'Yes Nanny you have an absolutely rock-solid promise that I will be... hell, it's a promise I'm making to myself that I will be sat there with you next Christmas. I promise! I miss you all!'
"Ho-ho-ho! Meeeerry Christmas!" : Santa drops in for a criossant at Glenary's Cafe.
I know what my Nanny wanted for Christmas. Me. Home. My presence in England. But the journey rolls on. It couldn’t be...
I wonder what the Snow Leopard would want for Christmas if she cared for such considerations? I think she would want to go home. Her own lands. To be high up and alone in the mountains with only the whispers of winds for company and snow flurries playing through her fur again. It's been a long time. Even if the mists were to part she would not be able to see the mountains of the Khangchendzonga range for they are obscured by the bars of her cage, and the forest surrounds of the zoo.
'We Demand Gorkhaland State'
She lies listless, her head collapsed against the bars ignoring the people who ignore the signs not to taunt the animals and is sad for she realises she has forgotten what a sense of home is.'Christmas time is here again...'
chimes the music as I settle down into the white-wicker chaired wonderland of Glenary's cafe. First customer of this Christmas Day. I sit and close my eyes. I am far away from home. Again. Alone this year. I order a special treat 'English' breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, sausage, toast and a small pot of Darjeeling
tea even though I'm sure all but the latter will be a let down, and they are.
It's a small symbolic gesture though, a sense of home and thoughts of England, sat as I am in the former British hill station of Darjeeling so many, many miles from my family. My heart is reprimanding me with unanticipated vigour for this fact this year and I try to cheer it with a new book and the thought of speaking to them all later on, when the world has turned a little further on its axis and they've awoken to bulging stockings and smiles and hugs.'What do you mean you haven't seen them yet? Look over there!'
The couple from Kent I'm chit-chatting with point to what I had not noticed through the large bay windows. Today the skies have cleared of the usual misty pall that hangs over the Himalayan panoramas this time of year.
'Grammar and Revolution'
Hazy, but visible, the five snow covered peaks of the Khangchendzonga range rear up into the blue. The third highest peak in the world. India's highest. Not the sort of thing you could miss really. But I had. I guess I hadn't thought to look, wrapped up in my book. Mother Nature has given me a gift for Christmas.
As the jeep honked and wound its way up from Siliguri
two days ago the silver ribbons of the train track that shares the road most of the way up sliding from one side of the trail to the other beneath us, it soon became clear what the populace of Darjeeling Hills would want for Christmas. Independent State hood. A sense of identity and home.
'On the Tracks'
Even then in the greys of dusk and darkening as dust flew out from the jeep’s rear and I clung on tight, the green, white and yellow striped tricolore flag of the proposed state of Gorkhaland were clearly visible painted on walls, roadside barriers, bollards and shop fronts. Words painted proud too. 'We want Gorkhaland!' 'Gorkhaland is our birth right.' 'Our aspirations lie in Gorkhaland.'
Many, many times 'Long live Gorkhaland'
, the state that's yet to be born. The slogans accompanied by the crossed, crooked blades of the traditional Nepali Ghurka or Ghorka kukri swords. But maybe more of all that later.
Outside Glenary's the sun is bright.
'Christmas for Sale'
The sky clear blue. The air is chilled. A cool breeze. Nearly bare trees for those that let go their leaves. My favourite conditions. I stroll across Chowrasta, the 'Roof' of Darjeeling, it's main square. Children in ten layers, two woolly hats and ear warmers squeal at the pony steamily urinating onto the floor ahead of their Christmas day ride. I stroll along and up to the temple shrine that sits atop Observatory Hill, Darjeeling's highest point. This mount area is so richly bedecked with the many coloured Buddhist prayer flag strings that it's hard to see the trees for them. I adore these rainbow manifestations of faith. Their colour and flutter accompany many deeply happy memories along my journey so far and I always feel rejuvenated in their presence.
Darjeeling market shops shut up.
Careful not to take my eyes from the roving monkeys for too long, I watch as a man clambers high to put up yet more of them. Up a ladder, stringing out colour and joy like my father used to, decorating our conservatory for Christmas every year. These decorations never come down though. I like that. The old faded, tattered flags whose prayers have been chanted by the winds ten million times and more remain only to have new colour draped about them. Large and small shiny brass devotional bells with red and gold ribbon tied about them hang in great profusion inside the shrine and again conjure images of a Christmas far from here.
I had decided I wanted a quieter more introspective Christmas this year having partied hard in Chiang Mai a year ago. So whilst almost everyone else turned their eyes and itineraries to the beaches and bars of Goa I knew I wanted to turn my head to the mountains and get somewhere a little colder.
A touch of winter. And after sundown it is getting phenomenally cold here at night. Colder by the day. Which is a form of discomfort. But I wanted that. The need to wrap up warm and hug life into my body and heart and curl up early in bed brings me, I feel, a little bit closer to my family. Though I'm not sure why. The idea of striving to protect a precious warmth, buried deep inside, that keeps you going. I guess.
My main treat for Christmas day - aside from the fry up and a large bar of Cadbury's Fruit 'n' Nut I will later make a rare splurge on - is a 'joyride' to the town of Ghoom and back in the famous steam ‘toy’ train that runs on the tiny two foot gauge track between Darjeeling and potentially as far as Siliguri down in the plains, seven slow hours rail ride away.
'Don't Look Down'
This though is a three to four hour round trip with a pause in the middle for the engine drivers to scrape out the coals whilst we take in the views from the famous viewpoint of the Batasia Loop.
The train itself is a picture of Thomas the Tank Engine cuteness. The original track and trains date from around the 1880s but the current fleet from the early 1980s. It's riveted blue metal plate body and boiler pipe with brass-topped steam funnels. The engine drivers crawl over her disappearing and reappearing in vast jets and clouds of steam to hall the coals down to the furnace plate. The ride with it's good old fashioned 'toot tooooot!'
and steam billowing into the air and flecks of coal soot collecting in your hair as you stick your head out the windows is great fun.
A hotchpotch Darjeeling facade
As previously mentioned, for the most part the track runs alongside the road to Siliguri sharing a space already crowded by people and their vehicles, cows, dogs and shops and daily life, the train frequently passing within inches of all of these. It is quite surreal to be chugging along with jeeps and motorbikes riding alongside you, vying with the train for road primacy as their inhabitants try and take snaps of you in the train with cameras clenched out of windows. As the menu in Glenary's claimed 'Only in Darjeeling does a train get stuck in a traffic jam.'
We didn't encounter one today. Quiet roads for Christmas maybe.
On another day I also walk to Ghoom, taking in the impressive Buddhist monasteries on route and then returning to Darjeeling through the higher forested slopes of the hills which I would strongly recommend as a way of getting a richer feel for the look and the lives of Darjeeling Hills.
(Just avoid the ‘no go’ military encampment at the top!)
As often with these Indian British hill stations a strange aesthetic has been born and grown up here. Darjeeling's an odd looking place to be sure. Plenty enough ghosts of bygone colonial architecture present. Fine enough examples in St Andrew's Church, the 'heritage' Post Office, Gymkhana, Clock Tower and a host of other brick and slate buildings retained from Raj days as centres of governance and community. Clear views of these often obscured by the profusion of black overhead cables thick and complex enough in pattern to give the appearance of dirty cobwebs collected upon things past.
But between these and the uniform plague of concrete aberrations built quick and cheap for expanding indigenous and tourist populations Darjeeling's own peculiar style squats in the gaps and shadows and slews in a somewhat dilapidated landslip down the hillside.
Scary wood-carved masks
Similarities with Simla can be seen in this process of the quaint-ugly structural disintegration that India‘s necessities often breed. A tin-pot town of patchwork materials and quite hotchpotch construction. Its characteristic corrugated metal sheet roofs and wood plank and shutter facades predominate. Blocks of shack houses, looking like piles of haphazardly planned individual rooms stacked one on top of the other. Clambering over one another to reach the sun and air. Walls of thin wood beam over wattle interior covered in painted plaster. A city reconstituting its physical fabric with anything that happens to be to hand. I'm reminded of a Spielberg produced movie, Batteries Not Included
, that charmed me as a young lad with its Extra Terrestrial protagonists who'd construct themselves of, mend and breathe life into the things we humans throw away.
Rainbows after dark : the women of Darjeeling sell colourful knitted wears by gas lamp light.
Rusty piles of metal scrap cut up and transmuted to utility. And Darjeeling in parts has this look. Something welded, soldered, riveted, stitched, propped and knocked together. Advertising hoardings ‘papering’ over a thousand cracks. The only element providing any sense of visual cohesion from one building to the next the collection of meticulously had painted, brightly coloured advertisements for Kit Kat, Coca-Cola, Cadbury's chocolate bars and other long faded products and services.
The one omnipresent detail of every building in town, the improvised labelling of 'Gorkhaland'
on every single shop and hotel sign in town that bears an address. Though the pursuit of an independent state within the Indian Union for the Nepali ethnic minority of Indian Ghorkas has been a long fermented cause (the policy referred to as Gorkhaland Demand encompassing Darjeeling Hills, the Siliguri plains and the contiguous Dooars region) it has reached one of its cyclical points of political fever pitch of late.
'Mother & Child'
The over-painting of addresses to oust the name Darjeeling in favour of 'Gorkhaland' (and woe betide any reference to the current mother state of West Bengal) as the name of primary residence looks from many of the signs a relatively recent phenomenon. A unified show of communal passion and identity ahead of the tri-partite talks that took place in Darjeeling two days before I arrived. Much anticipated talks between representatives of the Central State Government, the State Government of West Bengal and the Gorkha movement the latter believing the 'creation of a separate state of Gorkhaland [as] the only solution to solve the IDENTITY CRISIS faced by Indian Gorkhas all over India'.
India is an ever expanding crises of identities it sometimes seems.
Through various provisions in the Constitution certain levels of communal and political self-determination are enshrined as a constitutional right. A worthy act of political enfranchisement from the founding fathers of the world's largest democracy but one over time that has led as much to mass social fragmentation as peace and cohesion under the yolk of the greater union. Inevitable maybe in a country of 1 billion people with just as many Gods and histories. In a country that harbours at least 17 principle languages and somewhere in the region of 22,000 speech dialects political autonomy determined by language group was always going to lead to somewhat of a mess the further away from the identity paralysis of colonialism the country moved. Frozen tongues and a spreading sense of purpose and regional, cultural pride thawing over time.
Stringing up the christmas decorations
A Tower of Babel for the 20th Century and beyond. The unleashing of India's social, religious and linguistic (and given long enough personal and individual) particularities and priorities. The 'million mutinies now'
of V.S.Naipaul's superbly wide-ranging and insightful appraisal of modern (well, early 1990s ) Indian society in his book of the same name.
Aravind Adiga uses the 'social entrepreneur'
protagonist of his more recent novel White Tiger
to run further with this idea; this observation of a modern Indian society increasingly succumbing to fragmentation and the consequences for community and the individual therein. His narrator anti-hero encapsulating (ultimately violently) in the microcosm of his own life experiences India's painful (but it is argued both inevitable and necessary) movement away from tradition towards modernity (the breaking down of caste structure rigidity for example, facilitated by personal wealth and ambition); away from the country to the towns and cities and from the primacy of community, family and faith to that of the individual personality.
Christmas bells at the temple
The priorities, motivations, needs and desires of 'I', not 'We'. This process seen as an inevitable consequence of consumerist driven society and what one could call the 'social market forces' of free-market Capitalist or meritocratic societies where money rules over all other considerations that may have held sway before. A social spectrum being born that increasingly stretches from the passive collectivism of Mahatma Gandhi to the dark individualistic potential of a Patrick Bateman. **
One of the characters in Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss
, set in the region and against the backdrop of the violent period of Ghorka agitation in the 1980s, bemoans 'This state-making [.
..] biggest mistake that fool Nehru made. Under his rules any group of idiots can stand up demanding a new state and get it, too. How many new ones keep appearing? From fifteen we went to sixteen, sixteen to seventeen, seventeen to twenty-two..."
The spire of St.Andrew's Church
The number is now around 30 with several other proto states - Telingana, Vidarbha and Bundelkhand - currently with Constitutional applications under consideration. The case for Gorkhaland is complicated stuff. Details and reasons and laws so convoluted that it'd take me half a year to begin to understand and another to relay them to you so, sorry, I shan’t be bothering today. Despite state independence for other ‘north-eastern communities who can loosely be described as ‘un-INDIAN-like-INDIANS’’
* , the ethnic minority states of Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, Gorkhaland remains a special case historically and constitutionally speaking and is unlikely to be resolved in favour of the Gorkhaland Demand anytime soon.
'Track HOG!!!' The fabulous Darjeeling 'toy' train whose track wreathes and winds along the roadside.
I'm afraid to say I have not looked into the outcome of the Tri-partite meeting as yet.
But enough politics already! It's Christmas in Gorkhaland. A time to be happy and merry and for peace and goodwill between all men, women and Red Pandas etc... yes Red Pandas! The state national animal of Sikkim (to the north) and after his visit to the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park Stevie's new favouritest most cutest of animals in all the world - our adorable family cat Tia having stepped off the podium to curl up besides the great fire place in the sky some years ago now. I hadn't really wanted to visit a zoo in India for reasons of potential ensuing depression but if you wish to visit the 'Tiger of the Snows‘
, Tensing Norgay and the Everest conquering exhibitions at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute then the latter is found in the former's grounds and is entered via the same 100 Rupee (£1.
Depressed snow leopard dreaming of her mountain home.
The zoo is pleasant enough, shaded beneath the tall surrounding forest canopy of the region’s now ubiquitous Cryptomeria Japonica trees, but as always it can leave you feeling a little morally queasy to see the lithe forms of such fabulous creatures as the Tibetan and Himalayan Wolves, the beautiful Clouded Leopard, Common Leopard and the endangered Snow Leopard reduced to pacing the tiny mesh-fenced simulacrums of the once infinitely spacious glories of their natural environments. The tiger is conspicuous in his absence. Probably not their at all anymore maybe? I get annoyed and verbally reprimand several Indian families intent on pestering the animals with loud cat calls, strange noises and gestures to try to provoke the animals to presenting better profiles for their mobile phone cameras.
The actual Union Jack flag used by the British expedition to summit Everest which in 1953 became the first successful attempt aided indispensably by Tensing 'Tiger of the Snows' Norgay.
This despite the signs forbidding such activity every few yards or so. But never mind them, it is the Red Pandas that steal my attentions and heart on the day with their wonderfully expressive faces - white cheeks, eyebrows and nose on fabulous copper colour that was always going to win the approval of a fellow ginger. And their pad-pad-padding along with their black, furry booties on or just sleeping lazily in the trees.
It’s dark early of course this time of year. And the cold bites down on Darjeeling early doors. Another stroll up the pedestrian run of Nehru Road towards Chowrasta square. The street lined all along on the right, and between shops and cafes on the left with well-wrapped up local ladies and gents keen to sell you t-shirts, jumpers, hats, knitted wears, ear mufflers, pashmina shawls, scarves and other trinkets.
Stevie's new favouritest animal in the world : the Red Panda "Cuuuuuuuute!" ;P
The little makeshift canvas and wood stalls look most charming after dark when the often very striking sino-indian Nepali women with cheeks a permanent pretty bloom of cold-raised capillaries sit by the glow of solitary gas lamps, still knitting in fingerless gloves, like sprites sat cross legged in faintly lit rainbow caves. The horses have been taken home now. The children mostly too. I sit and have some momos and egg-noodles, chai and buns for next-to-nothing Rupees from the laughing married couple whose food stall is my regular evening haunt in my Darjeeling days.
I bridge the five and a half hour gap to Britain and my family with a series of Skype calls and express many a true and heartfelt wish that I could be there with them. My heart strings are stretched far and taught this year.
Feeding time at the zoo :)
They sit and open presents with me on the phone. My nanny opens two large albums that the guys have bought her and used to house the long and ever growing string of postcards I have been sending her as promised oh-so long ago now. Everyone is happy at home.
It’s back to the Four Seasons hotel for me (believe me not as fancy as the 5-star venues usually bearing that name) and the cold comforts of the TV and Cadbury’s Fruit ’n’ Nut. Home Alone seems to have been on permanent repeat these last few days. I watch Culkin batter and better Pesci and partner in the snow and ice once again and try not to wince too much with family-pangs of the heart when his all flood home in time for Christmas to embrace him. I’ve precious little else to do. It’s too cold to type.
'Batteries Not Included' : the curious stack-it-all and stick-it-all together aesthetic of 'New' Darjeeing.
I'm too tired to read. And I am far from Home... and alone. "Merry Christmas from Gorkhaland!"
* quoted from and article in the pro-Gorkha magazine Darjeeling Times Dot Com
(Nov-Dec 2009 issue). Capitalisation is their own, not mine.
** Patrick Bateman : the 'Is he? / Isn't he a serial killer?' protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis's brutal satire on 1980s 'get-ahead' materialism American Psycho