Darjeeling, India—The Faded Jewel
Wherever We May Roam
By Steven Moore
Darjeeling, a former jewel in the British crown, straddles the Himalayan foothills like some dirty folded blanket, its inner creases the grimy, trash-strewn streets, its outer folds the ramshackle, rundown hotels that cling to the hills as mere shadows of their former splendor.
I imagined Darjeeling a shining town sitting proud on its verdant mountainside, tea fields rolling gently down the valleys and snow-capped mountains that glisten under clear skies. I was only half right. True, the mountains loom magnificent in the distance, the tea fields’ fragrant crops Darjeeling’s lifeblood.
But I was also wrong; the town hasn’t shone for decades. No street is swept, no paint unpeeling. Broken windows stay broken, and stray dogs lie dying, too sick or lazy to eat. And behind the smiles of colorful locals I see innate melancholy, weariness from too many poor years. They’re tired, as the town is tired. Even our hotel is exhausted. Polite staff are friendly, but rooms go unmade. Curtains hang dirty on broken hooks, the permanent sun illuminating many layers of dust. Taps drip through the night, while hands on a redundant clock don’t turn.
But as I peer through the curtain’s ever-present gap, I’m reminded why I traveled so far to get here; the view is spectacular. To the west I spy the brilliant white caps of Everest and Kanchenjunga, the world’s first and third highest mountains, and as the world awakens, the early sun casts an ethereal orange glow on far away hills. The sky is vast and blue. So vast. So blue. I open my window, breathing crisp cool air instilled with effervescent energy, and it’s good to be alive.
Below me a lethargic town dawns. Cockerels crow, and locals yawn along with emaciated strays. The energy I feel is absent in the town’s people. As I anticipate striding into the stunning landscape, hiking the trails and basking in the glory of nature, they face another day of slack business in the market. When you wander through those chaotic, colorful markets, it’s all smiles, but they’re forced, fading quickly as you move on. I stood and admired the myriad offerings of fruit and vegetables, fabrics and shoes, tools and tea … so much tea. But one thing is obvious; no one is buying. Plenty look, but little money changes hands.
Times are hard in most of India, and in Darjeeling, former crown of the British hill stations, times are hard too. People are weary, as the town is weary. It needs some Himalayan giant to grab the dirty blanket that is Darjeeling, raise it up and shake it down, like making a bed. Shake away the dirt, and shake away the melancholy, the curse of lethargy.
There are political issues here. The region is known by locals as Ghorkaland, long at odds with the Indian government over independence. It could be that successful independence for Ghorkaland might be the shake-up this worn out town desperately needs, and maybe the faded jewel might once more shine under a bright Himalayan sky.