Map: India’s Tea Belt, North Bengal, and Birpara

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Some will find a hint of the exotic exuding from the place-names and mountain ranges in this latest cartographic creation. Others will see the map-maker’s psychological travails, his attempt to define with a few lines and colors his position in the world (geopolitical and otherwise). Knowing that his incipient skills with the medium can only be improved with practice (i.e. drawing more maps), he nevertheless presses on, painting India’s Tea Belt a young-leaf green, saving mysterious shades of purple for everything beyond unknown borders.

But something went terribly wrong with the map-making experience!

Charting oneself should, by all rights, be a grounding and reassuring action. Here I am! “X” (or Red Star) marks the spot! This is my position! Yet, drawing this map did no such thing. It filled me, instead, with longing and restlessness—purplish-blue with envy for the Himalayan heights that are so close and yet so far! Each day, in the non-paper physical world, Bhutan rises sharply from the plains and I catch hazy glimpses of her peaks (through clouds, mists, and cement factory emissions). But alas, her border is closed, shut, blocked to me and my visa-less passport.

“Dooars” is the name of this part of North Bengal’s Jalpaiguri District. A local word for “doors,” it refers to the most accessible of the high passes to Tibet and China, portals which were once crucial to Sino-Indian trade, but, like Bhutan, are closed to me. These far-off, out-of-sight, unexperienced areas, exist ONLY on my map, yet they are nothing less than the highest mountains in the world!

Peaks rise around Darjeeling and Kalimpong, hill stations only a four-hour bus ride away; their lofty jaggedness also comprises the north-sticking Indian thumb-state of Sikkim, half a day’s journey from here; they form the famed backbone of Nepal, which we may decide to enter, but which Maoists make unpredictable. The same range of the world’s roof rides north and eastward through prohibited Tibet and Bhutan, then snakes back into the high-alpine Indian soil of Arunachal Pradesh. But only on my map.

When I finished it, my map taunted me with this red-starred fact: I am stuck in Birpara. The only features that I’ve actually seen are the train tracks to Siliguri, the road to Birpara, and a handful of tea leaves, area gardens, which look rather similar to each other (both on and off the map)—and always the backdrop of Bhutan, beautiful and impossible.

Don’t get me wrong—I am grateful for this relaxing part of our journey. Resting in the same bed each night, spending the days with a purpose, work to do—a welcome break from constant motion. But wanderlust is a frothy current, a hard tide to stem for a mere six weeks (picture a brake-less rickshaw puller trying to stop the momentum of his heavy load) — especially when surrounded by so much unseen unknown unfelt unsmelt—borders and bungalows and elephants and mountains that should, may, might, will, but have not yet, become a part of this trip! Our trek to Rash Lake in the Karakorum only whetted a voracious thirst for more tents guides trails glaciers yaks!

Instead, we have traffic-choked, dung-piled main street of Birpara, the smell of stagnation and despair on closed tea gardens, and our sedentary, temporarily (dare-I-use-the-word?) settled, lives in the Akhil Bhavan flat.

Yes, my friends, purple grass is greener, violet tints of desire; peaks and borders, some of which, soon, I will see with my eyes, smell with my nose, forcing me, yet again, to change their colors.

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