India 2008: School Days

One cup is all it takes. Not just any cup, though, a cup of Darjeeling. Black, with lemon, milk, it doesn’t matter. It transports me back a quarter of a century to a whitewashed stone building on a hillside near Kurseong, in the Darjeeling district, where I lived with boys in blue blazers, navy–and–light blue ties, gray trousers.

From the balconies of that stone building, I wondered every morning at Kanchenjunga’s magnificent snowy peak suspended above the clouds and looked down on lush green tea gardens and hillsides forested with pine trees. Hillsides where leeches slipped under our clothes to unleash a sticky trickle of blood, apparently unstoppable thanks to the enzymes in their saliva. We schoolboys knew this sort of thing, like we knew that the Toy Train, the miniature steam locomotive that chugged its way along the road below the school, had been made in England nearly a century earlier. Even if we didn’t know that breakfast porridge could be made of oats instead of semolina. It was Darjeeling, not Scotland.

Cup in my hand, memories flood back: of some of the purest air in the world, of a night sky that teemed with stars because we were nearly 5,000 feet up, miles from any town or light pollution. On holidays, rather than watch television, I read books outdoors, went for walks in mist-shrouded woods, clambered over rocks and waterfalls, watched the sun creep across mountains so close I could almost touch them, then slipped down into Kettle Valley for a swim in the cold, cold mountain spring–fed stream.

Harry Potter’s Hogwarts it wasn’t, nor an English-style public school for the seriously moneyed. My schoolfellows and I were the sons of doctors, lawyers, and bank managers, who were doing well but not expecting to leave their sons large inheritances. A school, in other words, preparing the next generation of the Indian middle class—the rising, shining, spending class of today. In those days, though, the country wasn’t booming. Cars were relics from the fifties or earlier, calculators were expensive, television hadn’t reached the hills. India was slower, quieter then, and few places were slower or quieter than our school, Goethals Memorial, named for the first Catholic archbishop of Calcutta, a Belgian. In Bengal yet not in Bengal, Darjeeling district is an anomaly, a Nepali-speaking hill tract ceded to the British by the kings of Sikkim.

The main industry is still tea. Can it be that leaves from the very gardens (as the plantations are called) I tramped through in childhood are in my cup? Can they really be from the acres of neat, waist-high shrubs we tumbled past on our boisterous way to town for bowls of noodles, sticky fruit buns, and tandoori chicken?

I went back a couple of years ago to see what it’s like now. The tea gardens are still there, flourishing. The school is there, too, with a few new buildings and the boys in square-cut blazers, ties, and polished black shoes. So are the views down into the deep valley, eagles soaring over the river.

Only it isn’t the same. There are over a dozen schools now—nearly one on every corner, in fact—and hordes more boys in new uniforms. Internet and e-mail have replaced days-old cuttings on a notice board and letters to faraway families once a week. The boys today know what’s happening out in the wide, wide world, where India is waking to global economic power. Their childhood innocence isn’t mine; 21st-century cars climb the narrow, steep roads that were navigable in my day only by Jeep and the rickety school jalopy nicknamed The Rocket because it was anything but.

Momos, steamed dumplings of meat and potato (more potato than meat), eight for a rupee, available on credit round the corner from Tuck Shop. I bet they don’t pay that nowadays.

Amal Chatterjee is the author of Representations of India, 1740–1840 and the novel Across the Lakes.