Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Samsing

Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan

We have some beautiful old bungalows in the Dooars. Not all of them are cared for as they should be, because they belong to gardens which have, sadly, closed down.

Living in tea as we do, we tend to let ourselves be ruled by a code. It's not 'done' to barge in to a garden without informing the manager beforehand, not if you're going to take a look at a bungalow on his property. But what do you do when there is no manager? You barge in anyway. I first heard about the beauty of Samsing Bara Bungalow soon after I got married, twenty years ago. Someone asked my husband to be sure to take me there, as it was 'One of our best bungalows in the Dooars'. Samsing had belonged to Duncans, the company for which my husband then worked, and it had been sold a short while before I came to Dooars. People I met from Duncans spoke as if they'd lost a limb when they spoke of its loss. Soon after, however, the GNLF agitation took off and Samsing was one of the hotbeds of trouble. Perhaps Duncans was better off without it anyway! No one spoke of it now. Samsing borders on Darjeeling. Now that I've seen that border for myself, I realize that crossing over from Darjeeling District into Samsing Tea Garden would have been the easiest thing for the troublemakers to do.

To my surprise, our driver knew how to get there. My brother, who is a keen traveller and who shares our love for the Dooars, was with me. Within an hour of leaving home we were at the garden. I felt a little foolish, not at the thought of going off just to see a bungalow and not someone living in it, but at the thought of having lived so close to this place for so many years and never having been there! Chulsa subdistrict is one of the prettiest places in the Dooars. The Dooars wind from the banks of the Teesta eastward, bordered on the North by the Himalayas. Darjeeling District ends when you cross Chulsa forest, and the hills to the North are then Bhutan hills. Chulsa's gardens are up on a hill, and you get a lovely view of the plains from many of them. I'd been told that Samsing offered something even better, a view of the Darjeeling hills.

Once we entered the garden we started climbing downhill. I'd imagined we'd go higher and higher and probably find the bungalow on a peak. We wound down until we were just a few hundred feet above ground. We saw a large number of happy looking schoolchildren on their way home from school. There were signs of life and occupation everywhere, and it didn't look like an abandoned garden. We found that we'd reached the bungalow sooner than I expected. Like many Bara Bungalows of old, it presented its rear to approaching onlookers! There was a lovely old set of gateposts, solidly built, and surprisingly, freshly coated with choona. The gates were locked but were opened as soon as the driver uttered the magic words, 'Bagaan ka Memsaab aaya hai.' The road wound up from the gate, to bring us to the front of the bungalow.
It came as a shock. We were at the edge of a precipice. The front lawn just fell away into a gorge, and this huge hill loomed in front of us. What a location for a bungalow! It seemed to stand at the edge of the world. Ahead, there was this beautiful hill, with one face sloping down into the plains, covered in tea, and the remaining area terraced into paddy fields. We were quiet, and struck with wonder. That hill in front of us must be a part of Darjeeling. The bungalow servant who'd been sweeping the compound confirms this. The garden on which we look out is Kumai, which is at one end of Chulsa forest, but falls, interestingly, in Darjeeling District.

I turn to face the bungalow. To my relief, it isn't a crumbling old ruin. Far from it. It is a chang bungalow, and there are beautiful arches supporting the structure, no ugly stilts. The lower portion is covered in a beautiful dark green creeper. Grand steps lead up to the verandah and the house looks majestic. Its proportions are pleasing to the eye. It is majestic, but not pretentiously imposing. In short, it looks like someone's house, where you might live or visit, and not just a bungalow.

If you could allow yourself to see the house in your mind's eye as it might have been many years ago, with its roof freshly painted and potted plants all over the verandah, you'd think what a proud hostess the lady of Samsing would have been.

The house must wait, while we walk out on the lawn, towards the edge of the compound. Mercifully the compound isn't fenced in. There are blooming bougainvilleas there instead, and what we in North Bengal tend to call a 'Bhiew Point'. When we reach the middle of the lawn, we hear the river. I wonder what it must have felt like, for all the lucky people who ever occupied this house, to live in the Dooars and look out over Darjeeling, and to have the Murti river flowing in a gorge hundreds of feet below you, at the edge of your own garden!

We reach the view point and look down into the deep gorge and see the lovely river rushing past. Again, I get the feeling of being at the edge of the world. There is nothing now but the hills and their silences, and the gurgling music of the river. It is a moment of perfect peace. I wish I could hold this forever. That is not to be, of course.

Here is the eighty five year old mali come hurrying out from somewhere at the sight of visitors. He wants to talk about old times. The words, 'bagaan ka memsaab aaya' have worked their magic again. He is delighted when my brother greets him with a smiling namaste and congratulates him on his lovely garden. The old man shows us the camellias he'd planted and tended. There were so many colours then, he said, and now all the bushes have been pruned and never bloom at all.

With a silent apology to the spirit of the house for intruding, we climb the steps and enter. We cant help stopping to gaze at the lovely view again. But there's much to look at in the verandah, too. The tea table is lovely, large and circular, with beautifully carved legs. There are matching chairs. All they need is a bit of restoration. The floors are wooden, lovely and even, with no sign of warping or damage, even though they haven't seen a tin of polish in many years! A TT table stands in the verandah. One can imagine what happy afternoons children would have spent here. We could see the steps that had been cut into the lawn leading to the tennis court on the right. All that's left of it is one wall.

In the drawing room, we ignore the torn curtains and sagging upholstery and look instead at the beautiful French windows. We come across another delight—a chest, which a Chinese carpenter had made. The former paniwala who's showing us around opens it for us with some pride and shows us that it used to be a liquour cabinet! The dining room has some lovely old pieces which , we are told, were the work of the same 'Chinia Mistry'.The French windows in the drawing room and master bedrooms must have filled the house with light and air, and there must have been so much to look at, out in the compound.

Each room has a fireplace and all the bedrooms have skylights. The skylights are interestingly constructed, and no direct rays of the sun would have entered the rooms. Each skylight is carefully covered in wire mesh from the outside—surely to keep out bats and birds! The chimney stacks on the roof are beautiful too. We were pleasantly surprised to see that all the walls were freshly painted. This was done courtesy a film unit, we are told, which was stationed here some weeks ago to shoot a Bengali film.

The kitchen, at the end of the house, is beautifully sunlit. What feasts must have been prepared here for catering at Chulsa Club! What grand parties Samsing would have hosted! It looks like a house where people lived happily. There is a sense of its being ready for occupation again in spite of the shabby curtains and unpolished floors.

We in tea are a little behind the times when it comes to evaluating the riches that we hold. In a world that's raring to buy nostalgia, aren't we sitting on a gold mine? 'Shall we buy this house?' asks my brother. Just the house, not the troublesome garden, of course, he adds. Well, just suppose we did. And we had a tea bungalow running, you know, for tourists who'd be willing to pay a packet for the entire tea experience, with all its ceremony and style.

Breakfasts at nine, complete with fruit and juices from a newly invigorated Mali Bari. Carefully planned lunch menus, curries alternating with cold spreads. Bearers in spanking new livery, with the Samsing crest. Someone dressed up as Burra Saab coming stomping in and changing out of his kamjaari shoes, eating his meal and entertaining the guests with tales of the leopard in Section No.6. Only to dash off in his jeep again, to cool his heels and rehearse the dialogues for his next appearance, at tea time. English tea, presided over very correctly by a very proper Burra Memsaab, but served with Indian hospitality, nice and warm. Can you picture it all? We laugh at the way we let our ideas carry us away, but we realize there is a market for this kind of thing, and that it could well save Samsing!

I wept for a lost world when I stood at the view point overhanging the Murti. Sometimes a place can do a lot to you. It doesn't really need people in it.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Tee Time Tale

(Published in The Statesman, December 26, 2005. Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

In all my forty three years, I've never won a prize at games. And today, a beautiful November Sunday, I won at golf (category: Novices and Beginners). It amazed me and it has stunned my family into a respectful silence.

I spent my entire school life trying to get out of the way of basketballs, soft balls and cricket balls that classmates aimed at me. With one hand holding my spectacles in place, I would run to a corner of the field and look out anxiously for missiles. There was a reason why I didnt get into trouble with the PT and games teachers. One rainy July morning when we were in Class V, PT had to be taken indoors in a classroom. The teacher gave us a dictation test of sports related words. I was the only girl who could spell 'Calisthenics' and 'Eurythmics' in a class of forty. That didn’t actually win me exemption from the dreaded ball games, but the teachers tolerated me and ignored me until I passed out from school. It was a great relief to me.
I'm no sportsperson, and I'm a terrible traveller as well, which is why it is hard to believe that the prize that was awarded to me was for the best Long Drive.

I didnt play the match. Those who did played 36 holes over two days. I only entered for the long drive, pitch and putt competitions at the insistence of friends who wanted me to do it for a lark. I wasn't so sure. Go and make a fool of myself on the golf course in front of all those people? I said yes, anyway, getting carried away by all the high spirits and good natured fooling that always goes on at Ladies’ Meets. My old friend Lizzy has a kind heart and she knew I was really feeling terrified deep down inside. She took me aside, pressed a club into my hands and spoke to me calmly and patiently before sending me out into the field. Her words played over and over in my head. 'Eye on the ball. Forget everything else. Just keep your eye on the ball.' My guru's advice paid off.

It was Wodehouse's stories that first attracted me to golf. His golfing stories capture all the beauty of the links: the expanse, the sense of leisure and the silences. The golf courses in the Dooars, where I live, are all located below the foothills of the Himalayas, and two or three of them lie along riverbeds. There is a sense of nature in repose on these courses and I have enjoyed many walks on them. Needless to add, when there were no golfers sending balls whizzing around me.

There is a woman in a Wodehouse golf story who is a tennis player. The hero, a strong, silent four handicapper worships her, but vows to make her a golfer before he weds her. On her first session on the course, she tees off without a care. To her amazement, her ball sails away for yards and yards. She is hooked to the game for life.

I too hit the first ball without a care. After all, I had nothing to lose. Everyone knows I'm no golfer. I saw it sail away into the distance in a perfect arc as if it had a life of its own. Disbelieving and filled with wonder, I attempted the next shot. And went to pieces, trying to live up to my own performance.

Shot number 2 was disqualified. At number 3 I pulled myself up a bit -- with friends yelling encouragement -- and managed to achieve contact; a feat in itself, and distance, if not direction.Direction -- yes, I have a sense of one as of today. I have an answer to that question that all unemployed people dread, 'What do you do ?' I shall say, 'I play golf'.

Monday, April 02, 2007

A Late Reading of Henry James' The Portrait of A Lady

(Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

Isabel Archer is a woman of high intelligence who meets a series of people who feel that she has a great future. She hasn’t the means or the opportunity to make this happen. She doesn’t even desire it. A number of people, who begin to love her after they get to know her, become providers and facilitators. She lacked exposure; she is taken under her aunt's wing and she travels abroad. She lacked means; she is bequeathed a fortune. She lacked opportunity; a number of well endowed patrons and suitors offer her all they have. She is empowered.

None of her friends, relations or acquaintances believes she has a fault. Her creator, however, distances himself (and the readers) from Isabel and we see her with all her faults. This is the strong point of this novel. Isabel is wilful, opinionated, misguided and blind to several things which are obvious to characters with far less intelligence. She has lofty ideals and her goal in life is an idealised abstraction of perfection. She loses touch with reality, transferring her perceptions to other people's minds. She isn’t so much the innocent abroad as the self deluded victim of her own flawed, blinkered vision. However, these are only aspects of her character.

In spite of every opportunity and sufficient means, Isabel proceeds to make a horrible mistake and marry a fraud who only wants her fortune. She makes errors of judgement and befriends all the wrong people. A few years after a brilliant future was predicted for her, her young life is a mess, and all prospect of happiness ruined.

There are people who do things, and there are people to whom things happen. For the first time, I saw this novel as the tragedy of the people of the second kind. Could Isabel have prevented the disaster which overtook her life? Can anyone control the direction which life takes?It isn’t just the flaws in her character which lead to all her suffering. It is also the series of unfortunate events that follow one after another. Things 'happen'. Besides, the world is full of 'other people', and their actions affect every individual. No one can control the entire world around them and if things go wrong, it isn’t always for want of trying.

And yet, at every point Isabel had a choice and made the wrong choice. Would the right choices have guaranteed that she lived a life without sorrow? That's too metaphysical a question for this train of thought! The people who care for Isabel feel betrayed by her unrealised potential and unfulfilled promise. The seeds of greatness are gone to waste. There are many Isabels in real life. There are artists and performers, or sportspersons or leaders who never quite make it to the top or anywhere near there. For those who watch them with a sense of expectation, it is tragic.

Of course, both greatness and tragedy are perceptions, not absolutes. Isabel was perceived to be great. Readers of the novel perceive the conclusion as a tragedy. The character herself may think otherwise.