Now the blue hills, in sepia

Darjeeling hangs between coming apart and enduring
There's an indescribable joy as you approach Darjeeling. You've been on the road for nearly three hours, passed Batasia Loop near Ghoom, and then at some point the magnificent hills present themselves. They loom into vision, those gentle blue mountains, and as you move closer, appear to be studded all over with tiny glistening buildings. You wish you could remove everything in between - the shreds of clouds, the intermittent rain and, of course, the smoke from the numerous vehicles headed the same way.

 Darjeeling hangs between coming apart and enduring

To most outsiders, Darjeeling is but an idea in the head, a summer vacation crystallised from childhood.
As we pull into the portico of our place of stay, what greets us first is the stench of garbage. "They just cleared the dump down the road... the smell is all over the place," says our hostess, apologetically. "They clean it up once a week; unfortunately that happened to be this morning."
It's quite the same with almost every street, with a leaking pipeline thrown in here or there. The city, clearly, is bursting at the seams, especially in April-May. "We get water once a day, sometimes not even that," says a taxi driver, who lives a few kilometres downhill towards Kurseong. "If we need a (medical) scan, we go to all the way to Siliguri," says another. As we go around our neatly laid out collection of histories and memories, the cracks become more and more visible.
Our hostess isn't willing to go into the details of "those 104" days, the GJM-led strike last year demanding statehood for the Nepali-speaking Gorkhas of the land. She runs a homestay in the heart of the city, and only reveals the huge relief she felt when at the end of it her patrons started to stream in once again.
Actually most people do not like to talk about the bandh now. In some places the disappointment with the Gorkha political leadership is apparent. " Baad mein unlog kya kartey hain, humko pata hai," says one of the drivers ferrying us around.
In many ways, the story of Darjeeling is like the story of Das Studio - a grand sepia past, a seemingly inconsequential present. The landmark institution at the edge of the Mall was established in the 1920s by the enterprising Thakur Das Pradhan with dealership assistance from the German photography company, Agfa. "Kodak was the only other company then," says Durga Das Pradhan, son of Pradhan senior, "Agfa was eager to get into the market." The original outlet, done up in Agfa's trademark orange colour and furniture, was on Mount Pleasant Road below the Mall.

The studio shifted to its present location in 1950. "The whole thing developed rapidly after the war broke out," says Durga Das, 80, in his baritone. "That was when my father made the money. He used to work 24 hours a day, taking photographs of all the British soldiers in Darjeeling. This was for official records as well as to send home to their mothers and wives."
Das moves within the basic plot again and again, sometimes admitting "I don't remember the details..." and at other times berating, upon being asked something, "If you don't know the history of Darjeeling, there's no point in me telling you all this."
Hanging all over the large walls are framed photographs from yore, through the lens of his father. "That one over there, of the Dalai Lama," gestures he, "It was one of the first prints in colour." This was taken in Kalimpong, soon after the Lama came to India from Tibet, but wasn't made public until many years later.

The shop is in full digital mode now. But the black-and-white frames appear more lively. Many are of local people, ordinary men and women going about their daily lives. "There was a market for such 'culture postcards'," explains Pradhan.
Some of the negatives were developed in Germany and England. There's one of a group of Nepalese women, beautifully dressed, flowers in hair, working on laying out a road, amidst heaps of tar and other construction material. The year was 1939; this was when they were laying out a portion of the Mall Chowrasta, which is the heart of Darjeeling.
There is no end to the stories that make up the place. They resurface every now and then, but the here and now gets conveniently pushed to the bottom. As one taxi driver says it, rather succinctly, " Waise Darjeeling mein dekhney ke liye kuchh nahi hai, sochne ke liye bahut hai... There's not much to see, but lots to think about."


The Telegraph

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There's an indescribable joy as you approach Darjeeling. You've been on the road for nearly three hours, passed Batasia Loop near Ghoom, and then at some point the magnificent hills present themselves.

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