By: Sobia Ahsan
I love cities. I feel that most of us who live in cities have a strong connection with the place in one way or the other. Our cities are the location of our experiences, memories and stories, which together, eventually creates a whole new identity and context of the place for every person.
Recently, I got the opportunity to visit a few Tibetan Resettlement areas of North-East India. Although, there are many Tibetan refugee settlements in India including one in Delhi (at Majnu ka Teela), the area where I went was a small town called Sonada which falls in the district of Darjeeling and has similarities and familiarities of terrain and climate to the home of the refugees.
Whenever I visit a new place, I usually confront it with all my senses. I move organically for a while, wherever my senses take my body. I like to remember all that my eyes explore in interesting spaces -the seen and the unseen, entangled with the sounds and that smell of the place. Based on my sensorial experiences, I make a complete mental picture of any city I visit, which is unique to that place – not shared by another.
While preparing the itinerary, I had felt like an enthusiasic tourist eager to explore the beauty of the place, the mountains were calling me and my taste buds were in full swing, imagining the taste of their authentic momos. But somehow at the back of my mind, I felt a trepidation that aside from all the beauty and excitement, I would be encountering a place which had given refuge to people deprived from their real homes. I would be seeing a place, which had been accepted as an alternate home by a community, which would have organized this place to remind them of their streets and spaces back home.
Sometimes, we experience a kind of déjà vu – perceiving things which had always been at the back of our mind or in our memory or in stories we have heard. My experience was somewhat similar.
It was a 2 km walk down to the town of Sonada and it seemed that a lot of layers of the past were embedded in that settlement. From the very small house to the open playground to the people, every part of the place was telling a story of its existence, of being a piece of the community’s collective memory. Tibetans have gone through an agonizing and bitter past resulting in their displacement and so, it was good to see how beautifully they have blended their culture and practices with Indian culture. They have adapted their life style, the architectural vocabulary, the language and whatever was required for them to make a good life in another country. Of course, there are many Tibetan customs they follow, which keep them connected to their roots.
This small town is unique, where the people are simple, smiling, struggling to earn their bread and butter but generous enough to invite you, a stranger for a cup of hot tea – the famous Darjeeling tea. Here, the cool breeze gives you frost bite but a bowl of steaming Wai-Wai at the corner shop of any street will toast your insides! The architecture of buildings here is a significant part of the identity of the place. Although, new construction techniques have taken over the old ones and R.C.C. can be seen everywhere, their traditional symbols are still prevalent in buildings everywhere. The colours and motifs and imagery of Buddhism can be seen painted on community buildings. The primary colors around the town are red, yellow, and blues, which also have cultural importance.
The three colours, the uneven terrain, with houses like Rubik’s cubes stacked one over the other, the main road-towns major spine with a track for a toy train, the vast forest abutting the town, the soothing sounds of the chants of the monks, the ever-present fragrance of tea mingling with the spices of the dumpling sauce and the sweet perfume of flowers – This is what I will remember of the town – this will what will make its memory incomparable to any other town for me.
The time spent there was worth my while given the kind of experience I gained of a town which is unique but which is also changing everyday with youths moving out and a new generation taking over the old.
The journey didn’t end here; I took the opportunity to visit the Tiger Hills. It was a 45 minutes’ drive from the hotel and to reach there on time one must get off at 4:00 am which was not at all an easy task with the temperature as low as minus 4 degrees. But the splendid view of the very first rays of Sun glittering over the peaks of Kanchenjunga, made me forget all..
This was an experience of a life time, meeting people of a different culture, getting to know their history, and exploring a beautiful place, which is beautiful not just because of its natural setting but because of the people inhabiting it.