I thought I had seen small towns, growing up in Ayyampetai in Thanjavur district, population 16,000 now, probably a few thousands less when I was a child. I thought I understood what a small town was, but West Bengal’s Raichak, located 50-60km south of Kolkata, on the banks of the Hooghly, with a population of 1,500 (in 2011, maybe a few hundred more now, but I doubt it) blew my mind.
The morning after I arrived, against everyone’s advice, I set out on a little run outside the confines of the luxury hotel I was inhabiting. The rain from the day before had left water accumulated in several crater-sized potholes outside the hotel’s gates but very quickly I was on a single-lane road that led out, heading back towards Kolkata. It was dawn but people were out and about, women more than men, working, cleaning their huts. Yelawolf on my iPod was singing something about shopping for his cousins but I quickly became aware that I was a source of great entertainment to the folks who did spot me in the first 10 minutes. So much so that they called their relatives and on my run back, there was much pointing, nudging, giggling and staring. Two youngsters even broke into a run next to me, until their mothers shouted at them to stop wasting time. I realized I had missed the main town by running on the narrow national highway.
I walked the other way, past bigger potholes, having lost steam entirely, to witness shops opening. A little vegetable shop, with a total of 6kg of produce at the most and an old-school, hand-held weighing scale, had a few truant coconuts drying outside. A sweet shop had baked cookies and biscuits in 10 little plastic boxes with metallic lids. The local barber shop had two men getting a hair-cut, one of them had his wife and two-year-old son standing outside, talking to him through the window. There was a cycle-repair shop, the smallest one on the strip. There were plenty of buses standing at the end of that little street, hardly a few hundred metres long, some with passengers ready to head towards the city and others that looked like they had brought labour and folks to load up the barges that stood some distance away on the river. A few curious goats looked at me as if I were a science experiment. I decided to get back and get ready for my day.
Carl Jung once said, “Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” I did not feel conscious running through my time-capsule in Raichak, if anything I felt more aware of my privileges and my insignificance. Being in completely unfamiliar territory can be both limiting and liberating. To me, true wakefulness meant carefully treading that line.
Anu Vaidyanathan is a lost sole and author of Anywhere But Home. This is the concluding part of this series on running in not so well-known places. The author tweets at @anuvaidyanathan.