Where the sun never quite set on the Empire

In Darjeeling the last tea planter still sips pink gins at his club. But, as Sophie James discovered, satellite TV and the Spice Girls are just around the corner

Sophie James
Saturday 09 August 1997 23:02 BST

IN DARJEELING, in the middle of the endless green valleys of the Himalayan foothills, British tourists promenade across the Mall, as much at home as if this was a Bank holiday weekend in Buxton or Polzeath. They walk beside the slim, Lilliputian rails of the famous toy train, enthusiastically inspecting ledges of potted primulas and orchids belonging to the brightly painted box-cottages which line the train's route. The air is fresh, and the clarity of light excellent. If it wasn't for the Nepalese school children, or the donkeys who sit idly by, this would be a summer fete in an English provincial town.

Noticeably, not everyone is as comfortable. Indian tourists from the plains cluster in groups on the ridge, chilled by the hill-climate and overwhelmed by the scale of the mountains which surround them. Tour leader- led groups of Italians complain that there is nothing to do. The town is full of peeling Tudor buildings and bad taste gothic. In the wainscoted parlour at the Windermere hotel for five o'clock tea - tomato sandwiches and Madeira cake, served to the accompaniment of their resident lady-pianist, determinedly drumming "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" - a contingent of French travellers, looking forward to their evening meal of bubble-and- squeak, acidly write on postcards to home: "Mon Dieu! Je suis en Angleterre!"

A world away from West Bengal, of which it is officially part, Darjeeling is still content to consider itself more English in spirit than Indian. But this, it's very clear after only a few days here, is neither a legacy of the Raj nor an accident of history. Darjeeling, I am consistently told, is a unique bubble where, while the characters have changed - tea planters replaced by a cosmopolitan mix - the stage and the play haven't. From a retreat for the British, Darjeeling has simply become a sanctuary for the deserving. And these deserving - local Sherpas and Lepchas, immigrants from Sikkim and Nepal, the refugees from Tibet - have always, I'm promised, shared more in common with Victorian and Edwardian England: a sense of modesty, decency, respect for service and duty, a slight snobbery, with a charming dry sense of humour.

When I met up with my Nepalese guide, he was quick to list proof of Darjeeling's superiority. Compare, he told me, Darjeeling to Simla. These were once the two great spoiled children of the British Raj, hill station retreats framed with sweet Alpine vistas and twee Tudor beams, constantly fed a social diet of croquet, teas, dinners and dances. But Simla was always the worldly sister, full of Vice-regal self-importance, tales of adultery and political profit. Darjeeling was a place of tender romances and harmless tea-planters' gossip. Simla - poor belle - has grown up into a terrifying adolescent, gasping for tourist profits, pushing up more and more hotels on her slopes, in the summer as unpleasantly congested as Leicester Square. But Darjeeling - cool, gentle, coquettishly veiled by mist - is still the charmed spoiled child, delighting to refer back to itself in a hundred naive, nostalgic interpretations.

This is not the false romancing of a town. Ignore what other foreign visitors can't - poor roads, ugly modern architecture - and Darjeeling is a considerable, though slow and sleepy, pleasure. It's not a place to feel guilty about the Raj. I was free to roam around the town, pointing to the local tourist attractions and identifying personal historic references. I had come here partly on pilgrimage, and my guide encouraged me. This is the ballroom at the Gymkhana Club where my aunt first fell in love; here is the convent where my mother developed a chi-chi accent; here is Lakrajh's, the tailor shop where my grandmother ordered yards of silk, always expecting the durzi to have a dress ready in a day. The British are always welcome.

The Indians, apparently, are not. "We're the forgotten state," my guide explained with some pleasure and added, referring to the on-going independence movement for the Darjeeling district and displaying a widespread antagonism towards the plains: "You see, people from the plains think I'm Taiwanese, even Korean. But now I hardly ever visit the plains, so hot and unclean and anyway...", he had struggled for a metaphor, and eventually brushed the crumbs down from the table where he sat, "...who wants to live down on the floor with all that dirt?" And the forgotten state is a landscape far removed from the plains. The sloping hills are dotted with Muslim prayer flags and monastery cupolas; refugee Tibetan children in tea-cosy hats run freely on the ridge, retired Gurkha officers show off their old uniforms. In the early morning, you can watch as the pearly dawn over the hilly borders of China, Sikkim and Tibet is welcomed by worshipping Buddhists standing side-by-side with elderly men practising their yoga.

Occasionally resident white faces are glimpsed: the five Irish nuns who remain teaching at the Loreto Convent, still admitting to homesickness and who nod sadly when I remind them how my mother, a pupil at the convent, can remember their blue eyes filling with tears on St Patrick's day while singing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling". Or the last British tea planter, idiosyncratic in his white skin and Indian mannerisms and certainly more comfortable sipping pink gins at the Planters' Club than he would be shopping in Waitrose.

It is not the British who are the most nostalgic. At the Windermere hotel, the elderly, elegant Tibetan proprietress, Madame Tenduf La - petite in traditional dress and approached by everyone with a bow or a curtsy - runs her hotel according to an anachronistic system. Modest portions served at compulsory mealtimes ("You'd think there's a war on ...") and surprise hot water bottles plunged into your bed before you retire. Each evening, after supper, guests are ushered by endearing Gurkha guards to their rooms - to protect them from what one is never sure - and horror, there are no personal telephones or televisions. At tea time - five o'clock in the parlour - Madame can be seen, with a Tibetan twinkle in her eye, explaining how she keeps away the tourist riff-raff from the plains. "They never get up in time, so are always hungry. They have to watch television, so are always bored. Of course, we never make concessions."

Slowly, very slowly, things are changing. Glimpses of modernity provide a fascinating sport, the sentimental mixing with the startlingly new. The satellite dish is creeping up the valley and becoming a familiar sight among the magnolia and rhododendron trees. More disconcertingly, the 13- and 14-year-old girl pupils at my mother's old Loreto Convent - blue and red pinafores, virginal faces - can be heard on their way uphill to classes, singing in their soft Irish accents picked up from the Irish nuns teaching them, that modern classic "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls. To the wrath of the Secretary of the Planters' Club, the first woman tea- manager has just been appointed ("But look how the influence of women in England has devalued the pound!") and at dawn on Tiger Hill - promoted as that quintessential romantic experience, the moment of light over Kachenjunga - the sunrise itself is eclipsed by the sensation of a hundred Kodak flashes.

All this goes to prove that Darjeeling has not become a heritage experience, like those to be found in York or Stratford. There is no Visitor Centre at the Gymkhana Club. Darjeeling is the real thing, a living spirit. Off the normal tourist track, away from the cramped toy train and the camera- fest at Tiger Hill, residents will gladly pass the time of day. Trace the grandchildren of Tensing Norgay and they will proudly lead you around the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. This is a genteel society.

I came to Darjeeling partly on pilgrimage. My grandfather had a plantation below the town and, on my final day, I sought out the last British tea- planter there, wanting to know if he could remember him. Self-conscious to the last, it was a perfect confirmation of how the town still operates. Over six gins at the Planters' Club I was led through two generations of local and personal history, culminating in the revelation: was I aware that my grandfather had an Anglo-Indian family, a Nepalese love child or two, tucked away in the tea bushes? And that was Darjeeling in a nutshell: everyone has a story to tell, an anecdote, a romantic memory - or simply, harmless local tea planters' gossip.

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