Hot Feet and Far Hills -- by Judy Cannon

High concourse in the Himalayas

A Darjeeling driver and a guide, both wrapped in dark winter clothes and woollen hats pulled
down hard over their heads, picked me up at the hotel. Both looked like rogues, especially 
when they grinned.  It was an extremely cold day but they were happy to take me on a tour
of the fertile slopes of the tea plantations.

Acres and acres of tea bushes stretched as far as the eye could see. They were in ordered, 
clipped rows of almost military precision and stood inert as if it were too cold to put forth a 
rebellious twig. The guide joked that no one could get a decent cup of tea in Darjeeling 
because all the best tea was exported. But he was more than willing to have his photograph
taken among the tea bushes in our area where more recently there had been increasing 
worry about leopards. Working on steep inclines among dense rows of bushes, several 
workers had been attacked by hungry animals. 

We also visited the Mountaineering Institute where mementos of Tenzing and Edmund 
Hillary, the first to conquer Everest, were revered.  There was too a photograph of the 
hand and head of a yeti, for which my guide ardently vouchsafed.  He said yetis lived
in the mountains in an area closed off for “religious reasons”. Whether he truly believed
this or it was just standard guide patter, I couldn’t know.  Also known as the abominable 
snowman, the yeti is supposed to be a large primate-like creature. Experts have 
dismissed the idea of its existence but some tracks and nests have suggested maybe 
the yeti lives. It could be a type of bear.  Darjeeling is such a fascinating, off-the-planet
sort of place, it would be easy to believe anything.

That evening, at the appointed time, I was looking forward to chatting about the day’s 
events with a man called Wolfgang, who had helped me on arrival when I temporarily
collapsed because of the thin Darjeeling air - and waited for him in the dim-lit dining
room. No other diners were there and two waiters fidgeted as they stood by the kitchen
door waiting for an order. Other figures slid in and out of the dining room but nobody 
stopped or spoke. I waited and waited until I could almost hear the minutes tick by.
Finally I gave up and ordered some food.

Wolfgang never did put in another appearance at the hotel.  The manager just 
shrugged his shoulders and when later I asked at the Tibetan refugee camp, where
he was supposed to be doing some business, no one knew of him.  It seems he had 
vanished into thin air.  It was a dark early, dreary January and local people on the 
street walked heads down, preoccupied with keeping warm in sharp winds.  There
seemed to be no other European visitors about the town and I was travel weary. 
The disappearance of Wolfgang, together with the eeriness of the dark hotel, and
being so far from home in this cold, cut-off place, began to get to me. It was literally
impossible to phone home.  That was why I was so glad to meet Mrs Wisden.

She was tall, erect, slim and must have been nodding eighty. She had the 
straight-up presence of a theatrical duchess, an aura of confidence and a certain
piquant élan, although obviously soon to become frail.  She was impeccably 
dressed, including coiffed silver hair and dark red lacquered nails. Around her 
scuffled and snuffled twelve small, fluffy dogs, including a snorting Pekinese 
and several Tibetan and Bhutanese bundles of hair that trotted faithfully 
wherever she went, a sort of yapping entourage. 

Marigold Wisden ran the Planters Club with calm authority, highly remarkable since she was
the last European resident left in Darjeeling. Recalled with respect by some and by others
with scepticism, the story of her life had to be exceptional, whatever the exact truth of it. 
Her courage in staying on in Darjeeling, now elderly and alone, 34 years after 
independence, was poignant in itself. I asked her why she stayed. She replied by asking
why should she leave and where would she go, although she admitted that an English 
planter she knew had been murdered in recent weeks and his widow and children
had packed up and gone. 

Khushwant Singh later wrote that the murdered planter’s story summed up the
tragedy of those who had made India their home and decided to stay on after 
it attained independence in 1947.

Marigold Wisden said her father had been with the former Indian Civil Service, 
and that, born in Darjeeling, she had been sent at the age of six to an English 
Catholic boarding school. She apparently had had three husbands, the last a 
Colonel Wisden, who took her and her mother to Kenya, where she spent 
several years. At some stage she joined her brother in Nepal, but he and his
family had since moved to New South Wales in Australia.  

She told me she had come to run the Darjeeling Planters Club 12 years earlier
when the club was broke, but by contacting tour operators she had managed 
to build up business again.

Ravi Kidwai, writing in 2001, commented, ’To those familiar with the club, not
much has changed though the spit and polish imparted by Mrs. Wisden is no 
longer in evidence.’

She would have appreciated the compliment.  She was a stern disciplinarian
and nightly toured with a Nepalese ‘houseboy’, who was all of forty, to watch 
him lock all the outside doors. Her forcefulness showed itself everywhere,
particularly in details.

Started for men only, the club was founded at nearby Thorn Cottage in 1896 by
tea planters, and only after the British withdrawal in 1947 were Indians admitted.
  Khushwant Singh wrote of it, ‘The Planters Club of Darjeeling is typical of British
Indian clubs ... Its present site, right above a noisy bazaar, was gifted to it in 1890
by the Maharajah of Cooch-Behar  in the full knowledge that this club like all others
of its genre at the time was meant “for Whites only”.

Its prized possessions included five original watercolours by a well-known
Anglo-Indian painter, snaffles (simple bridle-bit) and a brown bear’s head claimed
to be a gift from former Soviet president Nikita Kruschev.

The reception rooms ran to a bar, billiards room and a library. Still on display in 
glass cabinets were magnificent polo cups and plates fiercely competed for by
rival teams during the time of the Raj.  In the garden rested an old cannon, 
“God knows where it came from, it just sits there,” Marigold Wisden shrugged
when I asked.  Kidwai described it as an old Gatling gun which “still gleams
from polish there.” The club was comfortable and spacious. A verandah ran 
along the front and when the sky was clear, the magnificent Kanchanjungha
range could be seen in all its majesty, although the haze chose to grant me 
only a momentary glimpse.  British mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew 
Irvine, who lost their lives trying to climb Everest in 1924, were among 
well-known people who had stayed at the club.

Ravi Kidwai said not much was known about Marigold Wisden other than 
that she had been born in Darjeeling and “no one knows exactly what year.
” He added that a friend of hers had quipped, “For ten years we celebrated
her 64th birthday.”

Some helpful Darjeeling contacts let me know that Marigold Wisden died
there in 1983 and was cremated with Buddhist rites, her ashes scattered 
on the hillside. I think she would have liked that.  For her Darjeeling was
home and heart.

One evening she invited me to accompany her to visit her friend, Jimmy
Hulbert, an Anglo-Indian artist, whose English wife had died five years 
previously, and who now lived alone in a nearby hotel.  She armed me
with a heavy torch and said she always carried one herself because 
people walking after dark could get attacked. She claimed she had
seen off attackers once by striking them with the torch. Apprehensive in
view of her age, as well as on my own account, I felt we should walk 
as fast as we could along the dark, narrow streets. There were no street 
lights; there were nooks and dark corners everywhere, or so it seemed to 
me. The wind was spitting sleet and we kept our heads down. Later we
walked as briskly back as we had come and when we reached the
pathway to the club, she sighed dramatically, “Now we are safe.” 
I confess I was still looking over my shoulder.

We had been to visit Jimmy Hulbert, who indeed lived in a small room
at the top of a rundown hotel. He was 83, an enthusiastic, happy man,
still painting landscapes in water colours and oils in beautiful tones.
His work was known in English art galleries. When we arrived he had
waiting for us a bottle of brandy and a big open fire.  He could not
offer us tea because the hotel management had cut off his water supply
again.  Jimmy had security of tenure and the manager was trying to get 
rid of him so the hotel could be redeveloped.  As we went in I noticed
one of Jimmy’s fingers was wrapped in a bloodied adhesive bandage.
He had accidentally cut off the tip of his finger a few days earlier while
working.  Not bothered enough to see a doctor, he had merely stuck 
the tip of the finger back on and bandaged it up himself. 

We discussed the world, India, England, Australia, landlords, love and
life, and drank quantities of brandy in deep armchairs around the flickering
fire. We debated candidly and at length, in that tiny room at the top of a 
hotel, itself almost at the top of the world. The three of us were simpatico.

“She’s one of us,” said Marigold Wisden, looking significantly in my 
direction, towards the end of the evening. Jimmy nodded in agreement,
“She’s one of us,” he said. 

Maybe I was, I could not judge; but they and that evening 
stay in my heart.

Source: Hot Feet and Far Hills by Judy Cannon

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