Parimal Bhattacharya’s inspiration remains in the paths of Darjeeling and the poetic gloom that lingers, enhanced by the spectres that loom on hilltops. He interweaves this with the stories of two men who lived in Darjeeling and dedicated their lives to exploring Tibet, rewarded for their efforts with near-death experiences and ultimately anonymity. Kinthup the tailor and Sarat Chandra Das were relegated to the archives of the Empire after years of gathering information on Tibet. George Bogle, the first ambassador to Tibet in Warren Hasting’s time also died of fever, though he spent less time in Darjeeling than the others and his trip to Tibet, unlike that of the others, was not a forbidden one.
By the time Kinthup and Das went exploring, Tibet was a jealously guarded country where outsiders were executed along with those who helped them. Bhattacharya takes the reader through the different stories with their undercurrent of heartbreak—Kinthup, for example, was enslaved and returned after four years to find his wife and baby daughter dead, along with the high up who had sent him into Tibet. His pathbreaking exploration of the origins of the Brahmaputra was not recognised until much later.
Bhattacharya evokes Kipling and Kim’s Great Game, when he talks about Shimla and Scandal Point, another hill station capital and hot bed of intrigue. The political network would drag spies returned from Tibet and long forgotten to the Burra Latt’s offices in Simla for interrogation. The Bells of Shangri-La attempts to link to those still alive who may have had links with Kinthupor Das (his relatives still live in Kolkata), and Bogle’s grave is to be found in South Park Street Cemetery.
The narrative of Bells of Shangri-La twists and turns like the paths of Darjeeling with undercurrents of regret and violence returning again and again to the stories of Kinthup and Das—in Das’ case, a precis of the Pundit’s own book of his journeys.
Interwoven are Bhattacharya’s own journeys in the region and his encounters with people who have lived and worked in the hills. Sikkim and Darjeeling being side by side, Bhattacharya also gives useful insights into the nature of homestays in Sikkim that he feels are fast destroying traditional ways of life.
Bhattacharya’s poetry comes to the forefront in his descriptions of nature, though those who have read his earlier works will notice overlaps, possibly for the benefit of the rest who are not familiar with No Path in Darjeeling is Straight. There are also odd editorial glitches like the frequent use of the word ‘washings’ that crops up like pebbles in a rippling stream.
Tibet and the hills are no lost horizon waiting to rejuvenate the visitors. Infact, the meadows strewn with blue poppies are also strewn with the corpses of those who died in the Indo-China war. The hills and those who love them inevitably seem to face the tragedy of one kind or the other whether this is due to the rolling clouds and the damp or some other karma is unclear. Today, hints Bhattacharya, the bells of Shangri La, symbolised in tiny yak bells, are no longer what they used to be.