Darjeeling — Where The Hills Laugh And Sing

“Wait a minute….did I just hear laughter? Can you hear it too?”

Somewhere before Darjeeling, we had been stuck — maybe that’s the wrong word — I mean soothingly waiting in a line-up of cars that wouldn’t budge and wouldn’t be ever-so-aroused by any blaring horns or impatient tip taps on windows. It was a little unusual for an unending line of cars to be standing there like that. Only the faintest murmurs and dull revving of engines express their quandary. If we had been in Mumbai in a debacle like this, we’d have had some form of road rage to alleviate or participate in by now (ie if somebody hadn’t already been beaten blue). Yet, here we were, with people who had no rush to get anywhere, no profanities to scream at each other, all thrown together in a very Ohmmm-inspiring backdrop of ascending hill silhouettes interrupted by clouds that were flushing pink with twilight.

And then among the racket of crickets and low grumbling of engines, I hear laughter. An unmissable, strange, divine echo of a chuckle that was too unfeigned to belong to a human.

We had been traveling for almost ten hours now so maybe I’d been hearing things. From Bagadogra airport to the the roof of the world, Darjeeling, is a breathtakingly beautiful upward spiral of a drive, one that makes you wonder why you’re squandering your life away in the city. We took the same route as the Himalayan toy train, moving against it on one side, as it shone majestically, slowly breathing white puffs in its trail. We spiral steadily upwards alongside green pastures and rock-strewn mountains with white explosions in the sky every now and then. Of course, in this delightful place, who could resist a warm cup of chai, a valid reason to stop and lech at our picturesque surroundings (and the gorgeous hill people with no acne wrecking their lives)?

So we stop by at Kurseong, a hill station around 5000 feet above sea level, at a tea stall located on a bend with a canopy tucked perfectly between the hills. My daughter played with a dog called Kaali. My husband and I order tea far too delicate for my taste but it really doesn’t matter. We’re pretty busy chasing the delicious view of the Himalayan range peek-a-booing at us from between the clouds. We talk about how we’re in this strange, peaceful but convoluted territory of India’s ethnic Gurkhas who have been fighting for a separate identity — Gorkhaland — to define life in these winding hills and their habitations. “I think the government should give them everything they want. And more,” one askance look at their benevolent faces and I could feel myself believing in their cause.

We continue our upward climb. At Ghum station, which happens to be the highest railway station in India, we’re greeted by glowing teenagers. They wore distressed denims and understated sweatshirts with their jackets cinched around their waists, sharing smokes and stories as they wait for their ride to come along. I think about their life in the hills. I mean can you imagine any crisis whether one of the heart or any other form of longing that cannot be cured by this glorious evening weather and a panoramic view of the Himalayas? No wonder they look so radiant and pink. Of course I was romanticizing everything. I was a traveler. Sadly for me, there were many fleeting moments that I missed capturing on my camera, such as this group of young students sitting and waiting. It would have helped bring forth the seeming transparency and simplicity of mountain life.

Just as mysteriously as we had been arrested in a traffic block, we’re lifted from it. We start pacing towards Darjeeling. I’m left pondering about the origins of that laughter but there is the slow-winding climb to brave so who cares about weird cackles straight out of the Poirot series? Before planning this journey, the only calling that Darjeeling had for me was four strong cups of first flushes of tea a day, perhaps a cursory stroll in the tea gardens… Though I was a tea addict and the tea gardens would’ve been my Napa valley, I wasn’t exactly too thrilled about touristy Darjeeling. Little did I know that this elusive city on slopes, dwindling between the past and present, the one our driver called “The Queen Of The Hills, had so much to offer.

At 6700 feet above sea level, when you’ve been slowly winding upwards, you don’t quite get to appreciate just how thin the air gets. Not until you climb a flight of stairs anyway. We get to our abode, Ivanhoe House, a quaint Victorian heritage house known to be the favorite haunt of the likes of Sir George Everest and British Raj families.

We greet everyone enthusiastically, trying to match the speed of the Gurkha women, who are doubling up as porters, lugging our heavy suitcases. One long flight of wooden stairs puts my adrenaline levels to check and sends me reeling from shortness of breath. Which is when we’re informed that in the hills you have to take it slow, follow through your breaths and find your rhythm. It is this advice that served me well as I managed to go on multiple hikes and long uphill walks feeling invigorated as opposed to my initial sensation of crashing and burning.

To me, Darjeeling has been like a swift-paced period drama, shuttling between different temporal boundaries, changing sky landscapes as though they’re linens. One moment, you’re sitting on your green porch with clear blue skies and sunlight bouncing off your gleaming coffee table, planning your busy itinerary for the day. The other, you’re hunting down the mall market for umbrellas, looking towards the great black clouds on pale skies that threaten to warp every idyllic vantage point that you cared to devour. One moment, you’re congregating with townspeople and other visitors at Glenary’s, sipping Himalayan coffee in the backdrop of the evasive Kanchenjunga. The other, you’re staring at old pictures of British Raj families, appreciating expensively ornate chinaware carefully strewn around your dining room, remotely hearing yesteryear tunes on the old piano now sitting upright and silent in a corner.

In Darjeeling, you’re among fresh, dewy faces, soaring pines, clouds that slide to your table, mystic mountains in the distance and the whiff of freshly plucked tea.

Darjeeling, you’ve been a darling. A delightfully capricious one to say the least.