Teesta, tea and Silver Oaks
Travelling along the Teesta is an exhilarating experience. The river lazily winds its way down the hills of Darjeeling, a shimmering silver ribbon which turns into a roaring, rushing mass of water during the monsoon. But that’s still some weeks away. It’s been an hour since we left Bagdogra and I had hoped for respite from the sweltering heat once we began the climb into the hills. There was no such luck. And since you don’t use the air-conditioner in the car on uphill roads, the option of rolling up the windows and keeping the heat out was, well, not available.
The breakfast served on the flight to Bagdogra was inedible. I had thought of stopping at a restaurant (any eatery would do as I was famished) for a bite, but couldn’t spot one on the road from the airport to ‘Darjeeling More’ where you turn left and enter a long stretch of undulating tea gardens, ancient, towering teaks with mossy trunks that cast a gloomy shadow reminiscent of what Hobbit encountered during his journey through the dark and deep forest of Tolkien’s imagination and whose creatures had never seen sunlight, a sprawling Army camp, and then the steep climb begins.
By then, I was really hungry and was desperately looking for anything to eat, cursing myself for leaving the breakfast tray untouched on the plane. The young Bengali settler from the plains at the wheel had obviously stuffed himself before leaving home for the airport — Bengalis can devour bhaat, daal, sobji and maachher jhol at 9 in the morning and settle down for a sumptuous lunch of chicken curry (or it could be meat if not more fish) and bhaat at 1 pm, followed by tiffin and tea at 4 in the afternoon, jol khaabar in the evening and more maachher jhol-bhaat at night — and so wasn’t particularly bothered about my repeated pleas to find a place to eat.
Finally, I had to settle for a couple of pahaari bhuttas which were being sold by an impoverished woman, possibly the wife of an out-of-job tea garden worker, outside a brightly-painted, one-room, post office. Later we stopped for tea at a fly-infested eatery; it came in a chipped cup with a dirt-encrusted handle and tasted like dishwater.
By the time we reached Kalimpong, it was past noon. There was still no respite from either the heat or the humidity. I had booked a room at Silver Oaks, a heritage hotel that was once the home of Frederick Desraj, the man who built the Old Teesta Bridge. The hotel, a double-storeyed, sprawling bungalow really, was built in 1930 and rarely has a vacant room. I was sceptical about finding the “blooming petunias and asters, the serrated violet edges of iris, iridescent butterflies flitting through colourful azaleas, drooping geraniums and proud orchids” that had been promised on the Web. But they were all there, a dazzling rush of colours and, in the distance, the towering, glimmering, majestic Kanchenjungha. My father, who came to India a penniless refugee from East Bengal, says he named me after this mountain, but there’s a mismatch. I am tall, dark and need an extra large chair, but that’s about all. Parental dreams rarely come true.
The foyer of Silver Oaks is a treasure trove of fine antique, old furniture and rare prints. The welcome is warm and friendly: A khada (soft, pale white, silken scarf) is draped around your travel-weary shoulders and a glass of cherry brandy is placed in your tired hands. It’s only then that you enter your name, nationality and other such vital information (Where have you come from? Where will you go from here? Philosophical questions that dwell on being and nothingness but whose answers presumably excite the petty officials who inspect the hotel log) in a register that stretches across the reception counter. The hotel has wireless networking and computers, but not for recording mundane details of arrival and departure; those are best penned on paper.
The room is large with French windows that are tightly shuttered. The bellboy tells me there’s an insect problem. I tell him that I come from the land of dengue and I am willing to take the risk. He reluctantly opens the windows, and a soothing breeze wafts in. Feet up on the centre table, I light up. Unlike in other places, here in West Bengal former Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss’s madcap anti-smoking law does not apply. I guess things will change if Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who is partial towards State Express 555 but settles for a Wills Navy Cut if the urge for a shot of nicotine overcomes him and there’s nothing else to puff upon, gets thrown out of Writers’ Building.
I ask for Darjeeling tea. It comes in an antique tea set. The aroma of freshly soaked Darjeeling tea fills the room: Nothing can beat the champagne of teas. A sip, and it’s almost heaven.
Lunch is served in a cavernous dining hall by khansamas — no, they are not waiters — in spotless starched white who gently guide you through a multi-course Anglo-Indian meal. The mutton jhalfrezi is the highlight of the day. The pudding is delicious. You eat like a glutton and then go for a stroll in the garden, and watch the Himalayas change colours. It drizzles for a while, but that does not deter me from walking down to the mall. I spot a shop selling plants, seeds and seedlings. It’s small, poky and crowded with everything that you could need for your garden.
The young man behind the counter is a George Harrison lookalike. He speaks in slightly accented, lisping English, rocking and rolling as he hands out a sachet of seeds, a clutch of geranium seedlings, a packet of ‘green’ manure and advises a seemingly endless stream of amateur gardeners what to plant before the rains set in. He tells me the shop is his passion, a hobby, which keeps him going. His father, a Brahmin from Allahabad, came all the way to Kalimpong to work for the local administration. He took to gardening in his spare time, of which there was a lot. One fine day he was issued with transfer orders. But by then he had fallen in love with Kalimpong, its people and his garden. So he resigned from his job and stayed put in Kalimpong where he set up this shop.
There are many like this man who have migrated to the hills and stayed back: Planters, teachers, doctors, clerks, traders, hotel staff. They are happy and have few demands of life. But they increasingly feel unsettled as the clamour for Gorkhaland grows. Not because the Gorkhas would want them out, but the uncertainty that comes attached with hills versus plains politics. Ethnicity and identity are crucial elements of the demand for a separate Gorkha State. And this is where the problem begins.
It’s evening and I am thirsting for a cup of Darjeeling tea, so I head back to the hotel, standing serene in the gathering darkness as the last rays of the Sun drench Kanchenjungha. The Himalayas are bathed in hues of orange and ochre. Silver Oaks calmly straddles two centuries, the past and the present. But it does not necessarily reflect the subterranean fire in the hills of Darjeeling.