The 2010 BBC documentary on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways is remarkably alternate in its constant appropriation of labour narratives. The film begins with a Ghurkha woman—Sita Chhetri’s story of struggle for survival, with five boys to take care of, after being widowed at the age of 31. Against the background of the general elections of 2009 where Jaswant Singh arouses a crowd of Ghurkhas looking up to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s call for Gorkhaland, Chhetri, a porter at the Darjeeling Railway Station, dreams of sending her 18-year-old son to St. Joseph’s college. Pamphlets and flags for election campaigns are juxtaposed with Madhu’s—Chhetri’s son—prospectus for St. Joseph’s. Alongside, her we find Furtemba Sherpa, the pointsman at Kurseong, who plays the harmonica, and his son Swapan, a rock band member, trying to make his way into a world of new opportunities. The melange of narratives play with the backdrop of the 120-year-old railway wagons built in Glasgow: “It is the spirit of steam which gives identity both to DHR and to Darjeeling.” The iron traveller, that the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways is, is a steady family member of the roadside residents, along the 52-mile stretch from Siliguri to Darjeeling. The transfers of local grocery and odds are facilitated by the unorthodox dexterity of Hari and Vishnu, two railwaymen, who get along like disciple and mentor in their makeshift repairs, and diurnal adventures, aboard the engine. Not a smattering of Bangla is heard during the entire documentary. Singh manages victory by a nearly 750,000 votes, to become the lone supporter in the Indian parliament for Gorkhaland.
This is very different from the hill narratives from postcolonial India, extending to all the rodent-like multiplicity of travel-brochure literature that throngs daily corners of the internet, or even modern day newspapers. The documentary is not ideologically singular, since Mark Twain, who visited Darjeeling about 120 years before the filming of the documentary, provides in his Following the Equator nonetheless an animated panorama of the Ghurkhas.
We had passed many a mountain village on the way up, and seen some new kinds of natives, among them many samples of the fighting Ghurkhas. They are not large men but they are strong and resolute. There are no better soldiers among Britain’s native troops. And we had passed shoals of their women climbing forty miles of steep road from the valley to their mountain homes, with tall baskets on their backs hitched to their foreheads by a band, and containing a freightage weighing—I will not say how many hundreds of pounds for the sum is unbelievable. These were young women, and they strode smartly along under these astonishing bur dens with the air of people out for a holiday. I was told that a woman will carry a piano on her back all the way up the mountain; and that more than once a woman had done it. If these were old women I should regard the Ghurkhas as no more civilized than the Europeans (Twain, 231)
Indian cinema has had a special infatuation with the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways, from “Mere Sapno ki Rani Kab Ayegi Tu,” (Aradhana, 1969) to “Chhaiya Chhaiya” (Dil Se, 1998) and “Ye Hawayein” (Parineeta, 2005). Romances are staged around the harmonica, rain-tarnished cups of tea, and dining parlours wrung out of complete absence of the hands and mouths that move the trains. Probably the highest percentage of any town’s population in the world relies on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways for its daily livelihood. However, cinema has continued to ignore the underbelly of the town’s labour population, until a few tokenistic glimpses of it in Barfi (2012), that is, not after the pathos of the Ghurkha town becomes so unmanageable that the plot is shifted to Calcutta. History provides, however simplistic, an entry into the debate for or against Gorkhaland. The estate of Darjeeling was purchased dispassionately from the raja of Sikkim, under the authorization of Lord Bentick (later Lord Auckland), and with the persuasions Captain G.S. Lloyd, in 1835.
The official acquirement of Simla by the British in 1830 came without any sensitive dilemmas as the draft of exchange came to be signed by the Maharaja of Patiala and the Rana of Keonthal. The place had already gathered the distinction of the “resort of the rich, the idle, and the invalid” (Jacquemont, 34). However, acquiring Darjeeling posed great obstacles before the East India Company particularly due to its complex geography. Captain G.S. Lloyd and J.W. Grant first nominated its acquisition in 1827, and the negotiations, with the Chogyals of Sikkim, went on for 8 years, before the Company acquired the hill-station.
It is uncanny that Twain chose to reference the Ghurkhas, or the foibles of British aristocracy in the hills more than the magnificent vistas of the Himalayas that Emily Eden, Fanny Parkes or Lady Dufferin visiting Mussoorie and Shimla between 1830s and 1880s would rather have chosen to. While the Edens and the Dufferins pretend to be absolutely blind to the labour resources of the hill stations, Twain takes his wonted paradoxical opinion of the mountains: “I think that mountains that are as high as that are disagreeable.” Keeping grounded in the aesthetics of labour, Twain en route to that conclusion leaves us a message in cipher. Entering the Club for him is a ritual, far from the exuberance that was of his predecessor, John Lang’s, who wrote colourful narratives of the inmates of the Himalaya Club of Mussoorie, in the 1850s. Twain begins with the same brushstrokes of panoramic landscape techniques, only to call forth irony:
It is loftily situated, and looks out over a vast spread of scenery ; from it you can see where the boundaries of three countries come together, some thirty miles away; Thibet is one of them, Nepaul another, and I think Herzegovina was the other (232)
It is uncertain what Twain exactly refers to as Herzegovina, whether it is a god-forsaken territory used by the young Montenegrin state (of 1880s) for its expansionist policies in the name of freeing the Serbs and the Croats from the Ottoman rule, or whether a country where the civilized do not tread. Or, was he predicting the burning issues of North Bengal on which its Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, was to remain silent as ever?
Declared a world heritage by UNESCO in 1999, being only the second to have received this honour, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways, after having failed year after year to feature in the annual rail budget is now on the verge of losing its heritage status. Meanwhile in London, the world’s oldest surviving locomotive car from the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways runs in the garden of Adrian Shooter who purchased it along with an ambassador chugging alongside, in the London garden modelled upon the Sukna railway station.
The Indian government had sold the locomotive to Hesston Steam Museum in 1960, not realizing what its worth would be 50 years later when it was declared a world heritage by Unesco.
[Shooter] shipped the locomotive in a container from US to the steam rail workshop in Tyseley, Birmingham, where he restored it. The tracks laid in his garden over 1.5km are in the form of a loop, just like in Darjeeling (Sinha, 2014). (to be contd.)
Basu, Anurag. Barfi!. Perf. Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Ileana D’Cruz. UTV Motion Pictures, 2012. Film.
Bhartiya, Tarun. The Darjeeling Himalyan Railway. Documentary Film. Ed. Barry Reynolds. 3Di TV, Gerry Troyna, 2010. Film.
Ghose, Anindita. “A Train-sized Passion,” in Live Mint, Jul 02, 2010. http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/jkwRsElRFXCtaajRUunUhO/A-trainsized-passion.html. Accessed: 22/10/2014.
Jacquemont, Victor. Letters from India, Vol. I. London: Edward Churton, 1834.
Kennedy, Dane Keith. The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj. California: University of California Press, 1996.
Ratnam, Mani. Dil Se. Perf. Shahrukh Khan, Manisha Koirala, Preity Zinta. Madras Talkies, Varma Corporation and Eros International, 1998. Film.
Samanta, Shakti. Aradhana. Perf. Rajesh Khanna, Sharmila Tagore, Farida Jalal. Shakti Films, 1969. Film.
Sarkar, Pradeep. Parineeta. Perf. Saif Ali Khan, Vidya Balan, Sanjay Dutt, Diya Mirza. Vinod Chopra Productions, 2005. Film.
Sinha, Kounteya. “A Darjeeling Joyride in a British Garden,” in The Economic Times, Sep 20, 2014. http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/A-Darjeeling-joyride-in-a-British-garden/articleshow/42995121.cms. Accessed: 22/10/2014.
Twain, Mark. The Writings of Mark Twain, Vol. VI: Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World, Vol. II. New York & London: Harper & Brothers, 1909.