The quaint tea room of The Elgin Hotel in Darjeeling becomes BJP candidate Jaswant Singh’s campaign centre and (below) a glimpse of the Himalayas
While coming to India in the third week of April, I had resigned myself to the fact that the general elections would only have a peripheral impact, if any, on my brief visit this time. Chats and e-mail correspondence with Indian friends suggested that urbanites in India were harbouring a sad sense that no matter who they voted for, things would not change.
My weekend in Noida and Delhi heard very little political talk. In these two cities, particularly Noida, which The Economist frequently cites as an example of the new India (one can only hope that India never becomes like Noida), it was business as usual.
My next stop is Darjeeling in West Bengal. The journey is smooth and after a stop to devour the plate du jour — a generous helping of momos — I reach the popular hill station just in time for afternoon tea.
My hotel evokes the days of the Raj. The name — Elgin — is allusive enough of the atmosphere. On the first floor, visitors are greeted by a grand picture of H.M. the Queen. The surroundings of the hotel are blessed with handsome scenery. The reading room is peaceful and inviting. I conclude that I will make the tea room my personal space, where I relax amongst my own books, and drink endless cups of tea served by the staff (as usual clad in comical robes and hats but very attentive) and the occasional glass of sherry.
While exploring the town, the numerous references to Gorkhaland confuse me. It is present in the address of every shop and establishment.
I learn that most local people want to cease being administered by Calcutta — they want a separate state from West Bengal as they find the region is neglected by Calcutta. I find it reassuring that they at least don’t want to separate from India. Fortunately, the fact that the region has a different culture from Calcutta (I refuse to call it Kolkata) appears to be secondary.
I end up in the wonderful Oxford bookshop, a genuine relic of the times of the Raj. The memory of numerous visits to my beloved Oxford bookshop on Park Street assaults me. This one, though smaller, is well assorted but its biased selection of books doesn’t go unnoticed. I find no books on West Bengal or Calcutta, let alone on Bengali culture. Instead, it has books denouncing the oppression on Darjeeling and other propaganda material.
On my second day, after an evening walk to the Mall, I decide to go back to the hotel but find the road blocked with many people waving bands and flags of political parties. The atmosphere at the reception confirms my fears: a celebrity is coming.
I try to find solace in my tea room, but it has been invaded by local journalists and politicians. The guest is Jaswant Singh, a former external affairs, defence and finance minister of the country and the current BJP candidate for the Darjeeling constituency. The hotel staff are acting with such alacrity that it reminds me of privates greeting a general. Singh moves very slowly but confidently, knowing that no matter what he says, it will be lapped up by his audience.
In the tea room (should I still say my team room?) an impromptu press conference is arranged. Singh addresses the media for three or four minutes. The entire city is mobilised and there is a sentiment that he can change things by supporting the Gorkhaland claim in Delhi. Some people refer to these days as “the last chance”, others are hoping the BJP can form the government within a coalition and thus carry out Darjeeling’s separation from West Bengal.
On my third day, my tea room has become Singh’s headquarters. In the afternoon, he meets people from different parties. He speaks to one group for 25 minutes, mouths some platitudes, then moves to a different sofa to meet another group. Finally, Singh and a new group decide to sit next to my sofa so I almost feel as if I’m participating in the talks, a circumstance that I hardly find glamorous. Singh realises the futility of holding so many meetings in a row and politely says: “While you work, I drink tea”, and never comes back. Whether this is a metaphor of what may happen remains to be seen.
The people in Darjeeling and particularly in the tea room seem anxious, preparing meetings and rallies. The excitement grows. The mobile phones do not cease to ring and waiters continue to bring beverages.
The people see Singh as the only man who can change things. Shops in the market and in the Mall along with some food stalls decide to shut down early to attend Singh’s meetings.
I leave Darjeeling and squeeze in a brief halt at my beloved Calcutta. It’s 5pm. The weather is surprisingly pleasant so I end up dining on the terrace of a hotel facing New Market. My companions ensure that a simple and unpretentious evening becomes a rather special one, with an endless number of gin tonics. We leave politics aside as after more than 30 years of governance by the same political party, young Bengalis seem to have lost any hope for change.
Saturday morning, I’m back in Delhi. Lunch at the Bukhara restaurant. Lavish Delhi again. Utter indifference. Probably, not even hope. I miss Darjeeling and its political naivety.