I had last been to Shankarpur in 1999. Along with Digha, about 10 kms away and neighboring Orissa, this used to be the longest unbroken coastline in the world. Digha was and continues to be West Bengal’s favourite seaside haunt, bursting at the seams with a million hotels and restaurants and what seems like entire West Bengal holidaying there, despite an empty Shankarpur next door with a lovely, virgin beach and handful of tourist – about 10 or 15, perhaps even less. When I recently revisited Shankarpur along with A and R (this was couple of years ago). Nothing seemed to have changed. We still had the place to ourselves except for the handful of tea shacks and fishermen and hotel staff.
The route from Calcutta to Shankarpur though considerably shortened (it took 4 hours instead of the earlier 6) was in patches terrible and our rickety ambassador was in constant fear of coming apart! Also, to enliven things up a bit, the radiator heated up and the hood blew off while we were cruising at full steam ahead, and fell on the windshield completely obscuring our view while we came to a rather shaky halt. Thank god there was no major traffic on the road. Our resourceful driver tied the bonnet to the chassis with a bit of a string and we were ready to go!
The scenic beauty more than made up for the discomfort of the terrible heat and humidity and the mamoth potholes. The foliage grew in wild profusion on either side of the road with none of the symmetry that is so inherent in the deepest of forests in Europe, but no less beautiful. The ash winding road, red earth bordering it was in places completely yellow due to fallen leaves crushed underfoot.
The greenery was broken at intervals by a shrill flash of colour of a house, the bigger the house, (meaning the more prosperous), the more colourful it was. The architecture too got more ambitious: cupolas, turrets, green, red, yellow, blue tiled walls; window grills with fantastic work on them.
More interesting were the small temples by the roadside at regular intervals, indicating the presence of a village. Mostly these were low roofed one room affairs. But that is were the similarity ended. Each and everyone were beautiful and different. One had, I remember catching a glimpse as we whizzed past, large oval platters with Krishna, Subhadra and Balaram's faces painted on them. Another had a life size Shiva, Parvati seated on a bench under a tiled roof, as if waiting for the next bus! In the 200 kms to Shankarpur, we passed nearly 20 such temples, including couple of mosque and one church.
It would be nice to travel the country and photograph these temples. Here's another of my "Things I'd like to do, someday" idea, thought of and filed away. Actually, if I were to be 100% honest, the thinking it up and dreaming about it gives me more pleasure.
It was four hours of delightful rural scenery: A women in a red saree, spreading grains on the road to be husked under the tyres of passing vehicles. In places, coconut replaced the grains. Bullock carts ambling by; cowherds leading their skinny cattle somewhere; kids fishing, locals going on their daily lives just as they had been for generations, completely oblivious to the huge hoardings dotting the place advertising mobile phones, corn flakes and latest gadgets and ignoring the fancy car loads of tourists whizzing past.
At the hotel, we had taken two garden view rooms, a better bargain, we later found out even though the 'garden' was nothing more than a messy green field where the hotel staff hung out their personal laundry! The more dearer Sea view was really the 'Tila' or hillock view studded with jhow trees which blocked any view of the beach that lay just behind it! We were the only tourist in the entire hotel and in fact in the entire area. So we did get some personal attention everywhere we went. In fact the staff at our hotel took to us so much that they had no qualms in wondering around in towels in front of us, bathing under the tap in the courtyard, making no pretence whatsoever of being a three star hotel! By Friday (when we were checking out) they had gotten their act together, sprucing up the places, getting into uniform for the hectic weekends when the hotel would be fully packed.
The Sea was unbelievably beautiful and the fact that we two were the only people bathing in that entire stretch had A extremely surprised. It was like having our own private beach, except the tea stalls and the fishermen and R who sat decorously in one of the tea stalls and broke many hearts. She was such a hit at Shankarpur. Quite a few people asked her if they had seen her someplace!
We took a trip to Digha in the evening. There is a very nice promenade by the sea dotted with souvernir stalls selling the most wonderful trinkets, jewellery and knick-knacks made entirely of sea shells. A new addition are stalls selling all sorts of sea fish that you pick up and they fry. We had to regretfully avoid the large prawns, A having just recovered from Typhoid.
R caused a sensation wherever she went. She thought of nothing to parade about in Digha in silk shirt and black trousers, every strand of hair and make up in place while A and I roamed around like a pair of sun burnt country bumpkins. She caused a jam at the shooting gallery in Digha where she popped balloon after balloon (one can hardly miss at that range). I could have walked past naked and not one person would have batted an eyelid, much to A's dismay.
I was very frightened should any one took too much of a liking to her and so at night, I made her stack a flimsy table against the door of her room and piled it up with glasses and bottles so that should anyone try to enter, the glasses would fall and warn her and give her enough time to ring me up. And I would sail in like a Royal Bengal Tigress! Luckily, nothing happened, no one got hurt except perhaps A's ego. He mentioned quite a few times to whoever would listen that S (me) is very popular in France!!!
After three days of sea, sand and sea food, we returned to Kolkata, but stopping for lunch, not at Sher e Punjab dhaba (much to A's dismay - it would mean a lengthy detour), but at a place called - wait for this - "Sher e Bengal"... obviously Punjabi dhaba food with a good dose of Bengal in it!!
I am told that apart from the odd Film crew (mostly Bengali, but also Mani Ratnam's Yuva) and a handful of tourist, Shankarpur still remains pristine. Thank god for that. And if you do happen to go there and find it the way we did, do make the effort to visit Digha next door: Just to savor the contrast!