‘Orchid Land’: A Nostalgia

Nagendra Sharma

We have heard stories of Varanashi, of hoary antiquity, being turned into Benares at the hands of the British-Indian rulers. Dorjayling, possibly a Tibetan name, likewise, became Darjeeling, just as Sukhim, which had lorded over it till almost the other day, was turned by the British, almost overnight, into Sikkim!

By the same token, our own dear old Kharsang, which is said to have meant the ‘Land of Orchids’ in the language of the Lepchas, presumably its original inhabitants, was distorted by the Britishers as ‘Kurseong’.

Perhaps ‘Orchid Land’ was, in fact, its earlier name. For, even in our childhood days, as we roamed and scoured the forest lands surrounding our own villages, we would be enthralled by the countless varieties of enchanting orchids of all hues, shapes, and sizes, flowering in gay abandon.

That little part of my nostalgic world nestled in the Himalayan mid-hills, with its bracing climate, received another acronym after the advent of the British – ‘A Town of Schools’. And it indeed lives up to its reputation till this day. The structures of many of them are Victorian or Gothic. Some feature tall spires seemingly vying with the surrounding pine trees set against the backdrop of still higher and snow-covered mountain peaks, such as Kanchanjunga, further beyond.

My visits to dear old Kurseong has been oft-repeated over the years. I find that those schools, with their share of the moss-laden chapel and church walls, still retain much of the pristine ambiance of the bygone British Raj. The huge bells in their tall towers still chime occasionally to the tune of a throaty chorus of children’s school songs echoing against the hillsides. Their vast wooden staircases make creaking sounds, their enormous chandeliers shine down the spacious classrooms and parlours and their age-old stone chimneys belch out wood smoke into the fog-bound winter mornings and evenings. Old and historic paintings, photos, and tapestries decorate their labyrinthine corridors. Vast playgrounds and well-laid-out gardens flank their ancient architecture virtually by the dozen.

The last time I really had a closer look into the nooks and crannies of the hallowed Dowhill Girls’ School, its beautiful but slightly crumbling wooden panels, its large mantlepieces, its formidable doors, corridors, and hallways, was when my daughter Yojana had been a student there. But such detailed scrutiny doesn’t always fall to the lot of all the visiting parents. The rare opportunity that came my way was large because a school and college mate of mine, Miss Radhka Pradhan, happened to be its principal. Incidentally, it was the first time ever that a Nepali-speaking lady had made it to that position. Luckily, she has been holding it for over a decade now and might as well be the first and last such person to head a Government-owned English boarding school in the entire Darjeeling hills for a long time to come.

Whenever I am there, occasionally also as her house guest, I do not miss the opportunity to visit a shanty one-storeyed ‘cottage’ nearby. For that is Davis’ Primary School, my first alma mater. It stands there, often lonely and unattended, as tiny and as shabby-looking as it ever was…

But in many ways, that tiny and shanty-hut of a school appears symbolic to me. Symbolic, that is, of an overall picture of similar shanty sub-divisional towns of the Darjeeling district themselves. During the last four decades or so since I moved away from the place, a conspicuous trend of ‘modernism’ and development has been sweeping across the length and breadth of India. But, somehow, this trend appears to have stopped dead on its tracks as it is conspicuous by its absence above and upwards beyond Sukna when one drives uphill from the sub-Himalayan plains of Siliguri. For, whereas the erstwhile malaria-infested, god-forsaken Tarai township of Siliguri has seen resurgence and growth beyond all proportions over the years, it pains me immensely to see that the ever-sleepy and shanty hill townships such as Kurseong have been bypassed by development history, as it were!

The last time I was in Kurseong for any length of time was in 2051 B.S. Some local enthusiasts, such as Gopal Bhandari and Prem Kumar Alley, had invited me over to attend the formal inauguration of CODE (College of Distance Education) which was, in a way, my own brain-child. Coincidentally, it was all the more nostalgic in the sense that it had been housed in the same building that accommodated Pushparani High School, an institution full of childhood memories that have encapsulated six long years of my schooling prior to moving on to a college.

The next morning, as usual, saw me climbing uphill beyond our house among the thickly forested areas. As I reached the vicinity of another hoary institution, the Divisional Forest School, the lush vegetation around was all the more inviting and invigorating as it had ever been. The fresh morning air smelled of pine and fir fragrance. The entire world of green foliage reverberated to the orchestra of birdsongs. I was particularly enthralled by the nostalgic strains and chorus of the Chibhay drongo, Jureli bulbul, Dhobini magpie, Kalchaunda whistling thrush, Lahanchey woodpecker, and the like.

Nearby, a tin plate stuck on the sides of a roadside tree trunk seemed to beckon me further into the woods. Emblazoned with the famous Shakespearean lines sung by Amiens in the idyllic surroundings of the Arden forest, they read:

“Under the greenwood tree
He who loves to lie with me
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither”…

[From his weekly column, “Recollections”, in The Sunday Post, December 31, 1995. It is a part of articles from “Memoirs of a Migrant” series.]