Book Title: No Path in Darjeeling Is Straight: Memories of a hill town
Author: Parimal Bhattacharya
KINTHUP had aged. Time had not been kind to him. He had gone back to the profession of his younger days as a tailor. His eyes, like his body, were weak, and money was short. These circumstances were not very different to the lives of so many hill men in the beginning of the 20th century. Only, Kinthup was no ordinary man.
Single handed, for all practical purposes, he had mapped a considerable distance of the Brahmaputra river and had set forth evidence that this was the Tsang-po that originated in Tibet. He had done so enduring considerable tribulation. The findings of this man, who had no formal education but possessed a remarkable memory and other singular talents, had been lost in ‘another one of those’ bureaucratic files of British India. He was first rescued, if briefly, for posterity by Eric Bailey who, in turn, had become famous for marking what we know as the ‘Bailey Trail’ — and that trail, further went on to provide some basis for the McMahon Line. But if one were to go by this wonderful book, ‘Bells of Shangri-La’ by Parimal Bhattacharya, then it may well be called ‘Kinthup’s Trail’.
Good things sometimes come in pairs. The second book, ‘No Path in Darjeeling is Straight’, is an affectionate, touching and occasionally heart-wrenching biography of Darjeeling in the 1990s, when Bhattacharya was posted at the Government College. He roomed in a small hotel and adds those experiences to Darjeeling’s pages. This was also the time when the thunder of the Gorkhaland agitation still echoed around the hills. A time when scars of burnt houses could still be seen and the people were sad or hard or glowering.
Then, some years later, he returned to a time when yet another hill station prepared to march along rows of hideous signboards that exhorted all and sundry to buy and keep buying. Here come the laments of old lifestyles passing and the means of living changing. For Darjeeling, he has researched the background and interplay between local communities like the Lepchas and Bhutias. This is supplemented with conversations with some of them.
In both books, Bhattacharya moves from the familiar to the unfamiliar with ease and creates a web of fine prose coupled with insights that are both political and social. He has the ability to present the everyday and the commonplace with rare sympathy. Sometimes you need an outsider to bring the inside in.
Parimal Bhattacharya writes in both English and Bangla and is the author of a dozen books. These two books are transcreations of books that were originally written in Bangla. He is an Associate Professor of English in West Bengal and at least some of the experiences he writes about have come to him by way of his profession. Students and their families have provided insights that may have otherwise been absent. Teachers in other disciplines have added to his knowledge and enhanced what he writes. For example, there is the vivid description of his trek with the scholar Julia Griffiths and a colleague, Hemraj, as they search for a rare salamander.
If you have never listened to the silence of the snows, smelled ginger tea being brewed or tasted beer’s cousin, chaang, then this book will give a hand. It will also propel your armchair to a land of adventure and carry you into different time periods and to places known and unknown.
Not every book on the Himalayas or on its many parts has to be a tome, or a work of boundless scholarship or a deep dive into mysticism. Something can simply be a good and easy read. That having been said, this has been a strange winter in the hills. In January, it felt like March, and in March, it feels that we have retreated to January. When it should have been spring, winter has arrived and confused both animal and plant. Humans, who are at least partially responsible for this change, may lament till the next sunset. But a few happy sessions with two thoroughly enjoyable books have helped make my winter complete. I was once told that English teachers do not make good writers as they are constantly making mental corrections and comparisons. How I wish that the gentleman could read these two books.