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. 🙂

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.

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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.