If you ask me what I like most about Darjeeling and sincerely miss in Kolkata – I have a single word answer to it – Its the Mall. The Chowrasta of Darjeeling is most probably the best example of how the centre of the city should be treated. A grand plaza, with plenty of seats for people to sit, relax, interact with each other, is the ideal social gathering spot that very few cities in the country have.
That’s why whenever I have few minutes to spare, I have headed towards the Chowrasta Mall. Trust me, you can spend the whole day just seating in a corner of the Mall and watching people around you without getting bored. I was tired after a long Toy Train Journey but lying on the bed of my hotel room does not feel like as refreshing as seating in the Mall.
When I reached the Mall it was dark outside and the benches were mostly vacant. 7 o’clock in Darjeeling, that too during the monsoon, was quite late and the shops were starting to pack up. I walked across the mall and occupied a vacant bench beside the Hawa Ghar, situated on East of the Mall ridge. This two storied pitched roofed structure is basically a stage for a performance or holding meeting. While the upper floor is meant for the show, the lower floor, which is also a little below the road level of the Mall is meant for creating the green rooms for the performers. I have seen bigshot political leaders of the region holding meetings in the building.
My purpose of taking a seat here was to take a good look at the shops – all of which are in front of me across the Mall. While most of the seats are vacant some have occupants, mostly locals. This is one season when the number of tourists remains very low and the locals are able to spend some good time here. Two aged persons, who were seated on the bench next to me were discussing something very serious in Nepali, that much I could make out from the accent. From the English words they were using in between, I thought they were discussing a problem with land. A couple, easily identified as honeymooning from the wide band of red & white bangles on both hands of the lady, appeared from the Mall Market. The white bags in the hands of the gentleman clearly indicates they were shopping there – naturally for both their families.
Mall Market, which starts from the North-West corner of the Mall and goes down have come up lately. This informal street market has somewhere around a hundred shops and they sell various items at a very cheap rate. Woollens, winter wears, chappals, umbrellas, accessories, undergarments can be bought from here at a very cheap rate and if you are a heavy bargainer, you are sure to make a lot of saving from here. It is a good option for doing local shopping in Darjeeling because the same products in shops will cost at least double. There is another similar market – Mahakal Market which is on the Mall road towards the North-East of Mall. This road is the entry point to the Mahakal Temple which lies atop the Observatory Hill, on the foot of which the Mall is situated.
The couple slowly walked across the mall and disappeared in the Nehru Road, which goes towards the South West of the Mall. Two children, understandably tourists were playing with a soap bubble they must have procured earlier in the day. The boy who seemed to be elder among them was holding a gun-like toy from which the bubbles were coming out and the girl was running after those. The best part of Mall is it is totally vehicle free. There is absolutely no danger of being hurt by a car and everyone can move freely here. A tea seller approached towards me in appreciation. I ordered a cup and started sipping it. The environment was lovely as the clouds were coming from the North and slowly covering the Mall. Suddenly nothing was visible and within a few seconds everything was clear again.
On the background, the Oxford Book & Stationary was seen in its legendary green portico. It was closed down by then but I have a plan to visit the Oxford tomorrow. This one is one of the oldest shops in Darjeeling and they have the best collection of books about the History, Culture & Life of Darjeeling and its neighbouring region. The book, that I was reading at that time – Darjeeling – A History of the World’s Greatest Tea can also be found here. Their neighbour – Habeeb Mullick and Sons, another shop from the early days of Darjeeling was still open but their lights were being put off one by one. From the dark appeared the present owner of the shop, Mr Parvez. Mr Parvaz is a tall, fair gentleman with a reduced hairline and a well-trimmed beard of grey & black mixed. He is the fourth generation of the founder of the shop – Habbeb Mullick. He locked the main door of the shop and walked towards the Zakir Hussain Road which is straight towards my left.
Zakir Hussain Road is surely the busiest of the roads that terminate in the Mall and the reason behind this is that this road is full of grocery and food shops and locals come here for their needs. The iconic fountain which stands in front of the Bellevue Hotel, which marks the southern periphery of the Mall, was not working. I have never seen it working and I suppose it is just a showpiece and its fountain system no longer exists. As was looking at that side, a sudden laugh broke from the opposite direction. With both, Oxford and Habeeb Mullick closed the only well-lit part of the mall was in front of the Amigos. The pitched roofed yellow building is the one next to Chalet Hotel and has four shops on its ground floor. Ten years back the entire ground floor had only one cafeteria – Amigos but now there are four shops – Golden Tips, which is a Tea Lounge, Life & leaf, a handicraft shop, Amigos Cafe and Amigos Tours & Treks. It seemed that these shops remain open till late.
Behind me was another new inclusion to the Mall – the Nathmulls tea lounge. Nathmulls, who is one of the pioneer tea sellers of Darjeeling have set up a new shop on the narrow street that goes down from the Mall. This road, however, is not counted among the four roads that meet here – giving the name Chowrasta to this place. The Yellow board of Nathmulls was glowing brightly. The kids who were playing then are now gone but few more have come. One of those was playing with a street dog despite his father asking him not to. Two or three of them started running across the mall towards the statue of Bhanubhakt Acharyaa. This statue is again a landmark of Darjeeling Mall and it will be difficult to find a person who has come here and has not taken a picture with the statue.
The statue which stands with its back towards the Observatory Hill & Windemere Hotel has been placed here in the ninetees from its original place. When I visited Darjeeling for the first time, there was a garden behind this statue but now the garden is gone and the entire area is converted into a circular Open-Air Theatre with a toilet complex below it. A giant screen is also placed at the end of the OAT. As the children ran towards the statue I saw another big chunk of cloud appearing from that direction. This time I decided to move. I had plans of taking my dinner at the Gleneries – two minutes walk on the Nehru Road.
I stood up and started to walk. The Cafe Coffee Day, which is again a new item in the Mall was shutting down. The Jolly Art & Crafts shop & Chowrasta Tea – two neighbours of the CCD were also pulling their shutters down. It was Eight in the evening and the Mall was closing down for the day. The Fiesta Restaurant which is on the other side of the CCD had a few diners seated on the window side tables and were happily chatting. I passed by and headed towards Glenery’s