The romance of Darjeeling, the queen of the hills, is the romance of the toy train. It is a memory that you grow up with and is difficult to forget for the rest of your life. Now a Unesco World Heritage site, this 137-year-old Himalayan train system uses vintage British-built steam locomotives on two-feet-wide tracks to chug 88 km to the hill town, horns blaring all the way, via Ghum, India’s highest railway station. A marvel of engineering at its time, it used six reverses and five loops—“bold and ingenious engineering solutions”, according to Unesco—to bore through impossibly steep and forested terrain, apparently inspired by reverse steps in ballroom dancing, an idea that came from the idle brain of an engineer’s wife!
At Batasia, the last loop on the line and just 3 km from the destination, the town of Darjeeling bursts into sight, the most complete and heart-stopping view that can be had of the hill town, never to be repeated. For tourists and visitors, particularly Bengalis, Darjeeling has thus always appeared through a prism of impossible beauty and hope. The zig-zag has become Darjeeling’s destiny; the aspirations of its people lost somewhere in the bend of the roads turned dusty by sporadic bursts of the demand for a separate identity and statehood. No Path in Darjeeling is Straight is Parimal Bhattacharya’s memorable contribution to understanding Darjeeling through a prism, where different colourful images magically come together to offer a remarkable clarity into the hill town as it once was, and its steady decline to what it is now. Bhattacharya’s luminous prose and even more incandescent observations make this a mellow, heartfelt and evanescent ode to the town whose future hangs in balance!
The Himalayan terrain is one of the three regional homes to pastoralists, who are about 34-million strong, and live off the hostile nature by foraging and coping with it. It is unrealistic to expect that this terrain, which encloses India’s northern borders, would have anything but a fluid national (and thereby, political) identity. The loyalty of the people would automatically be to the land that nurtures, a land that is actually seamless and far beyond the understanding of the people from the ‘mainland’. Bhattacharya aptly observes: “Perhaps Darjeeling is not a town, perhaps it is a narration that is being put together for more than a century.” So much of Darjeeling is a fable, woven by the British colonial rulers in search of a safe haven also rich in natural beauty, and by their loyal followers, the Bengali babus—“a class of native intermediaries—‘a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect’.” These Macaulay’s children in search of a Scotland nearer home, which fanned their poetic imagination and intellectual passion, adopted Darjeeling as their own little flight of fantasy. Their simplified, romantic cosmopolitan narrative of a pristine ‘English’ hill town successfully ignored, even concealed, the deep yearnings and the very real miseries of the peaceful locals for long, allowing the melancholia to fester and simmer until its violent eruption in the first Gorkhaland agitation in the late Eighties.
The Gorkhaland agitation is really the sign of a deeper turmoil in this hill town that was built to house only 10,000 people, but now must accommodate 130,000, as per the 2011 Census, and more in season when tourists rain down on the place. Water scarcity is rampant, power supply is a tourist, jobs are scarce, healthcare is almost non-existent, floods regularly wash away roads and small houses… the list is endless. Add to this the rising trafficking of women, the decline in the fortunes of the tea gardens that the British so overwhelmingly planted, replacing ‘dense primeval forests’, the spread of AIDS, and the inevitable migration to the metros. The rising influx from Nepal has served to further blur the characteristics of the Dorhzeling hills, the original home of the Lepchas, and many other wandering tribes for centuries. The Sikkimese Bhutiyas and the Tibetans also came, attracted by the dazzle of the hill town, but the Nepalis, across castes, came in droves and changed its character.
Bhattacharya’s book opens tiny windows into this complex saga, weaving several complex strands into a story that doesn’t have a happy ending for the Darjeeling residents. But his glimpses are wise and empathetic! This little hill town full of chor bata, where no path ever runs straight, gave the naturally shy and lonesome lecturer his first job, introduced him to its youth—at once hopeful and militant—helped him make friends, and allowed him to explore its hidden corners and to lift its misty veil to revel in the quiet beauty of the harsh terrain and the peaceful soul of the simple people at its heart. During his stay of almost a decade, Bhattacharya got acquainted with Darjeeling like a few before him. He unveils those vignettes in spellbinding stories—the pursuit of the Himalayan salamander, ‘a small unsightly amphibian’ long thought to be extinct but surviving in the shallow water bodies; the descendant of one of the eight Bengali municipal commissioners in the Thirties and his stories of how the Bengalis fled during the agitation; the pursuit of Gnuiye, the street kid in Satyajit Ray’s Kanchenjunga; the deliberate home exile of Pratibha Datta, the last of high society; the daily pilgrimage to Tiger Hill to watch dawn breaking on the resplendent Everest range; Newton Subba and his angst, unmitigated by the inclusion of Nepali language in the Eighth Schedule; the futile mission to find a lost Himalayan settlement of the Lepchas; and how the infinite tolerance of the locals grew brittle and despondent with the ebb and flow of the agitation that achieved little, given the intransigence of the government in the plains!
Who does Darjeeling belong to? Is it really the Gurkhas, the Nepali tribe that comprises one of the bravest regiments in the military, and one with the highest sacrifices of life?
Even if it does, a separate state would be difficult to come about, given Darjeeling’s unique location! Will the Gurkhas’ political loyalty and status then continue to be questioned, even as, ironically, their faithfulness as guards is widely cherished? Will the Bengal government ever come off its pedestal and, as Bhattacharya suggests, talk gently to the younger brother and listen to the grievances? The answers are hidden in the mist.
Paromita Shastri is a freelance writer