Misty Mountains : Remembering Darjeeling

darj23Hills have always been associated with a sense of freedom, of liberation and peace. But for me, it’s always a sense of feeling very overwhelmed. Mountains are mysterious in a silent, all-seeing way. They are imperious. Sentinel like.

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Darjeeling. The sleepy little child of the Lesser Himalayas. The land of patchwork tea plantations, colonial bungalows, sunrises and beautiful, rosy cheeked children with infectious smiles. Of shaggy dogs stretching on the mall road and little ponies trotting along, who will break your heart.

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Darjeeling is about meandering roads that go round and round, all the way to the zoo and back to the mall. Dotted with little cafes and hillside houses with slanting roofs and closed wooden doors. Glass windows, chimneys and little gardens creeping with wild flowers. The smell of coffee and mountain air.

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2011 autumn is when we visited Darjeeling and fell in love with this misty, effortlessly nostalgia inducing place all over again. It was the perfect get away. Close to the city, yet a whole world away. After the overnight train journey, it was a matter of couple of hours till we reached the familiar mall road. We were staying in this lovely little place called Revolver, named after the Beatles album. A homely place owned by couple with a pet calico cat, the hotel has 5 rooms, one after each Beatle. And a small library too.

darj14(the the stairway to our place)

darj13(the living room of Revolver hotel)

We were living in the John Lennon room. ūüôā

The days would start early, mostly because I’d incessantly nag AB to crawl out from under the covers. Sure, there are was not much to do. But some vacations are meant only for hillside coffee, a whole lot of walking among the trees, and breakfast at Keventer’s. Which was where our days would begin. The meat platter for AB and chocolate milkshake for the both of us. Indulgent, to say the least.

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It’s always nicer to get a seat in the open terrace. The sunshine feels warm and beautiful. And the world feels like a better place.

After a long and heavy breakfast, we would go for walks. Stopping by little roadside stalls and curio shops. And, of course, sneaking into Glenary’s for some more unadulterated gluttony. And by that, I mean heavenly muffins and cakes.

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The mall, lined with brightly painted green benches. Overlooking the mountainscape. Dense, alpine forests with oaks, sal trees and wild orchids. The railway station with its steam engines and toy train.

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darj20¬†We would sit for hours on those benches. Watching the slow, gentle ponies. Always underfed, always obedient. Silently carrying little children, and at times obese, indifferent men and women who are probably 5 times their weight on their weary backs. It’s hard not to feel depressed seeing them and the general lack of compassion or sympathy people have for these majestic animals. And we would watch the pigeons being fed crumbs of biscuits and bread by old couples and young people who are probably in love. Pigeons that flutter and fly in a flourish of wings and feathers.

And then there would be AB imagining himself to be an airplane.
darj12We found this tiny little drinking joint, that’s very easy to miss. Nondescript, bordering on shady, right below the mall. We are pros at finding such haunts, I guess. Daffey Munal Restaurant, the name. We would go up to the bar and have beer. I find beer wonderful, even in the cold.

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As the later afternoon sun grew dimmer and a mild chill set in, we would browse the curio shops. A kaleidoscope of colors- tinkling with gemstones, bright necklaces, silver bracelets and stone earrings. Stopping by tea stalls for our evening tea. And more eating! I have had the best momos on earth in the street side shops of Darjeeling. Nothing else compares. Equally amazing are the phalays and hot buns. And no. You don’t die of food poisoning or a violent bout of diarrhea if you have them.

darj18One afternoon we visited the Himalayan Zoological Park. It is beautifully kept and the animals seemed well looked after. That was probably some consolation, because my heart usually aches when I see big cats in captivity. Somehow, tigers are just not meant for confined spaces. Nor are wolves.

darj3On the way back from the zoo, we chanced upon Hot and Stimulating Cafe. A tiny place that caught our fancy as we heard the strains of “Redemption Song” coming from inside. In we went. Dimly lit, wooden place with Bob Marley posters on the wall. We took a window seat and watched the hills outside. Gray, blue and white. Peppered with green and brown.

Suddenly something soft, something furry brushed gently against our legs. Precariously feline. And that was when we met Princess Fenelamela. The queen. The most regal cat I have ever, ever met.There she was, looking up with her big, questioning eyes. And then jumping straight on my lap. Her paws stretching out and placing themselves on AB’s lap. She felt at home. And so did we.

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It was difficult leaving her. Maybe a little more difficult than it usually is when leaving behind all the little animals that I meet regularly.
How can it not be, when she looks at you like that?

darj8I love traveling. And somehow, no matter where I go, near or far, I meet and get attached to cats (dogs too). It’s inevitable.

The next day, it was raining. A slow, steady drizzle. And as we walked under a shared umbrella, it felt positively magical. Rains make mountains even more beautiful, if that’s possible. An unreal kind of beauty. Distant and aloof. We went to Glenary’s for dinner. It was our anniversary. And it felt perfect as we sat, waiting for our food in the yellow glow of the lights.

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Waiting for food is depressing. But equally exhilarating is when your order finally arrives. I now forget what we had. But afterwards, I remember having a lot of Old Monk and thums up back in our room. And the most gorgeous sleep afterwards.

The week went in the blink of an eye. And it shall remain one of our most special trips. That is why I shall not recount the horror show that was the return journey. When our train ran late and we spent the whole night in the station. Scared. Worried. Maybe that’ll make for another post.

Space Caravan

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Maybe we come from nowhere. Nowhere people, crawling at a steady pace through inter-stellar dimensions. Stalling at starlit junctions for a moment or two and then moving on. Gathering meteor dust on our star-kissed bodies, that emerge from and eventually get immersed in the vastness that is the space-time continuum.

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Maybe we are meant to forever swim through the nebulous sea. Inhaling the mists, looking wide eyed…intergalactic voyagers in motion. Steadily moving towards the unknown. In the distance there are endless valleys, rolling. Crags and snow veiled mountain peaks. Ravines and waterfalls, moving soft, moving slow. And we speculate, and we reach no conclusion.

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A nowhere universe. A turquoise tapestry.
The known pattern of the vast macrocosm that engulf and spits us out.

Consumation. A flaming spark in that aqueous ether.
Conception, birth, consumation.
Followed by death.
A predictable chronology of an expected life. With unexpected turns.

Nevertheless, we keep crawling at a steady pace through inter-stellar dimensions.

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“A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy”

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Yorick. Evoking monologues since 1599. Memento mori.

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rims at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?”

(Hamlet, V.i)

Yorick. The could-have-been talisman. The most-certainly-dead jester. Reminding us of our own mortality, and providing chuckles along the way.

I took that photo in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was sketched on an ice-cream truck. It was a beautiful, sunny day with a gazillion swans splashing about in the river. There were children feeding them bits of bread crumbs. There were old couples sitting on park benches. And then there was this ice cream truck with Yorick on it.

Oh and then I found this on the internet. Sigh.Yes, cats own the internet. Evidently.

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Remembering Alcha

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There’s a little cafe tucked away in Shantiniketan, just around a winding road, that I happen to love a lot. It gives me a lot of peace of mind when I sit on the familiar wooden benches, waiting for my iced tea. It’s name is Alcha.

Alcha is about special evenings with loved ones. About mild evening breezes and low lit lamps that hang right above your table. It’s about amazing Spanish omelettes and grilled cheese sandwiches.

alcha2alcha3Shantiniketan, a 2 two hour train journey from Calcutta, is a quaint little place. Lazy and romantic, with a distinct Tagorean appeal. But for me, it will always be about evenings spent at Alcha.

Where you can spend your time, listening to the night sounds of a place that’s hidden away- one where the day starts early and goes to sleep just as fast. Of chirping crickets and night time birds. And dogs barking incessantly in the distance. A cafe where you write down your order in vertical chits of paper. And give gentle reminders to affable waiters who seem to forget easily.

alcha4There are evenings that are meant to be slow and deliberate. They are about long walks on tree-flanked pathways. About holding hands in the moonlight. And being followed by a lonely dog, in need of companionship. There are evenings that meant to be spent in Alcha with someone dear to you. When the light and shadow of the surrounding lamps seem to play tricks on your mind.

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And you fix your gaze on that certain something.
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Evenings where you like making scribbles that are meant to be forgotten. Where you sit and count the endless days that are ahead of you. Plans that need time to be executed and revisions that need to be made in the grand scheme of things. Of the daily nonsense that you will soon have to return to. But those evenings, you just like stalling time for a while. Those evenings are about indulgences. They are meant to be spent in Alcha. And afterwards, a drink or two of rum and coke in your small hotel room.

Of Rain, Poetry and Trees: The Trip to Little Sparta

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From time to time, I miss Edinburgh. From time to time, I get ridiculously strong hankerings to walk down those cobbled streets, in and out of Pollock Halls. 2012 summer had been a momentous one for me. My first trip, all alone, all the way to Scotland, for summer school. And every moment of it had been beautiful. Remarkable place, even more remarkable people. And memories that will last a lifetime.

Of the many social programs that had been arranged for us, one was a trip to this little place, named, funnily, Little Sparta- a garden in Dunsyre. It was a rainy day, I remember. 11th July, 2012, the date.  After a tiring night of finishing a paper on Woolf, I had gotten up excitedly, only to get paranoid at seeing the dull grey sky, promising a complete wash out of a day. There were no classes scheduled, and it would have been a shame had we not gone out. What is amazing is how everyone unanimously decided to brave the weather and set out for the drive. Time was so precious to us, every little gathering, every trip planned was special. It was only a matter of a week that we would all go out separate ways.

So we set out. In a small-ish bus. About 12 of us. Roland, Meg, Christina, Martina, Moon, Soumi, Sinjita, Ola, and a few others whose names I cannot remember for the life of me. Umbrellas in tow, and packets of Walkers Salt & Vinegar to keep us company.The drive was a long and lovely one. A happy group of people, singing happy songs. When we finally reached, we were greeted by a LOT of mud. And I remember, Moon was wearing high heels. Yes, she was very uncomfortable. But she did a swell job wading through it!

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And, there were a LOT of cows. Lots and lots of cows all around us. Feeding on the grass nonchalantly. Not really giving a damn about us. Some occasionally looking up at us. Waddling away to feed some more. While most of us were gushing about how bloody cute they looked, there were one or two talking longingly of burgers and steaks. *shudder shudder*

Well, I love cows. They are gentle, bovine beings.

Anyhow, we battled the mud and slush and walked up the long pathway to enter Little Sparta. And that is precisely when it started raining. Not heavy rain, but a steady, persistent kind. My camera had stopped working the day I had arrived in Edinburgh. So I gingerly patted my trusty iPhone, muttering prayers that it doesn’t give up on me as well. We picked up bright orange umbrellas and set out to explore the place. No point wasting whatever time we had. And it truly was beautiful. Picture book kind of beautiful. The rain gave it a touch of the mysterious. The winding pebbled pathways leading into groves of trees whose names I did not know. Would never know. Little lakes and lush green fields. And grass that grew so incredibly high. It was beautiful.

I’ll post some photos I had managed to take, despite the rain.

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Enchanting, is what it was. Like a secret place that is tucked away As safely, somewhere very far away. Like a kind of Wonderland. sparta1

As we made our way through the woods, I had expected elves to spring out. But they didn’t. Maybe they just didn’t like us too much. Just like the cows. They like their privacy I suppose.
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That little boat in the lake. I remember just standing and staring at it for a long, long time. And somehow that moment, as I stood in that rainsoaked landscape, I felt overwhelmed. There was nowhere I would rather be.

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There was this one area, beyond the lake, on the other side, which was filled with large blocks of stones, with words etched on them.It was quite prophetic, but even more poetic. It read:¬†“The present¬†order¬†is the¬†disorder¬†of the¬†future”
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It was a day spent midst concrete poetry and sculptures- a perfect blend of art and architecture. Of nameless flowers, grassy paths and puddles of water. Of a little boat in a lake. And a deep sense of loss and remembrance. I shall go back some day. And I hope it rains then as well.

Train roll on…

I love traveling. I love the idea of traveling. I like making elaborate plans and poring over every possible website or book I can lay my hands on to virtually and vicariously be at that precise moment wherever it is that I want to go to. I am pretty sure I drive my partner insane with the fussing and obsessive twitching and frequent arguments about where to stay and what to do and what to do after that. And after that. I love journeys as much as the destination.

I love train stations. I have mostly traveled from Howrah station. As a kid I used to hate them and how dirty they were and lined with urchins and shady looking men. Hated the smell, the garbage, the cry of hawkers. Hated being tagged along on family vacations to Puri or Delhi or Rajasthan or wherever. The station has not changed much. Fellow travelers have. Perceptions have. I have grown to love train journeys. All the stations the train stops in. All of them have so many stories to tell, stories to conceal, stories you get to live for whatever time the train stops at the station. The arrivals, the departures, the porters precariously carrying a ridiculous number of suitcases and now, fancier luggage, on their heads. And the arguments that follow about how much they should charge. Most people are of the opinion that they are being duped of their hard earned money, right? Right.

I love the energy, the smell of hot, spicy, sweet tea brewing in the little tea stalls, the¬†maatir bhaar¬†in which they are served. (I don’t like plastic cups) The friendly dogs that demand to be fed biscuits. I like browsing through the book stalls and buying random magazines and books. As a kid, I would usually buy¬†Chacha Chowdhury,¬†now I buy novels that I don’t remember the names of. The last one I bought was probably¬†Veronica Decides to Die.¬†I like the big, ominous clock on the platform in Howrah station. Countless arrivals. Even more departures. People love leaving the city more these days and migrate to whatever qualifies as a bigger, better, more prosperous utopia.