DONG DONG KALIMPONG
The Statesman 04 May 2014
Many problems of the mind and of society can be solved by walking. Walking briskly and while concentrating on the activity of walking, the mind empties itself of nagging worries and complex emotions. And this Himalayan town in Darjeeling district is a marvellous place for such welcome sadhana, says martin kämpchen
WE all have places to which we feel attracted, not because of any beloved person who lives there or any comfort we get but because of the place itself — its “energy”, its sanctity, its particular qualities that resonate with us. For me, such a place is the Himalayan town of Kalimpong in Darjeeling district. I first visited it in 1973, a few months after I began my lifelong stay in India. It had been a gruelling summer. Month after month I had shuttled by bus between Narendrapur (where I lived) and Kolkata (where I taught), sandwiched between perspiring and swearing commuters. I was exhausted from the unaccustomed strain. So the offer to visit the Himalayas and stay in an ashram of the Ramakrishna Math was welcome. I got the requisite permission for foreigners and moved from the sweltering plains to the pristine heights. Oh, it was indeed an upward movement: my drooping spirits, my emotions and thoughts were released from the searing heat and humidity. I realised how viciously they had affected me.
I walked and walked in the fresh light of autumn from hilltop to valley and up another hill; I walked with an increasing delight and to heighten the pleasure I read a book about another mountain, Mount Athos in Greece, the Monks’ Republic which is inhabited by a few thousand monks.
After this felicitous week with the monks of the Ramakrishna Math, among Nepalis and Tibetan monks in their monasteries, I returned to Kalimpong only after the agitation in the 1980s for an independent hill state resulted in certain political concessions and after the restrictions for foreigners were lifted. Even after 40 years that excitement when the bus moves along the Teesta river and then takes a right turn to wind its way up, is still fresh.
The road passes through dense forests until the first settlements come into view and finally that ridge on whose two slopes Kalimpong is built makes an almost theatrical appearance on the left. The change of climate from New Jalpaiguri, where I arrive by night train, to Kalimpong is palpable, the relief from the cloying humidity that mutates to the freely flowing breeze is nothing short of a revelation.
A small cottage — one room with verandah — was built for me by my landlady and friend, Indira Bose, on the fringe of her large compound, sheltered by a thick bamboo grove. This has become my refuge, which I visit for quiet work and reflection. Here I feel being drawn within myself; being alone does not translate into loneliness.
Many problems of the mind and of society can be solved by walking. I do not refer to the constitutional “morning walk” that many regard as an excuse for a fitness regime. Walking briskly and while concentrating on the activity of walking, the mind empties itself of nagging worries and complex emotions.
Walk a few kilometres with steady, swift steps, walk and look at your surroundings intently without trying to “discover” or “understand”. Problems on which you were unable to take decisions will gradually resolve. Emotional turmoil turns softer, you gain a distance from yourself. Your mind reaches a certain lightness. Go on walking, it is not a waste of time.
Kalimpong is a marvellous place for this sadhana of walking. Walk all the way to the Durpin Tibetan Monastery, or down to Relli river, or along Upper Cart Road, and – why not? – right on top of Delo. Once you have escaped the din and bustle of the Main Road and its vicinity, you are surrounded by quiet residential areas. Wherever you walk, looking up you will see the mountains.
Wherever you are, there are several layers of mountain silhouettes that, while you walk, gently shift their appearance. Every few steps you have before you a different perspective.
Often the clouds hang low in the mountains, but, no, they never “obstruct” the view; rather, they add new shapes and lines to the scenery.
Tourists regret when they leave the mountains without having set eyes on Kanchenjunga. When the peak does reveal itself, the mountain seems to float above the horizon without contact with the earth. It is so high, so far. But the veiling of the peak is as much a reality of Kalimpong as its revelation. We know at which exact place it is hiding.
Almost all hotels in Kalimpong show their broadside towards Kanchenjunga. The one that I frequent is the Himalayan Hotel, a five-minute stroll from the Main Road. While you walk towards Upper Cart Road, you see a small sign marking the entrance of the compound. Entering, you feel transformed. No dust of the Main Road, no hooting and honking, no loud voices. The gardens around the imposing colonial-style building are not of the routine kind where the maxim is: the more flowers set in (boring) geometrical designs the nicer the garden. On little mounds and spaced-around large trees, you see micro-gardens delicately arranged so that flowers, large or small, the bushes and brushes all enjoy the light and air and view they need. It creates a paradisiacal, serene atmosphere.
The main building is more than a century old and was the family house of David Macdonald, a British trade agent in Tibet. It was a lodge for traders who arrived from Tibet to do business in India. The hotel was a welcome haven after the arduous trip from Tibet. How often have I listened to the stories Nilam, wife of David’s grandson Tim Macdonald, told about Aunt Vicky who used to reign over the lodge with a firm hand. Nilam is the creator of those graceful gardens.
The interior of the hotel is generously wood-panelled, the dining room exudes the charm of good living which declines to be ostentatious. Furniture of dark wood and the characteristic domed wood ceiling create an atmosphere of dignity, or solidity, assuring you that some old values have survived the test of time. It is not, after all, the all-devouring beast it appears to be in our bad moments.
When in Kalimpong, I sit every afternoon on the second floor verandah and read, write, reflect and dream. This is a magical place. It overlooks the town and the mountain range with Kanchenjunga; you get a sense of the two valleys and yet you are engulfed within the flower-trees and the bushes of the gardens. Here I sip masala tea and the conviction grows on me that nothing more is needed to have a fulfilled life. At 4:30, the bell of MacFarlane Church rings out, pervading the town and the valleys. It reminds me of church bells I heard in my childhood, it reminds me of Rabindranath’s ode, Kalimponger chithi (Letter from Kalimpong), in which the poet’s appreciation of the town is greeted with grateful bells echoing between the mountains: dong dong Kalimpong.