Makaibari, Castleton, Windsor. The names my father used to look for when he went to Subodh Brothers to Blend His Tea. Green acres rolling away from the Pankhabari Road as we strain up towards Kurseong.
First the little groups of women, baskets on their backs hanging from the straps across their foreheads, faces still in early-morning pouts, sometimes a man in a cloth cap and wellingtons striding along with them. Farther uphill, the clouds melt into rain and the umbrellas blossom, all colours, a rayon bouquet still visible when I peer back downhill after three bends in the road and another hundred feet of height.
A head in a helmet appears in a gully to the right of the road, pushing a scooter up a fissure in the earth so narrow a man might have difficulty walking along it. Crowded vehicles pass us, going downhill with men standing on the foot-board holding umbrellas (why not wear ponchos and leave both hands free?). A young buck strolls through the rain with his hands in his pockets and a jungle hat dripping onto his shoulders.
A dry spell, and there is one woman actually among the tea bushes, facing away from the road as her hand comes over her shoulder to toss a fragment into the basket. I can hear Mrs. D'Souza from Class V, "The bay-est tay is frowm two lee-eaves aynd a buddd". Which is the symbol of the Goodricke Group that owns Castleton, a symbol plastered across the wall of a shop selling organic teas at yet another bend.
Once in a while, a battered jeep rests where a watercourse crosses the road, men tinkering under the hoods or doing mysterious things with jerry-cans. Raju says they're filching fuel, but when did petrol start flowing down the Darjeeling foot-hills?
Down in the valley the clouds are flocking, merging, rising. Outriders drift up in flanking columns and more drops blur the windscreen. The expanse of tea bushes gives way to the first poor buildings, shaggy dogs appear with their tails plumed behind them like cockerels, women squat at roadside hydrants washing their children.
As we turn off Pankhabari onto Hill Cart Road, the bazaar closes around us. Lines of people shelter under dripping eaves. A carefree urchin skips along the sleepers of the narrow gauge track."A Train Runs Through It"?. Is there any other place in the world where a train chuffs through a market-place twice a day? I don't think there is, at least in India. The Shimla line is well segregated from the road and the Matheran and Ooty lines do not run through towns.
In the town, the road is lined by houses with pointy roofs and those strange wooden rolling pins sticking up from the front gable. What purpose do they serve? The occasional shabby concrete structure sulks between them like a wannabe gangsta in high school, sullen in the knowledge of its own lack of grace. Away from the road cross-timbered cottages, the relics of long-gone Scots and Midlanders, sit in their little patches of garden. Cochrane Place, Belle Vue, McCready's, names from a century not quite forgotten in the haunted evenings when wooden floors creak in empty rooms.
Children. School uniforms, sweaters, ties, pleated skirts, scuffed shoes straggling together, their movement oddly reminiscent of the clouds down in the valley. The same hesitant flowing together, then the thickening of the stream, a few loners drifting off to the side (to kick a stone or pass the time with a friendly dog) then rushing precipitately back into the flow.
We find the place where I'm supposed to meet the local officers. I've seen this house before. In Darjeeling, in Shimla, in Mussoorie, in Shillong. Tired old boards covered with tatty matting, the smell of frying fish emerging from a soot-blackened kitchen, a huge dining table scarred along its length, one room marked 'VIP' because it has an overstuffed sofa in the most hideous print. Nice curtains, though, that part to give a glimpse of the valley.
And strangely enough, a bidet in the bathroom. I try to picture a Chief Engineer using the facility and hurriedly desist; that road should only be followed after suitable fortification and in the right company.
The connectivity is amazing. The link is zipping faster than in Cal. Some justification, then, for the unsightly pox of boards bearing the service provider's green and blue logo. I check mail over a leisurely cup of tea - Darjeeling tea! - served in graceful china that seems quite out of place.
Half an hour later I'm cursing my smooth city-slicker shoes. The path uphill is like a barely tamed watercourse, rocks and worn bricks biting at my soles and threatening my overburdened ankles. My companions make their way up in leisurely fashion, no doubt sniggering at this mad plainsman who's wasting his breath. I already dread the journey back down with back and legs braced against a slip while I hold my upper body loose for balance. At least I shan't be carrying a pack
It's all worth it when I emerge at the top of the slope. A broken-down old house dreams serenely over the view. Correction, the views. Plural.
To the south, newly glazed picture windows frame the clouded valley, the sudden green where sunlight splashes through the greyness, the writhing white ribbons of water-courses, a line of firs in silhouette on a razorback ridge across the valley, houses like white specks on the far slopes, the hill falling away beneath the patio in a tumble of rocks and greenery.
To the north, a verandah looks across a half acre of lawn to the hillside where clumps of fern and bamboos climb up to the edge of a stand of dhupia pines. Beautiful trees, these pines, standing slim and straight as the young Nutan, then spreading into shadowed foliage sixty feet up, foliage of such a dark green that it looks black even with the sun on it.
Between the trees, a rain-fed waterfall raises a muted roar, passing from view behind yet another bank to re-appear on the other side of the road below.
A breeze just this side of chilly takes the edge off the flashes of sun that come and go, growing and fading between the cloud shadows ...
If the flight is on time, the afternoon will see me back in my usual orbits. Cash flows, negotiations, bid design, strategizing, the bottom line. The usual rubbish.
To hell with my watch.I find my pipe and matches in my pocket (pockets justify trousers, otherwise we should all have dressed like Chidambaram), lean back against one decrepit pillar of the porch and wriggle my shoulder-blades to settle well in. The first luxurious exhalation floats out from under the eaves of the balcony towards the pines.
Life can be very good.