Harbour by Hooghly

beatific gem

Harbour by Hooghly

The congestion of Kolkata roads gave way to NH 117, a highway that ran through a lush countryside replete with bright village homes, swaying coconut palms, paddy fields, banana plantations, joyous children flying kites, and lots of bicyclists ringing bells to warn the oncoming traffic of their presence. It was characteristic of rural India: small, shy, happy. This stretch culminates at Diamond Harbour, which is where we were heading for the weekend. It took us around 1.5 hours to cover the 50-km distance from Kolkata, and what a world apart the two places were! 

I had expected Diamond Harbour to be, well, like a usual harbour, but what lay before me as I stood on the eastern bank of the Hooghly river was an expanse of water looking more like a sea. It’s here that Hooghly, a distributary of the mighty River Ganga, turns south into the Bay of Bengal, and this confluence makes the river deeper and wider — the reason the British and Portuguese had felt it was ideal for their big ships to dock here. The Portuguese had erected a fort, which now lies in ruins, and the British had rechristened it Diamond Harbour, its original name being Hajipur.

Seen in silence
I was staying at a riverfront hotel whose USP was its well-landscaped garden with gazebos, and benches at the edge of the waters, where most visitors sat for hours, spellbound by beauteous views. I too was transfixed by the magnetic power of the Ganga, and positioned myself by its banks, mesmerised by the sounds and sights it presented. Not for a moment did I feel like moving away. A slice of daily life was being played before me, and I felt I was watching a Bengali talkie that so effortlessly captures the rhythms of everyday living. Like a typical coastal town that lives off and on the waters, the river is entwined into the lives of people here.

I saw fishnets being cast morning and evening, earthen pots being transported by boat, children being rowed across the water to school, queues of people lining up at the jetty to take the ferry to nearby destinations, noisy holiday-makers enjoying river excursions, and cargo ships with fluttering flags going upstream and downstream. In the background, nature presented its exquisite canvas: the vastness of the blue skies, balmy winter breeze, playful bird-calls, and the gentle lapping of the waves. It was the sort of environment where the ring of the cellphone was met with a frown.

In the late afternoon, I tore myself away from the waters and took a battery-operated rickshaw into town. In a small place like this, everything is at ‘das minit’ or 10-minute distance, and the fare for every place is Rs 100, which is easily bargained down to less than its half.

Its scenic beauty aside, what do you think is the prime attraction of Diamond Harbour? What else but fish! My destination was Nagendra Bazaar, the biggest wholesale fish market of the region. It was a bustling place with a mind-boggling variety of fish being offloaded and packed into freeze boxes for transport. It seemed as if the entire marine world had landed on slabs. And the prices were almost nothing when compared to what the city markets charged. A young man I met mentioned that he was always willing to come on office assignments here, “I return home with the choicest fresh fish at one-tenth the price I pay in Kolkata. For a Bengali, that is joy unlimited,” he laughed, as he drooled over a hilsa the vendor was offering him.

Having literally looked many a fish in the eye, I was back in the rickshaw for another das-minit destination. I had a bumpy ride as I crossed the marketplace and its cheek by jowl shops, selling almost everything, from locally grown vegetables, bright clothes, cellphones to flat screen televisions.

Speck of light
I was heading for the promenade, a leafy stretch where the crowds collected in the evening. As I took a stroll, I discovered that we, visitors, were not the only ones attracted by the waters. Evening revellers packed the benches here. Most of them turned out to be locals enjoying the breeze and tucking into jhal-muri, chop suey, bhel puri or fish fry. Aromas, conversations and the hooter of passing ferries filled the air; as the sky took on a deeper shade of grey, in the far corner across the river lights began twinkling in the lighthouse. The candy-striped tower and its beacon have been silently guiding men at sea since 1808 AD. It’s a piece of history that stands tall at Diamond Harbour, and as the day comes to an end here, it’s time for its lights to burn brighter and continue its task, its constant companion being the quietly flowing Ganga.

I had a stroll and opted for a shared rickshaw this time for my das-minit journey to the hotel. The next morning, I would be back by the riverside to see another day unfold at Diamond Harbour, a little pearl in the Bengal coast.

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