His name is Dipak Chettri. This 65-year-old man is acquainted with most aspects of today’s fast, hurried life but has never compromised with one of his cherished obsessions. Sitting in front of me on this little compartment of this adorable “toy train” on our way to Darjeeling, he says he just can’t think of forsaking this “little girl” for the faster and more convenient option of cars and jeeps. “For us, it is part of our lives”, he says with visible pride. Chettri, perhaps, has reasons to feel proud. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the official name of this lovely little creature, has received the UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1998. “You say you run a business in Darjeeling. You could have saved a few hours traveling by road. Isn’t time precious for you?” I asked just when the train crossed the road that runs alongside the rail track for the entire stretch between Siliguri and Darjeeling. “Did you notice that the cars gave way to us at the crossing?” You will see the same thing at over a hundred crossings on the way. “That is what I like, these upstarts have to pay respect to this magnificent piece of history”, he replied without any reference to the value of time in his business. The track and the road seemed to have a love-hate relationship between them. When you are getting accustomed to the sight of the road alongside you, the train suddenly moves away for a while before emerging to join its mate again. I found this game of hide and seek extremely attractive and kept waiting eagerly for the next stage to begin.
Chettri was in no hurry even though he had a business; I had no business here at all except being a part of this fascinating ride. I was lucky that I was under no compulsion to be economical with time, which gave me this excellent opportunity of being with this endearing Gorkha on this train. Chettri, who had spent some years in Calcutta for his college education, is married with a son and a daughter. “My son also looks after the family business. My daughter is married to a local boy who runs a business too. And my wife? She enjoys just looking after us.” He did not seem to envy my unmarried status which gives me more freedom and license to do many more things. “We are happy. Most hill people want to live a simple life. But times are changing. I’m happy with this train. My son may not, in fact does not like this slow travel. He prefers cars instead.”
Even while listening to Chettri, I kept watching through the window the magnificent Himalayas unfolding itself in frame after frame. The beautiful rhododendron slopes seemed to take a liking for us and were in no mood to part company. And there was this heavenly sight of the majestic Kanchenjunga, appearing at almost every turn and bend in all her snowy glory. “Look, even as we chug right through people’s bedrooms or dining rooms, we haven’t lost touch with divine beauty. This is a great attraction of this journey,” Chettri said. It really is. It seemed as if the track had passed through people’s homes and shops; they were so close that we could feel the warmth of their bedrooms, ruffle the hair of a child looking at us from the safety of his mother’s lap. In fact I felt a strong desire to put my hand out of the window and pick up an apple from a basket while the train was passing through a market, but finally resisted the temptation. When I revealed this sinful desire to Chettri, he smiled and said: “You’re lucky that you didn’t. You would have been caught. The shop-owner would simply run a few paces and board our compartment. But I’m sure he would lovingly sacrifice an apple to make you happy. Foreign tourists are our respected guests.”
“How is Darjeeling now? Is it still as beautiful as it was a few some years ago?” I asked. He sat silently for a while and said: “My honest answer would be ‘no.’ You are a first-time visitor here; you would never know, unless you see its pictures, how beautiful Darjeeling was. Not for nothing was it called the queen of the hill stations. It is now turning into a concrete jungle. Just another town where people live and make their living. And it has become so crowded.” I could not make out whether it was the routine feelings of someone who is unable to cope with the continuous changes that are taking place around him. “Talking of beauty, did you know that famous directors often came to shoot their films inDarjeeling? You must have heard of Satyajit Ray. One of his films was named ‘Kanchenjunga’ and a large part of the film was shot in Darjeeling.” Although not a great film buff, I was familiar with the name of Ray as one of the finest directors in the world. Chettri suddenly burst into a song which sounded melodious to my ears. “This is a popular song from a Hindi film shot with the heroine sitting on this train and the hero singing it while following her on an open jeep. This song was a rage at that time.” I thought it wise to move to a more earthly topic than beauty. “How good are the hotels? Are they cheap? I would like to spend a couple of days in Darjeeling.” “You can find hotels at reasonable rates. Their services were good too, but I can’t guarantee about that anymore. You must have heard that there is a severe water crisis in Darjeeling at this moment. Prepare yourself for that. I will leave you my address when we part ways at the station. Please come to my house whenever you need something.” I was moved by his gesture and thanked him heartily.
We were almost halfway through our journey when a short drizzle pleasantly wet our faces. The weather has been kind to us today; no nagging rains, no unexpected landslide. It has been a bright, sunny day giving us a clear look of the beautiful fare that nature has arranged for us. I had heard in Calcutta that the political situation in the hills was not as calm as one would like it to be. Hesitating for a moment, I finally asked him the question: “If you won’t mind, are you in any way connected with politics?” Chettri certainly did not expect such a question, but replied calmly: “No, my friend, I try to stay as far away from politics as possible. I have also asked my son to do so. I’m happy he has heeded my advice though the temptations are too many. Easy money, power and many other things. But I’m not sure how long he would be able to stay away.” Having been an interested observer of international politics for long, I was aware that the peace of these serene hills was shattered by violence during the Gorkhaland agitation of the late eighties.
The Gorkhaland National Liberation Front led the movement for a separate state for Nepalis living inDarjeeling district. Finally a settlement was reached in 1988 with the establishment of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council within West Bengal. “Those days are best forgotten. Gorkhas are known as brave soldiers who have fought so many wars. But this was a different kind of violence. The less said of it the better.” I was not going to leave him so easily. “Do you think a separate state for Darjeeling Gorkhas is a good idea?” I asked. “Don’t you have any other topic to talk about? Frankly speaking, I am too small a person to judge the pros and cons of a separate Gorkhaland. I’m not sure whether it can give us a better life than what we live now. All we want is peace. We want tourists to visit this place, they bring us money. We want our children to study and prosper in life. We don’t want those violent days to return again.” Really, who wanted violence when one passes through Batasia Loop, with the breathtaking view of the Kanchenjunga as the backdrop! Leave alone a newcomer like me, even the veteran Chettri was left spellbound at this divine sight. Taking a while to recover, he said: “We are almost home, my friend. Now to Ghoom, the highest railway station in Asia and then Darjeeling is just a six-kilometer ride downwards.” As I began to arrange my bags, I saw Chettri scribbling something on a piece of paper. “My address, lest I forget it in the station. Don’t forget to pay me a visit.” I nodded and shook his hand. The train was already entering the Darjeeling station.
I was not sure whether I would meet Chettri again even if I faced some trouble in some Darjeeling hotel. I was also not sure how long this beautiful “toy train” would be able to attract some nostalgic or adventurous or carefree riders in this age when speed was the mantra for everything. But I was sure I wished them well. Let the “toy train” run even if there is no passenger on it. Even an empty train would be a spectacle worth watching. And, let Chettri live in peace and his son stay away from politics.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
The “toy train,” officially called the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, is a 60 cm narrow-gauge railway from New Jalpaiguri near Siliguri to Darjeeling in the Indian state of West Bengal. Built between 1879 and 1881 by the British following a brilliant suggestion of Franklin Prestage of The Eastern Bengal Railway, the railway covers about 86 km. Interestingly, Prestage was not an engineer by profession. In 1998, the train was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.