For the love of picnics

Anjana Basu | Updated on March 10, 2018

Good times The countryside — usually a village by a river or ringed by hills — scores well as the family picnic destination Photo: V Raju   -  THE HINDU

Pleasure island Small fishing boats dot the Matla river in Sundarbans, a WorldHeritage Site in West Bengal Photo: Parth Sanyal   -  PARTH SANYAL

Tea and pakoras, a picnic staple Photo: Shutterstock

A garden house, a tacky resort, a river cruise in the Sundarbans — the perfect day out has many avatars. But it almost always starts with a bit of wrangling over the destination and ends with food-induced sloth

The shimul (‘semal’ in Hindi) trees are beginning to bud and the koels (cuckoos) are going berserk in the trees, and there’s a nip in the air. Perfect picnic weather. Every year Kolkata gets itself together, finds a Saturday or Sunday and heads out for that comfortably distant, not-too-familiar picnic spot, usually somewhere across the 24 Parganas or the districts closer at hand like Midnapore or Hooghly. Places that most tourists seldom get to see.

There’s an art to planning the perfect picnic, as I discovered. It begins with a group of like-minded people sitting together and wrangling over where to go. Should it be a baganbari (garden house) in the 24 Parganas, or should it be a resort? The first one I went to was held in a garden house in Barasat, with a mango orchard and a cook and his helpers thrown in. That meant a formal consideration of the menus that we were offered, a ticking of choices and then sitting back in anticipation. We took that picnic easily, since it was all organised, no running around for competitive quotes. The drive was down roads that had been made straight, a little industrial, giving way to a few small villages, one-horse towns along the way and then, briefly, that wild blue yonder feeling as we went through the wall that separated the estate from the neighbourhood.

Music was the extra ingredient thrown into the melting pot to complement the shade of the trees in the orchard and the tranquil tank that reflected the stirring of the leaves. Meals were served al fresco, dish after dish. As an added incentive came the promise of a bonfire, ready stacked on a patch of cleared ground and waiting for darkness. The caretaker told us that there was an old temple nearby, so the more enthusiastic skipped across the fields, dodging an occasional cycle-van to look at the old terracotta half-ruins with an elderly priest in attendance. When darkness fell, the bonfire roared high, a table was dragged out and piled with pakoras, as also teapots and whisky bottles rubbing shoulders.

Doing a post-mortem later, my friends and I came to the conclusion that Barasat had been predictable, the expected country house party. The thing, we agreed, was to find a place where no one had been before, or where most people didn’t go, a private kind of serendipity that we could savour selfishly.

The second time we stumbled upon a technicolour resort near Badu, slightly beyond the Kolkata Airport limits, that had been recommended by a film friend from Tollywood (the name comes from Tollygunge, the Kolkata neighbourhood synonymous with film studios).

The luxury bus belting out Bollywood remixes jolted us out of the city and down a series of narrow roads that don’t look remotely picnicky. After two or three abrupt jack-knife turns, we came out next to a football field bordered by a narrow road, with high gates on the other side.

The resort was behind one of those high gates. It had a blue gazebo with a green roof and Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cavorting on one side. The main building boasted what you would describe in fashion circles as a vibrant eggplant purple façade with sculpted nymphs in floating draperies. Inside were murals of wild horses streaming across the walls over the very plush couches. It was obviously a one-of-a-kind resort and I wandered around it, waiting for breakfast to be served, so that I could appreciate the whole thing even better — the cook and his helpers had arrived with their pots and pans and spices in another van to set up shop in the kitchen space. Across the football field was a snake park, so the whole gently kinky experience could be rounded off in comfort as you watched a man enter a cage full of poisonous snakes. This was diluted with some gentle games of football and food, food and more food.

Crisp, piping hot kachoris with potato curry and omelette on the side for breakfast. Pulao rich in cashew nuts, daal and fine threads of crisp-fried potatoes for lunch with fish or chicken and the smoky sweetness of notun gur. The kids, stuffed and entertained, ran by clutching balls and skipping ropes while the adults droned in a buzz of conversation. Sunset brought tea and packing and, when the wind began to blow cooler, a run for the bus.

I discovered Deulti, famous for a house belonging to novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, during another February. The author of Devdas was a much-housed man, but the one at Deulti was known for its Burmese architecture. Confident in the knowledge that there was a resort nearby, my friends and I set out in a Tata Sumo, armed with tiffin carriers and orders for local confectionery to be picked up along the way. Deulti, in the Hooghly district, holds an annual Sarat Chandra festival with books on sale, staged scenes from his novels and, if you’re lucky, a showing of Devdas or Parineeta in the evening. The road was packed with cheering lorry-loads, women in bright saris and children in frilly frocks waving at us as they whizzed by. Most of West Bengal, it seemed, was picnicking.

After the usual 10am picnic breakfast, followed very quickly by lunch, we started out organising cycle-vans before too much good food slowed us into slumber. You can normally pile six people on those precarious-looking planks, three balanced on either side to make sure the cycle-van bowls steadily down the roads. I found my Levis sticking out halfway across and kept jerking my legs back every time a car approached, but nothing alarming really happened except for the local children laughing their guts out. Chattopadhyay’s house was a low, red-brick building with a river winding away in the distance — when it was built, the river was just beyond the wall, but time and soft soil had sent it further away. The rooms were full of books and the memories of revolutionaries who came and went. Chattopadhyay wrote three novels there before he moved to Kolkata in his old age — the names were written in stone by the gate.

The thick walls which kept it cool in summer gave the place an extra winter chill, backed by the falling afternoon light. We piled ourselves back on our patiently waiting cycle-vans and returned to the resort to be greeted by ginger tea and sandesh. We agreed that all it needed was an intense literary adda, with side rundowns of the way Bollywood treated Saratchandra, to make it complete; we made brave resolves to return and check out the annual festival.

I had a theory that since new highways were springing up all over the place, we should be able to picnic somewhere further away, like Santiniketan for example, doing the weekend in a single day. But no one really paid attention to those theories; it would mean getting up too early, which would spoil the idle pleasures that the true picnic represented, blah blah. I persisted in a faint fashion but without any real hope until the river picnic popped up from nowhere. And not just the ordinary river picnic, a peaceful sail from Outram Ghat down the Hooghly to dock at a jute mill’s sahib bungalow for rest and recreation on a manicured green lawn, but a wild trip to the Sundarbans, something which I thought took two or three days of cruising.

“Impossible,” my friends and family gasped, “you just can’t do it!” and for a while I had my doubts about it but the picnic organisers seemed sure that one day would work, so I left it to them.

Yes, it did start early, setting out eventually at seven in the morning for a drive to Basanti, some 88km away, where the boat was moored. A drive through the early morning haze, with trees in soft focus arching gracefully over the roads. And then the boat and breakfast and the slow unfolding of the wide river with mangroves on either side. There were heated discussions on The Hungry Tide coming from both sides of the deck in between glimpses of the church that Hamilton Sahib built in Gosaba. The light changed, kingfishers fluttered into the air and I dreamt of spotting tigers camouflaged amongst the orange and green-fronded heti leaves. Dreams punctuated by descents into islands, climbs up watchtowers, and food, the expected delights of so many less-adventurous picnics adding their richness to the experience. And as darkness fell, there were stories of tigers prowling on the top deck of boats while the sailors shivered below deck praying that ‘uncle’, since tigers were not to be named, would go home.

I came home the same night though, yes, it was a long day. Long picnics were possible, I thought triumphantly, edited versions of weekend breaks which would be perfect for people with a time crunch. Now I have to sit back and start planning for those cool holidays, Mandarmoni during the monsoons, Bokkhali in late autumn, Panighata...

Anjana Basu is a Kolkata-based writer

Published on December 11, 2015

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