Thursday, October 27, 2011

Hang Out There!

Tindharia in the Darjeeling hills is the first important railway station on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR).
It is on National Highway 55 which connects - when it is in working order - Siliguri to Darjeeling.

We drove up to it one Sunday afternoon with some friends last July. One of them, a Darjeeling tea expert, pointed out the Tindharia Locomotive and Carriage Workshop to us. The three rooftops perched on the top of the hill made a pretty sight.

We drove past and went up to the railway station. It was also a lovely old building. I wished we could have taken a train ride there, but the train service had been suspended because landslides had snapped the road link and damaged the tracks beyond Tindharia.

We wondered whether repairs would be completed. The scene changed completely in September, when the earthquake struck. A large part of the hillside below the locomotive workshop fell away.

We drove up in the direction of Tindharia today with our younger daughter. She loves the railways, particularly the DHR. This time we couldnt even reach the station.

I did not have my camera with me. These pictures were taken on my old fashioned (four years old is old fashioned these days) phone camera.
No complaints. They pretty much convey what we saw.









The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) is a World Heritage site.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee describes it thus:
"The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is the first, and still the most outstanding example of a hill passenger railway. Opened in 1881, it applied bold and ingenious engineering solutions to the problems of establishing an effective rail link cross a mountainous terrain of great beauty. It is still fully operational* and retains most of its original features intact."

*see above

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Hello, darkness my old friend!

Darkness everywhere. It terrified me, a Delhi girl in my early twenties on my first evening in a tea garden.

That night, a few of us rode from Birpara Tea Garden to Lankapara Tea Garden in an Ambassador car. It was a memorable ride - the car hurtled into the darkness at top speed. It was hard to believe there was a road. There probably wasn't. I'd never been in such inky darkness before.

When the terror of the ride ended, there were the introductions to strangers at the party. I was the new bride in the district. There was only one reason I didn't want the evening to end. The drive would have to be repeated.

While stepping out of our hosts' bungalow, I looked up at the sky. There were stars everywhere! I'd learnt to recognise the major constellations and the planets in Delhi's night skies, but this sight made my head spin. There were stars where I'd been used to seeing dark spaces.

For the first time, I saw the Little Bear - Ursa Minor. It had only been a name on a star map before this. In Delhi, we could spot two stars from Ursa Minor - the Pole Star Polaris, and Kocab. These stars augured well - I was going to love a lot things about my new life in tea.

I missed the city lights. Here, darkness fell by six-thirty in the summer and by five in the winter months. Twenty-five years ago, there was no electricity anywhere in tea gardens save in the bungalows, factories and hospitals. The towns nearby were not much better. There was no street lighting, nor were there any neon signs.

Our daughters never feared the dark as babies. They wouldn't cry or get restless when the lights went out. My husband always said that this was where we failed, having grown up in a city!

I can't say when I started appreciating the darkness in a tea garden. But you do need darkness to appreciate the beauty of light.

My cousin Ambika wrote about this on her blog recently. She had linked another article for star gazers. It is really sad to think of children growing up without seeing stars in the night sky.

For some years now, I've enjoyed taking a solitary outing at nightfall. All those years ago, the loneliness was as frightening as the darkness. Over time, a love of solitude replaced the fear. Silence and darkness can become a rich environment for those who like to wander about in the spaces of the mind.

We should be alright in a world where 'Daylight is good at arriving at the right time'.*

Beware of darkness

Watch out now, take care
Beware of the thoughts that linger
Winding up inside your head
The hopelessness around you
In the dead of night

- George Harrison

*George Harrison, 'All Things Must Pass'

Monday, September 19, 2011


Sunday evening, Biswakarma Puja Day. It was chilly and it had been raining for nearly twenty four hours. My daughter Swati, my husband Mohan and I were sitting with our cups of tea. We were arguing idly about whether we should catch a movie later in the evening. Suddenly Swati said, 'Earthquake!'

I had just felt a little movement, but hadn't identified it.
'Run, Ma!' she said, and already, everything was shaking violently. A loud grinding and rumbling sound started off.

We were shaken and rattled about. The lights went off at once. The noise was frightening. Once we made it outside we stood together holding one another at the door. We knew we should be running down the stairs but we couldn't move. The building was rocking violently. It felt as if everything would come crashing down any second.

We heard people wailing loudly from the direction of Siliguri.
The last time I'd heard that many people shouting was when India won the cricket World Cup.

We stood hugging one another, unable to do anything more than keep our balance. It was pitch dark. We couldn't see the stairs. As soon as the shuddering stopped, the lights came on and we took the stairs down - gingerly, because they were slippery after the rain. Two young girls who live upstairs rushed down, sobbing loudly.

Everyone in the three buildings that make up our apartment complex had come down.
No one was hurt but people were just too scared to go back inside.

We looked up and wondered if the structures would all come down any minute. We saw tall cracks - as high as twelve to fourteen feet - around many of the walls and pillars on the ground.

'We should live in a bungalow again!' I said to Mohan. We've felt a number of mild earthquakes over the years. In a bungalow, it would take a moment to run out on to the front lawn! And those old tea bungalows were built to withstand more than earthquakes.

Ten days ago, Delhi had an earthquake. My brother and I were chatting about it on GMail last week.
"Was it scary?" I asked.
"Nothing serious ... not scary ... but it's a unique feeling ... a wave which passes through your body ... your head stops feeling it by the time your legs start feeling it"
"You make me want an earthquake!!!!" I said ... and he reminded me of these words when I spoke to him later in the evening.
It felt a little eerie to re-read that chat. He'd written, "The feeling reminded me of all of us watching the landslide in oozes"
Today's quake had its epicentre in Sikkim, less than 60 kilometres from Siliguri.

Time calmed us all down. I stopped holding on to my daughter. We walked around a little freely. We tried to call our elder daughter in Delhi. All the phone lines were jammed with similar panic calls.

My husband walked around inspecting the cracks with some of our neighbours. 'Only the brick work and plaster have cracked,' he said. 'The pillars are unharmed.' Only then did we think of climbing the stairs back up to see what damage had taken place at our flat.

No, the building was not going to collapse for now. Still, all the neighbours pulled their cars out of the ground floor parking lot and parked them out in the open.

In the flat, we grabbed our cooling cups of tea and checked the damage. A broken photo frame, a chipped plate, some books knocked down. My 'puja' in disarray. Nothing too bad. Nothing that couldn't wait till later. We put on floaters so that we could run if required, and went downstairs to wait in case there were aftershocks.

Swati and I sat down in the car, though she and her dad had already decided not to drive out to the wide open spaces like I wanted to. They both said we ought to leave the roads free for people who might need to be rushed to hospital.

We managed to make our phone call to our daughter Parvati, alone in Delhi, frightening and reassuring her in the same breath.

Three young boys from the our building walked by. They were in high spirits.
'We could have died!' one announced happily in a loud voice.
'How many times have we studied earthquakes in class! Who thought we would feel one!'
Swati and I couldn't help laughing when we heard them.

It turned out the boys had been to the movie hall - the one we'd been debating about.
They'd all rushed out when the false ceiling started crumbling down and the hall filled with clouds of dust.

One boy popped his head in at my window. 'You are going to sit the whole night in the car, Aunty?' he asked.
He couldn't be more than eleven years old, and he'd braved the earthquake in the movie hall.
'That will be silly, no?' I asked him. 'Want to sit with us?"
He ran for his life. Again.

This post appeared in The Statesman, Kolkata, on 20 September 2011.