At age three, everybody with whom I have raised this point, says I can have no memories. “It’s just not possible,” said my mother and plodded out of the room. She called Father and got him to dig out an old black album from the top shelf of the almirah and placed it on the breakfast table where the matter had come up.
“Why do you need to see the Darjeeling album now?” Father wanted to know.
“I am going there that’s why,” I said. “I just want to check whether I remember the Mall, the trees, the chow-shops the way I saw them first. When I was three.”
Father, unlike Mother has no issue with details and can make the wildest claims on my behalf. But he still likes to think he has control over my plans, or, as he calls it, my “movements”.
“Darjeeling! Now?” he spluttered. “There’s massive gondogol! Go a month later.”
Gondogol is the Bengali catastrophe. Bengalis are prepared for it each time they cross the street. It can be used to describe the outbreak of a riot, robbery down the road, the rising price of fish at Gariahat, the breakdown of somebody else’s marriage. Basically, it’s a cultural habit of stretching an event into an occasion, of reading news and imagining trends.
“They are burning buses. There is civil war,” was Father’s first attempt at sabotage. I sniffed. Civil wars are made of sterner stuff, I said.
“Uh okay, you’ll at least get to see snow,” he said giving up at last. So I packed my bag, roped in a friend and went.
Then and now
Trouble in Darjeeling used to be rather hard to find – but nowadays you don’t have to look for it. The walls of restaurants, hotels, hair salons, and even the famous Clock Tower are chalked with inter-party warnings. There is the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) warning the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) of something or the other and, to a lesser extent, the other way around. Subhash Ghising, the GNLF chief and the anti-establishment hero of the mid-80s who in the ordinary Gorkha eyes, has now turned a Left Front lackey, seemed clearly on the backfoot. (Bimal Gurung of the GJM forced Ghising to resign from the Hill Council in March).
Popular resistance in the city, however, does not touch tourists or upset their plans, unless you want to be touchy about being woken up early by propaganda songs ending with a hearty ‘Ho’ and a ‘La’ after every couple of lines and sloganeering from the town square. We were staying close by; the windows of Snowdrop Inn on the La Denla Road, jangled when the GJM did their early-morning number. But like most out-of-towners we had no issue with the ‘Freedom momos’ — in shape or taste no different from the regular ones — and dipped them into the bowls of thin broth and looked out of the shack.
Thick woolies, mufflers, calendars and beads were being hawked at hiked prices to westerners. For the Gorkhas, it was payback time: even in old establishments as the Glenary’s, Bengalis were being served last; their sale pitches on the Mall were being scoffed at; the man on the street was telling him he didn’t want his business.
While making some deep cuts into an omelette flanked by little curly sausages at the Keventer’s restaurant opposite the Planter’s Club, in the evening, I said this was not the Darjeeling I knew. I fished out my album again for evidence. Father with long side-burns, a bushy crop and tinted sunglasses looked back menacingly from some of them…
“Now that doesn’t look like three,” said my friend pointing to me in the photo. “You were positively five years old then,” he said smirking. Which at least means, that I had the right to my memories.
Snow. A Calcutta daily in good old tradition had seen ‘design’ even in the pattern of snowfall since ’03. It remarked that snow had fallen on the “really important” days of the calendar: New Year’s in 2003, January 23 (Subhash Chandra Bose’s birthday) in 2005, Valentine’s Day last year and Republic Day this time around. Well, we missed it by a week.
What the Taj Mahal is to Agra, the Toy Train is to Darjeeling. One day, we took a ride on it to Ghum. The Ghum station is the second highest railway station in the world to be reached by steam locomotive, we learn at the rail museum there. The fog made us trip on the wooden stairs as we climb our way to there. On one of the museum’s notice boards was pinned a famous telegram sent from the line to headquarters in Calcutta during Mark Twain’s time: “Tiger eating station master on front porch. Telegraph instructions.” All museums think they can write their own history and make such things up.
We got for our parents a few packets of the famous Makaibari tea, a dragon mask for a friend, a muffler for an old aunt, a few tins of fiery pork pickles for home, and a couple of sweaters I know I did not need and will not wear. I also bought myself a new photo album. It’s about time…