While growing up, every year when Baba brought home the new calendar from office, a set routine was followed.
The calendar used to enter the house before Baba, who stood laughing at the doorway at my enthusiasm. I used to hurriedly unroll the calendar with my cold fingers – the smell of freshly printed oily paper hitting my nostrils, the rush of excitement coursing through my veins, the glee of a to-be discovery shinning in my eyes. Paper cuts were ignored because two very, very important things needed to be checked in the calendar, so important that the fate of my entire tiny but mighty world depended on it.
1. Is my birthday on a weekend?
2. WHEN IS DURGA PUJA?
Durga puja is a lot more than just a festival for Bengalis. The life of a Bengali, no matter where s/he is on the planet, revolves around Durga puja. Sometimes it seems like we spend our year counting days from one Durga puja to the next.
You see, everything else can wait, Durga puja cannot. So, every year, like most Bengalis, I deck up, hop pandals, gorge on street food, indulge in adda sessions and make the most of the holidays. The rest of the Bengalis pack their bags and leave for a family trip to escape the crowds. This year, I chose the latter. And where did we go? To one of the most frequented destination for Bengalis – Darjeeling – the front-row seat to the world’s most majestic mountains.
Tathagata says that Darjeeling is an emotion. True enough, I found myself growing an attachment for this beautiful town in just a couple of days.
So on an autumn evening, as our taxi made its way up the winding mountain road, we tumbled inside the car trying to put on a new layer of clothes every few minutes to cut out the chill until we ran into a mist that made it difficult to say if we were inside a fog or a cloud. And then right there in front of us, shimmering in the glow of the lights from the tiny homes, lay Darjeeling.
I could feel the warmth building up inside me. Even now as I type these words, I can feel the clouds enveloping me in a pine forest so tall that it reaches the sky, smell the coal and the steam of the toy-train in the air and almost touch the thrill of looking down at a tea plantation from a height of 7000 feet!
Darjeeling has given me a chain of memories that I want to remember for the rest of my life. So, this blog will document the top 10 of those lovely memories in no order of preference.
Way before we started planning for the trip, Tathagata had a bucket list item to tick off – riding the toy train in Darjeeling. The toy train of Darjeeling Himalayan Railways is a UNESCO heritage.
There are two variants to choose from while booking tickets – steam and diesel engine. While the diesel engine pulls the train quicker, steam is where the nostalgia is. So without a shadow of doubt, we opted for the steam engine which arrived with a majestic blow of the whistle and attached itself smoothly to the tiny carriages in which passengers were sitting, standing with wide-eyed enthusiasm.
The steam engine pulls the coaches at a snail pace letting you absorb the raw beauty of the Himalayas as it takes you through the town overcoming impossible curves and gradients, halting at Batasia Loop and at Ghum station before depositing you back from where you started in about an hour or so.
The whole time I had my head out of the window, tiny coal scraps making their way into my hair and clothes, taking in the fresh morning breeze, the aroma of the town and the remarkable beauty around me. It’s a joyride you should not miss.
We all know that the best view is from up top. Sure enough, the Rangeet Valley ropeway opened up an entire different Darjeeling for us. Dangling at a height of 7000 feet, each cable car can accommodate 6 people. So after waiting for our turn for what seemed like an eternity, as we boarded the cable car, I found myself letting go of my fear of height and my inhibitions. I saw them swirling down through the clouds, lightly brushing the dark green leaves of the tea plantation below us that were spread out like a carpet and disappearing into the blur of the evening.
I looked down and around as far as my eyes could see. All I could see was the hand of God – intimidating yet assuring, powerful yet kind. As the cable car made its way through the 5000 metre stretch, there were times when the clouds engulfed us completely and visibility was reduced to almost zero – it felt like we were floating above an oblivion. The thrill of the adventure had gripped me and I looked on, expressionless. Not a single thought crossed my mind, I could only stare in awe at the might of Nature.
Tinchuley Sunrise Point
I’d heard a lot about Tinchuley being an emerging off-beat destination. So, we decided to give it a once-over on one of our day trips. Tinchuley is a tiny hamlet, straight out of a fairytale about 30 kms away from Darjeeling. The eco-friendly village is mushroomed by numerous homestays offering you a peaceful vacation detached from the world. The road to Tinchuley is fenced by alpine forests that are home to many wild animals including the leopard.
Our driver, Vivek knew the best place to take us to – the sunrise point. Perched at a height of about 6000 feet, the spot took my breath away. The wind was strong and the view was a panorama of oozing grace with lush green hills growing tea, a winding river down below which appeared white from the water current, trees swaying in the wind, the mighty sky meeting them all midway and a sprinkle of mist to make it all magical. We could even spot Sikkim that looked like a cluster of dark, tall trees from where we stood! This place can instantly humble any living being on Earth. Tinchuley Sunrise Point has left a deep impact on me, deeper than I thought. Sometimes when I concentrate hard enough, I can still hear the wind rustling through my ears and feel the calmness of the place descending on me.
Breakfast at Keventer’s and Glenary’s
On two consecutive mornings during our stay, Tathagata and I hurriedly made our way up the Mall road to grab the front row seats with the best views for breakfast. On the first day, we were the first ones in at Keventer’s. Sitting at the table with the town sprawled around us, the famous clock tower right behind me and a piping hot chocolate with a sausage platter spread on the table, I felt on top of the world.
The second day, in an attempt to be the first ones in again, we ended up reaching way too early, so early that they had only began cleaning the terrace when we entered. So we went on a stroll and on our way back, the pretty-as-a-picture breakfast balcony at the Glenary’s was calling out to us. And we couldn’t resist.
Pull up a chair in any of these two places in the morning when the air is breezy and the sun is just another cloud layer away. You will feel the calmness surrounding you, a child-like happiness washing over you transporting you to the days when your imagination ran wild like a free mare on a lush green field. I can still feel the terrace and the balcony beckoning when I close my eyes.
Dinner at Glenary’s
While Glenary’s serves breakfast with a side of spectacular beauty in the morning, dinner is a completely different affair. The moment I entered the iconic restaurant in the evening, a rush of warmth hit me and spun me around leaving me dizzy. The interior was lit with a soft, warm, orange-ish hue. A man with a guitar and a lovely voice was singing classic English songs from the 80’s. The setting is cozy, inviting and extremely romantic. It feels like a warm embrace to your nostalgic soul in the cold of the night. It feels like home. Probably that is why I still feel the pull to be at Glenary’s.
Darjeeling wouldn’t be Darjeeling without Glenary’s and Keventer’s. They are way more than just cafes. They are a cult. They are witnesses of times gone by and the ups and downs that this paradise of a town has been through.
Walking along the Chowrasta and Mall Road
Have you ever strolled around the Mall road on a cold evening with layers of warm clothes piled on you and throngs of people chattering about you with the lovely looking souvenir shops calling out to you and the tiny soap bubbles surrounding you and the cute benches near the fountain inviting you to catch a breath from all the excitement and felt like hugging the place and never ever leave?
The Darjeeling Mall road is a real treat. I want to remember the aroma and the sound and the vibe of the place for as long as I can. I want to remember how I could see my breath every time I talked, how lovely the raspberry mousse tasted at Cafe Coffee Day, how easy it was to get lost in your thoughts in a busy plaza, how surprising the variety of the gift shop items were and how warm I felt in the chilling cold.
Listening to Old Hindi Songs
On our day trips, our driver used to play old Hindi songs all through the way, right from our AirBnB and back. As our car made its way through the winding road shrouded with mist and lined with alpine forests, “Bade achche lagte hain” and “Neele neele ambar par” made even more sense than any other time. We couldn’t stop humming along.
Now every time I listen to those songs, I get a fierce longing for Darjeeling and its mysterious, cloud-covered, deserted, serpentine roads.
The Fearless Hairy-Tailed Dogs
One of the things that stayed with me about Darjeeling is the look of fearlessness in the eyes of the street dogs. None of the dogs I met on the streets looked scared. Their eyes looked like those of retired people at complete peace with their state of being bearing no regrets. They looked so calm – not overly excited, not hungry, not sad, not too happy – just calm. What made me happy is that they looked well fed and cared for. Little things like this restores my faith in humanity and give me reasons to believe that there are good people on Earth.
Pretty Little Windows
Darjeeling windows are a sight to look at. Tiny square glass panes, each framed in wood gives way to the beauty of the sky and the town outside. While all windows are similar to look at, they are different somehow. Some are coloured white, some dark brown, some are decorated with flowery pots, some exuding the elegance without the flowers – but each looking pretty as a picture.
As we neared the end of my first ever date with the Himalayas, I could feel the slight pang of an unfinished job nesting in a tiny corner of my mind. A glimpse of the mighty Kanchenjunga. The AirBnB we had chosen to stay in boasted an amazing view of the Kanchenjunga but unfortunately, the extended monsoon with its overcast sky hadn’t permitted it so far.
On our final day, way early in the morning, Tathagata gathered all of us to the open window in our pyjamas. The clouds had cleared just enough, the mountain God had smiled down on us and lo and behold – the majestic Kanchenjunga had finally come to light!
I remembered the saying, “You don’t choose to view the Kanchenjunga, she lets you see her.”
Now back at my desk, while typing this out, I realize that I have managed to forge a lasting liaison with Darjeeling in just a couple of days. I know I have to go back even if it is just to sit at Glenary’s and absorb its warmth or standing quietly for hours at the Tinchuley sunrise point or sitting on the Mall bench and taking in the vibe of chaos or even just stare at the pretty little windows.
Darjeeling is both a real and an imagined place. With its engulfing mist, shy sunshine, smiling people and stretches of sudden mysterious forests – Darjeeling is just how you interpret it. I have realized that you can spend a lifetime here but never begin to grasp it.