Late in the summer of 2014, I found myself some 1600 kilometres away from home in a service apartment in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, all pumped up and excited to start my first job. In the three months that I lived in the apartment on Sargassan Cross Road, I learnt how relentlessly Gujarat tries to make a vegetarian out of an omnivore. Let’s get this clear, I come from Bengal and fish is my staple protein and in this part of the country, even Pizza Hut strives to have a suddha-shakahari identity. We eat quite a lot of vegetables in the Bengali household and I love a good shukto and aloo posto but this was a totally a different world in which you were not expected to have a choice. Needless to say, it was a struggle. Forget meat, I was famished for the scent of garlic. Less than a fortnight into strict vegetarianism and food-depression started to get the better of me.
Chaotic is the operative word to go by if you ever find yourself lost in the lanes and bylanes of Colootola during Iftar. An unfailing melting pot, Calcutta has always been a place where differences in cultural narratives are not only embraced and celebrated but also shared, often over food. Thus, it comes as no surprise when thousands throng the Ramadan celebrations around Nakhoda Mosque, sharing tables and opinions as they wait for the siren to mark the end of the day’s fasting. Nobody asks you your religious or ethnic identity. Nobody asks if you are a believer or not. You join the locals around rickety makeshift tables, perspiring and praying for a cool draught of wind while sipping on glasses of milky kesari chai. All around you, in brightly lit shops people holler for the best bargain and owners of street food stalls hang skewers of marinated meat from hooks, arrange delicate rolls of lachha, stir cauldrons of haleem in preparation for the evening. Nobody can tell at what point this chaotic come-together floods the confines of a religious ritual to become a carnival, a celebration of life, under the summer skies of Calcutta.
Back in 2014, I had to leave Calcutta to make Ahmedabad my temporary home. The initial mon kemon (a sense of longing that is hard to describe) mutated into an ennui that had me cursing my luck as I missed familiarity: the scent of home and the winding alleys, the street food of Calcutta. Around half a month into the stay, I discovered, in the alleys of old Ahmedabad, a little eatery named La Bella. In the land of no fish, no chicken, and no beer, La Bella promised beef and pork, fiery red Goan curries that you pour over a plate of steaming rice. I discovered a sense of belonging, a touch of familiarity in a land that was not mine. This was the first time I had found a home away from home. Far from the cacophony of North Calcutta, in this dim-lit eatery run by Mrs Mary Lobo.
When Jessie says Silver Falls State Park is one of her favourite places on the planet, I believe her. It’s almost April and the countryside is embroidered with flowers in a multitude of shapes and colours. We are standing behind the majestic South Falls— my first experience of standing behind a dancing veil of smokey water— silently, spraying cooling our faces. The rocks are damp with velvety pockets of atrociously green moss. Shards of sunlight sparkle like diamantes on the pool below the cascade. I do not jump in ecstasy. Instead, I stand close to Jessie, perhaps for assurance from a fellow human being, and stare in awe at the abundance that envelopes our insignificant selves.
The only true downside of eating everything under the sun is that sometimes even renowned institutions can leave you in a state of tepid dissatisfaction. Heavy blows, if you have not only spent countless nights pondering on what to eat in Darjeeling but also obsessing on menus to figure out what to order and then fantasised about the flavour profiles of individual dishes. My first foray into taking a bite out off the high street of Darjeeling cuisine turned out to be one such misadventure. Debanjan, my co-traveller on this trip who puts up with my questionable dining choices was pretty pleased with Ara by Bellevue when we walked in on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Chic with upholstery that can be described as urban hip, Ara is the newest gastropub to open its doors to the people of Darjeeling.
“Ab to zamana badal chuka hai,” says Pashang Tamang with a wry smile when over a cup of chai, I ask him if the kids these days prefer to pick their own partners. Times have changed but even in the last decade, the Lepchas were part of a close-knit community in which marriages were arranged strictly between families with the same surname i.e. within the same sub-caste. The formal consent of the families was the first impetus behind starting a conversation between a man and his wife-to-be but tourism has sunk deeper into the social fabric of the Lepchas than can be gleaned from a night at one of the numerous homestays in Lepchajagat. As the Lepcha teenagers of today text each other about their dreams and desires, Pashang still looks somewhat unsettled at the thought of a Tamang marrying a Gurung.
দার্জিলিঙের সাথে আমার প্রথম পরিচয় গানে গানে। স্কুল জীবনের শেষের দিকে যখন বাংলা ব্যান্ডের গান গুলো সবার মনে ঘাঁটি গাড়ছে, তখন আমাকে দায়িত্ব নিয়ে বিগড়ে দিয়েছিলেন অঞ্জন দত্ত। তার কথাতেই প্রথম খাদের ধারের রেলিংটা, তার কথাতেই প্রথম মেঘ করলেই ইচ্ছে করে ট্রেন টা ধরে ফেলি। তার আগে একটা পোশাকি পরিচয় হয়েছিল, অবনীন্দ্রনাথের বুড়ো আংলা পড়ার সময়। টুং, সোনাদা, ঘুমের কথা পড়তে পড়তে বাবার কাছ থেকে শুনেছিলাম দার্জিলিঙের গল্প। বয়েস বেড়েছে, অভিজ্ঞতা বেড়েছে, তার সাথে পাল্লা দিয়ে বেড়েছে পাহাড়ে যাওয়ার নেশা।