I have come to Darjeeling, but instead of dancing about freely among its rushing springs, the murmur of leaves, the songs of the birds and the layers of clouds, I am sick in bed.
[In the past] I would be lying in bed for the whole day – not that I don’t do it now, but the main difference between that and this present state is that now I can get up if I wish to and go out for a walk...Since we came here the park and the Mall Road have been our destination. Both these places are so close to our house that to get tired after going there is like turning senseless after being beaten by a flower, but to me this flower is harder than a brick. There hasn’t been a single day till date that
I haven’t felt tired after visiting just these two places.
The Mall Road lies to the south of our house. It is next to a small 500-feet-high hill called Observatory Hill and the compound of the Lieutenant Governor’s house.
The guards of the Government House are stationed on that road. No other road in Darjeeling is so good for walking as this open and levelled road. There are no forests here. As in Calcutta trees are planted in a row on either side of the road. The cotton trees are in full bloom. One or two flowers adorn the champak tree near the Government House and their fragrance fills the whole place.
On some trees there are lovely flowers on the creepers that are entwined around them. On the western side of this road the low slope is green and full of a variety of grass, small ferns and bushes
of wild roses in full bloom. At the western end of this slope, there are a few decorative English shops, and we get an open view of the city of Darjeeling and the mountain of Jalapahar in this direction.
White houses are visible on the green mountains and they look very beautiful. They dazzle like glass houses in the sunshine and at night the lights in them shine like bright stars on the face of the mountain.
The Government House is on the northern side of the Mall Road and from there we can see the ranges of snow-capped mountains at a distance that look like waves of white clouds. Both beauty and facilities are found on the Mall. After all it is the main workplace of the English rulers.
Here both men and women ride on horseback at their leisure. The band plays every evening and its wooden house also serves as a resting place. Nowadays many Bengalis also ride horses here; in fact, we can even see Bengali women doing so. One day five or six Bengali men and women were riding on horseback and had almost blocked the road. Two Englishmen found that intolerable and said quietly, ‘Damnation take them.’
They could not obviously tolerate anyone else moving with their heads held high like them. One of Du
babu’s daughters could ride a horse very well...Du babu wasn’t satisfied with our women riding horses wearing a sari. He said, ‘Why do you have to ride with both your legs on one side like the English women? It seems as if we have learned to ride horses after seeing these English women, but our women used to ride horses long before that and they should now, first and foremost, ride in our desi style.’
His logic wasn’t bad but then the Bengali ladies would have to wear their saris in the Marathi style, with one end taken between the legs and tucked in at the back, or dress like men...Would our women agree to do that?
In England a great revolution is taking place nowadays as to the way women should dress. Some people are asking why they shouldn’t wear clothes like men when it has so many advantages. According to Du babu, if the English women really started to wear men’s clothes our women would also begin to imitate them.
The park opposite the Mall Road is also opposite in a literal sense. Whereas the mall is full of people, the park is deserted; whereas the mall is located in an open space, the park is covered with trees.
The government has kept proof here of how Darjeeling used to look before it turned into a city. The old forests still exist on both sides of the road inside the park but the roads are now so wide and so well-maintained that the adjoining forests do not seem to be forests at all.
It was very pleasant to walk on [the Mall Road] in the sunshine – on one side was the steep forest valley and on the other, the high hills also covered with forests. The greenery on both sides of the two-mile-long road inside the park kept it totally in shade. There were innumerable varieties of trees here.
Some resembled the bakul tree and bore fruits that looked like olives. We picked up and tasted a lot of these fruits that lay scattered beneath the trees and their taste was also somewhat similar to the fruit of the bakul tree.
There were some trees with huge leaves like the acid fruit, chalta, while others were like the cassia or the jamboline tree. Besides these, there were different kinds of fir, mahogany, sal, and trees of other unknown varieties. Most of the big trees were covered with moss, some with creepers and flowers, and some had succulent plants covering them. There was another kind of shorter tree full of blossoms
like our mango blossoms and for all the days we went there they remained the same.
In between the big trees were some stretches of open space where we found different kinds of creepers, ferns, grass and some small plants with wonderful fragrance. There were also a lot of wild flowers growing in between. Another kind of white velvet-like wildflower called the Immortal Flower bloomed in plenty. It looked somewhat like a small chandramallika flower and smelled very nice even when it was dry. At other places small yellow flowers bloomed on creepers and on some short plants there were many tiny flowers like stars. Some leaves of the creepers were also very pretty.
We did not see many Englishmen inside the park. They are a pleasure-loving race and prefer to stay with their own brethren. Sometimes one or two of them rode on horses or came in groups for a picnic but we never saw them walking alone.
One day I got lost while walking to the park. All of us had started together but since I walk very slowly now, they found it inconvenient to walk at my pace. So I told them to go ahead. The road was straight and desolate and I thought that I would reach the destined place safely on my own. My companions were hesitant for a while but in the end they disappeared and then I started moving at the speed of a tortoise.
At one point there were two roads and the upper one led to the park, but I was so engrossed looking at the tall trees on either side that I missed it. I went on walking absentmindedly on the lower road and kept on thinking of ways to straighten up people who are born crooked. If you uprooted them they would die like the trees, but could they ever become straight? It was not their fault that they
were not born straight. It was just their bad luck. Then why did people condemn them, instead of pitying them? Why did the so called straight people have such crooked thoughts? Did one’s mind also turn crooked when it saw evil sights...?
My thoughts were suddenly disrupted when I saw a Bhutia man with the khukri knife at his waist staring at me. I was startled and looked all around me and then realised that this was not the road to the park. Where had I come? Turning back, I started walking briskly. Some people with luggage on their backs looked at me, one or two other men with khukris walked past me.
At some places the road was so deserted that if someone pushed me into the adjacent forest no one would find me. I took off the ornaments I was wearing and stuffed them inside my blouse and, looking nervously here and there, started to walk as fast as I could. I gathered courage after some time and asked some passing Bhutias where the road to the park was. They did not understand my language, or maybe they did, but they looked at my face in a surprised manner and then replied, ‘Don’t know’ and went away.
I then started to walk relying completely on myself and after a lot of turns, at last came back to the road leading to the park, totally exhausted. Now of course I never miss the road anymore.
There were a few enclosed gardens at some places inside the park but they were not great. The tree-lined shaded paths were the park’s main beauty, its best attraction. The heat of the sun was tolerable in the afternoon (though it was quite cold in the mountains, the rays of the sun were scorching).
The huge, shady trees spread their spirit everywhere in the stillness of the afternoon and the incessant call of the crickets added a strange and mysterious ambience to it.
Through the gaps in the trees we could sometimes see the white clouds sleeping in the lap of the
mountains, and some clouds of different colours floating near the mountain tops. The beauty of the clouds here and the many colours of the rays of the sun cannot be seen in the plains...
[Then] suddenly, after we crossed the shady path, the beautiful, bright Kanchenjunga come into view, like frozen moonlight.
Excerpted with permission from Between Heaven & Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills, edited by Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma, Speaking Tiger.