By Nirvan Pradhan
When the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic struck India, I got back home to Darjeeling from the University in the nick of time. Two days later, India’s Prime Minister announced a complete national lockdown. Initially, I was content to laze around, alternating between books and all the series I had missed. I hadn’t missed much. And so, I slowly began to sink in the monotony of zoom meetings and the tortuous journey of writing my dissertation.
It rains a lot in Darjeeling. Sometimes, it rains uninterrupted for days. Unofficially, the weather alternates between the foggy rainy season and the frosty winters. Like many people in my hometown, I spend a lot of time indoors as the dreary weather defeats any will to step outside. One rainy day, I decided to visit my uncle’s hotel. There I chanced upon a journal. Surprisingly, it was the hotel’s ledger from 1984 that had been stored in an old steel trunk, slowly gathering dust, fading into oblivion before being retrieved after thirty-seven years. For someone who first fell in love with God as a Lion and spent his childhood poring and rereading the Potter series, this trunk did tingle my love for the supernatural. But rather than being drawn into a hug by winter coats and met by a fawn; heavy dust and paper eating termites greeted me. Between loud sneezes and a grubby nose, I managed to rescue seven other journals which I am in the process of cleaning and archiving.
My uncle, Dhamba, as we fondly call him, is in his late seventies. Yet, old age has got to him. Death has acquired a harsh reality in the face of ephemerality of life. In our conversations, he reminds me: “The time of my death isnear.” His individual readiness for death is sadly “a readiness to die without being reborn in historical memory, to die once and for all. Death, now more than ever before, is the death of memory.”(Behar, 1996). “Every image of the past,” Walter Benjamin reminds us, “that that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably”. The timespace compression of our own age, imperils memories that are not firmly held on by the act of remembering.
In his essay Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire, historian Pierre Nora distinguishes between three-forms of modern memory: archive-memory, distance-memory and duty-memory. In the ancient period, the three main producers of archives were the church, state and great families. However, the advent of modern technology has led to the proliferation of the materialisation of memory which has been multiplied, decentred and democratised.
I believe that there is a certain discontinuity in the memory of elders, many of whom we lost in the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has stolen a generation of storytellers, grandparents, poets and musicians from us. We have lost a generation of our elders who were guardians of our history, tradition, language, art, knowledge and wisdom. With the passing of a previous generation, I believe that traditional memory is disappearing and some of us are obliged to collect testimonies, documents, images, speeches and records as an archive of the life that has been. As such, I join other individuals who feel the responsibility to re-capture memory before everything may disappear.
In this essay, I attempt to stitch together a duty-memory rooted in the narrative of our family hotel that was established in 1960s. In duty-memory, the sense of responsibility weighs upon the individual to remember. Sarah Lamb (2000: 42-69) has argued that it is normal for older Indians to depend on their junior kin in later life as part of a valued system “lifelong intergenerational reciprocity”. Lamb has argued that Indian parents often expect what they once “gave to their young children— including co-residence, food, material support, love, time together, assistance with daily routines, and toileting—that adult children will later reciprocate to their parents” (Lamb 2017: 238) Extending Lamb’s conceptualising of “intergenerational reciprocity”, I argue that this reciprocity is not limited to materialistic comforts but rather extends to memories that must be cherished by acts of remembering and recording. In writing this essay, I hope to add my voice to the recording of alternate histories of the eastern Himalayan region. By focusing on memories of family members and archive memory, I attempt to record an auxiliary narrative to Darjeeling’s tourism heritage. Scholars have attempted to explore the histories of governance, labour, capital, ethnicity and migration that shaped Darjeeling (Shneiderman and Middleton, 2018). The production of Darjeeling as a ‘summer place’: a landscape defined more by its scenery than its inhabitants in its commodified form of tea and tourism has also taken centre stage in the works of Sarah Besky and Rune Bennike. In his chapter tilted “A Summer Place: Darjeeling in the Tourist Gaze”, Bennike chronicles the transformation of Darjeeling as a tourist destination. The classed, relational character of the tourist gaze and pictures of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, fancy English hotels with Khangchendzonga as the backdrop, circulated around the world tourism circuits firmly stoking Western longings for this exotic hill station. Post colonial Bengal saw Bhadraloks recast themselves as secular vacationers visiting Darjeeling for leisure and the comforting mist, especially in the summers.
In this long history of Darjeeling as a tourist destination, there is a glaring absence of the native voice. The guidebooks and the governmental documents repeatedly highlight the picturesque scenery overlooking the inhabitants of Darjeeling who were relegated to the bazaars and the tea gardens. And yet, while millions and perhaps more have visited Darjeeling as tourists, there is a resounding gap on how tourism affected local families that were catering to the hunger, longing, thirst and curiosity of every visiting tourist.
Darjeeling’s opulent hotels have their own share of riveting histories where famous personalities rubbed shoulders with renewed luminaries. Even the last King and Queen of Sikkim, first exchanged glances and fell in love in the lounge of the Windamere Hotel in Darjeeling (Duff, 2015). However, tourists and in particular trekkers tended to opt for cheaper accommodations.
The seventies were the era of the hippies and the infamous “Road to Kathmandu” attracted young tourists from North America and Europe to the far East. This journey was enabled by the postwar booming economy which provided disposable incomes. A steep fall in air fares also made young people pack their bags and leave on journeys to Delhi, Varanasi and Kathmandu (Liechty, 2017).
Tourists flocked to Nepal in large numbers and many even continued their journey to Darjeeling. The 1980s, saw a set of tourists who came seeking for ‘adventure’, which they hoped to explore and find in trekking routes and ridges of Darjeeling. The most steep trekking route was the Sandakphu trek, one of the world’s rare international trekking routes that criss-crosses between Nepal and India. Visitors from around the world came hiking along this route hoping to get glimpses of the Himalayas. It was also an opportune time for my Dhamba to convert his home into a budget lodge.
Shiva Pradhan Hotel
Shiva Pradhan Hotel was established by my Dhamba in the early sixties. It was named after my deceased uncle, Shiva, Dhamba’s eldest brother who had been the sole bread earner of the family. My grandfather died in his early forties. Dhamba converted the one floor wooden structure into a two floor hotel and provided for the entire family. Popularly known as Shiva Hotel, it is located at the edges of the Singalila National Park, about 80 kilometres from Darjeeling town. Trekkers usually begin their journey from Maney-bhanjang, criss-crossed the international borders through pine trees, rhododendrons, occasional bears and red-pandas to reach Sandakphu. In the 1970-80s, there were no hotels up there. Hikers pitched tents and ate packed food including “bread and cheese”. What it lacked for in comfort, the hike compensated with a stunning view of the Khanchendzonga and Mount Everest. From there, the hikers descended to Rimbick which takes a good seven hours. Most tourists were exhausted when they reached Rimbick.
Most of the tourists halted in Rimbick before recommencing their hike or catching a bus to Darjeeling town. As the only hotel in Rimbick was Shiva Pradhan hotel, all the tourists ended up staying there. Growing up, elders in our family always regaled us with amusing stories of memorable tourists who stayed in the lodge.
Hikers from Israel, England, Malta, West Germany, New Zealand, Holland, France, Spain, America, Australia, Austria, Japan, South Korea and across India halted in Shiva Hotel. They stayed for a night or two, drank tongba (alcoholic beverage made of fermented millet), met fellow sojourners and sang the night away. They were always greeted by an “always smiling” Dhamba who they grew fond of just as much as he enjoyed hosting them.
I will recount three memorable incidents of tourists who came visiting. This is a selective account drawn from my own childhood memory that has been graciously supplemented with inputs from my family. Once a huge Australian bodybuilder came to stay in our lodge. He was a huge fellow and he obviously had a hearty diet. After arriving, he ordered six bottles of beer, one whole chicken, one dozen eggs and slept the night away. Next morning he woke up and ate a hearty breakfast. Now Dhamba was always humble and meek when it came to billing the guests. His trademark line was “Give your wish”. Upon hearing this, the Australian fellow paid Rs 25 and left. Dhamba smiled and received the amount without saying anything. He faced a huge loss. We always used to laugh at him for his trademark line which led to his loss and how the tourist got away paying peanuts.
Another memory involved a girl and a lost bag.
One French girl came to the hotel one day and requested Dhamba to keep her bag safely for her until her return from the trek. Dhamba had this inner storeroom for safekeeping where he kept his ledgers, documents and money. When she came back, Dhamba went to the storeroom to collect her bag but to his horror, the bag and all the clothes had been torn by a mouse. That girl began to weep and Dhamba hurriedly went to the market to purchase her a new bag and also buy her a new sari as it too had been torn by a mouse. Fortunately she was able to take her leftover luggage in her new bag.
An additional memory involved a retired Belgian man who developed bonds of kinship with our family. A retired Belgian man whom we called “Daddy” came to Rimbick and really loved the place. He was an artist and he often used to draw portraits of all family members in the verandah. He became close friends with our family and came visiting whenever he could. On one visit he built a small cottage in our farmland and stayed for three months We lost touch with him after his last visit but we miss him dearly. He was a dear friend
The Lonely Planet Guidebook
Lucy Holbrook visited Rimbick on 26th November, 1992. She wrote Dhamba a letter on 2nd February 1993. She fondly remembered the “beauty and tranquility” of the place and hoped to “return one day to trek some more”. Additionally, she had also written to two travel agencies besides The Lonely Planet Guide recommending Shiva Pradhan hotel and its hospitality. Until recently, tourists relied heavily on travel guidebooks for information regarding hiking routes and accommodations. The efforts of people like Lucy Holbrook paid off. The Lonely Planet Guide in their annual yearbook recommended Shiva Pradhan hotel a few years later. This was a source of great pride for Dhamba and his hard work and the kindness of tourists who wrote letters to travel agencies recommending the hotel finally paid off. The review further brought more tourists to the hotel.
In this section, I present a first hand account of tourists from the journals of Shiva Pradhan Hotel. These journals are filled with doodles, maps and narratives of tourists who came visiting from around the world. Most of them recounted the difficulties of the trek and gratefulness for the comfort and food of Shiva Hotel. I reproduce three accounts for their humour, story-telling and different nationalities represented on a single page.
Historian Pierre Nora distinguishes between two types of memory: real memory and history. Pierra Nora warns us that at the heart of history lies a critical discourse antithetical to spontaneous memory and its true objective is to suppress and destroy memory. Real memory is social and unviolated, retained as the secret of so- called primitive and archaic societies. This real memory is “integrated, dictatorial memory— unself-conscious, commanding, all powerful, spontaneously actualizing, a memory without a past that ceaselessly reinvents tradition, linking the history of its ancestors to the undifferentiated time of heroes, origins, and myth…” (Nora 1989:8). Narratives from this hotel are samples of real memory that links the past with the present.
History, on the hand, is how the forgetful modern societies, propelling to change, organises its past. Our memory is sifted and sorted through historical traces. While some museums, monuments and artefacts would survive, such objects would be stripped of what holds value to particular cultures. Every historian contributes to the representation of a particular form of memory be they nationalistic, religious or monarchal memory.
Therefore, society such as ours must tap on to the real memory of individuals who hold the dictionary and the archives of our cultures. By gathering such excerpts of memory, we can have a fuller picture of our past that can help us rebuild our histories from the ground level.
Memory binds together people and takes root in the concrete buildings, homes, spaces, gestures, images and objects. The quest for memory is the search for one’s history. The memory of hosting tourists who came from different parts of the world to Shiva Hotel holds together a predominant feature in our family’s memory and reveals alternate histories of this region. These are memories of conversations shared, glimpses of Himalayan ranges, beers drank, Tongba tasted, sweat washed off tired bodies, blistered feet rested, ravenous hunger quenched, cold bodies warmed and memories made around the fireplace. The tourists who visited were touched by the hospitality that was shown in this hotel. Most of them left the next day for their next hike in Nepal or a plate of fried chips in Darjeeling. Yet, they did leave a snippet of memory both in the minds of our elders and the permanence of their ink. Some tourists like Lucy went beyond their level of duty to help Shiva Hotel get a Lonely Planet recommendation.
Dhamba never travelled outside Darjeeling, yet hosted and kept in correspondence with people from around the world. Anthropologist Donna Haraway (2016) argues that in times of devastating inequality, violence, and climate change our “task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present.” Perhaps, the bonds of relatedness and comfort that they experienced made many tourists come back or send letters, pictures and gifts long after their departure. Dhamba is getting tired now. He feels that death is near. He has asked me to ensure a proper funeral after his departure. With his body giving away to old age and time accelerating towards infinity, I hold on to these journals as the embers of his beautiful memories. After all, death isn’t the death of memory.
Nirvan Pradhan is a PhD Candidate in the Centre for Political Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University. His doctoral dissertation is an exploration of affects and effects of migration in people from the Eastern Himalayas.
Behar, R., 1996. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that breaks your heart.
Beacon Press Benjamin, W., 1986. Illuminations (Vol. 241, No. 2).
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