The majestic scenic grandeur of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks, the misty, sleepy tea estates, the British-era toy train that whistles and chugs its way on a zigzag track, make Darjeeling frantically magnetic. It’s hard to name just one thing that I love about this place. Yet, one of my favourite spots during my trips to the ‘Queen of Hills’ has always been Glenary’s, a 1950’s bakery and restaurant that still holds on to its vintage charm. This year, it was even more special.
Moving up the red-carpeted stairway, I headed to the seating area upstairs that offers marvellous views of the valley and mountains. I was waiting for an old friend when the breakfast I ordered was served. The delicious sandwiches and the lemon tart — they tasted just the same for as long as I’ve visited Glenary’s. I can remember my 10 year-old self enjoying these goodies with a generous helping of hot chocolate, which I sometimes traded for the fragrant Darjeeling tea that grown-ups ‘oohed-and-ahhed’ over. But not so easily. “Kids don’t drink tea, tutun” — I was reminded every time I tried coaxing my mother to get me a cup of tea. My college-going older brother, however, was of what was considered a permissible age to order a cup for himself. My good-natured brother would take pity and offer to bribe me some tea under the table…not unless I handed him my lemon tart.
I was lost, deep in thoughts when I was brought back to the present with a tap on my shoulder. It was my friend, Bibek. I was seeing him after three long decades. And, in all these years, he had transformed from a shy Darjeeling boy into a warm and endearing college professor. His crop of greys and silvers flickered in the sunlight and he peeked through his rimless glasses. What didn’t change was the twinkle in his eyes.
Bibek and I met in college when he had come down to Kolkata (then, Calcutta) for higher studies. A friendship that started with exchanging notes grew thicker over the years. Perhaps, my love for tea and Darjeeling played some role in our friendship. On every trip to home, he would always bring back a box of lovely, aromatic Darjeeling tea fresh from the garden, where his father worked as a manager. But he always resisted when my mother offered to make him a cup of the same tea during his evening visits — “That golden brew is for special occasions, for special guests, Mashima. I’m not a guest, am I?”
The only time Bibek accepted a gift from my mother was when he topped his university exams. It was a blue and maroon sweater she had lovingly knitted for him. With winter still some months away, it was a pretty unusual gift for the season — I had joked back then. A week before the first nip in the air arrived that year, my mother passed away. Bibek first wore the sweater during her funeral service.
A particularly memorable time of my life is the summer I spent with Bibek’s family in Darjeeling, following my mother’s death. Her absence gnawed at me, perhaps, the most. Bibek sensed this and literally dragged me with him to Darjeeling. Looking back, that was the best thing he did and I can’t thank him enough.
The tender hospitality and care of his parents coupled with the calming walks through tea gardens and hill treks worked like a restorative potion that helped me heal. Every morning at crack of dawn, I watched the workers making their way to the gardens, picking the young leaves glistening with dew drops as the first rays of the sun peered from behind the mountains. On my last day in the gardens, I was handed a tea gift box set.
The pain of loss wasn’t gone — and will never be — but I emerged out of the darkness, knowing that life must go on. Thereafter, I moved abroad for my research and my contact with Bibek gradually reduced from a couple of phone calls a year to none at all. Six months back, we crossed paths on a social media platform.
Bibek again broke my reverie with a click of his fingers. The golden-orange light of the evening winter sky was descending on the hill slopes, as I looked through the glass windows. He smiled and signalled me to open a packet that he must have slid under my fingers while I was ruminating. A tea selection gift box was unwrapped.
It amazes me how gifts of tea have always arrived to me at such opportune times. But even more amazing is the message that a tea gift box carries: life is worth living, so savour every moment!