A different kind of nostalgia

October 11, 2012

“Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?”
- William Shakespeare

I must have been eight or nine when my parents took me and my brother for a trip to the northern hills. As far as I can recall, we were a lively family group of nine. The trip was centred on Sikkim. When my mother first told me of the trip to the hills, I had pictured myself with a ruck sack and climbing up the rocks of the mountains. Unfortunately the reality didn’t remotely resemble that. In its place, to my utter dissatisfaction, I had to endure five-hour rides in ancient land rovers every day from one hill station to another. I didn’t particularly enjoy that.

Nothing in that trip was exceptional. Yes, a group of fun-loving folk is always much of a pleasure to be a part of even if you are an introvert but apart from the merry and the mirth that my family always brings to me, nothing in that portion of the trip was so fulfilling that I would write about twelve years later. To my wonder, the part of the tour that I least expected from became what I remember that trip by, even today. Life surprises us from where we least expect it to – one might call that divine comedy. As per plan, my parents, my brother and I extended our trip by a few more days after the rest of the group had gone back to Kolkata. The four of us yet again embarked on another of those long jeep-rides to Darjeeling. Quite naturally I didn’t think Darjeeling, which I had first heard of only a few months back, would be any different from the places we’d already been to. Never had I been so pleased to have been proven wrong.

On our way to Darjeeling, I had slept off in the first half of the journey so can’t recollect much. However, I do remember that after travelling quite a large section of the journey, my father started telling us how Darjeeling was not just another tourist destination for him. I listened intently and got deeply absorbed into everything he was saying. Much too soon, as it seemed, the driver called to me as we were nearing a bend, pointing his index finger straight at the hills at a distance. I could see a town sitting on the ridges of the gorgeous hills afar, like a child sleeping quietly on her mother’s lap. “Do you see that?” he said to me, “That is Darjeeling”. Everything about that trip changed that instant.

Every time I tell the story of why Darjeeling is special, for some very peculiar reason, I refer to it in first person, though I shouldn’t, technically, as it was all about long before I was born. I learned, for the first time, that we once lived there. That is, when my grandfather was of my age, the family lived in Darjeeling in a moderately sized middle-class house known as ‘Senabash’, meaning home to the Sen Family. The name itself felt enchanting to my ears. Later on in the tour, we had visited the ruins of the still standing storm-wrecked Senabash.

Senabash is located at Ghoom, the station before Darjeeling railway station and isn’t very far from the town centre of Darjeeling. As the story goes, the members of the then joint Sen Family used to run their own indigenous businesses like a dairy called ‘Kanchan Dairy’, which was highly reputed among the people of the town for its quality, a poultry farm, and a piggery among others. My grandfather’s uncle (passionately called ‘Naw-kaka’), who became the head of the house after the demise of my great grandfather, was a believer in Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray’s ideals of Bengalis becoming entrepreneurs. When there was no one to maintain the family businesses, under his able leadership, it flourished to newer heights. But, with drift of the rural population slowly shifting towards the urban areas after independence, the flow also caught our family. Soon, the young generation in the family were drawn to more economically promising lands like Kolkata and government jobs with their guaranteed salary at the end of the month seemed to be an easier livelihood. But the very thought of living in the hills of Darjeeling with our own family, self-sustaining small scale businesses left me in wonder of how beautifully simple life could be – every member works in their own way throughout the day from early in the morning and rejoice in the unadorned joy of being together in the evening. The fast moving urban lifestyle takes the living out of life.

The wooden house of Senabash was where my grandfather had grown up and my father, too, had spent a portion of his childhood there. The weather in Darjeeling is often very damp and one has to befriend the rain if one is to survive in a hill station like Darjeeling. Indeed that is why there was a room dedicated for umbrellas at Senabash! The other room that I have often heard of is Naw-kaka’s room. It is said that also my grandfather, the eldest of his brothers and sisters, feared to tread when he was at meditation. Respect sometimes is mistaken for fear. On the table in Naw-kaka’s room one would always find a bronze Buddha, as I am told. His sturdy belief in the Buddha (as evident from his daily meditation sessions) has reflected on my father –he, too, keeps a metallic Buddha at his study. As I have never had the pleasure to have entered it, Senabash is a palace of dreams. Like many a child, I had the habit of weaving images of what I heard as stories and from what I heard about our association with Darjeeling, I couldn’t wait to visit Senabash. Those images still take me back to past that I was not a part of but somehow I feel I belong there. Anyway, we contacted my father’s uncle (also called ‘Mejo-kaka’) who at that time still lived at a house next to Senabash and finally visited the ancestral home. Standing in front of it, the depth of its history made me feel very trivial in the sands of time, and also at the same time, a part of something great. There were two V-shaped diverging small flights of stairs leading to the front porch of the house. I found out that throughout its history, the members of the extended Sen Family would come from different parts of the country to Senabash for a family reunion once or twice a year. It was a time of immense festivity at Senabash, as my father recalls, with everyone having so much to share and even more to catch up with. On that same V-shaped stairs, on such reunions, typical family photographs would be taken each time, which became a tradition. As we stood there before what was left of Senabash, we too abided by that tradition and had a group photo in that exact same arrangement as it would be during the glorious days of Senabash. It was as if I could hear voices from inside the house and visualise the revelry of getting together, as we stood there. To a passer-by, it would be just the ruins of an old house but for me it was materialisation of our past and everything I heard and imagined about Senabash. I could stand there and revere it all day.

Mejo-kaka’s house overlooked the picturesque Batasia loop where the toy train would take a round in a loop and return back. The toy train is the pride of Darjeeling. It was a sight to behold. The view from hill resplendent as it was, it was not the most famous view of Batasia loop – what I saw was a foggy view of the faintly visible toy train making the loop. The occasional wooing sound of the whistle of the toy train ruptured the silence of the hills as the train broke through a wall of fog. Every time the whistling stopped, silence descended on the hills like night falls on a desert after a hot afternoon. It was reverence – the sight, the sound and the silence. The reason it is so distinctive is because the atmosphere itself was very typically Darjeeling – misty, moist and mysteriously amazing. My father every so often tells us that Batasia loop was far more splendid when he was of my age and the beautification has robbed it of its natural beauty. In spite of that, it was a spectacle I recall often in my mind and it always brings a smile to my face – it is my host of golden daffodils:

“For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye,
Which is the bliss of solitude”
– William Wordsworth

From the bond with Darjeeling that I cherish, to the walks along the undulating roads of the town and the flat paradise of the mall, from Keventer’s to Glenary’s, from the Darjeeling railway station to the Ghoom monastery – everything in Darjeeling has attached with it fondness, love and emotion. After that trip, I had been to Darjeeling about six times and every time I reach the queen of the hills, I don’t want to come back. It so happened that on one such trip to Darjeeling, due to terrible weather conditions, we couldn’t leave on the day we had to. And that was a godsend for me. I prayed that it would rain like that for the next few days too – unfortunately that didn’t happen!

The term nostalgia describes a sentimental longing for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. But for me, although I do not have any factual personal associations, the heritage of Senabash and every story I heard of it has helped bridge the divide between what is real and what is felt only in the mind. Every time I think about Senabash, I feel that even I am a part of its legacy – or rather it is a part of me.

It might be a cliché to say so but from the first moment I saw Darjeeling, I fell in love with her. For me, coming to Darjeeling is not a tour to the northern hills – it is homecoming.