Under my byline

Cloud city

Posted in Architecture/Design, Living by Rrishi on 23 August 2009

Looking towards Kanchenjunga (c) me 2009Darjeeling in the monsoon season is stripped of its chief visual attraction, but…

Kanchenjunga is the view from Darjeeling, they say, and you’re a lucky visitor if you’re there on a cloud-free day to see that mountain towering against the horizon. Well, I went to Darjeeling in mid-monsoon, and I consider myself lucky to have seen so many clouds.

This may be because I arrived direct from Delhi, which this year has seen rather fewer clouds than its residents (which include the Government of India) would like. Even so, as the jeep climbed up from Bagdogra along a twisting and pleasingly bumpy road, past hillsides covered with unfamiliar but very beautiful trees whose each leaf shone in the sun like a bulb, past greedy little trickles and rivulets, past mossy embankments, past fit and healthy looking people — I really had eyes only for the clouds.

They were everywhere. Below us, a blazing-white sea of cloud obscured the plains. Not far above, a ceiling of flat and rather grave-looking clouds hid the upper slopes and the sky. In the green in-between, small tufty clouds clung inquisitively, as it seemed, to the slopes, sending fingers this way and that to investigate little defiles and poke gently at clusters of houses.

It was a landscape in motion — the degree of which one only realised when not in rapid motion oneself. Which is why the clouds in Darjeeling itself were such a delight. Nobody seems to move fast in that town, least of all visitors unaccustomed to hauling themselves uphill and down along narrow, slippery lanes.

117 steps (c) me 2009My hosts had a multi-level house propped against a hillside above the Happy Valley tea estate — what passes for suburbia in Darjeeling; i.e., a 10-minute walk from downtown. Access to the house was either up a set of steep stairs (117 in all) from the road below or down a zigzagging lane from the road above. Either way, the walker had to keep his eyes on the ground in front of his feet all the time, watching for uneven steps to avoid tripping on, wet leaves to avoid slipping on, and little piles of dog-turd to avoid sliding on. It was only once I had a cup of milky Darjeeling tea in hand and was standing on my hosts’ balcony that my eyes could lose their near focus.

To the left rose the main bulk of Darjeeling, like a pile of multicoloured breadcrumbs on the crest of a green muffin. Below were jumbled rooftops and the tea estate. Delightful — but best of all were the clouds. I could have stayed out there for hours if it weren’t so damp, watching the illogical games the breeze played with the clouds. While one cloud curled up the valley towards Darjeeling, its leading edge forming a battleship prow, another and larger one, like a flood of infantry, turned angrily downhill to meet it. At the moment of contact, something indefinable happened and quite suddenly there was just one cloud left, and it was on its way over yet another ridge.

The main living room of the house seemed to be the kitchen. It was forever busy with new batches of tea being brewed and people wandering in and out to work or chatter. But it faced the hillside (upon which some edible vegetable with plate-sized leaves grew), so for me the best room was the one with wooden floor and walls downstairs which had big windows overlooking the valley. The windows, as so often with houses in the hills, remained closed against the weather — until I flung them open. And, soon after, in came a cloud, waving its wispy white fingers and casting a film of cool dampness over our skin.

When we stepped out at last, to visit the town, none of us was in any rush to see the sights. Instead, gentled by the climate, we ambled up and down market lanes, not a tenth as busy in this off season as I was told they are in the cold, clear winter. (It was amusing to observe the way the shoppers here opened their purses — compact and portable, unlike the colossal handbags that are in fashion in Delhi — with both care and reluctance. Accordingly, the prices were reasonable.)

Darjeeling is a surprisingly cosmopolitan place, even though it’s a small town — there were all sorts of facial and racial types, and very little urban angst and brittleness. To my eyes, nobody really looked an outsider. Even the paleskin tourists seemed to be not permanently on their guard, as they are in the plains.

We ended up, more than once, circling back to Chaurasta, an open square where four streets, all pedestrianised but all different in character, meet. Here there’s a “view”, in clear weather, of Kanchenjunga. But I savoured the clouds and a glass of hot coffee brought to us at our bench. A lot of others, locals included, appeared to be doing the same — among them some of the best-looking and most laid-back stray dogs I have ever seen.

Trying to take some photographs, I realised that the light, which was white and bright, came refracted endlessly through the misty air until it was almost directionless — and therefore really good for portrait-taking. On the other hand, the cloud cover kept one’s eye off distant scenery, thus limiting one’s visual range to the neighbourly and domestic. Which was probably a good thing.

Looking up to downtown (c) me 2009As an urban dweller accustomed to the shallow visual range of the facing balcony or the back end of the car ahead, one is by and large not often exposed to distant sights worth seeing. Thus, released into a hill station, an urbanite is tempted to gorge on the panoramas. Here in cloudy Darjeeling there were vistas, to be sure, but yet the eye was restrained and forced to retain its curiosity for the immediate. I might have missed a number of minor but pleasing sights if my eyes had been constantly commanded by Kanchenjunga.

If only big-city developers could learn some lessons in design from this grubby yet fresh little hill town. For one: the fact that a pleasant view can make cramped spaces and lives suddenly bearable. How many friends in Gurgaon live in misery because their four-bedroom flats look out onto nothing more lovely than mall, building site or slum. The Japanese have shown, after all, that beautiful landscaping does not need acres of lawn.

And: it’s civilised to be required to walk. The metros are all enormous and expanding, but each locality within is not. Good architecture and urban design can make it possible to travel on foot within a certain radius, even in a hot and dusty place like Delhi. The discipline of New Urbanism has shown that in the West. Bring the small town into the big.

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