photo by Karl Hagen
For three years in the mid-to-late 1960s, I went to boarding school in Darjeeling, six thousand feet above sea-level in the Himalayan foothills. Every March I would take a small plane from the plains down in Calcutta (Kolkata) to Bagdogra airport in Siliguri. From Siliguri it was six hours of winding vertiginously up into the mountains by jeep or bus or, for the lucky ones, narrow-gauge railway. Our school’s main building was an unheated stone castle, wreathed in mist most of the time. We slept under three blankets throughout the school year, which lasted until November, when the school closed down for the winter months and most of the students made the long journey back down to the plains. For a month beforehand we all sang GHD (Going Home Day) songs rich with school slang; one of our favorites, sung to the tune of “The Camptown Races”, went:
Going Home Day has come at last, doo-dah, doo-dah/Going Home Day has come at last, Oh, doo-dah day/We travel all the night, we travel all the day/We spend our money on the DHR (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway), doo-dah doo-dah day.
Down from old Mount Hermon, on a rutphut (ramshackle) bus/After nine months mugging (studying), back to home, to fuss/Teachers are so bucky (trouble-making), prefects are the same/Everybody’s happy, waiting for the train.
Ghoom, Sonada, Kurseong, all are left behind/Though our journey’s very long, I’m sure we do not mind (all shout: We do!)/When we reach Sealdah (railway station in Calcutta), hail it with a shout/Paan, bidi, cigret (the cries of the station-vendors), kick the teachers out!
All the English-medium boarding schools in Darjeeling were run by Christians of various denominations, on the model of British public schools. There was St. Joseph’s and St. Paul’s, both boys-only schools, and the all-girls’ Loreto Convent. Mount Hermon, the youngest of the four, was unique in being coeducational and was run by Baptist missionaries from Australia and New Zealand (although it had been founded by American Methodists). The schools had been established during the days of the British Raj, when Darjeeling (originally Dorje Ling) became a summer getaway for wives and children of the British civil servants stationed in the sweltering plains. Twenty years after independence, the quaint little town was inhabited by Indians, Nepalis, Tibetan refugees, Sikkimese, Bhutanese, and a few Britishers who had stayed on. There were still vestiges of the colonial days in the Mall, where tourists could get pony rides, buy cakes and milk-shakes at Glenary’s, go for a drink at the Planters Club, and—if they could afford it—stay at the elegant, old-world Windamere Hotel, where afternoon tea and sandwiches were still served in the British style. By our day, though, one could just as easily find salt-and-buttered Tibetan tea in Darjeeling.
Despite our school’s mostly-non-Indian staff and its British boarding-school traditions such as the house system, school ties, and the tuck shop, the students themselves were mostly Indian, with a few each from Nepal, Sikkim, Tibet, Thailand, Australia, England, and the United States (three American exchange students from Chicago who initially shocked us with their cigarette-smoking but became good friends). I still remember our lively discussions about Christianity with our missionary teachers, coming as so many of us did from Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist families. Isolated on the school grounds (except when we “bunked” to Hafiz’ shop at North Point for momos, steamed meat dumplings, or to Black Rock*, the spot among the tea bushes where as teenagers we once arranged a secret—and completely innocent—meeting with our boy- and girl-friends), we were far removed from the turmoil of the outside world, from the Marxist-Leninist Naxalite movement exploding nearby in our own Marxist state of West Bengal, from the Nepali separatist movement that would erupt into violence in Darjeeling just a few years later, and from the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and Flower-Power movements flourishing in the United States.
photo by Karl Hagen
Surrounded by swirling mists and tea estates terraced on the steeply sloping hillsides, our one immovable frame of reference was the mountain range. On days when the mists cleared, we looked out of our dormitory windows upon the snows of Kanchenjunga, the third-highest peak in the world. We were told that it was fully fifty miles away, but it appeared to be just across the valley. Since our headmaster’s wife was a passionate music-lover, Mount Hermon was known as the singing boarding school. We sang our hearts out morning, noon and night: in morning chapel, in daytime music classes and choir practice, in evening rehearsals for the annual—and legendary—school musicals. When the choir sang the anthem, “Lift thine eyes, Oh lift thine eyes, to the mountains, whence co-meth, whence co-o-meth, whence co-o-meth help,” we lifted our eyes and souls to the Himalayas alone. The song must have been written with other, faraway mountains in mind, but for us there were no others. When we were taken into Darjeeling town to see The Sound of Music, Maria’s echoing hills were, naturally, the Himalayas only. And when we learned a song called, “Oh India, Mother India,” our hearts swelled with pride at the natural beauty of our country, a beauty that we could not fail to see around us wherever we turned our heads. The words are engraved in my mind:
O beautiful for azure skies, for amber waves of grain/For snow-capped mountain majesties, above the fruited plain.
O India, Mother India, God shed his grace on thee/And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.
Later, when my family emigrated to the United States, I encountered another version of this song, which the Americans had had the cheek to rename “America the Beautiful.” The mountains in their version were not snow-capped, but bare and purple with cold.
Today I have little use for nationalist sentiment, but the thought and even the sound of the word Himalaya remains powerfully evocative for me. Himal Southasian is an e-magazine that, like the mountains themselves, spans and defines all of the subcontinent across national boundaries. Himalayan—as in the often-used Indian English phrase, Himalayan blunder—has passed into the English language as an adjective of extremes. Abode of the snows and the Everest-climbing Sherpas, the Himalayas are the source of the River Ganges, place of myth and legend, danger, awesome beauty and unimaginably lofty heights. For me they are still the only real mountains.
photo by Karl Hagen
I took my husband to Darjeeling with me after our marriage in 1983, my first time back since I had left India fifteen years before. We had to get a special permit to travel to Darjeeling, because of the Gorkha separatist unrest. Our pilgrimage took us along my annual route up to the town, down the Lebong cart road from North Point into the cold stone building which housed the dormitory I had shared for three years with 24 other schoolgirls. We toured a tea factory together as I had in social studies class so many years before, and re-visited Black Rock. We even woke up before four on our last morning to take the trip up the 10,000-foot-high Tiger Hill, from where on rare sunrises one could catch a glimpse of Everest. Although I had not succeeded in catching it in all my years at Mount Hermon, as a newlywed I hoped that my husband and I might be blessed with the sight. It was a fairly clear morning, and I thought I saw a tiny white speck just a bit more substantial than a cloud—or so I told myself.
Back at Bagdogra airport at the base of the mountains, we boarded a return plane for Calcutta. As the plane circled west to turn south, I happened to take a backward glance out of one of the windows. Framed there as if by magic shone—Everest? Unmistakably the highest peak in the range, the Everest I had never once managed to see in all the years I was living in Darjeeling. I stared until it was out of sight. Whether or not what I saw was actually Everest, Himalaya, abode of the snows, still stands supreme, there and in my mind’s eye, the fixed point to which all else refers.
As a child I had met the mountaineer Sir John Hunt, who delighted us schoolchildren by giving the famously enigmatic answer to the question of why his team had attempted that treacherous peak: “because it’s there.” But the mountain itself makes no demands, throws out no challenges. It is simply and majestically there.
* While preparing to write this piece, I looked up Black Rock on the Internet, and learned, to my sorrow, that in November 2009 Mount Hermon student Romel Ropuia fell to his death from the rock as he and two schoolmates, bunking from the school grounds, were returning for dinner. My deepest sympathies go out to his family. According to the current Principal, plans are now underway to fence the entire 74-acre school campus.Other Tell Me Another stories set (either wholly or in part) at Mount Hermon School in Darjeeling:
Other Tell Me Another stories set (either wholly or in part) at Mount Hermon School in Darjeeling:
24. Hidden Places
38. Study Halls and Cinchona
109. Hindi Lessons
125. My Autograph Book
129. Good Morning, Rainy Day
179. And he laughing said to me
Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)
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