For those of us who live in the hot and humid plains of eastern India, particularly in the Gangetic West Bengal, Darjeeling stands out as one the most fashionable and pleasant hill stations for vacations during the summer months and Dussehra/Durga Puja. Famously called the “Queen of Hills,” Darjeeling is unique in that the snow-clad peaks of Himalayan ranges, Kanchanjangha and a few lesser known peaks, smile all the while, 24×7, their faces sparkling white in the soft silken touch of morning sun and turning golden in the sunset glow of the afternoon. They stand guard, like a dutiful guardian, safeguarding our northern geographical frontiers!
For someone like me, born and raised in the flattest of plains, never even having seen a high “tilla” (a small mound), far less a hill, coming face to face with unending rows of snow-clad mountain peaks was a long-cherished dream. To realize this dream, four of us undergraduate classmates of Presidency College, Kolkata, set out on our Darjeeling expedition in 1950. Unbeknownst to us, two of our other close classmates had also made a trip to Darjeeling on their own, and we all happily joined together when we discovered this.
The exciting train journey through the mountains on the Darjeeling Himalayan railways (DHR)’s famous “toy train” running on very narrow gauge rails at a snail’s pace, piercing the forests and crossing dangerous gorges, was an experience of a lifetime, to say the least! But it was not all smooth. There were landslides on the way, forcing the train halt off and on, till it came to a complete stop in the middle of the night. This necessitated the arrival of a “rescue train,” to which we had to migrate to in pitch darkness. We finally reached our destination at about 3 AM, and settled down in our hotel rooms around 4 AM.
Next morning, waking up to the golden sunshine on the silvery snowy slopes of the Kanchanjangha, the mighty and majestic peak, made us forget the challenging experience of the previous night’s journey. The excitement that I felt in those moments is still vivid in my memory. To us it felt like Darjeeling was all smiles, with lovely flowers and beautiful butterflies with multi-hued wings – misty in the morning, sunny mid-morning, cloudy at noon, rainy in the afternoon and dazzling at dusk. Walking around we found charming hill-side shops overflowing with enthusiastic shoppers, eager to buy local crafts, woolens and sundry other stuff. In the eyes of inexperienced young travelers like us, Darjeeling appeared like a dream land, perhaps a paradise on earth. A never ending romance!
As a personal post-script, I must acknowledge that this trip was all the more enjoyable and exciting on account of the warmth of friendship and sweet camaraderie amongst the friends who made the trip. For some heart-warming anecdotes of this trip, read this account, written by Chiranjeeb Basu.
Bright students all, each of these close friends later became very successful in their individual professional careers:
Hiren Chakravorty: historian and professor
Chiranjeeb (C.K.) Basu: psychologist, professor and UN advisor
Benoy Saha: jute technologist
Bhabesh Bhattacharya: professor
Atin Bhattacharya: brigadier in the Indian Army
Myself: academic turned bureaucrat in the Government of India
Class friends and coffeehouse buddies, they remained friends for life! And even today, wherever they are.