Travel: A pot of Panighatta for two

Sophie James joins her mother on a pilgrimage to the tea garden in India where she grew up

Sophie James
Sunday 07 November 1999 00:02 GMT

Mum and I are sitting in a jeep on the old Darjeeling road, and we have just had our first argument. We are lost, trying to find Panighatta, the tea plantation in India where she grew up all those years ago.

We've negotiated the endless tendrils of planters' tracks that flow from the hills down across the Terai plains, past Kurseong and through Siliguri. I might have been able to relax a bit if Teddy, the last British planter in Darjeeling, hadn't been so lavish with the gin measures at the Planters Club the previous evening.

Mum is back in India for the first time in years. She's 63 now and has not set eyes on her tea garden since she was 17. "Just relax," she says to me. "It's an adventure."

It's certainly that. We'd only gone to Teddy for advice. "I remember your father," he told Mum. "A pioneer, very hardworking. But he liked the ladies. For all you know you've probably got brothers living in those hills. Don't let it bother you, everyone did it. But watch out for the present planter. They call him the last tiger of Panighatta."

Mum doesn't let any of it bother her, although the phones are down and we will have to arrive at the tiger's without warning. The trip is really opening up her pioneering spirit. She's in cahoots with our Nepali driver and together they have a picnic from our Windamere Hotel packed away somewhere. If we're on the right road, she says, we should soon come to the Bengdubi, the old club. She talks nostalgically of tea, dancing, cards and tennis.

The jeep pulls up at an empty, boarded-up mock Tudor building. The nets are missing from the overgrown tennis courts and three cows, chained to one of the net posts, are chewing the tennis-lawn cud. "Your grandmother would approve. She hated tennis."

I was wrong: it's not nostalgia, more like excitement. It's just as she said it was. Down a seemingly eternal flat stretch of track is a dilapidated entrance: Panighatta, at last. Mum loses 30 years and leaps out of the jeep. Above her father's old office the Communist flag is flying, and a hammer and sickle are painted on the wall. Indignant tears well up in her eyes. The Victorian grotto designed by her mother has been turned into a shrine to the Hindu god Ganesh. Incense smoke curls from his trunk and he stares at her in peeling ceramic defiance. "Very New Age," she murmurs.

A man appears, stares at us, then lispingly asks: "Are you lost? If you want tea, you must go to the market." This, it turns out, is the present planter, the last tiger of Panighatta. He is, however, toothless. After civil introductions, we settle on his verandah for tea and within minutes the tiger in him pounces: "So! Coming back after all those years, eh? Coming to check on your father's garden? Women travelling by themselves." And with a bizarre rhetorical leap: "But look what Thatcher did to the pound!"

It's clear he doesn't want us to see round the estate. It's increasingly warm, his hostility is thirst-making, and Grandpa's tea is, well, undrinkable. Mum finally admits that only the bull-terrier actually drank it. When they weren't drinking gin, everyone had coffee. But with tigerish prescience, his parting gift to us is two kilos of the stuff. After final handshakes Mum chucks it in the back of the jeep like an old football.

We leave, but my mother now has another plan. Her aim is to get to the hill and the bungalow where she lived for so long. We've seen this shiny gem with its corrugated-tin glint on the road from Darjeeling. Down the road into the next village is another entrance, once a short cut for drunken assistants coming back from the Bengdubi. Let's sneak in that way, she says.

Not unreasonably, we attract stares. Maybe, I interject, this isn't such a cool idea, after all. Workers crowd round and Mum waves at them. Among the tea bushes we spy remarkably pale-skinned, red-haired children. My grandfather had ginger hair and Mum gives me a knowing look: "Don't let it bother you, everybody did it."

In front of us lies a 1,000ft hill and up the side of it snakes an unused steep track. The driver stops and contemplates the challenge. He examines the jeep but before he has time to set off a large family has jumped in the back, squeezing in all around us.

"Okay?" calls the driver. The jeep aches up the hill and the children constantly get out to resurface the road with dislodged stones. Just when I think we'll have to abort the mission, a stupendous view opens up. A broad sweep of plain towards Calcutta, a vast river-bed, dry and grey, and then the foothills, rising towards Darjeeling and Sikkim. The sky is unlimiting, not an English spire, suburb or supermarket in sight. To me it is unfamiliar and disorientating. To Mum it is home.

The bungalow, however, is a different matter. It has fallen down, been patched up and fallen down again. She walks around it, peering into empty rooms, but stops abruptly at the front flowerbed. Half hidden in weeds is an enamel object. It looks like a horse trough. "My bath tub!" Mum exclaims. We dig it out. I expect her to crack with a flood of nostalgia, but instead she hurries round the bungalow like a Butlin's manager: "Just here I had my first fag behind the godown when I was 10; over there my elder sister used to get off with Dad's assistants; that room was the study where Papa retreated to read Winnie-the-Pooh when the Japanese invaded Burma." Out of England Mum has become a wilful, rebellious child once more with an exotic, imperial childhood. I had no idea. I keep thinking: you can take the child out the Raj but you can't take the Raj out of the child.

She has caught the scent again. She is off with the driver down the slope. On a ledge below the bungalow are thatched houses from which an old man emerges. He is introduced to Mum and suddenly they are chatting like old friends. He was her head bearer. He is now 89. His family are summoned and we are surrounded, wives quivering, babies handed back and forth. "Do you really remember him?" I ask. "Only vaguely, darling," she replies. "But it doesn't really matter, does it? It's the gesture that counts."

She begins to share our picnic. "I'm glad Daddy didn't see this," she says. "He'd have kicked up hell about that track." Meanwhile, the women regard our Windamere sandwiches with suspicion - they think their squishy interiors are harbouring salmonella.

Mum tells more stories from the past: the time on the plains when she met a real tiger face-to-face - they both ran off in opposite directions; the time her pony threw her into a group of wild pigs; and the night she woke up to find a family of spiders running across her naked belly. "You wouldn't have liked it darling," my Mum says airily. "You faint at spiders, you're allergic to cats." No, possibly my generation would be bamboozled by her stories. We're more used to back-packing than dropping in on grand tea gardens and clubs.

The jeep sneaks out of the same back entrance and, if the tiger of Panighatta was told we were leaving, he has decided not to prowl this time. Mum snoozes as we head back to Darjeeling. The two kilos of tea roll around in the jeep and just when I think the trip's over she wakes up with a last shiny spark in her pilgrim's eye: we've arrived at the Gymkhana Club - and books.

They were tremendously bored out in the sticks and took vast quantities of literature to read in their bungalows. The library was their refuge. The Gymkhana now is faded mock Tudor, leased for private parties. The library, possibly because no one goes there, is immaculate, though dusty; high wooden shelves house long-forgotten titles: Selina is Older and Towers of Trebizond. In front of the crime thrillers, Mum stands still: she's spotted The Black Thumb, her favourite book in those days. Cheesy plots in soft-orange hardback, she'd read them all.

Sure enough, her name is on the library stubb, just below, I am thrilled to notice, the Maharaja of Cooch Bihar who last read the book in 1957. She fingers the book lovingly as the librarian announces: "Five minutes." And my mother, who until a few days ago was just an ordinary tourist, asks me to stand guard under the collected Churchill while she places the book in her bag. "Mum!" I exclaim.

"They're not going to miss it," she says coolly. "Don't worry, we'll give them a whacking donation."

We walk past the librarian, the ballroom, down the teak staircase, then break into a run, childish, guilty, free. She's probably more at home here than anywhere she knows back in England.

For five days she had been her own bounty hunter. So, is it worth going back? I know what she'd say. Now it's me who stands lost and disorientated like Alice in an Indian wonderland.

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