Darjeeling is cold throughout the year sparing a few sunny days of summer. It is the kind of place where romance buds from holding icy cold hands in the afternoons and taking long walks on the Mall road. Long drives belong to the lesser worlds. In Darjeeling you walk or be ferried by the vintage ambassador cars, whose safety of gears and brakes are best not questioned. Should the handle or the whole door fall off halfway to Singhmari, you just pick it up and put it back together without a raised eyebrow, lest you be hurtled with an earful of accusations of being smug and rich by a strange taxi driver.
The magnificent tea gardens, the pretty cherry blossoms, the tall dark oaks, the old British architectural setup in the backdrop of Mt. Khangchendzonga and the vintage train all conspire against many odds to offer this place that quaint, old-world charm that you fall in love with straightaway.
When Tshering Norden first came to this place she was quite taken back by its rugged edges, its indolent pace of life, the presumptuousness of its language and its brazen paucity.
The morning bell of the Girl’s hostel was piercing in the quiet locale.
“Tshering! C’mon girl get moving, your turn”. Her roommate had finished her privies and was nudging Tshering who was still fast asleep.
“What’s the time?” Tshering sat up groggily rubbing her eyes, at twenty one she looked the splitting image of her mother, the same long black hair, dark brown eyes and slender frame, at five feet four inches she was neither tall nor short just a fair damsel who some looked at and some didn’t.
“7.30, you better hurry up, remember RTM’s class at 8:30, as it is, you are his favorite pupil” Rikkili mocked her. Rikkili was Tshering’s room-mate and the only friend. A pretty girl she found many admirers in the boys.
RTM or Ritwick Mondal seriously had an issue with Tshering, she could never understand why she irked him so.
She went down to the shared bathroom, her bucket was filled to a quarter as the elixir of life trickled through the faucet in its final throes of existence. It would cease any minute now. Scarcity of water was Darjeeling’s painful reality. She missed home where she had her own bathroom with ample water that she could sing half a dozen songs through her bath. But here she was accustomed to taking bath with half a bucket.
“You whore, can’t you hurry?
You are pathetic! You call this food?
Where are my socks?
Can’t you keep one thing in place?
Here! You wanted money, keep this!”
A plate would be thrown and a woman would start wailing, it was the same everyday, only the accusation would differ and the curses would be more colorful. Tshering slowly brushed her teeth; the house next door provided the girls hostel with all the drama they required so having a broken TV posed no problem hence.
The woman cried longer than usual, Tshering would see her go to work everyday on her way to college, she was actually a pretty girl. She wondered if it had been an arranged marriage or she had actually managed to fall for that obnoxious husband of hers.
The breakfast gong startled her out of her reverie and thence she was like a lightning bolt. The mornings were always the same without much change in scenery.
“Tshering Norden Lachungpa! Did you prepare the amino acid algorithm?”Mr. Mondal thundered
“Sir, No, sir! I do not remember you asking me to do so sir”
“You do naat remembaar? Mr. Mondal had the most stretched out vocabulary ever.
“There he goes again” Tshering muttered under her breath.
“No sir”, she said aloud
“Did you remembaar to eat your breakfaast in the maarning?” he gloated.
“As a matter of fact I did not get time to eat today sir, your class was at 8:30” Rikkili tried to pull Tshering down on the bench but it was too late.
“Go back to yaar hostel and eat! My class is nat impartent, go right now” he had been provoked enough for the day.
Tshering took her books and went out of the classroom.
That was usually how RTM’s classes went for Tshering but she did not mind, she enjoyed this forced free time, it gave her time to complete any pending assignments. Being M.Sc. students Tshering and Rikkili were usually overburdened with projects and assignments compared to the other girls in the hostel who were all under graduate students.
“Didi, one boy left this letter for you” the little canteen boy handed her an envelope
“Seriously? In pink?” she smirked at no one in particular, she was alone at the table.
She was not interested in the contents of the letter so she opened her Biochemistry book and started figuring out whatever it was the Budao wanted.
There was a commotion in the hostel today, the cook and his helper had eloped and the owner’s wife and daughter had come to cook for the girls although what was the need to elope beat the girls for they could easily have married and stayed put.
However, nobody had any complaints for the owner’s wife and daughter had a made lovely dinner with rice pudding and lots of vegetables and there were sweets too, but morning saw a new cook. It was the woman from next door, the one who cried all the time.
Tshering was quite surprised, “Aren’t you a typist?” she asked the new cook.
“No didi, I used to work in a canteen at the taxi stand” she replied politely.
The new cook started finding admirers in the inmates almost immediately.
“Wow the chola is yum”
“And so is the fried rice”
“She made chutney too! Ho ho! I like the new cook already”
The girls were happy.
“ By the way, what is your name?” nobody had asked her name in the hostel so far, the girls simply referred to her as aunty, not that she was any older than them but simply out of tradition.
“Sarita” she replied.
“Can you make alu parathas, Sarita?”
“Ok, then we can try that tomorrow morning, here is the menu for the week, you need to go to the market today, take Amer with you” Tshering dismissed her for now.
Acer Hill was a private hostel with only fifteen girls, it was better than the Government accommodation but more expensive. The food was better too so the parents did not mind the hike in the fees.
Being a Sunday Tshering sat longer in the dining hall enjoying an extra mug of tea while reading the newspaper. In the mountains one drank mugs of tea instead of a cuppa.
Sarita busied herself cleaning and mopping, she looked sad her eyes were red, Tshering knew she had been fighting with her husband again.
“Sarita, did you have problem shopping yesterday? She asked.
“No didi, I do it all the time for my family, only I am not used to buying things in bulk quantity, it was a new experience” she answered with enthusiasm.
“The girl has class and upbringing”, Tshering thought to herself.
“ Do you have children?” she asked aloud.
“No didi” she sounded sad.
“Probably the reason why they fight so much” Tshering was absorbed in her thoughts again.
Sundays were usually the same for Tshering and Rikkili, they walked all the way to Chaurasta after lunch, the hub of all young crowd in Darjeeling and tourists and almost everyone else too. They sat on one of the many wooden benches watching people and horses and the fashionistas in no particular order, it was the kind of entertainment the place offered, the movie theatre being another. They also visited the many little curio shops to look at all the pretty trinkets in moonstone, rubies, emeralds although they never could afford to buy any, not that they did not have the money but to spend so much on a stone trinket did not make sense to them or maybe they were still too young to attach any importance to stones and rocks.
Something was amiss that day, many people seem to have gathered at the village below their hostel where Sarita lived, the girls in the hostel were busy trying to figure out the reason for this hullabaloo from their terrace.
“What is the matter” Tshering and Rikkili who had come for lunch went up to the terrace where most of the girls had gathered and were playing happy audience to all the drama.
“ Aie, there is police at Sarita’s house, something to do with the husband I think” informed Sonam eagerly as she made way for the seniors on the terrace.
“Serves him right I guess” said Rikkili.
The whole hostel diligently put themselves to use and managed to obtain the juicy details of the drama by evening. Everyone was gathered in the TV room as usual when Tshering and Rikkili entered and slumped themselves into the deep comforting sofa, their usual place of relaxation after standing whole day in the lab bending over a dead guinea pig or a vibrating centrifuge.
TV room was a retreat for all of them from the day’s work and provided a perfect space for the bored and the pranksters alike although the sole objective of the room was lost in the television being out of order.
Rikkili had so much as said “Hi girls!”, when Palmu, a first year student started the narration without invitation,
“You know aie, Sarita’s husband was taken by the police, he hit some carpenter near the taxi stand and the poor fellow had to be taken to the hospital, he was hit on the head pretty hard, people are saying he will not survive, he has been booked under attempt to murder it seems.”
Rikkili reclined on the sofa listening to all that the girls had to offer, while Tshering picked up the newspaper and made herself comfortable in the couch. One could not resist hearing all of it even without being interested although interested she was, with nothing much really happening no one could really be not interested.
“Poor Sarita”, added Esther, “she was so quiet during the whole commotion and that hooligan husband of hers kept abusing her and everyone present”.
“Such a nice girl and such a lousy husband she landed for herself, don’t you think” Sunita was telling Ladenla.
Everyone sympathized with Sarita, her husband got what he deserved and not one person felt sorry for him.
All the girls were under-grad students who went to St. Joseph’s College except for Tshering and Rikkili who were Post-grad students and went to Darjeeling Government College. It was a small place and incidents like that spread like wild fire. Everyone was interested in everyone’s business.
Having grown tired of the chatter by the end of the week Tshering and Rikkili decided to go for an evening walk. They usually walked till baba mandir whenever they did. Baba mandir was quite a renowned place of worship for the Hindus and hoards of tourists from near and afar flocked here every year to pay their respects, however, today the girls decided to go on the opposite direction to their usual route.
They walked till the zoo, the magnificent snow leopards seemed agitated by this late hour visit and began pacing about their cage They literally lived in a cage as opposed to animals in Gangtok zoo which were housed in very big enclosures that gave an impression of the animals being in a Wildlife Sanctuary rather than a zoo, especially the Asiatic Bear enclosure was biggest in whole of the country at eight thousand square meters when it came to zoo enclosures, and the visitor had to patiently wait to view the animal. Tshering would often opine that it gave the animal its space and dignity they rightfully deserved.
It was past dinner time and the two of them realized they had come a long way and decided to turn back, the road looked exceedingly dark and the trees on the either side added to the darkness, they started walking briskly, as they turned the corner they could hear a girl’s voice, they came to an abrupt halt for the voice was familiar.
“Ah! Don’t be so impatient” Sarita said affectionately.
She was in a man’s embrace; he was trying to kiss her as his bandaged head rubbed against her cheeks.
“I will come tonight”, he said.
“Ok. But only after eleven” she added as he pulled her closer
And then they kissed for what seemed like eternity and Sarita slowly pulled away adjusted her shawl and walked off briskly.