Written bt Col (Retd) Mani K Gahatraj
History is lived forward,
We know the end before we consider the beginning,
But we can never really know,
What it was in the begning!
—Wedge wood, William the Silent
The wheel of time moves slowly but surely churning events and people across the labyrinth of past, present and future. Ever since the begning of time itself, as minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years and centuries roll on and move continuously, towards infinity, beyond the barriers of space and time, the past keeps moving away further and further, getting dimmer and dimmer from the rusty and faded memories of humans; when finally a point is reached when zillions of single events that would have occurred in some person’s life, alive and kicking at a time and place, would be memories or stories years later, albeit in distorted version. These memories perhaps blink for one last time in the rusty and fading grey cells of old and infirm before it is consigned into the dustbin of life when the life itself is extinguished forever. However, chronicles of events written in the begning of known and unknown civilizations have stayed on defying the vagaries of change and have lived to tell its tale to a future generation unknown and unconceived.
It is in this kind of context of unstoppable time and space that when I survey the hustle and bustle of life in Kalimpong of today amidst the concrete jungle of crowded town buildings and fancy shops, amidst the cyber cafes and whiz-buzz gizmos of technologies, amidst the razzle-dazzle and hip-hop fashion of the 21st century, my not so faded memories take me back to my own “boyish” times of the 50s, the Kalimpong of midnight children as my generation were born during the period of great Indian Independence Era within the four walls of our parent’s bedrooms as “Home Deliveries” were the order of the day, those days.
The Impression of a School Boy.
Early 50s were the end of the British Era and the beginning of independent India. In my memories as a school boy, Kalimpong was a laid back and sleepy little village town, unimaginable to the generation of today. Those were the days of peace and tranquility; the hills were beautiful, not at all populated and polluted, only dotted with beautiful villas, cottages, thatched huts and small buildings unlike the concrete jungle of today. I used to see roses, geraniums, chrysanthemums, gladioli and orchids flowers spraying riot of colors from the home gardens, balconies and verandahs. Along the countryside were green terraced paddy and corn fields, while smoke puffing thatched huts surrounded by colorful flower and vegetable gardens were perfect balance of tranquility and peace. Lingering but pleasant presence of British legacy, as visible with many “white people” still around town specially in missionary schools and hospitals who lived in their English and Scottish cottages in Mission Compound over the town, Dr Graham’s Homes, St Augustine’s School and St Joseph’s Convent and St Philomena School in 8th Mile area. Today’s famous Swiss cheese available in my friend Pran’s Larks, was pioneered by the Swish Missionaries in 7th Mile area before I was born. It would be almost impossible for the TV, internet, laptop, cell phone and ipod generation of today to even remotely fathom the ways of the world of Kalimpong of 50s and 60s. In those days the Main road used to be almost silent except for the movement of school children during the mornings and late afternoons. The crowded and congested Main Roads of today where Maruties, Traveras, Santros, Sumos, Boleros and Scorpios wheeze past every minute, there used to ply just few Morris, Austins, Hillmen, Landrovers and old Ford and Chevrolet trucks alongside bullock carts, horses and mules.
The Saturday Special. Just like these days Saturday have always been a special day in Kalimpong with “Haat” in the morning and football matches in the afternoon with matinee shows in “Novelty” and “Kanchan” cinema halls squeezed in between. As against 24X7 internet chatting & romance, virtual net dating and net marriage of today, Saturdays were the only days for dating for the romantic teenagers, for whom rendezvous used to be the famous “Park” or “Durpeen” or “Delo” areas. The day’s romance used to finally culminate in one of the cinema halls where holding hands occasionally, when heads were not turning around, used to be the ultimate goal. The very feeling of going to Saturday Haat, eating “langysa momo” for 4 annas or “singada” and tea foe 3 annas and follow-up by a great football match or a “cowboy” movie of James Dean, Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, John Wayne, Tony Curtis or war movie of Audi Murphy.
The Gang: While in class 8th, we had a gang of “good” students led by the protective leader, Himal Khati, where in our specialty was to raid fruits orchard of plums and peaches from the big bungalow gardens of Durpin Area. The strategy was, Himal the leader, would walk to the bungalow most confidently and start chatting with the mali/chowkidar and the rest of us would fill up our bags with fruits. We then used to move by stealth to a place and call Himal by a prefixed whistle signal. Thereafter it was a sumptuous fruit picnic in a spot overlooking the town. Thereafter it was either a football match or movie.
The Revisit. In June 2007, at 60 plus, after 37 military years, 5 years in the banking service and a year of roaming around the Hindukush Mountains, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and places around the world, when I received an invitation to attend the centenary celebrations of my Alma matter, SUMI Primary School, I found myself visiting the same class rooms after 50 years plus. It was the same assembly hall, where the demise of King George the 6th was announced by the Headmaster, saying the king in whose empire sun never sets is no more. We used to stand bare feet and sing Christian hymns in Nepali, same class rooms where I learnt letters and words by keeping pebbles and corn on top of the alphabets written in chalk on the wooden floor by our teachers. As I walked the doors of our old classrooms I experienced a “major blast from the past’ and I could vividly recall the events that took place in those class rooms 50 years ago. I remember how I slowly and steadily progressed from “pebble (“dhoonga”) and corn (makai)” classes to higher classes along with my steady friends like Rishi, Pran, Gautam, Sahadev, Lasukbu, Nirmal and so many others. On reaching class four we were officially allowed to write in “Ink” and proudly used to carry “Sulekha” Ink Bottle and a pen to the school, needless to say that our hands used to be smeared with ink. On reaching class 7, like most of the boys, I started wearing shoes to the school and at class Eight I wore my first pant. Of course there was no school uniform; it was happiness with shorts and bare feet. I was thrilled, to once again touch the old benches and desks in old class rooms, bearing age old marks of carved writings and sketches drawn by little hands using compass and dividers of the “tin geometry boxes” 50-60 years ago still in use. I also remembered our great masters, Rev Scott, the Principal, Longman Sir, Leela Sir, Barbes Sir, who used to hit our shinbones with military boots, Lalchand Sir who used to sell stationery to the students as we joined new classes after the winter holidays, Dhanraj sir and many others. Most of those teachers used to live in nearby Mission Compound’s teacher’s quarters, known as “Barah Dhurah”. Leonard Sir used to narrate Bible stories during our compulsory Bible classes of third period like the “Action movies” of today. I also saw the craft classrooms where we used to make ropes out of “Hathi bar trees”. The playing fields are still there where we used to run down the slopes to play volley ball and football. The places where vendors, “Chanawalas” and “biscuitwalas” used to sell us “chanas”, “matars” biscuits for one annas or two annas.
The Tibetan Connection. One of the striking memories of my young days as a school boy in Kalimpong is the Tibetan mule caravans decorated with colorful regalia and musical bells around their necks, accompanied by Tibetan men in their traditional “Bakkhus” with prayer wheels in their hands and “OM MANI PEME HOM” in their lips, walking along the road side. The mule train used to be guarded jealously by small but ferocious Tibetan dogs with bells hung around their collar, however, as I recollect, those dogs were only minding the mules and never did they threaten or disturb the people passing by. During winter months these mule and horse caravans used to be quite heavy and we used to see empty spaces along the road side dotted with Tibetan tents. I guess we would never see such beautiful and innocent environment ever again. Like Stephen King says in his Dark Tower series, “The world has indeed moved on”.
The “Chuppis” & Legends. Just like in the rest of the hills, people of Kalimpong also refer distances by kilometers and places by Miles and 10th Mile was the most dangerous area in town with fearsome Khamba Tibetans roaming the street in their “Bakkhus” carrying “Chuppi” (short sword) in silver scabbard across their kamarbandhs.There used to be cases of midnight brawls, as we used to hear in the school the next day, where people used to be stabbed and even killed. Even the “Gundas” of those days were legends of sorts. There was this famous, fearsome but very smart and handsome “Samdoo” who used to be in and out of the Kalimpong jail for such midnight escapades. However, out of jail and into the football field he was a hero to watch. There was “Achu Namgyal” who was a great goal keeper of SUMI in early 50s, but in another such brawl at 10th mile, when he tried to guard himself against the “Chuppi attack” with bare hands, his hands were damaged permanently. Such was the spirit of those days that when Achu Namgyal came out of the hospital, he returned back to the football field, this time around as a full back, and he played the game as a famous full back for a long time. The story goes that he used to use his damaged hands to pull the shorts of the forward attackers, just like Maradona’s “Little finger of God”! Another one was the famous football umpire, “Lamsingh” whose umpiring style and on field antiques would put today’s international umpire to shame. Such was his style, strictness and amazingly quick gestures to show faults, matching with the rapid whistle blowing, that when Lamsingh was the umpire, the teams and the public used to be at peace that justice would be done. There was “Shorty Jangey” who used to score the winning goal in the 11th hour of the tense match and another “Fatty Jangey” whose penalty kick used to go through the net. Not forgetting the famous goalies, Shivrattan Periwal of SUMI and Bhanu Pradhan of Kumudini Homes who were famous in stopping most of the penalty kick at the overwhelming applause of the cheering crowd. Who can forget the high kicks of Gyappan sir of Kumidini Homes that used to reach the motor stand! There were so many others but one last mention has to be that of “Pemba” who used to be a loom operator in Industrial School, but such a keen player of football that his name became “Keera Kancha” meaning “football worm” and many more talented footballers.
Page 3 People. Perhaps the rich and famous of those days were the Macdonald family of Himalayan Hotel, Bhutanese Royals, Kazis of Sikkim and Few families of Lawyers, Doctors & Engineers who could be counted up to 10. The Royals and Nobles of Bhutan and Sikkim used to be seen galloping around in their horses with beautiful companions or drive around their imported “motor cars”. They used to be seen in cinema halls, football fields and in landmark joints such as “Gumpus”, “Sanghai” and the Himalayan Hotel. I remember that my father was quite friendly with one of the Macdonald family and we used to relish homemade jam sent by Mrs Macdonald. Who can forget the presence of famous film star, Devika Rani Roeirch who had settled down in Kalimpong with her Russian painter husband. One fine day Kalimpong was playing host to the Prince & Princes of a faraway land, Afghanistan. We were told that a dozen of very stately, dignified and beautiful ladies and gentlemen had been sent to Kalimpong on exile from Afghanistan. Little did I realize that I would be living and working in their ravaged land after almost 50 years and take photographs of their magnificent palace almost raged by the bombings of 35 years of war. There was “Vikkshu Sangharakshita” an English monk who used to live alone at his 9th Mile residence and used to patronize local boys helping them in studies, teaching English language etc.
Life in General. Life was lots of walking, much hard work but tension free and beautiful. We used to find great joy in small things of life like tasting ice cream for the first time in life. “Mukund Sharma” gave the first Ice-cream shop to Kalimpong during early 50s. We used to wear handmade shoes made by Chinese shoemakers and eat bakery items from “mobile human bakery” in a large tin box carried on the turbaned heads of “biscuitwallas” who used to sell their stuff to us kids on credit. The only political parties known were Congress and Gorkha-league but people did not care about politics. Gorkha League, with red & green flag and Khukuri, used to sweep the election. Occasional tourists used to be the camera wielding “foreigners”, perhaps on nostalgic trip to Kalimpong. Our houses in the villages used to have flower and vegetable gardens and we grew up on rice, maize, vegetables from own land, milk from own cows, eggs and chicken from home poultry and occasional pork and mutton slaughtered at home or at neighbor’s. We ate oranges, pears, figs and bananas climbing and plucking from the trees and we walked, ran and played, jumping along the terraced fields, swimming in the little ponds of clean and not so clean streams by the mountain side, we went to the jungle on picnic, cooked and ate simple rice, dal, vegetable and country chicken, obviously boiler chicken was not even born those days.
Those days there were no Coke & Pepsi, no mineral water, no TV, no ipod and we grew up outdoors climbing rocks, playing football on the streets and fields and enjoyed harvesting of paddy as it was another family picnic. We played hide and seek in and around haystacks. It was all so wonderful and beautiful as compared to life now. Today, when I see kids glued to TV, playing computer games, plugged to the musical net through ipod, I feel sorry for them for they are missing so much of the real world; they mostly know only the “virtual” world. So I wonder where Kalimpong would be in another 50 years time, same place but different people and very very advanced technology and very little of natural and real world, I wonder if our trees, rocks, school buildings and land would exist at all.
God Bless Kalimpong!!
Col (Retd) Mani K Gahatraj