Memories, Lessons and Experiences: Chandernagore through an NRI lens.

ASHIM CHAKRABARTY

Team Photographer, Heritage & People of Chandernagore

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Through my time on this project, I have always been teased as being the NRI born and brought up in Dubai who falls in love with Bengal. I become the ma mati manush almost instantly as I step down the train from Sealdah. This is what happened again in the August of 2015, as I became part of the team going to conduct workshops in the French town of Chandernagore, with some fellow Bengali colleagues and my senior from college Sovan Saha aka Shovan da.  It was sort of a déjà-vu when I got off the train at Howrah, memories of last summer when we did the Chinsurah mapping came tricking down. In the heat of May 2015, Meghna Chatterji and I walked every street of the erstwhile Dutch waterfront settlement. From Howrah we had to board the local train to go to Chinsurah, this routine I was familiar with, once Meghna and I had boarded the Burdawan local in the opposite direction instead of going to Howrah and realized the mistake only when the TT came and checked our tickets and put us on the next train while Ma’am was waiting at Howrah for us for almost 2 hours.

Lessons learnt, this time I checked  and doubled checked; when I ascended from the Burdawan local at Chinsurah, the streets, the sounds of vendors screaming out in their Bong accents started filling my ears and my heart. It was almost nostalgia hearing the snack vendors screaming “ jhaal moori jhaal moori”… Soon what caught my attention was a rickshaw wanting to go to ‘Ghorir More’, the famous clock round about right in the middle of the town built by the British.

As the rickshaw strode past the narrow lanes, my eyes continued to scan the roads which I had mapped during my last visit here,  almost as if my GPS was running in my mind which had already drawn a path leading to our hotel. We were staying at  “Hoteil Bulu Diemond”(thats how they pronounced Blue Diamond), although a very small place, this hotel was the best in town, I knew it from my past visits other than the manager boasting out that even the actor Mithun Chakraborty resides here on his visits. I was surprised that when I went here the staff of the hotel remembered me and asked me how I was and how was didi (meaning Meghna). Our train from Delhi had been delayed so hunger pangs were finally getting the better of me and what better way to satisfy them than head to Banerji Cabin’ a famous restaurant along Ghorir more.

 

The funny thing was I would go to this restaurant every day and ask the waiter to recite the whole menu and finally order the Chicken Roll, irritating the waiter to the core, well he was still there and he instantly recognized me too, but this time he smile and said “dada after a long time you came.” I have a strange sort of love affair with Chinsurah, I can spend evenings just relaxing at the Ghats, my reverie was broken by Udit my colleague who had just finished the heritage walk at Chandernagore and joined us.

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The next day was an important day; we woke up early and got ready soon. Had some breakfast and met up with another crew member who had travelled from Delhi and was working on the community engagement workshop with us, Chitra along with Manvi another history student working on this project. I had always heard from the people of Chinsurah many times that if we wanted to look for heritage we should go to Chandernagore, I always wondered what was it that was so special here, until I actually reached Chandernagore, and I saw with my own eyes, the town had an amazing character and the place where the event was to be held was an amazingly old structure which reflected the beautiful French heritage. Every detail seemed to excite me and I also met an amazing photographer Mr Shanjeet Chowdhury from whom I got to learn a thing or two on roll cam photography. The walk went well which was followed by an amazing comic book workshop which was conducted by Chitra. More than attending the workshop and rather being a member of the co-ordinating side of the scene I actually learned a lot as well. We were there till late evening and then we went back. On our way back to Chinsurah, I got to play the local guide, explaining places and stories along the way about our work and the town and what I loved about it etc. I was excited to show Chitra the whole town of Chinsurah and since it was her first visit, we grabbed our walking shoes and set off for a long walk to explore the street food, life and the ghats of Chinsurah.

The next day we woke up and left but as we stepped out of the hotel we were greeted by a typical August rain shower that we had to run back and couldn’t leave soon and while the clock was ticking, the delay was imminent. I had to get some last minute printing and then finally I reached Strand for the Community Engagement workshop, there were some people stranded between their daily walks to find out what was happening. The whole team was up in action to set up the stall. There were bamboo structures and colorful umbrellas to shade the area we had selected to interact with the passer byes, seeing all that even I sprang into action. We had made up a game of our own and had stories to tell people. I could see Sovan da at a distance carrying out his general interactions with the people, while our games continued. I was busy capturing all the activity through the lens of my camera. Tiny kids were amused to play the Chandernagore memory game and the elder school kids were enjoying the game we created.

 

But like every story has a twist, our great going trip too had a bit of an adventure, we had to reach the Sealdah station to head back to Delhi but towards the end things started getting stressed up; although in DDLJ, it looked really romantic running behind a leaving train, in reality to run and catch Sovan da’s hand to get on to the train as something else, so Chitra and I were left behind fuming and frustrated while the train disappeared.

I was honestly so irritated and angry at that situation for some reason but later I felt really sad that I got to face such a situation at work and on top of that Chitra abandoned me and left by air. I was almost crying when I picked up the phone to call Ma’am and she suggested that head back to Chandernagore. On the way back I felt really sad on realizing how it was partially my fault but felt good as Ma’am said that its from mistakes that we learn , and I am sure I’ll never be repeating this again. Somehow all tired I got back to Chandernagore. Udit was waiting for me at the gate to Rabindra Bhawan. He had a smile on his face and cheering me up he went like ‘ arey you are back, great I have a nice helping hand now for the future events. He told me to keep all my stuff in the room and said lets go have dinner. I was starving and the travelling both ways made me even hungrier. We stuffed our stomachs with nice heavy food and slept off. The next day was a day for arranging things and at evening even ma’am came to Chandernagore for the closing event the very next day. Ma’am, Udit and I, we all went for dinner together before which we did some shopping.

The next day we all left on time for the event to be scheduled. We had arranged for an interschool quiz competition followed by a food competition where there was a twist as a Bengali food was to be made with a hint of France into it. I like the idea very much and was excited to get an opportunity to try out the food by the various contestants. After the event was over I rushed this time for my train which was scheduled at 6:30. I left as early as 3:30 along with Udit as he was going home. I reached really early and waited for my train to slowly pull into the platform. Got a seat and soon said goodbye to an amazing journey of my life and which is always going to be an important learning lesson for me.

I may not have been born and brought up in Bengal and heard stories about it from my grandmothers and parents but finally I too have my own stories of Bengal of Chinsurah and Chandernagore that I am surely going to pass on.I met people here whose hearts were filled with love, who helped us as much as they could sometimes even going out of the way for us. Most people opened their homes and hearts to us strangers, the one thing that bound us together was language. There was an old woman we met in Chinsurah, she was a tea vendor, but she gave us such wonderful insights into the town’s history. We called her dida and even this trip, I went searching for her. Bengal found a special place in my heart and I will always cherish it.

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