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     Volume 4 Issue 70 | November 11, 2005 |

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Slice of Life

Still The Best

Richa Jha

Don't go to Darjeeling, they said. It is filthy, there is only concrete now, and it has gone to the dogs. It was once the Queen of hills, now, sadly, it is but a pale shadow of its past glory.

I heard them out, but went all the same. And I went with a bunch of hill freaks. That didn't help in the preparatory stages because, as not a natural hill lover, and an infrequent hill explorer, there were these 'lessons' and structured pep-talks I was inundated with: take this, don't take that; do this, don't do that; eat this, don't eat that; wear this, don't wear that; even sleep at this time, wake up at that!

A pre-conceived beginning can stunt the natural flow of experiencing the 'unknown'. And so, when I reached Darjeeling, my eyes could see only the concrete mess, the ruined pine-hills, the fuming vehicles, and my heart sank with a sense of déjà vu without having visited the place earlier.

But that was, fortunately, a premature feeling which lasted just for a fleeting moment. Minutes into having pulled my bags out of the car boot, my senses shut up to the mild lamentations of what-was-once-Darjeeling. Frankly, I didn't want to know. Because, what I had before my eyes was something far more endearing than mere scenic beauty. You can rob the place of its pristine beauty, but you can't take away the attitude from it. Fortunately again, Darjeeling breathes plenty of it.

I saw attitude in the senior citizens jogging up the hill without a pause, putting people like me to shame. There was large dollops of self esteem in the Tibetans selling woollies by the road side, their graceful demeanour speaking a language of its own in the middle of all the mindless bargaining from the travellers. I saw the unassuming pride of the Loreto girls and the St. Paul's boys roaming the markets in their blazers. The wafting aroma of fried eggs and sausages barging into the nostrils near Keventer's, the freshly baked smells emanating from Glenary's, the ceremony with which tea is still treated in Darjeeling- all spelt attitude. Pride was in the Darjeeling Police Band playing the bagpipes on the Chowrasta in all its regalia on a weekend evening. And thank God, the massive helpings of attitude all around was rolled up in panache, without being offensive or intrusive. The signboard in the Oxford Book Store, an institution in itself, says it all, " Browsers Welcome- No Experience required"!

The British Empire ruled the subcontinent in style. That much should be granted to them. They liked their charming villas, so they re-created their homes with the flavours from back home. They loved their greens, and ensured they had plenty of it around them. They created their glorious walks, the pedestrian-only high streets (which, on the Indian Hill Stations, got named as the Malls), and they garnished every creation with utmost care and delicate beauty. And Darjeeling, having been their Summer Capital, had no parallel.

The enviable beauty of Darjeeling is not just in the unhindered views (weather permitting) of the majestic heights of the snow capped Himalayas from anywhere in the city. There is beauty in the confidence with which the young Nepalese (the city's visible majority) boys and girls flood the town with their unrestrained chatter, each one smartly turned out and taking pride in grooming themselves up. There was beauty in the hippy-ness of things. The funk came from the absence of any obtrusive toutism so visible at other popular tourist destinations in India. I spied beauty in the hand-locked honeymooners getting lost amid the mist-veiled hills. There was beauty in shoe-stringing western tourists immersed in their novels, spread eagled on the sun kissed terraces of hotels and dormitories. Beauty is when the ageless Darjeeling toy train breathes out smoke as the classic steam locomotive huffs and puffs up the hills. Choose what you want to do, this hill station lets you be, without breathing down your neck. And it has to be savoured thus: at a relaxed pace without flitting from one 'point' to another in the hired jeeps, ticking off one must-see after another on the itinerary. That's going against the very grain of the ethos of living in the hills. Time, does, indeed stand still here.

The Hubby ensured that he made a mountain-goat out of a slothful me! Even before sun rise, when one could hear jeeps revving up the hills carting the hordes of travellers to Tiger Point to catch the most spectacular sunrise, he would push me out of the hotel room in my sneakers, to test my stamina, making me slog my way uphill and downhill. And yes, he baby-sat all through! The initial reluctance to strain the rusted joints soon surmounted, there was no stopping me. I had never known there was a mountain-lass in me hidden away somewhere!

Dirty? Nah! Even the Darjeeling veterans were stunned into silence this time by the 'clean' avatar of the hill station. And besides, filth is something you notice only when you look down rather than look up and around. I savoured what was at the eye level, and way beyond. The Queen of Hills remains the queen, and will remain so for quite some time.

P.S- The only negative fall-out: my son and daughter, having quickly got accustomed to the ways of the hills, have been insisting on hitting bed by sun set. It is their waking up before sunrise and demanding our company that I mind.

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