The Darjeeling Unlimited

by Sanjena Sathian

I left Ilam last week for a quick jaunt to India. This is the seventh time I’ve been to India. It’s the first time I’ve been alone in the country of my ancestry. Even though I planned just a week here, I was excited to set foot in this country by myself for the first time.

What would it look like, just over the Nepali border?— I wondered if it would seem strange to me after I’d spent time in a place that seems strangely similar, yet just a shade off. So much of Nepal was familiar to me from my time spent in India – the Nepali language is not far off from Hindi; the women wear the same clothes, and even the time zone difference is just 15 minutes – yet it was all completely different in many ways, with different traditions, customs, quirks, and a million other details you can only notice after fully immersing yourself into a place.

I sat in a hired car and eagerly looked out the window as we crossed over a small bridge that took us over the India border. We’d get to the border post and then I’d cross on foot. My heart rate was climbing. Entering India on foot! How romantic!

Darjeeling's architecture is characterized by old British colonial buildings and tea houses. (Sathian/TYG)

It was a little anticlimactic.

Everything just looked the same. I had no indication that I was in the India I grew up knowing… it might as well have still been Nepal. We’d crossed from the Nepali terai, the flat agricultural part of the country, into a flat agricultural part of West Bengal, in northeast India. There seemed to be more cows in the street on the Indian side. Or was I making that up? Even the men working at the immigration office looked more Nepali than Indian, with their Gurkha-Mongolite features, and upon a closer listen I realized they were speaking in about 70% Nepali and 30% Hindi.

My driver, an Indian man who lives on the Nepali side of the border and runs a border-crossing taxi service, gave me my only indication that we had come to a new country.

“These roads are very bad,” he complained.

I was startled, and looked again. They were flat, and paved. A few potholes and puddles were scattered around, but other than that the main problem with the roads seemed to be the cows. These were beautiful, delightful roads (and my rear end was very happy for them) that Nepal would have been happy to have. But in India, they were less than tolerable. And then I started looking a little more closely. Everything looked pretty much the same: the people, the greenery… but I was seeing things I hadn’t seen in Nepal. Bridges, everywhere, so many bridges! Steel bridges, industrially built bridges! As we began climbing back into the hills, I did a double take at the sight of power lines. So many power lines. Electricity, everywhere! And road signs, full of glorious English. Even the man sitting next to me in the jeep as we climbed up through the mountains – who told me he was from a “very remote” part of Darjeeling district – spoke to me in perfect English (finding an English speaker in a local jeep in Nepal happened zero out of the probably twenty times I took one).

And then as I climbed into Darjeeling itself, there were more differences. The mountainside itself seemed exactly the same as its twin in Nepal, but littered in the trees were tudor-style cottages, white and pastel colored colonial homes, the occasional church spire. This is, of course, the charm of Darjeeling: you can taste the exoticism of the eastern mountains from the comfort of your converted colonial mansion hotel. You can send your children to English-speaking Christian boarding schools here (one of which I accidentally wandered into, and found myself in a mist-drenched Hogwarts-style compound). And as you sit in a perfectly tended Sound of Music-style garden, sipping famous Darjeeling tea and looking out at the hillside, you might be struck by how much you feel like a colonizer.

Darjeeling wears a kind of cloak of remoteness and the exotic. It’s inaccessible, compared to many parts of India; to get here from Bombay, my friend had to take two flights and a jeep ride, or a flight, a train and a jeep. Travelers arrive here and smile at themselves for their hardiness. They have made it to the mountains, out of the rest of smog-covered, body-dense India. Café and hotel owners complain to me, the westerner, about the have-nots of this place; West Bengal had its problems with political unrest and, certainly, is nowhere near as rich as the foreigners who traipse through here with ease. But little things stand out to my eyes, still covered in the film of Nepal.

India, which I’d never have considered rich before, is comparatively so. Despite the trash heaps, the tin slum-roofs, the wonderfully cheap food all around Darjeeling district; and despite the fact that this Nepali-speaking, cool and misty tea-region seems nothing like the India of my family, it’s clear to me that I’m in a more privileged part of the world.
Nepal is proud of its legacy of having never been colonized. Not by the Mughals, not by the British. But the British legacy here is precisely what gives India an edge. They speak English. Foreigners can come here; locals can leave. And though Ilam is just over the border, it’s a long way in for tourists to make it.

On my way out of Nepal, I stopped in for some local hospitality at a friend’s family home, where I was asked, as usual, about my American citizenship, and what I knew about getting an American visa or green card. I had responded with my usual firmness that I could do nothing to help, and quickly changed the subject. Getting an American visa is a popular subject which Nepali people love to rant at me about. But once I’ve established that I have no connections to an embassy to help them, they begin anew, attacking my other country: “Well, we will just go to India, then.” For the latter, they do not need my help, but it offers a more attainable promise. A stronger currency, a more functioning government, English medium education, fewer blackouts, and… better roads.

The West, I realized as I crossed back into Nepal, has stopped being my barometer for measuring comfort and development. The longer I’ve spent here, the more my scale has turned into a sliding one. From outside, we can easily understand it all as “the developing world,” but from the inside, the measurement is not so simple.

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