Friday, January 31, 2014

Alipore Zoo: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly - a latest report

The Alipore Zoological Gardens in Kolkata has a massive emotional and nostalgic significance in my life. From as far as my memory serves me, Alipore Zoo has been the most quintessential place of my childhood frolics. My fascination with animals and the homely surrounding of this menagerie is perhaps the reason that I kept coming back to visit the zoo even as I grew up. I never bothered that others thought that it was rather juvenile to visit a zoo even in your 20s, as I could never hold myself back from visiting it time and again.

Back in 2011, I had come here as a journalist to report on how and why the Alipore Zoo was dying. It pained me to see the levels it had sunk too; political flags surrounding its entry gates, the zoo being held to ransom by political goons, animals being reportedly stolen from their cages and several of them not being looked after properly. Frankly, it was quite evident then that the authorities were not taking sufficient care to maintain the zoo efficiently.

A few weeks back I got a chance to visit the Alipore Zoo yet again. Having heard of the many ‘changes’ that the zoo has brought in to initiate its new development process, I was keen to have a first-hand account of those supposed changes. Over my stay of around four hours there, I closely scrutinized the various parts of the zoo and came to my conclusion.

I am presenting my views in the classical way. Here are my observations on the good, the bad and the ugly of the Alipore Zoo as of 2014.

The Good

Glass enclosure: There is absolutely no doubt that the new glass enclosure for the Royal Bengal Tiger is ‘the’ main attraction of the zoo currently. Since the time it has been announced, it has created quite a buzz and people were thronging this enclosure like bees do for their hive. Does the glass enclosure then live up to its hype? Thankfully yes.

The glass enclosures are quite a norm in zoos from the Western countries. This one, if I am not wrong, is probably the first one in India. And yes, it is indeed quite good. You have to enter a spacious shed first which houses this glass enclosure. And the first sight that catches your sight then is quite stunning. The lair of the King is as magnificent as the animal itself. Replete with a small waterfall which falls into a pool-like space filled with water for the animal to drink, the spacious enclosure also has verdant foliage, bamboo plants, good amount of rocks and a cave like seating arrangement for the tiger. It seems quite splendid and should bode well for the tiger to make him feel ‘almost’ at home.

The real thrill though is the pleasure of watching a Royal Bengal Tiger, without any nasty nets and grills obstructing your view. Although I didn't get to view the tiger from close by, I did see it resting in its shed comfortably. The glass panel looks quite solid and there is no evident danger of it being broken down by the animal. Overall, two big thumbs up for this new glass enclosure.

Mechanical entry gates: This area had been under construction for nearly three years. It was quite a relief thus to see these new mechanical entry gates which has really made a massive difference in controlling the crowd outside the main gate of the zoo.

With more than a dozen of these in operation, I did not even have to wait for two minutes to get inside the zoo despite a sizeable crowd being present there. The area is large and the ticket counters too have increased which helps in managing the crowd. Hopefully, it will remain this way.  

Open-air vans: Although this vehicle is just for the elderly at present, but it is a good addition to the zoo nonetheless. I had seen similar battery-operated cars in the Nandankanan Zoo in Orissa, and to see it here in Kolkata was pleasing. These six –seater vehicles are pollution-free and will really help many of the senior citizens relish the zoo experience.  

Children: There is something endearing in the sight of a child sitting on the shoulders of his father or grandfather and seeing him/her having a great time. There were plentiful of similar scenes like these in the Alipore Zoo. These are views which I have witnessed throughout my life and have myself been a part of as well. It was thus heartening to see children gaping in wonder at the animals in the cages. 

Frankly, no zoo can claim to be a genuine one unless it attracts children (not the pesky ones who bawl away at the top of their lungs though). Alipore Zoo, thankfully, has managed to do that successfully over the past many decades and continues to do so even now.

The Bad

Inadequate enclosure space: The most basic thing that we can provide an animal in a zoo is sufficient space for it to roam around. Sadly, it is the very thing in which Alipore is lacking behind cardinally. Apart from the newly launched glass enclosure, almost all the other enclosures have less than adequate space for the respective animals. 

Be it the elephants, the bears, the alligator, the deer, the birds or the other big cats as well; the enclosures of the animals are alarmingly small and grungy. They are very compact and do not allow the animals to move freely. This is something that I had reported on two years back. Sadly, the situation remains the same. Moreover, most of the enclosures were filthy and probably had not been cleaned in days. The authorities have to understand that insufficient moving space and lack of cleanliness leads to unnatural beahviour among the animals and eventually limits their lives.

Lack of security personnel:  When I was moving about in the initial area of the zoo, I was pleased to find a few security guards roaming around the cages. However, as I moved further I found the crowd thickening and the number of guards gradually slimming down. There were many cages, outside which the crowd created a ruckus and intervention by guards is essential in these cases to control the unruly ones. The guards are also needed to guide you in the correct direction. Alipore Zoo is gigantic and many a times I needed to know where a certain cage was located.  Unfortunately, due the lack of security personnel, I had to make use of the Ice-cream vendors. This was the same case with several other visitors.

Food: Now one is not asking for palatial restaurants offering delectable delicacies inside the zoo premises, but one does wish to eat a decent meal whilst inside. That is something which is alarmingly missing from the Alipore Zoo. While it has only one genuine restaurant to speak of, the food inside was just about edible. Though they charge you almost at par with any renowned restaurant, the quality of the food is extremely shoddy. The other eatery inside the zoo is an open-air restaurant which offers everything from dosas to chow mein to chole bhature . However, the food quality again is horrible. If you want to avoid these, then you can always go for the low-quality, badly fried, but highly priced patties and chips. If you are however looking to eat a satisfactory meal inside the Alipore Zoo, my advice is that you better survive on water for the day.

The Ugly

The Crowd: As is the case with our country, it is mostly the common man, the ‘aam junta’, who is responsible for taking our country to deplorable heights. The same also applies to Alipore Zoo; as the crowd of visitors here is primarily responsible to bring it to this atrocious state.

From disturbing animals by shouting and throwing food and other items at them, to openly flouting all disciplinary norms set by the authorities; the crowd at the Alipore Zoo does it all. They have a gala time here by eating their home-cooked food, playing games and dancing inside the seating area and by spreading litter to all possible corners of the zoo. It is an ugly sight to witness visitors coming in hordes and spitting and peeing at different corners. The lack of tight security allows the crowd to behave this way and it is ultimately the overall ambience of the zoo that suffers. 

The Alipore Zoo is a significant part of Kolkata’s heritage and nostalgia. Unless we behave responsibly and take care of it, we can never expect the authorities to do the same either.

It goes without saying that the Alipore Zoo has to learn from other better zoos and inculcate its finer aspects. Before it does that however, it should try and improve on the facilities it already has and transform itself into a world class menagerie. Having a good amount of people thronging in your premises doesn’t mean that you would cease to better your services. Unless it starts doing that, the Alipore Zoo would forever remain a mediocre affair.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, the Alipore Zoo has massive emotional and nostalgic meaning in my life. Thus, I can never ignore it. I have and will continue visiting it till the time I am in this city. The next time I visit the zoo; I would try and pen another report. And at that time, I wish, the Good would be the only elements I would write about. The Bad and the Ugly would hopefully be buried deep under the cage of the Royal Bengal Tiger.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Darjeeling Adventure (Part - 2)

(Presenting the second and final part of my escapades in Darjeeling. This is a maxi-post and I would beseech you to be patient whilst reading it. Hopefully you would enjoy it half as much as I did while writing it. )

The streets below me bubbled with feverish energy, while the mountains beyond, in complete contrast, looked magnificent yet calm. Standing on the balcony of my hotel room, I observed the surroundings peacefully. It was 10.30 am and I was waiting for my friend to come out from the bathroom. We had to now go to the Darjeeling Zoo; the main purpose of our visit here.  

The hotel we had got was quite good; it wasn’t palatial and neither was it shoddy, but quite reasonable. It hadn’t taken us much time to agree to this room; the moment we saw the attached balcony in it and the decent ambience of the room, we immediately agreed to it.

After getting ready, I and my friend decided to order lunch from the hotel’s room service- piping hot aaloo paratha with dahi and pickles. It wasn’t particularly great, but we were quite famished from all that travelling and thus ate savagely. Having a long day lying ahead of us we really needed to be well fed.


Being new to the city, we were clueless of its whereabouts and thus had to ask around for directions to the zoo. We were told that it was just 10 minutes of walking distance from our hotel. However, as we were to find out later, we had to walk a good half an hour to reach our destination. I didn’t mind that though. The pleasant weather, even at 12 pm, and the pretty milieu made the walk a rather enjoyable experience.

It was the first time I was in this city and as I looked at the people and the places with keen interest. I felt like that child who had been taken to the fair for the first time in his life. The high and steep roads were a tad difficult to climb and we had to huff and puff for the most part of our walk.

The Zoo experience

(My observations of the zoo are based on my visit there in October 2012. I do not know if things are still the same there currently.)

‘Welcome to the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park’- these words greeted us as we entered the Darjeeling Zoo. Visiting zoos has always excited me since my childhood and I have visited quite a few in my life; from the local Alipore Zoo in Kolkata, to the Jaipur and Udaipur ones in their respective cities. But none really compared to the one I had entered in now.

To say that the Darjeeling Zoo is beautiful would be a gross understatement. Nestled among lush green Japanese pine trees, the zoo was astonishingly spick and span and had nice looking and properly covered resting sheds installed at various points throughout for visitors’ convenience. More importantly, as we noted later, the enclosures for the animals and birds were satisfyingly spacious; something which is alarmingly missing from most of the zoos in India. The animals too looked well fed and content in their surroundings. It really seemed that they had been genuinely taken care of.

At an elevation of 2,134 m, the Darjeeling Zoo is the largest high altitude zoo in India, and thus wandering around it wasn’t quite easy. However, just looking at the wide array of beautiful animals and birds in their cages was worth everything. Being from the colder regions, all the animals were expectedly furry and quite bulky in their appearance.

Of course, coming to the Darjeeling Zoo and missing the Red Panda is unthinkable as it is something that the zoo specializes in breeding. Hence, it was the first animal we visited. For such a small animal, its cage was quite capacious. At first we had difficulty in spotting the animal what with so much green in the enclosure. Soon enough, I noticed the cute and cuddly animal, which I had first seen in the animated ‘Jungle Book’ series in my childhood, scurrying around in the grass. It had a few others of its ilk for company as well in its enclosure. It was truly hard to take your eyes off these gorgeous creatures; the small and round face, the colourful markings on its body and all that fur. I could have sat there and spent my entire day watching the mannerisms of these fascinating animals, but I had plenty of work left to do.

While we walked around, we got to see plenty of other animals which we had never seen before; from Himalayan Antelopes, to Himalayan Tahr (a species of the wild goat family), Blue sheep and Barking deer to some of the more ferocious animals like the Sloth Bear, Himalayan Wolf, Snow Leopard and even the Black Panther. However of most interest to me was the Siberian Tiger. I had only seen this magnificent animal in BBC documentaries and to see it breathing inches away from me was awe-inspiring. Its thick coat of yellow and white gleamed in the sunlight as it chose to ignore all the attention given to it like a high-profile superstar, and was busy licking its paws. I had to tear my eyes away from it as I suddenly realized that considerable time had now elapsed in our small excursion. I had other matters to attend to before the zoo would shut down for the day.


“We have plenty of educational and research programmes in our zoo,” explained Upasana, the 30 something research scholar of the Darjeeling Zoo. I and my friend were interviewing her for my report and his documentary on the zoo, in a secluded corner of the park. She elucidated then on the wide array of efforts the Darjeeling Zoo undertakes, one of them being the captive breeding of various animals. “These include the Red Panda, Snow Leopards, the Himalayan Wolf among many others,” she said. As if in cue to her last word, I heard a low and muffled howling from the trees outside. “I think I can hear one of those wolves. They must be in those bushes,” I declared excitedly with a know-it-all tone and peeped at the deep thickets beyond the zoo walls, expecting to see a burly Himalayan Wolf lunge at us. “Err…No,” said Upasana, “Those would be the street dogs barking outside the zoo premises I think.”  I was left red faced and my friend shut down his camera and burst out in laughter. Even Upasana, who otherwise seemed to be pretty solemn, managed it hard to control her smile. I hurriedly finished the interview then and decided to leave.

My friend though had got the perfect incentive that had made his day. “You heard the wolves? What about some other animals as well? Didn’t they call out to you too?” he taunted me, “What must she have thought of you?  Reputed journalist from Kolkata; cannot differentiate between a stray dog and a wolf. Ha Ha Ha…” He kept laughing even as I chose to ignore his jibes and walked on grumpily. I cannot recall anything else from our experience at the zoo. All I could visualize was a deep, black hole and me plunging into it.

Satiating afternoon

I sank my teeth into the sapid ingredients of the delicious burger and completely forgot my embarrassment from an hour ago. I hadn’t realized that all that walking from the past 3 hours had made me really hungry. And mercifully, that burger was extremely tasty and just the tonic that I perhaps needed at that time to rejuvenate myself. Added to it was the fact that the locale we were sitting in; a small restaurant right at the edge of a street, overlooking the dense mountains from its windows, was just perfect.

It was 3.30 pm and the cool afternoon breeze flew in from the mountains as I lay back on my chair after having completed the burger in one go. I wasn’t finished though, as there was a cup of coffee lying on my table to finish as well. I picked it up and began sipping it quietly.

I became lost in my thoughts soon as looked at the mountains and the breeze ruffling the trees in it. Why can’t I have a house here? I thought. I would come home from work and sit in my balcony. Then relaxing in my armchair, I would sip coffee and eat burger every afternoon. Life would have been so good.

I sighed and came back to reality. It was 4 pm, our work here had been completed satisfactorily and we had ample time left to enjoy this beautiful city. Life wasn’t that bad either.

The shopping episode   

It is often said that if you have happen to visit Benares in India, then you must taste the Benarsi paan or that if you ever visit Punjab, you have to drink a glass of their authentic lassi. Much in the same vein it also said that if you have been to Darjeeling, then it’s almost a crime if you do not buy some of the acclaimed winter garments found there. Thus I and my friend were strolling down a market in the hope of getting some worthwhile jackets.

The sun had descended in Darjeeling and we were in a busy market lane, also known as the Tibetan market, very near our hotel, which had numerous stalls that offered varied articles; from female ornaments, an assortment of shoes and sandals, and the usual ones selling garments. Shopping here can be quite an experience. The shopkeepers are usually locals coming from areas like Mirik and Ghoom, and are very simple, innocent and sometimes downright adorable in their nature and mannerisms. I might sound farfetched, but there were times where I felt like buying things just to make them happy. Speaking to them in their broken Hindi and seeing the way they try to convince you to buy their products made me smile; not because I found it hilarious, but because I found it to be charmingly sweet.

However, I had to get what I was looking for and nothing really satisfied my taste here. Thus after a while, we chose to move ahead.

We walked for a bit and came to a local mall known as the Rink Mall; replete with a multiplex and a renowned hypermarket chain. This was apparently quite a famous place for the local youth. I saw many of them wearing fancy clothes, coming in on bikes, smoking cigarettes; loitering inside the mall premises. Though we thought of trying the mall out just for the sake of it, there was nothing that allured me in there. To be honest, I had been to several of these back in Kolkata and some other places I had visited in India. If I had to buy something from a mall, I would do so back in my own city; here I wanted to try some of the local stuff. Thus within ten minutes we had made our way out of the mall and began walking further.

Thankfully, this time we found a lane that was filled some really good and seemingly genuine shops that had a wide range of winter garments in them. These ones were quite different from the Tibetan market close by to our hotel. This one, unlike the stalls back there, had proper shops. The shop owners here were mostly ‘Marwaris’, known to be shrewd businessmen, and who have a significant population in Darjeeling.

Immediately we began trying out a few jackets in these shops. Now shopping for garments, be it shirts, jeans, t-shirts or even jackets is quite a task for me. Given the gigantic frame that I posses, I struggle to find the right thing that would fit me properly. The same happened here and it pained my heart to let go of many a fancy jacket that didn’t even come close to fitting me.

Luckily though, after persisting through some more shops, I found one jacket that, if I can say, was perhaps made for me. It was a thick deep red jacket, with black bordering and fit me perfectly. It came at a price, albeit somewhat reasonable. I felt elated, as sometimes shopping gives you that strange feeling of satisfaction which you can rarely get; women would surely agree to this point.

My friend meanwhile had not got something which attracted him. We thus went around browsing items in several other shops. He had almost given up, when at the last moment we noticed a particularly dingy shop in a very small and dark lane. From outside the shop itself, we saw a jacket dangling from a hanger at the top of one of its shelf, which caught my friend’s eye. It was a gleaming black jacket which I had to admit, looked quite good. My friend did not have eyes for anything else in the shop but that. Even before entering the shop he whispered, “Please God, let me have it. Please let this not be unusually expensive.” It seemed as if he was on a mission and did not even bother to look at anything else. After some pleading with the shop owner, he finally got his wish and bought the jacket for a good price. To say he was happy is an understatement. I felt he would kiss the shopkeeper just for keeping this jacket. It seemed like he was floating on air when we came out of the shop.

Darjeeling perhaps had not looked this beautiful to him in the entire trip.


“This is my dream jacket I tell you,” declared my friend while admiring himself in the mirror of our hotel room; his newly purchased jacket adorning his body.  We had come back from our shopping spree and were resting for a while before we went out again to look for dinner. “Look at the colour. The fitting,” he went on, “I am going to wear this when we go to watch Don 2.” I meanwhile, was observing myself in my new jacket as well, or trying to at least. As we only had one mirror in the room, I stood behind him and tried to make out how I looked in my new purchase. “Mine is nice too isn’t it?” I asked him. “People would have eyes just for me the moment I wear this I tell you,” he went on and completely ignored me. “Err…My jacket….” I said in a bid to grab his attention but he continued. “Look at the buttons, the collar, the zip….” I chose to give up.

Dinner and a sleepless night

For all its beauty, I was quite disappointed with the food Darjeeling had had offered us up until now. We went about searching for a decent restaurant in and around our hotel area but could not find anything worth trying out. There were the typical North-Indian restaurants, which were quite expensive and the others were filled to the brim. The charm of any new place is to try out their local food, which I found to be missing in these eateries. I finally had to be content with paav-bhaaji, from a restaurant which was more like a snack joint. My friend had chosen to go for an Indian thaali, which was seemingly good. I also decided to get some aaloo paratha and pickles packed to take back to the hotel room. It was still only 8 pm and I was bound to get hungry soon enough again.


My decision turned out to be prudent as I gorged on the aaalo ka parathas back at my hotel room while we watched TV. The parathas had been a little cold but they still felt good in the chilly weather. With nothing to do before retiring for the day, we were surfing through various channels to find something entertaining to watch. There was nothing worth watching and after surfing for a few minutes we chose to give a chance to a particular Hindi movie being shown on a movie channel. The movie was Yashwant; starring Nana Patekar, who plays a cop, and Madhoo (the actress from Roja), as his doting wife.  I had never expected that I would enjoy the movie so much. Some of Nana’s histrionics were so funny, despite him being completely serious, that I found it hard to chew my food and laugh at the same time. In one particular scene, Nana, in his bike, chases a goon who is in a jeep, and somehow manages to catch hold of him by his hair. Dragging him out, he then beats him to pulp. For some reason, I found that scene so hilarious that I almost choked in my food. Both of us guffawed and rolled on the bed madly. I had tears in my eyes from all that laughing. It was like that icing on the perfect day we had had thus far in Darjeeling.


I stared blankly at the ceiling in the darkness while my friend snored away peacefully. It was past midnight and I had trouble getting to sleep. I have always had this problem of adjusting to a new surrounding whilst sleeping. Perhaps it was the bed or just the different ambience, but try as I might, I just could not go to sleep. The enveloping darkness often makes your mind play tricks on you and I was no different. I had horrifying visions of someone coming out of the bathroom or somebody staring at me from the corner of the door. No matter where I looked, I felt someone was peeping at me. The mirror, where I had been checking myself out a few hours ago, suddenly seemed the most sinister object. I could have sworn I saw a figure moving inside it plenty of times. I turned around and shut my eyes. But there is this strange magnetism to fear; we tend to repeat things which make us fearful. I kept turning back; just to glance at the mirror every now and then, just to assure myself that there was no one inside it.

Before sleeping, I had requested my friend to leave the small lamp overhead on, but he had refused outright. I then pleaded him to at least let the TV be on; in mute. The light from its screen would have made me feel reassured. But the bugger ignored my pleas and was now sleeping peacefully while I stayed awake, staring into nothingness as horrible thoughts kept invading my mind. Even after tossing and turning for another two hours, sleep did not come.

I got up finally and chose to distract my mind by going to the balcony. It was chilly outside and there was a lot of hustle below as I saw many men readying their cars; to take visitors on early morning trips to ‘Tiger Hill’.  The highest point in the Darjeeling area, Tiger Hill is something people clamor to see as it offered a splendid view of the Kanchenjunga Mountain at sunrise.  Even we had considered that option but the expenses involved in taking a car to that point was a little beyond our budget and thus we had given it a miss. It was 3 in the morning now and for some reason, looking at the drivers enthusiastically cleaning up their cars, I felt a little reassured. I felt I wasn’t alone.

Feeling relaxed, I came back to my bed and looked over at my friend. Still deep in his sleep, he was clinging on to the pillow tightly, while his mouth remained open. He is probably dreaming of going to the premiere of Don 2 with Shahrukh Khan, clad in his new jacked, I thought and smiled to myself. Sleep would not be a problem now for sure.

Morning – exhaustion and comprehension

“This really isn’t my idea of a morning walk,” I wheezed and clutched at my ribs to curb the searing pain in my chest from all that brisk walking of the last half an hour. We were at the Lloyds Botanical Garden; a massive garden about 20 minutes walking distance from our hotel. Because of its location as a high altitude park, it had steep roads which made climbing up through it quite an arduous task. It was 8 in the morning and my friend, who had apparently heard about this park from some of his relatives, had forced me to come here and enjoy the greenery. The greenery part was fine, as the park had a sufficient range of fauna throughout to please the eyes and relax the nerves. However, it was the climbing up those high roads that was the problem. Both of us were panting heavily by the time we were halfway through the park. It was clear that this wasn’t such a great idea to spend our morning by, but somehow we forced ourselves to enjoy the verdant greenery around us. The park was deserted at that hour, with hardly an odd person here and there and I sat down at a bench to catch my breath for a bit. My eyes were puffy from the lack of sleep and I was now cursing my friend for tiring me further.  

We hardly had much time left in our trip now, as we were to board the Sumo for the return trip to NJP at 2 in the afternoon. I really hoped that the remaining few hours would be much better than the morning.


As we walked on the streets after coming out of the park, I noticed that the city was up and alive. We were evidently crossing a residential area and there were school children rushing to get into their school buses, milkmen sped by us in their bicycles, local grocery shops had already opened shutters and were brimming with customers and there were others who were gulping down breakfast hurriedly from small food stalls. These scenes actually showed me a different side of Darjeeling that not many will know of. We usually relate hill stations to just that; a tourist place. We tend to forget that apart from the tourist spots, these cities have their own regular lives as well. They too have normal residents living in its confines who go about their daily business just as people in every other city of the world do. It was refreshing to see this side of Darjeeling after so much of sightseeing and gaping at the beautiful mountains. It had its own simplistic charm.

Chowrasta – at last

Even before I had come to Darjeeling, many of my friends had requested me to visit the Chowrasta – a busy and well-renowned, open-spaced hangout, located at one of the focal points of the city. Though we had crossed it a couple of times while going to and coming back from the zoo, we did not have enough time then to savour it.  This time though, we chose to spend some time here.

It was easy to know that this was the most happening place in the town. People from literally all walks of life were seen having a pleasant time here. It was quite cold in the morning, but now, as we sat in a bench we could feel the warmth of the sun on our bodies. It was an invigorating feeling, and what made it even better was to see the awesome view of the Kanchenjunga Mountain far beyond the concrete fence of the place.

The square was bubbling with life; there were couples holding hands and resting in the shed of the trees, there were quite a few old men and women basking in the warmth of the sun, a few children played amongst themselves while some enjoyed a pony ride, and then there were the usual tourists clicking endless pictures. I also noticed a small podium at the corner of the place, probably used for dance programmes and similar functions, which was decorated by fluttering, colored flags. More than these, the most interesting part of Chowrasta was that it was filled with numerous food stalls, selling a variety of delicacies. The place also had a small bookstore, a café joint and some snack bars.

It was a scene you often read of in books and sometimes see in movies; wherein you can have a nice relaxing time. I did not have any wish to move from the bench I was sitting in. Spending the hour in Chowrasta had completely lifted my spirits and though I knew I would be leaving the city in a few hours, I was now thoroughly satiated.

The final adieu  

With a heavy heart we packed our bags back in our hotel room after having lunch in a nearby restaurant (another mediocre offering). We just had about half an hour to board our Sumo which would take us back to NJP. I now stood in the balcony to drink in the last few moments of this beautiful place. It felt surreal to believe that we had spent only a day and half in Darjeeling. It felt as if we had been here for about a week already. The last 30 odd hours had really given me myriad experiences that would last me a lifetime.

“Let’s go,” called my friend from inside. I sighed into nothingness and went back into the room.


The car hummed lightly and the driver packed the luggage of the passengers at the top of the car. We were to leave in a few minutes along with the other passengers and had seated ourselves on our respective seats. My friend was busy with his handy-camera; he too had a heavy heart and perhaps wanted to engage himself in something to distract his mind. I looked out of the window; people in the city were busy hustling around. By this time tomorrow, I would be back to Kolkata. The usual life of work and other things would resume. And there would be someone else standing in the balcony of the hotel room we had stayed in, admiring the vista here.

To deflect my thoughts, I took out my headphone from the side pocket of my jacket. Music perhaps would lift my mood, I thought. With the headphone though, also came out a small piece of paper. It was the entry ticket of the Darjeeling Zoo. With the name of the zoo and price of the ticket, there was also a small picture of a Red Panda drawn on it. A big smile came to my face as I looked at the cute animal and reminisced my time at the zoo. I ran my finger over the face of the panda, pretending to pat it. “I will return,” I murmured to it, “I promise.”

(To read the first part of this post, click here.)


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Small canister that can make a big difference

The 'Nirbheek' revolver
Earlier this week, a news headline really grabbed my attention. The announcement of ‘Nirbheek’- India’s first gun designed especially for women, was met with a lot appreciation all over. The .32 bore light weight revolver would help women protect themselves from an unexpected assault. After reading the news my first reaction was of appreciation. I was happy that finally something can be provided to women which will help them feel safe and can help them counter any untoward incident. 

However, when I scrolled down the page of the article, my eyes fell on the price of the gun. Priced at Rs 1, 22,360, ‘Nirbheek’ might have noble intentions but I doubt it would essentially serve the purpose it has been invented for. The price is way too much for any middle-class Indian woman to be able to afford it. The ones who would be able to do so would I think constitute barely 5% of India’s total female population. Hence, in my view, Nirbheek would not exactly make any significant difference in women being able to protect themselves.

So what is the solution then? The reason for this post comes from the fact that after the Delhi gang-rape incident I had been trying to find out some ‘weapon’ or similar alternatives that can protect women from being brutalized. I tried to do this out of genuine fear of my loved ones.

In the aftermath of the Delhi incident, the newspapers and online media were brimming with possible measures that women can take to protect themselves. From joining self-defense classes, to buying stun guns, they had it all. Among these however, I found the picture of a little can the most interesting. The Pepper Spray also known as OC spray is a potent weapon if used effectively and can cause severe damage, albeit momentarily, to the eyes of the person it is sprayed on. Easy to carry and simple to use, the pepper spray is quite commonly used by women traveling alone in the West. Its use in this part of the world though, is quite limited. The reasons? Lack of proper information and availability.

It took me quite some time to track down the place from where I could buy it in my city. However, I took the effort and purchased it a few months back to gift it to a female friend of mine. In my view, it is perhaps the most important gift I have given anyone, although I seriously pray that my friend never comes into the situation where she has to ever use it. Nevertheless, when I did my research on the authenticity and benefits of a pepper spray can, I found it to be much more useful than going for some of the other options for the self-protection of women, which is unlikely to find many takers in the long-run.

After giving that pepper spray can to my friend, the next question in my mind was that how many other women know about this thing? Over the last few months, I have spoken to many women I know regarding this little can; from female colleagues, to friends to acquaintances. Many of them knew about it, especially after the Delhi rape incident, but none knew about its effectiveness in details or its availability. And that I feel is the case with innumerable other women in the country as well. Thus, I felt it was my responsibility as a concerned citizen to let as many women know about the pepper spray can as possible.

Let me discuss about this little canister in brief here.

Usage: This small can of about 60 ml has immense strength and can take down any assailant(s) for more than an hour. The person on whom it is sprayed will be partially blind and his eyes are sure to ‘burn like hell’. It can spray up to a range of 8-10 feet and can take out close to half a dozen people if sprayed properly. Although it won’t cause any permanent damage to the eyes, I assure you, the person or persons, who feel the spray’s effects once, will regret their action and will surely think twice before even attempting to attack any woman in the future.

More importantly, you do not need any license to carry these cans. Under the Arms Act in India, a license is only required for firearms and hence you can easily carry these little things in your bags without any fear.

(The contents of these cans usually stay effective for three years; if it lasts for that long. After which you can either refill them or buy a new one.)

Availability: The most pertinent question that remains is where to get these pepper spray bottles. In the West these are easily available over the chemist shops, drug stores and even supermarkets. Sadly, that is not the case in our country. In my lookout for this spray, I asked for it in drugstores and even supermarkets. Leave alone keeping it, they hadn’t even heard of such a thing. Luckily though, my intense search brought me to a person from whom I eventually purchased the can.  Avijit Sengupta (Ph: 09432103005, 0728454074), supplies pepper spray cans to anyone who might need it in West Bengal. You can either visit his office in Lake Town, or he would ensure that you get your product by delivering it to you personally (for a little extra cost).

Alternatively, Kolkatans can also find it in a few shops in New Market (the old one). Just ask around for a pepper spray when you enter the market, and you will be directed to the shops offering it. There might be other shops as well who keep these sprays, but for now these are the only options I can present to you. For non-Kolkatans, I would suggest that you make an effort to search around in your respective cities to find out where you can get them. If I can find it, surely you can as well. You can also contact Mr. Avijit and he would, I am sure, guide you on where you can get it in your city.

Other than this, you can always buy it online. A simple Google search would do the job for you. If even still you need some assistance, you can browse through these two websites: and I cannot vouch for the authenticity of these websites, but there are several more similar ones like these out there. Try them out.

Price:  These pepper spray cans usually cost around Rs. 500-600 per bottle. Yes, it’s true that many women from the villages and the suburbs will not be able to afford buying these and I sincerely hope that the makers of these products consider bringing down the price further so as to make it easily affordable for every woman. But even so, a majority of the females surely can invest in these cans if they want to. And I genuinely hope that they do.


Ideally, it should be the job of the government to make as many of these products available freely across the country as possible. Nevertheless, the reason I am pressing so much for these pepper spray cans is because of the reality of the times we live in. The fact that women today are unsafe in the country is an understatement. I do not wish to analyze the situation further. The need of the hour today for you is to be alert and prepared. With ‘you’ I of course mean women. I want women in my country to be safe and having a pepper spray can along with you when you venture out from home, might just make the difference. True, there might be several other ways for women to defend themselves with. But I am clamoring for what I find the most effective one out there today.

I do not want you to ‘like’ this post and praise me for my ‘nobility’.  I want you to make an effort and buy one pepper spray can right away. Whenever a major rape case is highlighted in the media, we begin shouting for actions and measures. The first measure, I say, is to be prepared for self-defense. Thus, go out, and buy this thing. And don’t just buy it; make sure that you carry it every single day in your bag or in your pockets. Keep it in such a place where it can be easily accessed in times of an emergency. Do it. I implore you.

The pepper spray might not stop rapes or molestation of women, but it might save them; as it already has done for several of them. I believe if used effectively and continuously by women, it can make a huge difference eventually.

I hope and pray that you take my words seriously and buy this can. I also hope and pray that you never ever have to use it.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Darjeeling Adventure (Part - 1)

(A journey which will always be very special to me for varied reasons. It was fun revisiting the memorable parts of my trip to Darjeeling, about two years back, and penning it down. Hope I did justice to it. I would be presenting the experience of my trip in two separate posts. Here is the first one.) 

The commencement of the journey

It was only the second time that I had been inside the Sealdah station in Kolkata. Having travelled all my life from the bustling Howrah station, it took me some time to adjust to the ‘alien’ surroundings here. For me, a railway station in Kolkata simply meant the Howrah station. Thus, adjusting to the look and feel of the Sealdah wasn’t quite easy. Added to it was the fact that the crowd, even at 6 in the evening, was quite moderate. I was waiting for my train, which would take me to New Jalpaiguri (a place near Siliguri in North Bengal).  I was accompanied by my friend, who was also my colleague at my workplace, and together we were to take an official trip to the hills of Darjeeling. 

The words ‘official trip’ and Darjeeling rarely go together, but fortunately for us, it was true. We were to cover the Darjeeling Zoo for a story I was to write and my friend, as the videographer, was assigned the task of making a short documentary on it. We were to reach Darjeeling the next day; get our work done and leave the day after. Since the day the trip had been approved by our bosses, we had been the objects of much envy at our workplace and which quite frankly, really pleased me to no end.

The last few days had been expectedly quite exciting, as the lead up to any unknown place usually is for me. This was the first time I would be travelling to Darjeeling. I had only heard of its stunning beauty and serenity from my kith and kin. It was rather strange; residing in Bengal I never really got the opportunity to visit Darjeeling before this despite hearing so much about it. However, all of this was about to come to an end as I would finally be reaching Darjeeling the next day. Me and my friend, who like me would be visiting the place for the first time, had excitedly munched down some heavy food from a station restaurant a few minutes ago and were now eagerly awaiting the train’s arrival at the platform.

After some minutes of impatient waiting, where I strolled around the platform innumerable times, we finally saw the train chugging into the platform at around 6.20 pm. There was the usual mad scurry to get into train compartments by the people but before we got suffocated by the crowd, we quickly settled into our seats and patiently waited for the journey to begin.


Ratatat chhahh…Ratatat chhahh… The train sped across the Bengal terrain and brought with it cold and bitter wind.  Despite it being only late October, I snuggled under my warm blanket and stared blankly at the train ceiling.  It seemed as if I could hear the simultaneous breathing of everyone in the bogie. It was past midnight now and lying down on the upper berth, I found it hard to go to sleep. First there was the tension of my luggage which lay under the lower berth and made me look down every other minute and second there was the anxiety of the trip itself. There was the usual thrill associated with discovering a new place which was so renowned and then there was the nervousness if I would get the task assigned to me done efficiently.

Ratatat chhahh…Ratatat chhahh…

I looked over at my friend, who was sound asleep with his mouth half open. “What must he be dreaming of? Is he as nervous and excited as I am?”  I wondered.  There were so many things that could have gone wrong in the trip, I suddenly reflected. We could get no hotels, the zoo could be closed, and this train could meet with an accident even as we all slept.

I shuddered and forced myself out of the negative thoughts and concentrated on the ceiling fan above me which made a light buzzing sound. The blades were hardly visible in the darkness and yet I lost myself in its constant revolutions. Ratatat chhahh…Ratatat chhahh… The hum of the wheels now seemed like a cradle and I was finally lulled into sleep.

Arrival at NJP

The vibration of the phone in my pocket woke me up from my slumber. It was the buzzing of my cell phone’s alarm which was set for 6 in the morning. I took out the phone and realizing that it was 6 I muttered a “shit” under my breath. The New Jalpaiguri station was hardly 15 minutes away and the train would halt for just 10 minutes there. We hence didn’t have much time left to get ready. I turned to my friend who was now lying face down and fast asleep, even as his own mobile alarm kept on buzzing repeatedly. I shook him a couple of times, but it seemed that he was determined to sleep till the end of the journey. Not wanting to waste anymore time, I kicked him on his shin. That thankfully worked. 

He woke up with a start and frowned at me; as if accusing me of committing a heinous crime. “NJP is hardly 10 minutes away. Get your ass off,” I informed him. He checked his watch and realized the truth in my statement. We got down and immediately set about unlocking our luggage from underneath the seats. It seemed then that all the passengers of the train had woken up now and were excitedly chattering away. Hardly had we brushed our teeth and settled into our seats again that we felt the train slowing down; we were entering the NJP station. I checked my watch: 6.20 am. Right on time!

There was the usual mad rush of the crowd getting out of the train as we got down at the platform. It appeared as if almost more than half of the passengers of the train had emptied at NJP, whose final destination was Guwahati.

We scampered out of the station and began looking for cars outside. A lot of our friends and relatives, who had been to this place, had informed us that we would find innumerable cars and buses outside the station which would be willing to take us to Darjeeling. And sure enough, right outside the station gates we found an array of vehicles, mostly Sumos, clamouring loudly to get our attention. The idea of a two hour bus ride didn’t quite thrill me and hence I was determined to get a Sumo, which was ideal for a tall person like me.

After speaking to a few drivers we finally zeroed in on one who offered a reasonable rate: 200 bucks per person for a two hour journey. The Sumo, which would have 6-7 more passengers apart from the two of us, looked decent and we gave our luggage to a guy who packed it firmly at the top of the car along with that of the others. The journey to Darjeeling would start at 7.30 am which meant we had an hour to while around.

We suddenly realized how hungry we were and hence went about scavenging for some food to eat. With some cakes and biscuits in hands, we sat on a vacant seat outside the station premises. As I waited for the hour to get over I glanced around at the surroundings. New Jalpaiguri didn’t really seem that different from Kolkata, neither the people nor the ambience; except for the fact that there were a lot more tourists here for obvious reasons. NJP is the perfect and the most well-known connector for anyone who wishes to get into Darjeeling.

My friend was lost in his own thoughts as he munched at the biscuits mechanically. I meanwhile looked at the people everywhere who were madly scurrying around to get into vehicles which would take them to the famous hill station. I wondered how many of them would be visiting the place the first time like us. Would they have the same excitement as me? Would they be as nervous as I was? I would never know.

Towards Darjeeling

The cool wind slapped my face as I gazed outside the window of the moving car. We had just begun our journey towards Darjeeling and the streets were rapidly getting vacant as we surged ahead. I, along with my friend, was sitting on the front seat with the driver. There was bubbling anticipation in my heart as to what lay ahead.

However, what I hadn’t anticipated was having to face the steep, hilly terrain that the car had to pass through in order to get into Darjeeling. Now, I am one of those people who are quite apprehensive of heights. I have had horrible experiences in my past of riding through some really high mountains and getting scared shit of looking down the ravines. A similar experience awaited me now.

The car, after having left Siliguri, was now entering into what seemed like a never ending hilly roadway. My insides squirmed as I couldn’t help but look down. What didn’t help was that my friend was even worse than I was in handling these steep hills. “God, look at how deep those ravines are,” he said in utter fear. “What if the car skids and we all fall down,” he mumbled again. “I don’t want to die now. I don’t want to die now,” he kept adding after every few seconds. The driver, who by now had sensed our fear, reassured us in his typical North-eastern accent, “Kuss ni hogaa. Saant rakko.” (Nothing will happen. Be calm.) He had apparently made hundreds of trips like this and never ever had had an accident. I had just started feeling a little relaxed when I saw an overturned car lying down in the bushes. I immediately lost all faith in the driver.

And then there was this 50- something ‘uncle’ sitting behind who had been to Darjeeling plentiful times and had never been scared of these hills. “Arre you are so young. What’s to be scared?” he said with a super confident chuckle. “When I was your age, I had easily walked my way up these very mountains once,” he declared pompously and looked on at the other people in the car; waiting for them to probably burst out in applause at his achievement. However, no one it seemed was remotely interested in his remark. While many were fast asleep, the others looked out the window. You will always find these highly annoying ‘uncles’ everywhere; who are know-it-alls and have been there done that. I merely smiled weakly at him and then looked out again. Those gorges just looked so precipitous. I kept having flashes where I was tumbling down with the car in those deep ravines. My head lay crushed by hitting one of the rocks, while a particularly sharp one had gorged through my chest and blood oozed all over my body.

I closed my eyes to stop these horrifying visions and turned away from the window. Lowering my head and closing my eyes, I tried my best to fight the impending sickness which was overflowing in me. “I will not die here,” I silently prayed. “I will die a writer... I will die a writer...”


I breathed in the fresh air standing at the edge of a small cliff overlooking the beautiful town of Mirik. We were in an area called Krishnanagar, which was known as being the entrance to Mirik.

The car had stopped for a few minutes here as the driver needed to get some water for the car. All the inhabitants of the car were now strolling outside the vehicle and stretching their bodies after the hour long journey we had made thus far. My friend, like me, was standing beside me and was stunned at the sight which lay in front of us. This was unlike anything I had ever seen in Bengal. The pine-clad hillsides made for such an extraordinary view that all my sickness from a few minutes ago seemed to have vanished. The fragrance of the fresh grass had rejuvenated me and I was now eagerly looking forward to what lay ahead for us.

It was at this point I realized how different this place was from Kolkata. Be it the structure of people’s homes or their looks. While most of the cottages and huts were similarly shaped and looked quite clean, the people bore the distinctive North-eastern looks. 
As I turned, I suddenly caught a little girl staring at me from the window of her small hut which stood nearby. She looked like one of those cute characters in the Japanese anime films, and was probably fascinated by the tall ‘alien’ creature standing in front of her house. I smiled at her. The girl seemed unsure on how to react for a few seconds and then finally smiled back.

“All right, get into the car everyone,” hollered the driver all of a sudden and brought me back to reality. We quickly settled into our seats and prepared for the final leg of the journey. As I slammed the car door shut, I looked back at the window of the hut. The girl was gone.


I had always seen tea-plantation workers in pictures and documentaries. Hence, it was quite a sight to see a group of these workers going about their business casually, as our car passed through a tea-plantation site. Clad in their characteristic dress; the scarves neatly tied over their head and baskets hanging from their backs, they worked in a very orderly manner without even bothering to glance at us. I however, wanted to sit and observe them some more, but was denied that opportunity as we had to move towards our destination.


After riding for another half an hour through the hilly terrain, we entered what seemed like another small yet lovely looking town. The driver informed us that this was Ghoom, a tiny locality in the Darjeeling Himalayan hill region, which was famous for its scenic beauty.  The road we were passing through was the Hill Cart Road, which was the common route taken by cars and buses travelling from Siliguri to Darjeeling. For some reason, I noted, the road was glistening with moist water and the air was misty. The driver cleared my confusion when he said, “It has been raining since the last few days in this part of the hills.”

In the little time I got to observe the area, I noticed that it was bubbling with life. People were busy chatting, shopping for vegetables and doing other stuff. I then noticed that there was quite a crowd outside a store selling woolen garments. I was quite tempted to join them and try out some of the fancy looking jackets they were selling, but had to curb my feelings.

Some of the people in the car then informed us that Darjeeling is hardly 6 kms away now. Feeling elated at the news, I tried to look beyond the marketplace we were passing through. I could see mountains, resplendent in verdant grass, in the background. My heart pounded in excitement at the prospect of what awaited me ahead.

Entering the Queen of hills

There was a real chill in the air as we noticed our surroundings changing slowly. The rain over the last few days coupled with the place’s general location, resulted in bitterly cold winds smothering our faces. Even inhaling the cold air was causing me much discomfort, but I faced it all quite happily. The car turned over another bend in the road and then I finally saw it.

There it was; the ‘Queen of Hills’ as it is renowned for. The hills of Darjeeling looked so picturesquely perfect that I felt like floating around those mountains and remain there for my entire life. White, fluffy clouds hovered around the hills which were covered with lush green trees. For a second it seemed time had come to an absolute standstill as everyone in the car feasted their eyes on the stunning beauty in front of them. All my friend could mutter was a “Wow” as he admired the surroundings with wide-eyes. It was a scene straight out of a romantic song from a Bollywood movie. It was something which would turn dull people into romantics. I for one, wanted to write some poetic lines which would do justice to the scene ahead of me. Unfortunately though, I wasn’t particularly good in that department and chose instead to relish the spectacular landscape.

Beyond the hills we could now clearly see the city of Darjeeling towards which we were heading. The myriad buildings of different colours and shapes slowly started to grow bigger with each passing minute as we hurtled closer to the city.

Finally, the hilly pathway now gave way to normal city roads and I knew that we had arrived at our destination. As if just to approve of my thoughts, a Toy Train, the celebrated symbol of Darjeeling, slowly whistled by at a little distance from us.  My heart gladdened with joy and I desperately yearned to get a seat in that train. However, now was not the time for that.

A few minutes later, in which I had managed to catch a glimpse of the local market and a mall, the car stopped at what was apparently the main city junction. I got down from the car and stretched my long legs. We were surrounded by hotels, small restaurants and guest houses. I wanted to explore some more and look at what lay beyond those small lanes leading ahead. But my friend then thumped me on my back and said, “Let’s get going. We have a long day ahead.”

Indeed. We had a long day lying ahead of us. As we walked towards a hotel, I checked my watch; it was 9.30 am. I found it a little hard to believe that only two hours had passed since the time we had boarded the Sumo from NJP. It really seemed like several hours had passed in between the various happenings of the journey. 

Something however told me that the adventure had just begun.

To be concluded

(To read the second and final part of this post, click here.)