At 4 am on a cold morning in Darjeeling, when Sowmya and Vikram coax their abruptly woken, hastily dressed and volubly protesting four-year-old, Dev, down the wooden stairway, simultaneously juggling an assortment of balaclavas and mufflers and the sweater that Dev refused to put on under his wind-cheater and the bag with the Cadbury bars and Oreo cookies that will hopefully placate any potential tantrums and the mineral water bottles, but not the newly acquired model plane that they don’t yet realise they’ve forgotten in the hotel room in their hurry, past the hotel lobby where the sleepy receptionist barely raises his head to acknowledge them, and finally out into the frigid cold of the street, they find another couple already seated in the white SUV that is supposed to be waiting exclusively for them.
The driver straightens up from the bonnet and smiles apologetically. “Tourist season, sir,” he says in response to Vikram’s questioning gesture, as if that were explanation enough.
Vikram is about to argue, but by then the couple gets out of the car. They’re both young, in their early twenties. They were probably kept in the dark till the last moment too, but they seem to want to make the best of the situation.
“We can just move to the back seat,” the young man offers. “You’ll be more comfortable in the middle row with your child.”
The young man has his arm protectively around the girl to shield her from the cold wind that blows up the street and, as he helps her climb into the back seat, Sowmya notices the intricate henna patterns on her hands and the thick set of red and gold bangles that tinkle at her wrists. Newlyweds, she groans inwardly. That’s all they need this morning—an earful of sweet nothings and a million impromptu photoshoots…and at that last thought she scans the interior of the car with practised mother’s eyes for selfie-sticks and other potential injury hazards to four-year-olds.
The surrounding peaks are still completely lost to the fog, but visibility is not too bad at ground level and, as they drive through the lamp-lit streets, Vikram can see other bundled-up, sleep-drenched families huddling outside hotels or climbing groggily into cars. He suspects a good number of them would be more than happy to be allowed to return to their warm beds. But it is a rare tourist who is not held hostage by an itinerary put together from hundreds of miles away in a burst of holiday fervour, nor chained to the whims of tour operators and package deal offers. And no respectable travel itinerary of Darjeeling can omit a trip to Tiger Hill to catch the sunrise over the Kanchenjunga.
He stares gloomily out of the window. During the day, this place would have been a whole different beast. Streets clogged with honking vehicles, some blocked off for the inevitable protest march or political rally, shoppers and shopkeepers haggling over prayer wheels and Buddha statues and wind chimes in the souvenir shops of Mall Road, waves of tourists washing up at the war memorial at Batasia Loop or at the Ghoom Monastery, hordes landing on the platform of the small railway station to take the obligatory ride on the narrow-gauge ‘Toy Train’. At this hour, however, it is a mellow, slumbering town that presents itself, giving him the distinct sense that the real Darjeeling lies just beyond the reach of grasping outsiders, taking care to keep visitors at arm’s length.
In the meantime, their car joins a growing line of tourist-laden vehicles snaking itsway out of town, headlights aglow on the dark roads, like a candlelight procession for a cause no one is quite sure about.
The shuttered shops of Chaukh Bazaar, deserted ATMs, dark houses with parked motorcycles standing sentinel outside—Sowmya takes in the sights absently, even as her senses are attuned to the couple seated behind them. They seem to be a quiet pair; there is none of the flamboyant display of affection, the saccharine coochie-cooing that she had expected. Thank God, she thinks, a bit too resolutely. In truth, she’s a tad disappointed they’re not living up to her stereotype and sitting, instead, in quiet companionship.
That’s not going to last very long, you know, she thinks, engaging them in imaginary conversation. A couple of months past the honeymoon perhaps, and even if it manages to linger beyond that, just wait till the first child arrives! Whereupon her irritation shifts to Vikram. It’s his fault that they are sharing the taxi. He could have protested at the very least, if not insisted on another taxi. And if they couldn’t find another taxi on time, well, that would have been his fault too. The very fog feels like his fault. It was the first thing he’d mentioned, after all, when she shook him awake at three in the morning.
“Do we really have to go in this weather?” he’d groaned. “I mean, is this sunrise thing such a big deal?”
A few years ago, her answer to that would have been unequivocal, but nowadays she has to fight her way through increasingly heavier layers of inertia to reach that receding former self of hers, who would not have found a few more hours of sleep more luxurious than a sunrise over the Kanchenjunga. The least Vikram can do is not make it even more difficult. Even without Vikram’s griping, it’s been an uphill task trying to get Dev into outdoor clothes and a good mood, and planning for every eventuality, and now she can’t shake off the feeling that they have forgotten something….
“Do so many people go to Tiger Hill every morning?” Vikram asks the driver.
“Yes, sir, every day during the tourist season.”
Vikram looks doubtfully at the foggy sky. “Even on mornings like this?”
They have left the town behind and Sowmya focuses determinedly on the dew-laden pine forests they are now driving through. It seems like everything Vikram says and does and doesn’t say and doesn’t do is aimed chiefly at stoking her irritation.
The driver, though, doesn’t skip a beat. “People come from so far, sir, so who are we to say anything? If we discourage them, and the fog lifts just in time for the sunrise, they will blame us only, no? It is a very beautiful sight, sir, the sunrise over the Kanchenjunga.”
“Where’s my plane?” Dev demands suddenly.
Both Vikram and Sowmya glance at the bags, then at each other, and the instant realisation in their eyes that the plane has been left behind turns immediately to mutual recrimination on multiple levels. The model plane has been a bone of contention for two days now—Sowmya had been against buying it knowing Dev would insist on toting it along wherever they went, but Vikram had given in to Dev’s demand. And now, they have forgotten to bring it along.
Normally, everything would have been in place right about now for the perfect storm. But they can’t afford a scene now, not with the love birds in the backseat.
“How about some cookies first?” Sowmya says quickly, digging in the bag of diversionary treats. “We’re almost there.”
Miraculously, or perhaps because he’s too sleepy to argue, Dev agrees and the crisis is averted, though Sowmya senses a tantrum looming heavily on the horizon.
Up ahead, a huge jam of SUVs forecasts the arrival of the Tiger Hill viewpoint.
Trudging uphill from the parking spot, Vikram gives up trying to keep pace with the young couple who, after all, have the unfair advantage of being unencumbered by bags and kids demanding to be carried. He is out of breath by the time they reach the top of the hill and climb the series of steps up to the observation point. He lowers Dev to the ground and stretches his aching arms.
A large crowd of people has gathered on either side of a large tin shed that seems to serve no particular purpose than to block the view at the viewpoint. Not that it matters, for the view, at the moment, is non-existent. All that can be seen is a white, featureless pall of fog. The Kanchenjunga could as well have picked up and left for more salubrious climes, and nobody here would be any the wiser.
Most people have flocked to the eastern side of the shed, and a woman in a traditional wool skirt and jacket shepherds newcomers to the other side.
“This is where you will see the sun’s rays reflected off the Kanchenjunga,” she assures them.
It also happens to be where she has a small stand with thermoses of tea and coffee. Not that Vikram is complaining. A cup of hot tea is just what he needs.
“5:10 am” is chalked on the signboard that displays the time for the day’s sunrise and sunset. He glances at his watch. Almost 5 am. The sky shows signs of lightening, though the fog shows no inclination to raise the curtains.
Dev’s familiar laugh floats above the general noise and Vikram, carrying two cups of tea over to where they stand beside the railing, smiles to see that Sowmya has engaged him in a game of tongue-twisters.
“Betty-bought-some-butter-but-ter-butter-was…” Dev’s attempts to get the line right invariably dissolve into cascades of giggles at every “butt”.
The model plane is thankfully forgotten.
Over the next ten minutes, there is no perceptible change in the view except for a slight orange tinge to the fog in the east. But, the passing of the stipulated time seems to give the gathered crowd permission to disperse.
Some take pictures of the fog and of themselves against its dubious backdrop. Can’t let that social media post they’ve already mentally composed go to waste, Vikram thinks cynically. All the same, he takes out his own camera. If he’d had his way, they would have stayed at the hotel and avoided the whole drama, but now that they’ve come all the way, they might as well…. Then, he sees the disappointment on Sowmya’s face and feels instantly repentant, his very apathy making him somehow complicit in the turn of events.
Sowmya gazes morosely at the thinning crowd. She glimpses the young couple from the car, standing together by the railing some distance away, laughing and talking, in a world of their own. It doesn’t matter to them, she thinks a tad bitterly, their life is full even without a sunrise over a snow-swept peak.
“Let’s go,” she says to Vikram, taking Dev’s hand.
At the bottom of the steps, a man selling CDs calls out to passers-by, “Sir! Madam! Take a piece of Darjeeling home with you. Sunrise at Tiger Hill…”
She stalks past and keeps walking. Up ahead, there’s a huge snarl of vehicles as numerous bulky SUVs painstakingly try to make a U-turn on the narrow, crowded road and head back the way they came. She glances back and realises she’s lost Vikram in the crowd. Pretty sure that he didn’t go past her, she spots a stone bench and sits down with Dev to wait for him to catch up.
Dev pulls his legs up on the bench, puts his head on her lap. She strokes his hair and, in a minute, he’s fast asleep. Gazing down at his peaceful face, she sees his lips turn slightly, and she finds herself smiling too. Dev will remember Tiger Hill at any rate, she knows, if only for the tongue-twisters.
In a few minutes, Vikram appears and she waves him over.
“He fell asleep, huh?”
“Let’s sit here awhile,” she says. “The car won’t be able to move till this traffic clears up anyway.”
He sits down beside her, gently lifts Dev’s legs and stretches them across his lap. They look at his sleeping form for a moment, and then Vikram reaches over and squeezes her hand. That’s when she sees the CD in his other hand.
“You bought that?” she says, incredulously. She can’t imagine the ever-practical, ever-cynical Vikram falling for such a touristy trinket.
He looks sheepish. “I know, I know, there’ll be a dozen such videos on YouTube. I just thought, you know, maybe we could watch it together, with Dev, back home….”
They look at each other, both simultaneously imagining themselves in their home back in sweltering Chennai, watching, finally, the sun rise over the Kanchenjunga, both simultaneously struck by the absurdity of that image. They burst out laughing, and through it all, Dev remains peacefully asleep.
By the time the thread of vehicles unknots itself, the sky has long lost its amber hue. The sun is higher in the sky and the fog is lifting. The last car is making its way down Tiger Hill when, in the distance, the contours of the mountain begin to emerge.
In a few minutes, the mighty Kanchenjunga appears in its entirety—solid, majestic, placid. As unmoved at being bedecked by the first rays of the sun, as by being shrouded in fog, and by everything in between.
This story was published in the April-June 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was ‘Heat’.