KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We had a real adventure coming home on the train from the hills. We wanted to take a train that provided us with comfortable seats during the day so that we could avoid arriving in Patna at an awkward time in the middle of the night. The only option was to book seats on the Rajdhani - in the AC Sleeper Class - all the way to New Delhi. We would have to pay the full fare to Delhi, even though we would be getting off at Patna. This meant that we could have berths to sleep during the nine-hour journey, and that we would arrive around 10:00 p.m.
The station agent in Gangtok assured us that the Rajdhani train went through Patna, but only on Tuesdays and Saturdays. This worked out well for us, so we booked two seats for a Tuesday. On other days, the train takes a more northerly route through the state of Bihar on its long journey from Guwahati in Assam to Delhi. We boarded the train in New Jalpaiguri, in West Bengal at 1:00 p.m. The train was running only a few minutes early and we sent a text message on our mobile phone to Arun in Patna that we were on our way. I then turned the phone off, not expecting to hear from anyone while we were travelling.
When the conductor checked our tickets, he commented that we were lucky that there were repairs being made to the tracks or otherwise the train would not be passing through Patna and we would have to disembark at a point 80 km from Patna. This didn't surprise us as it seemed to jive with what the booking agent told us when we purchased the ticket. The trip passed quickly and quietly. Most of the passengers on our car had boarded the train early in the morning and they were not seen nor heard.
When we reached the outskirts of the city, we turned the mobile phone on and instantly received two text messages from Arun informing us that the train was not scheduled to stop at Patna and that we should call him immediately. When we rang up, he told us that he had been so worried for the past couple of hours when he heard that the train was not coming to Patna but was passing well north of the city. We told him we were already at the city's edge and that there wasn't a problem as far as we could see. It turns out that the conductor was right. We were very lucky to make our way easily and safely to Bihar's capital. Poor Arun, he was distressed unnecessarily. He had spent what seemed like hours trying to reach us and make plans for us to meet him at God knows where in rural Bihar.
It was tough getting used to the heat after the coolness of the mountains, but we were in Patna to rest and recover from the hectic pace we had set ourselves so we stayed inside mostly and thanks to AC in our bedroom, we slept well at night and during our afternoon naps. We went to the Reliance WebWorld internet near Arun's office every day and I worked on the journal while Anil surfed the net and kept up-to-date on Cricket, F1 racing and Canadian news. We came home each afternoon to wonderful home-cooked meals and quiet times reading books and looking at old photo albums of the Kapoor family.
Now for a little background on Patna. The city stretches for over 15 km along the Ganges river and boasts one of the world's longest bridges, the 7.5 km Mahatma Gandhi Seti. The city is just east of the confluence of three major tributaries of the Ganges and it was these three rivers flooding all at the same time that inundated the Kapoors' home during the monsoon of 1975. The water was eight feet deep inside the ground floor house and most of the family's possessions were lost to the flood.
The city became the capital of the Magadha kingdom early in the 5th century fulfilling a prophecy by the Buddha that a great city would rise at the site. The city maintained its importance for the next 1000 years and even now, is the capital of the state of Bihar. The ruins of the ancient city, formerly known as Pataliputra, are now underwater in a southern district of Patna.
We had toured most of the famous sites in Patna after we were married there in 1974 but I have visited the famous Sikh gurudwara each time I returned to Patna and I wanted to see it once again. Anil was keen on visiting his old secondary school, St. Michael's. Apart from these two places, we were happy to stay at home and relax after our busy tour of the mountains.
We left the house early on Sunday morning in order to avoid the crowds and the traffic in the narrow lanes of the old city where the Sikh temple is located. Our plan succeeded better than we had hoped and we arrived quickly. I remembered well earlier visits where we had battled snarled traffic for what seemed like hours. The beautiful Har Mandir Takht is one of the four holiest Sikh shrines. The gurudwara marks the spot where the last of the 10 Sikh gurus, Guru Gobind Singh was born in 1660. On this visit, we found the temple full of worshipers, teeming with life. Once we had bathed our feet, we entered the shrine. We were all required to cover our heads; the women sit on the right and the men together on the left.
As in all times past, we were invited to eat a meal in the dining room. We had never stayed before, but this time we accepted the hospitality of the Sikhs and sat along with them on the floor for a simple, but tasty meal. All peoples of all faiths are welcome in a Sikh temple, and all are invited to a meal. No one ever asks for money, none is expected. However, people are generous and usually leave a donation in the boxes placed inside the shrine. There is a distinct feeling of warmth, hospitality and peace in all the gurudwaras I have visited, and this one calls me back whenever I am in Patna.
A friend of Arun and Neena's kindly arranged for us to visit the wonderful Jalan Palace Museum not far from the gurudwara in Old Patna. Visitors are welcome, but arrangements to see the private museum must be made in advance. We were greeted by the young grandson of the man who amassed this amazing eclectic collection. He walked with us throughout the large palace pointing out special objects for our consideration. I enjoyed the old man's taste in pottery and jade, especially his celadon pottery from China. We viewed Napoleon Bonaparte's very short bed, Marie Antoinette's Sevres porcelain and some of the Crown Derby dinner service chosen by King George III. At the end of the tour, we were asked to write some comments in the visitor's guestbook. I wrote that the most amazing thing I came across at the museum was the enthusiasm that the twenty-something grandson has for his family's heritage. With the modern age taking hold of the hearts and minds of most youths in India, it was refreshing to find this sincere respect for a grandfather's "old stuff".
On our last morning in Patna, we made the trek out to see Arun and Anil's alma mater, St. Michael's School, established in 1858. It is surprisingly far from the current home of Arun and Neena, and even farther from the old family home on Frazer Road. The boys had to ride their bicycles to and from school each day, rain or shine. Anil's father had heard that St. Michael's had the best teachers and chose to send the boys there despite the fact that the reputable St. Xavier's was much closer to the house. Anil has often spoken of how hard it was for him to keep his white uniform clean on the long ride, especially when people would spit red betel nut juice or buses would splash mud on his trouser legs. Arun and Anil were two of the "day students" at the school and found it hard to keep their uniforms as clean as the "boarders" who only had to walk from the dormitories to their classes. The worst memory Anil has of his school days is having to cycle past the burning ghats along the Ganges, the place where the dead are cremated. He would hold his breath and pedal as fast as he could to get past the smell of the smoke. Arun tells us that the burning ghats have been moved to another location now, at the furthest edge of the city.
Arun and Anil had a great time touring the school. First, they had to get past the guard at the gate by explaining that they are "old boys". I teased them that with their grey hair and stooping shoulders there was never any doubt that they were old boys. The school has changed over the years, the classes are much, much larger and most the former teachers have passed on. The school was run by the Irish Christian brothers and they had a real reputation for teaching throughout India. A Canadian Jesuit priest, Father Burns, that we visited in Darjeeling told us that the Irish Brothers were renowned for their teaching skills. Both Anil and Arun give credit to their English classes for making them fluent in English and avid readers.
We were surprised to learn that the Ganges, that once lapped at the rear walls of the school compound, has shifted its course dramatically and now is at least three-quarters of a kilometre from the school. As we left the school, we drove along a high wall that was erected long ago to help prevent the flooding Ganges from submerging the surrounding neighbourhoods. Every twenty-five yards or so, there is a stairway to allow people access to the river when it is in flood. In between the staircases are gates to allow access during the dry season. There are slots on either side of the gates where large metal sheets are inserted to hold the water back. These sheets provide protection for all the shops, schools, homes and small industries along the banks.
I have taken a couple of photographs of the wall and the staircases. A nimble-footed goat is using the stairs to reach a small hut built at the top of the wall, in the other photo the wall is being used to dry cow dung for fuel. These patties are made by hand, note the hand print in the center of each one. I love taking pictures of staircases, these two will make great additions to my collection!
We had the wonderful opportunity to connect with old friends in Patna, Yow Mei and Min Chin. Min Chin is a school chum of Arun's from St. Michael's days. They were at our wedding in Patna in 1974 and we have had the pleasure of eating Yow Mei's great Chinese cooking on every visit over the years. This time was no different. We had a wonderful evening at their home. I think we ate so much that it impaired my memory; I can't believe I didn't think to take a photo of them before we left that night.
We were also introduced to two other couples in Arun and Neena's building, friends who also share a love of meditation. Whenever possible, the couples meet to pray and meditate together in Arun and Neena's apartment. After tea and tons of goodies at the 11th Floor Kapoors', we returned to Arun and Neena's flat on the 6th Floor to pack before leaving for the airport and our flight to Delhi. Neena made us promise that we'll return to Patna next year...we are thinking of spending time in Darjeeling next spring and it would be on the way.