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Snapshots in charcoal...

(Re-visiting) The sands of Bak-Khali - 2006

You will find info on Bakhkhali's geographical location and how to get there at the bottom of this write-up.

A nostalgic rant...

from an obscure fishing hamlet, Bakkhali is 'threatening' to grow into a major tourist hub . This is good news for the local economy, and for people thinking of visiting the place for the first time. But for people who have experienced the pristine, natural beauty of Bakkhali, 'development' is a let-downer.

What I saw in 1990, when I first visited Bakhkhali was a sleepy little village on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. There was sparse tourist accommodation, a few thatched restaurants serving frugal yet wholly satisfying home-made meals, a desolate unlit beach with millions of sunbathing red crabs, and apart from the sounds of the waves and the wind, a silence which was like balm to the tortured ears of city-dwellers like me. There was a meditative quality to the ambience of Bakkhali in those days. A kind of intoxication in its intimacy with nature, unlike the kind of 'artificial' intoxication people seek at present. I felt like wringing the necks of tourists littering the beach with liquor bottles (some of it broken - can you imagine!).

I remember spending almost an entire night on that gray windswept beach, glowing silver in the light of a full moon. There were inquisitive crabs all around me, creeping in to take a closer look, and scrurrying back the moment I stirred, or threw clumps of sand at them, which managed to dissuade them only for a few minutes before they were right back at their game... one of my fond memories of Bakkhali of the unspoiled past.

The water was clean, waves gently lapping at my feet during low tide, lazily receding to leave behind long serpentine trails of surf. They were angry and unpredictable at high tide, crashing into me, or taking me under as I stood chest deep in water. I remember being frequently surprised by such unexpected rising of swells. It was dangerous, but hugely enjoyable. The beach was as flat as a landing strip at one end, muddy and cutting inland at the other. I learned to avoid this part of the beach after two painful hours of battling the waves, during which my skin got scraped from the roots and stumps of trees recently submerged by the sea. But the other part was smooth as honey (for want of a better analogy), disappearing into the waves at a very very gentle slope. I remember staying in water from high noon till sundown, getting tossed around by the sea. My cuts and scratches healed miraclulously after that long drenching in salt water. This time, I was going back to Bakkhali after nearly five years and found that it has changed a lot, for better or for worse.

The better and the worse...

The first thing I noticed was the quality of the approach road, the 25 km stretch from Namkhana to Bakkhali. This was a far cry from the pot-holed thing of the past. Obviously the government has taken a closer look at Bakkhali. Then there were lots of shiny new cars, tourists driving in straight from Kolkata, and a bevy of private buses operating, I was told, at 15 minutes of interval. I have travelled this stretch on the back of goods vehicles, or on 'trekkers', which were ancient land-rovers packed with people like clumps of grape.

As I came nearer and nearer to Bakkhali, I couldnt help noticing the number of new hotels coming up on either side of the road. More hotels to accommodate more tourists, which meant Bakkhali was beginning to rock. Which also meant, more employment, and less families like the one on the left (Granny and her little granddaughters). Mixed emotions tugged at my heart, for I was also beginning to lament the loss of the 'old' Bakhkhali. However, a rude shock was in store for me when I finally got down from the bus. Below is a letter to the editor of The Telegraph, a prominent Kolkata daily, which I wrote upon my return. It was published as the 'most important letter of the day' on 23.04.06. I will not elaborate further on this issue, hoping that the authorities will think about this strange anomaly and do something to rectify it.

I spent three happy days there, one of which was 'Poila Boishakh' or the first day of the month of Boishakh, the Bengali New Year's day. Bakkhali was full of tourists, and after a while I didnt mind the crowd. In any case, from early dawn till late at night, I was mostly walking off to desolate places, sketchbook, pencils and water bottle in hand, away from the tourist hot-spots. I rented a rickshaw van for less than Rs 200/- which took me to some of the important places around Bakkhali - Frasergunj, Henry's island, Benfish harbour etc. I also saw that amazing palm tree with 18 seperate heads growing out of its top - a freak of nature. What I didnt see was the crocodile firm, which I had seen on an earlier visit.

Unless I was sketching in an utterly desolate place, sooner or later a crowd would gather around me. First the kids, then the adults. This is how I got to meet a warm young woman who was highly enthusiastic about my work. She asked me more than once when I would be leaving, and commented rather out of the context that she loved to go on long destination-less rides down moonlit roads. I left without telling her that I would be leaving the day after.

The hotel rent in Bakhkhali has risen sharply, with one asking for Rs 800/day for AC rooms. The one I was boarding in was in the low end of things, nevertheless charged me Rs 200/- and Rs 50/- less once the Polia Boishakh tourist boom was over. I made friends, rather it was the other way round as I was actively discouraging company, with the owner of a small roadside eatery, a youth in his early 20s, who also aspired to be a painter but didnt know how to escape the daily grime of running a restaurant. He eagerly poured over my sketchbook and showed some of his own work. I suggested that he paint or draw scenes from in and around Bakkhali and put his work up for exhibition cum sale in his own shop. I dont know if he will take my suggestion, but considering the growing tourst activity ( I even noticed a few foreigners) he may have a good chance of recognition in Bakhkahli itself.

Three new striking features of Bakkhali are the sodium vapour lights on the beach, the spanking new brick-and-concrete embankment adorned with colorful wooden benches, and the windmills generating electricity. I have always felt that the strong sea breeze at Bakkhali was being wasted. I am glad that somebody else, but with the means to usher in change, had had similar thoughts. The beach is lit till 10 o' clock at night which favorably extends the family tourist hour. The embankment is a revelation! About a Km long, this is the product of private donation and enterprise. I was told that a wealthy Bengali gentleman, who had wished to make Bakhkhali the perfect refuge for him and his young wife, was responsible for its construction. His wife passed away before his dream home could be completed, and he decided to leave something for the betterment of Bakkhali. Therefore, coordinating with local authorities (which I am sure was no mean feat!) he built the embankment, with chairs and all. His beach-front house stands completed at one end of this embankment, desolate, inhabited only by the care-taker.

The Taj Mahal...

On the last night before I was to leave Bakkhali, I was walking down the beach long after the lights were out. The moon was behind clouds. There was not a single soul in sight. The sea breeze was buzzing in my ear. I could hear a few dogs howling further inland. The 'empty house on the beach' was obscenely breaking the law of the night, awash as it was in its bevy of violet-white lights. I didnt care much about its architecture, but then it was a matter of opinion. What really mattered was that not too long ago, a young woman had died, and her husband, who still loved her dearly, and enormously mourned her death, had built this house, and the embankment, which has triggered a sequence of development projects. It has irked old-timers like me, bringing in more and more tourists, but has benifited hundreds of the local people. As I left the beach to return to my hotel, I raised my head to look for one last time at this Taj Mahal of Bakkhali.


Location - 132 kms from Kolkata. Approachable by rail, road or even waterway. Regular buses from Esplanede, Kolkata will take you to Namkhana, where you cross the Hathania Doania river (at an incredible fare of 25p per person as on Apr 2006!). On the other side private operators run frequent buses to Bakhkhali, which lies just 25 kms away. You can also travel directly by car, but will have to wait for the floating jetty to take your car, others' cars, and the State Surface transport bus across the river. There is also a train from Sealdah to Namkhana. I caught a train to Diamond Harbour (on the Sealdah route). Namkhana, terminus to frequent buses coming from Kolkata, is about 56 kms from here. En route falls Kakdwip and Lot no. 8 ( from where a ferry service will take you to Sagar island - a popular place of pilgrimage). There! I think I have done enough for the State Tourism Administration without hope of even a paltry remuneration :o)




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