What do you mean Toy Train? Do toys kill? Ex-railwayman NK Ghissing exploded, letting off steam almost like the B-Class locomotives he had flagged off during his tenure as the station master of Kurseong railway station. “Snail-paced though it might be, this train knocked down a couple of people in the bazaar months ago and ran over a dog a few weeks back. “And you still want to call it a Toy Train?” Ghissing was perhaps angry at the state of affairs of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), a marvel of mountain transport technology he had been a part of during its heydays.
Toy Train was what we were familiar with in neighbouring Assam; even grandfather, an ex-railway man used that term. I was obviously thrilled to board the 1D — the narrow gauge train from Siliguri to Darjeeling now hauled by an ugly diesel locomotive — at Siliguri Junction on DHR’s 125th anniversary. The excitement was cut short by an announcement that the train will terminate midway at Tindharia owing to a landslide on the track that will take 20 hours to clear. Reluctantly, I hired a car, the only other alternative.
Road to disaster
The soothing green of the Mahananda reserve forest was in sharp contrast to dusty, grimy Siliguri as the car hit the Hill Cart Road to Darjeeling. “This is where Saif Ali Khan sang that song in Parineeta aboard the Toy Train. I was here to see the shooting,” driver Guldon informed as the car neared Rangtong station, adding the scenery was much better further up. It began raining soon after, depriving me of the view from the hills. The drive was slow, and road repairs at frequent intervals made it worse. “Wrong time to come to Darjeeling; this is not tourist season. There are landslides ahead, you won’t get any views, but hotels offer off-season discounts,” the talkative Guldon shouted over the blast of ‘chalu’ music from the car stereo.
I had read somewhere DHR linked the two extremes — the flat, monotonous plains and the breathtakingly tall Himalayas. But apart from the height and temperature, Darjeeling almost matched Siliguri in chaos. The driver suggested Kurseong for stay, mainly because he had no warm clothes with him. I bumped into Ghissing and his retired colleagues in a quaint room behind the Kurseong railway station. “Why don’t you write about how this road and the transport lobby have been responsible for all these landslides? Compare the landslides on either side of 1968, the year the government allowed heavy transport on the hills and you will know,” said BB Thapa, president of the ex-railwaymen’s association.
KURSEONG was tidier and cosier than Darjeeling; most importantly, it had no water scarcity like the district headquarters. “Kurseong offers the best of both worlds; it offers pleasant weather minus the Darjeeling chill and you are surrounded by lush tea gardens like Makaibari and Castleton that command the highest prices for aromatic tea in the world,” said local resident Hiren Trikshatri. “Kurseong is strategically located midway between Siliguri and Darjeeling; you can reach Darjeeling or Siliguri in 45 minutes flat, the latter by the one-way Pankhabari road cutting through tea estates.” Agreed his friend, hotelier Dhiraj Arora. “Many tourists are now opting for Kurseong to be away from the congestion of Darjeeling. Other than its positional advantage, Kurseong offers you a view of Kanchenjunga on a clear day, albeit from a lower altitude. And unlike Darjeeling, you can get a decent bath here.”
“THE mall,” said DD Pradhan of Das Studio on the no-vehicle Nehru Road in Darjeeling, when I asked what was worth seeing in Darjeeling. He was humble enough not to mention his studio, virtually a pilgrimage for DHR fanatics and those who want to carry back visual memories of this part of the Himalayas. But what caught my interest were the ubiquitous elongated handcarts, each carrying sixteen 15-litre jars of water. “We call it the Gorkha Jeep or Bearing Gaadi, and it is perhaps the only thing that matters in Darjeeling,” said Trikshatri.
Water costs Rs 90 per Gorkha Jeep; the price escalates during tourist season when the demand for the vital fluid increases. Residents said water scarcity was the offshoot of “too much tourism” with hotels bribing water supply officials for more than their share. “The British had set up an efficient water supply network, but it is as good as not being there today,” said resident RM Lama. “Our appeals to reintroduce freight service on DHR, at least to supply us water from waterfalls near the railway track below have fallen on deaf ears. Maybe, the transport lobby is too strong.”
The slide for DHR began when freight service was discontinued more than two decades ago, said railway lover and member of DHR Society Sushil Dikshit. “This railway system would have gone to the dogs had it not been recognised as a World Heritage Site. The status has made the railway bosses think in terms of overhauling the tracks and get better coaches and faster locomotives, unfortunately of the diesel kind. But what DHR needs is a reintroduction of the freight service along with restriction on the movement of heavy trucks.”
An engineer with the West Bengal Public Health Engineering, Dikshit knows the railway can start by hauling water from torrents like Paglajhora and Panchanadi near Tindharia — location for the ‘Mere Sapno ki Rani’ song in ‘Aradhana’, I was told — and take it up to water-deficient Darjeeling for a price. It was an idea that sounded as poetic as the steam locomotive snaking along the slopes. Railway bosses could consider spending some steam to take water to an often ice-covered hill station.