I was rested and fresh to face the day’s drive, thanks to the decent accommodation in the NPG Hotel. Without any problem I eased onto the highway that would take me from Kolkata to Alipurduar via Malda. The smooth drive of the first two hours was no indication of what was to follow. The NH12 goes right through very densely populated villages. Encroachment by vendors, haphazard driving and irresponsible parking by public transport, animals and handcarts make the narrow highway roads further narrow. The villages become active by 7 am and after that transit became slow and stressful. Deep Banerjee had anticipated that Berhampore will be problematic to get through with all the traffic. It happened to be exactly that way. Every village slowed down progress dramatically as the day wore on. Filth and chaos added to the strain. Between 7 and 9 am I could just do 42 km! In fact, in just a few hours the journey moved from the City of Joy to a state of despair!
I had anticipated the maximum delay at Farakka. But this time, mercifully, that was not an issue. However, the trouble started immediately after Farakka. The notorious Kaliachak and Malda Town detained me quite a bit. It was all the more frustrating because the roads had been widened and bituminized. However, a feature of this region is the encroachment of public roads by taxi operators and private bus operators, besides vendors and animals. The filth is to be seen to be believed. At times, I wondered when India will ever become ‘Swatch’, if ever at all, because people seem to be completely unaffected by the mess and garbage. Further delay happened because of a truck and local bus brushed against each other in Malda Town and interlocutors were drafted in to sort out the dispute as to who would pay how much!
The most notorious stretch in the entire drive is Dalkhola. This junction is a nightmare, when you have to go from south to east and vice versa. The harvesting season compounds the matter; tractors have the right of way and traffic is held up for hours. The other detention point is short of the Dalkhola railway level crossing. Why on earth an overbridge has not been built in all these years is a matter of grave concern. Not a single policeman or traffic warden is seen at any of these places local people, out of their own will, try to reduce tensions. But these points are insufferable. Deep Banerjee had explained in great detail how to avoid the sure to arise crisis if one passes through Dalkhola. He had made me revise a bypass route via Raiganj that would get to Dantola, near Islampur, thereby avoiding Dalkhola and Kishenganj. However, when I reached the turn off to the bypass the road was blocked by ‘civil volunteers’ who said that traffic would not be permitted on that road and that I would have to take the route to Islampur via Dalkhola. I pleaded with the volunteers, but to no avail. I was forced to take the dreaded Dalkhola route and what happened over the next four hours was sheer murder; I did just 80 km. Between 2.30 and 4.30 pm I covered a princely 2 km! One has to maintain a cool that tests the reservoirs of patience and equanimity. Trucks were lined up for kilometers; I followed some adventurous passenger cars to do better than the trucks. Accidents and breakdowns further exacerbated the condition. But, such manmade disasters that are unchanging day after day, all through the year, do not seem to have caught the attention of the state administration. Neither is there any effort to regulate traffic nor is there any indication of action being taken to ease the congestion, by way of augmenting infrastructure. I made use of the idle time to observe behaviours and admire the countryside. Despite the impossible traffic jams and energy sapping weather I did not see a single incident of frayed temper. The ordinary Bengali, I presume, takes everything in his/her stride. The countryside is so beautiful, perhaps because 'development' has yet not spoilt the land.
Anticipating the holdups en route that could throw a spanner into my schedule for the day I had arranged for Railway Officers’ Rest House (ORH) accommodation in New Jalpaiguri. It was 5 pm by the time I got out of the Dalkhola rut. I was in two minds as to the destination for the night – New Jalpaiguri or Alipurduar; it was 130 km to the former and double the distance to the latter. Somewhere close to Siliguri I decided to take the bypass and set course for Alipurduar. In hindsight that turned out to be the right decision; even though it meant driving late into the night, which I normally avoid. I escaped a few deep excavations on the left side of the road, caused by ongoing road widening works. NHAI must take better care in ensuring safety at the work spot.
I finally reached the Alipurduar ORH well past 10 pm and was shown into a comfortable room. Since it was late the cook had already left for the night and I could not have a hot meal. Over completing the documentation for the day I had a cup of coffee before crashing on the comfortable bed. 717 kms had been done in nearly 18 hours from Kolkata to Alipurduar.