Since coming to Darjeeling I have made two major trips. One was to Delhi to deal with the FRRO, and the other was to Kolkata to visit the fellows there and experience Durga Puja in the place that does it the biggest. The Delhi trip was full of revelations. I realized that the Delhi fellows were living right across the street from the apartment where I lived in Delhi last summer (it’s a small world). Because of this I also got to see my former landlord, which was great fun. I also realized that the FRRO can be much easier to deal with when you get an immigration officer that isn’t in a foul mood and genuinely wants to help you. This was the case with my second trip there. My officer was quite jovial, making jokes and saying that he had always wanted to come to Darjeeling so maybe he should come and stay with me. Of course, this was first thing in the morning, so who knows what mood he would have been in by the evening.
My trip to Kolkata was an experience in contrasts. Kolkata is the most British looking city I have been to thus far in India (I haven’t been to Mumbai yet). The Victoria Memorial, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and other random buildings throughout the city remind you that the British built much of Kolkata from the ground up and put the full force of colonization right in your face. In direct contrast to this were the pandals. All over the city, in the middle of parks and tucked back into corners and alleyways, there were beautifully constructed altars to Durga and her defeat of the demon Mahishasura. They were colorful, shiny, gorgeous structures that were constructed in a matter of weeks and would be pulled down after being on display for only a week or two and put in the river. It is definitely a lesson on impermanence and reminded me of my theater days, when you would build a very complex set just for a show to run for a couple of weeks and then the set would be taken apart. We saw dozens of pandals while in Kolkata, each with their own theme and unique details. It was great fun. We also saw the Durga statues being put into the river, which was also an interesting experience.
Since my return to Darjeeling from Kolkata, I have noticed a visible uptick in the number of tourists in town. As someone who is a temporary resident here, I find them very irritating. They clog up the streets, making it more difficult and slower for me to get where I need to go and they take up the tables in my favorite cafes. I often have to take a deep breath and remind myself that they are very important to the local economy of Darjeeling and they won’t be here very long. As soon as it really gets cold, they will move on and we will have a couple of months free from them. At the beginning of the tourist season, it was mostly tourists from other parts of India. I had a couple of odd experiences of people thinking I was a local and trying to talk to me in languages I didn’t know from parts of India I have never visited (the most memorable and hilarious of these was a group of elderly South Indian women yelling at me in Tamil). In the last couple of weeks, however, there has been a shift from local tourists to those from abroad, mostly Europe and the United States. It is interesting sitting in a cafe of walking down the street and hearing people speaking German, Spanish, Italian, French, and several other European languages I couldn’t quite identify. This is part of what comes with living in a town that has the main claim to fame of being a tourist attraction. It is interesting how quickly you become irritated with tourists when you aren’t one anymore.