Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Bucket lists are now pins on a map, and Darjeeling railway station definitely had a pin on it. We planned our first walk through Darjeeling to take it in. The narrow gauge, 610 mm, “Toy Train” between Siliguri and Darjeeling was inaugurated in 1881, and was an immediate hit. It became possible to go from Kolkata to Darjeeling by train in a day. A hundred and forty years later, it has become a romantic thing, helped by the succession of Bollywood hits set around it. When I looked I found a fairly long list, from Jab pyaar kisi se hota hai (1961, Dev Anand and Asha Parekh), Aaradhna (1969, Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore), to more recent movies like Parineeta (2005, Sanjay Dutt, Saif Ali Khan, Vidya Balan) and Barfi (2012, Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra). Not only is the station charming, it also has one of the best views of Kanchenjunga floating over the town. A tiny locomotive was working up a head of steam, and everyone on the platform queued up for selfies against it. A train came in while we were in the station, and we exited with the crowd. We worked up quite an appetite during the uphill walk back to Mall Road.

By all accounts the construction of the railway line from Siliguri to Darjeeling (80 Kms and a rise of 2048 meters) cost at least as many lives per kilometer as the infamous Burma Railway. When it was started, after the completion of a railway line joining Kolkata to Siliguri in 1878, deaths were so frequent that labourers left their jobs. The Bengal Government conscripted famine relief recipients to work on it, according to Mary H. Avery in her book on Darjeeling. Later, its upkeep required the use of a captive work force of sappers from the army. Unlike the 20th century Japanese wartime railway, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway remains in use and has been inscribed in the UNESCO world heritage list. It would be good if the various commemorative plaques mention its cost in human lives.

I tried to get photos of the train chugging along the road at various times. It moves only a little faster than walking pace, but often much faster than the traffic on Hill Cart Road. I finally succeeded in taking an uninterrupted video clip only as we drove out of Darjeeling: literally the last minute. We’d stopped for a last tea, a last look at the hills, and there it was, the train whistling its way past us.

Thoughts in a traffic jam at Kurseong

When had I last come up this road? After 1861 certainly, since the Hill Cart Road did not exist before that. The Look told me the question was serious. Maybe ten years ago, and again a few years before that. And how much longer will it take? I understood the question now. The distance from Bagdogra to Darjeeling can mislead you about the time of travel. The old road winds around hills, following contours which keep the slope to something that horses could once take. But then you need to add in another factor: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway joins the road around Kurseong, and from there on can cause major traffic jams. So it can often take almost three hours to go up. We’d done the first part quite quickly, but now I could see Kurseong on a ridge just above us. We were going to slow down for the permanent traffic jam through the town.

These “hill stations” are so much a part of colonial economics that it is worth a separate post about them. For the moment it is enough to recall that in the 19th century there was a firm belief that “the tropics” had unhealthy climates (humans there had degenerated, and the best races could only be found in cold climates). Such notions of racial purity aligned with comfort and led to the founding of urban outposts in the hills. This was triply convenient for the East India Company, because the hills were then sparsely occupied, and could be cleared for easy exploitation: first timber, then coffee, and finally tea. Fourth, after 1857, when the number of British troops in India increased many fold, these new urban centers served as cantonments for the army. All these developments eventually led to an increase of locals in these towns. This led to a strict division between the “European” and “native” parts of these town.

One still finds much of this history written into the geography of the towns, and into the language around them; the phrase “hill station” is an example. “Kurseong (or Darjeeling, or Simla, or Mussoorie) is no longer what it was”, is a complaint that seems to make an appearance around the 1870s. There was more of it in the early 20th century, when the Indian elite could not be kept out of the “European towns”. The various rajah’s palaces date from that time. Now you only have to sit in a tea house to hear the upper crust complain about the kind of houses that new traders build.

Kiosks for these small traders lined the road on my side of the car. I love them: the tea shops, the little places selling biscuits and fruit. All very colourful. The Family had a wider field of view across the road. She said her first impression was that every house was painted dark blue like the clear sky. It was only a little later that the wood and corrugated metal gave way to the more expensive brick and mortar houses. These were different colours, quite as cheerful, but not blue.

The wooden kiosks continued on my side of the road and then suddenly the narrow gauge railway line crossed the street. We’d arrived at the Kurseong railway station. As you can see, it is at a height of 1400 meters. The colonial geography of the town meant that this was the border between the lower “native” town, now just the bazaar, that we had driven through, and the higher “European” town, now just the part that has government offices and more expensive stores, that we were about to enter. One day I will look for the old Lepcha village that gave its name to the town. Everyone else here is an immigrant.

The road opened up, and the traffic jam eased. The main reason was that the railway track did not run parallel to the Hill Cart Road in this part of the town. The Family angled her phone up a little to take a photo of a church on a height. There are a couple of churches here, one Anglican, the other Roman Catholic, and we didn’t know which this was. On my side of the road I saw a fire station. Interestingly the fire engines were all of different makes, bought at different times presumably.

These “hill stations” once were known for their schools. The colonial British preferred to send their children to school in the hills instead of in the cities in the plains. They retained a certain cachet until the time of the independence. The last of the elite Indians who went to these schools are a little older than me: the politically connected elite disparagingly called baba-log. A positive outcome is that schools have remained quite good in these hills and even the less well off people can look forward to their children getting a reasonable education. I could see signs of that everywhere, including a line of young boys squatting on a platform waiting for a train to take them to school.

In case you were wondering, lace up or die is a good slogan to live by in these steep hills.

The romance of the railways

Railways of my childhood were more raw: raucous, unruly, and colourful. Under the influence of Kim, I would try to memorize things happening on platforms outside my window in one glance. It never worked. If only we had camera phones then. But the Himalayan Darjeeling Railway retains its more genteel romance: tea gardens, holidays, and the mountains. I got to see it again this month.

The tracks run parallel to the road, and I walked along it. I remembered my aunt talking of people who would step off the train for a tea, and then run after it and catch up at the next station. That may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Watch the clip of the most famous song ever shot on this route (not so far from the photo you see above), and you can see two boys chasing Rajesh Khanna’s jeep as it paces Sharmila Tagore on the train.

Interestingly, Sharmila Tagore’s character is reading an Alistair Maclean called “When Eight Bells Toll”. I’d completely forgotten that book until I saw this clip again.