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The Bird who found the Sky: Mapping Memories, Experiences, and Beyond

During my school days, while curating a photo story for an exhibition, I chanced upon St. Joseph’s College in Darjeeling.
The Bird who found the Sky: Mapping Memories, Experiences, and Beyond by Neel Bhattacharjee
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In the vivid tapestry of my past, there exists a defining moment etched in memory — a day when I stood at the edge of a railway track, donning my school uniform, poised between conformity and liberation. It wasn’t a moment of despair, but rather a courageous yearning to break free from the shackles of academic expectations. Contemplating the possibility of boarding a train and leaving behind the spectre of academic failure looming over my class 12 board examinations due to abysmal attendance, I grappled with the notion of shaping my own destiny.

However, fate had a different course in mind. Summoning the courage to step away from the precipice, I made my way home, ready to unveil my true passion — a burning desire to pursue visual artistry. To my surprise, my family, familiar with the realm of creativity, embraced my revelation with understanding, albeit lamenting the delay in my confession.

The ensuing year became a testament to unwavering dedication as I immersed myself in academic pursuits, striving for excellence despite modest results. Though not dazzling, my achievements paved the way for the next chapter beyond high school. As I waited for the revelation of my results, a solo journey beckoned me to the enchanting landscapes of Darjeeling. This expedition into the mountains, my inaugural venture into their serene embrace, unfolded like a reverie. The hills bore witness to a profound shift in my perspective, laying the groundwork for a transformative chapter yet to unfold.

During my school days, while curating a photo story for an exhibition, I chanced upon St. Joseph’s College in Darjeeling. Enshrouded in mist and mystery, the college appeared to float amidst the clouds, sparking a realization within me. It wasn’t merely a place of academia; rather, it seemed to beckon individuals like me who prioritized self-discovery over conventional academic pursuits. The ethereal charm of St. Joseph’s hinted at a unique metamorphosis awaiting those who dared to embrace it.

With satisfactory results in hand, I seized the opportunity to apply to St. Joseph’s College and secure a coveted spot in its hostel. As a Bengali hailing from Howrah, this decision carried significant weight, particularly given my familial ties and the hills’ association with Anjan Dutt, a renowned figure whose transformative journey resonated deeply with me. However, I harboured no desire to emulate others; instead, I sought to carve my own path and nurture my distinct identity. Darjeeling, with its promise of liberation from societal expectations, emerged as the ideal canvas for my personal evolution.

As days turned into months, I found myself settled into life as a hosteler at St. Joseph’s College. My interactions with the beautiful hill city had already begun shaping my perspective. In the hostel, I observed a noticeable gap between the Nepali, Rajbangsi, and Bengali communities, as if they had found comfort within their own circles. I, however, aimed to break free from these norms. Despite invitations from some hostel seniors to join their company during hostel hours, it felt like nonsense to me. Having arrived in a region predominantly inhabited by the Nepali community, I felt a sense of responsibility to understand their culture and language. Surprisingly, I managed to pick up conversational Nepali within just three months, faster than many others. Love was my driving force. I had fallen for a Limbu girl, and while I won’t reveal her name, her surname became more than just a name—it became a symbol. My initial inspiration was the new city itself; however, my beloved not only deepened my connection to it but also became my muse. She and her city spoke to my soul in unheard melodies, adding an extra layer of beauty to my journey.

As I mentioned earlier, my aspiration was to become a visual artist. Over time, I discovered a new term that resonated with me – a Visual Composer. Growing up surrounded by paintings, thanks to my father being a painter, I, unfortunately, can’t paint. Instead, I channel my creativity into working with photographs. During my time in Darjeeling, I crafted a unique visual style that set my images apart from others, earning me recognition and acceptance within the artistic community of Darjeeling. I being privy to their stories and struggles, have seen how, within that tight-knit community, a wave of ambition has emerged gradually, driving many of my peers from college to embark on their own entrepreneurial journeys. This burgeoning trend offers a stark contrast to the prevailing narrative in larger metropolitan areas, where the relentless pursuit of capitalist ideals often channels individuals into conventional office roles within established institutions. In the bustling streets and cozy corners of Darjeeling, there’s a palpable sense of creativity and innovation. Rather than conforming to the traditional career trajectory dictated by corporate structures, residents of this charming town are charting their own paths to success. It’s a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of the human spirit, as individuals harness their skills and talents to carve out niches in the local economy. Instead of relying solely on external employment opportunities, I have found residents of Darjeeling seizing the reins of their own economic destiny slowly but steadily, fostering a culture of independence and empowerment.

I believe that the concept of a metropolis is subjective, defined by the level of urbanity that a city presents to an individual with limited city experiences. In that sense, no city is inherently small or large; instead, its metropolitan nature is defined by the attitudes of its inhabitants towards space and their interactions within it. Living in Darjeeling has heightened my awareness of neighbourly care, an aspect that I find slowly diminishing in larger metropolitan areas. In the latter, people are increasingly opting for apartment living, leading to smaller, fragmented families and a loss of community cohesion. This shift towards micro-families undermines the creation of inclusive societies. Conversely, in Darjeeling, despite its modest size, the preservation of traditional values fosters a strong sense of inclusivity and harmony among its residents. Here, people cherish the community spirit and live in harmony, in stark contrast to the blurred sense of neighbourhood typical of larger metropolitan areas. The community spirit prevails over religious differences as well, with vibrant celebrations of events like Losar, Tewar, Bhaitikka, Dassai, and Dusshera. The tradition of playing Deusure and Bhailini songs door-to-door throughout the night for blessings remains lively. Participating in these traditions with my friends, I discovered a level of care for each other that is unparalleled in today’s world. Despite the encroaching global sameness, Darjeeling retains a distinctive character and a commitment to community values that sets it apart.

Darjeeling’s identity as a tourist destination adds a layer of complexity to the concept of ‘home’ for its residents and visitors alike. For residents, the influx of tourists transforms their hometown into a bustling hub, often presenting challenges of balancing their daily lives with the demands of the tourism industry. Yet, amidst the throngs of visitors, residents find comfort in the familiarity of their surroundings, creating a sense of belonging amidst the transient nature of tourism. For individuals like me, Darjeeling represents a ‘home away from home,’ a sanctuary where I can immerse myself in the tranquillity of the hills. Navigating these dilemmas of lived experiences — balancing the familiarity of home with the allure of exploration, embracing the transient nature of tourism while cultivating lasting connections —Darjeeling has been imbued with a unique charm that captivates hearts and souls alike. It is in this interplay of identities and experiences that the true essence of Darjeeling unfolds, inviting all to embrace the beauty of its contradictions and complexities.

Unlike bustling metropolises, Darjeeling descends into profound quietude at night. The neighboring hills, cloaked in dense fog, create a surreal backdrop. On rare occasions, the full moon emerges, and stars seem to cascade down the hills, while distant lights twinkle like stars from a far-off galaxy. At other times, the city offers a symphony of diverse sounds – the early morning namaz from the mosque, the Gregorian chants resonating from the church, the fluttering Buddhist flags carrying silent chants through the air, and the melodious bells from the mandir. These sounds collectively traverse the enigmatic landscapes of Darjeeling, becoming a part of the celestial orchestra that embeds itself in our memories, making us feel connected to something larger, something cosmic.

The dainty little hill station richly deserves the sobriquet ‘Queen of the Hills;’ for me, however, the connection is too deep to put into words without defiling it. No matter how long I muse about Darjeeling, the amalgamation would always be greater than the individual stories that I attempt to narrate about this picturesque hilltop city. As they say, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

Neel Bhattacharya is a lens-based art practitioner and researcher, whose interdisciplinary practice delves into the visualization of time, space, and causation, informed by his background in communication, journalism, research, and metaphysics. Holding undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in communication studies, Neel has garnered recognition, including gold medals from St. Joseph’s College, Darjeeling, and the University of North Bengal. With a portfolio of collaborations including institutions like the Goethe Institute, TDC Magazine India, Sola Journal, Photo.Circle, Experimenter Outpost, Glenary’s, Tibetan Refugee Centre, India Art Architecture and Design Biennale 2023, and Maya Art Space, Neel’s work occupies the intersection of aesthetics, reflective thinking, and faction.

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