Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Concluding Part of the Trip to Jagannathdham.

I got up early in the morning of the 27th and turned on my back.  There was a dim light peeping through the small window up above on the wall in front casting a hypnotic spell on the darkness inside. The people, who matter in the ashram, were up and about.  The sound of the ringing bell was trying to drive the remnant of last night’s sleep away from my eyes. I savoured the bliss of wakefulness of the moment.  Having sensed that I was yet to fully recover from my sickness of the previous night (I threw up in the middle of the night, due probably to the irregular diets of the past week), Jaya, my wife started twisting and turning in the bed as well.  Soon she was up and getting dressed to go down for the lunch coupon.

Once she was back up, we decided to visit Jagannath temple for one more time. We went bare-footed like most devotees do. The fear of the pandas still nagged me, but the happenings of the past one week were an eye-opener of sort.  My faith in the Superior Power guiding our destiny has been rekindled, if not doubled. From the time we got inside, despite my inhibitions, till we came out and bought some more Prasad for our relatives, nothing untoward happened We entered the main temple, were blessed with a favourable darshan of Lord Jagannath,  went round  all the other temples on our way back to the main gate; unopposed, unchallenged. I was so tension-free inside the temple that for once I looked up to have a clear vision of Lord Jagannath in all His grandeur and munificence, right after  one of the purohits ( priests) had put a tika (vermilion mark) on my forehead. It was at that precise moment that I stretched out my hand unhesitatingly to offer the dakshina (offerings in the form of money), and prayed for all my siblings and their families.

I realized then that all these hassles and harassment are manmade and the Great God encompasses it all to test the conviction of His worshippers.  One can easily get inside the main temple for darshan, if one has enough faith and confidence in the ways of The Almighty.
As we boarded the Kolkata-bound Howrah-Dhauli Express on the 28th, the realization dawned on me that this Puri trip was laid out  in the scheme of things long before, by the One, who is beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals like me. The lessons I learnt from the visit to this holy place are so many that it is too early to write about them. If during the course of the next 2-3 years, yours truly here turns out to be something different from the adamant, arrogant, ignorant, impatient, immature and impractical being that he has always been, a lot of credit has to be given to my second trip to Jagannathdham in Puri, And not to forget a great lady, who always tried to inculcate the belief and faith in the One, who is omniscient and omnipotent, besides instilling an unwavering faith in and love for the basic goodness of humanity.

The Greatest Gift : Life.

Why I am the way I am, is something beyond my furthest understanding. Why do I get so tensed up so fast? Why is there a lump in my throat every time I try to express my views and feelings? Why? Why? Why?

While blogging last night I got stuck due to my inability to recollect the English word for ‘mukta’. When I asked Jaya, she came to my rescue with it almost instantaneously. “Pearl,” she said as if not me, but she has been an English teacher all her life. Now my eldest daughter, Akansha, was somewhere around. The moment she heard me repeat ‘pearl’ after my spouse, she knew what I was writing about. “Ma,” she called out to her mom, “Baba’s always criticising people. This time it’s you, Ma. In a way, it’s good as people’ll get to know (through the blog), what he really thinks about himself……”.

I have to agree with her conclusion. As last night, instead of feasting my eyes on Chilka, its serenity and sublimity, I, once more preferred to spend my time writing about the pearls and my smart pronouncements.

Now to get back to the Chilka Lake, this heavenly place occupies a special place in my heart, I can’t think of Puri without thinking about the magic the lake had worked on me at first sight, way back in the late 80s. It simply represented the innocent world in which everything was young and pure, lovey-dovey and beautiful. The sleepy lake with its dark green water was a sight and I was simply blown away by its depth and charm. I still remember that afterwards we visited the Kali temple not very far away. The whole experience (expedition?) did not cost us much and stays glued to my heart even today.

Naturally, I had springs in my feet on the morning of the 26th. At around 9.30 all of us trotted to the travel agency. There were two very sleek cars waiting outside. One look at the bigger of the two and we decided to take the Maruti Maxima. The ride was as pleasant as the car. As our driver was a very taciturn man, he did not barge either in our conversations or in any thing else I was enjoying myself thoroughly when the car got parked in the middle of a nondescript place. I looked around to realize that this time the visit to Chilka would have a different tale to tell. I was looking askance at him when he pointed to a hut, asking me to buy the tickets for boating from there. I went inside the hut, having noticed some disgruntled tourists coming out. Inside round two or three tables staked together, there were some tough-looking men. The sturdiest of them did not even look up at me and holding up a paper, he started enlightening me about the different rates for visiting the different places on and around the lake. If we wanted to go to all those places, it would be worth Rs.1800/, but excluding the Dolphin site, the price would come down to Rs.1300/. I had my mind racing again. The Chilka visit wasn’t going to be a 500-rupee affair like I envisaged .It was going to cost us money. The drive to that god-forsaken place could not have taken more than one and half hours. If we decided to go back, that might take at the most 2 hours more. In that case we would have spent some Rs.500/ for nothing. We would be lucky to get away with anything less than two to three thousands if we decided to go boating on the Chilka. What was the best option left to us under the circumstance? Should we go back, or shouldn’t we? Unable to decide for myself, I went out to seek their opinions. The females were unanimous in putting the shutter down. After some more dilly-dallying, we decided to skip the site of the Dolphins and settled for the less attractive areas of The Red Crabs and the mohona (the confluence of the lake and the sea). I still tried to reason out with the men at the table as best as I could, but my nephew Kaltu played the spoilsport by taking out five brand new 100-rupee notes from his wallet. It was sheer foolhardy on my part as right then I was just giving the thugs the impression that we were dead broke.

The boating, of course, was mind-blowing to say the least. The boat ride through the serene and calm waters of the lake, brought some semblance of solace to my otherwise disturbed mind. After some 40-45 minutes, on our arrival at The Red Crabs, we could find a young man heading our way from behind another boat anchored at the shore. He was kind enough to let us have a glimpse of those extraordinary creatures in a rounded container. We were yet to recover from the shock and amazement, when he decided to play his triumph card, by plucking the shells in his outstretched hand out of nowhere. But by then, by courtesy of one stone-seller, Santosh Rao, my dear wife and my nephew’s had wizened up and did not find the pearls worth taking a second look any more.

Our next halt was at the mohona, the sandy shore separating the magnificent Chilka from the majestic Bay of Bengal. It was God’s own place and as I want to keep its mesmerizing memory locked-up in my mind for as long as I have a mind to, I don’t want to write about it. On the way back, the fresh prawns and crabs selling on the stalls made some mouths watery and it demanded a herculean effort from us to resist the temptation of having them served up to us as hot and spicy as it gets.

When we came back to our car, the driver mumbled out, “You took quite long!” His tone rang a bell somewhere and I didn’t waste time in telling him how I was thinking of borrowing some money from him for the boating. We drove on in silence and at around 4.30 p.m.with an absolute, nonchalant look on his face, the stout, curly-haired driver slammed the brakes near the agency remarking,” You should of told me. I own 200 such cars. This beauty is also mine …” Having said this our friend promptly took leave and vanished into thin air. The rest of the day was uneventful and plain drab.

As I come to the end of this blog, I realize that my daughter, Akanksha, was right after all. All my life, I have hankered after money and materialistic pleasures so much that I have failed to notice the beauty and bounty all round. It is time I started growing out of my shell and learnt to appreciate the marvellous gift called, Life.  

Puri:Purifying the Pollutants.

There are people who go on a pilgrimage in the hope of earning merits. Nothing deters them and they undertake such pilgrimage year after year, believing that they are positively better. I heard of one believer, who was found to be eating from the garbage piled at the corner of a temple at a religious place, with the conviction that nothing would happen to him. Nothing did. There are others at the same time, and they are in majority, who would dismiss such hearsays as pure rubbish. Without going into the right or the wrong of the issue, let me just try to write down here how day 3 at Puri had a purifying impact on yours truly.

We went to the Jagannath temple in the morning of the 23rd of January for darshan (a look at the image of the Lord). Kaltu’s words on the previous night that he had sent back someone who came up to our room in the ashram, claiming to be the panda (priest) had me worried. My dearest nephew sent him packing, taking him to be one of the hoaxes, who make similar claims to make life miserable for visitors like us!

So when I reminded Swamiji (the head of BSS, Puri) in the wee hours of the morning of the 23rd about the panda, he called out,” Ekhane ashramer panda ke achhen?” (Who all are the Ashram’s pandas here?) and two hands were raised almost immediately afterwards in response from the group at the gate. Finally, we accompanied a short-statured, middle-aged man called Jagannath Mahapatra. He led us to the temple, walking all along by his cycle, providing us with all kinds of information about the temple and Lord Jagannath non-stop, in his Oriya mixed Bengali, or was it the other way round?

By then we had arrived near the main gate of the temple. At his request, we took off our foot wears and washed our feet in warm water on a raised platform on the left-hand side of the temple. The huge clay images of Hanuman and one of the Kaurava brothers greeted us solemnly. I was more drawn to the white and the black horses made of clay, at the entrance of the gate. Later on, Mr.Jagannath told us that the horses represent artha (wealth or affluence) like the other animals symbolizing other earthly cravings, at the three other entrances. Besides the horses at the entrance, the other thing that took my breath away, was the man with the brisk, business-like manner at the counter our panda had led us to. Letting us a quick read-through the list containing the various prices at which Lord Jagannath could be worshipped, he informed us, to our dismay, that the puja of Jagannath alone would cost something like Rs.220/-. We were dismayed by the information as we had decided to offer pujas on behalf of a lot of our relatives. We had to discard any thought of that as quickly as a flicker of a lamp. Naturally, after a quick consultion with the other adult members of the group, we decided to go for the amount priced at Rs.440/- plus taxes or whatever, which would cover up almost all the three main deities.

Our panda-cum-guide in the meantime, had forced his way inside the main temple. With his hands spread around us like an umbrella, he headed us off to a corner, where Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the great religious preacher of Bengal, once stood during his visit to Jagannathdham  in the late 15th century and where on the wall his fingerprints along with his footprint on the floor, are visible even today. Mr.Mahapatra made us chant some mantras in praise of the Lord. The next moment spreading my arms up in a pose so characteristic of Chaitanya Dev, I followed the frenzied mob for a closer look at the image of Lord Jagannath. Thanks to our panda, each member of our team was blessed with a proper darshan.

The next hour or so was spent in going round from one temple to another dedicated to a multitude of Hindu gods and goddesses. I do not remember much about those deities excepting the time he stopped on the round, to point to the top of the temple, telling us that each morning, someone from the paid-staff of the temple, has to go up to the Chakra atop, to raise the flag to start the day’s proceedings. When I expressed my surprise at the risk involved, especially for someone who has to go up, sometime on his knees and sometime on all fours like an acrobat, he took genuine offence remarking that since the time the practice started, no such untoward incident has ever happened, nor will in the distant future, by His grace!

 His faith made me shrink with a feeling of guilt. My liberal upbringing has taught me not to take anything for granted and I am sorry to say I had my doubts even about the panda (May be, my previous encounter with them way back in the late 80s, when I visited Jagannathdham for the first time along with my Ma and Susomadi, had left not too favourable an impression on my impressible mind). I was worried if we could get anything worth mentioning as prasad! I also had my doubt about how much the panda would try to jab from us for the darshan.

I would like to pen off here with two other notable incidents of the day. Firstly, when Kaltu and I decided to have tea from the stall on the top of the flight of steps leading down to the sea from the centre of Swargadwar. We made friends with the man and his wife having tea there. The reluctant man opened up gradually to tell us that there are some tour operators organizing bus trips to Puri even from places like Dhakuria in Kolkata. The wife then confided in us that during their stay in the holy place, they visited the temple on a daily basis without the menace of the pandas. Opening the small basket she held in her hand, she next informed us that she had bought the prasad for only Rs.51/- from somewhere inside the temple.

The second incident happened near another tea stall we visited daily in the evening. As we were discussing our visit to the temple, we could not help sounding rather depressed at the way we were made to pay the exorbitant price for the darshan and prasad. I was very critical of the panda, not even sparing the ashram in the process. The lady selling tea sided with us, expressing the views that gone are the days when Puri was a place of pure bliss. The holy place, with all its elements like the environment, the foods and even the water of the sea, has become polluted over the years due to the materialistic nature of some people and so on.

Back in the ashram, it was time to do some soul-searching. The self=reflections made me realize two things about me. I learnt about my suspicious self, the fact that I did not think favourably about outsiders, expecting them to cause us great harm and dismay at every given opportunity. And instead of being grateful to people for their help and assistance, I have the habit of criticising them no ends. I also realised that these may be the reasons why people are equally suspicious and critical of me. A case of ‘what goes around, comes around’, I guess.

To be continued …

Faith Will Move Mountains.

One of the best lessons I learnt from my late mother is to have faith in the ways of the Almighty, in the basic goodness of humanity and to love life despite all its heavy odds.

I had graduated out of college and was on the lookout for a job. I have never been Dame Luck’s favourite child and getting a job at that time in the late eighties was proving to be a heck of a problem. At a time when the whole world seemed to be conspiring against me, my mother decided to take me along with her to some places of pilgrimage. Jagannathdham in Puri, Orissa was one such place.  We must have spent some 7-10 days there and stayed, if my memory serves me right, at the PWD.

It is hard to forget the unique experience I had had of pulling the rope attached to the chariot with all three idols of Jagannath, Suvadra and Balaram on their seats on the first floor of the chariot, during the Ratha Yatra celebration. Hundreds and thousands of devotees from all over, were out on the streets with inexplicable excitement to earn lifelong blessings and purna (merits) by giving a hand to the ropes on both sides in front, pulling the chariot.

It may be a coincidence or something but soon after my return to Kolkata I applied for a job in Bhutan, appeared at the written test and interview at St.Xavier’s college, Kolkata and the rest, was, if not exactly history, a life-changing event for me all the same.

Having attended the Evaluation Camp at CST, Rinchending, Phuentsholing, I was back this year in Kolkata on January 10th, to enjoy the last few weeks of the Winter Vacation.  I was quite fuzzed when Akanksha, my eldest daughter confided in me,” Baba, I told Kaltuda (my nephew), once you are back from Bhutan, all our collective plans will materialise and off to Puri we shall go ….”.

Her words did not make me happy, to be honest.  Enjoying my winter holidays, which are now at a premium, without any glitches was a priority. Besides, there was not much left in my bank.  The believers say that making a trip to Puri is purely a matter of divine intervention. Unless Lord Jagannath (an incarnation of Lord Krishna) beckons, no devotees can visit the holiest of holy places.

Strange as it may sound, I decided to go to Sealdah stataion, If not for anything else, just to keep my conscience clear.  My wife Jaya accompanied me. Inspite of all the hassles and harassment, we were surprised at ourselves, having booked the tickets for the Howrah-Puri Express the next night, inspite of there being a heavy rush for travel just before the Republic Day.

Now the problem of the ticket was solved, I had to look for some ready cash without any delay.  From my two accounts with the SBI and Allahbad Bank, I could withdraw some money, but that was not enough. Jaya had withdrawn some more from her own account, but I was still apprehensive. W e had some work with Allahabad Bank just near our ancestral home in Deblane. While I was busy making some queries to the officer there, Jaya decided to update my savings account. She came back quite excited with the news that there was some  16,000/- in the account! The very next moment I was emphatically writing out a cheque for 10,000/- from the account. My nephew along with his family, would be there to provide all sorts of help.  Even then I did not want to take any risks. What followed afterwards was nothing short of a divine intervention.

To be continued ……..

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Precious Pearls of Practicality from Puri.

We, (should I write I instead?) spent most of the next day lazing around.  The sight- seeing of all those local sites on the previous day, had taken its toll on my aging bones and I thought it best to recharge my batteries by resting to my heart’s content. We had earlier decided to go for boating on the Chilka Lake, one of the most beautiful coastal lakes in the sub-continent.

 The heavenly Chilka Lake is a real soul-soother.

Now before I get going, let me share one important incident of the afternoon of the 24th.  Jaya, my wife, returned from shopping in the market, visibly excited.  She is passionate about shopping for all and was trying to make the most of the rest day.  She takes a childish delight in shopping and it was hard for her to stay put within the confines of our room, when there was a very enticing market waiting out there to explore and shop from. I was most probably napping when she was back, chatty like the people near a house on fire.  She muttered out that she had taken advantage of a drunken fisherman and bought some 16 pearls from him at an extraordinary price. She just paid Rs.100/- for those pearls! The man had gone fishing and had picked up some huge sea-shells. It seemed that while separating some of those conjoined shells, he had hit upon real luck as there were shining pearls inside them.  Rita, my nephew Kaltu’s wife was so much taken with her narration that she hurried her out of our room once again just to try her luck out as well.

As for me, I was having a tough time putting the pieces of this apparent jigsaw puzzle together.  There were so many questions going through my mind. If the pearls were really genuine, why did the fisherman sell them at such a cheap price? Was he really drunk or just pretending to be one? If he was playacting, why was he? Whatever the case may be , fishermen are normally not that naïve to try to dispense of a heavy catch like the way he was doing. I tried my best to make them see reason. Unfortunately, my words fell on deaf ears as my wife dearest outsmarted the sceptic in me and the doubting Thomas was laid to rest for the time being.

But God did not let me wait long. Next morning when Jaya and I were on the beach trying to catch a glimpse of the rising sun, we stumbled upon one Santosh, a local stone-seller. Finding out that we were not that eager to buy his ware, he tried enlightening us on his own.  He told us tens and scores of stone-sellers from all over, come to Puri almost every day in the hope of making a fortune. They buy the not- so- costly or valuable stones from the locals and make money by selling them in places like Kolkata or some other neighbouring cities at an exorbitant price. Taking out some real pearls and stones, he regaled us about the worth of the stones like Nila, Pokhraj and some others.  If some one is physically unwell and feeble, wearing a nila would do a world of .good to him and keep him from the harmful influence of Lord Shani, the fierce Hindu god.  He repeatedly warned us not to buy the cheap stuff from the majhis (boatmen) at a place called The Red Crabs on Chilka Lake, our destination of the day. One of the great truths about Jaya is she will melt but never bend without having ample proofs. I was in the meanwhile, biding for the opportune moment.

The habitat of the Red Crabs in Chilka Lake

At around 2.30 p.m. Kaltu and I hit the road again, with a view to confirming our trip to Chilka.  We were heading toward Ghosh Travels again, when I suggested we consult some other tour operators at first. The man at the first place seemed to be  taking time, keeping us at bay all the while, for making some mental calculations before telling us that as the sojourn would take nearly 8 hours, he would charge us Rs.1050/-.

We left him faster than I can describe and visited the office of another agency. This man asked us not to take Tata Gypsy, but he would arrange a more comfortable vehicle and for that he would charge us Rs.750/-.That made me open up to him and I started talking about how initially we wanted to stay for a few days, how unlucky we were not to be able to book the tickets before the 28th, how we were trying to make both ends meet by staying in BSS, and how we were filling our stomachs with food from the roadside stalls. The man was understanding as he listened to me patiently. He then seemed to ponder over our predicament and wondered aloud if we would like to go by another car that could be arranged for a mere 500/-. That was not a bad proposal. One thing led to another and finally we agreed to travel by Maruti Echoe for the same price.

By the way, I ask for your forgiveness, Reader, as I have left out an important fact.  Om Prakash, our driver of the previous day told me on our way back (he also asked me not to mention his involvement in this transaction to anybody even remotely connected with Ghosh Travels,) that if we were thinking of visiting the Lake, it would not cost us more than Rs.750/-  though they might ask us for Rs.850/-  to begin with. The intimate way he uttered it to me , raised my suspicion and that is why I decided to make the enquiries before going to Ghosh Travels. Thank God for helping me to see through people like Om, who under the garb of playing the messiah ,  end up rattling our trust and confidence in them in the long run, leaving us wiser  in the process.
To be continued ....

Monday, February 24, 2014

Learning to partake of the Blissfulness of the Present.

I have always been scared out of my wits end at the thought and prospect of being cheated by every Ttom,, Dick and Harry. The fear has taken such deep roots in my psyche that everytime  I am faced with the  need of paying from my pocket for anything, I  feel the end of the world is near and bankruptcy is going to be my lot.  So on the 24th of January, for site-seeing, when my nephew Kaltu and I visted most of the travel agencies in and I around Puri, I was on tenterhools all along thinking that our days in the holy place were numbered.  There was not much encouragement from the tour-operators except for the names of the places worth visiting. From the brochures and leaflets provided, we came to know about some of the important places in Orissa to be visited any how.

Eventually we hit upon the idea of going to Ghosh Travels.  The man at the counter made a deal with us that in addition to paying Rs.200/- in advance, we would have to pay Rs.1350/- to the driver next day at the days end. Reasonable. We set off at around 9.30 in the morning and at around 11, our driver, a young chap dropped us near a tea shop. We then had to follow hordes of other pedestrians to get to our destination, the beautiful Konarak temple. The temple which was built by a great king of the eastern region in the fag end of the 14th century, is a marvel of modern times and I simply could not have enough of the exotic (erotic) stone carvings on the walls of the chariot like temple.


As we had started quite late, it was almost lunch time by the time, Om Prakash, our driver screeched his car to a halt near Lingaraj temple. The door of the main altar was closed, but it opened within 5 minutes. We learned that it was time for anna bhog as well from one of the purohits (priest) of the temple. They say if the devotee cannot come to the deity, the deity will. So within the next 15-20 minutes, we had lunch from a place called Ananda Bazaar and that too, at a very fair price.

Our next stop was Udaigiri and Dhavalgiri, two historic spots in Orissa. As I started climbing the seemingly countless stairs, my mind went back to the time in the late 80s, when I was fortunate to escort my late Ma along the same path. In her late 60s or early 70s at that time, the stiff climb was testing her will-power and mental strength every passing minute. Panting heavily, with her face flushed, she nearly drove me to the edges of desperation. I started thinking that it was a great blunder on my part to have agreed to her desire of going up to the top. Today, looking back in time, that act of climbing up along with my Ma seems to be one of my priceless possessions. I cannot put into words the invaluable lessons I learnt from my Ma during that unbelievable climb. She was a great lady. A faithful fighter to the core and never gave up, even in the face of heavy odds, without fighting to the last.

The Sublime Buddha at Udaigiri.

From the twin-hills, we raced against time to get to Nandan Kanan, the famous zoo in Orissa that has been drawing a lot of tourists of late, at around 3 in the afternoon. We really had a great time there and scampered from one animal to another for sheer fun. Akanksha, my eldest daughter, continued snapping their photos and if she stopped in the end, it was mainly due to exhaustion.

On our way back to Puri, Om Prakash asked me casually near Hanuman temple, if we would be interested in visiting Sakshi Gopal, another historic temple dedicated to lord Krishna in Orissa. I remember someone having told me long time back that a visit to Jagannathdham is incomplete without a visit to this temple. Inside the Hanuman temple, all the other members thought it was a good proposal as by then the young driver had cast his spell on one and all with his graceful manners and behaviour. My only wish was not to be cheated out of my means.

It took another 40-45 minutes to reach there. Just outside the temple, Om Prakash repeatedly reminded us to be careful of the pandas and not to touch anything at all. We all entered insides. The pandas in white dhotis with saffron scarves around their necks, accorded a hearty welcome, asking us to wash our feet at that quiet hour. The sceptic in me raising his head, I could not help asking them if washing our feet would cost money. Without going into the details, let me tell you that for the darshan alone, we were made to part with Rs.151/-. I pretended to be angry and shouted at them to be afraid of the One up above, being holy cows as they were. Interestingly, visiting the rest of the altars in the temple did not cause us any further problem.

Finally, Om brought us back to Swargadwar  and dropped the others at the place which branched off with one path leading to BSS and the other to Kakatua, the popular shop selling khajas (some kind of sweetmeats) like hot cakes, and upto Ghosh Travels as well. I got off at the turning to slip a hundred rupee note into his hand.  Clever me, as this is how I had planned to make up for the money the pandas at Sakshi Gopal had squeezed out of us!

On our return to BSS, I requested Mr.Partha Sengupta, the Manager, for an extension of our stay for three more days. A request he readily complied with. He told us to vacate the room on the morning of the 28th, the day we were returning to Kolkata.

Sitting at my computer, I am wondering right now about the near-perfect stay in Puri.  My only regret right now is that I should have lived in the moment and cherished my days in the holy place in the true spirit rather than worrying about being cheated and made a fool of and all that. I should have possibly realized that the Great Lord has love, compassion and protection for all, even for the wrong-doers and the atheists.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Going gaga over God’s grace:

The 22nd of January, 2014 was as eventful and enriching a day as it was full of pleasant surprises, chance acquaintances and encounters. I am no firm believer. I have never been. But the unfolding events on the first day in Puri, made me take stock of things from a different perspective and am I not floored?

I was full of apprehension as we boarded the Howrah-Puri Express after 10, on the night of the 21st.  There were lots of questions clouding my mind: Where were we going to put up? How much would the hotel cost us? On the previous evening Jaya was trying to find us from the net how much staying in an ordinary hotel might amount to and she found out that even an ordinary hotel would cost us Rs.550/- and above per day for a double-bed room. That meant, as there were 7 of us, two bed rooms. So for boarding and lodging alone, we would have to pay over Rs.1000/- per day.  Taking into consideration that lunch and dinner would make us part with another Rs.1000-1500/-, I knew that with the kind of money we had, we could not stay in Puri for more than 4 days. That should be fine as there are not many places worth visiting, I thought. Then there was the problem of the return tickets.  Despite our best efforts, we could not book the return tickets from Sealdah as all the trains were booked beforehand. I was very jittery and jumpy by the time the train started streaming out of the station.

We were unfortunate in not having the berths in the same compartment, though we were in the same coach. The first sign of ‘things were going to be all right’ showed up, when the man with the side upper berth, agreed to vacate his berth for one of ours. That eased things up a bit. We, the elders, could now stay together with one of us staying with the kids in the other bogey.

Towards the early hours of the next morning, I remember having switched over to the children’s side, when many co-passengers got off at Bhubaneswar, the present capital of Orissa.

The train arrived at Puri a little latter than the scheduled time. As we started heading towards the exit, we found an auto-driver coming our way.  He was the domineering type and would take us to Bharat Sevashram Sangha at Swargadwar at any cost. By the way, we had earlier decided to go to BSS for dear life as the organization is renowned for its voluntary humanitarian service. Besides, a religious organization is always a safe bet compared to all those money-mongers, I mean those hotels and all, that would make money at our expense like a money-making mint.

Anyways, we cleverly got rid of the driver, but there was another smart chap, who promised to reach us there at BSS at a cheaper price. We took his bait and reached there at around 9 o’clock.  There were some people milling around a table for various reasons. Soon we got introduced to Mr.Partha Sengupta, the Manager of the esteemed organization. The encounter with Mr.Sengupta made me hopeful that things were bound to look up soon and, in reality, that was the beginning of the end of all the troubles during our stay in Puri.

I honestly told him about all our problems and worries, our being strangers to Puri, not having enough cash and how panicked we were of being subjected to daylight robbery if there was no room for us in BSS.

Not only did Mr.Sengupta arrange a single room that could accommodate all seven of us, but he also got the lunch coupon, meant purely for the ashramites, for us.  The meal would cost us Rs.40/- per head! Once we had room no-6 on the first floor, we rushed out for our first encounter with the majestic sea. We came back just before lunch. In the dining room, I met someone sitting next to me. The man must have been a god-send and he helped me immensely by providing a lot of unsolicited but useful information.

In the afternoon, Kaltu, my nephew, and I decided to go to Puri station to see if there was any possibility of the return tickets. The handsome, young man (God bless his soul) at the counter was decency personified and helped us book the tickets on Puri-Howrah-Dhauli Express on the 28th. We had to pay less than Rs.1000/- for the return tickets! And to think that I had spent a lot of time the previous night worrying about 3-nights’ stay in Puri, pockets permitting!

On our way back, we dropped in Orissa Tourism to gather information regarding some of the must-visit sites. Once back in the Ashram, we had an hour of pure fun and frolic with Jaya and Rita (Kaltu’s wife) as to the day of departure. We went out once more in the evening for a more breath-taking view of the sea.  The young talent who made the mermaid out of sand, was nothing short of pure magic.

The talented artisan at work on the beach of Puri
.While we had some tea at a tea-stall, the bearded man sharing the same bench with me, provided me with some useful know-how of a ‘within the budget’ stay in Puri. I came to know from him that the least amount one could pay for a puja of Lord Jagannath was Rs.151/-. He even wanted to introduce me to his Panda (Priest), who is a very influential person in Puri. And then my unknown benefactor went on to give me some gems of advice as the following:
ü  We must not eat any fish being sold from the stalls near the beach,
ü  Try to arrange our own cooking by hiring a cylinder along with the oven at around Rs.120/- per kg and an additional Rs.50/- for the oven. The initial deposit of Rs.1750-2000/- was mandatory. The amount was to be adjusted with the total amount of gas used.
ü  To bargain for almost everything sold out on the streets and the markets as well.  Finally, I was repeatedly asked not to forget to circumbulate the main temple starting from behind.
How do I thank these total strangers for all their help and advice? Like the youngster at lunchtime, or the handsome man at the Computerized Reservation Centre? Don’t you feel like thanking your lucky stars, every time you run into a stranger like the one at the tea stall? Do not all these incidents prove beyond an iota of doubt that there is a benevolent angel guiding us all through?
I thought we had had enough excitement for a day. I was yet to learn about the ways of The Almighty. I took them all to a very posh hotel (not exactly, to the restaurant attached to it) called ‘Sonar Tori’ to celebrate our first hassle-free day at Jagannathdham. When I finally called all the others to follow me down the stairs, there was a look of utter bemusement on Kaltu’s face. The other elders looked no different. I ordered with some hesitant help from Jaya, rotis and eggtarka. The dinner, by the grace of The Almighty cost us Rs.232/-!!!
That is not all.  As we had ordered quite late, we had the food served at 5 minutes to 9. Worried about the fact that the door of the Ashram closes at 9.30 sharp, I had to leave behind one roti untouched and run a walkathon along with the others, to get back to it by 5 minutes past 9! We still had 25 minutes by the time we were back.
Thank you God for being all merciful and for a ‘well-begun is half-done’, first day at Puri.