Josna Rege

28. Pre-dawn Adventures

In 1960s, India, Stories on March 22, 2010 at 2:27 am

I have never been an early riser, but since childhood it has given me a special thrill to wake up in the night and set out while it is still dark.

Whenever we had to travel to Calcutta from Kharagpur (a three-hour train trip if all went well), my father would waken us in the middle of the night —“in good time,” he called it—so as not to risk our being late. We would dress in the pre-dawn chill and bundle mutely into a specially-ordered rickshaw for the ride to the railway station, where we would lug our bags down the entire length of the platform (Kharagpur was in the Guinness Book of Records for having the longest railway platform in the world) and settle down to wait. Wait we always did, for just as my father insisted on arriving at least an hour early, so the train insisted on arriving  at least an hour late. But it was worth the wait when we were in the dining car ordering Indian Railways’ special vegetable cutlets and omelettes studded with green chillies; and when we stopped at the station where my father would always jump off the train and return, just as it was pulling away, with a plate of piping hot shingaras (Bengali samosas), filled with peas and potatoes.  To this day, no matter how tired I am, waking at 4 am fills me with a rush of excitement and anticipation.

My best friend Puttu and I were feeling restless and wanted to do something different. Nothing we thought of was exciting enough, so we finally decided to try sneaking out of the house in the dark. The next day, at the appointed hour of 4 am, Puttu was at the back door, and I was already dressed and waiting to join her, tiptoeing soundlessly so as not to wake my sister and my parents. (Sally and I had once unintentionally woken my father in the night, and he had leapt out of bed and made for our bedroom brandishing the sword he kept under his mattress for fighting off intruders.)

Outside, the last stars could still be seen in the sky, and as we walked down the empty roads of the campus, only the occasional bungalow showed a flickering light at its windows as the woman of the house rose early to begin her workday.  Even though we had had little sleep the night before, we felt unaccountably light, as if the darkness itself enabled us to glide along effortlessly. We passed through the residential area where the faculty and administrators lived, and past the still-sleeping student residence halls, to the Institute at the big intersection: all empty and silent. We headed up the Midnapur Road, where the quiet was punctuated by the occasional creak of a bullock  cart, and toward the ashram, where American Peace Corps volunteers dug wells and made hard, sudless bars of soap, and where there was a large tank with wide steps leading down into the cool, cloudy water. But we did not swim; the sky was lightening in the East and we had to get back before our parents rose for the day.

On the way home we quickened our pace as we began to meet maidservants on their way to work and milkmen on their rounds with their aluminum pails and in some cases, their cows or buffaloes. (We drank buffalo’s rather than cow’s milk, since cows were susceptible to TB, and our milkman had been bringing his buffalo to the door ever since my father had accused him of adulterating the milk with water and had produced a hydrometer to prove it.) For them, rising early was a necessity, and Puttu and I felt suddenly weary. Home at last, we parted without a word. I slipped back in as soundlessly as I had slipped out and crept into bed, where my little sister was still sleeping soundly.

Scholars' Avenue IIT Kharagpur © Namit Arora

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  1. Amazing! I can absolutely see Manya Kaka brandishing a sword to fight intruders, or using a hydrometer to make a point with the Doodhwallah. He truly is my Great Uncle!

    • Yes, Pinu, those asides are stories in themselves that say a lot about Dad. Actually, the sword was a deadly-looking rapier sheathed in a narrow cane. And the doodhwalla was so scared by the jadu of the hydrometer that he never dared cheat us again! x J

  2. What a wonderful giggle I had reading this one!
    There was nothing I loved more than being woken in the early hours to go with my dad on one of his campaign trips into the hills to visit people in the villages in his district when he was an MLA. (Member of the Legislative Assembly)
    The driver would be warming his hands around a mug of tea in the kitchen and talking quietly with the kongs (maidservants) who had our lunches freshly packed and tea in large thermos flasks. We would be tucked into the jeep with blankets around our knees and off we went waving goodbye to my mom and the kongs. My sisters and brother would still be asleep and that made it all the more exciting!
    The only other vehicles on the road at that hour would be the huge coal trucks which swerved dangerously around the corners every once in a while or an overloaded bus with people hanging out the windows and doors. The women always had their mouths covered by their topmoh (head covering of plaid wool) and our breaths were steamy from the cold.
    I loved stopping at the little tea shops along the road sometimes and having steaming tea as we sat inside on small wooden benches while the men talked politics and planned the meetings they were going to have later in the day.
    On the way back in the evening we often would stop at the same tea shop and eat a wonderful Khasi dinner of rice and curry with our fingers and wash our hands in the shiny aluminum dabors(basins) full of hot water with little pieces of Sunlight soap.
    The villages we went to were set on hillsides that were beautiful with waving bamboos and tall grasses and the meetings would always be held in some football field in the middle of the village or at the edge of an area where they had weekend or monthly bazaars.

    Coming home in the evening was usually a happy affair with singing along the way as everyone loved to sing with my dad who had a lovely deep resonating voice and there was lots of harmonizing.
    I haven’t thought about those wonderful trips for years! Thanks for reminding me!

  3. Ah Marianne, How lovely to read about these special times you had on the road and in the villages with your father. Khasi culture is deep inside you–something that I realize more and more the longer we know each other. And I remember your Dad’s wonderfully deep and rich singing voice–just from that one summer visit they made to Darjeeling while I was there with you. But I also remember you talking about singing in harmony with your family, your father singing bass. One of the greatest pleasures life can offer!

  4. Sounds just about the same Mom! Going on Picnics and stopping at the tea shops, with the shiny basins! Only thing missing in my memory is Grandpa singing along with all the rest of us! I think he would have loved it!

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