Excerpt from The Songwriter
13 January 2020
In the old days, the remote hill station prided itself for producing some of the finest teas in the world. But there was not much left of it now, except the old and derelict railway station with that curved stone bridge across the platform. And a large oak tree with its huge trunk, stood tall and straight, overlooking the picturesque little village on the hill, while the birds chirped along the countryside. Back then, every few hours a train would stop at the station. Amidst the frenzy of the workmen refueling the guzzling steam engine, passengers disembarked and hurried down to the village. Then the driver blew the whistle, and the train slowly resumed its onward journey leaving behind a trail of billowing black smoke.
A small group of village children would run along for a short distance, waving at the passengers while the train puffed and panted slowly up the mountainous tracks. As the train ascended onward over the rugged terrain, the air grew cooler and lovelier. Each bend opened a new vista of trees sparkling brightly in the sunlight, while wild orchids added flashes of colors on the mountain ranges. Such memories of the hills endured with Gurung Bahadur, although the living had lapsed over time. Bahadur remembered the first time he jumped off from the train onto the narrow railway platform at Labong. He was only seventeen years old then. Soon, he marched onwards with a quick step, briskly walking along a brick wall by the station. Then, climbing up a hilly terrain, he skipped on ahead of his maternal uncle, Tek Bahadur. It felt like a steep climb to him. Perhaps because he was carrying a heavy bundle on his back, containing all of their belongings. They were headed to what the local people in the town simply knew as the Burra Bungalow. It was, in fact, a majestic, colonial style residence built by Mr. Ronnie Roy on his newly acquired estate. Built high up on the hills, it offered glorious views of the neighbouring mountainside with pine trees across the slopes and orange orchards down in the valley below.
A prominent and influential man in this part of India, Mr. Roy and his family owned several tea gardens, orchards and timber businesses in and around the Dooars Valley. When he had visited Labong initially, he found nothing truly noteworthy, other than the solitude of the dense, dark forests. Just a few months later, Mr. Roy brought his young family to their newly-acquired orange orchards for a family outing. His young wife Rukmini Devi was captivated by the pristine beauty of the orchards and their peaceful surroundings. The Roys soon decided to build a new bungalow on their Labong estate. It became their new home. Soon after the house was built, Mr. Roy employed Tek Bahadur at the Labong estate as a watchman. Since then, Tek Bahadur had impressed the entire Roy family with his dedication and loyalty. It was no surprise that when the Roys wanted a child-carer for their young son, they decided to listen to Tek’s suggestion and employ his young nephew Gurung Bahadur. They arrived at the Burra Bungalow when it was still early, so they waited outside the gates. Tek Bahadur took this opportunity to give his nephew a few tips at the last minute. “Just answer all the questions you are asked, eh?” “Yes, Mamaji,” Bahadur nodded while his uncle combed his unkempt hair carefully. It was not long before they walked up the steps to the large veranda in front. Inside, Bahadur’s eyes were dazzled by the bright, early-morning sunlight blazing in through glass panes onto the gleaming mahogany floors of the bungalow.
As they waited to meet the Roy family, Bahadur gazed at the beautiful garden outside through the radiant glass panes. He saw a broad canopy of trees spreading an aura of the early summer’s green. He could feel the pristine and cool mountain air in the early morning. They heard footsteps in a few minutes — the light sound of Kolhapuri chappals descending the wooden stairs. It was the lady of the house, the tall and elegant Rukmini Devi. She was clad in a white silk saree embroidered with red borders. Bahadur noticed that she had long, overflowing hair nearly reaching her hips. With the sun shining across the room, her fair and shining face appeared to sparkle in gold. Rukmini Devi came down the stairs gracefully and then turned towards the fireplace where they were waiting.