In Tenesse Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, the heroine takes rides on a streetcar line named Desire to come to the city center. In New Orleans, there really was a line by that name. If a tramway in a US city could be named Desire, then the taxi route to the hill town of Darjeeling could very well be named Longing. To understand this, one must go to Chowkbazaar on a dim, foggy afternoon. There one would see the battered Mahindra and Land Rover service jeeps waiting in front of the police outpost, below Golghar restaurant, and would hear the impatient cries of drivers and their assistants –
Last Turn! Last Turn! Last turn.
After this, darkness would fall, no vehicle would ply on hill roads. Darjeeling would be completely cut off at night from the rest of the world. During my years of exile there, every time I heard the anxious calls of these men, I felt a sudden tug at my heart. Their litanies were blended with the muezzin’s call for evening prayer that rose from Butcherbustee below and filled me with a deep longing. One of my colleagues had an 8-year old son who suffered from asthmatic fits. These came unannounced, and he had to be immediately shifted to lower altitude as there was no other remedy. The jeep drivers’ calls would cast a shadow on the nervous father’s face. Another colleague, who had an odd sense of humour, would respond by singing aloud a Tagore song –
Orey ay, amay niye jabi ke re bela sesher sesh kheyay
Orey ay, diner seshe…
‘Oh come! Who’ll carry me in the last ferry at the day’s end…’ – the lyric says something like this, and then: ‘For whom the daylight has died but the lamp of the night has not been lit, it is he who is sitting at the pier.’
The light of the day would really die for us with the ardent cries of last-turn drivers, the lamp of the night would not be lit, we would plod on to go and sit at the pier…I mean, at one of the many pubs in town. I have heard anxious footsteps of village folk who had come to town on various work, and were hurrying to catch the last-turn service jeeps. With nightfall, not only would Darjeeling be cut off from the plains, but the settlements scattered all over the hills, too, would shrink into tiny islands in a dark ocean, the mountains would return to the priemeval times. The darkness would slowly curdle over the jeep stand, the calls would become mystical and indistinct:
Last turn! Last turn!
A keen ear could pick out in these slurred utterances roots of original Lepcha place names that the jeep drivers unknowingly evoked. Thus, Kurseong became Kharsang, Lebong Alebong, and Darjeeling became Dorhzeling. In Lepcha language, each of these words has a meaning: Kharsang means the land of white orchids (alternately, the star at dawn), Ale-bong is a tongue-shaped spur, and Kalempoong is ‘the ridge where we play’. In fact, many peaks, rivers, gorges and plateaus in these hills still bear Lepcha names whose sounds have been twisted in other tongues. Thus, Peshok comes from pazok, which means forest; Mirik from mir-yok, ‘a place burnt by fire’; Phalut from Fak-lut, or ‘the denuded peak’; and Senchal comes from shin-shel-lo, which means cloud-capped hill.
These bear testimony to the fact that the Lepchas were the original inhabitants of Darjeeling hills. This is also acknowledged in British official documents. When the king of Sikkim gifted the East India Company the 24 miles long and 6 miles wide Darjeeling hill tract, so that they could build a sanatorium there, it was inhabited by the Lepcha tribe. But that shouldn’t stop us from taking a critical look at the image of pristine wooded mountains sparsely dotted with a few Lepcha dwellings before the British set foot here. The object of seeing, and showing, Darjeeling hills as an almost uninhabited place was two-fold: one economic, the other cultural. For the tenancy of this hill tract, the Company had agreed to pay the king an annual grant of three thousand rupees (the amount was later doubled). Lack of human habitation and, consequently, limited scope for revenue collection would have meant that the gift was rather profitable for the Sikkimese monarch. And then there was the colonial mindset at work behind the notion that Darjeeling was ‘discovered’ by the British. This led to the fabrication of a nostalgic home town on foreign soil, upon exotic Himalayan terrain.
The fabrication progressed through the 19th century on war footing; a military officer was appointed for this. In 1835, after the East India Company obtained Darjeeling hills as a gift, it sent Colonel Lloyd and Dr Chapman, the surgeon of the Governor General, to sojourn there and find out whether its environment and climate were suitable for a sanatorium. They stayed there for eight months, from November 1836 to January the next year, in a wattled hut that they built for themselves. Based on their report, Darjeeling Association was formed in Calcutta with a brief to set up a town in the mountains. The years 1838-39 were a period of intense activity in Darjeeling. Jungles were cleared and plots of flattened land were distributed among members of the association. Also, and what was of crucial importance, the construction of a bridle path to Darjeeling via Punkhabari began. The Darjeeling Family Hotel was set up; a colony came up with about a dozen cottages. St. Andrew’s Church was built in 1843; the Loreto Convent was established four years later. In the lower part of the settlement, not yet a town, dwellings of coolies and menials, most of them from the plains, were coming up now as a large native labour force was sine qua non for the comforts of sahibs and memsahibs. This led to the growth of temples and a mosque in 1851-52. The monastery at Ghoom was built in 1876, and another one at Bhutiabustee came up three years later. In 1880, the educated Bengali babus, who had been flocking to the hill station as clerks and teachers, established a temple of the Brahmo faith.
Thus, the tradition of people practicing their different faiths in Darjeeling is as old as the town itself. But what is remarkable, as many as nine churches and chapels were built here before the end of the 19th century. This was the Victorian age; British social life was drawn tight by the contrary pulls of orthodoxy and libertinism, even thousands of miles away from home. Since the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, more and more memsahibs had begun to arrive in India, but the officers posted in mofussil towns didn’t have much opportunity to mix with members of the fair sex. The carefree life in the hill stations and the merry grass widows who reigned there compensated for this. Their scandalous lives at Shimla have left their prints in the writings of Kipling; that of their Darjeeling counterparts are scattered in letters, diaries and juicy anecdotes the hill people have inherited from their forefathers. There is, for example, the apocryphal story that the manager of Wilson’s Hotel would ritually walk the corridors at daybreak ringing a bell, so that the lodgers could return to their respective rooms before the morning tea.
1857 was a watershed year in the history of Indian hill stations. The great mutiny made it starkly clear that these mountain retreats were of crucial importance to the coloniser not only from the point of view of health and recreation, but also of security. By this time, the stereotype of hill people as the epitome of simplicity and reliability had been set. Coincidentally, in the year 1857, when seeds of mistrust and iron rule was being sown in the plains of India, saplings of tea were being planted for the first time in Makaibari. In 1864, the residential St. Paul’s School was set up. Next year, Darjeeling got its first official cemetery and a prison; the town’s population was three thousand in 1872. Eight years later the marvel of engineering chug-chugged up the hill blowing whistles and waving banners of smoke. The dense priemeval forest cover was magically transformed into green undulating velvets of tea gardens.
Such a whirlwind tour of history has its pitfalls: the timeline drawn to connect the points of apparently significant events elude other events, or non-events; the eye fails to discern the gaps and ruptures in the imagined line. Our tendency to draw the line straight through clusters of happenings tend to skirt the winding tracks and dead alleys of history.
But none of the pathways in Darjeeling is straight. To know it intimately, one must step out of the broad roads and take the twisting hill tracks and steep side trails. Local people call them chora-bato.
The young man who had introduced me to the chora-batos of Darjeeling was Hemraj Chhetri. His family had been living in the hills for a number of generations, but his surname as well as his physiognomy bore the unmistakable marks of the north Indian upper caste. Hemraj’s forefathers were said to have been among the Rajputs who had been driven out of their homeland by the Mughals in the 16th century and had taken refuge in the Hindu kingdom of Nepal. However, he didn’t have any interest in such recent history; his passion lay in Jurassic, Triassic and the Cretaceous periods. Hemraj was a research fellow in the zoology department of our college; the object of his study was a rare species of reptile that had given evolution the slip and had managed to remain exactly as it had been 150 million years ago: the Himalayan salamander, Tylotrotriton verracocsus. These flat, greyish pink newts were thought to have gone extinct, until they were found by chance in a pool near Darjeeling in 1964.
But they are a critically endangered species that are listed in Schedule 2 of the Wildlife Protection Act of India, as well as in the Red Data Book of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources). The newts live on a diet of tiny insects and aquatic plants, hibernate during winter in the clefts of stones and trees, and mate in puddles formed during the rains. There they lay eggs, and the larvas live in water until they grow lungs. Thus, natural pools and shallow waterbodies are critical for the survival of these salamanders.
For aeons, innumerable pools in and around Darjeeling hills had fostered the life cycle of these living fossils. But most of these pools, locally called pokhri, were destroyed with the growth of tea gardens; the few that were left became polluted with pesticide and detergents. With the loss of their critical habitat, the Himalayan salamanders too were taken as lost from the face of the planet. Their renewed sighting only a few decades ago sent ripples of excitement among herpetologists around the world.
Three months of ceaseless rains in Darjeeling are the cruellest; loneliest too. Many fall prey to suicidal depression. And yet, when the town is wrapped in fog and the days are filled with a murky light, when fabulous moths swarm at lighted windowpanes in the evenings, when the unending rains seem to be coursing down the arteries, it is then that the would town work her charms on me. The desolate paths, the tourist-less Mall, the listless eyes of shopkeepers, the sleeping street dogs on railway platform, the silhouette of an umbrella on a foggy road, the lone traffic constable, the newspaper vendor wrapped in a cellophane burqa, the droplets of water drumming on leaves of tree fern, the rain-slicked mane of a solitary horse at Back Mall, the smell of fresh arrivals at Oxford Bookshop, the amber hair of a bored belle behind the glasspanes at Amigos, the scents of lost time in Habeeb Mullick’s antique shop, the rash of tiny blue wild flowers in the crevice of a stone, the flock of tiny penguins sheathed in raincoats trooping back home from school, the murmur of a swelled spring in the pine grove on Convent Road… all these I would find irresistibly seductive.
Just as the town folded into itself during the rainy months, the mind, too, became at one with itself. A brooding mood that sometimes lingers in old black and white photographs pervaded the consciousness. Dim light filtered through fog cast no shadow, each object would appeared in its truest form and tone, the newborn leaf of a fern peeping through a chink in the bark trembled, hit by a big raindrop, and continued to ring in the mind’s eye like a delicate tune. These languid absorptions cast their spell on me.
It didn’t happen in a day. In the beginning, I too craved for the face of the sun. The rainy months in Darjeeling are the cruellest; longest too. There are these wet, dripping months of June, July, August, and then towards the end of September the monsoon’s fist loosens, a turbid whorl of light appears in the sky at noon. One day, early in the morning, tea plucker women are seen on the green manicured slopes like swarms of grasshoppers. They are seen plucking the leaves with both hands and throw them in the baskets strapped to their foreheads in a nimble unbroken motion of arms. Another day, late in the afternoon, a flaming red sunset is visible from the open terrace of Keventers. The sudden scent of roasted corn in the air, the lacerated clouds hanging motionless over the distant mountains suggest the departure of monsoon. Then the chirping of crickets are heard one day. They emit a sharp staccato, like clockwork toys, as their wings dry up. The sun invariably appears in the morning following the night of chirping crickets: an intense sun, like liquid diamond, pouring from a pure rain-washed sky.
And then comes the long-awaited morning: the Kanchenjungha resplendent across the skies, hanging like an improbable dream over the dinghy, moss-spotted town. One gets up late in the morning and steps out to the balcony, toothbrush in mouth, to be greeted by the old neighbourhood morning walker prancing back home:
‘Good morning! I’ve seen it today!’
And then the town brushes, washes and rushes out onto the streets. One takes the chora-bato to Chowrasta, turns left at the head of the stairs, and is greeted by her snowy majesty across the forest of jackets hanging from the awnings of Tibetan shops, through gaps of two tall buildings, in the porthole of the police booth, upon the begrimed windowpanes of Padma restaurant, in the cracked mirror at Lucky saloon.
Darjeeling is not to be found in Darjeeling then, because it has already been hijacked into the posters hanging on the railings of Laden La Road, sold at 20 rupees apiece, unfolded like a love letter across the narrow green ridge under a dazzling Kanchenjungha.
When the bleak monsoon months graded to clear autumn, Hemraj set out in search of salamanders in the rainfed pokhris in the hills. Sometimes I accompanied him. We would leave the metalled road and pick out a chora-bato that corkscrewed down forested hill slopes. Hemraj knew the nature here like lines on his palm; formal education had given his native wisdom a rare edge. We would scan the damp mossy stones under thick undergrowth for veins of trickling water, that would lead us below, sometimes a hundred feet or more, to where a pool had been formed. Sometimes we would have only a feeble whisper of water as our guide. It required trained ears to pick it out from the welter of sounds in the damp, fecund forest teeming with life. Sometimes particular species of plants that grow near water betrayed small, hidden pokhris; sometimes tiny birds darting about to catch water-borne insects gave away. The jungles around Darjeeling were like a book filled with arcane symbols; Hemraj knew how to read them.
The life cycle of the elusive salamanders turned silently for millions of years in the water collected in moss-lined, fallopian hollows of stones where sunlight seldom entered. Gazing at the water’s surface, we would find the greyish pink creatures in suspended animation. Sometimes we would spot them from a distance on the edge of the pool, clinging to the rocks like damp leaves, but they would jump back into water in a flash at the sound of our feet.
Once we had trekked down from Sonada to Margaret Hope tea garden to study the creatures in a pokhri there. It was a rather large pokhri nestled among a group of hummocks clad in green tea plants. A school of newts lived in its depths. There was a tea-pluckers’ shed nearby; the leaves were weighed here and taken to the factory in tractors. The plucker women lounged in the shed after work, shared the food they brought from home.
I had seen them working, immersed upto their hips in green slopes. From a distance they had appeared like mysterious fairies, the baskets on their backs hanging like folded wings. I also knew they had magical fingers. With a practised speed that the eye failed to discern, they plucked two leaves and a bud from a new five-leaved shoot, never touching the other three leaves that were the plants’ breathers. Processed and dried, the leaves produced quality pico, while premium orange pekoe were made from the buds.
But from close quarters, these women were a far cry from the fairies of the distant slopes. There were about twenty of them in the group, ranging from pubescent girls to old crones. From their physical features it appeared that there were a number of Santhals and Madhesis as well as local hill tribes. They chattered in a kind of pidgin and exchanged giggles as they watched a Darjeeling-ko-chora and a Bengali babu meditating on the edge of the pokhri. They had hunched backs and rough skin; a few had heavy silver studs on their ears and noses. They sat on their haunches,with arms around the knees, while the salamanders were drawn to the pale green shafts of water lit up by the sun. The women waited with their empty baskets for the tractor to return from the factory. The salamanders remained suspended in water, over the drift of time, for millions of years.
* This is an excerpt from Darjeeling: Smriti Samaj Itihas, a book in Bengali, translated by the author.