September 23, 2006 1:27:15 pm
I knew I shouldn’t have read the book. It was a trip I didn’t have the time for just then, a trip that, once started, would (and did) take me down many different roads. But when you gotta go, you gotta go, and so I went, courtesy Kiran Desai, back to Kalimpong, where I’d spent at least one holiday every year. A sleepy town nestled in the shadow of its more famous neighbour, Kalimpong had, and still has, little to offer the short-stay tourist. But lift the veils, one at a time, and then be prepared for the darker side.
The fun begins with the drive up from the plains; much of the journey is alongside the Teesta. Vast and flat on first sighting, it turns fast and furious as it skirts the mountains; the actual drive uphill—commencing from the Teesta bridge, where you can halt for the first of many momos—is only a dozen-odd kilometres but the river is a constant companion, just one wrong turn away on the twisting road. Eventually you reach Dambar Chowk; to your right, the police station and the road leading uptown; to your left, downtown Kalimpong, the market, haat et al.
We always took a right turn, and within minutes we’d be home. It would be mid-morning, we’d be ravenous and the smell of lunch cooking would drive us mad. First, though, we had to go through our rituals; kids having a bath, elders inspecting the garden or the house, the housekeeper updating us on the status of her family. Finally, lunch: Rice, dal, a good curry or fried meat, vegetables. For pudding, fruit from the garden, stewed, with cream. Easy to see what we focussed on. Lunch over, it was time to play. My best friend was Padam, the sweeper’s son; he would teach me the latest Hindi film songs, I’d teach him cricket. We were out till dark, unfettered by the demands of urban society, unburdened by holiday homework.
Turn left from Dambar Chowk and you hit the crowds. Himalayan Stores, where Noni and Lola would buy their daily newspapers; the Apollo (Deaf) Tailors; Gompus, where Sai and Gyan ate and drank when not feasting on new love. Take the road up, to your left is the church and college (from where a teacher was dragged out and beheaded during the agitation); opposite, Kashi Nath the booksellers, still stocking the magazines and comics you don’t find in urban bookstores; further up, Lark’s the provision store, which saw a run on its stocks ahead of any bandh, the silversmith (haggling is a must), and on past the cinema, the Tibetan shops, through 10th mile (10 miles from Teesta) and eventually out of town, though a fork delivers you to Dr Graham’s Homes.
It wasn’t all sweetness and light. It was my misfortune to be the only exception to a family of very enthusiastic walkers. Our friends’ houses were scattered around town, and the only way of getting there was walking. One such walk was the Military Round, the “long cut” to town: Uphill for what seemed like an eternity to the military camp, passing the road where live the Afghan princesses and which to Bonami, home to the aunt of the BBC’s Nisha Pillai (not Mon Ami, home to Lola, mother of BBC anchor Piyali Banerjee), then cut across the ridge, past the golf course and the Metal Box guest house (Ringkingpong Farm), where the watchman breakfasted on a fried egg each day, past the tourist lodge where I’d yearn for a halt and maybe a plate of sandwiches, past the house where Tagore stayed, then a sudden steep descent into town. Longer walks, to Father Booty’s Swiss Dairy; steeper climbs, such as the one to Copston, where we used to stay earlier.
Ghosts! They are everywhere, as in any hill town. The best chronicler of Kalimpong’s ghost stories was the raconteur and illustrator Desmond Doig, and one of his stories dealt with Mr and Mrs Dench and their undying (literally) love for each other. The house they lived (live?) in is now occupied by Desai’s aunt; a handsome structure, stone facade, glass-and-iron front door, dark wood floors, wonderful smoky kitchen. Mr Dench died first; his food was left on the table, waiting for him. Mrs Dench descended into ill health and dementia and the nuns took her away. Yet they linger; voices have been heard where there are no people. The spirits have been malicious—scratching and slapping—and benevolent, waking up an ayah when the fireplace had got blocked and the room, where she was sleeping with the family’s children, was full of carbon monoxide. They are part of the dark underside of a town like Kalimpong, as much as the ethnic mix and caste structure that would, from time to time, rip apart the lace-and-fineness in particularly bloodthirsty fashion. A couple of centuries ago it was the scene of bloody wars between the hill tribes. Indeed the house Desai’s parents bought was the scene of a massacre a couple of centuries ago.
Ghosts only scared us after dark. By day, we were too busy with the food. Momos, of course, and when I now see a plateful selling for Rs 50, I think back on the unofficial momo-eating contests: 20 or 30 was passé, 50 the mark of a young man. The momo man, who would come around lunchtime with a plastic bucket full of steaming momos and the chutney I’ve not tasted since. The fruit: Peaches, plums, cherries (all stewed with cream), oranges, bananas with condensed milk…The rotiwala Desai writes about, with the cakes and patties and nankhatai biscuits. Years later, when my tastes had matured, the pleasures of ningro (fern leaves) and other delights grown in the garden or bought in the haat, that twice-weekly festival of the land that city life deprives us of.
The beauty of Kalimpong is that it is all things to all people; it’s a fair bet that my siblings’ memories differ from mine, and obviously our parents and grandparents experienced different things. But some things are constant. The house, for one; to paraphrase Desai, you feel as though you’re entering a sensibility. The languid, lazy air; when I began going up with friends, we would begin the day at the dining table, sipping tea; hours later we’d still be there, reading, chatting, staring out at the lily pool, contemplating life. And always, always, Kanchenjunga, magnificent whether in bright sunshine, or on a full-moon night, or shrouded in mist and mystery. It will, as Desai says, make you feel that truth was apparent.
Ticket to kalimpong
By air All major airlines have flights to Bagdogra from New Delhi and Kolkata. From there, Kalimpong is a three-hour bus or car journey
By train Take the Guwahati Rajdhani from Delhi or one of the many trains from Kolkata to New Jalpaiguri. From there, or from nearby Siliguri, bus or cab takes (two-and-a-half hours)
By bus From Kolkata, an overnight journey to Siliguri
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