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Parimal Bhattacharya

Parimal Bhattacharya

Parimal Bhattacharya

What inspired your book?

It was the act of recalling the times I’’d spent in the hill town – the sights, sounds, smells and tactile sensations – that guided the writing. I tried to hold on to the moods and feelings of a remembered past, the linking of these different facets occurred rather instinctively. Also, I didn’’t consciously try to keep the narrative interesting.

What was your favourite part of writing the book?

The soundscape that I have written about in the book: the symphony made out of the muezzin’s calls, the ringing of church and temple bells, and the blasts of Tibetan horns coming from different parts of the town at all hours of the day. This peaceful coexistence of different communities seems to me the most precious and beautiful thing, more precious and beautiful than the famous Darjeeling tea or sunrise over the Kanchenjungha.

What inspires you to write about Darjeeling?

Mere swapno ki raani kab ayegi tu! Yes, the famous song sequence in Aradhana, where Rajesh Khanna is riding a hoodless jeep and serenading Sharmila Tagore sitting at a Toy Train’s window, pulls it off so well. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is really a romance, a courtship between the winding road and the railway track, between awesome nature and great engineering. What I like most is the way it squeezes its way through the humdrum of local life, slicing courtyards and brushing past shop fronts, like the neighbourhood bull in a north Indian town. But like everything else in Darjeeling, the Toy Train service, too, is in a state of disrepair.

Will you tell us about the issues your book touches upon?

Like other colonial hill stations, Darjeeling was built for a few thousand people. Now it accommodates more than thirty times that number, not counting the tourists. Naturally, the ecological costs and the pressure on infrastructure are huge. But more than that, there is this issue of political identity. Darjeeling hills are a part of West Bengal, but the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland goes back to pre-Independence times. There have been a series of agitations and protest movements, and many lives have been lost. This is a very complex issue. On the one hand, Darjeeling is a melting pot of different tribes and communities, on the other, Bengalis generally have these blinkers of nostalgia and colonial imperiousness when it comes to matters related to Darjeeling. My book deals with these issues in a personal, non-academic manner and tries to highlight the voices of the marginalised.

What do you think the problem is?

There is this problem of in-migration as well as out-migration. While the hill towns are bursting at the seams as more and more people are settling there to earn their dal-roti, the population in the hill villages are getting depleted for the same reasons. Although the situation in Darjeeling hills is not as stark as in Uttarakhand, there is a similar pattern; it is the young people who are leaving the villages. The trend can only be reversed if the villages are developed and sustainable livelihood systems can be set up. I think Himachal Pradesh has been showing the way with its focus on rural infrastructure and horticulture. Also, we must stop looking at the mountains as places for tourism or pilgrimage, and remember that it belongs to the people who have lived there for generations.

What is the most satisfying feedback that you have received?

The most satisfying feedbacks are obviously from the people of Darjeeling hills and Sikkim, who have received the book with their trademark warm-heartedness. Many of them couldn’t believe that I had lived there only for five years.

About the Interviewee:

Parimal Bhattacharya went to work in Darjeeling in the 1990s and was smitten by the mesmerizing hill town. He has not recovered since; instead, he has written two books set in the hill town. He has also written books on subjects ranging from the Dongria Kond tribe to Andrei Tarkovsky, and has been a regular contributor to The Telegraph and Frontier. He divides his time between Kolkata and Bhatpara, a small old town by the Hooghly.