The Land Rover worked its way up Tiger Hill. The driver regaled us with his stories of working as an extra in Bollywood films that were often shot there. It was four in the morning and there was a sharp nip in the air. Soon my family – my parents, my brother and I were on the top of the hill. Kanchenjunga rose majestically into the sky, Sikkim was in front, and at its farthest end was Jelap-la, the pass into Tibet. To the left, Everest barely peeped out. The tour guide pointed out the direction of the Khyber and Bolan passes. One could imagine all the people that had penetrated the formidable mountain barrier, coming through the passes since antiquity, only to change the course of history in India. Somewhere beyond the horizon lay China. It may not have been the summit of Everest but it felt like being on the top of the world. Sunrise on Tiger Hill in Darjeeling was one of the highlights of my childhood. A time when life was lived in the present moment, and what a moment that was – to see the glory of the Himalayas at the break of dawn.
Darjeeling is the backdrop of a book by the same name by Bharti Kirchner, a writer from Seattle. Kanchenjunga, painted on the sky, coniferous trees, and “hillsides splashed with rhododendrons” is the setting for this story. It is a tale of two sisters and the love-hate relationship that can often exist between sisters. Tea is also an important ingredient of this story – the growing, the marketing and the making of it. Rivalry, anger and passion add to form a wild cocktail that tears the sisters apart and inflicts irreparable damage on their lives.
Aloka Gupta is a successful journalist in New York, writing for the publication “Manhattan India”. She writes articles and dispenses wisdom for an advice column under the pseudonym of “Seva”. She is a source of comfort to lonely immigrants from the sub-continent as she gives advice on relationships, and provides information ranging from locating a Hindu priest to ordering vegetarian food. She loves her job but her marriage is over. Her husband Pranab wants out, even though she still wants him. Theirs is not the average breakup, though. It is a saga that is filled with intrigue and passion that had begun several years ago in Darjeeling.
Aloka Gupta gazed down from the window of her apartment at the gray-brown bustle of Manhattan’s Fifty-second Street, her thoughts turning to her childhood home and the family-owned tea plantation in Darjeeling. Urged on by the chill of the short autumn days, the tea plants were now forming their third flush of tender shiny leaves, lending a tantalizing fragrance to the crisp mountain air. Eight years earlier, her life and love, like the bumblebees flitting from bud to bud, had been entwined with those bushes.
Aloka’s ancestors had come on horseback in the 1800s and established a tea plantation in Darjeeling. Her father Bir has been successfully running the business for thirty years and has won many tea awards from the Tea Board of India. As the eldest child in the family, Aloka is given all the traditional honors by the family, much to the chagrin of her younger sister Sujata who resents playing second fiddle. The workers in the tea plantation call Aloka the “tea memsahib”. Into this tranquil scenario Pranab the charismatic new manager steps in to dramatically affect all of their lives. Rebellious and idealistic he wants a new order at the plantation. He foments unrest among the obsequious workers, inciting them to fight for their rights as employees – for adequate pay and medical care.
Matters become complicated when Aloka meets him and falls in love with him. She feels disloyal to her father, but she cannot help herself, and they get engaged. To add insult to injury, when Aloka is away at a wedding, the artistic Pranab – dancer and tabla player impresses Sujata and has an affair with her. The family soon gets to know of their clandestine meetings at Senchal Lake, and Sujata is banished to Canada. Aloka, desperately in love still wants to marry him despite her father Bir’s entreaties to break the engagement. Matters come to a head when the workers riot, and Aloka and Pranab flee together to begin a life in New York City.
Now ten years later, Aloka and Sujata’s grandmother who they call “ThakurMa”, literally, “God Mother” invites them to her eightieth birthday celebration in Darjeeling. Aloka is apprehensive about going back and reopening old wounds. Besides, she has not told anyone about her divorce. Her relationship with her sister has cooled and Sujata can be of no help to her. To make matters worse, now that Pranab is single, he wants to renew his relationship with Sujata who is a successful tea merchant in Victoria, BC. The three characters make their way back to Darjeeling into a hornet’s nest of tension. But this time the sisters are older and wiser and not so vulnerable.
You can tell that multi-talented Bharti Kirchner, a former engineer, was originally a prize-winning cookbook author. The theme of food runs through the novel with vivid descriptions of dishes. When ThakurMa wants the sisters to reconcile and spend time together, she orders them to prepare “channer payesh” a cheese pudding dessert that is so time consuming to prepare that the corner shop doesn’t make it any more. As the sisters stir the milk over a stove they finally start to communicate with each other. The novel is generously sprinkled with Bengali words, some translated, and some not. The author is a good writer of prose, and she portrays the complexity of family relationships quite accurately. However, despite the exotic background and intensity of the story line, the plot seems weak and the novel muted. Some of the characters though real, lack depth. It is a good book for a light summer read, particularly if you are nostalgic for Darjeeling.