About a month ago I took a week-long trip with my parents, going from one place to another in North Bengal, most of them little known and much less talked about, but places that featured prominently in many stories I grew up hearing. (That blog post is for another time.)
The family history trail was finished off with a short visit to Darjeeling, in the days leading up to Christmas. The famous old British hill resort was bedecked with lights and festoons, and tourists milled about, eating plum cake at Glenary’s, buying teas and souvenirs, or soaking up the delicious winter sun flooding Mall Road and beyond, taking in that famed view of the Kanchendzonga.
In my first two days at Darjeeling, I had visited all the recommended tourist spots: had a festive dinner at Glenary’s, breakfasted on hot chocolate and bacon atop Keventer’s, bought fragrant teas from the Golden Tips store, filled my bag with yellowed books from the second-hand bookstore next door, and even struck a pretty good bargain over a couple of lovely Nepali thangkas. I had
accompanied my parents, reluctantly, to the Darjeeling zoo, where I ended up feeling delighted to see adorable red pandas roaming free, and various mountain animals being cared for in a way that was far more respectable than the practices at the zoo in Kolkata.
But as is the case in most tourist towns, what I failed to see was any daily life, any local people going about their business which was other than something to do with catering to the whims and megrims of visitors. With this in mind, we asked around for ways to get out of town, on short hiking trails, to nearby villages and such.
We didn’t have many leads, but taking a bit of a detour, we came to a place that the government seemed to have reserved for refugees from Tibet. The scene here was different, quieter. Small, rundown houses lined a single unpaved road. There were men outside sawing wood, and some people selling crafts and trinkets at a souvenir shop, the proceeds from which it seemed went towards the upkeep of the Tibetan people. An empty basketball court was the site of a feast for some pigeons, who were soon scattered by a few kids who came hurtling towards the birds, and proceeded to play hopscotch.
Further down the road I spotted a couple of stray cats that seemed unusually well-fed. They were hopping about and playing in a rather familiar way on an old trunk that had been placed outside a house. I walked slowly towards the cats and soon they were rubbing their heads on my arms, purring loudly, their tails up in pleasure.
We were meowing at one another perhaps a little too loudly, so I wasn’t surprised when the door to the house opened. (Do pretend you don’t know me if you ever come across me involved in a similar exchange.) Out stepped an old and extremely photogenic woman. Nodding at me, she took a seat on the patio, and with a distant look in her eyes started counting her prayer beads. Every few seconds she would turn to look at me with a warm smile, and finally I felt encouraged enough to ask her permission for a photograph. With another of her beautiful smiles she nodded her consent.
After a few shots I gestured my thanks, thinking it was time to head on back to the hotel. The sun had set, the winds were cold, and I wanted to leave this old lady to herself and her thoughts. But as I was getting ready to leave, I saw her signal to me with her expressive face, gesturing something with her free hand. I noticed she was rubbing her thumb and forefinger, all the while wearing her endearing smile, indicating she wanted payment for sitting in for my little photoshoot.
I was endlessly amused by this turn of events. It came as quite a surprise, her knack for enterprise; it was the last thing I would expect from an octogenarian woman who spent her evenings in prayer in an unobtrusive part of this cold hill town. But she was a refugee, I remembered, and wondered about the long life she had already lived, the things she had seen and faced, the forces that drove her from her beautiful country to a hidden corner of a foreign one, where she had somehow managed to acquire a tiny plot of land and a crumbling little house, and who knows if she had people who could care for her or provide. Staring into the wrinkled face of this amusing old woman, I thought of my own grandmother, who had been sent on a train of death from erstwhile East Bengal to the west, when riots were raging, and the state was being torn into pieces. I thought of the stories she told me of her younger days, and how differently her later life turned out.
I have in my possession the many keepsakes she left behind: biscuit tins of photographs, notebooks and diaries, closets full of saris and shawls, so many memories so lovingly cared for. They will take a while to sort. There are too many stories there. But I hope to share with you soon a few precious ones. For now, a photograph from her world, that I dare say is not all that lost.