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India every day

3rd Instalment

Refugium Kalimpong*. – The town in the Himalayas clings tightly to the slopes like a survivor on a cliff. Kalimpong has grown, crawling and creeping across all the rocks and ravines into the far-off folds of the landscape. Nonetheless, it feels

Kalimpong - Darjeeling
Kalimpong – Darjeeling – Martin & Madan

cheerful in a small-town sort of way, and charming. Kalimpong is my Indian refuge. I always breathe a sigh of relief when I move into my room, which Indira Bose, my landlady, built for me. To one side of her house with its numerous occupants, hidden away, protected from people’s gaze by an incline on one side and a thick bamboo grove on the other, the stable little hut stands there, bordered on two sides by a veranda. In the only room, there’s a bed and a small table, a cupboard and two chairs – it’s enough. On the window sill a water jug, three steel containers for bread, cheese, butter and biscuits.
Here I am a recluse, here I can be. There’s power for light and a computer. There a little electric heater and a small fan waiting in the cupboard – for the cold and the heat, but I try to do without either. A few books in the cupboard, underwear and two shirts, a woollen hat, a pair of long johns, and an umbrella. That’s all I need.
There is a separate bathroom behind the little house, not visible from the room. Plastic is banned. Waist-high wood on the inside walls, and a lovely, white-painted wooden railing on the veranda.

Binay’s despair. – Jaiprakash, the most faithful of my Kalimpong friends, has moved to Bangalore, to work for a finance company. It is both depressing and typical that talented, well-educated young people can find no appropriate work in hill towns like Kalimpong. Everyone wants to move away.
I used to meet Jaiprakash every evening on Main Street, even if it was just to have a bad cup of Nescafé in the “3Cs”. The Himalayan Hotel, my favourite place, was too quiet for him, too lonely – too grand. He needed to have a lot going on around him, and a few girls to make eyes at. In his place, I now meet Binay (aged 31), Jaiprakash’s colleague, albeit not so often. They were teachers together at the Rockvale Business College, Binay still is. He’s very calm, dark-skinned, not very talkative, a computer specialist, and for some months now head over heels in love with one of his colleagues, which makes him depressed and even more lost in thought.
Binay’s family come from Bihar. But his parents have been living in Kalimpong for decades. Binay was born in Bihar because it’s the custom that an expectant mother returns to her native area to give birth; he returned to Kalimpong when he was a few months old. He speaks Nepali and Bihari and Hindi, was educated at an English-medium school and now teaches computer science. His girlfriend also comes from Bihar, but belongs to a different sub-caste. Both his parents and hers are against the relationship and are resisting their children’s plans to marry.
Both of them are financially dependent. Both have had a modern education, both are around thirty. But they don’t want to get married against their parents’ wishes. Their argument is: We are not against your marriage, we want you to be happy, we think you make a great couple, but our relatives are stirring up trouble, and what will become of your brothers and sisters, who also want to get married? Will they find worthy partners when it comes out that you are unequal partners? The dowry will shoot up, the reservations will multiply, and it will be even more difficult to find a husband for their daughter.
Run away? – Binay does not want any heavy solutions. The girl’s parents are planning to end her employment at the college and to look for a job for her somewhere else a long way away. All without consulting her.
The parents brought their children up with as much care as possible. Now they believe that the children are their property. Even for their children’s sake, they cannot forego the prestige of a marriage that befits their social class.

Waiting for Madan. – A month ago, I invited Madan Thapa Magar (aged 22) to Kalimpong. This afternoon at half past four, he’s finally standing there in front of me! I had long doubted whether he would accept my invitation and would embark


on the long journey by bus from Kathmandu to Siliguri and then by taxi to Kalimpong; he was my mountain guide in Nepal, who hiked with me for two weeks on the Manaslu trek, protected me from danger, kept cheerful and kept me cheerful. I had researched the bus connections and informed him by phone. He said yes, he would come. His first trip to India. Twenty-four hours on a bus. In Kathmandu, he had found out that the bus would arrive at six in the morning at the Nepal-India border in Kakadvitta. And so I ordered a taxi from Siliguri, to pick him up there at six, about an hour’s drive from the town.
The taxi driver waited and waited, with a board saying “Madan for Kalimpong” on his windscreen. He called me once an hour, his voice becoming grumpy and more and more threatening. I would have to pay “compensation” he shouted, as if I was to blame for the delay.
I was getting increasingly anxious in my room and tried to stop the taxi driver returning to Siliguri. Then he wouldn’t be able to claim his “compensation”, I argued. He couldn’t call Madan on his mobile phone on the other side of the border because there are no connections between the two countries’ mobile phone networks. It was only when he was close to the border that Madan was able to reach the driver to tell him that he was almost there.
Finally, Madan was able to call me. He was over the border, and had found the taxi driver. He was on his way to Kalimpong.

Himalayan Hotel. – Every afternoon, I spend a long time sitting on the veranda of the Himalayan Hotel, reading the newspaper, writing and looking out over the world from my concealed

Himalayan Hotel in Kalimpong (Jayanta Das)
Himalayan Hotel in Kalimpong

bird’s nest. It is misty, sometimes clouds float through the valley and lie for a few minutes over the town like a warming scarf, it is sunny, it gets dark, and the lights come on, brighter and brighter, but I stay sitting in the same chair, watching and enjoying these hours of settledness.
Seen from here, the lively muddle of Main Street is under control, rendered poetic. MacFarlane Church can be seen between the trees, with new spires – almost too prettily beige – adorning its square tower. Three years ago, these spires had come crashing down in an earthquake, the force half burying them in the ground below. Before that, I had always waited for the bells that rang at half past four. The deep sounds of the bells, resonating wonderfully through the valley, reminded me of the bells in Boppard where I was born, booming through the Rhine valley; they reminded me even more of the small, higher-pitched bells in Forno in the Strona valley with its many branches, my grandmother’s northern Italian home, where they could ring out to their hearts’ content. Now, as half past four approaches, I wait for the bell, but it doesn’t chime, it is still being repaired.
Nilam MacDonald, the owner of the Himalayan Hotel, arranges the garden around the hotel like the magnificent setting of a gemstone. The surrounding area is not level and so there are no large components, but rather miniature versions of the gardener’s art. Over there a group of big red bellflowers, and there two bushes, artistically arranged together. Here a tall tree providing shade for a bed of roses, elsewhere low, densely leaved bushes line the path that is paved in natural stone. Nothing is haphazard, but nowhere is any violence done to nature. In this miniature landscape, the great stone building of the hotel seems even more dignified and imposing. The colonial building contains a lot of wood, the railings on the veranda, for example, the panelling in the dining-room, all the ceilings – dark stained, honest wood.
The new waiter who brings me my masala tea* is called Paul Lepcha; he’s a member of the Lepcha people, the most widespread people in these mountains. Tall and thin and dark-skinned, with exaggeratedly polite behaviour, he is always bowing deeply, but he doesn’t come across as comical but has a charming, childlike quality. An energetic person, with no gravitas, all breezy and light. I love watching him pouring the tea, then looking up and saying: “Enjoy, Sir!”, and never without his winning smile.
In this corner on the right-hand side of the first floor veranda, I am in a contemplative mood, as if the place was sacrosanct. And it must be, but who knows why. (…)

Return journey by train. – Madan has set off on the long journey back to Kathmandu, I say goodbye to Indira and Binay, his fiancée Priya, Nilam and others. First stage from Kalimpong to New Jalpaiguri by taxi. I used to travel by bus; but since

Train Station
Train Station

I’ve been taking my laptop with me, I avoid this because the luggage is always carried on the roof of the bus – packed and lashed down, but completely at the mercy of the bumpy roads. Modern technology is unable to adapt to the lifestyle of local people here. We humans are adaptable, less so the products we have manufactured.
On the way to the city, as soon as we’ve reached the plain, there’s thick forest on either side, where elephants live. Indian military settlements, drill grounds, army schools, military vehicles everywhere. The premises are rigidly fenced off, sparkling clean, with little gardens and parks, but all polished and measured and painted in bright, kitschy colours – all very soldierly. Not a female touch to be seen, no curves or flair, nowhere is nature allowed any freedom. There are lots of wooden buildings on stilts, to counteract the plague of termites.
Down into the noisy, dusty, life – teeming with people – of the bloated, over-sized, twin city of New Jalpaiguri and Siliguri. Over the years, the two cities have spilled into each other. There are no distinguishing features: no river, or pond or garden, no broad boulevard, no generously proportioned suburb, no tower, no temple. Modern shopping centres alongside huts and hovels, no sign of a planning, organising hand, no longing for beauty. Just streets and people and vehicles and dust and noise.
In front of the station, the benches have been removed – you have to stand while you wait, or go somewhere else. I look for a quiet restaurant where I can pass the time. The station square is surrounded by little eateries where you can only get simple rice dishes, and it’s too early for that. I continue to the little dosshouse for travellers; yes, a room I could have; but no coffee or a snack. Later on rice, that was all.
So I wander around and wait, the train leaves at nine o’clock. It’s an hour late, so more standing, this time on one of the three big iron bridges spanning the railway lines, just so I don’t miss the announcement about which platform the train will arrive on. The announcements are thorough: each one in three languages: Bengali, Hindi and English, and they’re repeated endlessly, until a new announcement is due. Precisely because of the non-stop p.a. system, it is quite possible to miss the announcement, after a while you can’t take in what they’re saying.
On the whole, the organisation on stations has become clearer and more ordered than it was decades ago. I recall how we used to rush along the long-distance trains from compartment to compartment looking for our names on the signs. And we weren’t the only ones. There were people rushing by the dozen and the hundred to find their seats before departure. In those days, I only travelled third class. The wooden seat wasn’t upholstered, and although it was designed for three people, there were five sitting on it, or more. No one was chased away if there was still an inch or two of wood to squeeze another bum on to. Anyone who protested and insisted on their full space was in a minority and was shouted down. There was a threat of violence in the air. But the mood could just as quickly revert to one of bonhomie.

mapa* Kalimpong is in the district of Darjeeling in the Himalayas.
* Masala tea, Tea with spices.

About the author

Martin Kämpchen (65) was born at Boppard (Rhine) Germany. He studied at Vienna and Paris. His subjects were German Literature, Dramatic Art, Philosophy and French. He obtained a Ph.D. After completion of his studies Martin Kämpchen left for India in order to teach German in Calcutta. Then he studied Comparative Religion at Madras and Santiniketan (West-Bengal). After his second Ph.D. on a comparison of Ramakrishna and Francis of Assisi he remained in India as a writer, translator and journalist

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