I had woken up to the rumble of the train. The watch had just ticked into the wee hours of the morning, and yet, climbing down from my top berth, it was surprisingly bright outside. I walked out of the compartment to avoid waking others. Standing at the door of that rail bogie, I was greeted by a myriad of stunning vistas of West-Bengal’s country-side. Greens; all lush and in varied shades were flying by. Houses in red, dark trunks of broken trees were running past. At some distance, the natives were slowly emerging out of their homes and watching the train goggle-eyed despite having looked at it run past every single day. And, the sun was slowly preparing to emerge from the night. It is only in this part of the country that one sees the wonder that lies in the simplest joys of the world. Minute by minute, a village after another was passing by. So lost I was, that it was almost an hour before I broke out of my thoughts and stumbled back to my seat.
We’d reached the quaint town of New Jalpaiguri in the north of Bengal. One can easily think of it to be a meeting point. Lying afoot the Lesser Himalayas, it is a melee of two cultures trying to outlive each other. Momos have flown down from the upper regions of the mountains and are in a constant struggle with the Ellish which have rightfully swam up to the little Bengali town.
After 2,570 km and three train journeys later, we were now only a ride away from what we’d been dreaming of, for the past few days. Darjeeling, situated at a height of around 6,700 ft was three hours away by road and seven hours by the narrow gauge. Devoid of much choice, we hopped into a four-wheeler with much excitement and began to drive up the great mountains. Steadily, we were leaving past the cities, the cantonment and the wildlife sanctuaries of Northern Bengal. The higher we went, the better were the roads, drivers increasingly conscientious and the air cleaner. Driving along the turns and curves, we were soon sailing through the clouds. A thick white sheen of nothingness was dancing and swimming and flying around us, into the car and out, hiding from us the beauty of the great mountains. A quirky kind of lightness had begun to seep into our bodies on that cool and misty day. Dreams of the pretty kind had begun forming in our minds and we were driven into a trance that only the intoxicating smell of the clouds can take you into.
The narrow gauge was our constant companion. Running along the mountains, it crossed paths with us every now and then and gave us treat-like glimpses of the toy train at times. Higher up, when the clouds would clear, we would see high mountains and vales. The weather was cold and damp and exactly the kind that I rejoice. Sometime midway, we chanced upon a tiny village nestled in thickets, with beautiful small wooden cottages perched up along the road. Flowers of a hundred colours were adorned on each one of those cottages, making them look like they had come right out of a fairy tale. We stopped at one such pretty cottage to relieve our legs. A tiny little room converted into a shop with three tables, opened up to a terrace at it’s back. We stood there on the terrace, amidst thick deodar foliage, among the floating clouds with a cup of warm chai in each of our hands and a plate of steamy momos by our sides. There wasn’t a word we could find to describe what we were feeling and we stood there, utterly quiet, just looking around us and taking in the beauty that could only be described as ethereal.
Three hours and many turns later, we finally reached Darjeeling, known fondly as the queen of hills. Darjeeling was a stark contrast to all the images I had formed from those old British-era writings. It was instead, a town engulfed by the hustle-bustle of tourists and locals alike. A constant stream of taxis and cars was being managed by the policemen, who in turn were the sad receptors of loud harsh honks. Hundreds of people were walking up and down those narrow hilly roads and it was becoming increasingly congested in that wild jamboree of human beings. Darjeeling had been completely customised to tourist tastes and had in process, lost it’s own flavour.
However, in those few days in Darjeeling, I’d lived a hundred moments. I’d walked up and down those narrow streets, panting and stopping for breath at times and at times, simply smiling and waving at passing-by locals, deeply inspired by their swiftness and dexterity. I had visited the National Park and had a chance to see birds of unimaginable beauty and animals such as the fleeting Snow Leopard. I had visited momo parlours and had fallen in love with the Tibetan dish named Thukpa. I had visited popular cafes, glitzy bakeries-where I had spent hours sipping on coffee and gazing at the valley beyond-and had even found a quaint tea-shop tucked in a part of the town where only few people traversed. At the end of it all I had only grown fond of the very town I had detested at my first encounter with it. Darjeeling thus became one of the many fond memories of my 150 kilometer journey into the mountains.