Book review :
Sonam B Wangyal: Darjeeling Stories: Sahibs, Natives and Oddballs.
In the general knowledge books which were very popular in our schooldays, Darjeeling was always referred to as the “Queen of the Hills”. This was a matter of parochial pride for us; later, of course, we discovered that the same soubriquet was applied to Simla and Ooty and god only knows what other places. Be that as it may, Darjeeling was and still is a lovely place to visit. The principal attraction now and always has been the view of the Kanchenjunga massif which, if you are lucky, provides a view that is only rivaled by the view of the Macchapuchare and Annapurna range from Pokhara.
The Darjeeling hills were part of Sikkim in the eighteenth century. At the end of the eighteenth century the all-conquering Gurkhas who united the country of Nepal also took over the part of the hills West of the Teesta, more specifically the land between the Mechi river which is today the border between Nepal and India and the Teesta. The British East India company which was just concluding its very succesful campaign to take over the entire Indian subcontinent around that time felt this to be an affront to their dignity and after defeating the Nepalese forces in 1814, arranged that this land be returned to the Rajah Of Sikkim. If the British were not in India, it is not inconceivable that Nepal would have been much larger than it is today, as they had also conquered plenty of territory in what is now Uttrakhand. Then, as now, not too many armies could face up to the Gurkhas.
The British merchants did nothing without a price and the Sikkimese authorities had to sign the treaty of Titalya on the 10th February, 1817 , which made the British the paramount power in the area and made it incumbent on the Rajah to refer to the British for arbitration in case of any disputes with Nepal or any other neighboring state. In 1828, there was a dispute with Nepal and a Captain Lloyd was sent to be the arbitrator. During his visit, the good captain happened to visit the then sparsely populated village of Darjeeling.
It must be mentioned that at this point in time, Kolkata was the imperial capital and the seat of the most powerful men of the land. Kolkata had fast become a city of palaces, but there was one deficiency. All other presidencies had their hill stations where the sahib log could repair during the summer months. But Calcutta had no such retreat where they could ride out the summer months. This must have been on Captain Lloyd’s mind and when he stayed in Darjeeling for 6 days in February 1829, it immediately struck him that this could be the “sanatorium” that they were looking for.
There was a minor problem, which was that this land belonged not to the Britishers but to the Rajah of Sikkim. But an opportunity to bully him came in 1834-35 when some Lepcha refugees from Nepal entered the Sikkimese terai and the by then General Lloyd not only forced them to return to Nepal but also prevailed on the Sikkim Rajah to sign a less than 100-word deed of grant that made over “ the land south of the Great Runjeet River. East of the Balasur, Kahail and Little Runjeet Rivers, and west of Rungno and Mahanuddi rivers”. For this, the British were to pay an annual allowance of Rs 3000, which was late raised, in 1846 to Rs 6000. Even allowing for inflation, this seems to be a pretty derisory amount of money for what was to become the nucleus of the Darjeeling district. This country, however, was surrounded by Sikkim and to get there the Britishers had to pass through Sikkimese territory and this could not be countenanced for too long and in 1850, when Sir Joseph Hooker and Dr Campbell made what was patently an illegal incursion into Sikkim and were arrested, it became the excuse for a punitive expedition which resulted in the annexation of the Sikkim terai as well as the territory connecting the terai to the already “granted” Darjeeling hills. This cut off all access for Sikkim to the plains and has been the bane of Sikkim ever since. In recent times, they have particularly faced severe problems when agitations in the Darjeeling hills have cut them off from the rest of the country. Another expedition that was sent to Bhutan in 1964 for some perceived slight resulted in what is now the Kalimpong Hills to be annexed and the District of Darjeeling as we knew it came into being. Now, of course, there is a separate Kalimpong District. This resulted in Sikkim and Bhutan being cut off from each other and fixed the borders more or less as we have them today.
Sonam B Wangyal is a physician by profession. He graduated a few years ahead of us from the Medical College and with his wife Dicky (who was one year ahead of us in Medical College) had a practice in Jalgaon at the border of Bhutan for many many years. Here he made a name for himself not only as a physician. but as a scholar. In recent times he has shifted to Siliguri, which has made it possible for me to socialize with him, and to be enriched by his vast knowledge of the history and culture of the hills of Bengal, Sikkim and Bhutan. He is a worthy successor of the many doctor scholars we used to read about.
His latest book is an irreverent and very engaging look at Darjeeling through the years and he has written amusingly and wittily about the people who made Darjeeling what it is today. The fun should not conceal the fact that he has put lots of solid research into what he has to say and in the the process has enlightened us about the denizens of the hills over the past two hundred odd years.
The slim book has been divided into three sections, he has stories about sahibs, the Britishers in other words, the natives who actually made Darjeeling what it was and is today and he has a section devoted to the mavericks who he calls the oddballs who added to the charm of the District. He has also added some delicious tidbits of history which are like sparklers lighting up the book.
Captain Lloyd, Wangyal tell us, tried to hog the credit for the “ discovery” of Darjeeling but he was not the lone Britisher when he came here as he claimed. He had with him the commercial resident at Maldah, a Mr. J W Grant who was lost to the history books as Lloyd claimed that he was “the only European to have visited it( Darjeeling) ”. Lloyd, however, was promoted and as Lt General Lloyd made a fool of himself in the defense of Danapore during the First Indian war of Independence and he retired in obscurity to where else, Darjeeling where he died in 1865 aged a venerable 75.
The author has also dug out an advertisement for David Wilson’s Dorjeeling Family Hotel in 1839, when he advised patrons to make reservations for the “stewing months” of September and October as early as possible, thereby proving that the so-called “Puja season” had nothing to do with the Pujas; the British wanted to be up there in autumn even before the Bengalis made it a must do Puja vacation destination. Similarly he has investigated the reason why the British Army had to evacuate Senchel Hill where they had set up a barrack. He points out that they should have taken heed of the fact that the Lepchas avoided the place and in fact that the Lepcha name itself “ shin shel hlo” meant “the damp and misty hill” and that is exactly what it turned out to be.
There are many other gems in this volume. He has reminded us of Mayadevi Chettri, the Kurseong child bride who rose to become the Vice Chairman of the Rajya Sabha; there is an anecdote about tigers in Kalimpong as well as hilarious stories of football matches in the hills in the early years of the last century.
There are a hundred other stories in this book. He has documented the fact that St Paul’s School was not always the epitome of discipline and manners that it is today, a harebrained scheme to close down the toy train and most of all he has reminded us of the many men and women, sahibs, natives and oddballs who helped to make the district what it is today.
We await his next book eagerly.
( This book is available from Amazon: https://www.amazon.in/Darjeeling-Stories-Sahibs-Natives-Oddballs/dp/8194244234)