Car Tales From Darjeeling Hills

Pradeep Gooptu

Around 200 years ago, the English East India Company concluded its war with Nepal (1814-16) and acquired Darjeeling. Initial visitors like General Lloyd and J W Grant (Commissioner of Malda) recommended its use as a sanatorium without realising the great future that lay ahead of the region, thanks to the advent of the motor car.

Before the advent of the motor car and development of roads, travel time to Darjeeling from Kolkata used to be at least 10-14 days (depending on the weather). Quite a bit of the distance had to be covered by boat or by pony or horse. The cost cited in the Bengal District Gazetteer by L S S O’Malley in 1907 was Rs 200 for the journey before the car came along. With the car, he estimated that the time had come down to 20 hours (surprisingly, it almost takes the same time now because of bad roads!) and the cost was reduced by 90 cent.

In the Hills
The tea gardens that came up employed lakhs and needed huge supply lines. While the toy train provided part of the supply along the Hill Cart Road, the other areas were supplied entirely by small vehicles till roads were upgraded to allow use of heavier trucks. There were hundreds of instances of culverts collapsing and roads sagging because of large trucks being used on hill roads; also there was a lack of space to run them around when they got stuck. Small and medium cars like Morris and Standard were stripped of passenger bodywork when they got old and converted into small goods carriers for tea sacks, foodgrain bags, kerosene and petrol tins etc.

Popular cars
The Morris 8 and smaller Standard and Rileys were popular but the largest selling car in the Hills was the Baby Austin. A foreign correspondent wrote as late as 1930 that the streets were packed with Baby Austins because of the “many advantages Lord Austin’s little car offered”. The Austins sold in the hills were fitted with a special ‘hill climbing gear’ ration that allowed them to go up and down steep inclines slowly but surely. They also had double brake cables – for many years, the Austin had cable brakes, not hydraulic. Finally, they were so small and light that if they got stuck in the mud “they could be pulled out by local ponies or other cars – and even lifted out in emergencies by a few strong men”. Larger cars could go up faster but were difficult to turn.

Dangers
Driving in Darjeeling was not easy at all times. One major risk was of course snowfall. On January 18, 1945, local newspapers reported heavy overnight snowfall. The entire town and all the roads leading in and out of it were covered with a thick layer of snow.

One resident of the town noted that while he got his expert Gurkha driver to get his Vauxhall car out for a drive, it could be driven only a short distance uphill. It then became clear that coming down would be very dangerous because the roads had become slippery and would stay that way. So the Vauxhall was parked and the rest of the day’s travel was completed on foot. Snow chains were not used and this must have made taking the pre-1939 car around the sharp bends really tricky. The next day (January 19), the snow had become hard but the ice covered roads were still dangerous. A trip to the town of Sonada had to be cancelled because the road had become impassable beyond Ghoom. Incidentally, Ghoom is the highest hamlet in that area and is usually colder and icier than other location in the region.

New opportunities
Recent years have seen new roads like the Rohini Road being built to ease travel to the Darjeeling Hills. However, old problems like landslides in the hill tracts and poor roads (in the plains) remain and conspire to make what is essentially a day’s Kolkata-Darjeeling drive into a two-day nightmare. Last week, an upgraded highway was inaugurated in central Bengal. Hopefully more will follow.

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