Facing Floods in Assam….

I was posted in Cachar Project of ONGC during 1987 to 1991. Our company was desperately looking for oil and gas in this area. There were 5 rigs employed for these operations in different areas around the town of silchar which is located in the southern part of Assam adjoining agartala and near this town is another town called Badarpur which is a gateway to north eastern states like agartala, Manipur and Mizoram. This area where drilling operations were being conducted bordered Bangladesh. Two rivers namely Surma and Kushiara flow through this area which are actually two parts of Barak river coming to this area from Manipur. In fact, town of silchar is situated on barak river. These two parts again rejoin and enter Bangladesh where ultimately it joins mighty Brahmaputra river.

There was one site called Adamtilla where I used to go for duties on aan old Romanian rig. It was about 120 kilometers from our residence in silchar and a good 2 to 3 hours journey. Our company has hired maruti gypsy jeeps for this job.

There we did duties on 14 days on and off pattern. It means that for 14 days you will be there on the rig. Of this, first 7 days one officer did day duty from 6 am to 6 pm and other did the night duties. After 7 days pattern reverses and when 14 days are over, the employee shall go to his declared hometown and resume the duties again after 14 days. Mostly people did the off days at their hometowns from different stations throughout India.

But with me the case was different. I was well site chemist which is a supervisory duty but as my family had moved to my hometown in Chandigarh, my boss gave me 14 days chance in addition.

When the shift was off duty, the staff was put up in temporary accommodation at Patharkandi which was about 7 kilometers away. It was a good accommodation with Assam type houses for 2 people each. In addition, there was a mess for food and entertainment room with TV and VCR. There were no TV channels like these days. There was also a badminton court. But real pleasure was the flowering plants like marigolds and dahlias. All this was supervised by a gardener who hailed from orissa. In fact this residency was the first one created when the project commenced.

Buses took shifts to drill site and back. Although it was only 7 kilometers but road condition and ongoing construction of a bridge over the sunai river stretched the time to half an hour or so. Many a times the roads inside the tea gardens were blocked.

When the shift completed its tenure of 14 days, they were transported to airport about 170 kilometers away. It belonged to air force and flights operated only in the day time only. There were only two flights each day and operated between Kolkata, silchar, agartala and Manipur. Everyone was desperate to catch the flight amidst uncertainties like strikes, irregularities of flights and inundations due to floods.

I faced one such flood. We were on the rig when the news of flooding due to overflowing of the sunai river and closing of road traffic trickled in. The river was in spate. It was decided to stop the work. There was a railway station on the line from agartala to badarpur. While all the staff was sent to station we 5 to 6 people stayed back to close all the engines. The drill string was pulled up to casing shoe and BOP was closed. The plan was that staff reaching earlier will try to somehow hold the train till we reach the station. But the work on rig is as difficult to close as it is to begin. So when rest of us reached the station, the train had already left. There was as such scarcely one train daily so there was no chance till next day evening.

We returned to drill site which was now pitch black. Somehow the generator was started and light was restored. There was no food. Nothing to lie back on. Mosquitoes attacked in hordes. Cicadas chirped with piercing sounds. Whole night passed like that. In the morning, flood had not receded. Only way to colony was walking along the railway track all the way 7 kilometres. It was raining incessantly. The going was slow. There were many small rivulets flowing full and the wooden slippers were of uneven thereby increasing the chances of slipping down. Had someone slipped, he would had sure fallen into the stream. After sometimes, as energy was sapped, walking became very tiring and we had to sit in the rain for sometime.

At last, after 3 hours we reached patharkandi colony. We got refreshments and were dead tired. We were held up there for 3 days before the shifts resumed again.

A Visit to Rose Garden Chandigarh

A lot has been written about this garden. The garden is situated in the sector 16 of city beautiful Chandigarh. We used to live in small village adjacent to Chandigarh and crossed the garden while going to attend our college and Panjab university on bicycle. We have visited the garden a number of time.

Then I went away from my city for job and lived for 35 years out in the places like Dehradun, Sivasagar and Silchar in Assam and Mumbai in Maharashtra. Each city has its own personality which is comprised of monuments, its people and gardens and parks and civic amenities. Chandigarh is a new city built after partition of the country and Punjab lost its old capital of Lahore.

The rose garden is a aesthetic quality place in the city. Nicely maintained and ever adding the beautiful varieties of roses. The best time to visit is during February and March when flowers are in full bloom. There is a fare during the month of February to celebrate the beauty of the most written about and admired flower: the rose.

You can visit it any time. It is always there to offer you something. Even a leisurely walk through the zigzag paths inside, sitting on the lawns and enjoying the fountains.

I visited the garden again to renew my contact with it and recall the old memories. It is very cold weather. There was a hazy fog. Roses were not in full bloom due to frost. But there were plenty of them. The number of visitors has increased due to awareness and visitors are coming from all over India and abroad. Thousands of pictures are taken everyday on mobiles and uploaded to internet.

I also took several pictures. Some of them are shown below.

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My Peregrinations

I have returned back to the place where we were born, grew up, went to school in our own village of Manimajra, then to college and university in Chandigarh. Graduation and post graduation became possible because of the proximity of Chandigarh. Had this not been the case, there was no chance of my getting higher education in science. Even at that time, some 60 years back, our village was the largest of villages around Chandigarh. There were agricultural lands all around the village. The fields were irrigated with the water from Ghaggar river which flowed nearby emanating from Shivalik hills. There are two very large temples of Godess Mansa Devi where people from all over the nearby places flocked during the annual fares. There are many historical Gurudwaras in the area. One is inside the village is called Mata Raj Kaur Gurudwara after the pious lady who left her husband Guru Ram Rai after she felt the her husband has tweaked some lines from Guru Granth Sahib during recital. Ram Rai established himself with his disciples and properties around Dehradun. Another famous Gurudwara is on the periphery of Panchkula and is called Nadda Sahib. Here tenth Guru Gobind Singh stayed during his journey from Paonta Sahib to Anandpur Sahib in Punjab. The person who played the host was known as Naddu and after his name is the name of the place and Gurudwara. There is another Gurudwara called Bawli (step well) sahib located in the village Dhakauli. With the education which I acquired, I found a job in ONGC: India’s leading E&P petroleum company. Since it’s operations extend all over India, it provided me a chance to work in different places like Dehradun, Silchar jutting with Bangladesh and located in South Assam, Sibsagar in upper Assam which was once the capital of mighty Ahom kings which gave the place the name Assam and Mumbai the city maximum and economic capital of India. Assam the North Eastern state of India possesses unparalleled natural beauty. Since the industrialisation has not spread in that area, the region I dun polluted. When you fly over the area, you find tea gardens, Areca nut tress, bamboo groves running over miles and miles. There are rivers like Brahamaputra and Barak rivers which provide the best fish. Whatever vegetables are available are grown on the river beds and grown naturally and are thus purely organic. This provided me the opportunity to watch these diverse cultures and people from close quarters and try to understand their cultures in different points of time. Whereas the Assam took the mind to older quaint times with minimal pollution, natural beauty and innocent people, there was Mumbai which was so fast paced, situated on Arabian Sea with beautiful beaches, coconut palm trees, pav bhaji and bada pav and it’s incessant rains which never stopped in the monsoons. I for the first time came to learn that not only paper document are parcelled but eatables like food from hotels and coconut cream etc is also parcelled for home delivery. Mumbai has developed a peculiar practical language which is the result of mixing of languages from all over India which migrant people to Mumbai has carried along with them. A lot has changed here and it should not be any surprise. Change in Mumbai is minimal now as it has become saturated. Here a complete change in demography also seemed to have taken place. There has been influx of people from states around it and also UP and Bihar. Crime which was almost unheard of is now very rampant. This is due to the high aspirations, comfortable lifestyle and sky rocketing prices of living spaces, everyone wants to become rich overnight.

My Stay in Silchar

I have been to Assam earlier also when I was posted in Cachar in the Southern Assam. The area is bounded by Bangladesh and Tripura and North Cachar Hills separate it from the rest of Assam. We lived in a town called Silchar. Although it is in the Assam but most of the population is Bengalis. Muslims dominate the rural areas. The Barak river flows through it and splits into two rivers called Surma and Kushiara which again join together in Bangladesh.

This river is very famous for a variety of fish called illish. Although it has more bones than any other fish, it tastes great and the Bengali people whose weakness for the fish is well known are crazy for this variety.

During the days we were there, there were very few means of communications. All the flights coming into this area from Kolkata fly for most of their journey in the Bangladesh space. Traveling by train taken at least 12 hours to the capital city of Guwahati which is better connected with rest of India. The trains have to cross the North Cachar Hills through tunnels and on meter gauge. But then the whole region is sleepy and naturally gifted with great beauty.

During the monsoons the Barak river is in spate and many a times breaks the dykes and inundates the whole region. Houses are submerged, and crops are destroyed. There are tea gardens on all side and Surma valley tea is quite famous. During British times, the area produced petroleum in places like Badarpur. There were oil wells on the small hillock and crude oil flowed through channels specially made for the purpose to storage tanks on the banks of Barak river. From here the crude was transferred to the ships and sent away.

The boundary of India with Bangladesh was very near. The border was very porous at that time and people sneaked from one country to another easily. In fact many of them have relatives on both the sides. Like in Punjab many Hindus had to migrate as refugees to Silchar leaving behind their properties.

Travel travails in North East India:Part-III

Now this is the story not entirely due to North-East but it illustrates the problems faced by people working in that area during 1991. The story again pertains to Silchar where I was posted from 1987-1991. Nowadays, it is only 3 years stint and you are transferred to another place in India but at that time there was no such strict rule. So after spending 4 years there, I was transferred to Bombay which is the most important place because almost half of the crude oil is produced from the offshore of Bombay. Naturally I was very excited and nervous. Nervous because we had heard that there was a problem of finding good residence in the overcrowded megalopolis and everyday one has to spend many hours of the day in the journey to the office from home and back.

I and my wife decided that first of all shall proceed to my home at Chandigarh where family shall stay till I reach Bombay and find accommodation there. The household goods were to be transported by truck. From Silchar to Calcutta, company allowed us to travel by air to cut short the journey period. But from Calcutta to Delhi we had to catch Rajdhani train. There was no booking office in Silchar at that time to book berths for the train. We had to rely on our colleagues who did 14 days on and off pattern duty and were frequently using the train services. They had found one booking agent in Chitranjan Avenue in Calcutta who booked the tickets. Tickets were collected by them and given to the concerned colleagues. Sometimes, after alighting from the plane at Calcutta from Silchar, the tickets were collected from the agent en route.

All the flights to North-Eastern sector operated in the morning because there was no night landing facilities available. The airport was a wooden building and a strip maintained by Indian Air Force (IAF) because basically these were airbases for the Air force. We had booked air tickets and railway tickets were to be collected from the agent on our way to Howrah railway station from Netaji Subhash Chandra International Airport at Dumdum. We reached the airport in taxi and one of our friends’ who hailed from Silchar and who was a great help for people coming from rest of India on postings accompanied us. We had two small kids at that time.

Our luggage was sent for loading and we were given boarding passes. The sky was deep blue and there was not a speck of clouds. It was a perfect weather. Now everyone was waiting anxiously for the arrival of the plane. It was a hopping flight from Calcutta. Its first stoppage was at Silchar and then it used to go to Imphal from there back to Silchar on its way back to Calcutta. The expected time of arrival was approaching fast but there was no sign of plane. Wait of minutes turned to hours. Anxiety of missing the train at Calcutta due to late arrival began building in our minds. At one stage we decided to take back our luggage and return to Silchar. But the people at Indian Airlines which was the sole travelling agency at that time told us that tickets shall be cancelled to rescheduled in any case the flight did not arrive. He further helped us and brought the luggage and allowed us to take it with us in the cabin so that we did not have to wait and loose precious time waiting for its arrival at Calcutta airport.

There was a great anxiety about missing the train at Calcutta and stranded at the big city. At last the plane appeared on the horizon. It was delayed at Imphal where one of its tyres burst during landing. The time of its take off to Calcutta was such that anything could happen. We did not have the railway tickets with us and to add to the troubles we only had the address of the agent but had never visited him. It was with luck that we had a co passenger who had seen the booking shop and he himself had to collect his ticket.

At last plane landed and we had only an hour with us in which to collect the tickets and board the train. Thankfully the day was Sunday and there was not much traffic on the road. We told taxi to wait on the road because the agent’s shop was in a side alley. I and my friend ran to the shop and after reaching there found the shop which was located on the 2nd floor of an ancient building closed due to Sunday. Our hearts stopped. Time was slipping like sand from our hands. Someone told that the fellow lived very near to the shop. We knocked and he came out and went to his office telling us stay on the ground. He tied the tickets with a thread and lowered it so that we could catch the tickets. In turn we tied the money and he pulled it up. Running we again boarded the taxi. It was quite hot and kids were thirsty and restless.

We prodded the driver to drive very fast. He understood and we arrived at the Howrah railway station barely 10 minutes before the train was to leave. Running with kids and luggage in our hands we managed to board in our bogey. We were perspiring but felt as if we had won a great victory. Children were given cold drinks and settled down. Our panting heartbeat slowed down and returned to normal as the train left for Delhi.

Travel travails in North East India in 1988-Return Journey

So we reached Nazira after harrowing experience. It was very cold there. In the winter, the sun goes down at about half past four in the evening. Those were the days when an extremist outfit called ULFA was very active. There were kidnappings and murders. So people ventured outside mostly in the daytime or under the protection of security forces.

We left in the early mornings and came back early. We went to see the Sivasagar town which was the capital once upon a time of Assam under the rule of Ahom kings. Ahoms came from South-East Asia and settled in North East India for good. Although in the beginning they followed Buddhism but converted to Hinduism and began suffixing “Singh” to their names. Thus the town of Sivasagar was founded by King Shiv Singh. It is a large town. There is a very large lake called Shiv Sagar. In fact the whole area has number of such lakes and the water in them is very clear.Adjacent to the lake is a Shiv temple called “Shiv Dol”. It is gigantic structure.

Most of the trading is in the hands of Marwaris which originally migrated from Rajasthan. In fact they are so enterprising merchants that there is hardly any place in the North-East where they have not set the shops.One reason for their flourishing in this part of the region is the indolent nature of the local people.There is many shops which sell the silk sarees and cloths. The silk is from Assam and Manipur and comes in three main varieties namely Golden Muga, white Pat and warm Eri Silk. These varieties are produced by the same silkworms when fed on leaves of different trees. Everyone who goes there purchases the silk along with the tea. You can see unending stretches of tea plantations everywhere along the main roads.

Then we visited the “Madams” which are very elaborate mud structures where the bodies of kings and other royal people are interred exactly in the same fashion as the Pharaohs in Egypt.

Days went by very fast and time came for returning. There was a train in the early afternoon and we went to Simulgudi station again. There people moving here and there confused and worried. There we saw a notice saying that due to “Bandh (strike)” in Cachar Hills all the trains going towards Silchar shall remain cancelled for next 4 days. We went back feeling helpless and thought of going to Guwahati and from there more trains shall be available for Silchar although we had to do a lot of useless journey. So we boarded a train after 2 days and it reached Guwahati at noon. The scene was not promising.I went to booking counter for a train inquiry and ticket. As usual no reservation was available on the counter. I caught hold of a tout and gave him extra money for getting the berth reservation. The train was at about 4 O’clock in the evening which meant we have to occupy the berths after sometime and sleep and reach in the early morning at Silchar.

But as the night approached, there happened a surprising thing in the train. There was no electricity in the train. On top of it, the train was over crowded and there was not an inch to move for going to toilet. The reservation did not have any relevance because on such trains which stop at every station people alight and board at every station. The train halted at some station where we procured some candles and a match box. Without light you could see the person sitting next to you. Sometimes I was afraid that if anyone of us moved, he or she could not retrieve the way back.

Somehow, the night passed and reached Silchar in the early morning. It was such a perilous journey.

Travel travails in North East India in 1988

The company I work with is the premier in the quest of oil and gas in India. It explores oil and gas in every corner of India. The problems of logistics, politics & terrorism do not deter it in its pursuit of this highly prized commodity. In India, it was in Assam where the British struck the oil. The town of Digboi bears the testimony where the Edwin Drake prodded the diggers with the cry of “Dig boy Dig” and the place got the name Digboi. Our company is having drilling in many parts of Assam. One such place is in South Assam and is called Silchar which is the city from where it is engaged in the search of oil in the Barak valley.

In 1988, I was posted in Silchar, headquarters of Cachar district. The place was very quaint and visitors from outside feel transported to the ancient times. The district borders Bangladesh and most of the population speaks Bengali language. The particular dialect they speak is Sylhetti which is spoken in the adjacent Sylhet district of Bangladesh. At that time, modes of communication were very few. Not to talk of mobile phones, even the landline phones were available in offices only. Similarly, logistically it was very poor place. Due to the peculiar shape of Bangladesh, it was very long journey by train to reach there from Calcutta or rest of India. Even these days no trains of note run from the capital Delhi to Silchar. You have to cross the Cachar hills to reach south Assam from Guwahati in the North Assam. These are the same hills which find a mention in the Mahabharata. Here lived Hidimba which fell in love with Bhima because of his physical strength and had a son by him called Ghatotkach.  Only few trains run between Guwahati and Silchar. There were only two flights in the daytime from Calcutta which flew almost over Bangladesh.

Anyway on to the description of the journey which is the subject of this topic.

My brother-in-law was also working in the same company and was posted at a place called Nazira in upper Assam. He sent us an invitation to visit them. My wife was very happy and looked forward to the journey to meet her brother and sister-in-law. I also wanted to undertake this journey because I also wanted a break from the tough working conditions in the Silchar. We had two very small children at that time. We booked the tickets and made the preparations and boarded the train running one a meter gauge rail in the noon.  This train was supposed to reach Lumding junction at about 4 O’clock in morning where we had to alight from this train and board another train coming from Guwahati and going to Tinsukhia in the extreme East of the country. The weather was very good and became cooler as the train proceeded North.

The train crossed through the lovely picturesque  Barak valley. The farmers with chinese hats on their heads worked in the lush green fields. There were bamboo and banana groves here and there. On the Barak river there were boats sometimes looking so insignificant on the mighty waters spread in a very broad span. They were fishing boats and fish of very delicious variety is found in this river. The boats yonder looked like dots. Occasionally group of birds would take flight as if in fright. Since it was December, the days were short. Train was chugging long slowly but steadily in the plain.

It was still day as the train seemed to be running into the blue colored hills and crossing many tunnels on the way. The speed was decreasing because the hilly slopes had started. The train would stop at any place where it pleases and for a time which seemed interminably long. After a long wait, the train reached the Jatinga. It is a fabled place where on a particular night thousands of bird commit suicide by hitting themselves on the lights fixed on the bamboo poles by the villagers. The scenery at the railway station was breathtaking. The mountains in front looked like a solid blue wall. The water was making a purling sound in the rivulets nearby. As it was getting dark and chilly, fog began floating and seemed to be conversing with the trees. The smoke from hearths in the village huts seemed suspended as dense cool air made difficult for it to rise.

The train seemed to have permanently there. Passengers alighted from the compartments because a beautiful site beckoned them. Whole platform looked orange colored because it was strewn with oranges. There were heaps of them and local gardeners sold them in  special bamboo baskets. Everyone was busy in the bargaining for the oranges and forgotten the train.

By and by the night began to fall. The hill outlines became silhouettes and soon dissolved in the pitch black  night. The reality began to dawn on us that the train is surely going to reach late at Lumding and miss the connecting train. The train somehow began moving and as expected reached the Lumding station very late. The next connecting train was around 09:30 and 10:00 in the evening and specter of spending whole day at the station loomed over us. Harrowing ordeal began. These two coaches were detached and parked in the sidings. The mottled group of passengers became friendly with each other. The food was scarce. On top of it, there was strike in the town and whole town was deserted as reported by some passengers who were adventurous enough to go out. There was no facility for depositing the luggage and go out which in the present conditions was impossible. The day began to heat up causing uneasiness and restlessness among the passengers especially children.

After a wait of whole day, a train chugged into the station and our coaches were attached to it. The train was rushing into the pitch dark night towards its destination. Ultimately it reached Simalgudi station where we were to alight. It was 4 O’clock in the morning. A thick pal of fog hanged over the station and people looked like wraiths. We were complete strangers to the place and did not know how to proceed to Nazira which is about 15 kilometers. Fortunately, a Muslim boy who had become acquainted with us during the journey helped us to find a taxi. We asked him where he himself was headed. He told us that he was going to Sivasagar, which was the capital of Ahom kings which ruled Assam for a long time. We asked him how he would go there, he told that soon a bus of a company shall come and he would go in that bus. Surprisingly the bus belonged to our company and was a shift carrying bus!!!.

Such was the journey. So I called it “such a long journey”