(Presenting the second and final part of my escapades in Darjeeling. This is a maxi-post and I would beseech you to be patient whilst reading it. Hopefully you would enjoy it half as much as I did while writing it. )
The streets below me bubbled with feverish energy, while the mountains beyond, in complete contrast, looked magnificent yet calm. Standing on the balcony of my hotel room, I observed the surroundings peacefully. It was 10.30 am and I was waiting for my friend to come out from the bathroom. We had to now go to the Darjeeling Zoo; the main purpose of our visit here.
The hotel we had got was quite good; it wasn’t palatial and neither was it shoddy, but quite reasonable. It hadn’t taken us much time to agree to this room; the moment we saw the attached balcony in it and the decent ambience of the room, we immediately agreed to it.
After getting ready, I and my friend decided to order lunch from the hotel’s room service- piping hot aaloo paratha with dahi and pickles. It wasn’t particularly great, but we were quite famished from all that travelling and thus ate savagely. Having a long day lying ahead of us we really needed to be well fed.
Being new to the city, we were clueless of its whereabouts and thus had to ask around for directions to the zoo. We were told that it was just 10 minutes of walking distance from our hotel. However, as we were to find out later, we had to walk a good half an hour to reach our destination. I didn’t mind that though. The pleasant weather, even at 12 pm, and the pretty milieu made the walk a rather enjoyable experience.
It was the first time I was in this city and as I looked at the people and the places with keen interest. I felt like that child who had been taken to the fair for the first time in his life. The high and steep roads were a tad difficult to climb and we had to huff and puff for the most part of our walk.
The Zoo experience
(My observations of the zoo are based on my visit there in October 2012. I do not know if things are still the same there currently.)
‘Welcome to the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park’- these words greeted us as we entered the Darjeeling Zoo. Visiting zoos has always excited me since my childhood and I have visited quite a few in my life; from the local Alipore Zoo in Kolkata, to the Jaipur and Udaipur ones in their respective cities. But none really compared to the one I had entered in now.
To say that the Darjeeling Zoo is beautiful would be a gross understatement. Nestled among lush green Japanese pine trees, the zoo was astonishingly spick and span and had nice looking and properly covered resting sheds installed at various points throughout for visitors’ convenience. More importantly, as we noted later, the enclosures for the animals and birds were satisfyingly spacious; something which is alarmingly missing from most of the zoos in India. The animals too looked well fed and content in their surroundings. It really seemed that they had been genuinely taken care of.
At an elevation of 2,134 m, the Darjeeling Zoo is the largest high altitude zoo in India, and thus wandering around it wasn’t quite easy. However, just looking at the wide array of beautiful animals and birds in their cages was worth everything. Being from the colder regions, all the animals were expectedly furry and quite bulky in their appearance.
Of course, coming to the Darjeeling Zoo and missing the Red Panda is unthinkable as it is something that the zoo specializes in breeding. Hence, it was the first animal we visited. For such a small animal, its cage was quite capacious. At first we had difficulty in spotting the animal what with so much green in the enclosure. Soon enough, I noticed the cute and cuddly animal, which I had first seen in the animated ‘Jungle Book’ series in my childhood, scurrying around in the grass. It had a few others of its ilk for company as well in its enclosure. It was truly hard to take your eyes off these gorgeous creatures; the small and round face, the colourful markings on its body and all that fur. I could have sat there and spent my entire day watching the mannerisms of these fascinating animals, but I had plenty of work left to do.
While we walked around, we got to see plenty of other animals which we had never seen before; from Himalayan Antelopes, to Himalayan Tahr (a species of the wild goat family), Blue sheep and Barking deer to some of the more ferocious animals like the Sloth Bear, Himalayan Wolf, Snow Leopard and even the Black Panther. However of most interest to me was the Siberian Tiger. I had only seen this magnificent animal in BBC documentaries and to see it breathing inches away from me was awe-inspiring. Its thick coat of yellow and white gleamed in the sunlight as it chose to ignore all the attention given to it like a high-profile superstar, and was busy licking its paws. I had to tear my eyes away from it as I suddenly realized that considerable time had now elapsed in our small excursion. I had other matters to attend to before the zoo would shut down for the day.
“We have plenty of educational and research programmes in our zoo,” explained Upasana, the 30 something research scholar of the Darjeeling Zoo. I and my friend were interviewing her for my report and his documentary on the zoo, in a secluded corner of the park. She elucidated then on the wide array of efforts the Darjeeling Zoo undertakes, one of them being the captive breeding of various animals. “These include the Red Panda, Snow Leopards, the Himalayan Wolf among many others,” she said. As if in cue to her last word, I heard a low and muffled howling from the trees outside. “I think I can hear one of those wolves. They must be in those bushes,” I declared excitedly with a know-it-all tone and peeped at the deep thickets beyond the zoo walls, expecting to see a burly Himalayan Wolf lunge at us. “Err…No,” said Upasana, “Those would be the street dogs barking outside the zoo premises I think.” I was left red faced and my friend shut down his camera and burst out in laughter. Even Upasana, who otherwise seemed to be pretty solemn, managed it hard to control her smile. I hurriedly finished the interview then and decided to leave.
My friend though had got the perfect incentive that had made his day. “You heard the wolves? What about some other animals as well? Didn’t they call out to you too?” he taunted me, “What must she have thought of you? Reputed journalist from Kolkata; cannot differentiate between a stray dog and a wolf. Ha Ha Ha…” He kept laughing even as I chose to ignore his jibes and walked on grumpily. I cannot recall anything else from our experience at the zoo. All I could visualize was a deep, black hole and me plunging into it.
I sank my teeth into the sapid ingredients of the delicious burger and completely forgot my embarrassment from an hour ago. I hadn’t realized that all that walking from the past 3 hours had made me really hungry. And mercifully, that burger was extremely tasty and just the tonic that I perhaps needed at that time to rejuvenate myself. Added to it was the fact that the locale we were sitting in; a small restaurant right at the edge of a street, overlooking the dense mountains from its windows, was just perfect.
It was 3.30 pm and the cool afternoon breeze flew in from the mountains as I lay back on my chair after having completed the burger in one go. I wasn’t finished though, as there was a cup of coffee lying on my table to finish as well. I picked it up and began sipping it quietly.
I became lost in my thoughts soon as looked at the mountains and the breeze ruffling the trees in it. Why can’t I have a house here? I thought. I would come home from work and sit in my balcony. Then relaxing in my armchair, I would sip coffee and eat burger every afternoon. Life would have been so good.
I sighed and came back to reality. It was 4 pm, our work here had been completed satisfactorily and we had ample time left to enjoy this beautiful city. Life wasn’t that bad either.
The shopping episode
It is often said that if you have happen to visit Benares in India, then you must taste the Benarsi paan or that if you ever visit Punjab, you have to drink a glass of their authentic lassi. Much in the same vein it also said that if you have been to Darjeeling, then it’s almost a crime if you do not buy some of the acclaimed winter garments found there. Thus I and my friend were strolling down a market in the hope of getting some worthwhile jackets.
The sun had descended in Darjeeling and we were in a busy market lane, also known as the Tibetan market, very near our hotel, which had numerous stalls that offered varied articles; from female ornaments, an assortment of shoes and sandals, and the usual ones selling garments. Shopping here can be quite an experience. The shopkeepers are usually locals coming from areas like Mirik and Ghoom, and are very simple, innocent and sometimes downright adorable in their nature and mannerisms. I might sound farfetched, but there were times where I felt like buying things just to make them happy. Speaking to them in their broken Hindi and seeing the way they try to convince you to buy their products made me smile; not because I found it hilarious, but because I found it to be charmingly sweet.
However, I had to get what I was looking for and nothing really satisfied my taste here. Thus after a while, we chose to move ahead.
We walked for a bit and came to a local mall known as the Rink Mall; replete with a multiplex and a renowned hypermarket chain. This was apparently quite a famous place for the local youth. I saw many of them wearing fancy clothes, coming in on bikes, smoking cigarettes; loitering inside the mall premises. Though we thought of trying the mall out just for the sake of it, there was nothing that allured me in there. To be honest, I had been to several of these back in Kolkata and some other places I had visited in India. If I had to buy something from a mall, I would do so back in my own city; here I wanted to try some of the local stuff. Thus within ten minutes we had made our way out of the mall and began walking further.
Thankfully, this time we found a lane that was filled some really good and seemingly genuine shops that had a wide range of winter garments in them. These ones were quite different from the Tibetan market close by to our hotel. This one, unlike the stalls back there, had proper shops. The shop owners here were mostly ‘Marwaris’, known to be shrewd businessmen, and who have a significant population in Darjeeling.
Immediately we began trying out a few jackets in these shops. Now shopping for garments, be it shirts, jeans, t-shirts or even jackets is quite a task for me. Given the gigantic frame that I posses, I struggle to find the right thing that would fit me properly. The same happened here and it pained my heart to let go of many a fancy jacket that didn’t even come close to fitting me.
Luckily though, after persisting through some more shops, I found one jacket that, if I can say, was perhaps made for me. It was a thick deep red jacket, with black bordering and fit me perfectly. It came at a price, albeit somewhat reasonable. I felt elated, as sometimes shopping gives you that strange feeling of satisfaction which you can rarely get; women would surely agree to this point.
My friend meanwhile had not got something which attracted him. We thus went around browsing items in several other shops. He had almost given up, when at the last moment we noticed a particularly dingy shop in a very small and dark lane. From outside the shop itself, we saw a jacket dangling from a hanger at the top of one of its shelf, which caught my friend’s eye. It was a gleaming black jacket which I had to admit, looked quite good. My friend did not have eyes for anything else in the shop but that. Even before entering the shop he whispered, “Please God, let me have it. Please let this not be unusually expensive.” It seemed as if he was on a mission and did not even bother to look at anything else. After some pleading with the shop owner, he finally got his wish and bought the jacket for a good price. To say he was happy is an understatement. I felt he would kiss the shopkeeper just for keeping this jacket. It seemed like he was floating on air when we came out of the shop.
Darjeeling perhaps had not looked this beautiful to him in the entire trip.
“This is my dream jacket I tell you,” declared my friend while admiring himself in the mirror of our hotel room; his newly purchased jacket adorning his body. We had come back from our shopping spree and were resting for a while before we went out again to look for dinner. “Look at the colour. The fitting,” he went on, “I am going to wear this when we go to watch Don 2.” I meanwhile, was observing myself in my new jacket as well, or trying to at least. As we only had one mirror in the room, I stood behind him and tried to make out how I looked in my new purchase. “Mine is nice too isn’t it?” I asked him. “People would have eyes just for me the moment I wear this I tell you,” he went on and completely ignored me. “Err…My jacket….” I said in a bid to grab his attention but he continued. “Look at the buttons, the collar, the zip….” I chose to give up.
Dinner and a sleepless night
For all its beauty, I was quite disappointed with the food Darjeeling had had offered us up until now. We went about searching for a decent restaurant in and around our hotel area but could not find anything worth trying out. There were the typical North-Indian restaurants, which were quite expensive and the others were filled to the brim. The charm of any new place is to try out their local food, which I found to be missing in these eateries. I finally had to be content with paav-bhaaji, from a restaurant which was more like a snack joint. My friend had chosen to go for an Indian thaali, which was seemingly good. I also decided to get some aaloo paratha and pickles packed to take back to the hotel room. It was still only 8 pm and I was bound to get hungry soon enough again.
My decision turned out to be prudent as I gorged on the aaalo ka parathas back at my hotel room while we watched TV. The parathas had been a little cold but they still felt good in the chilly weather. With nothing to do before retiring for the day, we were surfing through various channels to find something entertaining to watch. There was nothing worth watching and after surfing for a few minutes we chose to give a chance to a particular Hindi movie being shown on a movie channel. The movie was Yashwant; starring Nana Patekar, who plays a cop, and Madhoo (the actress from Roja), as his doting wife. I had never expected that I would enjoy the movie so much. Some of Nana’s histrionics were so funny, despite him being completely serious, that I found it hard to chew my food and laugh at the same time. In one particular scene, Nana, in his bike, chases a goon who is in a jeep, and somehow manages to catch hold of him by his hair. Dragging him out, he then beats him to pulp. For some reason, I found that scene so hilarious that I almost choked in my food. Both of us guffawed and rolled on the bed madly. I had tears in my eyes from all that laughing. It was like that icing on the perfect day we had had thus far in Darjeeling.
I stared blankly at the ceiling in the darkness while my friend snored away peacefully. It was past midnight and I had trouble getting to sleep. I have always had this problem of adjusting to a new surrounding whilst sleeping. Perhaps it was the bed or just the different ambience, but try as I might, I just could not go to sleep. The enveloping darkness often makes your mind play tricks on you and I was no different. I had horrifying visions of someone coming out of the bathroom or somebody staring at me from the corner of the door. No matter where I looked, I felt someone was peeping at me. The mirror, where I had been checking myself out a few hours ago, suddenly seemed the most sinister object. I could have sworn I saw a figure moving inside it plenty of times. I turned around and shut my eyes. But there is this strange magnetism to fear; we tend to repeat things which make us fearful. I kept turning back; just to glance at the mirror every now and then, just to assure myself that there was no one inside it.
Before sleeping, I had requested my friend to leave the small lamp overhead on, but he had refused outright. I then pleaded him to at least let the TV be on; in mute. The light from its screen would have made me feel reassured. But the bugger ignored my pleas and was now sleeping peacefully while I stayed awake, staring into nothingness as horrible thoughts kept invading my mind. Even after tossing and turning for another two hours, sleep did not come.
I got up finally and chose to distract my mind by going to the balcony. It was chilly outside and there was a lot of hustle below as I saw many men readying their cars; to take visitors on early morning trips to ‘Tiger Hill’. The highest point in the Darjeeling area, Tiger Hill is something people clamor to see as it offered a splendid view of the Kanchenjunga Mountain at sunrise. Even we had considered that option but the expenses involved in taking a car to that point was a little beyond our budget and thus we had given it a miss. It was 3 in the morning now and for some reason, looking at the drivers enthusiastically cleaning up their cars, I felt a little reassured. I felt I wasn’t alone.
Feeling relaxed, I came back to my bed and looked over at my friend. Still deep in his sleep, he was clinging on to the pillow tightly, while his mouth remained open. He is probably dreaming of going to the premiere of Don 2 with Shahrukh Khan, clad in his new jacked, I thought and smiled to myself. Sleep would not be a problem now for sure.
Morning – exhaustion and comprehension
“This really isn’t my idea of a morning walk,” I wheezed and clutched at my ribs to curb the searing pain in my chest from all that brisk walking of the last half an hour. We were at the Lloyds Botanical Garden; a massive garden about 20 minutes walking distance from our hotel. Because of its location as a high altitude park, it had steep roads which made climbing up through it quite an arduous task. It was 8 in the morning and my friend, who had apparently heard about this park from some of his relatives, had forced me to come here and enjoy the greenery. The greenery part was fine, as the park had a sufficient range of fauna throughout to please the eyes and relax the nerves. However, it was the climbing up those high roads that was the problem. Both of us were panting heavily by the time we were halfway through the park. It was clear that this wasn’t such a great idea to spend our morning by, but somehow we forced ourselves to enjoy the verdant greenery around us. The park was deserted at that hour, with hardly an odd person here and there and I sat down at a bench to catch my breath for a bit. My eyes were puffy from the lack of sleep and I was now cursing my friend for tiring me further.
We hardly had much time left in our trip now, as we were to board the Sumo for the return trip to NJP at 2 in the afternoon. I really hoped that the remaining few hours would be much better than the morning.
As we walked on the streets after coming out of the park, I noticed that the city was up and alive. We were evidently crossing a residential area and there were school children rushing to get into their school buses, milkmen sped by us in their bicycles, local grocery shops had already opened shutters and were brimming with customers and there were others who were gulping down breakfast hurriedly from small food stalls. These scenes actually showed me a different side of Darjeeling that not many will know of. We usually relate hill stations to just that; a tourist place. We tend to forget that apart from the tourist spots, these cities have their own regular lives as well. They too have normal residents living in its confines who go about their daily business just as people in every other city of the world do. It was refreshing to see this side of Darjeeling after so much of sightseeing and gaping at the beautiful mountains. It had its own simplistic charm.
Chowrasta – at last
Even before I had come to Darjeeling, many of my friends had requested me to visit the Chowrasta – a busy and well-renowned, open-spaced hangout, located at one of the focal points of the city. Though we had crossed it a couple of times while going to and coming back from the zoo, we did not have enough time then to savour it. This time though, we chose to spend some time here.
The square was bubbling with life; there were couples holding hands and resting in the shed of the trees, there were quite a few old men and women basking in the warmth of the sun, a few children played amongst themselves while some enjoyed a pony ride, and then there were the usual tourists clicking endless pictures. I also noticed a small podium at the corner of the place, probably used for dance programmes and similar functions, which was decorated by fluttering, colored flags. More than these, the most interesting part of Chowrasta was that it was filled with numerous food stalls, selling a variety of delicacies. The place also had a small bookstore, a café joint and some snack bars.
It was a scene you often read of in books and sometimes see in movies; wherein you can have a nice relaxing time. I did not have any wish to move from the bench I was sitting in. Spending the hour in Chowrasta had completely lifted my spirits and though I knew I would be leaving the city in a few hours, I was now thoroughly satiated.
The final adieu
With a heavy heart we packed our bags back in our hotel room after having lunch in a nearby restaurant (another mediocre offering). We just had about half an hour to board our Sumo which would take us back to NJP. I now stood in the balcony to drink in the last few moments of this beautiful place. It felt surreal to believe that we had spent only a day and half in Darjeeling. It felt as if we had been here for about a week already. The last 30 odd hours had really given me myriad experiences that would last me a lifetime.
“Let’s go,” called my friend from inside. I sighed into nothingness and went back into the room.
The car hummed lightly and the driver packed the luggage of the passengers at the top of the car. We were to leave in a few minutes along with the other passengers and had seated ourselves on our respective seats. My friend was busy with his handy-camera; he too had a heavy heart and perhaps wanted to engage himself in something to distract his mind. I looked out of the window; people in the city were busy hustling around. By this time tomorrow, I would be back to Kolkata. The usual life of work and other things would resume. And there would be someone else standing in the balcony of the hotel room we had stayed in, admiring the vista here.
To deflect my thoughts, I took out my headphone from the side pocket of my jacket. Music perhaps would lift my mood, I thought. With the headphone though, also came out a small piece of paper. It was the entry ticket of the Darjeeling Zoo. With the name of the zoo and price of the ticket, there was also a small picture of a Red Panda drawn on it. A big smile came to my face as I looked at the cute animal and reminisced my time at the zoo. I ran my finger over the face of the panda, pretending to pat it. “I will return,” I murmured to it, “I promise.”