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Thursday, 11 September 2014

An Evening with India's Most Daring Mountaineer

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Basanta Singha Roy

On the evening of 10th August 2014, Basanta Singha Roy invited us at his Bijoygarh residence in South Calcutta. He is my wife’s colleague in Punjab National Bank and also a good friend of hers. He has the wiry and sturdy physique of a seasoned mountaineer, but despite his extraordinary achievements in scaling the mighty and formidable Himalayan peaks, he is as friendly and easy-going as your next-door neighbour. He had his formal training on mountaineering at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi, where my wife also had a stint In basic training when she was a teenager.
Basanta’s fearless passion for embracing nature’s fury at heights where not even the eagles dare has always been his defining feature. With Debasish Biswas, his climbing partner, he reached the top of Mt.Everest, the world’s highest peak, in May 2010. They were the first civilians from Bengal to do so. After Everest, the duo went on to successfully summit two more of the 14 highest peaks of the world, all above 8000 metres (26,246 feet)—Kanchenjunga and Annapurna I. Last year, while attempting their third eight-thousander, Dhaulagiri, they were forced to turn back from touching distance of the summit due to inclement weather.+-
Basanta’s eyes gleamed with the light of adventure as he narrated some of the spine chilling moments while climbing these summits. On Everest, the biggest challenge was the Hillary Step—a dark bare rock wall, hardly 40 ft in height and about 300 ft below the summit—with straight 8000 feet or more falls on either side of the ridge. In the past, this is the section that defeated mountaineers from making the summit of Everest, till Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered it on their way to becoming the first men to stand on top of Everest in 1952.
“He had used his New Zealand Alps climbing skills to achieve this most dangerous feat,” wrote the celebrated US mountaineer Ed Viesturs in ‘The Right Way to do the Hillary Step’ (New York Times). “He had jammed his feet, hands and shoulders into a thin crack between a ridge of ice and the rock and then levered himself up the wall. Then he brought Tenzing up on a tight rope and together climbed the final 300 ft….”
Now ropes are permanently fixed on the section to help climbers.
Yet, Basanta says that climbing the Hillary step is still extremely challenging and arduous because one of the heavy gear climbers have to carry at that altitude, including oxygen cylinders, and all this while wearing snow goggles and crampons.
Basanta loves to haunt the dark, dangerous and primaeval heights were nature’s fury can rip everything apart in a matter of seconds. While climbing Annapurna I, he captured an avalanche in his camera—it is a stunning and chilling picture. You can see climbers, the size of ants, in the distance, while a gigantic white cloud of snow and ice descends from above. Annapurna I is the 10th highest peak in the world at 8091m. It is also the first eight-thousander to be summited—French climbing pioneers Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal did that in 1950, losing limbs and fingers in the process. The expedition is captured in a fantastic book written by Herzog, called, simply, ‘Annapurna’. It is such a difficult peak that the next successful climb was only in the seventies, and it continues to claim a high rate of climbing fatalities.
Basanta also spoke about his last expedition, where he came so close to summiting Dhaulagiri but had to turn back. Not for nothing is Dhaulagiri also known as the “mountain of the storm”.
It’s the 7th highest peak and stands at 8177 M (26810 ft). Basanta and his team were at the Base Camp on 26th April 2013. But due to extremely bad weather, they were forced to return back to Base Camp several times for almost a month. Only on 22nd May, acting on a  forecast of clear and improved weather conditions, Basanta and Debasish set out for the final assault. They started off from Camp III deep in the night so that they could reach the summit on the same day. They trudged through the whole night to reach a point just above 25000 ft—Dhaulagiri’s summit is at 26810 ft. On the way up, Basanta saw two accidents. The first one was a Spanish climber and his Sherpa who came rolling down the slope, gathering speed, and turning into a huge snowball. They stood no chance. The second fatality was a Japanese woman climber. These two accidents shook him up. Then the weather started getting bad. The long climb from Camp III finished Basanta and Debashish’s oxygen. There was nothing to do but turn back and head to Camp III again. But all the incidents, the weather, the lack of oxygen took its toll on Basanta. He recalled that his strength to continue further ebbed. The icy cold wind also had a disastrous effect on the sun goggles—they froze like a hard white rock within seconds, blocking their vision. They decided to plough the snow to create a hammock-like cavity with the help of their Sherpa so that Basanta could lie down and wait for Debasish to climb down and fetch aid. It was a long wait, recollects Basanta. Except the icy cold wind whizzing past and the dreaded storm howling over him there was nothing more but isolated, a freezing lap of fearsome darkness.  Since he lay still, frozen and half conscious, he could only sense the daylight as the sun climbed over the mountains. It was a very strange feeling, he told me. The day passed, darkness descended again, but there was no sign of a rescue. It finally turned up the next day, in the form of a chopper arranged by Debasish. As far as Basanta could remember, his boots were opened and he was wrapped in a mattress, and then tied up and carried to Camp III with his body dangling in the air. In the process, frostbite took two of his toes. His condition was very serious and had to be admitted to a hospital in Kathmandu with cerebral oedema due to the prolonged lack of oxygen.
Today, after barely a year, Basanta has fully recovered. Unless he shows you his injuries you would never be able to make out that he was in such a situation at all. His intense urge to encounter the charm of the unexpected fills him with joy and gives him the strength to put his feet again on the mighty Himalayan range. At the time of writing, he is already on his way to the 7135m Nun peak in Kashmir, leading a twelve member team.

Basanta’s Firsts:
Mt. Everest – Approach South Kol – first Bengali civilian
Mt. Kanchenjunga (8603 M – 3rd highest) - Approach South Face- first Indian civilian
Mt. Annapurna I (8091 M- 10th highest) - Approach North Face – first Indian civilian

The most dreaded Hillary Step below the summit of Everest

Yak on the way to Everest Base Camp

 Base Camp at  Khumbu  Glacier of  Mt. Everest

Crossing a crevasse at Khumbu Ice Fall

Climbing the Mt.Lhotse wall on the way from Camp II to Camp III of Mt.Everest South Col route

Climbing from Camp III to Camp IV (South Col) at Mt.  Everest

A Russian climber's body retrieved by Sherpa when Basanta and his team were climbing on the same rope from Camp III to Camp IV at Everest  

The most dreaded Hillary Step below the summit of Everest

Top of Mt. Everest ( the  picture was taken from below the summit )

On the top of the world - Basanta, Debasish, Pemba and Pasang

Basanta and his team climbing Mt. Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak in the world in 2011

Basanta and Debasish on the top of Mt. Kanchenjunga

This picture taken from the top of Kanchenjunga shows Mt. Yalung Kang in the middle ( this is the site where Bengal's woman mountaineer Chanda Gayen met with an accident in 2014 ). Far behind are Mt.Makalu,Mt.Lhotse and Mt.Everest.

A daring picture of an avalanche between Camp II and III of Mt. Annapurna I. This was taken when Basanta and Debasish were climbing  Annapurna

Photo taken from Camp III of Annapurna I shows Mt. Dhaulagiri (left - far behind and Basanta's destination in 2013); and Mt. Nilgiri group of peaks (from left to right)

This heavenly view of  first rays of sunlight was captured from  the long ridge to Mt. Annapurna I summit  as the sun climbs the mountain.

Basanta and Debasish with national flag atop Mt. Annapurna I summit
Basanta Singha Roy receiving the Tenjing Norgay National Adventure Award 2012 from President of India Pranab Mukherjee
Basanta proudly displays the trophy to us at his residence

The Citation

Basanta with his  wife and son

Basanta with his mother

Trophies and Awards


Expedition Photos: Courtesy Basanta Singha Roy

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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

And Quiet Flows the Bhagirathi

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And Quiet Flows the Bhagirathi ----- Murshidabad in 21st century

 Quiet and placid. Even the view of the river Bhagirathi from the Hazaar Duari Palace located on its bank in Murshidabad town is obliterated by shacks selling mementos to tourists. Further up where one could catch a glimpse of the river is inaccessible as the entire stretch has turned into a garbage dump. Sort of a tribute paid to a river which witnessed some great events in history. From shifting of capital of undivided Bengal,Bihar and Orissa from Dacca to Murshidabad under the regime of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb till the time when the British took over the power and shifted the capital to Calcutta.The Nawabs at Murshidabad held many festive events on Bhagirathi, as suggested by paintings displayed at Hazaar Duari Museum. Murshidabad ,being capital, grew up to a bustling cosmopolitan city in the eighteenth century. There were settlers from all over India like Jains from Rajasthan, Debi Singh and likes from Punjab etc, the British, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the French. The mint was operated by Jagat Seth. Then on 23rd June 1757 Bhagirathi witnessed the infamously famous battle a few miles away from Murshidabad. It was here at Plassey (Palashi in Bengali) where Nawab Siraj-ud-Doula with around 50000 strong army prepared to face only a fistful of around 5000 soldiers of British East India Company under Robert Clive.The battle was fought in the mango groves of Plassey near the bank of Bhagirathi.Nawab Siraj-ud –Doula was already in the bad books of the British after he had captured Fort William in Calcutta. His uncle Mir Jafar who desperately aspired for the Nawab’s throne encashed on this by entering into a secret deal with Robert Clive. The fate of the battle was,therefore, decided much before the soldiers came to the battlefield. Most of the soldiers were bribed to throw away their weapons,surrender prematurely and even turn their arms against their own men.Nothing went right for the young Nawab Siraj on that fateful day. To add to his woes a severe monsoon storm over Bhagirathi drenched the troops and insufficiently protected gun powder ; his most trusted commander Mir Madan was critically injured when a canon gifted by the Portuguese to the Nawab’s armoury burst accidentally during firing ( the canon is on display inside Hazar Duari); thereafter a valiant effort by the Nawab to pursue and literally beg his soldiers to fight was in vain.Though unsavoury it was a decisive victory for Clive and the British. Quote from William Dalrymple’s brilliant and captivating ‘The Last Mughal’ – “ Since they ( the increasingly powerful British) had finally succeeded in conquering and subduing the Sikhs in 1849, the British suddenly found themselves the masters of South Asia: every single one of their military rivals had now been conquered- Siraj-ud-Daula of Bengal in 1757, the French in 1761, Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1799, and the Marathas in 1803 and again finally,in 1819."

 When I visited Murshidabad in the year 2014, I was shocked to observe that the place reflects nothing of its glorious history. Like, Mir Jafar’s palace, which is in ruins, unkempt with overgrown jungle inside and gates closed to visitors. As if every bit of 18th and 19th century Murshidabad has gone to the pages of history. The town itself has not grown with time. Sleepy, neglected and semi urban look, it hardly boasts of being capital of undivided Bengal, Bihar and Orissa about 300 years back.Unlike its counterpart in Oudh, the culture,the lifestyle and culinary art associated with Nawabs are strangely missing..  And the beautiful, once vibrant Bhagirathi flowing through this triangular shaped district of Bengal flows quietly totally oblivion of its past – as if nothing really happened.

Kathgola Garden House located in Lalbagh area. It was here that Robert Clive, William Watts and Walsh had an important meeting with Mir Jafar, Miran and Rai Durlabh three days after the famous Battle of Plassey in 1757.

Another view of Kathgola mansion. This was a retreat for wealthy Jain merchants Dhanpat Singh Dugar and Lakshmipant Singh, This is fringed with picturesque gardens, lake and pond for bathing.

Kathgola secret passage which was connected to Bhagirathi river was used by the Jain traders and Jagat Seth for transporting and trading valuables.

Adinath Temple, an 18th century Jain temple in Kathgola complex. A typically Jain ornamentation lends unique beauty to the temple.

Idol of Lord Ganesha outside Adinath Temple

Ornate garden area in Kathgola complex

Another idol outside Adinath Temple

This tablet at the gate of Jagat Seth House outlines the history of Jagat Seth.It is said that Jagat Seth made their original fortune in the Jade trade as in those days green jade from Burma was highly valued by the Mughal courtiers because of the belief that it would shatter or discolor if poisoned food was served in it. They  traded in other precious emeralds as well and also accumulated vast wealth as Nawabs banker.

Another tablet on Jagat Seth

The House of Jagat Seth is now a museum,where a part of display are some rare coins and emeralds . Jagat Seth means 'Banker of the world' and this title was first bestowed upon Fateh Chand in early 18th century by Emperor Muhammad Shah in view of his innovativeness and greatness in trading and banking achievements those days. Thereafter it was handed down the dynasty for over a century for this particular Marwari community who were Jains by religion. Madahav Rai was Jagat Seth during Siraj-ud-Daula's tenure. It is said that he was slapped and insulted by Siraj for denying a loan requisition of Rs 3 crores. Thereafter he played a key role in the politics of Bengal by helping Mir Jafar to receive the Subahdari of Bengal from the Mughal Emperor at Delhi. They also operated a mint from Murshidabad where they had settled and had made Murshidabad the commercial and financial capital, not only of undivided Bengal,Bihar and Orissa but of India as well.

Nasirpur Palace. This palace with an imposing facade was built by Kirti Chand, a descendant of  Debi Singh from Punjab who had settled here as a notorious tax collector in the early days of East India Company.

Another portion of Nasirpur Palace in state of ruins.

The famous Thakurbari in Nasirpur Rajbari where 'Jhulan' of Lord Krishna is celebrated even on this day..

Tomb of Azimunnisa Begum, wife of Nawab Shuja-ud-daula and daughter of the first Nawab of Bengal Murshid Quli Khan who named the place Murshidabad.Architecturally similar to Katra mosque this ruined mosque was built by Azimunnisa. Like her father she is also buried under the staircase

Nimak Haram Deori (the traitor's gate) is the main gate of Jafarganj Palace of Nawab Mir Jafar. Both the palace where Siraj-ud daula was brutally killed and the gate lie in total ruins.Across the road and just opposite this palace lie the Jafarganj cemetery built by Mir Jafar.

In the foreground is Madina mosque. It has ornamental replica of Hazrat Muhammad's tomb at Madina. This is the only surviving structure built by Siraj-ud-doula. In the background is Nizamat Imambara built by Nawab Nazim Mansoor Ali Khan after the Imambara built by Siraj had been destroyed by fire. This is perhaps the largest Imambara in India.

Hazarduari Palace ( palace with a thousand doors). This imposing three storied palace of European architectural style was built by Duncan Mcleod for Nawab Najim Humayun Jah (descendant of Mir Jafar).

This majestic clock tower in Hazarduari premises is sometimes referred as 'Big Ben of Murshidabad' The only drawback is that the clock does not work and chime now.

The foundation stone of Hazarduari Palace was laid in presence of Governor General Lord William Bentinck in 1829, and the construction was completed in 1837. The palace has 900 real doors and 100 imaginary doors. It has now been converted into a museum.

Views of Bhagirathi river from the bank where Hazarduari Palace and Imambara are located. On the opposite bank is Khosh Bagh cemetery where lie the graves of Siraj-ud -Daula, his wife Lutfannasha,Nawab Alivardi Khan and some other members of Nawab's family.

Views of  dense mango groves near Plassey. Murshidabad is famous for some of the finest varieties of mangoes in India.The Nawabs of Murshidabad and their Begums were great connoisseurs of this adorable fruit and that is the reason that the variety they savored most was named Begumpasand. The famous Battle of Plassey was also fought within these mango groves.

Plassey Station. This place which is about a few miles from Murshidabad town witnessed the famous Battle of Plassey in 1757 between Siraj-ud-Daula, Nawab of Bengal and Robert Clive of British East India Company.

( Photographs:  Arundhati Sengupta )

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Poems of a retired Engineer from Calcutta

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Poems penned by retired eminent Engineer Ramni Prasad


As I sit on the terrace
Of Mayfair Emerald in Kolkata,
I watch a heavenly phenomenon unfold

In the western sky.

The sun larger and red,

Seems sinking in the horizon

With an ever changing cloud pattern

A spectacle I watch in utter amazement.

The birds fly homewards,

Tired after the day’s toil,

Gather in groups,

Bidding goodbye to the restless world.

The dogs bark on the road below,

To settle some grave issues,

Then suddenly withdraw

And silence prevails again.

I go round the terrace,

On a leisurely walk.

Keep counting the mandatory rounds,

That falsely assures my fitness.

On the pavements below,

Ladies young and old,

Gather after their day’s toil,

To enjoy some mirth and merriment.

New apartment houses,

Keep coming up,

Served so far, by a single shop

The Ramakrishna Enterprises, working tirelessly.

Arpee Engineer, Nov.2012


Jawa, a deeply religious woman,

Partially owns a temple.

With other members of her family,

She worships many Gods and Goddesses.

The family shares the cost and toil,

And performs pujas round the year.

The Gods and Goddesses appear pleased

And the family is happy with their blessings.

Out in the large world,

Symbols of different religions predominate.

The Cross, The Moon and Star, The Trident,

And others seem uncomfortable with each other.

Somewhere the Gods laugh at the spectacle

Of human folly and myopic vision.

Residents of a microscopic planet earth,

Fail to see God’s awesome presence in the night sky.

When Carl Sagan beckons,

Go, have a glorious view of the Cosmos,

Which has been expanding since the Big Bang?

And will return to Brahma with the Big Crunch.

Arpee Engineer