On the top floor restaurant of my hotel in Darjeeling, P looked decidedly more upset and downbeat than I had ever seen her. She was fiddling with her phone at the payment desk in an attempt to look busy. The group of brash, young Australian backpackers had tested her patience with their disrespectful comments and crude behavior. They had pretended not to like the soup and momos they had ordered and were complaining incessantly like spoilt little brats about the lack of heating in the space. In response to their diatribe, she had provided them with additional hot water bags, given them a generous post check-in discount on their room and hadn’t charged them for the food they finished. On the way down to their rooms, when they thought she was out of earshot range, they laughed and hi-fived each other for having duped the woman into giving them a deal. But the wooden floors and the silence of the night had carried their voices all the way to the top floor.
I approached her desk tenderly on the pretext of getting some tissue paper to wipe my hands. She looked at me with a distressed look on her face and said, “My father would have thrown them out, you know. But I am not like my father.”
I had been staying in the hotel for over 3 weeks and we had seen each other every day at breakfast and dinner but had never interacted beyond the obligatory smiles and greetings. She was comfortable in her own shell and I was in mine, reading some book or staring vacantly at the Kanchenjunga. So I was somewhat shocked to see her open up to me the way she did.
Her father, I learnt, was an ex-Gurkha who had fought for the British Army. He was also a bibliophile who was responsible for decorating the restaurant with a sprawling library. He was an extrovert who liked to entertain his guests by talking to them as long as they wished and was meticulously attentive to their needs. But now, he was an old man living in their house in Siliguri leaving the business to his younger daughter. Being heavily introverted and completely disinterested in the whole business of running hotels, P was nothing like her father. She didn’t like interacting with guests and was happy doing her stitching, cooking and skyping with her daughter.
This brought her to the matter of her divorce. Her ex-husband was a powerful man in Gorkhaland and like some powerful men, he liked to throw his dick around. One day, after she had protested strongly, he broke all the furniture in the house, left and never came back. The divorce proceedings were messy and though he hardly attended any of the hearings, he was excused from paying alimony. Her daughter now lived in London with her brother’s family who had settled there and squeaked in a British accent whenever she came to visit her.
Considering all this, she found it thankless of her father to be so adamant on keeping the hotel a family-run business instead of leasing it to somebody else like most of the other hotels had done in Darjeeling. “It’s expensive, full of cheating and I don’t know accounts. So we lose money also. But he never listens!”, she said angrily. To cheer her up, I told her a few of my travel tales like the time I lost a phone in a train making the other passengers frantically look for it only to find it safely hidden away in a dark corner of my bag and the time when my big rucksack inadverdently bumped into an idli stall at a railway station spilling all the contents on the floor and being labeled a “bulldozer” as a result.
“I’m happy we are finally talking”, she said, “I see you every day but we never talk. You’re always busy in your book. These westerners are very artificial. My father loved talking to them and used to be a little rude to Bengali tourists because they were so demanding. But I think the Westerners are even worse. I feel they’re always making fun of you in their mind. At least, Bengalis are more honest. They will tell you what they think to your face.”
She had to interrupt her anthropological analysis when she realized that I hadn’t eaten dinner and made me a big plate of momos with generous bowls of soup. It was freezing inside and she brought a hot water bag to put under my feet to keep me warm. I felt less like a hotel guest than a close family friend who had come by for a visit and I told her that. She laughed and said, “If all guests were nice, I would have no problem running this hotel. It’s not that I don’t like this business but many people who come here speak rudely and that affects me. I don’t know how to handle that. My father never bothered about those things. No one spoke rudely to him because they were scared of him. I’m not scary. He would just throw people out if he didn’t like them.”
The next day, after a long exhausting stroll around the hills, I came back to my room to take a nap in the afternoon. I dozed off for a far longer time than I had planned to and woke up with a start when I heard someone banging at my door. It was the manager who manned the reception downstairs. “Didi wants to see you upstairs”, he said. Not knowing what to expect and expecting the worst as I’m always won’t to, I got dressed quickly and rushed upstairs.
She asked me to come over to the terrace where she lived. There, she had set up a table with a pot of hot tea and two mugs. It was one of the best vantage points in Darjeeling to see the Kanchenjunga range and the city below and I had come here innumerable times to take pictures. But today, it was a special evening.
“How could you stay in your room when the day is so beautiful,” she said, while pouring me a cuppa, “I thought you had gone for trekking but the manager told me you were back in your room. I was worried for you. I hope you are okay.”
The sky that day was truly special. Cirrocumulus clouds extended above us as far as we could see and in the distance, unobstructed, rose the Kanchenjunga. It’s five peaks could be clearly discerned and while we were quietly sipping away our cuppas, the entire spectrum of colours were seen reflected on the clouds and the Himalayan mountains in harmony with the setting sun. The scale of such a grand visual spectacle is impossible to capture in a photograph. Everywhere we looked, the colours were mixing, connecting, blending with and bleeding into each other, on the clouds, in the city below and the snowy peaks in the distance. It was like watching a giant abstract invisible paintbox at work and along with the pot of tea, the landscape, the warm hospitality, it became one of the most memorably beautiful evenings of my travels.
I thanked P profusely for waking me up from my slumber. She said she would have done it even if the sky wasn’t as spectacular as it was. She was leaving for Siliguri the next day and would be away for a few weeks leaving her managers to handle the business. “I don’t know when I will meet you again. You should come home and meet my father. He will like you very much because he also likes reading books like you. Give me a call if you come to Siliguri. You can come to my house and eat momos.”
In the weeks immediately after I left Darjeeling and traveled through the heart of West Bengal, people (both travelers and locals) appeared perplexed every time I waxed rhapsodies about what had become (and still is) my favourite place in the hills. And even though I have always recognized the indisputable fact that travel was that most subjective of life experiences, I found it hard to accept the way a lot of travelers I spoke with ran the place down as too crowded, polluted and chaotic to love. Maybe they didn’t see the sunsets I had seen or met the people I had met. Maybe the hotels were awful and they stayed in the crowded and noisy tourist area downtown but how could anyone not be exhilarated by the sight of Kanchenjunga, whose snow white peaks on some misty days appear to be suspended in the air high above the town.
I became so used to seeing the mountain every day that I took it for granted until the day I left when I caught a final glimpse of its magnificent architecture on the way down to Siliguri and as the road wound down towards the plains of Bengal, the lump in my throat got bigger and bigger.