The Babu of Darjeeling (Pravin Gandhi’s People, Places and Perceptions)
This post is actually part-5 of 5 posts on a exciting and eventful journey to East India starting from Calcutta and ending in Darjeeling via Manas Tiger Park, Sikkim, Kanchenjunga, and Varshay-Hillay. As always, my travels are always about encounters with remarkable people and places which leave everlasting impressions on my mind.
We had entered Darjeeling through the backdoor, from Jorthang on the Sikkim side, in a jeep carrying at least 10 passengers on a very steep road which passed by tea estates. We went to the tourist office at the Mall, and asked for a place on or near the mall, for that was where we wanted to stay. We landed up at Hotel Bellevue and met the manager, the “Babu of Darjeeling“.
Babu was seated at a table, swaying back and front, wearing a ragged sweater and a winter cap over his head, seemingly working on a large ledger book. It was the scene of picture perfect old Babu, clerk bureaucrat, poring for hours over a book. He was not too pleased to see us. He tried to dissuade us from being guests at this hotel, and asked us to go elsewhere.
I had instantly fallen in love with this antique hotel, with wooden staircase and balustrade, and the air of a heritage hotel.
“We have no room service”, he said, there was just a little lad who took errands.
“That’s fine, will do”, I said.
Then he said, “No Indians like to stay here, only foreigners do”.
“Still, I want to stay here.”.
“It will be Rs 500 per day”, he tried to scare us: my family and I looked like rough travellers.
“Done deal”, I said. Two decades ago, this could be an unreasonable amount, particularly a hotel in disuse.
Reluctantly he registered us in the large book of his and give us the keys to the room.
The “room” turned out to be a large ante-room plus a very large bedroom with a fireplace and mantle) and a large bathroom the size of today’s hotel room. The “suites” were along a long passage like the compartments in the old first class coaches of a train. The other side of the passage was lined with windows overlooking the mall on the right and a popular square in front and the busier town on the left. There was a small table-for-two outside each “suite” so one could stare at the gaiety in the mall and the square below.
The little lad who was our “help” was a cherubic lad who, if found, ran your errand for a tea or snacks with great enthusiasm. After settling down, we explored the hotel and were impressed with its wooden décor and artefacts. The Hotel Bellevue and its antique looks and its location gave us a perfect holiday and perfect end to a very long trip.
We chilled out on the mall, with a grand view of the Himalayan range. We dined in the quaint restaurants in the mall, particularly a warm and cozy one called Shalimar or Shangrila, which served a Chinese menu and played English soft pop numbers. We bought Chinese tea cups from the market. We took a ride in the toy train, which now has a UN Heritage tag, till Ghoom, and that was delightful, journey as it runs past the mountain road to the plains below, criss-crossing it at several places. Innumerable Indian songs have been featured around the train, from “Jab Pyaar Kisi Se Hota Hai” starring Dev Anand in the early 60’s to “Mere Sapno Ki Rani” starring Rajesh Khanna in the late 70’s. There is an engineering marvel on the way, where the tracks make a spiral to achieve (or reduce?) elevation, made possible by making a loop, its named the Batasia loop.
I saw an orchid for the first time in Darjeeling, and bought one plant, which didn’t like being transported from the fresh mountain air to climes of Mumbai, and died a slow death.
We skipped the 3am journey to see Kanchenjunga and Mount Everest because we had just seen the Kanchenjunga at close quarters in Sikkim (See part 4). But I was told we missed seeing the place Mirik which is a very pretty place.
Recently, it all came back to me after 2 decades of our visit, when we saw the movie Barfi, which captures the sights and sounds and ambience of Darjeeling beautifully. I was pleased to see from the movie that the restaurant that the restaurant where we dined was still around.
Most people who visit Darjeeling are disappointed as it did not meet their expectation of a heppening hill-station. “Crowded”, “not sophisticated”, are some of the things they say about the place. And all that is true: it is a bit of mess; it is not a stylish place. Like most of the East of India, it is relatively less developed; the mall is not as “happening” as the Shimla Mall. But if you enjoy exploring, delight in experiences, mingling with locals, then you will absolutely “love” Darjeeling. The tea gardens, the famed Darjeeling Tea, the iconic Mountain train, and the excellent year-round weather will make your visit worthwhile.
As for Hotel Bellevue, which in French means “beautiful sight or scene“, I wonder if it is still around or it made way for a fancier modern hotel. I wonder why travellers shunned Hotel Bellevue? Am I glad that I persisted with the Babu of Darjeeling!
* This is Part-5 of five posts on a exciting and eventful journey to East India starting from Calcutta and ending in Darjeeling via Manas Tiger Park, Sikkim, Kanchenjunga, and Varshay-Hillay. For Part 4 see: https://pravingandhino1.wordpress.com/2013/10/21/lal-singh-of-hillay-kanchenjunga-and-more-in-sikkim-pravin-gandhis-people-places-and-perceptions/
Pravin Gandhi, author, “One at a time – short stories to muse by”
Get it here: www.pravingandhi.com/one-at-a-time