To go to Agartala, the capital of Tripura, we had to go through the Jaintia Hills. That meant we went east from Shillong into the Jaintias and then after negotiating several ranges turned south to hit Assam in the plains in its Barak Valley. The road from Shillong was horrible. One cannot imagine why it was left in such a terrible condition when there was so much of commerce riding over it. It was bumpy and back-breaking; at some places the road had disappeared and that too at hairpin bends where it should have been mended as fast as possible. Apparently, for years roads in these parts had been neglected. After visiting all the three hill ranges of Meghalaya I thought Jaintias was the most backward in this respect. Now, it is understood roads have improved and are beyond recognition from what they were only a couple of decades back.
Since it was a time-taking journey we had to stop on the way for meals. We stopped at Sonapur, a place that was not far from the Assam border, known for its eateries. The one we went to served pure and simple Bengali fare. While most of the items were delectable what aroused my interest were the fried dried red chilies that were served along with the meal. My father used to love them and I took after him in this respect and used to have them at home. To get them after so many years on a platter and that too in distant Sonapur warmed the cockles of my heart as also, I dare say, of my stomach.
After an overnight stay at Silchar, basically a Bengali town rather incongruously located in the state of Assam, we hit the road for Agartala. On the way was Karimgunj, a town, along with its eponymously named district, that flew Pakistani flags on 15 and 16th August 1947 presuming that the then Karimgunj sub division would be merged with East Pakistan along with the Sylhet district of which it was a part. The Sylhet Referendum of 1947 is a minuscule part of the Partition History that many do not know about. While the Muslim majority Sylhet district did go and merge with East Pakistan Sir Cyril Radcliff somehow kept the small sub-division of Karimgunj with India. Radcliff’s Award was published on 17 th August 1947 and Karimgunj came back to India, somewhat like Gurdaspur in the Punjab which happened to celebrate independence on 14 th August 1947 as well as 15 th August 1947 after the entire district barring one tehsil was allotted to India.
As we drove through Karimgunj it seemed to me that, like the entire Sylhet district, the town had majority of Muslims. In fact, men in traditional Bengali Dhoti were very few – skull-cap and white pyjamas wearing Muslims dominated the landscape.
On the way we halted for a while in a place called Kailashahar which, like Karimgunj, is on the international border between India and Bangladesh. The place figures in ancient history and mentions of it can be traced to 7 th Century. A railway line was expected soon to connect it with the rest of the country. Now after more than a quarter century even Agartala is connected by rail. Kailasahar is about couple of hundred feet above the neighbouring Bangladesh. One gets a birds’ eye view of the green plains that sprawl in front. Obviously there is plenty of legal and illegal cross-border traffic like in Karimgunj.
As we moved ahead the road became increasingly worse. It took quite a while to reach Agartala. Touted as a planned city Agartala was very disappointing. Named after the agar plant from which incense sticks are made (and tala means underneath) the place still manufactures Incense sticks. The town was neglected although some good stately buildings designed and erected during the princely times still stood. The state was then being ruled by the communists and, like in Calcutta of those days, all the walls, private or public were painted over with slogans. It seemed there was not a white wall left in the town. Thankfully, reports coming now speak of much improvement in the city.
I happened to see from a distance the Tripura palace, supposedly named by Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore as Ujjayanta, and lost all curiosity about it. It appeared thoroughly neglected with its walls blackened with moisture and dirt. The water body around it was filthy. Typical of communist regimes, anything that smacked of royalty had to be discarded regardless of its heritage value. The palace, mercifully, has now been converted into a museum and the photographs that I saw of it showed it illuminated at night and the water body had birds frolicking in it. Obviously, it is now in better hands. Incidentally, the Tripura Palace also hosted at one time the princess of Gwalior, my home town, who was married to the prince of Tripura. While the prince became an MP the Princess reportedly ended her life at Calcutta.
While reports say that consumerism has invaded Tripura as well with malls, Big Bazaar and other big brands setting shop there when we were Agartala the only place for shopping was Bortala (means under the banyan tree) where cheap fast moving consumer goods smuggled from neighbouring countries were sold. I am sure things are different now. Reports say that after the economic liberalisation in 1991 trade and business are on the uptake in the city.
The Agartala Airport, now renamed after Tripura’s revered king, is situated very close to the international border with Bangladesh. It is said that the planes while leaving taxi in India and get airborne over Bangladesh. This is something that perhaps happens with every border town, more so with towns that never had a border anywhere near it earlier.
Likewise, the Akhaura railway station in Bangladesh is only around 10 kilometres away. The railway tracks going from Agartala to Akhaura were still there and we even went across the guarded barrier and stamped our foot on Bangladesh soil. But now there is a hope; Government of India is going to open through traffic into Bangladesh from Agartala running trains via Akhaura which is in Chittagong District of Bangladesh. While Indian Railways will renew the tracks up to the border from Agartala the Bangladesh portion will be financed reportedly by aids from Indian External Affairs Ministry.