Lord of the road

Lord of the road

In his heart-rending 1958 film, Ajantrik, film-maker Ritwik Ghatak depicts a man’s love and dependence on a machine—his taxi. Kolkata-based photographer Swapan Nayak finds this being replicated, as movingly, in the hills of the Darjeeling district of West Bengal.

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The difference being, the 1920 Chevrolet in Ghatak’s film has been replaced by Land Rovers dating back to the 1950s. And Bihar, the film’s locale, is now the forbidding inclines leading up to Sandakphu, West Bengal’s highest peak.

The humanizing of the machine, the zealous sense of possession and the doggedness against change in an era of easy-EMI consumerism, are traits that anchor the Land Rover community in this difficult-to-access region of the country.

It was to serve a functional need that we took our first ride in one of these Land Rovers. Having arrived in the little village of Maneybhanjang—the gateway for the trek to Sandakphu—after two weeks of intense travelling, we were spent on energy to undergo the 21km trek to the windswept pinnacle of West Bengal at an altitude of 12,000ft.

But in a local driver Sukman Tamang’s 1958-built Land Rover—one from the fleet of Land Rovers that British tea planters introduced to the Darjeeling Hills in the 1950s—we had our answer.

With no other transport with the wherewithal to service the route, the four-wheel drives respond positively to the needs of camera-toting tourists as well as local villagers. In the Land Rovers, the entire region finds an answer.

It’s a monopoly that has earned the Darjeeling hills the sobriquet of being the last outpost for the commercial use of the vintage vehicles of the iconic once-British, now-Tata Motors-owned brand.

Since their colonial-era introduction, these vehicles have been bought and inherited across generations of local transporters. Over the years, the Land Rover’s hardiness and off-roading flexibility has survived the elements, ominously rough dirt tracks and the hazards of time.

As Tamang carefully arranges the supply of essentials that he is transporting to high-flung villages, we find ourselves surrounded by an elderly Nepali couple, sacks of rice and sugar, packs of biscuits and Wai Wai noodles, cartons of mineral water and rum, and a wicker basket full of chirping chicks. It’s cramped inside, which is just as well for once the vehicle starts climbing a cruel gravel-strewn incline near the wonderfully bleak hamlet of Meghma at 2,900m, rations and chicks, all seem to head for us at the back but can’t for lack of space to manoeuvre.

The Land Rover huffs, pants and bellows. It disengages hundreds of pebbles into deep gorges. Metal rattles against metal as the machine negotiates hairpin bends to finally reach its destination. Like it always does.

The next dawn, at frosty Sandakphu, Tamang diligently points out the spectral outlines of four of the world’s five tallest peaks—Everest, Kanchendzonga, Lhotse and Makalu catching the first light of the sun according to their hierarchy of heights. And there it stands behind us—the Land Rover, as much a part of the Sandakphu landscape as any of these.

Photographs by Swapan Nayak

Swapan Nayak, recently quit his 15-year career as a photojournalist to work as a freelance photographer. In 2009, he was awarded a two-year senior fellowship for photography from the Union ministry of culture. He is currently working on communities and landscapes in West Bengal.

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