It was a vacation under a cloud. Of sanitiser. The man on the lower berth of our train compartment kept scrubbing his hands with sanitiser seemingly on the hour. The jhal-muri wallah who had got on had a mask but offered no guarantee about the hygiene of the rag he was wiping his hands on. The ticket inspector seemed content with doing a roll-call instead of examining tickets physically. Travelling in the time of covid-19 is a performance piece of sorts.
It was our first real trip since the beginning of the pandemic. After careful deliberation, we had chosen our destination in the hills of north Bengal. We decided to travel within the state to avoid confusing RT-PCR test requirements. The retreat at Jhandi was a cute, stand-alone wooden cottage which could be a little bubble for our small group of friends. I bought fresh N-95 masks, travel-sized sanitiser bottles and a surface disinfectant spray. The trains no longer provided bedding so we had to invest in sleeping bags and air pillows. As I packed, I realised that travel, once second nature to me, was now so alien I felt I had forgotten how to pack.
“DEALING WITH A NEW NORMAL, BEST WISHES FROM JHANDI FAMILIES.” The yellow sign outside the cluster of huts at our eco-retreat felt more like a caveat than a welcome. But it seemed reassuringly “old” normal. The ubiquitous squash was growing on trellises in kitchen gardens. Mauve and yellow cosmos flowers were in bloom. A woman sat outside her home with a baby goat on her lap. Shaggy dogs napped on the road in the swirling mist. You could almost fool yourself into thinking that at 6,000ft, as the air became fresher, we had somehow escaped the realm of the virus.
Until this year I had never heard of Jhandi. But the pandemic had fuelled interest in undiscovered weekend getaways closer to home in Kolkata. The Dooars were all the rage as people looked beyond the usual Darjeeling. The government had even launched a vistadome train with large glass windows and a plexi-glass roof to traverse the lush Dooars.
I discovered Jhandi on a blog by a software developer who described his passions as “eating, sleeping and traveling”. It was a gem of a blog, with details about a driver named Babai-da who had helpfully picked up some alcohol for them, a Sintu-da who managed the logistics from Kolkata and a Bikash-ji who could produce momos and onion pakodas for snacks. Most helpfully, the blog had a photograph of the bathroom. When we stepped into the cottage, I almost felt a sense of déjà vu.
Jhandi’s USP was its view of the temperamental Kanchenjunga. Every five minutes there was a new home-stay in some state of construction—candy-coloured, boxy houses with flowers growing in black plastic bags outside the door. They all opened out on to the promise of Kanchenjunga as the river valley stretched out below—the Teesta gleaming silver in the distance while the Neora, Geet and Chel meandered across the plains. On a clear day, you could even see the barrage on the Teesta, a home-stay owner informed us.
“On a clear day” is pretty much the mantra in these parts. Though the home-stay promised rock climbing and jumparing (some cross between rappelling and climbing jump ropes), the real reason tourists come to these remote hamlets with iffy infrastructure is the promise of the view. On a clear day, you could see not just the Kanchenjunga but even the mountains near Nathu La from the balcony of our cottage.
We saw a solid wall of mist as we walked into the cottage. Thankfully, the blog had lyrically prepped us for that as well—“you can simply grab a chair and relax, watch birds or experiencing the mist taking over among tranquil mother nature”. The chairs were unfortunately rather uncomfortable, cheap plastic ones, more suited to a Mamata Banerjee election rally than waiting for the mist to part and reveal snow-capped grandeur. But in the “new normal” one cannot be too picky. As a friend fed up with WFH said: “I don’t care if it rains every day up in the mountains. At least it will be a different view of the rain.”
In the “new normal”, we learnt to make adventures out of very little. The first evening, a huge beetle helicoptered to our balcony, hit the glass door and lay upside down till I rescued it, only to repeat the drama all over again. By the second evening, I felt like we were in a relationship. One morning, I strolled out on to the balcony and saw a little triangle of white peeping out over the clouds. By the time I had retrieved my camera and focused, it was gone. But Bikash-ji confirmed at breakfast that it was indeed the Kanchenjunga. I felt like I had spotted a tiger in the Sundarbans.
Places like Jhandi don’t come with a list of 10-must-see sights. The tourist attractions here are being made up on the fly. Our driver talked up a lake. As our car crawled down a mountain road being widened into a four-lane highway to China, the drizzle became a downpour, the road turned into red slush. And at the end of a bone-rattling trip, we found ourselves at what looked like a community park with a modest man-made lake and swan-shaped pedal boats. But then the rain stopped, the sun came out and a rainbow shimmered across the green mountains, giving even the swan boats a fairy-tale touch.
On the way back, we climbed down into a valley where the Geet river tumbled across white stones. The mountains glowed golden green in the rain-washed sunshine. A thicket of white kaash phool, the harbinger of autumn in Bengal, was growing next to the river. Young girls in football jerseys were getting ready to play and as the football arced across the white kaash flowers, it felt like Pather Panchali had met Bend It Like Beckham in the Himalaya.
The beauty could not quite hide the scars of the pandemic . Many of the home-stays were in limbo, having run out of funds mid-construction. The monsoon and the lockdown had kept tourists away. People were eager to make up for lost time, sometimes going out of their way to be hospitable. When we casually inquired about a pork curry, our driver insisted he could manage it. If we pre-ordered it, we could have it next to the Chel river, a goodbye lunch. It was not until we had boarded the car with our luggage that we realised we hadn’t just pre-ordered the pork curry. We were carrying the raw pork down with us in a little plastic bag.
By then it was too late. We were committed. We had to sit and cool our heels at the dhaba, counting pressure-cooker whistles, while a loud party at the next table popped cold beers. The sun was hot. The little outpost was noisy, with bikes, cars, chickens and goats. The allure of the pork curry waned rapidly. But when it arrived with a bowl of thin masoor dal and alu bhaaji, it was delicious and piping hot. As we tucked in, the annoyance melted. Somewhere up in the hills it was raining and we could smell it in the air. The river bank was pretty, not littered with plastic. As we finished our meal, the driver appeared at the table. “You had said you wanted to go to a shop to buy tea?” he said. “Here’s a bag of tea, from a garden nearby.” He showed us a large unsealed plastic bag filled with dark leaves. “All organic,” he said confidently.
In a leap of faith I bought the no-name mystery tea. In these strange times, one must just adjust. It turned out to be pretty good. I might christen it the “First Flush of the New Normal”.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.