Lepcha and my experiences of the nearly antiquated time!
‘Lepcha' is a tribe of the Himalayan Mountains. They are a very industrious people. They live mostly between Tibet and Nepal.
Of course the reason for my remembering the Lepcha people is not to generate a conversation on the mountain races. The name is entrenched in my mind since my childhood. This is because there was a time when, in a country criss-crossed by rivers and not infested by roads, people used to rely on transportation via waterways very frequently. It was in those days that we used to travel with our parents through the rivers and rivulets of Bengal. My father, a government officer, had to travel far and wide either on official duties or on transfers and everyone in the family had to travel with him in case of transfer or some in the family in case of short trips. I happened to have had the special opportunity to go along with my father when he travelled on these short trips. During these travels we used to go from place to place by pedalled steamers cruising noiselessly through rivers of myriad characters. Steamer travel used to be a favourite with all Bangalis across all economic classes. They travelled in exclusive cabins, on slightly less patrician enclosures called Inter Class or in the plebeian Deck Class. And they loved to romanticise these travels. A lot of Bangla stories have been woven around steamer travels and were subsequently filmed. I was reading a short story by the famous Bangali author Buddhadev Bose the other day. It was a very engaging love story. Buddhadev Bose grew up in East Bengal and studied in Dhaka. He travelled between Dhaka and Kolkata a lot. A majority of the distance in this journey used to be covered by steamer from Naryanganj to Goalondo. The steamer service and the subsequent train from Goalondo to Kolkata used to be known as the Dhaka Mail. We, in our childhood or adolescence also used the same route regularly.
Prmendra Mitra wrote a famous poem while travelling by a ship across the Atlantic which was later composed in to a song and sung by various eminent Bangla singers, the latest being Sabina Yasmin. There, in that song, he called the ship a steamer, which could be either attributed to his poetic license used for better rhyming or nostalgia about the steamers of Bengal. An inadequate adaptation of some lines of the poem by yours truly is as follow. “Is it a touch of green? May be! But who cares! Cutting across colours dotted by a drop of smile of the sun, are the gulls... and the steamer reaches the domain of blue to arrive at the shores of the eternal time”. All this was my attempt at going back to Lepcha and my experiences of a nearly antiquated time.
Lepcha is a small quaint steamer of the size of its various other cousins like the Florican, Tern et al. These were small feeder passenger vessels to connect distant smaller stations with the larger junctions e.g. Patuakhali with Barisal or Madaripur with Goalondo. We lived in places like Madaripur, Khulna and Kushtia and travelled in these steamers a lot. These smaller vessels were in no way as grand as the larger vessels like the Kiwi, Emu, Ostrich or even the later members of the club, Ghazi and Mashood. But in style, grace and service they were as grand as their bigger brothers. The cuisine used to embody the Raj-day magnificence, whether it was the Anglo-Indian set-dinner or Indian curry and rice. I always wondered why is it that in a world of steamers named after exotic birds, all of sudden a steamer was named after a race! Ghazi and Mashood were either built and released or renamed in the Pakistani days. But Lepcha? Well that is another story to be to be kept in store for another day. A few weeks back I had decided to take a break and journey back my memory lane. An opportunity came when we were invited by a friend to visit them in Barisal. Sara, my wife, and I wanted to replicate the journey by what is known as the “Rocket” service of which I have some fabulous memories. To my pleasant surprise I discovered that the steamer placed for the day was Lepcha. The pleasantness of my surprise, I am afraid, did not live very long. On arrival at the vessel I found some attendants who seemed little bothered about settling in the passengers. The lounge that is usually called the saloon in these steamers wore a gloomy look with dishevelled torn and musty smelling rugs. The staffs were courteous though. One of them, an old hand, seemed to have belonged to the better days and was also embarrassed seeing us. We used to make very frequent trips by this service years ago. I think I faintly remembered his face. He said that Lepcha was not the steamer that we should have settled for because it had lost the old glory. The wash rooms were full of fetid stench and the equipments were either breaking away or had given up. The front deck that used to be the place where people would want to spend most of their time had a few almost unusable chairs. Some people who were there were all smoking away in that public place with little respect for their fellow non-smoking passengers. There were no ashtrays anywhere and the deck was strewn with stubs of cigarettes. The windows in the cabins through which you could see the sky and the river, were sealed. There were some air conditioners fitted in the cabins that did not work properly. Then came the dinner time. The days of the mulligatawny soup or the smoked hilsa followed by roast chicken and a vegetable salad concluded by a gateau or at least a caramel custard pudding had given way to very ordinary fare like those that you could get in disreputable restaurants. Foods were full of grease and spices and the staled fish or chicken must have re-emerged from the fridge after being there for eternity. All in all it was a sordid experience. It was hard to imagine that this is the same service that was so dear to our hearts, a trip that we longed for and a journey that we promoted amongst our foreign friends. Indeed this was the service that could have attracted a large number of tourists who ostensibly found nothing to see in Bangladesh. But we managed to decimate it to near oblivion. My heart pained with an unfathomable sadness.
I woke up very early in the morning, ambled across to the deck, and sat there looking at the pristine beauty of rural Bangladesh on either bank of the narrow river. Lepcha pedalled in its quiet mission forward. I sat there by the railing ran my hand over it in my love for the Lepcha that was. Lepcha responded in its language of silence. It said in a whisper where are the likes of you that cared?
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