Rhododendrons grow on mountains. Like many Bengalis from the plains who had never seen them, I had an emotional bond with the flower because of these lines of Rabindranath Tagore:
We have not a nook of golden bloom
Or an alley strewn in the jungle gloom.
Swiftly in the evening draught
A nameless flower spreads its waft
On arrogant branches of a plant
Rhododendrons with regards scant
Look right through
The sunlit clouds in the morning blue.
(It must be recorded here that the original in Bangla is infinitely more beautiful.)
When I visited Darjeeling for the first time, we went on an excursion from our university, more precisely, the Physics department.
It was November. The air was nippy and rhododendrons were in full bloom. The first thought that came to my mind after reaching Darjeeling was that for once, one couldn’t accuse Tagore of poetic excesses. Rhododendrons are big, pinkish read, and unlike most flowers, don’t look delicate. There is something bold and beautiful about them. They seemed to be wild flowers that deigned to be around in a human habitation, as incongruous as an eagle in an aviary!
We stayed at Shailabas (The Mountain Abode) which was at a higher level of the hill town. After a day of fun and frolic, we would wearily trudge the last stretch of the ascent, eager to get under the four blankets allotted to each one of us. There was no heating – nights were cold, to put it mildly.
On the morning we were to visit the Tiger Hill to see the sun rise, we had to start early, maybe, around four. The place was 11 kilometres away near Ghoom. At 8,500 feet (2,600 metres) it was the highest point in the area; we had to go uphill all the way along a road on which only jeeps plied.
We had organised seven jeeps for the entire party. Six of them arrived in time. When we enquired about the seventh, none of the drivers gave an answer. No assurances, no excuses. It was too early to get another vehicle.
A few of us, self-appointed "leaders", had to pay the price of leadership. While the rest of the team left, we had to stay back. Cursing the unknown driver and shivering in the freezing cold, we looked out from under the hotel portico, hoping to catch a glimpse of headlights on the winding road below. There were none.
Minutes trickled into an hour. The only bright spot in the dismal story was that Amitabhada, a few years my senior, had very thoughtfully saved a bottle of brandy for such contingencies. We took swigs in turn, and soon, stopped feeling the chill.
When the jeep finally arrived, it was too late for the sunrise. A stout Ghurkha staggered out from behind the wheels. Thoroughly drunk and reeking of country liquor, he could barely stand.
When the jeep hit the road after a heated exchange between the driver and his clients, we realised our folly. Our man was not only drunk, but also mad. The sharply winding, steeply ascending road had a precipitous chasm on the right. But the driver seemed to think it was a highway during a bandh. He didn't look ahead; instead, he put his head out of the window on the right. Watching the edge of the road with bleary eyes, he drove at full throttle.
Icy wind rushed in through the open window and hit us like shrapnel. We thought we would not only see no sunrise at the Tiger Hill, but nowhere else either. However, there is something called destiny in everyone’s life. You were destined, Dear Reader, to read this story.
When we arrived at the Tiger Hill observation deck after covering the distance in a quarter of the usual time, it was still dark. The deck was a big semi-circular green patch with a railing, flat as a table top.
As we trained our eyes towards the east, darkness was reluctantly making way for light. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. On turning back, what I saw was worth risking one’s life for. The western sky had horizontal bands of myriad colours: grey, purple, orange, golden, inky blue … a combination of colours that you see nowhere else. The mighty Himalaya was waking up for yet another day, like he had done for millions of years. The Kanchenjunga caught fire with the first rays of the sun. There was no mist. We could see the Everest far behind. It looked much shorter because of the shape of the earth. In a few moments, countless peaks of the Himalayas started glittering in all their glory. The mighty mountain stood before us in silent grandeur.
At moments like that we know how insignificant we are, how meaningless our concerns are. Without knowing, we bow to the great Force of which we are but infinitesimal fragments.
There are a few things that you must experience if your life is to be complete. Sunrise over the Tiger Hill in a clear morning is one of them.
Kolkata / Thursday, 04 August 2011