A few years ago, as part of the social programme at a literary festival in Bhutan, we were taken to visit a Bhutanese village. The trip made me think of Ashis Nandy’s book An Ambiguous Journey to the City, in which he has an essay titled ‘The journey to the village is a journey to the centre of the self’. I often get asked the question, “Where are you from?” Seeing my Bengali surname, strangers assume I must have been born in Kolkata. When I tell them I was born in Africa, in Dessie, Ethiopia to be precise, eyebrows rise, and people like my (then) ten-year old god-son ask me if I am African. Adults say, “Oh, so you grew up in Africa!” at which point I have to say “No, I grew up in Darjeeling”. “Oh, Loreto! I was in Loreto College, which year?” at which point I have to explain that I graduated from Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi. At this point my interlocutor starts getting a glazed look in her eyes. To ease her pain, I put an end to the story, and say, “But now I’m based in Bombay, have been for the last 15 years.” Relief, exclamations (“So Bombay is home for you now!”) and finally we can move on to other things. This kind of exchange has had an educational effect on me. Now when I get asked the same question, I respond with the short answer “Bombay” and let myself off the hook. But in a country where you still get asked the question, especially when travelling long-distance by train, “Where is your village?”, I wish I had the presence of mind to say, quoting Nandy, that my village is at the centre of my self; to say—I left my village at the age of thirteen but my village has never left me. That centre is Darjeeling; that centre is, I suspect, home.
It is only now, when I look back at my writing and glean from it the presence of this absence, that I see how pervading it is; how growing up in Darjeeling gave me a core that would manifest itself in my poetry and fiction in the strangest ways. In my novel Rupture, one of the characters, Partho, an anglophile film buff, is a product of a public school set seven thousand feet above the sea. When he descends from the hills to the plains, he finds he doesn’t fit in, and in his anger he blames that unreal, paradisiacal childhood:
It had ruined him. The pristine air in which everything seemed sharp and immediate, as if summoned that very instant by some faultless conjuror’s hand. The presence in his life of those mountains of shadow and ice. The way in which, on clear evenings, the setting sun brushed each glittering white peak into a thing so ravishing and transitory, so technicolour that he could hardly believe in its existence. How could something that looked so real and solid and provable be enchanted into something so unreal by a trick of the light? Between the steepness of a slope under his climbing legs, the blueness of the air above his spinning head, the ache in his teeth that told him the mountain existed, the fog in his eyes that spirited it away—between all those implacable contradictions, how could he not have got tainted?
Being unfit for any other kind of life, particularly life in the plains, makes him a slightly warped and more-than-slightly dislikable man. And yet, I realized that when I wanted Partho to redeem himself, to find some way of reaching out to the wife he abandoned, and the children he never cared for, it was to his most cherished memory—that of the hills—to which he returns:
It was the fog I loved most, because it was the fog that made the light so warm in that cold place of my youth. The thin drizzle, the thick fog, the warm yellow light in the classroom, in the dorm, in the cubes. Fat slices of bread, butter so cold we ate it in chunks, tea so hot we skinned our tongues. Everything golden, the butter, the apple juice in the end-of-term glass, the sun through the cryptomeria hitting your eye as you lay on the wet crunchy grass. And inside the dak bungalow the candle, as we bent over a game of cards, teachers and students cheating equally—all is fair in the circle of light against the dark. A bear prowling outside, honest, someone saw it with his own two eyes. Huddle closer, here no bear will get you. Off the road, in the khudside, with our peashooters. No peas in them, just hard, scrunched up pellets of paper, nicking the ankles of those who walked past our noses as we hid among the insects, invisible until betrayed by a stinging nettle and the yelp of a bare-legged boy. Eat the stem of this tender green shoot, suck the juice from the rhododendron flower. Part the fern on that mossy wall and look into the gap between the stones. It feels like a discovery, the orange marble that you hid. Here is treasure, immeasurable.
Under a bush near the chapel was our little hidey-hole when we were in Primary. We hid there and watched. There was nothing to watch, it was the hiding that mattered. On that tree with the flat branch was where we built a little machan made of twine. We were going to hunt tigers from there, when the rest of the world was sleeping. In two days, it was found and with it our nest egg of three stolen library books, for reading by torchlight as we waited for the tiger to arrive. On that bend is where I fell often, gouging open my knees. In that corner of the junior field is where we did our Mowgli dance. Akela we do our best. Up the narrow stairs, but not all the way to the Infirmary, is where we burnt the wax and drew the batik patterns. Below, we planed wood, rejoicing in the spray of dust, the pile of wood shavings curling at our feet. Across the senior field, we banged at the pianos, rows and rows of notes straining to become music. Sometimes, on an empty afternoon—where was everyone—you would hear a melody, someone playing again and again, practicing, perfecting, because this was the thing he loved.
They gave us so much room, Paromita, to find out what we loved. 
I think it is that love for the hills that has stayed with me, no matter how far away I went. The American poet Elizabeth Bishop asks in her wonderful poem ‘Questions of Travel’— “should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?” It was while attempting to understand the ‘whereverness’ of home that I realized home is what sneaks up on you when you least expect it, as happened in the last section of this poem:
One or Two Things about Home
Hungarian sausage, from an Indian friend in Austria.
A hard white cylinder, twisted at one end, like a sweet.
The white is a dusting of flour (on wax?),
the cylinder hard as a shinbone.
Tear the twist of wire off, unwrap the flour-skin.
The meat inside is red. With a sharp knife, cut a slice.
Bite into the little red disc.
It’s sharp, and salty, and good. Could do with a glass of wine, though,
to go with this Loidl Spezialitaten, this Haussalami,
saying the words all wrong, but wanting
to say them, wanting the mouth to do more
than eat this red and salty foreign meat.
What is it about Hungary these days? Should I treat them as signs?
Why else should I be reading Sándor Márai, recalling Csoma de Körös,
the Hungarian who walked to Tibet and died in Darjeeling?
If that’s not a sign, what is? Darjeeling, my home for thirteen years.
I left, at thirteen, and what it left me was a taste for mist
and gloomy afternoons, a relish for steep roads and gabled roofs,
a zest for steamed pork momos and cups and cups of tea.
Not for Csoma de Körös, he died of malaria in Darjeeling.
And Márai committed suicide in San Diego.
What is it about Hungarians and death?
“Who are the Hungarians?”
Lapps? Finns? Turks? Huns? Körös was keen to find out.
Instead, he found a monastery, a bitter cold and a language
he would learn, a grammar he would take back for the world.
Which journey ends the way you imagine? I try and imagine
a journey on foot, in bitter cold, in rags. All I can summon up
are prayer flags, the tall fluttering wisps of cloth I walked past everyday
without noticing what they might be saying, blind to the language
of signs made of wind and air, white on blue, white on grey,
speaking to spirits that must have watched me go. And the more
I’d like to stay with Hungary, the more Darjeeling comes back—
the sound of Buddhist gongs, the stench of horse dung,
the juice of the Bhutan apple spurting on my tongue, the sight
of a yellow light in fog—each separate and terrible, each sign
invisible inside me, marking me for who I am, foretelling every
word, every action, that I might one day make.
Press deep, cut through to the bone.
Journeys never turn out the way you imagine. Now an affirmed city-dweller, the hills where I spent all my formative years made me, in invisible and undeniable ways, the writer and the person that I am. Like Eustace Trotter in Allan Sealy’s The Trotter-Nama who thinks of the Himalayas as a “vital place to which his thoughts would go back again and again…”, a feeling that goes “deeper than the ordinary longing for a sense of quiet rootedness” and is instead “the sense of a source or spring”—Darjeeling continues to be a motherlode for my work which I am yet to fully mine. For me these hills called home are not just a place on the map but a feeling in my heart. I will end with a poem which I smuggled into my book of children’s poems, but which is really about my adult sense of longing, belonging and loss.
Used To Be
Used to be
just waking was reason
to go mad with joy.
Fed, dressed, kissed,
then sent hurtling
past the lawn
past the field
past the slopes
past the trees
past the breeze
past the town
past the high Himalayan peaks
in a room
in a city.
Used to be
just the thought
of a book
to lose my way
through a day.
Rapt, not hearing a word,
just waiting for class
to be over
walk run race home
open the door
fling down the bag
drink up the milk
throw off the shoes
jump on the bed
take out the book
and sink into:
A quiet depression.
Used to be
just the sight of yellow light
in mist was poetry,
hot bread and jam,
a hiding place in a wall
behind a fern
where a single orange marble winked,
firestruck and swollen,
a candlepowered tin
floating titanic in a tub.
Proud of the red apple cheeks
I stole from my little Bhutia friends,
proud of the Kanchenjunga
I fitted into my window,
proud of the giant night shadows
I spread across the wall,
from where I began.
 From Sampurna Chattarji’s Rupture [HarperCollins Publishers India, 2009]
 From Sampurna Chattarji’s Rupture [HarperCollins Publishers India, 2009]
 From Sampurna Chattarji’s Absent Muses [Poetrywala, 2010]
 From Sampurna Chattarji’sThe Fried Frog[Scholastic India Pvt. Ltd., first edition June 2009, reprinted September 2009]
Sampurna Chattarji is a poet, novelist and translator with twelve books to her credit. Her four poetry collections include Sight May Strike You Blind (Sahitya Akademi 2007, reprint 2008), Absent Muses (Poetrywala, 2010) and The Scorpion; her two novels are Rupture (2009) and Land of the Well (2012), both from HarperCollins. Wordygurdyboom! (Puffin, 2004, 2008) is Sampurna’s translation of Sukumar Ray’s Bengali poetry and prose; and Dirty Love (Penguin, March 2013) is her short-story collection about Bombay/Mumbai. Her latest book is her translation of Joy Goswami’s Selected Poems (HarperCollins, 2014). http://sampurnachattarji.wordpress.com/