Gopikrishna babu had left behind both his paan box and tobacco container in his office.
When he reached the Baubazar crossing he remembered that he had not brought his umbrella either. He had thought it would not rain, but it seemed he was wrong. There were large clouds gathering above the tall buildings on Central Avenue. He knew that he could not afford to forget the paan box. Anybody could filch it from his table. So he returned to his office again. The In-charge babu was still working with great concentration. Nobody else was around. Obviously he was trying to impress his boss. ‘To hell with it’, thought Gopikrishna. They only had to show some work worth Rs. 150. Otherwise the boss could fire them. Who knew? The times were tough. Their salary of 50 rupees was stuck there. Nobody was getting any raises. It was a war market. It was becoming impossible to run a household. Nobody but the sufferer could appreciate it. Only 50 rupees salary. Not a paisa extra. Of course overtime could pay one more rupee per day but there were few of them each month. At least the office still provided the food ration; otherwise he and the family would have died of hunger by now. He was feeling very hungry. That sidewalk vendor was frying large Kachoris. Must be four paisa each. He really wanted one but could he afford it? Instead he sat in another tea stall, had half a cup of tea and a cigarette for two paisas and somehow tried to forget his hunger.
That red building next door was once a boarding house. 50/2 Dhanwantari Bose Lane. Gopikrishna tried to calculate. It was about thirty-three years ago. He was in his third year at Bangabasi College. Those days…ah! Those friends, Bipin, Kanu, Binod babu, Sheel, Moti, Kangla, squinty Shambhu, Sushobhan Mitra, so much friendship, so much intimacy, so many exchanges of ideas and opinions. What lofty ambitions they had. They hoped to go to Bombay and get lucrative jobs there, not care about anyone left behind at home, marry some Parsee beauty, become like the white bosses. Why on earth did he want to marry a Parsee girl? Perhaps he got the idea after eyeing some pretty Parsee girls near Eden Garden. He also dreamed of going to England. That was almost impossible, but not a totally unreasonable hope. He had his whole life in front of him. Perhaps some miracle would happen.
Squinty Shambhu (Shambhu Chakravarti M.B.—Homeo—Gold Medalist—Free Treatment for the Poor) had a tiny dispensary for many years at the Baubazar crossing. It did not look like much of an earning. Gopikrishna occasionally dropped by there on his way home. He got free tea there, so he saved two paisas. There were hardly any patients, so it was convenient to visit.
Shambhu that day was reading a newspaper, he welcomed his old friend, “Come, come, sit down. Have you seen the news today? The Japanese are again going six miles….”
—“Oh, skip your news. Life is too hard to keep track of other countries. Finished your tea?”
—“Not at all. Sit down. I’ll order.”
—“Why? What happened to your stove?”
—“Can’t get a pin! Don’t know what’s wrong with the darned thing. Been acting up since yesterday. Hey, Madhu—”
The all purpose servant Madhu brought over two cups of tea in a kettle from the shop next door. After filling the cups a little bit of tea was left over which they used to refill their cups later. While sipping tea, the two friends started talking about traveling, that is, talking about their wishes to travel, which places were the best, what time was most suitable etc. Both of them loved to travel, but both were entangled in many demands of family, wife and children. Neither could actually afford to go anywhere, but both enjoyed talking about it. Shambhu had once been to Magara, long ago. There he had stayed with his aunt. Gopikrishna had gone a bit further, up to Bardhaman. That was it. That was the extent of travel for both of them.
But every year, before the Puja holidays, two of them planned all kinds of trips—“Lets really go somewhere this year—know what I mean? We spend so much money on so many things…if we could collect forty rupees, we could visit Kashi.” Then both would start arguing, Kashi or Gaya? Or Santal Pargana? At last they would postpone their plans for that day, only to start next day again, “What do you say? Then lets finalize Bhagalpur? We have never been to the hills. Are there hills in Bhagalpur?” Neither knew for sure. Soon Puja would arrive. In that one month before Puja, they would talk about so many places near and far, Peshwar, Kashmir, Delhi, Jaipur, Brindaban, Shillong, even Nalhati in district Birbhum. Ultimately they would end up going nowhere. Doctor Shambhu would be threatened by his landlord for not paying rent for three months; Gopikrishna’s youngest son would came down with typhoid. All their travel plans would disappear into thin air.
It had been like this for many years. Yet the two travel addicts would not let go of their dream. They began from the end of monsoon and went on planning right up to the Puja. The planning at least did not cost them any money. Looking up the railway timetable and finding the names of these far away places gave them immense pleasure.
That day, while sipping tea, Gopikrishna said, “It is only a month till Puja. This time we really need to go somewhere. Lets decide today. What do you say? Got that timetable?”
The timetable was ready. It was always ready at the table of those who never managed to go anywhere. Doctor Shambhu put his glasses on and started turning the pages.
—“ Heard Chitrakut is a great place. Do you know anything about it?”
One blind was leading the other. Gopikrishna said, “Oh, yes. Very nice place.”
—“Just check the fare. This time please don’t say no. Lets go to Chitrakut.”
Gopikrishna could have easily said that reason for their lack of travel was not the lack of his opinion alone, but he sagely kept quiet. They found the train fare. Shambhu said, “Add twenty rupees more for lodging and boarding, paan, cigarettes, it’s war time, know what I mean?”
—“Of course, of course.”
—“Then let’s start getting ready? What do you say? Puja is not far off.”
Two friends hashed out the logistics for two more hours. They decided to take food from home, to save money. Everything was so expensive. They needed a bedding hold-all each, Shambhu kept adding, “Mosquito nets, pillows—”
Gopikrishna impatiently stopped him, “Whoa, whoa. Don’t just rattle on, write them down. We need to finalize it now. Yes, mosquito nets, pillows, what else? Blankets—”
One man called from outside, “Is this the dispensary?”
—“Yes, yes. What do you need?”
The man asked, “Homeopathic?”
—“Yes. Homeopathic. Excellent homeopathic. Who is it for? Who is ill?”
—“No one is ill. I was just asking—”
The man left. Shambhu came back to the list and said with great irritation, “Look at this guy. Unnecessary, wasting time ….
Yes, you said a lightweight blanket. Next—”
After about ten in the evening two friends called it a day and decided to continue next evening. Gopikrishna went home, had dinner and went to bed, but the excitement of the planning kept him up. How far was Chitrakut? Perhaps they would have to travel through many forests and mountains. Perhaps it would be a very long train journey.. Oh, they would have so much fun! Oh yes, he must take a tin of good cigarettes. Expensive? Perhaps. But money was spent in so many less important things. This was an important occasion in their lives. They would see mountains! He had never seen mountains in his entire life! How many days till Puja? Gopikrishna had to get up look at the calendar—only twenty-six days! One had to start arranging for the necessary money…
Gopikrishna’s wife’s parents lived near Kolaghat. One of her brothers got a good job in the military and had left for Kanpur. He had just returned home for a visit. One had to go meet him. Gopikrishna’s wife kept prodding her husband, “Why don’t we go to Kolaghat for Puja this year? We could meet my brother too.”
Gopikrishna got irritated, “Like I have time to go to your prehistoric village to meet some brother of yours—”
Wife also replied sharply, “May be they are prehistoric, but my brother is lot better off than you and your homeopathic water seller friend. At least he is earning one hundred fifty. And you? You have been stuck in sixty since our marriage. Wanted to go to Belur, the two of us, but you could never manage that even.”
Gopikrishna turned away and shut his eyes. There was no point in arguing with women!
Next day Gopikrishna again visited his friend after office hours. Along with tea, the two friends conducted serious discussion about their trip. The important question was how much money to bring along. Shambhu said, “Yesterday Ashu Sanyal came after you left. He said en route there is a station named Nimiaghat. If we break journey there, we could climb Mount Pareshnath. Why don’t we do that? We can visit two places in one trip.”
—“Yes. Highest peak on the Bengal plain. To see it—”
—“Ok, ok. Good idea. We could do it.”
—“Let’s figure out the money part… travel for instance, train fare, plus food—”
—“Shopping can eat up any amount of money. Leave that aside for now. Just calculate the net expense—”
Thus that evening too was spent. Next evening they started with luggage. Whether they should take mosquito nets or not was not resolved in one evening. Doctor Shambhu said, “Whether there are mosquitoes or not, it is always wise to carry a net along. Mosquitoes cause malaria, filaria and whole bunch of other diseases. A net is an essential part of the luggage.” Gopikrishna’s opinion, “Hilly western parts of Bengal have no mosquitoes. It is not humid and swampy like the rest of Bengal. Why carry around extra weight unnecessarily …”
Ten p.m. Both men ended their argument for the day and left for home.
Next day’s agenda included what food to take along. Both agreed that it was better to carry homemade paratha and aloo curry for the train journey. Food was very expensive in the stations. Even one rupee’s worth would not fill anyone’s stomach. Then the argument started whether to take loochi or paratha. Perhaps potato could be skipped? Potato was very expensive. How about some pumpkin sabzi?
This kept them occupied for a few days. In the mean time, Puja holidays were coming closer. Gopikrishna was summoned to the boss’s chamber. The boss said, “I better tell you now. Your name is not on the list of those who will receive the Puja bonus this year.”
—“Why not, Sir?”
—“Because last year you and a few others received the bonus. This year we are including those that were left out. Just to equalize.”
—“But Sir, that is not fair. Last year you gave us bonus because of our good performance. So, what have we done wrong this year?”
But, as usual, in the Bengali offices the boss’s edict was the final word. No amount of arguing would work. So, others got one and half month’s bonus but Gopikrishna got only his monthly pay. That very day he applied for some advance, but only received fifteen rupees. Even that he could not hang on to. A letter came from his ancestral village home. His old aunt had written that the property tax had not been paid for some time and the taxmen were threatening to foreclose. Gopikrishna must immediately remit eight rupees and thirteen annas as back tax payment for six quarters. Gopikrishna’s first reaction was anger. Let it be foreclosed. He wouldn’t care. It was only a ruin of a house, full of weeds and mosquitoes. His aunt could enjoy the fruits from the orchards but could not pay the taxes? Why should he pay it? He did not even live there!
Later on his wife calmed him down and explained that it was not wise to cut one’s nose to spite one’s face. After the old lady died, Gopikrishna would be the sole owner of the property. Naturally, one couldn’t expect her alone to be responsible for taxes.
That evening, Gopikrishna entered Shambhu’s dispensary feeling rather low and depressed. There he found his friend too in the same mood. They had tea, but neither brought up the topic of their trip. At last Gopikrishna gathered up his courage and asked, “So, any more thoughts about our trip?”
Shambhu sighed, “Brother, whatever I earned this month was all spent in buying clothes and gifts for the family! One sari costs forty-three rupees! Can you believe how expensive everything has become? But, there are still five more days. Perhaps some difficult and expensive case will show up…”
Gopikrishna then explained his situation. Both of them pinned their hopes on those last five days before the holidays. But unlike his friend, Gopikrishna knew that he had no chance of making any extra money in those five days. Not even winning a lottery.
Shambhu said, “Well, even if we can’t afford Chitrakut—-that far—”
—“In the time table there is another place closer, sage Rishyashringa’s ashram, six miles from Kajra station on the loop line. It says it has very good scenery—”
—“My sister in-law mentioned Pareshnath mountain again. One can get there from Nimiaghat station on the grand cord line. Want to go there? It will be less expensive.”
Again they went back and forth till ten o’clock. Rishyashringa or Pareshnath? Which one was cheaper? Calculating from the timetable they found both the places would still cost twenty five to thirty rupees per person. That was the minimum.
—“We will manage it somehow,” assured Shambhu.
Surprisingly, suddenly there was a marked decrease in both diseases and patients in Calcutta. Previously Shambhu could earn at least two rupees in a day, now even five anna’s Nux Vomika was a hard sell. Not only there were no patients but there was no customer for medicines either.
On top of all this, Shambhu’s cousin brother and wife landed at his doorstep. Apparently it was very difficult to eke out a living in their village. So they came to be Shambhu’s dependents. After all he was such a famous doctor in the city. He would not let his own cousin go hungry.
Gopikrishna too was having a rough time. His niece and her husband bought a large Ilish fish for five rupees and brought it over to his house while visiting. Gopikrishna’s wife reminded her husband, “Remember to pay the price of the fish before they leave.”
—“Why do I have to pay? Did I ask him to buy such an expensive fish?” Gopikrishna was angry, “Were we all starving without it?”
—“Shh. You can’t talk like that!” The wife tried to mollify him, “After all, he is our son in-law. We have to pay him back. We all ate the fish. He wasn’t alone.”
—“So what? We can get by with Khayre fish for six annas. What have I gained by buying a fish for five rupees?”
As usual, such arguments were of no use. As the guests were leaving, Gopikrishna stuffed a five rupee note in the pocket of his son on-law. He wanted to save eight rupees, but five got spent unnecessarily.
The two friends were chatting in Shambhu’s dispensary. No more planning for trips. They both were resigned to the fact that they would not be able to go out of the city this year either. They were talking about botanical garden now. The next day was the first day of Puja.
Suddenly Gopikrishna pulled out a card from his pocket. Hesitantly he said, “Yes,— what I meant to say—Banku Sarkar from our office handed me this. Apparently there will be a Puja in his ancestral village Langalpota. This is an invitation for that. There will be Ramayan singing, Chandi reading for two nights and much more. Want to go? It’s not far at all. Only two miles from Barasat station. Still, it is outside the city. We will get to be ‘outside’ during the Puja holidays. And he says it’s a very nice place. The young folks got together and made a road, cut down the weeds etc. Apparently there is an old temple of Shiva. Let’s go. Tomorrow early morning the Dattapukur local train leaves from Sealdah at seven. We can get it easily. It will be an excellent trip.”
“That is great news! Yes, yes. Let’s go.” Doctor Shambhu too was all excitement, “I will be there, right on time.”
The two friends spent the next three days in great joy in Langalpota.
Indeed, there were many beautiful places for sightseeing. The historic Shiva temple, the old pond of the Chowdhurys. The road that the villagers made all by themselves, the village market on Saturday and Sunday—eggplants, gourds, sweet potato etc were sold there. On the third day of Puja, there was Ramayana singing all night. Next day there was a theater about Krishna. Even the food was excellent. Their host Banku Sarkar was extremely hospitable.
Gopikrishna and Doctor Shambhu had a marvelous holiday trip.Published in Parabaas, June, 2014
The original story The holiday trip (একটি ভ্রমণকাহিনী) by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was first published in the periodical Desh (দেশ, অগ্রহায়ণ ১৩৫১) in 1944 and later collected in his book of short stories Upalkhanda (উপলখণ্ড; মিত্র ও ঘোষ, এপ্রিল, ১৯৪৫). Later on, it has been collected in various other books, including in Bibhutibhushan Rachanaboli (Vol.6) ('বিভূতি রচনাবলী', ষষ্ঠ খণ্ড) (Mitra Ghosh, Kolkata).