Methinks if ever a movie is set in the Darjeeling hills of the 1940s-50s, it could be woven around the story of Lorna Elliott’s parents – all the right ingredients are there.

The couple met and fell in love in the backdrop of the Second World War, and the script would have a wounded European soldier, a beautiful “native” nurse, and romance in the hills.

There would be tea garden settings, both in Darjeeling and Assam, to add scenic color, and there would be a leopard to add color to the color.

And because we all love a twist, there would be an angry father of the girl, the like of whom “war hero” Keanu Reeves had to encounter in a vineyard in A Walk in the Clouds. But all is well in the end; the real life script guarantees a happy ending.

What else could a scriptwriter hope for?

FOREWORD

I learnt of Lorna’s parents after I posted one of my earliest blogs from Still Steeping in a Facebook group where the members, including the two of us, are alumni of schools in Darjeeling.

That blog was on my childhood in these hills, and I reasoned if anybody were to empathize, it had to be my fellow group members. I mean, whatever we maybe today – a laird, a lord, a rich man, a thief / a tailor, a drummer, a stealer o’ beef – our childhood was spent in halcyon Darjeeling… we bond.

Lorna, who lives in Australia now, “liked” the blog, and said she longed to visit Darjeeling once again.

As we began interacting over email, the germ of a story idea – on the life an English tea garden manager’s daughter and growing up in Darjeeling in the ’60s – began to take shape.

Lorna said she “would be delighted” to help, and we exchanged multiple emails and had Facebook chats. This is her story… I have tried to retain the flavor of her replies as much as possible.

BOYS, DANCES… A LEOPARD

Lorna was born in Darjeeling in 1953 to Kenneth Cline, a British soldier-turned-planter and his Indian wife, Gay Pandame, who was from the Lepcha community of the hills.

In between, she studied in Dow Hill School in Kurseong and St Joseph’s in Kalimpong. When home, she played with her pet leopard Diana. “Our life in the tea gardens was very interesting,” she recalled.

Life in the tea gardens – life that Lorna’s siblings, two sisters and a brother, opted for later – was “unique with so much to do and see.”

Lorna said as children, they “learnt a lot” in the tea gardens; “we would fish and enjoy having picnics in the hills,” and there were the mandatory visits to the clubs to watch black and white movies. “The Christmas parties were such excitement.”

The family menagerie started off with the usual dogs and cats. The exotic was added to it when Kenneth Cline moved to an Assam garden.

“(In Assam), we had a python, a monkey, a leopard… we often went hunting for deer and wild fowls. On a number of occasions we saw wild elephants, tigers and other wild animals.”

Lorna says her father found the abandoned leopard cub in the jungles of Assam, and brought her home. “Her name was Diana and she slept on the bed and was like a big pussy cat. She was playful, and loved riding in the jeep with us on drives.”

In fact, when her brother took Diana to his tea garden, Lorna said the leopard would wait on a tree and jump on him when he would return home. “Sadly, one day Diana ran into the jungle and disappeared, we never found her.”

School life in Darjeeling was equally exciting, Lorna recalls. “Those days, most of the teachers were from England and some of the students were also from the UK.

“We looked forward to our dances with our brother schools, ” she said referring to the nearby Victoria Boys. “We took great pride in decorating our halls and the delicious cakes and treats we would offer to our guests, the boys of Victoria School. The dances were grand and the boys always removed their caps and made us girls feel like ladies.

“I could never forget dancing to the tune of Pearly Shells. And dancing the fox trot and the cha cha.”

When Lorna was 18, the family left India and headed across the seas to Australia. Her parents also settled down in Papua New Guinea for sometime, where her father joined yet another tea garden.

But how did her father, this English soldier, land in an Indian plantation in the first place? The question brings me to the beginning: the love story of Kenneth Cline and Gay Pandame, a wounded soldier and a beautiful nurse.

DAD MEETS MOM

Lorna’s father Kenneth Cline was an Assistant Manager at Lopchu tea estate, which boasts of some of the most sought-after teas from Darjeeling. But that was after the war – the Second World War to be precise.

During the war, Cline, an Allied forces soldier of German-Irish descent, was with the Chindits – a British India special force that fought in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1943-44. Lorna’s mother Gay was a trained Lepcha nurse.

Cline was wounded while fighting the Japanese and evacuated to India. “That’s how he met my mother who happened to be a nurse,” said Lorna.

“Dad was shot in the leg and arm and was unconscious, and when he woke up the first person he saw was this beautiful lady who gave him a smile that captured his heart, she assured him that he would recover in no time.

It was love at first sight (for Kenneth Cline) and he felt the chemistry and that’s when he said ‘I will marry you’; my mum just smiled and he took that as a ‘yes’.”

It was around this time that the young British Army discharge met an Englishman looking for someone to help him out in the tea gardens, and was offered a job. Thus began Kenneth Cline’s life in the tea gardens.

“My dad joined tea so he could get married to my mum. He came to Darjeeling to ask my grandfather (for permission) to marry her and was chased out of his house,” Lorna said.

Apparently, her grandfather – a surgeon in those days – “frowned upon” the union as Cline was “not of the same tribe” as them.

“My grandfather’s name was Yen Singh, and the Lepchas revered him as he was an educated man. Those days a doctor was well respected.”

Lorna said though she does not have the details, she has heard stories of Yen Singh’s skills, of how he had performed one of the earliest skin grafting surgeries on a patient with severe burn injuries.

Such a man, obviously, needed winning over. But this too was achieved in due time, and the young couple got married in Darjeeling.

“My father fell in love with this beautiful lady,” said Lorna. “But he was also drawn to the beautiful snow-capped mountains.”

The rest, as one may well say, is the remainder of the film script.

 

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7 Comments

  1. Pradip Mookerji Reply

    Interesting articles / stories on one of my most favourite subjects …TEA !!
    Very well done, Anik Basu !!
    Look forward to more on this beautiful beverage named TEA ….

    Best regards,
    Pradip

  2. I am quite taken a back by the story. Some part of it seemed so familiar to my parents’ experience. They were in tge tea gardens and when they were in assam my dad came across leopard cubs during one of their hunting trips and had brought it home as a pet. He would go on bird hunting and ride one of those jeeps. My parents moved to tea gardens after they married which was a love marriage. I could visualise their time…thanks

  3. Great article and story! June Li sent me the link to your article because your story closely resembles those in my books, A Sahib’s Daughter and The Jewel Daughters, both available on Amazon as e-books and in paperback. I’m visiting India from the US this Sunday for two weeks to visit my mother who lives in Shillong.
    Keep up the good work!!
    Nina Harkness

    • Aravinda Ananth Reply

      Hi Nina, thanks for dropping by. Anik Basu pointed me to your link over the weekend actually and we were talking about getting in touch with you. Shall be in touch.

  4. Lorna Elliott Reply

    Very well written.
    Enjoyed that very much Would love to share my stories with such a talented writer
    Regards Lorna

  5. Very well written a superb writer you are.I look forward to reading your articles.
    This is a wonderful true story that jumps out of the pages .
    Thank you Anik

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