Homeland revisited: The saddest song called Darjeeling
TEXT & PHOTO: PETER J. KARTHAK
Call it whatever – a dirge, a requiem, or a swansong – but I wish I didn’t have to write such a sad story like this one. But I must, for goodness’ sake and for all the unspoiled past I’ve had in the 1950s and ’60s in my old hometown, called Darjeeling.
The Country Western classic, “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” has the opening line, “The old hometown looks the same….” Well, my particular old hometown no more looks the same. Then it must be looking better! No, it looks worse, and that’s the reason for writing this reverse story. It’s a record of how native inhabitants disfigure their own heritage habitats, and the present state of Darjeeling illustrates an anarchic deterioration of its denizens’ own domain, now called Gorkhaland.
I was in Darjeeling last week for my nephew’s wedding, thus revisiting my old hometown in twenty-six years. It was a frightful and disillusioning experience to see the district headquarters’ disarray in almost all aspects.
When I permanently moved to Darjeelingtown in 1956, the British had been gone for nine years. My first impression of the shiny asphalt road at the Singamari Fatak (gate) where we entered the town from the north was: I could eat off the surface of the road. The place was so clean, and managed so well by its municipality. That we Nepalis could live so admirably in the Darjeeling Hills. The town was the Brighton-on-the-Hills, its slopes dotted with cut-stone buildings, educational complexes, cottages, villas, bungalows, kopjes, mews and a few mansions, mandirs, gumbas, churches and retreats, all blending harmoniously into the landscapes and environment.
Prehistorically, Darjeeling was Darje Lyang of the Greater Mayel Lyang (Ilam in Nepal, Sikkim, Darjeeling District, the Mechi Basin, and Ha in Bhutan) of the Mutanchi Rongs whom the Nepalis called Lapches and the British anglicized them to Lepchas. Darjeeling itself was Tibetanized as Dorje Ling to become modern Darjeeling in the British Raj.
Even then, the British – though they robbed Darjeeling off the Sikkimpati Maharaja, as the Dutch did to the Mannahattas to create Manhattan, Brooklyn and New York – entrusted themselves the pristine wholesomeness of the Lepcha Hills in good faith. Thus, they created a cosmetic community as their summer capital. Like its exotic Toy Train, Darjeeling was a British trophy town, with temporary tourists, three-season foreign students and other visitors. The British tea estate managers visited the Planters’ Club and the Gymkhana in town only during weekends, the tea garden laborers and rural agro folks stayed in their respective habitats and farms. The town was largely left to Bengali and Nepali bureaucrats, Nepali professionals and mercantile Marwaris and Biharis and a few Anglos, Parsis and Himalayan ethnics of Tibetan stocks.
From the beginning of the British choice of the Darjeeling Range as their hill station, health sanatorium and tea industry, they introduced strict laws for themselves and they abided by them. The upper parts of the town, for instance, were strictly pedestrian. Robertson Road was the dividing line above which the Municipality restricted vehicle traffic from the foregrounds of the Planters’ Club right upto Chowrasta, the Mall circle, the Governor’s mansion, and right through to Birch Hill to the uppermost northern reaches. The British parked their vehicles below the Planters’ and took their morning walk and evening stroll; they garaged their cars at Alice Villa and walked home in the neighborhoods, come rain or shine.
Now the reverse has happened, with more city-centric people drawn to the towns and urban areas of Darjeeling. Consequently, Darjeeling is a series of slums that begins right from the plains of Siliguri. Haphazard and unplanned over-crowdedness has bloated Kurseong, Sipahi Dhura, Tung, Sonada, Jor Bungalow, Ghoom, Batase and the town of Darjeeling itself from North Point to Bloomfield and Mary Villa.
It wasn’t like that, even twenty-five years ago, when I was last there. The garden walks, plots of green and parks left by the British were there, albeit not properly cared for, but intact nonetheless. Now the scene is uglier than sanguine. The Victoria Park has a huge complex of strange architecture and design against the Kanchanjunga Range. The green serpentine path between the Rink and the District Board (now Red Cross) has shrunk. All previous public spaces have become specious with jutting shacks, car parks, hole-in-the-wall shops and stalls. The pleasant cottages and villas of the previous generations are replaced by high-rise blocks defying the building codes of the Darjeeling Municipality. Bimal Gurung, the present supremo of Darjeeling Gorkhaland, allegedly had these encroaching appendages removed, yet the remaining pockmarks are still disturbing eyesores.
All the five days I was in Darjeeling were blessed by glorious sunshine, in place of the typical mist and fog that shroud the Hills in winter. The clarity of daylight only made the ugliness of the Queen of the Hills more ominous, obvious and transparent. The quaint old streets are bottlenecked now, with hut abutments and cantilevered extensions jutting out.
Even then, there were many Indian visitors in the off-tourist season. A middle-aged couple from Mumbai enjoyed their sojourn like kids and happily left town for Gangtok. A Ukrainian I met at ten o’clock in the night said “Darjeeling very good, Sikkim good, India BAD!” At four the next morning, I watched a convoy of seventeen Toyotas, Daewoos and Scorpions leaving for Tiger Hill, bearing expectant tourists for the viewing of the famous sunrise from there.
The dawns see young men and girls jogging on the shrunken roads of the town. “The young are very health-conscious and aware of the environment,” says one nephew. But the city fathers have, for decades, allowed the town to go to the dogs. Talking of dogs, their numbers abound in town. I also saw macaques in the Raj Bhawan premises, an unseen species in our younger days.
The town is full of expensive cars and stylish vehicles, the per-capita disproportion being quite mind-boggling. Well, clearly it’s quite easy to obtain loans from mutually vying banks: Make a down payment of Rs 15,000 to the bank as earnest money, and you have a brand-new Toyota Innova for about one million Rupees. How the debt is paid is left to the owner. The result of the hill station’s massive motorization is that “all roads must be opened for vehicular traffic,” according to one resident relative.
The unimagined deterioration of their dear town isn’t lost on those who still call Darjeeling their home. Ang Norbu Sherpa, a retired friend, speaks for all aging Darjeeling denizens when he says, “I hardly leave home. I venture out only when it’s necessary to attend funerals, birthdays and weddings.” KK Gurung, a fellow musician in the ’60s and long a travel agent, was a Councilor of DGHC (Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council) headed by Maximum and Paramount Leader Subhas Ghisingh. KK served for three years and two months in his ministerial berth, and has tales of many woes and a few wows.
The Gorkhaland agitations, among other phenomena in the Hills, are succinctly described by Mr. DT Tamlong in his “Darjeeling Diaries,” a work that deserves a separate critique. One success of the hill people’s violent anger has been to defang the decades-old Bengali Babudom and its grips in Darjeeling. However, it’s the moneyed Mafiosi of the Marwaris that’s yet to be addressed in Darjeeling. My retired friends opined that the present leadership is already sold out to certain Kainyas, and this means continued beastifyng of the beauty called Darjeeling.
On my last day in town, I opted for some uplifting experiences of my own. I slung my camera and visited the various landmarks where the Maestro Amber Gurung had lived and developed his music. I visited Agam Singh Giri’s Bhanubhakta School where Gurung and we rehearsed in the evenings. I photographed the nearby neighborhood where he once lived. Then I went up to the Mariam Cottage area where he had relocated. I also spied on the senior police officers’ quarters below the Orient Restaurant where we once used to congregate. Then I visited Robertson Road to photograph the apartment where I last saw of him before I myself left Darjeelingtown in 1966.
While taking my last evening stroll, I stop a girl of sixteen or seventeen. She has a guitar in its duffel case on her back. Shraddhanjali Pradhan is learning classical guitar from a tutor and is going home. We talk for sometime and part. With hope, she’ll someday be the hill town’s Francisco Tárrega and compose and play a piece called “Recuerdos de la Darjeeling.”
It’s for this young generation that the Darjeeling Hills must be resuscitated and reinvigorated, for they know not what their hometown once looked and felt like. We fortunate ones did, and that’s why we lament for Darjeeling in her present decline.
After all, there should be hope – yet!
The writer is the copy chief at The Week.