It is my earliest memory of travelling to Calcutta. I must be three years old. I haven’t slept all night on the train. When we finally arrive at Sealdah, I can see my grandfather standing on the platform. I alight, hug him, look around, and the first thing I ask is, “Dadu, pahar kothay chole gyalo?” [“Dadu, where have the mountains gone?”] I don’t remember if my parents laughed at me, but I certainly remember that my mood was inevitably spoilt for the rest of the trip. Growing up in Siliguri had assured me that regardless of whatever I do, and wherever I look out from, the mountains would be there to say “Hello!” From our main road-facing balcony we could see the Kanchenjunga every day of the year, regardless of rain, fog, or mist. Later, while attending college in Calcutta, I would talk about this very matter-of-factly, and watch looks of horror, disbelief, wonder, and envy on each of my friends’ faces. Initially I pitied them, for they do not know what they are missing; but I gradually revered in the schadenfreude that settled down.
Yet each of them, like true tourists, had systematically woken up at 3.30 in the morning on their visit to Darjeeling, seen the sunrise at Tiger Hill, and clicked many pictures with the Kanchenjunga at the background. My parents, who were probashi Calcuttans [expatriates], were slightly dismissive of their brethren who would wax eloquent about the Kanchenjunga the moment they would alight at NJP station. I—like a true mongrel belonging nowhere—was more vocal about my jeers at them. “That Kanchenjunga you see from my balcony, it’s mine; I see that every morning, every evening; I see it and the green hills from my school window. What do you see from Shyambazar? Bus number 78/1!”
My hamartia has been taking beauty for granted. When I first shifted to Calcutta, I would physically pine for two things: the sight of the mountains from the balcony, and the ringing of the church bells every Sunday. In my mind, the two were inextricably related. For, as long as the sun shone in Siliguri, I could see the Kanchenjunga from my balcony, and as soon as it would set, the Don Bosco church, very near my house, and in the same direction as the mountains, would turn on the red light at the top of the altar. I always thought that while one was out of sight, the other assured that it would be back soon.
Years later, I found a word in a foreign language that could attempt to describe this longing I felt. While looking at a print of Caspar David Friedrich’s Mondaufgang am Meer, my teacher introduced me to the German word Sehnsucht. Duden’s prosaic definition was “inniges, schmerzliges Verlangen nach jemandem, etwas.” I had trembled slightly as I translated it in English: an intense, painful longing for someone or something. I had finally found my word. Sehnsucht.
Many things used to happen while the Kanchenjunga slept in the 90s. The Doordarshan tower in Kurseong would be two pinpricks in the sky, like an inland lighthouse providing direction to the foothills of the Himalayas in Bengal, and for parents to point at it and say, “That is where the signal in your TV comes from!” With no white majestic mountain range to steal the show, one could look at ascending and descending rows of light, and the parents would explain again: “Those are vehicles travelling up to and down from Kurseong.” And so many other memories, tucked away in the twilight zone between real and imaginary: one day when the weather was exceptionally bright, you thought you could extend your hand and touch the Kanchenjunga; another day, by an exceptional set of circumstances which optics could possibly explain, you saw Kanchenjunga alternating between light and darkness.
I carried my Sehnsucht like a dull pain inside me for years. It was probably in 2009, when I was visiting Siliguri after a disgracefully long interval, that I failed to find the Kanchenjunga. For a few seconds, it seemed like a fantasy novel, or the beginning of rising action in a fairy tale: “And as the princess looked out of the window, she saw that the beautiful mountain range had disappeared. The wicked witch had cast her spell.” Maa came up to me and said that a new hotel had been built in the opening between the Bansals’ lavish sal, teak, and shisham trees, and the Kanchenjunga, which blocked our sight of the latter completely. Every other night there would be parties in the hotel, with Bollywood music blaring loudly, and I took it as a personal affront, a punishment that had been meted out especially to me for my nonchalance this long. I returned to university, this time to talk about Kanchenjunga with a sense of loss.
I am often surprised by the tendency of life to fit into fixed, definite patterns. In January this year, I learnt that I would be travelling to Darjeeling with other German teachers to attend a four-day seminar. Days before we left, I learnt that we would be staying at Hotel Windamere. I had an old print of the view from Observatory Hill (where Windamere is located), and while packing warm clothes I dusted the picture. Some research revealed that it was in Windamere that Satyajit Ray’s film Kanchenjunga (1962) was shot, and it was here that the cast had stayed. I was amused. On our first morning, my friend woke me up at the crack of dawn to show a beautiful silhouette of light around the Kanchenjunga (yes, it was there). Both of us rummaged for our cameras, and moved the lace curtain minutes later to find the silhouette gone. Yet life came a full circle two weeks ago, when I woke up at three in the morning, and walked down the dark lawns of Windamere, looking for friends and colleagues, who were all ready to go to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise.
In the midst of frightened Calcuttans loudly invoking God to help them survive the bad roads leading to Darjeeling; in the midst of disappointment at failing to procure places inside Sunrise Point for being late; in the midst of the biting cold and wind mercilessly hitting the face; in the midst of fear that all will be ruined by fog creeping up at the last minute, I stood and wondered if I could really watch the Kanchenjunga wake up from such close quarters. While in school, I was an avid reader of Narayan Gangapadhyay’s Tenida, and the part in Jhau-banglor Rahasya, where the four friends go to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise, had left me miffed with the author’s declaration that: “Finally the sun rose. How did it look? What plays of colours did it leave over the clouds and Kanchenjunga? That I will not say. Those of you, who have seen sunrise at Tiger Hill, know already. Those of you who haven’t will never know unless you see it.” [Translation mine.] I wanted to know the details then. But after seeing the sun rise in the East, and the Kanchenjunga systematically wake up in the West, I too would refrain from putting words into the occurrences that morning at a certain hilltop 3358 feet above sea level. When we were waiting for the light, in an attempt to beat the cold, I joined the others in singing, “Aloy-e alokmoy kore he, ele alor alo.” [“Illuminating everything, you bring light into my world.”] After the hill was flooded with light, and all was over, I stood with them, with the Kanchenjunga at my back, and let myself get clicked into innumerable pictures. Later when I was in the car, waiting for the others to join, and waiting for my parents to wake up in Calcutta so that I could tell them all about the sunrise and the Kanchenjunga, I sang softly to myself,
“Shoponduar khule esho, arun-aaloke
Esho mughdho e chokhe
Khonokaaler aabhash hote chirokaaler tore esho amar ghore.”
[“Open the doors of your dreams and come to light,
Come to these inspired eyes
Advancing from a moment’s impression to an eternity of presence: come to my abode.”]