I didn’t want to start my visit of the hills of Darjeeling with Darjeeling. Like Simla, I expect it to be crowded with tourists, dirty and jammed on the roads with constant traffic. I prefer something quieter. I reach New Jalpaiguri by a train from Malda. I take a bus to Siliguri. I have a lunch of rice and potatoes. There seems to be no other vegetable in these parts in modest restaurants. It’s always potato curry or shreds of potatoes fried in oil or both.
Going up to the hills is not usually done by buses. As I find out, the most common means of transport is shared jeeps. So I take one of them to the town of Mirik. I am sitting at the back with three girls.
‘Where are you from?’ I ask the talkative one.
‘Bhutan,’ she says. She returns to her phone call and says ruefully, ‘You love me? I am married and have two kids.’
The other two girls are silent. I am not really convinced they are from Bhutan. They seem to be Gorkhas of the region. By the road is a narrow railway track. I surmise this is the track to Darjeeling, the one built by the British. The jeep takes to the hills. The girls offer me Center Fresh chewing gum. I chew it all the way to Mirik.
I am happy to be in Mirik. It is laid back. Finally I am out of the heat of Indian summer. It is cool here among these hills. The lake at Mirik is an added attraction. Children take to horse rides. Families and couples go on boat rides. I walk around the lake by an easy path.
My room is a dormitory room with 10 beds but I am the only one here tonight. The place is run by Bengalis. The hospitality is great but the roti I have for dinner is thick and soggy. I eat it with hesitation and regret.
I leave early this morning and head out of town in search of a viewpoint. After a walk of 20 minutes and some uphill climbing, I reach it. I catch slight glimpses of the valley below. Otherwise, the morning is fogged out. Visibility is limited to a few meters. The sun is barely seen. I wait at the view point but the fog does not clear. I witness many birds peculiar to the region, not found in South India except perhaps in the Western Ghats. I go in search of Thurbo Tea Estate.
I am walking on a lonely road lined with verdant trees dripping wet in the light drizzle of the morning. It is half past seven. I am joined by two women wearing bright blue wellies, carrying wicket baskets behind their backs. They walk briskly and overtake me easily. I think they are tea estate workers on their way to the estate. I follow them.
The walk to the estate is quite something. From a little group we grow into a crowd of fifty strong. Workers leave their houses and join the crowd on the way to the estate. Workers come down slopes, acknowledge their colleagues, join the stream of workers and amidst morning gossips walk briskly. The scene reminds me of what I have read of Gandhi’s Dandi March. He started from Sabarmati with a few followers but reached the ocean many thousand strong.
Workers who are dressed plainly and who do not carry baskets work in the factory. Others are tea pickers on the green slopes of tea. Before reaching the estate, I spot the first tea slopes to my left. I leave the workers and head to these slopes.
Walking in and out of the fog, I wander these slopes for a couple of hours. The views are stunning. I accost some tea pickers and have a chat. I give them a good excuse for them to get a little rest.
‘Can you fill one basket in a day’s work?’ I ask them.
‘Yes,’ replies one woman. She continues to pick little tender leaves while she converses with me.
‘How many hours do you work in a day?’
‘We just started the day. We work till 4 pm,’ she says. It is 8 am now.
An hour later I meet another group of tea pickers on a higher slope. They are taking a break. One of them is peeling a baked potato. Another is shelling peanuts. Yet another is on her mobile chatting away. After the initial enquiries, one of them tells me, ‘See everything in Mirik. Don’t leave anything out.’
Tea pickers are always women. I pass some male workers sorting out tea saplings into barrows. They tell me that these will be used to plant new tea estates.
I return to town and head another way in search of orange orchards. I had no idea how far these orchards were from town. I ask for directions.
‘Just follow the road. You will reach it in ten minutes,’ says a local. ‘Where are you from?’
‘I have relatives near Mysore. You know Bylakuppe?’
‘Yes. It’s a famous Tibetan place. Are you from Tibet?’
‘I am a local. My father moved here many decades ago. Later in 1959 when China invaded Tibet, his cousins moved out of Tibet and settled in Bylakuppe. By the way, your baba from the south is in jail.’
‘You mean Nithaynanda?’
‘Yes. Do you know that Tamil actress? What’s her name?’ he asks with interest.
‘I have no idea,’ I reply to his disappointment.
I take leave and walk 45 minutes downhill without finding the orange orchards. I am on the right road but it’s a long way down into the valley. I don’t have time. I have to move to Darjeeling in a couple of hours. I climb back uphill for a hour to reach town. It’s a long tough climb but the cool breeze is refreshing. With each wisp of the breeze, I feel in touch with nature.