Himalaya, Poems on the Mount

Le jeu d’échecs de Stefan Zweig, sur la terrasse de sa maison de Petrópolis.

Zweig’s chessboard on the terrace of his house in Petrópolis.

Bust of Rabindranath Tagore, in Mungpoo.

The snowy peaks of Kangchenjunga, towering over the city of Darjeeling.

A student in uniform, Mungpoo. Tea leaf pickers at the Glenburn Tea Estate.

Près de Noordhoek, sur la côte ouest de la péninsule du Cap.

Near Noordhoek, on the west coast of the Cape Peninsula.

Près de Noordhoek, sur la côte ouest de la péninsule du Cap.

Near Noordhoek, on the west coast of the Cape Peninsula.

Botanist Ganesh Mani Pradhan.

Darjeeling station lies at an altitude of over 2,000 m.

Près de Noordhoek, sur la côte ouest de la péninsule du Cap.

Near Noordhoek, on the west coast of the Cape Peninsula.

Pour Holi, la fête du printemps, les Indiens s’aspergent les uns les autres d’eau et de poudres colorées.

During the spring festival of Holi, Indians spray one another with water and powdered colors.

Indian poet Tagore found solace in the Bengali mountains. A century later, the same light illuminates these landscapes.

India’s plains come to a halt when they reach the threshold of the mountains, then follow a corridor to the northeast that opens out into what could be likened to an additional room, with a view of Nepal and Bhutan. To read these landscapes at the edge of the Himalayas, you merely have to imagine a bookcase with horizontal partitioning, approaching the foothills as you would a series of shelves. On the top one, at an altitude of more than 2,000 meters, stands the novel about Darjeeling. Well wrought and carefully documented, it was written by History and the British, who created a hill station here in the 19th century so they could forget the heat of the delta. They built mansions, cottages and a railway, and also imported the first tea plants from China, which still rise thigh-high around the tea pickers today. Originally from Calcutta, capital of West Bengal, the young Rabindranath Tagore explored the outer reaches of his native state. Later, after he had become a writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, he sometimes chose to spend summers in this place where “Mount Himalaya”1 is not yet sheer, changing house or hotel and altitude. In fact, the poet who inveighed against the social rigidities of his time was perpetuating the tradition of the summer resort, like a European who has a chalet in the flower-strewn Alps.

The infinite blue

Let’s take a wander around the bookshelves, rubbing shoulders with uniformed schoolchildren in the streets, in their white socks and violet jerseys, tightrope walking along the narrow tracks used by the last steam engine built in Glasgow, scattering a fighting gamecock and dog as they go. We pass two women emptying the contents of their baskets on the ballast, at the foot of the monastery. We linger before the suspended vessel of Kangchenjunga, 8,586 meters highhow many children returning home from school can boast such a backdrop?with the aim of prolonging for a bit longer this “great advantage of the first vision”2 that Tagore attempted to rediscover here. When the sun is high in the sky, Everest’s little brother, third on the podium of the world’s highest mountains, seems to float free, nothing but peaks, ridges, distant slopes in the midst of an expanse of immaculate blue. When the night revives the mist, the relief stands out against the light, the valleys once again occupying the depths, while the pines are etched in black and charcoal gray, like fragments of a torn letter.

In this “kingdom of impalpable clouds,”3 the air clings to the cheeks in the morning. Along the way, it takes the wind from the peaks and a few shards from the glaciers, quivering the branches of the tea bushes and makes the wooden bow windows sigh, gusting along the promenade of the Observatory before heading back down again to blow through the lanes of the bazaar. The province of Darjeeling is like a mosaic of the work of Tagore, who in a single universal act created novels, short stories, poems, plays and songs (adopted as Indian and Bangladeshi hymns). It embraces genres and cultures, communicates its effects through a verse or a path, a calligraphy of changing light, sometimes luminous and resounding, sometimes muffled by the mist and the silence broken only by jabs of sound from a cricket.

Summer quarters

The road continues to slide as if on the edge of a volume of stories. It hurtles downhill, gathering ferns, banana trees and waterfalls garlanded with prayer flags. Mungpoo 10, Mungpoo 9, Mungpoo 8: the green and white markers count down the kilometers with zealous punctuality until the road meets the main street of the solitary village, far from the steep hillsides of Darjeeling. An imaginative paintbrush has brightened the rocks of the only traffic circle with pink and green, and the same bright pink has been used to pick out the steps at the Buddhist temple. Tucked away below the asphalt is a symmetrical bungalow with the white arches of the windows, crimson foundations, a hemispherical garden facing the valley. The Mungpoo cottage, where Tagore spent several seasons at the invitation of the poetess Maitreyi Devi, became the Rabindra Bhavan (literally, “Rabindra’s house”). Barefoot, you pass under the high ceilings, designed for the writer’s 1.9-meter frame. In one square bedroom is a fireplace with a varnished mantelpiece and ocher wall, as well as a strange four-poster bed with a tall headboard, designed by the guest himself so that he could read in bed.

Sisir Rahut, the caretaker, is not very talkative. He would like to be, but what comes out of his mouth are chants. He lowers his gaze as he arranges the red poinsettia and the incense sticks protecting a portrait of the poet as an old sage, simply placed on an armchair. He sings a monotonous chant that is at first faint, then gradually grows more vigorous as the seconds go by.

The stranger is already no longer a stranger because he is listening. The English syllables are of little importance; he recounts his story from one room to the next like a work of literature. The story of his grandfather, who worked at the factory making medicinal quinine next door to the villa and who carried the writer’s palanquin along 12 kilometers of damp paths leading up from where the road stopped, then becoming caretaker of the empty house, to be followed by his son and grandson, today the third generation of custodians.

Gardening the world

Let’s climb down a few rungs on this ladder propped along the Indian frontier. Kalimpong, where Tagore dictated his Boyhood Days, opens its sketchpad diluted by water from the Teesta River. A trading post on the road to Sikkim, the town is like an inkwell containing the different ethnic groups that have been traveling around the Himalayas for centuries, including the Lepchas, Tibetans, Nepalese and Gorkhas. On market day, a parade of faces can be seen on the concrete sidewalks, dark eyes directed downward to ensure a sandal is not lost in the crowd or to avoid the bunches of gladioli and marigolds that brighten up the porches. In this tableau, one might easily give Ganesh Mani Pradhan, draped in pleated cloth, the features of an elderly sage. The botanist handed control of the flower nursery over to his son Mahendra a long time ago, yet has retained the sparkle of youth. Especially when he walks up through the luxuriant garden, with its planted terraces, on the edge of town. “At Kalimpong, where the climate is milder than it is up in the hills, it is not tea but orchids that the land has become famous for. From here we export seeds and bulbs of local plantslilies, palms, ornamental ginger and so onto gardens around the world,” explains “Mister Ganesh,” as he looks for the translation of lady’s slipper on his phone, amused by the French interpretation that has placed a pretty “Venus’s clog” on the foot of this mustachioed flower.

Seeing him striding across the family plot filled with blooming orchids, amaryllis and migratory birds, watching for the first color provided by the opening petals in the greenhouses-cum-laboratories, moving a flower pot a centimeter so it’s in sunlight, one thinks of this open book between a few patches of cloud, The Gardener, in which Tagore whispers to the traveler come to contemplate the late hour: “It is a trifle that my hair is turning gray. / I am ever as young or as old as the youngest and the oldest of this village. / Some have smiles, sweet and simple, and some a sly twinkle in their eyes. . . . I am of an age with each, what matter if my hair turns gray?”

Place to write

A place to write There’s not a speck of dust on the dark wooden floor. The breeze blows a few petals forgotten by the caretaker up against the threshold, mandarin-colored splashes strewn along the garden paths. There’s a studious atmosphere on the Mungpoo cottage veranda; in one corner is a desk and a mahogany armchair that Rabindranath Tagore had custom-made. The furniture forms a surprisingly modern couple with its curved armrests and minimalist aged-wood surfaces. TodayMay 28, 1939, if we are to believe the framed copy of the National Heraldvisitors are few and far between, there’s chicken on the steps and a rust-colored cat yawning as it takes everything in. A professor arrived with his family from Calcutta this morning and barely sat down on the edge of the seat to sign the guestbook. You never know. The poet may never have really left.

Glenburn Tea Estate

The trickiest roads are often the most beautifullike the one dotted with potholes and ravines leading to the Glenburn Estate. There’s no point being annoyed: at the end of the bumpy ride are a white bungalow draped in trailing flowers, impeccable grounds with a resplendent view of Kangchenjunga and floral suites with mahogany four-poster beds. Created in 1859, the Prakash family’s tea plantation provides jobs for the entire valley and offers luxury in the midst of the mountains. The “picnic” deployed on the riverbank for guests (who can explore the grounds as if in a great vineyard), with a barbecue, wicker chairs and porcelain dishes, perfectly sums up the elegance of this place.

Glenburn Tea Estate

Tél. +91 98 30 07 02 13.

www.glenburnteaestate.com

The Orchid Retreat

Arriving among the mauve hills in the evening and walking under the slumbering blooms may be the best way to discover this guesthouse in the heart of a flower nursery not far from Kalimpong. The windows offer a view of the well-ordered jungle created by the botanist, the forests of the Relli valley and a few Himalayan swifts perched atop a palm tree. There are ten large rooms enveloped in greenery and shifting light, discreetly cared for by the Pradham family, and local cuisine that perfumes the air at different times of the day.

The Orchid Retreat

Ganesh Villa, Kalimpong. Tél. +91 35 52 27 45 17.

www.theorchidretreat.com

Next

Birmingham :
rewriting the city

Carnet d’adresses

The Orchid Retreat

Ganesh Villa, Kalimpong. Tél. +91 35 52 27 45 17.

www.theorchidretreat.com

Glenburn Tea Estate

Tél. +91 98 30 07 02 13.

www.glenburnteaestate.com

Planning yout trip

Shanti Travel

Shanti Travel offers an 11-day tour that will enable you to meet small Darjeeling tea producers, get involved in life at a local cooperative and explore the monasteries of the former kingdom of Sikkim. The best periods to see tea harvesting are mid-March to mid-June and mid-September to the end of November. This company, created more than ten years ago in New Delhi by two French people, also organizes trips to 15 other destinations in Asia.

Tél. +91 11 46 07 78 00.

www.shantitravel.com
Address Book

Going There

www.airfrance.com

FRÉQUENCE DES VOLS

Air France has one daily flight to New Delhi from Paris-CDG.
Jet Airways offers flights to Bagdogra from New Delhi
KLM has one daily flight to New Delhi from Amsterdam.

Arrival airport

Aéroport international Indira-Gandhi.
À 23 km de New Delhi
Tél. +91 12 43 37 60 00

Air France KLM offices

À l’aéroport.

Bookings

— Depuis la France : Tél. 3654.
— Depuis l’étranger :
Tél. +33 (0)892 70 26 54.

Further reading

Le Vagabond et autres histoires Gallimard
coll. L’Imaginaire.


L’Offrande lyrique Gallimard
coll. Poésie.


Le Jardinier d’amour Gallimard
coll. Poésie.Kumudini Éditions Zulma.


Inde du Nord Lonely Planet


Inde Gallimard
coll. Bibliothèque du voyageur.



Le Goût de l’Inde Mercure de France
coll. Le petit mercure.

 

© Parko Polo / Central Illustration Agency. Map for illustration purposes only