The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Men, mountains and the Mall

How do we look at the mountains, and how do the mountains look at us' What roles do heights and distances play in the lives of our body, mind and eye' How do we look at our own lives and the lives of others in relation to such heights and distances' And what kinds of Art do we make out of altitude and expanse' I have never been, nor will be, a trekker or climber. So my wish to go to Darjeeling had nothing to do with a love of the mountains. It was a purely human impulse. I wanted to indulge myself with unabashed Bengali-watching, a craving for which has taken me often to that other, though differently flavoured, paradise for Bengali-watchers, Digha. There, the presence of the sea, its beauty and gravity ' at dawn and dusk, during a storm, or in moonlight ' makes the whole experience ultimately rather different, and very much more than merely sociological.

But in Darjeeling, what I had not bargained for was the complexity of the experience, and the manifold pleasures afforded by that complexity, the various levels at which the ravage as well as the beauty of the place could work on one's eye and being ' the sadness and the charm, the layers of time, the histories within history, the memories and associations, shadows and ghosts, and the cohabitation, full of pathos and irony, of the banal and the sublime, the people and the peaks.

On the first day, sitting in a caf' on the Mall in the early afternoon, looking out on the ever-changing human patterns on its still charmingly circumscribed stage, with strains of Nepalese rock floating up from the basement, I was struck by the extent to which the eye is not only an organ of history, recording and remembering the visible work of time, but one that is also fully immersed in history. My 'view' of Darjeeling, I realized, was profoundly influenced and structured by a certain strand of my 'sentimental education' constituted by such works as Ray's Kanchenjungha and, less immediately, Mann's The Magic Mountain. These provided the cultural templates, the themes on which my eye, situated in its own complicating and often contrary present, elaborated its peculiar variations.

Ray's film, especially, had not only educated my eye and sensibilities, but it also formed an earlier moment in a continuous history within which my gaze seemed to find its time and place, its past and present. And this was a strangely haunting, even uncanny experience ' like d'j' vu in reverse ' poised somewhere between comedy and elegy. Darjeeling, visited and revisited by a continual flow of people, seemed to be one of those places, which, even when one is actually in them, seem to exist in some sort of a prospective nostalgia. This was further complicated by the fact that I had come to Darjeeling once before ' in 1967, five years after Ray's film was made, when I was two ' but had no recollection of the trip. Yet the black-and-white photographs of that visit, in their social and scenic details, had become inextricable from my memory of the film, and entirely made up my sense of the place, and also, partly, my idea of what the Bengali Sixties had looked like.

Ray called Kanchenjungha a 'very composed film' and therefore his most 'musical' work (echoing almost verbatim what Mann had said of The Magic Mountain): 'It's a manufactured situation where everything takes place according to a certain preconceived pattern. It's a very deliberately contrived screenplay ' very decorative. Yet the total effect is natural ' but that's another thing. Underneath, there's extremely conscious planning of words, gestures, movements, transitions.'

Remembering the flow of people on the Mall that afternoon in the light of Ray's words, one is struck by how the Mall itself might come to stand for the struggle between order and disorder, choreography and chaos, timelessness and time, the designs of the past and the actualities of the present that a certain kind of art, or a certain view of history, wishes to represent. It looked to me like a dance that had been choreographed in a simpler, more elegantly hierarchical age, but which, in the course of its endless rehearsal through time, had transformed itself into something madder and infinitely more complex and anarchic than what the original composition could ever dream of ' a minuet or rondeau turned into a surreal Bollywood number in slow motion. And in this, not only Darjeeling's colonial past, Campbell's sanatorium town, but also Ray's exquisitely 'composed' film provides multiple frames through which one could take the measure of this change.

Old benches, a remembered bandstand, a dead fountain full of rotting water, the facades of colonial buildings mixed in with fast-food counters, ATMs and hoardings for men's underwear, together with the grids of light and shade when the sun shines through the surrounding trees, provide the setting for a seemingly perpetual and socially levelling carnival, a vengefully postcolonial parody of the English promenade. Clueless foreigners, wimpled nuns, collared parsons, eager evangelists, flocks of ruddy-cheeked schoolchildren and marching Gorkhas provide the costumed matrix through which processes, in a kind of anxious stateliness, that uniquely Bengali ensemble, the Honeymooning Family: the bride still bridal and the groom still 'dipal, trailing an impossibly slow-moving entourage of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, poor relations, infant nieces and nephews and their surly-faced attendants, all in full winter regalia, whatever the weather.

This flow is counterpointed by the scantier presence of the locals ' wizened old women knitting graciously in their handloom aprons or selling bhutta with the same impersonal sweetness, Nepalese mothers taking their children back home from school, the ponies doing their endless rounds, the load-bearing Bhutias with huge Godrej almirahs on their backs and strapped to their foreheads, the shaggy mountain dogs, strays here but prized in the Cities of the Plain, so that when they gaily loll and tumble about, entirely at home in the Mall, the whole place begins to look like a drawing room gone berserk, full of dusty, unkempt pets. (Writing the first draft of his screenplay in the deserted Windermere Hotel, Ray had created the visual and musical refrain of the Nepalese urchin who gets his Cadbury's at the end: 'He symbolized Darjeeling for me because he was the only rooted character.')

Always in Darjeeling, these distances and proximities, the contrary flows of people, and the accidental crossings of their normally disparate paths, are contained by vaster and mistier distances, heights and depths, peaks and valleys, visible or obscured, lending to the human scene a sense of being encircled, overseen or ignored, by an altogether different order of time and space. Hence, in order to describe or represent Darjeeling one needs not only the language of history and social comedy, of class and caricature, but also the vocabulary of the sublime, something larger and bluer, more imperious and transcendent. Not only Parashuram, Jane Austen and Mozart, but also Rabindranath, Mann and Mahler. This is the synthesis that Ray (and on a different scale, Mann) had achieved through what remained for Ray 'a very artificial kind of creation', distinctly 'western in feeling'. Ray is savouring here the tonal achievements of what he always regarded as an epochal and essentially misunderstood film.

Mountains ' as the 'little poet', John Keats, realized during his walking tour of the Wordsworthian Lake District ' can make small people feel big, and big people feel small. The sublime can terrorize, chastize or humiliate; but it can also elevate, aggrandize or transfigure. In this, the sublime opens up the entire spectrum between power and powerlessness, the great and the small, the high and the low, played out socially, politically, psychologically and physically. Ray's film captures, without ever letting go of its lightness, this entire range. His Raibahadur Indranath Roy Chowdhury ' played by Chhabi Biswas, Olympian among actors ' is put down not only by modernity but also, quite literally, by a mountain. This happens in the presence of a singing local urchin eating chocolate, whose echoing song opens up terrifying spaces above and around the old man in which he fears he may lose himself. But the same mountain-range infuses a strange spirit of daring in the younger and the humbler. Indranath's daughter and the impecunious 'young man', whom she feels vaguely interested in, each feel and act upon, in their different ways, the sublime's defiant-making 'swell'.

On our way down to Darjeeling from Mirik, in a taxi packed with people from the local villages, there was a young English couple having one of those irresolvable conjugal tiffs. Around them contraband cigarettes from Nepal were being merrily hidden below the seat covers at checkposts; puffed rice was falling from time to time like mad confetti from somebody's badly-packed luggage on the roof of the car; a grimy young boy had fallen sweetly asleep with his head on my friend's arm stretched out along the back of the seat. In the Babel of tongues inside the car, only my friend and I seemed to understand, or care about, this couple's genteel quarrel, the twists and turns of which seemed to follow those of the hairpin bends in the mountain road. 'The point, darling,' I heard, 'is not that you don't care, but that you don't care that you don't care.' I looked out of the window, into the most beautifully dappled forests of pine, and noticed the mists swirling in among the trees from above.

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