Pather Panchali

The farce surrounding one of India’s most important roads, National Highway 31
Life & Letters
Locals leading a ‘funeral procession’ of NHAI and NH 31
NEGLECT National Highway 31 between Goirkata and Birpara in Jalpaiguri district

Surrealism is not my favourite aesthetic, but I find myself increasingly tempted to attempt a story in that genre. My pather panchali (song of the road), I find myself saying sometimes, the evening melancholia a barb in my tone. In Satyajit Ray’s film, in what is possibly one of the most famous scenes in Indian cinema, a train crosses the wide expanse of the screen. It evokes—and here the literality of the metaphor is most telling—wide-eyed curiosity in the young children we see immediately after, in the next scene, their conspiratorial glee a contagious thing of wonder. That train, in my father’s reading of the scene, an interpretation inculcated in me in instalments through my long dependent childhood, is, to quote him, “a harbinger of modernity”. That train prefaced the arrival of all real trains in my life.

Six-and-a-half decades after Ray’s film was first shown to the world, it is time for a sequel. Not Nischindipur anymore, but North Bengal. Not the train, but buses. Not the wide-eyed wonder of two children, but the wide-eyed disbelief of adults. A new song of the wayside. Not Ray’s mellow modernity, but Dali and Bunuel’s distorted broken images. For that is the new road. If Roshan Abbas can make a film on the smooth-skinned NH 8, surely there is a story waiting to be told about NH 31?

But first let the opening credits roll: 1,125 km long, India’s National Highway 31 starts in Barhi, Jharkhand, and continues to Jalukbari in Guwahati, Assam. It connects India’s Northeast to what has come to be called its mainland, passing through Jhumri Telaiya, Bihar Sharif, Purnea, Dalkhola, Kishanganj, Bagdogra, Siliguri, Jalpaiguri, Malbazar, Mainaguri, Dhupguri, Cooch Behar, Tufanganj, Kokrajhar and Nalbari. For more than six years now, the highway has been in a state of disrepair.

The Telegraph, in a recent report, quotes PWD (Public Works Department) officials as saying that ‘out of the 879 km of national highways passing through Bengal, nearly 370 km are in poor condition and need urgent repair’. Statistics arrive like potholes on the road: ‘1.72 crore people are inconvenienced’; ‘100 deaths in a little over six months’. It is textbook speak: ‘sources of livelihood are also hit. Tea and tourism are getting affected’; ‘the perception of neglect is already stoking embers of civil unrest,’ report the newspaper’s journalists Pranesh Sarkar and Avijit Sinha in the high-pitched tone that is symptomatic of the despondency of the man with only a toehold on the bus.

‘Maintenance’, like ‘missed call’ and ‘future’, is now a pan-Indian word. Unfortunately, it most often comes prefaced with a negative: ‘No maintenance’. The same story goes for NH 31 as well. The Left and then the Trinamool governments, because of their land policies, could not acquire the land required for widening national highways across the state. In the case of NH 31, only 34 hectares could be acquired. This, when NH 31D alone needed 504.03 hectares. ‘No thorough work has been taken up in this portion during [the] last six years except patchwork. [The] existing hard crust (black top surface) is unable to withstand the gradually increasing traffic load,’ says a PWD report. The Telegraph report quotes the former PWD minister Kshiti Goswami as saying, “Delhi had repeatedly informed us that they are ready to widen roads while denying funds for repairing two-lane highways. If we have to keep national highways in good condition, we have to go for widening the roads. This is the future and unavoidable.” No tolls are levied on this highway, and perhaps that explains the Union ministry’s lack of interest in its maintenance and repair.

Then there’s the lopsided distribution of cabinet power between north and south Bengal. Ashok Bhattacharya was the only powerful minister from north Bengal in the Left cabinet. In the Trinamool government, it is Gautam Deb whose ministry is ‘Ministry for North Bengal Development’, the name itself a giveaway of the neglect so far of this region. This also explains the lack of funds in spite of the minister’s best intentions: “In 2011–13, south Bengal received Rs 215 crore while north Bengal got only Rs 13 crore,” the report quotes an official.

I take National Highway 31D to work five days a week. I live in Siliguri and teach in a government college in Jalpaiguri, a town about 50 km away from home. Once upon a time, a time that now seems older than hamare zamane mein, it took me 75 minutes to get to work. I even have memories of picnics enroute: eating breakfast, peeling oranges and, like a true Indian, spitting out orange pips after rolling down the car windows. You might say it was perhaps because I was younger, but it’s true, there was still some highway-love in me. Now we are both tired—the automobile and I. My car is—to go back to Bengali cinema again—a kind of contemporary Jagaddal, the automobile in Ritwik Ghatak’s film Ajantrik. My great-uncle’s interpretation of the film came from his pride in being Bengali: “Only the roads in a place like Bihar could produce a story and a car like that!” The neighbouring state has had its revenge: Nitish Kumar has indeed made Lalu Prasad’s fantasy of turning Bihar roads as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks come true. In comparison, Bengal’s pimply and pockmarked roads, to stretch that sexist metaphor, are in desperate need of cosmetic surgery right now.

On Facebook, our new cathartic spittoon, I often write updates about the highway as I would about an ailing relative. The day I buy a new tyre for my car, the morning I miss a lecture because of another rasta-roko protest, the evening I get home at 10 pm because all roads have been sealed by villagers, the day I write my 14th resignation letter to the Department of Higher Education, Government of West Bengal, my employer, the day I get lost in a forest near Bodaganj because I’m looking for one possible road that will take me home when all roads that are tributaries of NH 31 have been amputated by villagers: those days I type Maoist updates on Facebook. I plead for ‘non-governmentality’, invoking old St Foucault, or I call the government names, my version of stone pelting.

Nearly six months ago, when a student reported that a few students from a neighbouring tea estate had missed a Madhyamik exam, I reported it on Facebook. A friend thought it a meagre thing: a woman had died (‘spot dead’, as the terminology goes) when a bus driver had applied the brakes; she’d been standing close to the door, and thin and frail, she was thrown out of the bus when it lurched into a pit. A few months after this incident, Calcutta High Court Chief Justice JN Patel, after what he described as a ‘terrible ride’ down NH 31C between Madarihat and Hasimara, filed a suo motu PIL before his own bench on the bad condition of NH 31C in north Bengal. ‘What is preventing the Government of India from repairing the road? The road should be immediately repaired,’ he said in his order. To which District Magistrate Smaraki Mahapatra replied in her report, ‘After the monsoon, the condition of the road would further deteriorate and it would not be possible to allow vehicles on the road.’

“I am annoyed with the condition of the national highways. I have been repeatedly requesting the Union Government to take care of the roads. But they are reluctant. I personally told the Prime Minister, my MPs have raised the issue with the Union Road Transport Minister, but the situation did not change. As the national highways [are] not under our jurisdiction, we can’t repair it. But it is affecting the people. At any point of time, there could be a major accident,” Mamata Banerjee declared to the press after a meeting with the NHAI authorities. “Aami khoob birokto (I am very irritated),” she declared after another meeting. And yet, nothing has changed since then. Except that most private bus operators on the route have taken their vehicles off the road, goods take a lot of time to reach, thereby escalating prices, and commuters are always running late.

The Jalpaiguri Nodi O Samaj Bachao Committee (Jalpaiguri Save Rivers and Society Committee) collected alms on behalf of the NHAI in August this year in a theatrical gesture that drew much laughter and criticism. Its members stood on the Teesta bridge, collecting a total of Rs 8,800, which they handed over to the NHAI authorities. When repeated statements of assurance from the Chief Minister came to naught, it began distributing invitation cards for a funeral soon after Durga Puja got over. On 28 October, barely a few days after Dashami, the day the goddess is immersed in ponds and rivers, members of the committee were joined by the people of Jalpaiguri in what was a spontaneous outburst of anger and frustration. A friend recounts how sounds of ‘Hori Bol’, the cry that accompanies the body of a Hindu to his funeral pyre, filled the air near Municipality Market area in the district town. The ‘corpse’—of the NHAI and NH 31, interchangeably—was placed on a rickshaw cart. People lining the streets joined in the kirtan with hand clapping to keep the beat, some joining in with an ad hoc funeral music arrangement, two steel plates and a bag for the drum. But instead of condolences and commiseration, of the kind that usually accompanies mourning, there was congratulation. This symbolic funeral (that it had a Hindu majoritarian bias was accepted unquestioningly, as if the NH was indeed Hindu; I, in a moment of anger and amusement, asked a friend whether she’d spotted the national highway’s sacred thread) soon turned into a procession, with bystanders joining in, a miniature version of the crowd that had followed the Bengali poet Sunil Gangopadhyay’s body to the Keoratala cremation grounds less than a week earlier. Haradhan Das played the khol, Ranjit Das the kaashi, the kirtan was sung by Kartik Das, Prafulla Das and Phoni Das. Finally Jagat Mukherjee declared on the microphone, “I feel sad to inform you that the National Highway Authority of India has left us for the other world. As inheritance, they have left us this useless road. I request the people of Jalpaiguri to take part in this funeral procession.” The crowd multiplied on the banks of the river Karala, where the last rites were performed. It was a Sunday.

A journalist friend who works for Uttarbanga Sambad —the largest-selling Bengali daily in North Bengal, the paper where I first spotted printed photographs of the funeral invitation and the corpse of the National Highway Authority of India—takes NH 31D from Jalpaiguri to Siliguri every day. In reaction to a Facebook photograph of the funeral hearse taken by the paper’s reporter Ranjit Ghosh, he says that its “only intention is to divert public attention from real issues and suppress real facts and figures”. Perhaps farce demands farce. And so, next in line could be a series of obits, who knows.

Anindya Bhattacharya, a colleague who now takes the train to Cooch Behar, came up with this self-explanatory comment: “You commuters should bear with this for the sake of national security. These potholes have killed Tata and Leyland trucks, so the Chinese can’t surely come down to Siliguri with their Made in China tanks. They’ll certainly break down midway and the soldiers will have to buy Napa shaker Pyalka and Sukta-Sidol from Jalpaiguri villages, leading to growth of the local economy.” Laughter in the time of roadblocks.

In evening addas—and often even in serious conversation—NH 31 offers itself as fodder for Bengali jokes just as ‘load-shedding’ did in the 1980s and the ‘suitcase’ (after Harshad Mehta) in the early 1990s. If there’s a theatre of the absurd, it is here, it is here, it is here. A friend recently came up with three acronyms for NH 31: No Hope 31, Not Human 31 and Nothing Happens 31. But it is my driver, an FM radio junkie, who said it best. As a popular song from the film Saptapadi played on Radio Mishti, with black-and-white images of Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen on a motorbike singing Ei pawth jodi na shesh hoy, tawbey kyamon hoto tumi bawlo toh flashing through my mind, the lovers asking each other how wonderful it would be if the road and ride never ended, Shibu suddenly turned off the radio and replied, “Khoob kharap hoto (It would be awful).” Later, changing clutch and gear, he clarified, “Quite clearly, Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen have never been on NH 31.”