Early in Black Narcissus, the English agent working for the Indian General, Mr. Dean, sends a letter to the nuns, describing Mopu, the palace high in the Himalayas where they are to establish their outpost, and how to reach it.  “It’s not a comfortable spot,” he writes, “and it’s at the Back of Beyond. First you have to get to Darjeeling and then I have to find you ponies and porters to take you into the hills.  Mopu is nearly 8,000 feet up.  The peaks on the range opposite are nearly as high as Everest.  The people call the highest peak Nyanga-Devi; it means, ‘The Bear Goddess.’…  Mopu Palace stands in the wind on a shelf in the mountain.  It was built by the General’s father to keep his women there.  It’s called a palace, but there may be a slight difference between your idea of a palace and the general’s.  Anyhow, there it is…  The wind up at the palace blows 7 days a week, so if you must come, bring some warm things with you.   [The caretaker] lives there alone, with the ghosts of bygone days.”

To get to Darjeeling, he could have added, you can take the narrow-gauge ‘toy train.’  The train winds up 88 km from Siliguri for an eight-hour journey.  It’s pulled by an honest-to-goodness steam engine, with someone to shovel the black chunks of coal into a fire and everything. The whistle can blow out your eardrums. If you have your window open, each time the engine belches out a thick burst of steam, tiny pebbles of soot will buffet your face.  As you ascend higher and higher, the green of the tea plantations take over the hillside, and after you cross bridges and duck under tunnels so tight that they could be a tube, the tea plants await you on the other side.  Halfway up, you pass through a cloud barrier, and, perhaps for the first time in India, you feel cold. At noon, no less!  The clouds become a mist, a veil obscuring the tops of trees and darkening the sky.  Or you can take a taxi for a 3½ hour ride along treacherous roads edged with concrete barriers to serve as a bump before you tumble to your doom.

To get to New Jalpaiguri, he might have pointed out, you fly into Bagdogra Airport, which is about 14 km from Siliguri.  Inside the terminal at Bagdogra, which at one time was an Indian Air Force base, all the television stations are tuned to the 24-hour global news cycle.  You can stay up-to-date on which Bollywood stars plan to marry, and see their pictures framed in clip-art hearts that bounce around to the theme of Chariots of Fire.  Cats lounge beneath the rows of formed-plastic seats.  They eat only meat products, though they’ll sniff anything you put on the ground.  On average, only four flights come in and out of Bagdogra’s three runways each day.  Take your pick:  Delhi, Kolkata, or Guwahati.  Where you go after that, Mr. Dean surely meant to say, is no concern of mine.

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