed my bags and set out. It was 5 am. I seldom wake up before 9 am and when I have work etc I drag myself out of bed at 8 to be able to get to office by the stipulated time. However, there I was, on a semi deserted bus stop, waiting for a bus to Howrah Station.  Even the street dogs gave me curious looks. Finally, a bus trundled into view – thankfully largely empty. After ascertaining it was going to Howrah, I got on, settled into a seat, and pondered my actions. I had no idea what train I was getting on, where I was going to stay or even what I was going to do! A mixture of anxiety and thrill coursed through me.

                                        The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude     

The next hour went in fighting my way through a long line of local villagers bearing fish, live ones at that, chicken and other produce, buying a ticket – for Rs 60! – and getting on a local train amidst a flurry of activity. Feeling a sense of accomplishment at being able to get this far without help, I had just taken out a book to read when the train flooded with people and livestock. Aghast, I stared out of the window – the crowd was not something I had bargained for.

Three hours. It took three hours to get to Shantiniketan and by the time I reached I was parched and rattled by the terrible crowd that had been pressing into me from all sides. However, as soon as a cool breath of air greeted me outside the station, I felt revived. I had reached my destination on my own and that felt good. Contemplating the best way to go about town, I settled on taking a rickshaw. After much haggling, I got a rickety old rickshawala to agree to take me around town till 5:30 in the evening.

And that is where my solo journey truly began. As I careened down dusty roads flanked by greenery on all sides I marveled at the peace and quiet. Of course, the area near the station had been bustling with activity but the further you go from there, the noise levels recede into oblivion. I don’t want to sound like a city girl who finds everything quaint when she goes to a small town, but the large expanses of greenery, the mud thatched houses, the little kid goats, ducks, chicken running around on the roads and little chicks following hens around in a little line – were just that – very very quaint!

I went to all the touristy spots – Vishwa Bharati University, the prayer hall made with coloured Belgian glass where prayers are held every Wednesday,  the Black house , the Kala Bhavan, deer park and the oldest building of Shantiniketan. Look up the internet for places to go in Shantiniketan but according to me, if you do your own exploring, like I did, the experience is a fuller one.

So I went to the Koppai river that flows in a thin stream through Shantiniketan. There, I sat on its sandy and dusty banks for three hours, watching a young environmentalist fish for specimens. I took photographs, I sang songs in my head and watched a yellow damsel fly for fifteen minutes while it sat on a flower and opened and closed its wings. The bright yellow markings, slim purple body and the flexibility with which it curled and uncurled itself was pretty fascinating.

I went walking down the dusty roads and spoke to the people living in hutments about what they do and how they live life. Some were not so forthcoming, others offered me muri (puffed rice) and batasha (sugary candy) and a glass of warm milk.

As evening drew near I went in search of the famous “Kalor Dokaan” or Kalo’s Shop which apparently sold the best potato chops and “ghughni” ever. The stories were true and I scarfed down many “alu-chops” before I felt nauseous from all the oil. After some sweet, hot, black tea I went in further search of entertainment and ended up at the Alcha Cafe. A small boutique which sells handmade and “dokra”  jewellery, raw silk scarves and cotton print sarees which are Shantiniketan specialties, Alcha also boasts of an adjoining cafe. Simply constructed with bamboo and cane furniture, yellow light bulbs and table fans, this place sells wholesome home-made food at fabulously cheap prices. I ate pancakes with cheese, methi paratha, scrambled eggs with hash browns, gram chaat and two glasses of iced tea for about Rs 250. The most expensive item on their menu would cost you less than Rs 50 so you get the drift.

By the time I was done eating – and yes, I love to eat – it was already dark so I asked my faithful rikshawala to take me around the hotels and guest houses. Checked into a guesthouse for the night cost me Rs 900 – pretty expensive  for the amenities offered, but a later recce showed that all hotels etc. are similarly priced. Shantiniketan does work its tourism tag to the hilt evidently.

“Own only what you can carry with you; Let your memory be your travel bag.”

The next morning, I hired a cycle – yes you can do that for Rs 30 – and wove my way around the silent streets at dawn. After another round of oily potato chops and “ghughni” and tea, I roamed my way to the station, buying “kasundi” – a typically Bengali mustard sauce and “achaar” from a tiny stall. I also bought some clay dolls wound with colorful string, dokra jewellery and a leather wallet with etchings typically Shantiniketan. Then I went to the station, booked myself a ticket on an AC chair car to avoid the terrible crowd that a general berth in a local train would bring, and three hours later – was back on a bus heading back home.

The impromptu time away from the bustling city had been a welcome change!

Guest article from Glad2bawoman is an online media company for women with a growing community of more than 69,000 members. All about women and for women, it encompasses a variety of topics including empowerment, relationships, health and fashion.

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  1. Was there last weekend... Such a nice place to be....

  2. Doesn't seem like you have been to places like Kenduli - where from the famous Ajay River flows (also known for Baul mela), Khoai, Surul Rajbari etc.

    And trains like Gana Devta Express, Shantiniketan Express, Visvabharati Fast Passenger, Darbhanga Passenger are some of the most convenient trains.


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