It was late afternoon when I climbed into the back of the jeep in Siliguri, having paid a mere 92 rupees ($2.25 Australian) for my seat. After settling in and stretching my legs on the surprisingly comfortable bench, I was soon forced to shuffle over to make room for someone else. It seemed that, in fact, 92 rupees bought only half a seat. This was going to be a fun ride.
I had flown into Bagdogra airport that afternoon, one of the few destinations in West Bengal for budget airlines. The flight was stunning. Heading east from Delhi, the plane’s path tracked the line of the Himalayas, bathed as they were in bright sunshine; below, the yellow dust and fecund green of the great Gangetic plain lay dry, flat and ancient.
From Bagdogra, I had taken an autorickshaw into Siliguri – the nearest major town, situated roughly twenty minutes away. The drive took me past tea plantations and the roadside workshops of countless cottage industries; carpenters, woodcutters, masons, banana sellers. It was a lush and moist landscape; a welcome sight after the dusty dryness of Rajasthan and the baking heat of Delhi.
It took roughly half an hour for the jeep to fill and we set off immediately afterwards; around four in the afternoon. There were thirteen people inside: four across the front seat, four in the middle, including a pedigree Pekinese called Nora, and four huddled into the back with me. They were an interesting mix of Bengalis, Gorkhas and assorted other ethnicities. Already, just waiting around in Siliguri, I had noticed quite a number of people with very Asiatic features; some passably Chinese and others who struck me as ethnically Nepalese or Tibetan. A young Gorkha couple sat opposite me, the lady wearing a gorgeous bright blue sari, and something told me they were newlyweds. They had an air of amorous conspiracy that made one want to wish them well. I sat quietly in the back, smiling and nodding to everyone, then got on with listening to my iPod and shooting video through the open window.
After half an hour driving through a forest flashing with sunset, we reached the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. The road narrowed and began to wind, and very rapidly, the landscape changed in character. The dry, bright green and yellow-leaved forest had been cleared from the slopes and terraces to make room for tea and wheat. The rich soil was dotted with quaint, modest dwellings amidst fields made tropical by the occasional spray of banana leaves. Behind it all, the sharp rise of the mountains halted in a nightcap of fog.
Soon our driver brought us to a roadside bungalow, crowded about with other jeeps. He pulled in and hopped out, muttered something, then set off with his henchman into the bungalow. I climbed out from the back of the jeep, walked over and peered inside. It was a diner of sorts and, despite having stood around in Siliguri for half an hour before our departure, it seemed our driver was about to have his dinner. I shrugged and smiled at the ways of the world, then followed the lady with the dog as she wandered off down the road.
The slope rose sharply to the left of our heading; huddled with squat, dark and damp tea-bushes. Even here, at less than six hundred metres elevation, mist had begun to creep down in the cooling mountain shadow. A few workers were still in the fields, though they seemed, at this time of day, to be merely passing through. I took some photos, watched the men waiting by the jeeps, then sat down on the roadside to stare into the valley below.
I was soon roused by the sounds of an argument. It seemed our driver had finally returned to the vehicle after forty minutes and something was up. I assumed it was the length of the delay causing trouble, as none of the passengers had wanted to eat and were all waiting to leave. I wandered back over and stood to the side, watching. Despite not understanding what was being said, with the argument being conducted mostly in Hindi, Gorkha and Bengali, I soon determined that the dog cage of the Pekinese had fallen from the roof of the vehicle at some point on our journey and now seemed irretrievably lost.
The driver and his henchman were very defensive at first, almost dismissive. Yet, when the argument was joined by several other passengers, who cornered the driver and his sidekick to press their demands for justice, the response changed dramatically. One chap in particular, a very tall man with Han Chinese features, took up the lady’s cause and argued a strong case against the driver. I could only determine this from his gestures, from his tone and air of authority, yet whatever he was saying, he was saying it very well. It was his championing of her cause that really got the driver scared. Being lectured in his native Gorkha tongue seemed to turn the tables on him, and, when he realised that he might be held financially accountable, he seemed to panic. He ran across to all the other jeep drivers, asking if any had seen a dog-box. He got on the phone, frantically calling people in Siliguri to see if the dog box had been left behind there. I gleaned from occasional English usages that the box was valued at around 2500 rupees, almost 75 dollars; a princely sum for any working-class Indian. Needless to say, the dog box was not to be found.
With all the passengers now deeply restless, we finally piled back into the jeep and set off again. The tall man had been sitting next to the driver in the front seat, and so he was for the rest of the journey. The multi-ethic, multi-linguistic debate had not stopped at all, but continued for another hour in the vehicle. I was impressed by the quiet dignity of the woman whose cage had been lost. She never raised her voice, and spoke with a polite and stern measure. The driver went very quiet; clearly downtrodden and pondering his liability. I began to feel sorry for him as it was a debt he could never afford to pay, and I doubted his bosses were likely to take responsibility. I still wonder whether or not he was ever held to the debt, or indeed, if the box was found.
Meanwhile, I returned to my iPod and stared through the jeep’s back window. Now almost five thirty, the equatorial sun was in rapid descent and, as the elevation rose sharply, we entered the mist and cloud. The mountain road was potholed and open to a steep slope; crisscrossing it at various points ran the tracks of the so-called toy train; a narrow-gauge steam-engine which began operating in 1881. It was now merely a tourist attraction and slowly chugged its way from Siliguri to Darjeeling. The journey could take up to ten hours, and I’d read that it moved so slowly it was possible to hop off and shop, then catch up and hop back on.
The darkness settled in rapidly, as did the mist. By six o’clock, we were driving through a cold, white fog, backlit with the last reflected light of the sky. Through the back of the jeep, the road swung and wended, and soon the headlights of other jeeps began to sweep across the bends in the road. As the night took hold, we reached the half-way mark; entering the town of Kurseong. It was little more than a single strip of houses and shops, backed against the rising slope of the mountain. The wooden doors and stock bins of the shop-fronts sat tight on the railway tracks; barbers, grocers, cobblers, knitwear vendors, chai wallahs, and the ubiquitous general stores of India. Everything was just a little shabby like the road; damp and plundered daily by the weather.
The main, and seemingly only street, was clogged with traffic and we slowed to a crawl. I watched bearers carrying huge loads alongside us; straps hoisted up around their foreheads to take the strain on the heads. I watched a young man being shaved in a faded pale-blue barbershop; his face padded softly with a large sponge. A young Gorkha man did his hair in the window, checking and re-checking his fringe. The moustached hot-food seller behind a glass case full of samosas eyed the jeeps suspiciously, wondering why we stared yet did not stop to eat. It was clear that we had entered a different ethnic zone. This was the beginning of Gorkha-land, something broadly proclaimed in neat, functional graffiti on various walls.
We soon edged past the toy train’s shed; the only place where the town appeared to spread out across the small, flat ridge along the slope. As we left the town, the shops and houses rapidly thinned until there were no permanent dwellings on the roadside. In their place sprang up a line of small wooden stalls; mostly covered in fruit and vegetables; lit only by oil lamps and candles. It had an ancient quality about it; such oil lamps and tapers have been lighting market stalls for thousands of years. The heavily shadowed faces that peered in chiaroscuro were mostly local Gorkha people, yet occasionally the darker-toned, heavier features of the Bengalis were apparent.
With Kurseong behind us, the road became once more a potholed, narrow curve around the mountain. I went into an even quieter mood, skipping the more upbeat tunes on my iPod and settling instead for more meditative music. Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bach, Chinese traditional musicians, Pink Floyd. I felt a great welling of emotion within me as I stared through the scratched glass of the back window, watching the swinging headlights from those following. I was missing a girl I had farewelled in Rishikesh; I was missing the lost possibilities of a girl; I was missing something so utterly different to where I now was, that I felt only the loss but not the desire for what was lost. For in truth, nothing had prepared me for the beauty of this ride. That it could be so uncomfortable, so cramped, so cold, so dark and so much longer than expected, and yet, so compellingly beautiful, was a fortunate paradox.
When my iPod randomly offered up “This is Hardcore” by Pulp, this new, sad mood reached its zenith. The brooding, almost menacing creep of the keyboard – melancholy tinged with anxiety – the sexy noir of the lyrics, the sadness of a loss from which there is no return – all these elements were apparent. As the lengthy song reached its quiet break before concluding, I was overcome with emotion.
“This is the eye of the storm.
It’s what men in stained raincoats pay for.
But in here, it is pure, yeah.
Oh this is the end of the line.
I’ve seen the story line
played out so many times before…”
Indeed, I whispered to myself. “This is hardcore. There is no way back for you.”
And the jeep drove on through the thick fog; spotlighted in the sway of those jeeps that followed. The train tracks that had for so long, resolutely stuck to the side of the road, now seemed regularly to cross it, from one side to the other. Then, just as the tracks settled once again against the inner slope, we caught up with the train. Its steam engine chugged and puffed, and as we passed, the driver let out a great whistle; an ancient train in a more ancient land, singing like a lost soul in the heavy fog. Unexpected, and, in the dark, unseen by the others, I began quietly to shed tears.