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Cracking the Kanchenjunga code

The elusive mountain peak yields gracefully to perseverance, but not before having the last laugh

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Every Bengali stereotype—writing bad poetry, wearing a monkey cap and yearning for a glimpse of the Kanchenjunga—comes with a few grains of truth.

The third-highest mountain peak in the world has always been on the Bengali bucket list. I saw it for the first time as a little boy, or at least that’s what my family assures me. All I remember from that trip to Darjeeling are debacles.

We discovered on that short flight from Kolkata to Bagdogra that I had a propensity for airsickness. My uncle, a pilot, was flying the aircraft that day, which was a source of great excitement in the family. I dampened it considerably by getting off the aeroplane at Bagdogra Airport, squatting on the tarmac and throwing up, while he stood there in his spiffy uniform patting my head. Later, on that same trip, I insisted on walking on the narrow ledge next to a drain in Darjeeling, balancing myself like a tightrope walker. My father warned me several times that I would fall. Eventually I did, and with great precision, into a pile of horseshit. My father, a mild-mannered man known for his unflappable equanimity, smacked me and then hauled me back to the very elegant Swiss Hotel to be scrubbed. The Kanchenjunga, mere mountain, paled in comparison to the Himalayan blunders on that trip.

But the appeal of the Kanchenjunga persisted. Generations of Bengalis, monkey-capped and muffler-ed, have gone in the dead of night to Tiger Hill near Darjeeling in the hope of seeing the sun rise over that peak. In Satyajit Ray’s film Kanchenjungha, the Roy family spends its whole Darjeeling vacation denied a glimpse of the peak. When the mist finally lifts, they are too preoccupied to notice the dazzling sight. I have grown up hearing Kanchenjunga-miss stories all my life. “The day after we left, we heard it was completely clear," is the most common refrain.

To paraphrase Lewis Carroll, the rule is Kanchenjunga yesterday and Kanchenjunga tomorrow but never Kanchenjunga today.

That frustration is part of the allure of the peak. There is some strange masochistic pleasure in being repeatedly thwarted in that endeavour, a peculiarly Bengali pleasure-in-disappointment, like that of a rebuffed lover returning repeatedly in plaintive courtship.

You should go in the winter, said some American friends. It’s cold but it’s also at its clearest. In 2014, my partner and I decided to go one mid-December weekend but the flight was delayed with the ominous words—“fog in Bagdogra". We sat in the plane for hours while the crew waited for the fog to lift. Late in the afternoon, they cancelled the flight. We came home and ate leftovers for lunch.

The next year, we decided to give it a shot in summer. This time the plane took off. We were headed to the Neora Valley Jungle Camp, a few miles from the town of Lava. The stone and wood cottages were beautiful, just four-five of them, nestled against a bamboo forest that was home to the red panda. The bedroom had a little loft and when you opened the windows you looked straight across the lush valley to the Kanchenjunga. Or so we were told. Unfortunately, we had arrived in haze season.

We took a back-breaking ride on rough mountain roads to nearby Rishab, the most panoramic viewpoint in the region. The clouds had settled with a vengeance that day. The horizon looked like a quilt. Next day, we sat drinking tea as the fog rolled down the hillside, blotting out the cardamom plants next to the window. It was eerily beautiful but it was not the Kanchenjunga.

To paraphrase Lewis Carroll, the rule is Kanchenjunga yesterday and Kanchenjunga tomorrow, but never Kanchenjunga today.-

Last December, it seemed our luck would finally change. The inaugural Kalimpong festival of literature and the arts invited me to speak. Flights were booked, hotels were arranged, recommendations for the world’s best momos were solicited. Then demonetization hit. Barely a week before the festival, the organizers pulled the plug. I looked up the weather just to wallow further in my disappointment. It said it was clear in Kalimpong.

That’s when I felt the curse of the Kanchenjunga had to be broken. In January, I decided we had to make one more attempt. We booked a home-stay not in Darjeeling but in the tiny hamlet of Tinchuley, which is known for nothing other than a spectacular view of the Kanchenjunga.

When we landed at the home-stay, we realized there was barely a village. It was just a house built into the mountainside with nothing around us. The rooms were clean and large and came with hot water. The food was freshly cooked and delicious. But there was nothing to keep us warm, not even one of those puny space heaters, just fuzzy blankets. But every room opened out on to the mountains. It was the afternoon, the fog had come in but somewhere out there was the Kanchenjunga. “We had a good sunrise today," said the friendly proprietor reassuringly. “Come to the terrace at 5 tomorrow."

Night fell swiftly, as it does in these parts, and the lights of Kalimpong twinkled from across the valley. We kept our woollen socks on as we crawled into bed under two blankets but I still set the alarm for 5am. At least we would just have to go to the terrace, not Tiger Hill. At 5am, I put on my woollen cap and muffler and padded out. The horizon was just turning pink. Bottles of pickles and cherry-red Dalle Khorsani chillies had been put out on the terrace in anticipation of the sun. I could hear the strains of a Hindi song on the radio wafting up from the valley. The first birds of the morning were chirping. A ginger cat came and rubbed itself against me, purring loudly, and then climbed on to the parapet. Where there had been nothing but inky darkness the night before, slowly the hills took shape in front of me in shades of lavender and grey, ridge after ridge. And beyond them, finally, the peaks. They were hazy and blurred, but they were there.

My friends, who were visiting Darjeeling, were texting me from Tiger Hill—“Rise and shine", “The mountains are fully visible now", accompanied by a selfie with a Kanchenjunga backdrop. By then the skies were blue and startlingly clear. I could almost see the patterns on a hawk circling high overhead but the mountains were even hazier in the morning glare.

“Saw Kanchenjunga properly," I texted back defiantly as we waited for our aloo-paratha breakfast. “As good as this?" gloated my friend, sending a picture postcard view taken on his phone. “A little hazier," I said grimly, squinting at the mountains in front of me. “Bad luck," he replied.

That’s when my partner suddenly pointed to the left. I turned and there, at the edge of the frame as it were, just beyond some trees, loomed a shimmering white massif. The Kanchenjunga was right there, gleaming white, ringed with lazily drifting clouds. I gaped at it open-mouthed. It seemed to wink at me. I had been looking in the wrong direction.

Even as it revealed itself in all its glory, the Kanchenjunga had the last laugh.

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