I’m in agony. My head hurts from the relentless clanging of metal and glass around me, from a massive hunger headache and from the icy winds blowing right through my cap. My spine feels like it’s on the verge of collapse, from being mercilessly compressed and decompressed. My shoulder is bruised, from being flung off my seat and into a piece of roof-piping, and my lower back has been jabbed painfully by an exposed bolt, into which it keeps crashing. I feel like I’m sitting inside the mechanical equivalent of a rodeo horse and a pogo stick put together, and I mentally flinch when I realise that there are about five more hours of this to go — and it’s now raining, to add to the fun.
The driver, Sanjay, is about as far removed from my condition as you can get. With a smile on his face and a whistle on his lips, he steers the vehicle ever upwards, bend after excruciating bend, rut after massive rut. When it breaks down on a couple of occasions, he steps out in the rain, with only a sweater protecting him against the elements, and fixes it himself. When he gets tired of using the hand-operated windshield wiper, he gets out, again in the rain, plucks a few leaves off the mountainside, rubs them together in his palms and spreads the sap over the windscreen; it works like a charm, with the windscreen staying un-fogged from then onwards. I marvel at his nonchalance, his sheer toughness, his casual ingenuity, his unflinching good humour — I would find it near-impossible to maintain any sort of equilibrium in conditions like these.
Sanjay is no ordinary driver, and the vehicle I’m in isn’t some run-of-the-mill banger either. It’s a Series I Land Rover from 1954, and it’s part of a fleet of 33 Series I and II Land Rovers that operates in Maneybhanjang, in the Darjeeling hills. Maneybhanjang is the base camp for a trek up to a place called Sandakphu, 13,000 feet up in the air and straddling India and Nepal, and the road leading there is the one that these Land Rovers operate on — the same road that I have been describing in the preceding paragraphs. It is 28 km of pure torture — it is narrow, its surface can be likened to the moon, it is terrifyingly steep in places and it takes almost seven hours to traverse it. Yet it’s also beautiful, because it cuts through the Singalila National Park, offers breathtaking views and is truly the journey of a lifetime — and these Land Rovers are the only vehicles capable of handling the route. They’ve been doing it since the early 1960s, and the very fact that they’re still standing is testament to their sturdy character.
Kalu Tamang, an old-timer who owns a few of these machines, recalls the time when he was a strapping young lad (which is not to allege that he’s unfit now — he’s lean and wiry) and had first begun driving Land Rovers. “I had no experience of driving any vehicles but I took to the Land Rover very quickly. In fact, when I went to apply for my driver’s licence, they failed me on the first test. Then, during the second attempt, I told the examiner that I’d been driving the Sandakphu route regularly. He asked why I hadn’t mentioned it earlier, and passed me on the spot!” I ask him if he’s driven any other make of vehicle, and if he’d like to move on to something more modern. “Yes, I’ve driven other jeeps and the like, but there’s nothing like the Land Rover — you’ll never find anything that is as tough. With these new vehicles, they might last a couple of years on the Sandakphu route, but they’ll never be able to take the sustained beating that these Land Rovers can take. I can guarantee that my vehicles will lastanother 15-20 years.” I believe him.
These machines are the lifeline of the people of Maneybhanjang, and of the little villages that dot the road up to Sandakphu. The men who own them, the drivers who’re employed by the owners, and the guides who accompany tourists — all these people depend on the Land Rovers in order to put bread on the table. In fact, when the government wanted to tar the Sandakphu road, the Land Rover association here opposed the move, saying it would discourage trekkers and also allow any vehicle to traverse the route, putting them out of business. You could view this as a selfish step, but there’s also no doubt that these men love their machines as much as they do their wives and children. A Land Rover isn’t simply a machine to them — it’s a living being, worthy of as much love and attention as their own family.
One man who showers these vehicles with love and attention is Akbar, the resident mechanic. Actually, that’s doing him a grave disservice — he’s an artist, just as much as any sculptor or painter. To watch him at work, putting together a Series I petrol engine, is to be in the presence of someone who lives and breathes his art. His every move is measured, precise; his touch is gentle and subtle. When I meet him, he’s putting an Enfield clutch chain onto the engine block, using it as a timing chain. “You don’t get parts easily these days, so I have to improvise.
Ambassador parts, Mahindra parts, parts that I make myself — I get by with all these, and I never have a problem.” When I ask how long he’s been doing this, he says “Since I was 12-years-old. I didn’t want to do it initially — I wanted to be a driver. Then I found that I loved looking after these machines, and I taught myself how to do it, with some guidance from another mechanic.” As he puts the finishing touches on the engine, it’s clear to me that here is someone who puts his heart and soul into what he does.
None of these men are collectors, or members of fancy vintage car clubs; they do what they do because they have to, because it keeps them alive — but they do so with a passion and sense of affection that is worthy of any Concours d’elegance winner. How long they’ll be able to continue doing so, in the face of progress and more advanced machinery, is anybody’s guess, but one thing is certain — these men will give it their all, and they’ll have a smile on their faces and a whistle on their lips while they do it.