I had halted the night at the NF Railway ORH in New Jalpaiguri, where I had stayed on arrival from Malda too. The caretaker, knowing that I had visited the hills, took me to a vantage position in the ORH which afforded a good view of the Khangchendzonga and other peaks in the range. It proved to me that if you want something real bad, you will get it. The last four days have been magical with magnificent views of the Khangchendzonga. While settling the bills of the ORH I was told that Bhutanese currency is freely accepted in Siliguri and the neighboring areas. I was given a Five Ngultrum currency note issued by the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan as part of the change due. The horn of the car had gone flat in Gangtok and Darjeeling, as if it had caught a chest cold. Fortunately, the condition improved prior to departure from Siliguri and the ‘blast’ was as before the chest cold.
The distance from Siliguri to Dhubri is a mere 230 kms and I expected to do it in less than 5 hours. I had grossly underestimated the road condition – I reached Dhubri after 3 pm despite a 7 am start from Siliguri. The condition of the road is such that it will either break your will or your axle, or both, if you are not steadfast and careful. The most awful part of the stretch is the Siliguri to Dhupguri sector; it is quite capable of forcing your intestines through the unmentionable orifice. It is a National Highway, which is in itself shameful. I strongly feel that the Secretaries who look after the portfolio of maintaining these roads should be ordered by ‘powers that be’ to travel the entire distance by an autorickshaw. I am sure that by the end of the trip, the Secretaries will have their backbones rearranged. Na, Na – I forgot that most of these worthies keep their spines in a safe deposit till their retirement, after which they retrieve them and become crusaders. (Oops, I also forgot that I have hitched my cart to the ‘retired officers’ bandwagon. So, maybe, I am being a bit too harsh!). It would be worthwhile for the Secretaries to rope in the services of the Chairman of the Inland Waterway Authority, since some sectors can easily be converted to Inland Waterways, rather than be restored as National Highway. Another suggestion is based on the recent report that India will have her own F1 race soon, thanks to the UB Chief, Vittal Mallya. If India seriously considers making this leg her own, especially with home turf advantage like in cricket, the Siliguri-Dhubri road should be chosen to conduct the F1. Most importantly, Force India should recruit a few experienced drivers of the WB and Assam State Transport, who regardless of the surface merrily speed away and will leave the Hamiltons and Alonsos agape. They are totally unconcerned about the condition of the passengers in these buses, who are in danger of developing extra ribs. The men among them will be wondering what God will do with their extra ribs because the spare rib of one of their ancestors has caused the human race so much of distress over the past many millennia! After driving over potholes and stretches for many hours, where even a pedestrian would be in danger of losing a limb, I was confused about how to negotiate a few kms of good stretch; fearing that a pothole lurks in the shadow of a tree. It was like suddenly winning an election after being in the opposition for many years; you just do not know how to use the power. The ‘Teesta Toll Collection Centre’, mercifully, was not operational. Otherwise, one would have thought that the toll is meant for maintaining the roads the way it is!
The Indian Government had decided to conduct elections in Assam in 1983 at the height of the AASU agitation. The probationary officers of all Central Services belonging to the 1981 and 1982 batches were ordered to reach the various districts of Assam to undertake the work of polling officers. The railway probationers came to Dhubri in February 1983 and stayed on for nearly a month. We reported to Mr Babu Rajeev, the District Magistrate, of Dubri District. The probationers, 120+ including the ladies, were put up in a ‘Dharamshala’ and a School. The Travelling Allowance during those days were a princely Rs.11.25. The ‘inducement’ was that we would be entitled to ‘Double TA’ and an additional salary for the days that we ‘served’ in Assam. We were at considerable risk as Central Government officers, since the agitation was at its peak. This did not deter us from spending almost the entire day on the banks of the Brahmaputra, playing cricket – in hindsight, we can claim to be the ‘inventors’ of beach cricket! The so called ‘Double TA’ rang the tills of the ‘misti’ (sweets) shops. What survived for a while was the additional salary.
Many of the probationers who had arrived into Assam were worried for their safety, naturally. One of them, a railway accounts service colleague, was particularly upset. The night before we were to be sent to the polling stations, he went ‘missing’. The mayhem can only be imagined, keeping in mind the political situation at the time. The DM was in a flap and so were we, his colleagues. A massive ‘manhunt’ was launched – no places were left out in the search operation involving colleagues and the local administration; Railway Station, Gurudwara, Temples, a beached boat on the banks of the Brahmaputra, places of suspect repute, etc. The ‘missing’ colleague could not be traced. Next day morning, as we were leaving for election duty, the missing person turned up at the Dharamshala. Apparently, he had taken refuge with the priest of a temple, fearing for his life. He was packed off to Chennai by the DM, post haste.
The Superintendent of Police, Dhubri District, Dipak Choudary, was my contact to seek accommodation and other logistics support. He had pre-arranged to have me piloted to the Police GH from Gauripur. Since the DC was under orders of transfer, he was busy with send off parties and hence, asked me over to his 1889 bungalow for tea. After the initial pleasantries, we were joined by Ms Choudary. Over tea and snacks we discussed the situation in Assam and Dhubri. It was interesting to know that Dhubri is one of the earliest District HQs in the area and hence the palatial houses of the SP and the DC on the banks of the River. The erstwhile Goalpara District, with Dhubri as its HQ, has been reorganised into 5 districts. During the conversation Ms Choudary mentioned that her father had served as DGP, J&K. This upped my curiosity and I discovered that she is the youngest daughter of Mr. NN Khajuria, who was my father’s batchmate in the 1954 batch of IPS. They were the closest of friends in the National Police College, Mt Abu and had maintained their contact and friendship over the years. My wife and I had toured Kashmir immediately after our wedding in 1985. Khajuria Uncle, who was then DGP in J&K, made excellent arrangements for us to visit places of interest and we thoroughly enjoyed the trip. We were fortunate to meet with the entire family in Jammu, on our return from Kashmir. I still remember the warmth and hospitality of Ms Khajuria and her three daughters. The ‘unseen hand’ had once again made its presence felt.
It was an emotional moment to speak to Khajuria Uncle; I promised to meet with him during my visit to Jammu. Dipak cancelled all his engagements for the rest of the evening and we spent a fascinating Diwali night in his home. Dipak, a personable and well informed youngster, and his articulate and observant wife, Bhavna, make an interesting couple to make intelligent conversation. And they are excellent hosts. The evening wore on over many topics of mutual interest and what I wanted to know about the local culture and polity. While discussing our fathers’ batchmates, I was told that Mr Babbar Singh had been the SP of the erstwhile undivided Goalpara district, and had been based in Dhubri. This information brought on another wave of nostalgia. The Director of the NPC at the time when they were probationers was a certain Mr. Variam Singh, who had a soft corner for Babbar Singh. The latter was not particularly athletic and was the cause of much mirth among his batchmates. His constant failure to perform pull ups was the subject of a melodious parody: “Dekh tere sansar ki halath kya hogayi Variam, Aisa latak raha insan” (to be sung in the tune of the fabulous song, “Dekh tere sansar ki halath kya hogayi Bhagwan ..). Without any doubt, it was the most fabulous Diwali of my life and I had spent it with family.