Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The New Jalpaiguri Turnaround

First, no worries everyone - pictures from the trek are coming soon! I'm about to get on a 52 hour train ride to Bangalore, so give me a couple days. First... a story!

Did I expect to be woken up in my hotel room at 6:45am to a cup of tea and a biscuit? And have it delivered to me from a young man who simply makes chai everyday on the streets? Why would I ever suspect him to come to my hotel, find my room, and deliver me this treat? Let me explain...

It was incredible.

New Jalpaiguri on first glance was - for lack of better word - a nothing-to-see town. When I arrived I was thinking that I should have stayed in Geyshing for a night. I slept soundly one night, awoke the next morning and tried to quell my boredom by getting a shave, eating some food, sending some e-mails (in which there was only one internet place in the whole town), bought some Darjeeling and Assam tea etc.

I began to get tired for a while, so I went to my room, read, and fell asleep. After a nap, I walked around. Bored, I found some youngsters playing carrom and played a few games with them, but because of two of them being punks, I quickly went my own way. I decided to sit at a tea shop that I had bought tea and biscuits from earlier. It was near my hotel, and the young man running the shop was particularly nice as compared to the others I have met around town. The tea wasn't necessarily the greatest; I was going for the atmosphere.

I sat just off the street on a small wooden-made bench. First for a cup of chai, then for a biscuit. I had given him five rupees for the chai upfront, and then when I offered more money for the biscuit, he responded, “No, no, is okay... um... next time.” So I went up to my hotel room. Realizing I was alone, and not in the mood to read, I decided to head back down to Pritam (the chai maker). So I sat and we chatted as he worked, and for someone who never went past class eight (he was 19 years old), spoke better English than those of his friends in class eleven or twelve (the class he should be in if he continued with school).

I asked what he wanted to be, what he wanted to do, what his aims were. I questioned him on school and if he would finish or not. He didn't seem to interested in school, but just wanted to make money, and survive. Pritam Ray (pronounced Rai) was his name, and he was an extremely devoted religious person for a man of his age. “Where did you get that scar under your eye?” I had asked. “Erm, cyc- bi-cycling when small... I... um, slip. No, another truck coming to me, going very fast, I fall.”

We talked about life and love and Indian women. He said they weren't for him. Everyone was asking if I was married.. When I asked Pritam if he was married, he said no, he was not interested in girls. Naturally, due to my cultural upbringing, I would have assumed (due to that phrase) that he might have been gay. However, as it is not openly accepted or talked about in Indian culture, I decided not to ask, and assumed what he meant was that he was more concerned with working and surviving than marrying and having other responsibilities.

As I sat, he told me to wait five minutes, not to go anywhere. He had to do his daily pooja, a prayer of sorts. He first took water and washed (or purified in Hindu culture) his hands. He then splashed water on the stoop of his shop and rubbed the stoop so it was nice and wet. Moving past me into the back of his shop, I smelt two incense being lit and turned to see him gazing upon an (invisible to me) picture that he later revealed was his grandfather. He waved the incense around that picture, the picture of his God and guru, around stickers and idols that were holy, and the like. He came to the stoop and waved it around the stoop, touched the stoop with his hands and prayed briefly. He continued this action around his tea kettle, stove, food and biscuits, inside his money box, and whatever else that needed blessing. He then stuck one incense on a pole near his stand to let it burn down. With the other, I saw him move to the back and for a good minute or two closed his eyes, face his Grandfathers painting, put his hand together in front of his heart, then is forehead, then his heart again, all the while his lips moving, chanting a prayer or mantra. He then kissed the feet of his Grandfather, then his forehead, and placed the picture back on the mantle.

Then, as if nothing had changed, he sat down across from me, smiling. We then spoke of family. How many brothers and sisters I had and where they were, where my parents were, etc. Then we spoke of his. His grandfather was a sadhu, a acetic holy man of India. Their god was Makali, a variation of the mother God Kali, an avatar of Lord Shiva.

Thinking about eating soon (it was coming up on 6 pm and I had been there for a good two hours already), I asked about good restaurants, and he gave me the name of a few, which I figured I would head out to a little later. I thought about him always manning the restaurant, and wondered when he eats, so I asked what he does for dinner. He eats right there at his shop between nine and ten, alone. I told him it was better to eat in company than alone in a restaurant (or at home) so I asked if I could join him for dinner. Not really believing that I was asking that, he agreed to cook for the both of us.

Time flew by. I went around the block with his two friends on a motorcycle. I attempted to drive it, but being that it was already dark, the streets were crowded, and it was a manual bike, the three of us (Rakesh, Prasham and I) thought maybe that was a bad idea. His other friend, Prashan, had come by a little earlier. Seeing a white foreigner sitting in an Indian tea stall for so long, and talking with Pritam for all that while was beginning to attract attention. No matter, let them watch.

To quell any confusion, Rakesh was just a friend of Pritam who owned the shop next over, a mobile phone shop. However, he was different from Prashan and Pritam. Rakesh smoked, drank, used chewing tobacco etc. Prashan and Pritam were for the most part “clean”. They didn't smoke, didn't use any tobacco, and never drank. They were diligent in their duties, honored their friends and family, and are a sterling example for good people the world over. There was much more kindness and sincerity in the voices of Pirtam and Prashan than Rakesh. However, this is my mind saying this, and many different cultural influences must be taken into account as the cause.


No one was buying chai, so the three of us (Pritam, Prashan, and myself) shared many good laughs and talked as best we could of different subjects. Calling various friends by different animal names and what not. Pigs, Cows, Chilis. I joked that because Pritam was so nice that he was my guru. When I got up to jokingly touch his feet, he gripped my arms very tightly and pulled me up, being serious that I don't do that, but giving all his friends a good laugh.

After some time, Prashan asked if I wanted to go for a walk. I walked with Prashan to his house and met his family, his brothers, his cousins and his shop. Everyone wanted to shake my hand. Prashan kept encouraging me to say 'nice to meet you' in both Hindi and Italian. Why not? It seemed like entertainment for everyone. He kept saying people were upset and jealous of him. Can people really be that jealous over befriending a foreigner? Did I misunderstand the jealousy?

As a wonderful and hospitable treat, his father served me a drink called catu (pronounce Cha-Too). It is a lemon based drink. It consists of water, lemon powder, and salt. Lemons are not my favorite taste, but I enthusiastically drank it in light of their kindness. To put it down and say no thank you would have been a great insult. So I and Prashan sat in his father’s tiny shop, the only source of light being a small oil lamp. He encouraged me to drink the catu as curious towns folk looked on. This was not a main street in town, and it was obvious that Prashan came from a poorer upbringing than I had imagined. After the catu, they served me more chai of course.

On our walk, Prashan was also kind enough to also give me the gift of his necklace to remember him by. He kept saying how I was his best friend (although I don't think it can be thought of in the same context that we usually think of “best friends.”) The necklace is small, quaint, and has the pendant of Lord Hanuman on one side, and Lord Shiva on the other. It was one of the kindest gifts I have received. We also, which was strange to me, held hands. While it is strange in American or some Western cultures, it is more common place in India for good friends of the same sex to hold hands as opposed to friends or significant others of the opposite sex. Due to globalization though, in modern cities you can see a change.

As I am a tourist in this place, in many other cities it seemed normal for people to ask for money for their hospitality. No one had asked, but I felt a sort of duty to spare some change for his poverty-stricken family. But even as I reached into my pocket to get a few bills, Prashan's eyes widened, and he quickly cupped his hands around mine and said “No, no, no, no, bringing you here makes me very happy. No money. This makes me happy.” I tried again to even offer a small bill, but he very tenaciously denied it.

This made me all the more happy that it was true hospitality at it's core, pure kindness without a thought of repayment. It seems that true hospitality always comes at a price in the western world, and while there are millions upon millions of kind people, we can't lie to ourselves, the majority often looks for a return when they give. “Give and you shall receive.” Well sometimes, it's not immediate, and I think that's something we have to remember. You will receive, but don't force it, let it happen on it's own terms. You'll find the surprise return all the most enlightening.

A quick note on New Jalpaiguri and everyone's hospitality:
New Jalpaiguri is basically a big transport hub next to the city of Silliguri. It doesn't serve many other purposes and there is not a lot to see (hence my first thought of the town). That being said, very few foreigners come here, especially to stay for a full day of talking to people. So for them to have so much time with a tourist I think was a very new, strange, and different experience, which it seemed they were enjoying.

After Prashan's house, introductions, saying hello, nice to meet you over and over, I came back to Pritam and saw him preparing dinner. I watched him cook chapatis, egg and potato curry, and some fresh onions. As we sat down to eat - just the two of us, Prashan had gone home while Pritam was cooking – he brought out some fresh fish curry for us to eat. They looked like sardines, but how can I turn down such hospitable service. And when I ate them, they were delicious! The whole meal had some of the most delicious foods I've ever eaten. But beyond taste, it was the atmosphere that really added to the experience.

When we finished, I put my small plates all into my main plate and this seemed to upset Pritam. He kept saying “very bad, very bad”, and when I asked why, and apologized ten times over, he would say, “No, very bad me, very bad me.” All I could figure out was that it had something to do with me being his guest. Perhaps not taking away my plates before I could stack them? I still haven't figured that one out.

After dinner, I asked if he liked sweets. He said yes, he likes Ladu (these small Indian sweet balls comparable to a dry gulab jamun), so I ran a couple shops over and grabbed four for us to share. He kept saying no, I was his guest, but he was so hospitable I insisted that he eat them. So together we sat and ate two Ladu each. Coming up on eleven, he said it was getting time to close up shop. No problem, I was getting tired, and I had already spent seven hours hanging out with him. So I came up close to him and told him I had a gift (earlier as a first gift, I had given him a single American dollar bill and one of my Apple t-shirts). He kept saying no, no, no, trying to deny me, but I placed a bill in his hand, closed his hand and told him not to look at it till later. He grabbed my arm trying to pull me back to give me back the money, but I pulled away quickly, chuckling, and leaping out of his reach saying it was for him. He said tomorrow, chai is free.

And then I went to sleep. This brings me back to the beginning of the story. I was woken up at 6:45 by Pritam, hand delivering me a chai and biscuit. He must have come to the hotel and asked where the foreigner was staying. After I woke, showered and packed up, I went down to hang out at his shop with Prashan where he made me egg and toast. All because he wanted to. Together the three of us ate. What a kind, gentle man. After a while, and one more cup of chai, we exchanged hugs and kisses, and away I went.

It was an overall great experience, and it turned around my view of the city. There might not be a lot to see here. It's not at all a touristy town. Cities can be dreadful, but it's really true – it is the people that make up the city. I am happy to be leaving today, but will sincerely remember and miss my dear friend, Pritam.

Pritam had kept repeating one mantra throughout me thanking him for his hospitality. He said:

“With friends, no sorrys and no thank yous.”

As a side note:

Strange though, both Pritam and Prashan asked if I could get them jobs... either in America or Bangalore. I want to help them so bad. Get them away from a small tea stall in New Jalpaiguri. Get them away from the poverty, and struggling. From the day to day hustle and bustle of a town that has very little to offer other than a train station. At least they have friends and laugh and appear to be happy.

I have their addresses, so I hope that there is a way that I can help.


  1. Hi Norm,
    Great Blog. One question? What are punks?
    I'm copying this one and sending tit to a few friends.
    You are having adventures that few have and we admire you alot.
    Looking forward to more.
    Grandma and Grandpa

  2. Hi Norman,
    what a wonderful story. All of these great experiences and the interaction with so many different people in the end will make you an even better human being. This is an opportunity of a life time that you have taken. Impressed by your courage.
    Love Mom

  3. Hi Norm,
    This is the comment from friends in the Village that have read your Blog. I quess Grandma and I are not the only ones to admire your writing skill.
    Grandma and Grandpa

    Norm, Both Wilson and I thoroughly enjoyed your grandson's account of his trip. He is an excellent writer. Held our attention all the way through the letter. Please share any more with us. We are interested. Helen