Saturday, Oct 01, 2022

Book Excerpt: Lights Of Darjeeling

For more than a century, hill people from far and wide were attracted like flying insects by the lights of Darjeeling. Their stories are strewn around every bend in the roads of the town. These are stories of pluck and prosperity, of leaving the stagnant life of their villages and of survival against the odds of an expensive hill station.

Darjeeling with Kangchenjunga in the background
Darjeeling with Kangchenjunga in the background Shutterstock

I tried, and failed, to get permission from Pratap’s parents to depart that afternoon. That I would stay the night had been taken for granted; a couple of neighbours had been invited to dinner. Their hospitality was so spontaneous and yet so understated. Pratap’s father knew the art of communicating the depth of his feeling with the hint of a smile or a fleeting touch upon the shoulder. Countless glasses of liquor couldn’t spoil his poise and propriety. 

But that was later in the evening. As the afternoon waned, Pratap took me above their house to a flat boulder jutting out of the side of the hill to see the most memorable sight of Tuia. 

It appeared to be the favourite haunt of village children and idlers: checkerboards and tic-tac-toe games were drawn on the rock with pieces of chalk and clay. Tranquil cows grazed, stepped fields of maize rolled down, a gentle breeze picked up a murmur in the pine grove above. The light of the day was fast dying. 

As we sat there on our haunches, one of Pratap’s many uncles came up and handed me a tongba pot: a hollow jar of bamboo filled with fermented millet, and a slender pipe, also made of bamboo, stuck into it. I was asked to suck the pipe to imbibe a mildly fermented drink. After a few sips, the weariness of the uphill trek from Bijanbari faded away and a sweet languor suffused my limbs. I gazed ahead and saw the fog which had been rising from the valley all through the day shrinking under the orange light of the setting sun: it was as if a coven of genies were returning to their bottles. 


No Path in Darjeeling is Straight.
No Path in Darjeeling is Straight.

By then, thick shadows had lengthened over the village with surprising haste. The sun had dipped behind the arc of tall mountains along the north-west. Now the veil of fog was drawn away from before our eyes to reveal a truly amazing sight. Before us, at a distance of about five kilometres as the crow flies, Darjeeling town lay upon the narrow spur. Fog had kept it hidden during the day, but now it seemed to dominate the eastern horizon. Countless windowpanes and the tin roofs of miniature houses glinted in the light of the setting sun. I could never have imagined how unbelievably congested and bereft of green Darjeeling was if I had not seen it like this. Dark threads of roads twisted across packed blocks of buildings, ant-like vehicles scurried upon them. A ribbon of smoke rose above the railway station to the right; below it, the blue dome over the palace of the Maharaja of Burdwan glowed. A Z-shaped track was cut across the dark green face of Happy Valley tea garden. 

Pratap and I improvised a game. He would name a well-known building of the town and I would search it out from the dense, bristling urban forest. Then we would switch. Together, we found Bishop House, Loreto Convent, St. Joseph’s College, St. Andrew’s Church, Windermere Hotel, Ajit Mansions, the staff quarters of the government college, Cozy Café… This continued until daylight died, until evening settled over Tuia with the lowing of cows, the faint wail of a baby and the barking of dogs. As we began to climb down from the rock terrace, the lights of Darjeeling had come on. 

While the bright lights glowed across the sky like silent fireworks, kerosene lamps glimmered here and there in Tuia. Together, they created an uneasy spell, a confused feeling that cannot be described in language, one that builds up in the chest like stifled sighs. The more the darkness deepened, the more the lights of Darjeeling brightened, their radiance buzzed in the inky sky like a beehive. 

We came to sit upon the broad wooden porch in Pratap’s house. Two guests from the neighbourhood had already arrived; the male members of the extended household were also present. We struck up a conversation—they in broken Hindi and I in my pathetic Nepali. Guraans, a homemade liquor distilled from rhododendron petals, was poured into glasses and plates heaped with bhuteko masu—mutton fried with lots of garlic and red chillies—were passed around. The starry lights of Darjeeling glowed on the distant horizon. 

Suddenly I noticed something: perhaps it was a coincidence, but while all the elderly men had their backs turned to the glittering townscape, the relatively young ones sat facing it. 

I was introduced to Rupen, Pratap’s young cousin, who was standing away from the circle of conversation. He was studying in Class 11 at North Point School in Darjeeling and had a passion for music. Rupen smiled bashfully when I asked him to sing something for us, but gave in at the urgings of the womenfolk and fetched his guitar. 

Of the three or four songs that Rupen sang that evening, one was Harry Belafonte’s ‘Jamaica Farewell’; the rest were contemporary rock. I have heard ‘Jamaica Farewell’ so many times on so many different occasions, but listening to the song that evening in the sleepy hamlet nestled in the wooded hills was an unforgettable experience. Rupen sang with deep absorption, standing with his back against the railing and keeping the beat with his feet on the wooden floor. I learnt that he was yet to see the sea with his own eyes. But the magic cast by his voice transformed the verandah into the deck of a Caribbean ship, raring to set out upon uncharted seas. 

Another song that he sang that evening, one by a Western rock group named Bloodkin, had a haunting lyric whose first few lines became etched in my memory. 

Who do you belong to? 
I’m sure it’s not yourself 
Who do you sing love songs to? 
’Cause you sing ’em all day long— 
But that’s not your voice 
Not as far as I can tell 

As he plucked the strings of the guitar and shook his head, Rupen’s eyes wandered into the distance where Darjeeling lay like fistfuls of iridescent gems upon black velvet.

For more than a century, hill people from far and wide were attracted like flying insects by the lights of Darjeeling. Their stories are strewn around every bend in the roads of the town. These are stories of pluck and prosperity, of leaving the stagnant life of their villages and of survival against the odds of an expensive hill station. But that is not all. The stories of failure and loss, of trickery and broken hearts, can be found in sad taverns of remote hamlets, in bitter glasses of raksi and in tattered shoes propped up on lonely cottage steps

Excerpted from the book No Path in Darjeeling is Straight: Memories of a Hill Town. Reproduced with permission from Harper Collins Publishers India Private Limited.