Kinship With Kalimpong

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It’s not humans alone you fall in love with at first sight. There are places-sometimes almost in your backyard – that could leave you similarly smitten. We recently visited the wondrous Kalimpong town, and were blown away by two of its state-run lodges and their unique environment.

When we got to the Hill Top Tourist Lodge, the sun had just gone down behind the hills. The dim lights on the lawn had come on. Getting down from the car, I could not take my eyes away from the hotel building. The silence, the wintry breeze, the dim-lit spacious room much bigger than a typical modern day flat, exuded an unseen presence that befriended me at once.

After an early dinner, other members chose to retire to their respective rooms, while my friend Asis and I took a stroll in the adjoining garden mottled with shadows thrown by pine trees. It was around nine in the evening when to my delight I heard a very sweet yet sad birdcall. Kalimpong is not exactly known for its birds. The call was an array of tweets – woo-woo, woo-woo, woo-woo – and very haunting. The sense of time and space had escaped me by then. With pregnant pauses in between, it went on for half an hour. It was as though the bird was courting.

I asked my travel-geek friend: “Do you know what it is?”

“Oh, it’s the Boreal Owl”, he said. “It’s breeding season. You’re lucky to be here at this time of the yea They usually nest in tree holes in mountainous terrain. They’re shy by nature. You can only manage to see a flash of chocolate brown during their noiseless flight.”

Next morning, we were off to Morgan House, no more than a few minutes drive away from our hotel. Just opposite the mansion there’s this vast army golf ground. At first, we were denied entry since we had no reservation there. But when we mentioned the lodge we were staying at, the guard let us in.

Although the hotel was full to its capacity, there was no one on the paths leading to the bungalows and cottages scattered around the sprawling premises.

Just as Agra is characterised by its domed Mughal architecture, Kalimpong’s British-era buildings like the one at Delo, the Hill Top and Morgan House lodges all have a gothic, quaint touch that will remind you of the mythical house in The haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. The distinct personality of Morgan House bordering on the supernatural is enhanced by the old chimneys sticking out of the pointed arches.

It had belonged to a Briton named George Morgan who married an indigo plantation owner and lived here for some time before the marriage went sour and Lady Morgan died in mysterious circumstances. People of the area believe that her footsteps are occasionally heard on the corridor.

In the back garden, a statue of Lord Buddha shaded by a few sprightly cacti soothed my spirits. As I was on my way back after making a spiritual bond with the ‘spooky’ bungalow and its enchanting surroundings, something strange happened. A beautiful dotted butterfly appeared apparently from the hillside and stationed itself right in front of me as if urging me to stay for a little while longer. All the coaxing and cajoling was of no use. It just refused to budge. We then photographed it. That done, it reluctantly fluttered away. Later, I wondered if it was perhaps my best friend Raman who had recently passed away battling against the most dreaded disease.

I long to head back, if only to be with the owl at the Hill Top Tourist Lodge, its musical chirrup rising out of the gathering dark; the impalpable, other-worldly presence at the Morgan House; and of course the sight of the Kanchenjunga in all its splendour.

First Published in The Statesman

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