It was around 11 at night when I was stopped by two unassuming youth. I was strolling alongside my daughter, all of nine and half, and my wife and friends were walking only a few steps ahead. We had a satisfying dinner at the Darjeeling Planters' Club and were headed to our hotel. The hill town had pretty much fallen asleep by then and the Mall Road - which otherwise remained chock-a-bloc with tourists all through the day - was deserted. Having escaped from the Kolkata heat on a desperately needed break from work, I was almost beginning to enjoy the chill in the air when my conversation with my daughter was interrupted.
"Do you have a cigarette on you?" one of the youth asked. "I'm sorry, I've run out of them", I politely apologised. "Don't worry, we'll pay for it," the other one quipped. My amusement at this reply was short lived. "You see we are having some great quality Smack which we have procured from Afghanistan but we have run out of fags," the duo explained their desperation even as they showed me the stuff they held in their palms. The quantity of raw marijuana they possessed seemed far more than what they would normally require. "We are totally free of inhibitions about such matters and we are ready to share this stuff with you," said one of the youth who went on to introduce himself as a hotel management student.
For me this was an uncomfortable discussion to be having with my daughter standing right next to me... amazed and trying to comprehend what all this meant. I quickly made an excuse and left the spot to join my group walking ahead of me. What struck me though was not the fact all this took place right at the Darjeeling Chowrasta, a few yards away from a police outpost, but at the sheer unabashed manner in which the youths declared they were doing drugs and wanted me, a complete stranger, to join them. What was even more shocking was their complete disregard for a 10-year-old kid who was standing right there watching and listening to everything that was being shown and said.
In my numerous visits to Darjeeling since childhood, both as a tourist and as a media professional, I cannot recall any such encounters with the locals. Neither have I heard of any such experiences from others who visited the place as outsiders. The mixed communities of the Gorkhas, Lepchas and Bhutias of Darjeeling have, except for may be the intermittent periods of political disturbances, always been warm and respectful to visitors from the plains albeit the cool climate of the region.
Clearly, Darjeeling has changed! And may I dare say, for the worse.
And like they say, the more things change the more they remain the same!
Darjeeling continues to suffer from the same woes it did three decades ago. Topping the list is its acute water scarcity. It has always baffled me as to why a place which receives some of the highest rainfalls in West Bengal would suffer from so much of water shortage? When the easiest solution could have been rainwater harvesting, why should there be a need to conceive expensive projects to pump water from reservoirs which are miles down below? I was told that during this peak summer season, some of the hotels forced tourists to sustain on one bucketful of water a day. A recent newspaper report suggested that a hotel on the Mall held two students hostage for a day demanding three times their room rent. This was to compensate for the loss of water it had bought from private suppliers as a result of drainage from a tap the boarders left opened in their washroom by mistake. Water supply by private operators in trucks fitted with plastic tanks which get filled from the waterfalls elsewhere seemed lucrative business. These trucks are the only vehicles which ply on Darjeeling roads at night, and in huge numbers!
Darjeeling's sole gateway, the Hill Cart Road, continues to wear a sorry look. The potholes and cave-ins can easily convert your journey to your favourite summer getaway into a nightmare. The traffic bottlenecks during morning and evening rush hours could make you wait on the road for hours together adding to your disgust even before you've begun your holidays.
Darjeeling's pride, its symbol of romance, the Unesco world industrial heritage Toy Train now operates on a truncated route, a barely eight kilometer stretch between Ghoom and Darjeeling and vice versa. Sheer apathy, negligence and lack of proper future planning have deprived tourists of their pleasure of chugging through the scenic hill towns of Sonada, Tung and Kurseong. Or so, I presume. Even then, acquiring tickets for the Toy Train ride during this tourist season is like winning lottery! The craze persists.
Darjeeling clearly lacks the necessary infrastructure to handle the huge number of tourists that have started pouring in after political violence forced them to look for alternative destinations for a few consecutive seasons. The first impression that we had of the Mall Road flocking with visitors was that it looked remarkably similar to a North Kolkata alley flocked by pandal hoppers on a Durga Puja Ashtami evening. A businessman friend owning a heritage tea outlet regretted the sharp fall in the "quality" of tourists when I tried telling him that the sheer number must have pleased him this time around. "You see this unplanned expansion of the town that's robbing Darjeeling of its pristine beauty. It's all because of the desperation to accommodate these people when, in fact, there's hardly any means of doing it," another friend added.
The current Gorkha leaders are presently focused on their bargaining powers to add regions of Terai and Dooars within the ambit of the newly-formed Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) which has replaced the earlier administrative body, the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council or DGHC. Strategically, that would be their first step to drive forward their demand for a separate statehood. But like the previous body that was charged with unbridled corruption, there's little knowledge in public domains on how things that have kept plaguing this heritage hill town could change for the better just yet. With GTA elections round the corner, it's time that these questions are raised.
Else the mighty Kanchenjungha may remain hidden behind the clouds like it has during most parts of this summer.