Thursday, December 27, 2012

Winter in the half-shadows

As I was letting some water run from the tap in this surprisingly cold Calcutta winter, my fingers nearly went numb, and suddenly after many many years I was reminded of the late winter-early spring weekend we had spent at Mansang, around forty minutes from Kalimpong. I was probably in Class IV, eight or nine years old, and I was the only child in the group of adults, comprising parents, relatives, and friends of parents. From that trip I had learnt how numbing mountain water could be; how the tip of the nose could get red because it was the only exposed part of the body; and it was from that trip that I had learned to spot figures in the clouds. While we were strolling behind the bungalow, I had pointed out to my mejo jethu a cloud shaped like a cavalry horse, except I didn't know then what 'cavalry' was. Mansang must have been the name of the village, although we never did see a village. For the eight year old self, all Mansang meant to me was Jawlsha Bungalow, the bungalow built by the British while planting cinchona in the Himalayas. After the British had left, it was taken up by the government, and in the fifties, rumours of its being haunted by the spirits of nautch girls -- brought up from Calcutta for the entertainment of the British officers -- prompted the cinchona department to demolish the bungalow and build another one just like it on its remains.

I do not think the rebuilding did much of a difference though. Decades after that, when we went in the nineties, we were treated with ghost stories by the caretaker, who lived in a hut with his family behind the bungalow. In all my subsequent visits to Mansang I would be scared to sleep in the adjoining bedroom, unwittingly recounting the ghost stories in my head. I could never see why my father preferred this place to all the other Himalayan retreats we had at our disposal, specifically the bungalow at Mungpoo where Rabindranath Tagore had stayed, and near which, on the ruins of Surail Bungalow he had composed his poem Nirjhorer Shopnobhongo. The bungalow at Mungpoo was huge compared to the one at Mansang, and I would always discover new rooms, anterooms and hundred year old pianos which wouldn't play in tune. Jawlsha bungalow, on the other hand, had a couple of bed rooms, a porch, a sitting and dining room, and a grandfather clock in between which chimed at every hour. The whole bungalow rested on a kind of plateau, which looked down steeply at the hills on one side, bordered with huge ancient trees. When one drove in from the mountain road from Kalimpong, one would only see a rusty wrought-iron gate to the left, which had never been closed in over fifty years. If one took that path, which rose slowly, one would suddenly find to one's left, a lush green ground giving way to the bungalow. In one of our last visits, my father had challenged my boro jethu to a stroll to the edge of the road in the dead of night. The latter had promptly taken up the challenge, and one of my lingering memories of that place, is looking out of the windows of the  adjoining bedroom into the dark, and seeing torch lights flash in the distance.

That bungalow in the middle of the Himalayas would shape me in ways I would only discover years later. In our first trip, mejo jethu had recounted an anecdote of his visit to the place in the seventies, when disturbed in  his sleep in the early hours of the morning, he had woken up to what he thought was his father's voice calling him. He had immediately taken the train to Calcutta only to arrive just in time for his father's cremation. I still remember sitting in mejo jethu's lap and burying my face in his red sweater while hearing about the grand-father I'd never seen, yet whom I admired deeply. In the same trip, Mrs. Mukherjee would narrate a ghost story from the times of the Raj, with the backdrop of British Calcutta -- doubly significant for me because being the only family member born and growing up outside the city, I had always felt a stark craving to belong to its streets and ways of life; and for the certain time in history that I was passionate about but would never experience.

As I sit in my Calcutta home, fifteen years after my first visit to Mansang, the realisation that I will never be able to go back to Jawlsha bungalow again hits me. Some of the people from my first visit have died; some have wandered very far away. I don't remember the name of the caretaker any more, and I would like to know what his children do now. I am slowly beginning to understand why my father always had a soft corner for the couch beside the fire-place at Jawlsha Bungalow. The Rabindrasangeet they sang, the whisky they drank, the ghost stories they told each other, the bread dipped in the honey made from the caretaker's apiary, the adults exchanging snippets about a city they had grown up in, and a child, wide-eyed with wonder, listening to them, weaving worlds, alternatively growing scared, and looking out of the windows into the cold night and imagining white horsemen and lonely nautch girls on the grass -- they will never come back.

For you see, it is in the starkest of winters, that one thinks of home; and with the harshest of disappointments does one realise that one is already "home", but with radical departures from what one had originally envisioned. I wish I could post pictures of Mansang, but I don't have any. Our old albums would probably contain photographs of a nine year old with missing teeth and short hair posing behind some red flowers, but for all I know, the albums might be stuck in a kind of time-vortex while I was busy moving houses.

Edited on 15.09.2014:

In a fit of last-minute desperate measures to cling on to childhood memories before major life decision, I did find old albums, and I did manage to scan some photos. There are absolutely no photographs from the several Mungpoo trips; however, Gott sei Dank, I found some photographs from our first Mansang trip. These, I hope, would give an idea of the bungalow, the grounds, and the little hillock on the ground. Still missing and will remain forever missed are the caretaker's lodge, the apiary, the play of clouds, and those happy days.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Particular Girl promises to be back as soon as her exams get over. Watch this space for deplorable whining, sentiment-varnished nostalgia, and cheap thrills. Ciao!