Novel Tea Value

Temple lamps, West Bengal. (JAMES FLINT)

Temple lamps, West Bengal. (JAMES FLINT)

The shock of Darjeeling is that it's not the sleepy hill town of famed repute. It is rather a mountain megalopolis, a giant concrete city in the sky that stretches for twenty kilometers along a the upper reaches of a series of the giant hogsbacks that are the foothills of the Himalayas, a concrete maze grey as the haze that hema it in as the monsoon season draws near and obscures the views of the majestic mountains to the east.

If you hit a clear night (more likely in October or November, the best time to come, than in April or May, the secondary season) get yourself up to Observatory Hill and have a good look around: electricity's come to the foothills and the lights in the windows of the myriad farmhouses on the slopes all around blend with the blaze of the heavens to make you feel like you're standing in a complete globe of stars. Then sacrifice sleep and catch a jeep taxi at 4.30 the next morning along with half the rest of the town to the top of nearby Tiger Hill, one of the greatest places to watch the sunrise anywhere in the world. If the skies are still clear you'll be treated to a mountain panorama that includes Everest and Kanchenjunga, the first and third highest peaks in the world. That's worth getting out of bed for.

The morning I went up there we weren't so lucky. Clouds masked the view and all we got was a sleepy eyed wink from a damp orange sun that surfaced from an ocean of mist only to promptly disappear again, not to be seen for the rest of the day. Still, it was kind of beautiful in its own quiet way - in contrast to the noise and bustle of the trip back into town, my Mahindra jeep taxi one of dozens honking and farting their way down the hillside, queueing to get past the priest who needs to annoint each and every one as it passes with the blessing of the god who resides in the small temple here.

As a guest of the tourist board I was put up at the Windermere, the top hotel in town and one of those places untouched since the time of the British Raj. Effectively a living museum, the huddle of wooden buildings with pitched corrugated iron rooves set among carefully tended rock gardens and flower beds is more English than England although of course there's a twist: turbaned attendents and aproned maids, many of them Tibetan, wander the halls and the terraces, while the managerial staff take orders from the aged and decidedly eccentric owner Mrs. Tenduf-La - also Tibetan - who has been in charge here since 1920 and when sits on the terrace in the sunlight nested in pillows and dispensing a bizarre series of orders and instructions to the managers who nod politely before disappearing off, grateful to be able to get back to the actual running of the place.

If you stay here - which you probably won't, since only rich Americans can afford it - beware the food. Afternoon tea, complete with homebaked shortbreads and cherry cakes and cucumber sandwiches is all very fine, but the authenticity is carried a little far in the restaurant which nightly serves up (in gloomy candlelit ambience and with great ceremony) meals that can only be described as school dinners, complete with bullet peas and jam roly-poly. Avoid, and choose the ethnic option instead.

Darjeeling, of course, is famous for tea, and indeed the squat little bushes carpet the hills, which is fortunate, because little else does. Long simmering political discontent with rule from Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal but situated hundreds of miles to the South and a couple of thousand metres nearer to sea-level erupted in the early 1980s into pitched battles in the streets when demands for a separate highland state (to be named Gorkaland) burst the low levees of purely democratic dissent. The fighting continued, on and off, for a couple of years, and one of the side effects was massive deforestation as locals cut down trees both for fuel and to strike an economic blow against the state government by crippling the forestry industry. So thank god for tea, as without it the whole area would be covered in very high, very steep and very unusual savannah.

There are various plantations in and around the town. The one I visited was only about twenty minutes walk from Chowrasta, the smart, upmarket market-place and effective town centre (as far as tourists are concerned anyway; most local business 
in fact takes place in the steep higgledy-piggeldy chowks that crowd the lower slopes). It was called the Happy Valley Plantation and though relatively small in terms of area it professes to be organic. I was there a week or two before harvest was due (depending on the weather there are two to three pickings a year) and the factory stood empty, but I was able to get a tour nonetheless and was shown how the leaves make their way from the wooden fermenting tables via crushers and graders and driers into the long low tea chests which package it for export. I bought some tea, too, from a Nepali woman called Kusum who works as a senior picker here and has done since she left Nepal as a thirteen year old newly wed two or three decades ago. Her hands deeply coloured with henna she weighed me out a kilo of tea from an old rucksack she keeps on one side for tourists like me. She speaks excellent English and explains how the tea divides into five grades the highest of which (and this is the quality that I'm buying) goes by the wonderous name of Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe Number One. She also shows me how to brew it correctly: five seconds in a covered pan of boiling water is all it needs, after which it's strained and drunk neat, without milk or sugar. It's delicious and beautiful both, the same rich orange as her hands and the sleepy Himalayan sun I'd seen the previous morning from Tiger Hill.

Nepalis, Bengalis, Tibetans, Nagas, Assamese - Darjeeling is something of a crossroads, which is hardly surprising seeing how it overlooks the main pass through the mountains and up onto the Tibetan plateau (when the British founded the place in the 1840s they chose the site for good strategic reasons, as well as to have somewhere the women and children could escape to from the heat of the plains). The Tibetan community is one of the most interesting and accessible here, as it's organised into government-supported centres with their own cottage industry workshops where you can see carpets being weaved and wool being dyed and tapestries being made and so on. Most of these people are here because of the Chinese occupation of their country, but Tibetan influence has a much more venerable history in and around Darjeeling - red and white gompas and stupas [Buddhist temples and shrines] dot the countryside and indeed the original manuscript one of the most well known and influential of Buddhist writings, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, has been housed here in the Bhutia Busty gompa since 1879 (well worth a visit, for the dragon carvings in the library as much as for the silk-swaddled book).

The heterogeneous cultural mix is another reason for the area's stubborn insistence that it has an identity that separates it from the remainder of West Bengal. If the highlands over which Darjeeling ('the Queen of Hills') reigns are Scotland then Calcutta is London, in both a political and geographical sense. Unless you opt to fly from Bagdogra airport (daily flights to major Indian cities), to reach the the state capital you have to first descend to the railhead at Siliguri, three hours away by taxi or nine hours away if you fancy travelling onboard the world famous narrow-gauge toy-train. After that it's an overnight ride on the regular train, a journey that carries you right around around the western nub of Bangladesh before it dumps you out in the madness that is Calcutta's Howrah train station, described in one book I read as the the city's modern equivalent of the black hole.

The contrast with the gentle, temperate pace of Buddhist-influenced life in the hills couldn't be more extreme: Calcutta takes its name from the temple of Kalighat (dedicated to the Hindu goddess of destruction, the most bloody and destructive of the pantheon's deities) and here black goats are sacrificed daily, their heads severed with great machetes in a single stroke, the bodies hurled into a corner where unconscious legs carry on trying to run from death's inevitable shiver and melt. But to take this as an image that somehow encapsulates the city would be a grave mistake [no pun intended], for Calcutta is entering the new millennium as a vibrant and cheerful place, a city that is casting aside the shackles of a recent and terrible past to find a new place for itself as possibly the most exciting modern urban centre in the subcontinent after Bangalore and Bombay.

Traditionally the intellectual heart of India and home to no less than five noble laureates including poet Rabindranath Tagore and malaria pioneer Ronald Ross, Calcutta was also the capital until 1911 when its pro-independence foment persuaded the British to move the seat of government over to Delhi. This was the first blow; the second happened in the wake of partition when the city's economic hinterland was lost to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). With its life-blood jute industry severed, like a goat's head, at a stroke and millions of refugees arriving in its stead Calcutta collapsed, and its name soon become synonymous with the worst in human misery and that candidate for modern sainthood, Mother Teresa. But to visit Calcutta now is to see a city that has come through all that, a city that's overtaken its problems and is embracing, of all things, the Internet boom, to see a city that's finding the resources to restore its extraordinary neo-Classical heritage (comparable to that of Havana in terms of both its architectural grandure and extent of its decay). It is also to have the opportunity of discovering networks of thriving flower and fruit markets, of mingling with robust communities of students and artisans, and of taking part in celebrations and festivals that thread, trunk to tail, the whole year around. The hills may be mellow, but they lack the extraordinary energy of this place, and if you visit West Bengal you'd be foolish to miss it - India's future, as always, lies in both the extremes.

- Timeout Magazine, July 2000