little victories…

Hello rest-of-the-world!  This post is a little later than I’d planned, due mainly to a one day general strike in Kalimpong.  The strike is to highlight the region’s demand for greater autonomy from West Bengal state government.  Of course, there are many factions and complications, but that’s what I can glean so far.  Kalimpong is a beautiful town of about 50,000 people, perched on a ridge 1500 m above sea level.  For the first time since arriving in India, I need more than one layer of clothing, and I’m seeing trees and flowers (without a patina of pollution!).

More on Kalimpong in my next post.  For now, I want to tell you about Siliguri.  I said last time there are no touts.  That’s not true.  The call in Siliguri is not “Hello, sir!!” but “Darjeeling??!!” – from the endless lines of taxis, jeeps and buses ready to go to where all Westerners around here want to go!  I felt a little smug saying “nai”, one of my few Bangla words, as I had decided to go to Kalimpong first (it’s further east, but just as close).

Speaking of language, that’s been a huge reality check.  It’s true, if all you want to do is buy things, rent a room, eat, take photos, English is fine.  But if you want anything unusual, or if you want a conversation, you’ll need some Bangla, and I’ve certainly been feeling the lack.  So, I worked out how to say hello, no, thankyou, walking and I don’t speak Bangla.  OK, that’s nothing, but it’s a start.  I miss conversation, especially easy, fluid chat.  India, so far, has brought me out of myself but also further in.  It’s definitely a place of paradoxes.

By the way, thankyou Maurice McNamara for giving me Jonathan Harley’s book “Lost in Transmission”.  I was skeptical at first, but it’s a real page-turner, and unexpectedly moving at times.  Harley was ABC’s corrrespondent in New Delhi from the late 90s onwards, and the things he finds amazing and shocking and odd and beautiful are the same things I did.

Anyway, Siliguri’s shops are mostly either chemists or motorbike repair stores.  Hmm, I can’t help thinking they’re related.  The air is clearer than Kolkata, but it’s still filthy.  I’ve had cause to visit a doctor here (no big deal, really…), and the health care system is one step up from third world.  Drugs are plentiful and cheap (for me), but the infrastructure is minimal, sanitation is so-so, and the demand is immense – always queues of coughing and limping people.

From the balcony of my hotel room at Siliguri, I could see a huge makeshift series of stalls – selling books, mostly empty.  Sadly, they weren’t setting up but down – it finished last week!  Ah, timing.  I found a bookstore, and a reasonable translation of Ghalib’s ghazals, though.

As part of wanting to challenge myself, especially with language, I decided to get a haircut.  I asked the waiter at the hotel restaurant what were the Bangla words I should use.  He didn’t understand, so brought the manager, who said he would get someone to take me to a good “Men’s Saloon”!  So, he leads me down a little alley, to “His and Hers”.  We climb a thin concrete stairway, and I bob down to fit my head through the door.  Three brown barber’s chairs, mirrors everywhere, blue wooden panels.  The TV in the corner is on, alternating between “Lagaan” an epic about cricket pre-independance, and VH1 which is playing Eminem.  The young man who cuts my hair is about 5 foot tall and maybe 20 years old.  In broken English (not broken Bangla – I’m nowhere near that), he works out I want my head shaved to the length of my 2 day growth.  He does a great job.  Next, the shave…  which is also spectacular.  I was nervous, I must say.  I’ve never had someone else shave me, not in Australia, let alone India.  It was such an experience – sprayed with water, moisturiser, massaged with a motion somewhere between kneading bread and sensual attentiveness, one close but never too close shave, then the whole procedure over again.  Oh, and in between the two shaves, a small cup of coffee.  We attempt, half successfully, to make small talk, though he doesn’t know what a poet is, and I can’t work out how to explain it.  I go back to the streets of Siliguri beaming, and run into an 18 year-old who asks me where I’m from, asks me about (guess what?) cricket, looks a little confused when I can’t offer much, then asks for my number – he hopes to get into an engineering course, maybe go to Australia one day!  This is West Bengal.  Friendly, aspirational, and bemused at a tall white boy like me.

His'n'Hers Saloon, Siliguri
His'n'Hers Saloon, Siliguri

That same night I find what I like to call the Jain Good Morning Captain.  The Jains are an offshoot from Hinduism who (among other dietary restrictions) don’t eat any meat, so when I see a sign pointing to a Jain restaurant, I’m intrigued.  I go down a dark corridor next to a building which is solely concrete frames, feeling increasingly lost and unsafe.  A man nearby shows me to the lift, which has room for me and the very old lift man.  On the 3rd floor is Jain Jaika Bhojnalaya, an open plan room with maybe 4 tables and about six waiters, who continually fill your plate (it’s all you can eat, just 40 rupees), offer you more daal, bread, pickle, and so on.  The owner swaggers over from the next table, asks how I found them, where I’m from, tells me he has another restaurant in Darjeeling.  He has the air about him somewhere between gangsta hip-hop tough-guy and a gentle Uncle or big brother.  And the place is reassuringly amateur.

Feel subtly ecstatic to have had a haircut and a shave, and to have found a restaurant that’s not in the Lonely Planet that’s so good and human.  So, yes, little victories, but they’re victories nonetheless.

Next blog, the incredible jeep ride from Siliguri to Kalimpong, and some impressions of the town…

Miss you, my friends.  Send me some emails, or post a reply, please.

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