Dec 01, 2023
Dec 01, 2023
by Kumud Biswas
The Paterfamilias rules the roost in true patriarchal fashion. Chairman of as many as five companies he is proud of the title which was bestowed on him by his colonial masters. Now that they are gone he fondly remembers their good deeds. He is full of praise for Pax Britannica and he misses no opportunity to extol its achievements in this country. He is equally class conscious like his erstwhile masters. Football is rough and rowdy and is therefore suitable for commoner sorts, but cricket is classy. He still remembers how he once missed a century only by a couple of runs. He is a firm believer in pedigree and privileges, discipline and hard work. He is the very personification of tradition. He had no say in the selection of his bride and he has never regretted it. In the same way he gave away his elder daughter in marriage to a boy 'eligible' in every way. The daughter did not have the temerity to object to the match though at the time she was having an affair with another boy. There is also a younger daughter who is yet to cross her teens and is doing her graduation in a prestigious Calcutta college. He wants her to get married without waiting for a degree which he thinks is not essential for her, for women are not expected to compete with men in the job market. He feels this urgency also because a suitable boy has been found - according to him, one to be found only in a million - who has an engineering degree from a foreign university and is employed with a fat salary. Negotiations have been going on for quite some time. He wants to finalize it now. With his entire family he has therefore come to a beautiful hill station built up by the foreign rulers where the engineer will join them and is expected to formally propose to his daughter. In this brief sojourn he has been joined also by his married daughter's family and his brother-in-law who is a widower and a lover of birds.
On the appointed day all these characters are out on the winding streets of the hill station. The weather is cloudy. A foreign tourist is leaving disappointed on the following morning because the clouds have deprived him of the majestic view of 'the loveliest snow peaks in the world'. But a silently falling mist has shrouded the whole place and made it mysterious and romantic. Everything seems to be floating high up in the dreamland of clouds. The familiar world has undergone a transformation and transported into a different world all these people see things in a different light. The girl with whom the young son of the patriarch was having an affair and without whom he imagined he could not live is now found to be a flirt. All his amorous advances she rudely rebuffs and shakes him off like dirt for a fresh acquaintance. The elder daughter finds to her consternation that her marriage is on the rocks. Instead of bringing them closer each day through growing love and mutual understanding their marriage has made them only drift apart. It did not take her husband long to discover her clandestine affair which she still carries on. In this loveless conjugal life he has tried to find some solace in vices like gambling and drinking. But the present visit to the hills seems to have instilled a new spirit into him. He says he has patiently waited long enough for her to change, but in vain. Exasperated he now proposes separation. The woman like a good girl obeyed her father and married this man ignoring the man she loved and whom she still cannot forget. The very security and status which she placed above love in marriage and which must have tilted the scale of her choice in favor of her husband she now finds threatened.
In the hills her mother, the elderly wife of the patriarch, herself is also bothered by a disturbing feeling. She got security and status, but in the process she had to sacrifice her personal identity. She lost it in the strong personality of her husband. In her younger days she had a passion for music. Left alone, after a long time she now sings a song which gives a poignant expression to the emptiness and agony of her soul. Through this plaintive song she seems to ask herself if she has not lived all her life away from her own self as if in banishment. She is anxious to see that her younger daughter is not overtaken by a similar fate. She insists that she should continue her studies and marry whenever and whomever she would like. Nothing should be imposed on her from outside. She has been an obedient wife all her life. But she is now ready to disobey her husband over this.
By prior arrangement the groom meets the family on the streets and takes the girl along for a stroll. Earlier they do not seem to have had a close encounter like this. Like a bud yet to bloom the girl is very shy and quite unsure of herself while the young man is cocksure of everything. The nameless flower she asked him to bring for her he does not know but he has managed to collect it through someone else's help. He is confident of winning her over by dangling the carrot of security and status before her. He tells her candidly that during his stay abroad he freely mixed with women and he is convinced that in marriage security is the most important thing. One should not fuss too much about things like romance or a common ground between the couple in attitudes and interests. He thinks that mere cohabitation is enough for the birth and growth of love. Mutual understanding may develop even between two completely different characters. When the girl cites as examples the characters of Sandip and Nikhilesh in Rabindranath Tagore's famous novel Gharey Bairey (Home and the world - filmed by Satyajit Ray), the engineer fails to recognize them. When again she mentions the Brownings he dismisses them out of hand as not being the rule but exceptions. The impression he thus produces is of a young man who seems to have devoted all his time and energy in the pursuit of material success in life to the neglect of the tender emotional side of his being. He appears to be very matter of fact and she feels repulsed by his purely materialistic view on life and she sheds tears of relief after being able to shake the pursuing engineer off taking advantage of the thickening fog.
In course of these perambulations a chance-meeting of the girl with another young man gives the story a curious turn. He is the nephew of her brother's childhood private tutor. He has come to the hill station with his uncle and his ailing mother to recoup the failing health of the latter. He is a graduate from another Calcutta college which, unlike the girl's college, is located in a crowded place and is overcrowded by students mostly from the lower middle class families who generally earn the costs of their studies by giving tuition to the children of the rich. He stands in sharp contrast with the man who is seeking the girl's hand. He is unemployed and is surviving on a small pittance earned from private tuition. His uncle asks him to cultivate the patriarch who may condescend to find a place for him. He is not as smart as the engineer but is somewhat awkward in his manners. In common with the comrades of his class he suffers from an inferiority complex and has fixed notions about the girl and the class to which she belongs. From the fact that she is a Presidencian he deduces like a logical corollary that her honors subject must be English. Socially they are poles apart. They have met for the first time in life and hardly know each other and have their own pride and prejudices. He treats her more as a type than an individual which hurts her much. But this short meeting enables them to explore each other and they part as friends, the girl extending him an invitation to meet her back home.
The day is done but not before the fogs have cleared and the snow peaks which cradle the hill station are visible in the background in all their glory. The short pageant in which these characters have played out their parts leaves us in no doubt that there has been a sea change in all of them. The young son of the patriarch is not different from the girl by whom he is rebuffed. As a boy of his type so long he must have sought and found satisfaction in such light and transient relationships.What makes him now seek something different? Social inhibitions must have prevented the husband of the elder daughter from freeing himself from the revolting situation in which he has to live with a woman who is carrying on an affair with another man. What encourages him now to make an effort to put an end to such an insufferable situation? At long last what disillusions the wife of the patriarch who has lived happily ever after her marriage with a man of substance? What affords an opportunity to the young girl to discover that she is an individual person in her own right and is free to choose things for herself? She never raised any objection to this proposal of her marriage and did not even demur to accept presents from the engineer. Now what makes her think that in marriage one should not seek only money and material comforts but something more which is spiritually satisfying? Long unemployment has caused endless worries and anxieties not only to the poor young man but also to his guardians and the offer of an employment from the patriarch must have been a godsend. What madness prompts him to spurn such an offer? The answer to all these question is provided by the young man himself - it is the genius of the place.
This in short is what happens in Satyajit Ray's film Kanchanjangha. And the scene where it takes place is Darjeeling - the queen of the hills, the queen who wears a girdle of shining jewels around her waist. It is not only one of his many films in which he once again takes the 'Tenth Muse' to the Olympian heights but also a tribute to Darjeeling and the sublime beauty of the hills. Innumerable people visit Darjeeling and the different aspects of the place affect the visitors differently. It is many things to many people. To some it is merely a cool summer place which affords relief from the scorching sun. To the sick and the suffering it is a sanatorium. To the holiday makers it is a place for frolic and fun. To those worn by cares and anxieties it is a resort for temporary respite. To practical men it is an ideal place for transaction of some business. The patriarch went there to finalize his daughter's marriage negotiations.Some people go there to enjoy the sheer beauties of nature. But whatever may be one's purpose of visit and however indifferent one may be to the physical beauties of the place or whether one notices it or not the Kanchanjangha is always there looming large in the horizon. And as a thing of beauty it is not only a joy for ever but also a spiritual experience. It not only pleases our senses but also affects our minds. One need not be a young Rabindranath in whom the sunrise of a particular morning caused a new awakening which he had experienced never before and which transformed his whole existence. Nor is everybody a Wordsworth whom Nature made much more than a poet. Our love of beauty may not be as intense as that of a Keats whom the full-throated melody of a nightingale's song could transport to the land of the fairies. We may not be impressed by the beauties of nature as deeply as those highly sensitive men who are gifted with the power of poetic imagination or a creative urge like Rabindranath or Wordsworth or Keats but we cannot remain always immune, for such is the power of the genius of some places of great scenic beauty. On such rare occasions who knows if we may not feel a strange stirring in our blood, a strange yearning akin to the one Shelley could feel "the desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow/the devotion to something afar from the sphere of our sorrow?" As extraordinary experiences they may make us dreamy and imaginative too like a poet and help us to rise, even if temporarily, above the level of our mundane existence.
Great places may acquire a genius of their own not only for great scenic beauty but also for other reasons. And it is also very potent indeed. Gibbon was at first undecided about the subject of his magnum opus. During his Continental tours a visit to the eternal city of Rome moved him so deeply that he had no longer any difficulty in choosing his subject. The hill station of Darjeeling undoubtedly exercised a similar influence on Satyajit. The Himalayas is the highest and one of the most beautiful mountain ranges of the world. It has fascinated the Indian mind from time immemorial. Their religion and literature are full of the Himalayas. It is the gateway to the heavens. It is the abode of their innumerable gods and goddesses. It contains a large number of places which are sacred to them.Who knows in which of its beautiful valleys the young Parvati, daughter of the King of the mountains Himalaya himself, in Kalidasa's Kumara Sambhabam,vanquished lord Shiva? Worsted in this war of love Shiva punished the mischievous god of love Madana for aiding that maiden by causing springtime to appear on the scene before its wonted time. Or was spring eternal in that valley and Madana got punished for no fault of his own? The eastern Himalayas has a fascinating beauty of its own. Because of the monsoons the region is covered by lush green vegetation all the year round. Darjeeling and its orange blossoms find loving mention in the poetry of Satyendranath Datta. When a Bengali reads Rabindranath's Shesher Kabita there is hardly any doubt that it is not the Shillong hills - for that is the scene of that novel - but the hills of Darjeeling that is in the background of his mind. The poet very much loved the hills and occasionally went there. He once stayed at Kalimpong in Gouripur Lodge belonging to the Zamindars of Gouripur in Mymensing. In his old age he stayed for some days in the house of Maitreyee Devi at Mongpu. That the hills had a rejuvenating influence on him is clear from his Shesher Kabita. It is a creation of his old age but the scintillating youthful spirit with which it sparkles inclines one to believe that the grand old man was reliving his lost youth through this romantic rhapsody of a story. In her memoirs of the poet's visit, Mongpute Rabindranath, Maitreyee Devi relates the endless pranks the poet played. That Satyajit was also deeply in love with Darjeeling there can be no doubt. Not only did it inspire him to make the film Kanchanjangha but we also find him coming back again and again to the hills in the delightful stories he wrote for children. And who can forget Jatayu in his film Sonar Kella brandishing a kukri? In fact it is very difficult not to fall in love with this place. Apart from the famous Everest there are a number of peaks almost equally high and permanently covered with snow, wonderfully arrayed in a unique order on the northern horizon. At Darjeeling visually grandest of them all of course is the Kanchanjangha. And the grand view they collectively offer is nowhere to be found in the whole world. There are many beautiful places in the world but we do not know of any such place receiving the kind of tribute which Satyajit has paid to the Darjeeling hills. His film is a kind of an ode to the beautiful and the sublime.
Ever since it was built by the British in the early part of the nineteenth century the magnificent hill station of Darjeeling has attracted travelers from all over the world. To the British it was their home away from home. To make it more homely they planted oaks and junipers and many other exotic plants and trees. Forests were reserved and felling of trees was strictly controlled. Special municipal regulations with suitable building rules were made to guard against the danger of landslips. Charming little cottages came to adorn its terraced slopes. Roads and railways were laid to make it more easily accessible. Those who could afford built their houses and took refuge there whenever the scorching heat and sultry summer climate of the plains made life unbearable. In time it became the beloved of all irrespective of the differences in rank and riches. It was made the summer capital of the province of Bengal. Tea was planted by the British in its valleys and slopes. In no time the place developed and prospered. From an unknown little hamlet of two hundred and odd souls it became a big and beautiful place frequented by people from all over the world.
Beauty is present everywhere - not only in physical nature but also in great characters, in ideals which men hold as noble and in men's creations like great places and great works of art. Love of beauty is also innate in man. But unfortunately we often choose to keep our eyes shut and our minds closed and let the golden moments pass us by. For this we have to blame none else but ourselves. The engineer has neither read nor heard about the famous novel Gharey Bairey. His lack of interest in such things is perhaps because he does not consider it to be essential for his career. To the patriarch those friends of his youth are fools because they squandered their career and life in pursuit of the mirage of an ideal instead of material success.In our concern for material success we are prone to neglect the things of the mind. 'The world is too much with us' so the poet lamented. Wordsworth wrote this at a time when the industrial revolution first made its appearance. His words have proved prophetic. Our material progress has been almost directly proportional to the growth of our insensitivity to things of beauty. There is a minor character in the film who is the bird-lover brother-in-law of the patriarch. According to the young lady people like him is needed by us and should have a place in our world. The evasive reply of the engineer and the annoyance of her father with this relation show that they are not of the same opinion. To practical men of business like them he is the epitome of the wastage of human energy, he is a good-for-nothing. He is an idle fellow who takes pleasure in something which has no economic value. Catching a bird for meat or money is more worthwhile than watching it for its beautiful plumage or listening to its sweet songs.
Today most of us believe that any labor which does not produce any material of utility is infructuous, and only those things are useful which satisfy our material wants. We are obsessed with money and the material goods that can be bought and consumed to satisfy our endless appetite. We find no pleasure in the disinterested love of things for their own sake which is the very essence and soul of real culture. In the world today it is our crowd which form the majority and all things beautiful are in real danger from people like us. Devoid of elegance and crude in our tastes and temperaments neither do we cultivate nor do we have the capability to appreciate what is beautiful. In our concupiscent grasp we want clumsily to grab everything and gobble them up like a Gargantua. To satisfy our unnatural greed many birds and beasts and plants have already become extinct and no amount of our ingenuity can bring them back into being. Most of the hill stations which were built up by the British have lost much of their beauty and charm. In the film the uncle of the poor young man is saddened to see the bandstand removed from the mall. The causes for their degeneration are many but the most deplorable of them all is our attitude towards them. We treat them more as commercial plazas or marts to be exploited to the hilt than as precious summer places to be preserved for ourselves and our children for joy and recreation. In the name of development widespread desecration has been going on. Indiscriminate deforestation is exposing the hill sides and construction of big buildings disregarding all safety precautions is increasing the danger of landslips and a heavy rainfall or earthquake will reduce them some day to heaps of rubbles. The eccentric bird-watcher expresses his concern for the migratory birds which visit warmer lands every winter. Their instincts are unerring and they reach their destinations without any mistake. But the disaster which the wanton activities of men is causing to the ecology will one day make them blunder, for they will have lost their homing instincts. One who feels the same king of concern for our hill stations and other beautiful places is not far wrong. For a time may come - and that time is not very far away, it seems - when those beautiful birds will lose their way and will never come and our beautiful places also will be gone for ever.
Life is not all work, there should also be some time to play. We should not always seek profit but also some pleasure to add some zest to our living. But this we seem often to forget. We forget that life should not be full of care, there should be some time for us to stand and stare. We imprison ourselves in the midst of a lot of bricks and mortars and junks and tie ourselves down to desks whose wood imperceptibly enters into our souls. Breathlessly we run faster and faster at a breakneck speed to a destination we neither know nor can ever reach. As if we are in a race and have a compulsion to overtake everyone else. There are no friends but only rivals and opponents. Tolerance and sweetness of temperament have taken leave of us. We are always tense. We are aggressive and violent, hard and dry. What is worse, we rear our children in our own image. To build a competitive career as ours they are busy from dawn to dusk and they lose their innocence and sweetness early in life. They have no time to play. Nor are there any grannies to sing them to sleep or tell them some bedtime stories. Alices of our time do not know how to go to the land of wonders and have some funny adventures there. For the addresses of the wonderlands - those parks, open spaces and playgrounds - are all fast disappearing. The so-called land reforms and the green revolution have between themselves claimed the village greens in the countryside which till the other day was the traditional haven of peace and tranquility. It has now been turned into a veritable jungle many parts of which have been blazing like forest fires. In the already overcrowded cities the parks and open spaces have been steadily shrinking and by courtesy of the speculators and promoters their skylines are disappearing behind the high-rise buildings. We are helpless onlookers or colluders in all these happenings.
How about taking a break and getting away from this insane world at least for a while and going to a place where the world is wide, the skies are high, the air is fresh and bracing and you feel, like the poor young man of the film, as if your heart is broadened and you are not small but big as a giant? Yes, we may follow him and go to Darjeeling. How shall we reach there? The advice of the writer of the Guide and Souvenir Darjeeling And Its Mountain Railway, published by that Railway Company in 1921, seems tempting and well worth taking. The journey by that little train is something out of this world and in recognition of this it has been recently included by the UNESCO in their World Heritage List. Once we are there how shall we go on our excursions? Here again we would like to take the same author's advice. In this age of space travel in traveling by super fast modes of transport there is only going and arriving but no real pleasure of traveling. We are sure to miss many surprises which every bend of the road holds for us and which money cannot buy. The nameless flower brought by the engineer for the young girl is much more precious and pleasing to her than the ornaments of gold he had presented to her. In a bush which perhaps even the ubiquitous motor car cannot reach may be found, as the bird-watcher of the film to his joy found, a beautiful bird which has been given up for lost forever.
A journey such as this is wonderful but no one has described it more wonderfully than Hazlitt in his charming essay On Going A Journey. Here he is more of a poet than essayist. And of one prosaic thing he speaks in a really lyrical way: "I grant, there is one subject on which it is pleasant to talk on a journey; and that is, what one shall have for supper when we get to our inn at night. The open air improves this sort of conversation or friendly altercation, by setting a keener edge on appetite. Every mile of the road heightens the flavor of the viands we expect at the end of it." And whatever is available at the village inn Hazlitt would have them all to himself "and drain them to the last drop ; they will do to talk of or to write about afterwards. What a delicate speculation it is,after drinking whole goblets of tea,
- the cups that cheer, but not inebriate,-
and letting the fumes ascend into the brain, to sit considering what we shall have for supper." In eulogizing tea any word is superfluous after this, but we must say that Hazlitt never had the opportunity to drink Darjeeling tea at the place of its origin. The British colonists had not only conquered whole continents but also explored their economic possibilities. In the process they pioneered the cultivation of many agricultural commodities on large commercial scales - tobacco, indigo, tea, coffee etc. Slavery, indentured labor, inhuman exploitation and cruelty have not been their only results.Tea, for example, introduced for the first time in Darjeeling by the British, changed the face of the district. It has given it prosperity and employment to its people. It has also given birth to a particular kind of culture in the areas where tea is grown which nowhere else may be found and which it is very difficult if not impossible for an outsider to understand. Tea is not only a kind of agricultural practice or trade but a whole way of life. And its other contributions are in no way insignificant. Tea served not only Hazlitt as a good appetizer or inspiration but also gave birth to those literary and other clubs which mushroomed around tea in the 18th century city of London where Sheridan got the plots of his comedies, Garrick learnt some of the tricks of his mimics, Burke found the arguments for his speeches, Whigs and Tories hatched their intrigues and formed their cabals. And 'the Club' of clubs, presided over by that redoubtable autocrat of the world of letters of the day, Doctor Johnson, had luminaries like Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, James Boswell, David Garrick, Richard Brinsely Sheridan, Sir John Hawkins, Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith, Sir William Jones - the begetter of the Asiatic Society of Bengal at Calcutta - as members. Here the Doctor held forth over innumerable cups of steaming tea and his favorite flunkey Bozzy conscientiously took down every word that he spoke to be used by him afterwards in that greatest biography that the world has ever seen. After a session the Doctor used to say,' We had a good talk!' How good they were one can see from his biography which is full of those talks like little nuggets of gold or sparkling gems. And Johnson took the art of conversation to its uttermost heights.Interestingly, not all the members were always kindly disposed towards each other. Some of the members, for example, were considered by Johnson himself as 'unclubable' while Gibbon was not liked by him and his Bozzy.
What inspired those great talks and what held together so many illustrious yet 'unclubable' members? The answer is superfluous. And we may venture the guess that Gibbon was disliked perhaps for his liking for that abominable stuff called snuff instead of tea. Addison, another frequenter of clubs, in one of his essays contributed to the Tatler, lamented the changes that had taken place in the diet of the English. He exhorted his readers to return to the food of his forefathers who were fond of beef and mutton. 'This was that diet which bred that hardy race of mortals who won the fields of Cressy and Agincourt.' Guy Earl of Warwick had 'eaten up a dun cow of his own killing', King Arthur was 'the first who ever sat down to a whole roasted ox' and with his knights 'sat about it at his round table and usually consumed it to the very bones.' The Black Prince's love of the Brisket, the history of the Sirloin, the institution of the order of Beef-eaters are the evidence of the great respect in which this excellent food was held by the warlike predecessors of the English. 'Instead of tea and bread and butter, which has prevailed of late years, the maids of honor in Queen Elizabeth's time were allowed three rumps of beef for their breakfast.' Mutton was liked but was considered to be 'the food rather of men of nice and delicate appetites than those of strong and robust constitutions,' and 'the flesh of lamb, veal, chicken and other animals under age' were 'inventions of sickly and degenerate palates' and were never taxed.
Addison desired his readers to consider 'what work our countrymen would have made at Blenheim and Ramillies, if they had fed with fricassees and ragouts.' We do not know what was the opinion of Addison, himself a tea-addict, about the effects of tea on his countrymen who in his own time were taking to the new beverage with a vengeance. As the 'Spectator' of the fashions and follies of his time he cannot be said to have failed to notice the change. By sharpening their intellect tea made his countrymen more cunning and diplomatic. If beef helped them to win wars on the field of battle tea helped them to win wars on the conference table. The vast empire won by the virility of the one was successfully retained and ruled by the cleverness and diplomatic skill of the other which was to a great extent the gift of tea. The beef-eaters of old were rough and raw and somewhat primitive while the tea drinkers are refined and urbane and more 'civilized'. Nor does tea make one less virile. Was it not the Boston Tea Party which started the American Revolution? And who knows how many cups of tea the 'Dictionary' Johnson consumed when composing that famous letter which he shot at Chesterfield? The virtues this heavenly beverage tea possesses are many and it is not possible for one man to recount them all.
Let us therefore leave that task to others and go instead to the land of that magic potion. There awaits a heavenly sight besides, which nowhere else in the world may be found. And its wonderful description by Sir Edwin Arnold, quoted by the author of the Railway Souvenir, once more bears repetition here:
The stainless ramps of huge Himala's wall
Ranged in white ranks against the blue - untrod,
Infinite, wonderful - whose uplands vast,
And lifted universe of crest and crag,
Shoulder and shelf, green slope and icy horn,
Riven ravine, and splintered precipice
Led climbing thought higher and higher, until
It seemed to stand in heaven and speak with God.
More by : Kumud Biswas