By Abhik Dutta
The Commander jeep hurtled down NH 31A from Gangtok to Teesta Bazar at breakneck speed. Sitting at the back is not a comfortable way of travelling in these hills if you are in a taxi loaded with 13 passengers including the driver and the cleaner! Brief glimpses of the beautiful Teesta River from the gaps between a dozen heads kept me occupied. The constant banter of the 3 young ladies flirting with the driver in Nepali, the local language, was what really worried me. In any case he was perched precariously on the edge of the seat with part of his body hanging out and every time a bend appeared he would lean his full body on the wheel to turn the vehicle. He either fell on the lady next to him – an action that brought peels of laughter from the 3 ladies in front – or he simply disappeared out of the jeep depending on the turn. They found this very amusing. Not me. I was praying.
By the time we reached Teesta Bazar, it was hot and sunny. The altitude not more than 2000ft. On the left, the road turned to Kalimpong, 14 kms away. A quaint hill station famous for its flower nurseries and pleasant weather throughout the year, the place makes for an excellent two-day detour in one’s itinerary. There’s a Tibetan Lama in Kalimpong whose ‘magical’ cures for arthritis and other such diseases are legendary in the area. The Churches and the Colonial buildings in town are worth a visit too.
We took the right bifurcation and crossed the Teesta River as our destination was Darjeeling, still a couple of hours drive away. Soon, the steep climb up Peshoke Road began. First and second gear stuff with sharp twists and turns. The flirting up front continued. Minutes later, we were up on the mountain once again – the Teesta, a small silver streak down below. There was a perceptible change in temperature and it much cooler as we went past a tea garden. The tea pickers, with huge baskets slung on their backs, were unmindful of the vehicles that passed as they went on with their “two buds and a leaf” routine. It was picture postcard scenery all along. Soon, we were enveloped by a thick fog as we crossed a forest of pine trees. The driver halted for lunch at a small village beside the road.
I entered a roadside stall for lunch and surveyed the scene. Three leather jacketed men, with caps worn loosely on their heads, were on the far corner drinking rum and playing cards. The cigarettes hung carelessly on their lips. The old lady who apparently owned the joint served them momos and they exchanged greetings. They seemed to know each other quite well. The pretty girl who manned the busy counter, and looked like the old lady’s daughter, took care of shop front business. It was good business too. Many of the jeeps stop here on their way up or down from Darjeeling before embarking on the steep ascent or descent depending on where they were bound. The passengers alight to walk around a bit or kick around.
I ordered pork momos with soup. It was delicious.
Ghoom came next. It’s the highest railroad station in Asia at 8,000ft. The fog was very thick here and it was drizzling. I was worried about my rucksack tied above the jeep. The ‘cleaner’, a wiry young lad of 12, was cocky to the core. “Not waterproof?” he asked grinning. “I don’t know”, I said. “ You shouldn’t buy cheap Indian stuff,” he said in mock disgust. I made a mental note not to touch his jeep with a bargepole next time.
The jeep was now moving towards Darjeeling. An old familiar smell. The smell of mist floating in the mountains and fumes from passing vehicles. The sight was familiar too – the toy train track running parallel to the road; the landrovers still chugging along quite well; pretty ladies with colourful umbrellas walking daintily around a puddle, the hand lifting the long gown a wee bit.
Then the mist parted for a moment. And through the gap I saw the town of Darjeeling -spread across the hillside. The sun shining magically on the hill, the rays reflecting off the wet tin roofs in a dazzling display of pin point light.
Over the next few days I visited my old haunts in Darjeeling. Stayed at Dekelling on the Mall where Norbu and his wife took good care of me. Strolled down the Mall. Had breakfast at Keventers- hot dog and hot chocolate- the same stuff I had first tasted in 1979, during my first visit to Darjeeling. Bought a jacket and a ‘monkey’ cap from the stalls lined up on the Mall. Glenary’s for pastries, Das Studio for my usual replenishment of film rolls and picture postcards. Sat on the bench at the square watching three generations of people eating, chatting, laughing, reading or simply watching others the way I was.
Early one morning, I walked all the way past the Mall and down the lane past the Windamere and Loretto Convent. A clear bright day following three days of indifferent weather. The sun was up, shining coyly through the leaves of the trees that lined the road. I walked aimlessly down the road soaking in the crisp Himalayan air. The Khangchendzonga range was visible clearly. The forked peak of the third highest peak in the world towered above the rest of the peaks. Cold, distant and silent. I watched fascinated as always at the sight before me. An old ‘sweeper’ who was cleaning the road looked at me and smiled knowingly. It was clear that the magic had worked on him every moment of his life.
Time ticked and caught up with me. I hurried down the road towards the zoo. I didn’t want to be late to see the two snow leopards playing in their cage before they disappeared for their feed.
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