East Himalaya

Saturday, August 25, 2012

My Darjeeling is Smiling

Siliguri, 20th August, 2012: It was not a easy decision for Sano, the dirt track through the Upper FaguTea Estate has just been blacktopped halfway to Nim Busty, which would finally connect Lava. Her small tea shop has seen a few tourists, which has never happened before and she has managed to save a few thousand rupees. Maila Bau, who used to drive the old Mahindra Jeep on this route from Sombarey Bazaar (Gorubathan) had married her and one day abandoned her with two children. She learnt that the 55 year old man had returned to her first wife at Phulbari. Now she supports herself and the two children from this tea shop. Overlooking the beautiful Valleys of Rumjhum, Lathe, Fagu and Chel rivers, she remembers how she as a child came to the Gorubathan weekly market with her father from Pathorjhora and return back with fresh fishes, fancy chocolates and colourful new clothes. 
Since then she admired the smart hill drivers and made up her mind to marry one of them. She did her schooling at a Bengali medium high school at Oodlabari and was good at studies, but then her luck took her with Maila Bau of whom she knew nothing but that he was a friend of her uncle from Chimney. Few years ago she had gone to visit her granny (mother’s mother) at Yelbong and found one German old man and two young Indian men staying at a homestay there. In the evening she witnessed a workshop on homestay and waste management by these visitors and this motivated her to start with her own homestay. There is peace in the Darjeeling Hills since the last almost one year and tourists have been flowing in, this she thought was a good opportunity, but then she needed some seed fund to start with. 
Eid Mubarak to all of you reading this blog. Darjeeling Mail, Kanchan Kanya Express and Padatik Express, the 03 major overnight trains from North Bengal to Kolkata are all jam packed. Even in this off-season to see thousands of visitors in Darjeeling Hills and Dooars was probably forgotten. Tashi, Ombahadur and Karki of the Darjeeling Lodge had thought would go to their house at Namthang, the owner had initially agreed but they decided to stay back, as the more tourists means more tips for them, sometimes it is even more than their salary. The ecoguides at Chilapata and Jaldapara were more busy taking their guests in the forest villages and introducing them to the interesting cultures, also the tea plucking and processing in the factory was almost a half day program.
There is ‘busyness’ almost all over Darjeeling Hills. The NH-55 or Hillcart Road which had given away on 16th June, 2010 at Pagla Jhora, 28th September, 2011 at Tindharia, after which some work had started, but finally gave in on 19th July, 2012. The continuity of the World Heritage Site, Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) from Siliguri to Darjeeling is also disrupted since then. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society based at London has given a Press release dated 7th August, 2012 to almost 2000 of its members worldwide that from 6 August 2012 the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) introduced an enhanced timetable for the upper section of the line between Darjeeling and Kurseong. The move follows the transfer by road to Darjeeling of B Class locos 788 and 802, NDM6 diesel 601 and four carriages. An additional steam tourist ‘Joy Train’ service leaves Darjeeling for Ghum via Batasia Loop at 0800hrs complementing the existing departures at 1040, 1320 and 1600hrs.
The existing diesel-hauled return service from Darjeeling to Kurseong is now matched by a new service leaving Kurseong at 0700hrs and arriving Darjeeling at 0945hrs (later timings than the former ‘School Train’ which ended in 2007). The train returns from Darjeeling at 1600hrs arriving Kurseong at 1840hrs. On the lower section of the line the daily diesel-hauled ‘Jungle Safari’continues to run between Siliguri Junction and Rangtong. Elsewhere the DHR remains breached by landslips at two locations. Repair of the breach at PaglaJhora is due to be complete by the end of 2012. At Tindharia a second recent landslip has added to problems and threatens the railway workshop. However, urgent stabilisation work is under way, finance for repairs is agreed and the Railway Minister has committed to the entire DHR route being fully operational again by the end of 2013. Said David Barrie, Chairman DHRS “Indian Railways is showing real imagination, determination and commitment to overcoming the challenges caused by the severe landslips. These additional services are most welcome. The DHR’s future is bright!”
Other Local and Living Heritage efforts continue to dot the area, specially the town of Darjeeling. A small corner of the Ajit Mansion, the Pineridge Hotel on Darjeeling Mall can see an extension to Food Steps, this could be the best choice for some of good Darjeeling food, which is basically continental, Chinese, oriental and local East Himalayan food, all adopted into a tasteful Darjeeling style, which has survived and has been liked for more than a century. Do not forget to try the flat noodles and red hot pork. We now find several of the restaurants in town serve the Darjeeling thali, but the most authentic ones can still be tasted at the 400 odd homestays spread throughout the hills.
The Swiss Hotel is busy preparing for the 100 years celebration, as an introduction, the Darjeeling Heritage Walk has already been started and the ‘Darjeeling Heritage Club’ is due to open in a month’s time. One must miss the Darjeeling Talk session being planned at the Darjeeling Heritage Club, while on a visit to Darjeeling. Also information for Heritage trails of entire Northeast will be available here. This is one of the heritage styled properties since 1914 with lots of history, 13 rooms with functional fire places and the ‘whistling steam’ restaurant from where the morning views of the mountains are clear or a short three minutes walk to the exercise of the steam engines at Darjeeling Station may be observed.
Ms. Mole Susen Annette, from USA, born on 20th February 1955 had visited The Swiss Hotel at an age of 14, during the monsoon months of July or August for 02 nights (exact dates she does not remember) and had the opportunity to see the snow capped range of Mt.Kanchenjunga for about 20minutes. She again revisited The Swiss Hotel with her friends and family recently on the 31st of July, 2012 and stayed at the same room ‘Jamling’. She became very nostalgic during her stay. 

The Oberoi Everest just above The Swiss Hotel has probably taken a decision in their last meeting to start work on their elaborate 100 roomed Heritage property and reopen the same. A big modern Mall has replaced the nostalgic Capital Cinema, but Joey’s Pub round the corner still carries forward the Living Culture of Darjeeling, the nostalgia. Anjan Dutt, the famous actor turned director, a committed Darjeeling lover would not do Darjeeling without Joey. The small Masoom Bakery near the Sonada Railway Station is also preparing for the season. The bakery has maintained the quality of product through generations and is known for their authenticity like the DHR. As this is not easily visible, they can be contacted at 9679155534. The Darjeeling Tourism Information Centre on the Mall, the Glass House like structure just opposite to the approach to Windermere Hotel has been just reopened to visitors, almost after 01 year. Kadambari and Mikey can be contacted here as before and probably more enthusiastic in giving information to visitors.
I remember my childhood days, when the Independence Day of India, 15th August used to be celebrated with all colours and involvement at Kurseong, Takdah and a few other places. After a long time, this year again, I have experienced the return of this spontaneity among the local people. Even in the remote village of Kolakham, popularly known as Neora, which has emerged as a model tourism village, the Kolakham Primary School celebrated the Independence Day with all pomp and glory, including 03 schools of the area and almost all villagers.
‘Guess the Grains’, a few maize grains are put in a transparent container and you can take it in your hand, shake it and guess the number of maize grains. If your guess is close, you win a special prize. This was the only game I could win, I guessed 686 and the number was 688. Will wait for the congratulations messages for my win; please do not forget to put it in the comments of this blog. 

Few months back, the North Bengal Development Minister had gone to inaugurate a Dooars Sangrahalaya (collection) and the school for Bakpa Dance, a local community initiative at Kalchini. He said here how important tourism was to North Bengal, mainly for Darjeeling Hills and Dooars and how his Government gave tourism all the priority. The GTA Chief has just taken over his office at Lal Kothi at Darjeeling and he clearly declared that Tourism will be the backbone for development and will be taken up in convergence with all other Departments. The Rohini and Pankhabari roads will be toll roads and will be maintained well. Standardization of accommodation, food and transport tariff will be given priority. Peace, prosperity and poverty alleviation through tourism will be priority. The Chief Minister during the one year celebration of her tenure declared, ‘My Darjeeling is Smiling’.
Note: For the privacy of some individuals, some names, places and references have been changed.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Kolkata Taxis

Kolkata, 04th August, 2012. Santosh Paul was devastated by the Teesta floods of 1968, his ware houses were all gone, so were his trucks and the wooden house 1st floor was miraculously floating, but the ground floor with all valuable storage was fully underwater. All he could manage is to shift to Calcutta with his wife, 03 sons and an unmarried daughter, find out a rented house and start everything afresh. It was not easy, from a roaring 03 generations business at Jalpaiguri, shifting to Calcutta with almost nothing but some values. As he was always with business, he wanted to start as an entrepreneur. He tried his hands-on on everything which was honest and respectable, but in vain. With 03 sons and a daughter still studying he and his wife smilingly faced the crisis with full surrender to Mother Goddess Kali at Kalighat temple.
The day came when there was a good person who wanted to marry their daughter, but then he wanted that Santosh should speak to his relatives. Happy Santosh and one of his neighbours in confidence went for finally fixing the dated with the ‘to be grooms’ relations and they hired a taxi as they had to buy sweets and carry them all the way from the south to the north of Calcutta. After reaching the relations, there were some hot talks as there was economic difference between the families and the relatives wanted the marriage should be in the traditional way with all celebrations and formalities. The taxi had already waited long and the Punjabi (Sardarji) driver was not very happy. On their way back, when the neighbour and Santosh was discussing the issue in details, the driver overheard. After they reached home, the Sardarji driver refused to take the rent and offered to give Santosh a few thousand Rupees for his daughter’s marriage. He also came for the marriage.
Like the London cabs, the yellow cabs of Calcutta (now Kolkata) also are a legend to the great city. Every cab and the driver have a story. Day before yesterday, I had to travel from North to South at Calcutta and I was talking to the elderly driver of the taxi, Bhupen Singh. For more than 20 years, he had driven a private car of a corporate head, who after his retirement went back to Bombay (now Mumbai) and offered Bhupen to go with him. Bhupen was attached with this city and wanted to stay back. The retired corporate man gave him some money and organized a bank loan for Bhupen to buy a taxi. Now, Bhupen is a proud owner cum driver of his taxi and is probably one of the most reliable and decent persons I have met. He along with three of his friends after months at Hazaribagh jail (for being a part of Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement in Bihar), were released with a payment of Rs.60/- each for the labour which they had given during their time in captivity. This was the month of September or October, but time for Durga Puja. The 04 young men sometimes in 1972, decided to go to Calcutta with the Rs.60/- and see the Durga Puja celebrations. The 03 friends returned to their village in Bihar, but Bhupen had already fallen in love with Kolkata and decided to stay back. Today, he has bought an apartment for near South City Mall for his family and his 26 years old son works for an IT company. Bhupen is proud that his children are more fluent in Bengali language than Hindi. Bhupen can be contacted at 9331374031.
Calcutta, like many of the cities of the world is a destination of opportunities and many youths come here to live their dreams. Till the time they do it sincerely and honestly, the city will remain a better place to live in and visit. Unfortunately, the picture is not as rosy; there are people who want to be rich overnight by cheating others or by irresponsible actions. Recently, as I had reached the Sealdah station early around 6am by Darjeeling Mail, there were several yellow taxis, but hardly any to serve the passengers in the queue. A policeman was running around the place to force the taxis to serve the passenger queue, the taxi union members were sitting idle at the pre-paid taxi booth and a bunch of drivers were trying to woo the passengers in the queue asking for double fares. The issue did not end here.
I am not always comfortable in big city ambiances and I had to deliver a ‘Rakhi’ at a place, of which I had a written address, before I could reach my place of stay. The yellow taxi driver seemed to be a sober and friendly man and when I requested him to take me to the said address as I was not well acquainted with that particular part of the city. Immediately, he did something with his meter which jumped units. After I reached the said place and asked for the printed receipt, he said that his paper was finished. I asked for the rate card, he said as the rates have changed, I have to pay him 50% extra after doubling the Rupee numbers shown in the metre. As this was a remote area, there was hardly anyone in this morning hours to enquire. I paid him. As I reached the contact person, who lived a little inside from the motorable road, I understood I was wickedly cheated. I remember a part of the taxi number WB ? E 7379. I was not unhappy being cheated, but I was worried to where this great ‘city of joy’ was leading to, a city which boasts of being one of the most friendly cities in the world today. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Jim Corbett, May his dreams return on this Day

Ranajit Mitra, popularly known to North Bengal as Khokada, has long been taking the responsibility of implanting nature interest among the more younger generation for almost 04 decades now.

He has always referred to Colonel Edward James "Jim" Corbett as his metor and considers him as one of India's greatest conservators, who could not be understood during his time, but all his words have been proved to be true with time.

He insisted to see his 'Guru' as a part of this blog and hence this article may be considered as the "Tribute to the Guru" and an appeal to the world to save the last bit of nature left by him 'Rudraprayag'.

Siliguri, 25th July, 2012: Queen Elizabeth II recently celebrated her 60 years of Queenhood. But when was declared the Queen of United Kingdom, at that moment she was on a tree top in Africa with none other than the Great JIM CORBETT, who mentions in his diary...’a princess came and a queen departed...’.
25th July is the birth anniversary of this Great Naturalist, whom many people remember as a hunter, but he was not one of those trigger happy men, but to us, the people of India, he will always be remembers as the one of world’s greatest naturalists, for whom India’s forests were his first love and life forever.
Corbett, so many years ago realised that the Forests of India and her treasured wildlife will be in a critical condition. The politicians, naturalists and scientists of that time failed to understand Jim Corbett and his philosophy. He had then made his forecast about the loss of tigers and other invaluable species of this land, about drought and floods...
We still have time to pay our respects to this Great soul from the core of our heart through the right actions of protecting our last natural habitat which we still have in this country. We do not want any further denudation of our forest cover in the name of development like hydel projects, urbanization etc, after effects of which is unknown to us and our future generations.