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10 Jun 2017

Family sets off in dark, stopped twice by GJM, drives to safety

Tamaghna Banerjee | TNN | Jun 10, 2017, KOLKATA: After being caught in the rampage on Wednesday, a family of four from Garia did not dare to take a risk any more. The Chatterjees set off from their Darjeeling hotel at 4.30am in their car, were forced to take multiple detours and stopped twice by GJM supporters, who peeped into their car, flashing with a torch.
Kaushik Chatterjee, national sales head at a private firm, his wife Banani and two children-Sohina (12) and Navam (4)-were among hundreds of tourists from Kolkata who made a mad rush to home, after spending a sleepless night in the Hills. For the Chatterjees, the long-planned vacation apparently started on the wrong note. The family had booked railway tickets over a month ago, but the train seats were not confirmed even a day before their journey. So, they cancelled the tickets and decided to drive up to Darjeeling. "I hired a driver from Siliguri," said Kaushik, a resident of Kamalgazi in Garia.

As they arrived in Darjeeling on Tuesday, they found all the places crowded and roads jam-packed, apparently courtesy chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her cabinet colleagues' visit for a cabinet meeting. The next morning, they went to Tiger Hill early in the morning, but had to face a harrowing five-hour wait before they could reach Jorebangla. Next, they were not allowed to visit the ropeway. When they finally sat down for a late lunch at Glenary's off Mall, Chatterjee said, trouble broke out on the streets. They heard deafening blasts, one after the other, and were forced to be cooped up inside the restaurant before they could walk back to their hotel. The family spent around three hours inside the eatery before they could walk back to their hotel, though their hotel owner called them up to rush back as early as possible.

The family had earlier made plans to go sightseeing at Lepchajagat and Sukhiapokhri on Friday, but cut the trip short. "I could not sleep all night. I kept walking up and down my room all night and kept checking the latest news updates on my mobile. By 3am, I could see cars moving on the road and people with suitcases and backpacks waiting by the road. I did not wait any more, woke up my kids and drove out," Kaushik said. It was still dark outside as the family set off in their red Hyundai Creta, Kaushik sitting beside the driver and Banani, Sohina and Navam in the backseat.

The family first took Hill Cart Road to reach Siliguri via Kurseong, but was stopped around 5.30am. "A long queue of cars was waiting on the road. The driver of a car coming from the opposite direction told us Morcha supporters had blocked the road ahead, not letting anyone pass. We took a u-turn to take the other road through Pankhabari village," Kaushik said.

But less than an hour into the drive, they were stopped again, this time, with no other car in the vicinity. The way was blocked with boulders and rocks, and the moment the Chatterjees came to a halt, men holding green-and-yellow flags came rushing towards them, banged on the car bonnet and signalled them to go back. "I panicked. The driver tried to speak to them but they were in no mood to listen. Just then, our driver spotted someone known to him among the group, walked up to him and requested them to let us go. He told them we left Darjeeling long before the bandh began," Kaushik said.

For his children, it was the most alarming moment on the entire trip. "I was scared when men, wearing shawls and mufflers, banged on our car and flashed torches through the windows to see who all were inside the vehicle. I clutched at my mother's arm even as she begged with folded hands, pleading the men to let us go," recounted Sohina. The presence of the children in the car apparently saved the day for the family. On finding out that there were kids inside the vehicle, two men again came up to the vehicle, reconfirmed by flashing torch light inside and then said something to their "leader". The group then let the car pass.

After the two "stops", the family no more dared to wait anywhere on the road, not even for food or water, till they reached Islampur. Then they dropped off the driver in Siliguri, and Kaushik took to the wheel.

"It has been a long and tiring journey. We halted at a few places for some breather but I am still driving. We hope to reach home at Garia around 2am," said Kaushik.

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