My good friend Kaushik Nandi had suggested that I leave for Bakkhali later than the 3 am I had in mind, considering the fog. I was glad I heeded his suggestion. Gopal Mohanty had arranged his driver to pilot me to a location from where I would be able to easily find my way to Diamond Harbor. The pilot vehicle helped and the fog only cleared enough to slightly improve visibility. The foggy drive lasted right up to Namkhana. I reached Namkhana at 8.15 am – 3.5 hours after leaving Garden Reach. I encountered a long queue of heavy vehicles and was told by a shop keeper that they were all waiting for the Ferry! I was waiting helplessly in the car when a person came by and asked me to drive past the queue using the path on the right. I did not hesitate and the waiting trucks did not seem to either notice or mind the queue jumping. I drove nearly a km when the road took a right turn to the ferry mouth. There was a cut in the queue and a vendor asked me to turn left at the cut and drive to the ferry! I took the suggestion once again and reached the head of the queue for the ferry. I saw the ferry unloading, directed by a tall, hefty person. I parked the car and walked up to him and asked how I could get on to the next ferry. Without hesitation he gesticulated to another who came to me and asked me to pay toll charges. As soon as I paid I was waved on to the ferry – the first vehicle to drive in. I was so excited I could barely speak. I was close to my destination. Just another 20 odd kms.
The two experiences of queue jumping at Namkhana and the help of the ferry supervisor at the jetty made me ask once again: “Who placed them there to guide me?” The ferry charge was a steep Rs. 300 one way and is possibly the shortest ferry crossing in the country. But it was very efficiently managed. I was ashore on the Bakkhali side in less than 10 minutes and I rushed past Fraserganj and reached the “0” point at 8.45 am. The delight and satisfaction cannot be explained. Just opposite the “0” point was a house where a young person was supervising some work. I requested him for a few snaps and he obliged. Documentation was complete. The drive, the Coastal Expedition, had lasted 6996 kms – nearly 300 kms more than estimated – and spanned 196 hours and 15 minutes – 4 hours and 15 minutes more than internally targeted. I had forecast 216 hours in my proposal to Limca Book of Records. It was exhilarating to become the first person to complete the Coastal Expedition alone. It took a lot of determination, guts and stamina besides prayers and good wishes from those near and dear. It was a tough drive and I felt an unparalleled sense of achievement.
From the “0” point I drove to the lands’ end – the Bakkhali beach. At the entrance to the beach I found many small eateries. No sooner had I seen them than I was overcome by hunger that made me feel as if I was starving all these days. I parked the car and got into the first shop beside it. Six large pooris and potato curry helped temporarily douse the hunger. I settled down to call up friends and family and inform them of the successful completion of the first leg of Mission Fast Track. During the course of doing this I sipped on two cups of tea and captured an interesting video of a person making a local paratta, which I discovered later, was sold by weight!
The Bakkhali beach hosted an enthusiastic limited overs cricket match, which I watched for a while. The fog added mystery to the bowling and running between wickets on the sand was a challenge. I walked on the beach for some time and observed interesting designs made by crabs and starfish on the sand. I was approached by an amateur photographer who promised to get me a print in 10 minutes. A horse and its handler were not too far away from where I was. I asked the photographer to click me on the horse. As it turned out, he was friends with the handler of the horse and three others who made a living inducing visitors to take photographs and horse rides. One of them was quite conversant with technology and gadgets. He explained the use and functions of my Samsung Tab to his friends. When I climbed atop the horse for a photo the handler did not complain when the horse shifted, possibly resisting the 100plus kilos that had ascended on its back!
It was now time to head back. Kaushik Nandi had told me to visit Sagar Island, if time permitted. Time certainly permitted but my eye lids became heavy and I drove lazily back to Garden Reach. First I had to cross the Namkhana ferry. I thanked the ferry supervisor and the ferry operator. By the time I got back to my room in the ORH in Garden Reach it was 4 pm. I hit the bed and promptly passed out. Gopal arranged dinner in the ORH and we spent a couple of glorious hours reminiscing about the past and weighing alternative plans for the next two days. What I admire about Gopal the most is his patience to deal with people and the time he invests to nurture a relationship. It is an incredible capacity in this wonderful human being. Besides, he is possibly one of the best ‘keepers’ of the history of South Eastern Railway. Facts and tidbits just roll of his tongue as if they were placed there just then. How he collates such information and uses them contextually have amazed me over the years. It was getting on to midnight by the time we dispersed.