The flight touched the land of Bagdogra airport at 3.40 pm. The check-out chores were pretty smooth and my pre-rented Innova was waiting outside. Having escaped the concrete pigeonholes of Delhi into this infinite expanse of nature, my soul experienced the bliss of deliverance. My mind shook off all worries and took on the clear, satisfying appearance of the sky with a faint red glow of joy. I had read somewhere that Sikkim belonged to Nepal and the British won it by conquest. Hence maximum population in NORTH BENGAL was NEPALI. So I was all set to enjoy Nepali hospitality.
A beautiful morning had dawned and the journey from Bagdogra Airport to Sonada was quite wonderful. Amazingly this was my first solo long drive. The car was running smoothly through the hustling bustling city of Siliguri towards the aforementioned destination. The natural aroma of tea gardens was transporting my soul to a peaceful mental cocoon.
My elder daughter Anmol is a research scholar from Delhi University. She had just finished her M-Phill when one day while playing her favourite game basketball she met with a severe sports injury, which was followed by a surgery of total reconstruction of the knee in February 2020. Fortunately, we had a timely procedure because soon after that the country was hit by covid and there was a complete lockdown.
The process was very painful and she was recovering slowly. The intense sessions of physiotherapy helped her a lot. She seemed so stuck in her illness which was explicitly shown in her behaviour. Anmol is an introverted girl who has always opted for solitary life over social life. she would neither reveal her outermost nor the innermost vulnerable core to anyone, not even to her trusted ones. She cannot pretend, she can not fake laugh and she can not lie.
Having suffered terribly this past year and to erase a couple of unpleasant memories, she was constantly searching for a way out. One fine day she announced that her job as a lecturer in a Salesian college in Sonada has been confirmed. Sonada is a small town that comes under the district of Darjeeling. We thought, maybe going away from home would make her adapt to survive with optimism and forge ahead.
Time kept on moving at its pace. Anmol used to speak too little about her whereabouts and the place where she was living. I was always intrigued and completely unaware of the way she was keeping up in the hills. It has been 14 months and I had never been there to check on her. I have always meant to visit her but never had a chance to. Every time I made some plan, one thing or the other happened. The Queen Of Hills (Darjeeling) and the wondrous beauty of North Bengal were calling me henceforth I packed my bags, putting all probing questions of my people at bay, soon after Diwali.
Anmol was constantly in touch with me. I reached there by 5.45 pm. It looked like a marketplace but the shops were closed and the entire place was dead quiet. I was waiting at an ATM point when I saw Anmol coming down the hill. I could see a Duchene smile on her face under the street light. Although she is inexpressive by nature, her happiness was quite evident in the way she clutched me in a hug.
It was impossible to carry my heavy luggage uphill. So we had to hire a porter and a merciful girl like Anmol kept on cribbing on the way to her rented accommodation. She gave him only one bag and held another heavy bag on her shoulder. The walk was terribly hard and my lungs seemed to blast.
Her cluttered house drew my attention and my initial surge of euphoria was quickly followed by dismay. Her luggage and cartons of various sizes all pilled up haphazardly. I realized that the room had no cupboard, not even any rack and Anmol, who always spends money wisely would never spend on such purchases. I was losing my mind, Anmol sensed it.
“Stop judging me Mumma” She was not ready to be subjected to such scrutiny. “I have been struggling hard with the filthy mould which was all over my stuff when I returned from Delhi after 3 months. It was so bad that I spent hours cleaning it”. I was brewing something to say but my thoughts were interrupted when a little, very charming Nepali girl banged into the house.
She wished me “Namaste Aunty Ji” with a very broad and naughty smile. She was chirping like a bird and announced “Anmol didi, mummy ne khana banaya hua hai, aap jaldi se aunty Ji ko leke upar aajao”. I could feel her uneasiness about speaking Hindi. I was tired but agreed to go. I thought that refusing the invitation would be rude. Anmol told me that she teaches this little girl Krishma English in her free time. My curiosity about meeting the neighbours was piqued when Anmol told me that she eats dinner as a remuneration.
The naive Nepali Family hosted me a delicious dinner. Rajani, Krishma’s mom was living there as a tenant along with her two daughters. She was living here for the sake of their studies because their hometown did not offer any school. Her husband Kailash was an ex-army man who stayed in Lamahatta, a small village after Darjeeling and worked as a cab driver.
Krisha, the elder daughter was very polite, welcoming and sweet. She was treating me like a delicate flower leaving no chance to pamper me. Every time she offered me something, even a spoon, she would bow down with folded hands. I found it very amazing and asked her about this gesture. She said this is Nepali culture of giving respect.
Krishma was a very confident and talkative girl. She did not stop speaking even for a moment. All my tiredness seemed to have disappeared with the hospitality and love they poured upon me. They knew very little Hindi, so we were facing a little bit of problem in communication. In the middle of a conversation, I realised that Rajani is moving to her hometown leaving kids in the hostel. This information was enough to curb my enthusiasm because till then I was convinced that Anmol is safe and secured.
Anmol had a single bed and it was pretty cold. We somehow managed to sleep. I had so much to share with her but I planned to postpone it and slept the moment I got cosy. Anmol kept covering me with a blanket, the entire night. That’s the way she is! Caring, considerate, empathetic yet unfettered.
I woke up with the clinking sounds of cutlery. Anmol was already washed up and was ready to leave. she very quickly hugged me and left for the college whilst giving me instructions about heating water. Now I was all alone in the house. It was a beautiful morning. I could see the beauty of the place too. The sun was all over the room and the kitchen. I made a cup of tea and sat on a chair outside the room. Little snippets of bright blue sky peeped at me through the dense green foliage. Krisha saw me and approached me smilingly.
“Why are you looking so sad Auntyji”? She looked worried.
Krisha, “Anmol is living here with limited resources, shunning all luxuries of the house”. I could not control my tears.
“Earning and accumulation of money is alien to her nature” I continued, “She refuses to benefit her in any way and would cling to old torn one pair of shoes for years”. Krisha was listening to me silently. “Look at this place, beta. This is completely isolated. You guys seemed a ray of hope to me, but now you are also leaving. She would be serving as a lecturer till February only, still, I can’t leave her like this. Help me out in finding good accommodation for her.”
Krisha seemed terribly disturbed. She looked at me with so much tenderness and convinced me that everything will be fine. Her expressions revealed that she was trying to find a cure for me. With damped eyes, she quickly disappeared. I got up and hurried through my morning rituals. Suddenly Krisha and Rajani showed up with exuberant smiles on their face. Krisha is studying in 10 grade and is very good at speaking English. She chuckled in delight “Aunty, just relax, I told my papa the whole thing, he has allowed us to stay here till Feb now”. We are not going anywhere. Please never lose heart, I can not see you in tears”. I was touched by her fierce concern for me.
I was so surprised at this. O, God! What kind of people are they? They are doing this for me? Urbanites are completely opposite. They are self-obsessed and selfish people. Rajani was also not good at speaking Hindi. But her expressions conveyed more than her words. She simply said “ab aap khush hain na? Meanwhile, Krishma entered singing a Bollywood song on top of her lungs. “Hum nahi ja rhe aunti ji” she shouted. I was overwhelmed with joy. I embraced all three of them in one hug. The moment turned out to be extremely emotional.
“Now Let’s work on your second trouble,” Krisha said taking a mop in her hand. Seeing this Krishma headed towards the kitchen sink saying “mai bartan dho dungi”. Rajani, without saying anything started folding clothes that were all over the luggage. Now how could I stop? I took a duster in my hand. Within two hours the room and kitchen turned into a breathable and liveable flat. luggage was neatly packed. The bed’s position was changed with a new bedcover. The floor was moped and laundry was done.
There was a feeling of accomplishment on everyone’s face. I can understand my happiness as a mother, but I was exceedingly astonished at their reason for happiness. Krisma was also dancing with joy. Now it was time to see Anmol’s reaction I called her up, she said that she is 5 minutes away. Krisha very quickly kept the teapot on the gas stove. All of us were madly excited to show her the house.
As expected Anmol’s reaction was similar to a winner of The Miss India contest. For a few moments, she stayed rooted at the door, admiring it in a profound way. She was in awe of the neat look of the house. “I thought you would do something, but not this much. You guys really transformed it. Thank you so so much” there was no stopping for her.
It became a routine, Anmol would leave for college, both girls would come down and would do all my household chores. Rajani would cook breakfast for me. Afternoons were meant to go down the hill and do the necessary shopping. From the market, all four of us would walk towards Anmol’s college, pick her up, eat somewhere and return back. The weekend was approaching and Anmol was keen to take me to Sikkim. But due to a surge in Covid cases, the Sikkim government had banned tourists.
Rajani came up with a plan of taking us to their hometown Lamahatta, a small Himalayan hamlet. We readily agreed and Kailash, Rajani’s husband came all over to pick us. On the way, we stopped at Darjeeling mall road and had a delicious lunch.
Anmol and I had the best of our time in Lamahatta. The village was inhabited by a few Nepali families. Among other castes, Kailash was a GURUNG who lived there since birth along with his four brothers. They were so content and happy with their lives, their animals, with no market around. I never thought that a village life, with bare minimal resources, could be so profound, peaceful, spiritual and serene. Their hospitality and humility touched my heart. I observed many things reflecting their lovely culture. Women would cover their heads with a folded handkerchief to pay respect to their men. They won’t let go of any single chance to celebrate with their extended family.
We returned back with umpteen beautiful memories from Lamahatta. It was a tremendously delightful stay. I stayed in Sonada for the next 4 days filled with fun, happiness and enjoyment. Kailash took us to Tiger Hill to enjoy the sunrise. That was one magical unforgettable moment that I will cherish for ages. Krisha gave me a lovely gift for my belated 50th birthday. Even Rajani’s somewhat silent love for me was manifested with a fine mug which she gifted me. I bought tea and famous lid cups for my loved ones.
Urban life has been completely taken over by selfishness, self-centredness and egoism. People here are very practical and calculative. Being busy is just one excuse when they do not want to be in touch. They have their own priorities and their time is extremely important than emotions. On the contrary, I completely overlooked the possibility that Kailash would be so generous that he will drop me at the Airport which was two hours away from Sonada.
I wanted to stay but life doesn’t really give us choices, does it? So, I packed my bags and said goodbye to Sonada. Anmol took a day off from her college to see me off. All six of us started our journey to Airport. I hate farewells and parting moments. Everyone was sad. We were talking in monosyllables. The journey seemed so long.
At the Airport, I was furiously trying to think of something memorable to say but failed. It took a lot of effort to control my emotions still, tears rolled down my eyes. I was parting from those people who have filled my bag with rare memories and love in abundance.
Thank you GURUNG family