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.

Retro fit

Most of city life consists of retro-fitting lifestyles into historical spaces. Whether you are trying to manoeuvre a sofa into an unwieldy space, a modern office into a Victorian era building, or threading an underground Metro through a city, the problem is always that your newly imagined lifestyle is in sudden conflict with an already built up space. The featured photo was an example I came across in my walk. Rows of air conditioning units line the windows of a late-Victorian cast iron and brick structure. Large windows which should have been open were closed off. Now some building work is on to provide better ventilation in this pandemic era.

I passed two impressive gates. The one which was in better shape turns out to be older. The cast iron grilles could have been installed any time between the 1880s and 1960s, but the name of the establishment welded into it dates from the end of the last century. The more rusted and picturesque gate was surprisingly recent. It looked like an electrical substation had been retrofitted into an open space between buildings.

Here was part of the pandemic churn. For decades a little eatery in this building provided cheap food to those who worked in poky little offices in the neighbourhood. Rows of banana leaves were laid out on narrow tables. You would take the first free space after it had been cleaned out. Servers would walk in the aisles between tables serving out food rapidly. The unlimited refills sometimes attracted students. Now the eatery has turned into a “heritage hotel” across the upper floors, and the little offices below are being renovated into large airy spaces.

A cul-de-sac has been created by the temporary closing-off of the main road for the digging of the Metro. The space has been filled by street food vendors. It was lunch time. Most customers were office goers, but among them was an uniformed schoolboy. I wonder whether the street food will remain once the road opens up again. Nearby a shoe-repairman has set up a kiosk right next to the space where a watchman keeps guard at the back entrance of a building. In this area he’ll probably do as much business as the street food wallahs. In a neighbouring lane a boy works at his maths and chemistry on part of what looks like a tailor’s table. What would a tailor be doing in this area full of government offices, schools, small eateries, and a couple of movie theaters?

For all the changes at the ground level, the look and feel of the area still has some of the late Victorian quietness that I’ve always seen in this little island in the city. Khan Bahadur Muncherjee Murzban chose to live in one of these lanes. I can see why.