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ON THE WAY

Once upon a time, there was a magic country, which lay nestled in the clouds. The snows lived there, along with people who had sunshine smiles. When the people from the ugly plains below — who had never seen before madcap waterfalls, whirling roads, rivers crossing paths, trees draped in moss curtains, and that fantastic object hitherto found only in picture books, snow —reached the place, they were dumbfounded. They had to pinch themselves to be reminded that they were not dreaming. Those who were not fortunate enough to go to the home of the snows had to content themselves by reading about it in books, written by those who had been there and experienced it all. The traveller-writers had a challenging task — like medieval explorers, they had to describe an unfamiliar world by speaking about it in recognizable terms. They had to make the readers feel the magic as well as the pinch of reality.

In the early 19th century, Darjeeling was still in the process of being set up as the summer capital of the heat-weary sahibs, who craved for the snows and the cold about which they had complained back home. For the Bengalis from the plains, mist-wrapped, bone-chilling Darjeeling was a fantasy, a figment of the rulers’ imagination to which the diligent Englishmen have somehow given a local shape. The curious and adventurous among the Bengalis, like Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri, endured the rattling ride up to the hills to see for themselves what the sahibs’ dream home was all about.

When Upendrakishore wrote about his journeys to Darjeeling in various children’s magazines, he conveyed the newness of the world — in terms of topography, flora and fauna, people, their habits — he encountered there. But to make his readers relate to the place, he described the new and the exotic in terms of the old and the usual. So the tall, bare trees with a tuft of branches on top that he witnesses on his upward journey by train are compared to the “haargila”, the scavenging adjutant storks, which were a common sight on the streets of Calcutta in the 1800s. Given the appearance of the gangly storks, the comparison cannot be called a flattering one. It serves two simultaneous purposes — it connects the strange-looking trees to the familiar birds, making the former easier to imagine, and, at the same time, brings divine Darjeeling closer to the dirty, garbage-strewn, fly-infested roads of Calcutta, sniping off a bit of its misty glory in the process. Other comparisons are kinder — Darjeeling as glimpsed from a distance of two or three miles is like a sweetmeat shop, with its colourful houses like barfis on display — but they have the same effect. The latter simile also brings in an element of merriment, which would appeal to the young readers to whom his writings were especially addressed.

In this stolid refusal to be taken in by the exotic, no matter how thrilling, one can detect the logical temperament of the man of reason who had rejected the Hindu faith of his ancestors to embrace Brahmoism. The scientific Brahmo mind — foregrounding facts as opposed to false imaginings — is evident in each of Upendrakishore’s essays on Darjeeling. In the hands of the illustrious trio of Upendrakishore, his son, Sukumar, and grandson, Satyajit, literature went back to its original aim to entertain and educate, to educate by entertaining. The process of acquiring knowledge becomes fun, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the premises of the Raychaudhuri household included a school. Upendrakishore’s tendency to underline the lighter side of serious knowledge sets a tradition that will thrive in the writings of his successors in the family. For instance, he seems to speak in the voice of Professor Shonku when he delivers his little speeches on Tibetan lamas (to be distinguished, he points out, from the llamas), their prayer wheels (which would figure so prominently in Satyajit Ray’s Joto Kando Kathmandute) while the hilarious effect produced by the combination of the mundane and the astounding in the essays would remind one of Sukumar Ray’s Heshoram Hnushiyarer Diary.

Upendrakishore’s legacy acquires a slightly different shape in the writings of the women of his family. While generalizations are unfair to the particular, one may say that the humanistic objective of combining the science and the arts to create a literature of humaneness is better realized in the works of, say, Leela Majumdar (niece), Punyalata Chakrabarti or Sukhalata Rao (daughters), than in the writings of Sukumar and Satyajit. For bolstering this assumption, one may compare the respective accounts of the Ghoom Buri (a beggar woman of Ghoom whom contemporary Englishmen called the “witch of Ghoom”, picture) as given by Upendrakishore in “Darjeelinger Pathe” (“On the way to Darjeeling)” and by Punyalata in Chhelebelar Dinguli (The Days of Childhood). In the case of Upendrakishore, the description begins and ends with this ancient lady’s straggly hair, tiny eyes, sparkling smile and the appeal of “Babu, paisa” spoken in a mewling accent. Punyalata questions the Englishmen’s logic behind calling her the witch of Ghoom when her face is as innocent as that of a child, with a child’s disarming smile. She continues by saying that the Ghoom Buri had been begging at the Ghoom railway station ever since it came into being, and she had stayed unchanged down the years. She had arranged to have her life’s savings used for building a home for the destitute when she died, Punyalata adds. Thus, with the sweep of a few words, the alleged witch becomes a human being and the spirit of the place. If fantastic at all, she is so in her kindness, which brings her down to earth from the clouds.