Had I known what the weather would be like for the next eight days, I might have acted more promptly. I had come to Darjeeling not only to see the marvellous hill-town, but also for its famous views of the Himalayas. It never occurred to me that seeing them would prove so difficult.
The first morning I awoke in Darjeeling the horizon was shrouded in a veil of haze. The room was cold with the seeping air outside and for the first time since arriving in India, I nestled under the blankets, feeling deliciously comfortable. The last two days had been exhausting days of travel – from Rishikesh to Delhi, across to Siliguri courtesy of Kingfisher Air, then up to Darjeeling by jeep – and I was happy to take it easy. I sat on my bed and snacked on biscuits, reading about the town.
Darjeeling had only come into prominence in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The locale first came to the attention of the British East India Company (BEIC) in 1828, when a delegation of company officials stayed in the town and realised how suitable the site would be for a military sanatorium. In 1835, the company leased the area west of the Mahananda River from the Chogyal of Sikkim, traditional rulers of the region. Over the next fifteen years, the population of Darjeeling grew one-hundredfold, thanks to the company’s policy of attracting workers to the region, mostly of Nepalese origin.
When, in 1849, the British East India Company Director Arthur Campbell was imprisoned by the Sikkim Chogyal, the BEIC sent a force to free him, resulting in the annexation of 1700 square kilometres of territory. In the following decades, the BEIC strengthened its grip on the region, gaining control of the passes through the hills, the town of Kalimpong and the area east of the Teesta river, from the Sikkim. In 1864 the town became the official summer capital of the Bengal presidency and by 1866 the district had assumed its current shape and size.
Commercial tea cultivation began in the region in the 1850s and many schools were set up by missionaries. In 1881 the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was opened, connecting the town with the plains far below and further increasing the pace of the town’s development.
When, after independence in 1947, Darjeeling was merged with West Bengal, tensions began to increase between the largely Nepalese population of the hill towns of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong, and the Bengali population of the plains below. The Nepalese population agitated for an autonomous state and the recognition of the Nepali language as the official language of the region. The latter request was granted in 1961. When, in 1975, Sikkim was recognised as an independent state, it again brought calls from the people of the mountains for a separate state of Gorkhaland, with occasional eruptions of violence. In 1988 an agreement between the government and the Gorkha National Liberation Front resulted in the creation of the Darjeeling Hill Council. This, however, did not quell calls for a separate state, and agitation and protest continue to this day. In 2011 the government granted further concessions, with the creation of a new and autonomous elected body called the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, which, whilst not governing a separate state, has more powers than its predecessor.
I found myself quite fascinated by the town’s history and was keen to explore further. Not only did Darjeeling offer exciting views, amazing geography, fascinating architecture, great tea and an interesting ethnic blend, but, perhaps most importantly, the large Nepali population guaranteed one thing: momos – and I love eating good momos.
At half past nine I found the housekeeper in the corridor outside my room. As soon as she saw me, she said:
“Your room is ready.”
“Great. Can I move now?”
“Yes, yes. Come, I’ll show you. It’s here.”
The room was diagonally opposite, across the hall – a mere ten feet away. She opened the door and presented it to me. It was smaller than the previous room, but with a double bed, coffee table and chairs, wall-mounted television, a bedside dresser and a stunning, wide-angle view of the drop into the valley below and across the foothills. At four hundred rupees, a mere ten dollars Australian, it also came with a large en suite. I stood by the windows and thought of the views I might expect when the sky cleared. For now, the horizon was covered in cloud and haze, and I could barely see into the floor of the valley below. The mist rested like hands upon the hilltops, fingers stretching down the wooded slopes.
It took two minutes to shift my few belongings and, at ten o’clock I set off in search of breakfast.
I followed the road down the hill, past the little restaurant and shop in which I’d dined the night before. After a steep and winding leg the street levelled out at what appeared to be another informal jeep-stop. Here the road split into two tiers and, at this junction of climbing streets, stood a triangular building with a rounded prow: Keventer’s restaurant. I’d seen the name in the guide book and knew it to be rather famous, as a shop, in the downstairs section, but primarily for its café / restaurant upstairs. What made this Raj-era throwback popular, apart from its relative antiquity, was the amount of meat on its menu.
Since arriving in India, I hadn’t eaten any meat whatsoever – this despite ordering a mutton biriani in Rajasthan, which contained two large pieces of gristle that I promptly discarded. Here at Keventer’s they offered a variety of meat products, almost all made from chicken and pork: meatballs, sausages, bacon and the like. I sat right near the kitchen – a counter behind which men cooked methodically – in the run-down old interior. Around the walls hung pictures of the views across to the mountains, which only served to whet my appetite for the peaks I’d come to see.
I ordered pork meatballs and bacon and eggs, drawn wholly in by the old world atmosphere. The view offered a splendid fore and mid-ground of rusted, corrugated rooves and wonky wooden frames stacked down the forested hillsides.
The coffee was not great, but passable, and I soon fell to chatting with two young Indian guys; students up from Calcutta. They were friendly and charming and curious about the photos I ’d been taking. After a while they invited me to drinks that evening, and I said I’d certainly consider it, though I knew somehow that I wouldn’t go and felt an early regret at this. Having spent most days walking and taking photographs through the daylight hours, I was almost always too tired to be sociable at the end of the day. I was also enjoying staying completely off the booze on this journey.
After breakfast, I took a long walk around town; down to the bottom of the town, where I’d arrived the night before.
I wandered through the back streets, up and down long flights of steps; found a lane with closely packed stalls behind which men and women worked with old Singer sewing machines. I shook hands with locals, answered their friendly inquiries as to where I was from, and eventually wandered into the meat market. There, in this dirty old shed hung with carcasses, I chatted with several of the butchers and asked them about their work.
One man approached me and said:
“Come with me. I’ll show you how I make mince.”
He led me to a corner of the shed, where, on a heavy, round wooden chopping block, using only a machete, he threw down pieces of meat and hacked them into mince with swift, strong blows.
“How long have you been doing this for?” I asked; a little squeamish from the proximity of his fingers to the blade.
“For twenty years,” he replied. “I am the mince man!”
I watched him hack away at the mince for a couple of minutes; lifting the blade just a short distance and bringing it down with surprising force and accuracy. I took out my video camera to film his impressive action, and it wasn’t long before he had turned the large chunks of fatty meat into finely chopped mince.
“There,” he said. “Mince.”
I thanked him for showing me his trade and farewelled him.
I continued my wandering about town, plunging into the tight alleyways of shops and stalls. As with so many places in Asia, the businesses tended to group together according to what they sold: spices, shoes, tea, vegetables. I drifted in and out of the lanes, taking photographs here and there. Most people were friendly and generous with their smiles. Unlike other places I’d been in India, rather than trying to sell me things, they seemed merely to want to be acknowledged.
I took a walk around the circuit of Observatory Hill, then returned to Chowrasta, the main piazza at the top of the town. The horizon remained shrouded and I could see only the foothills. These, however, were beautiful in the dull light; wet and fecund, cool and, here and there, dressed with tea.
Three o’clock found me sitting in another Raj-era café, Glenary’s bakery and restaurant, situated just a little up the hill from Keventer’s. The pale mint walls, white wooden beams, wicker chairs and corrugated iron roof gave it a classically colonial appearance. I sat in the back section, like a wide, closed-in verandah, where a bay of windows faced the valley and the still-obscured mountains. I surfed the internet, ate pastries and drank two rather disappointing cups of tea. As the afternoon had progressed, the air had become increasingly damp with pending fog, until finally, at around a quarter past three, it began to rain.
Having been in India a month during the dry season and having seen no rain for some time, the idea of rain had hardly occurred to me. Perhaps some uprush of humid air from the Sundarbarns had met with the chill mountain breath and dropped its bucket, but whatever the case, once the rain began, it came down hard as hell. It poured for two hours, with little let up, striking hard on the iron roof. It was as beautiful as it was surprising, and for a long while I sat and watched figures darting through the wet below, with torrents in the gutters and cascades from the rooves. The pigeons opposite, huddled under the eaves, were positively ruffled on their multi-generational pile of droppings.
When the rain did finally stop, something extraordinary happened. I was sitting, face pressed close to the glass, watching the play of mist and light across the valley, when suddenly the clouds parted and opened a clear view to the horizon. All the haze had been washed from the sky, which was transformed to a pale blue, dotted with cotton wool clouds. I tried to shoot through the window but the curve of the hill blocked the bulk of the view. I wanted a clear line of sight, for I was dying to see Mount Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world at nearly 8600 metres tall.
I stood up, stuffed my lap top into my bag, sorted myself out and hurried off. It was still drizzling a little, and, worried about my camera, instead of going straight to find a vantage point, I decided to head back to the Hotel Tranquillity (sic) to pick up the small but sturdy umbrella I’d packed in a moment of boy-scout foresight. I raced back to the hotel, which took a good ten minutes, grabbed my umbrella and was about to head off, when I heard voices from the roof, just up the next flight from my room. I walked up the stairs where a door opened out on a flat concrete roof, flooded with rain. Here I found Tenzing, the hotel’s owner, talking with two other guests.
“Hello!” said Tenzing. “Come to see the mountains?”
“I hope so!”
The two other guests were also Australian and we smiled and nodded at each other. Their attention, however, as mine was soon to be, was rooted in the distance. And there, sure enough, was Mount Kangchenjunga. I gasped when first I saw it, amazed by its sheer size. How high up it seemed to go into the sky. It had an unnatural quality to it, as though its extension from the Earth was somehow impossible. How could anything be so big? The towering peaks of stone and snow were nothing short of fantastical. The only problem was that much of the view was blocked by an inconveniently placed radio antenna, a hill and trees. I could see roughly half of the mountain, and that through a tilting of the head and shifting of angles.
I looked as well as I could, but the lack of a clear line of sight was simply too frustrating. I needed a new vantage point, for now clearly was the time to go shoot the mountain. I took a few snaps, made some cheery remarks, then fled down the stairs and out onto Dr Zakir Hussain Street, figuring I should make for the road that circumnavigated Observatory Hill. I scurried down the street towards Chowrasta, past all the stalls, butchers, fishmongers, bakers, fruit and vegetable sellers, chicken and egg sellers; many of them seated up on the boards of their wooden stalls.
When I reached Chowrasta, however, I could see already that I was too late. The sky in the distance was thickening again with white mist and soon everything would be hidden. I broke into a run, down along the side of this hill with its famous monastery and tall Japanese cedars. Yet, by the time I reached the far end of the road, the mountains had once again vanished behind haze and cloud. I stood cursing, deeply regretting having gone back to get my umbrella, and shook a fist at the sky. I wasn’t sure quite how long I was planning to stay in Darjeeling, but figured that some time in the next couple of days I ought to see clear skies. The rain began to come down again and I popped up my umbrella. Stuff it, I thought, there’s always tomorrow.