For kilometers the road is clogged with lorries. The thick black smoke of the exhaust fumes in guaranteed to leave a deposit of smoke on the faces of unfortunate passengers in cars behind. In summer, the road crawls with tar, while bodies crawl with sweat. This is not quite the way that the Merchant Queen expected anyone to go to Dakhineshwar. When she built it (no, that’s a goof-up), it was a matter of stepping out of a large house in North Calcutta, if you were one of the people who belonged to large houses, adjusting your wear-to-prayer silks and gliding down a flight of steps to your peacock headed barge. After that, it was a matter of wind and tide.
It is still possible to go this way, not by barge, but in the local ferry, jostling bicycles, goats and people. However, few people have the sense of adventure or the inclination. The road seems to be quicker.
The road winds down Lower Circular Road and over the way to Sealdah. North Calcutta is a place few people see unless they happen to work there. For most, Bombay is closer, more frequently visited. The crumbling bricks of Calcutta 300 inch past—can bricks inch past?—Raja Somebody or Other’s Road, which is in imminent danger of being re-christened. “Is this anywhere near Amherst Street? I think my grandfather had a house here.” It is even possible to be vague about the whereabouts of the famous Marble Palace, that cool pillared place that reeks of hot birds from the aviary. For most people, Calcutta 300 is a debit note in some imaginary account book.
The five-point crossing at Shyambazar has Netaji’s house surrounded by flags and banners. Election time makes it the best place to stage a microphone and blast the area with messages. It takes over an hour to get there in the slow roll of the road. Reaching there, one has a sense of achievement, an expedition feeling about it. People talk about relatives who retired in houses beyond Shyambazar and were rarely seen again. The mix of buildings is an odd combination of old and new, interrupted by the bougainvillea draped walls of the Indian Statistical Institute.
It’s almost 1 p.m. but time has not stopped the flow of the traffic, though the roads have widened a trifle and a slight village atmosphere has crept into the surroundings. Temples, domes and terracotta-red walls are clearly visible. The worry is that even if Calcutta is wide-awake, Belur and Dakhineshwar will be fast asleep. There is an old zamindari jalsaghar which people say is worth viewing..
Crossing the river you can see the domes of the main temple and, further down, another set which could be Adyapith. On both sides of the bridge, landing steps lead down to the water strung with nets and the bare bodies of bathing people. En route, under a gulmohur tree beginning to flame, is a mini village. Students from the Government Art College occasionally make forays here to sit under the tree and sketch village studies. Snarled behind the inevitable convoy of lorries, you can almost make your own sketches.
The pleasure house is hidden well away from the main road at the end of a winding track, which seems to unravel from a strip of Satyajit Ray celluloid. It follows a girl’s red braid and the flutter of her sari as she carries a pile of books under her arm. It follows the balancing act of a bicycle. The wind stops at a green enamelled gate. After some rattling, a shaven headed gatekeeper materializes, rubbing his eyes. He explodes into the anger of the rudely awakened: this is a rajbari (literally, raja’s house in Bengali). No one is allowed in without a permit, especially at sleep time. The owners are away in Calcutta. The only thing open are the gardens, take them or leave them.
The rajbari is a two-storeyed building, stuccoed white, with blue pillars decorating the verandahs that enclose the house on all sides. Charpoys are visible in front of the main door. At 1.30 in the afternoon, with the sun beating down, the official caretaker is found stretched out in an office under a checked grey blanket while a fan whirrs above him. The gatekeeper prods him into alertness with a request that he opens a few of the rooms.
The result is instant fury, an impassioned tirade in Hindi. Yes, this is a palace, a real palace, even though the gold and silver are gone. Yes, there was a ‘shooting’ here once, but the film was shot a long time ago. There is nothing to see and without a letter of introduction from the owners no one is going to open any doors before 4.30 p.m. That is the law of West Bengal and it cannot be broken even for Jyoti Basu. Especially when law-abiding caretakers are trying to snatch a few moments of well deserved rest. The gardens are open—they are free for anyone to wander in—with which he flounces back into his blankets.
Long green shutters protect all the verandah doors. A peek between the slats and a judicious pull at the door reveals Sleeping Beauty’s ballroom shrouded in sheets with a huge tilted mirror glimmering through the gloom. Along the riverfront, the gardens are paved with marble pavilions with an occasional sleeping body to be seen. The sun beats down hot and hard on the grass. The temptation to flop into sleep in the cool shadow of a pillar is irresistible. But the princess is not going to perform on the dance floor lighting the chandeliers with song. We back away from the guarded palace and decide on a quick trip to the temple.
The shops leading to the temple are crowded with copper bric a brac and china figurines but the shopkeepers lean back into the shade and do not even attempt a sale. For a barefooted tourist, the track to the temple gate is a truly sole scorching experience and, at the end of the hop, the place is discovered shut till 4.30, the gods and goddesses sleeping peacefully with the rest of Dakhineshwar. Legendary, holy Dakhineshwar, Ramakrishna’s Dakhineshwar, right now hammered by the sun and lit by the startling shapes of two primrose saronged priests with magenta turbans.
The afternoon and the efforts end with the clog of traffic to Calcutta—this time with a salutary swing through Salt Lake, which has the merit of making the drive seem a lot faster Oddly enough, the return is like coming back from a ‘change’, even though nothing has been done, nothing been accomplished beyond a glimpse of a vanished city and a vanished time.