I first heard of Ujjawal Chettri when we ordered tea cozies for Teabox, from his NGO, Reyso. I really liked that the Reyso had been set up to offer women working in tea gardens and those unemployed, a source of income. Every Saturday, I was told, women from in and around Darjeeling town come over to the Reyso store after lunch. Here, they enjoy a cup of chai, pick up some wool, share patterns, learn a new stitch and go home with their assignment for the week. For most of them, this weekly gathering and being part of Reyso is more than just a source of income – it’s a time to catch up with friends, and for some respite.
So, when I was in Siliguri last week, I decided to call on Ujjawal.
Ujjawal, it turns out, was a hard man to pin down. Many attempts later, I got through to him on the phone. I asked to meet in Siliguri. He insisted I go to Darjeeling town. He was getting his house ready to let out to tourists as a homestay, and I took up the invitation to be one of his early guests.
I set off for Darjeeling town, to the town centre – Chowrasta – where Ujjawal was waiting for me near the Planter’s Club. Ujjawal’s house was a 10-minute walk downhill, in Rose Bank. It was late evening, quite cold and growing dark quickly. But the 3-storeyed house that we stopped in front of – the Reyso Urban Homestay – was, even in the dark, a sight for sore eyes. Shrouded in plants and trees, its interiors were even more striking.
Ujjawal’s love for travel made it’s presence felt here. The main room of the house was almost a gallery, with curios from his travels, photographs and paintings. There were copper utensils from Nepal, a room divider made with Dhaka cloth – originally a fabric from Nepal, some Reyso creations, seats made from logs Ujjawal had found in the wilderness, a divan made of bamboo which grows abundantly in these parts… it was modern, eclectic and as interesting as the man who lived there, it seemed to me.
I spied a room that looked a bit like a workshop, with a bunk bed, a picture table, benches, a ukulele that – turns out – Ujjawal himself was making.
That evening, we were joined by Ujjawal’s cousin, Chirag – a popular radio jockey and artist from Kathmandu – and his painter/ guitarist friend, Anurag. Music took over the evening, as we played pieces from Bad Company, CCR, the Beatles and some original music written by the three of them. It faded into conversations on life, morality, philosophy and the meaning of it all.
When I finally hit the sack at dawn, it was to the view of a luminous blue – the valley, the mountains and the sky.
The next morning, I explored the space more. Outside was a large kitchen fitted with a clay oven, firewood, an old spice grinder and utensils. It’s the home stay’s kitchen with more fabulous views of the valley.
Over breakfast, I asked Ujjawal for his story. His family has been in Darjeeling for as long as he can remember. His grandmother started a free snake bite treatment clinic that is now managed by Ujjawal’s father and cousin. For the last two decades, Ujjawal worked as a tour operator, travelling the length and breadth of India and Nepal. A little over a year ago, he decided to return home.
After lunch, we headed into town. I couldn’t help but notice in the daylight that Rose Bank was cleaner than the rest of Darjeeling. When I mentioned this to Ujjawal, he talked about Darjeeling’s problem with garbage in the last decade. Once a pristine hill town, with a constant influx of people and hoards of tourists, keeping the town clean has become a problem. So Ujjawal roped in some teenagers and has begun a cleanliness drive.
“Look at that,” he said, pointing to what looked like a tourist spot. “That’s Victoria Falls. In the time of the British, water would gush down it and people would enjoy the view of the falls against the lush greenery.” What I was looking at now was a trickle down a rock, lined with garbage on one side. “We have to clean Victoria Falls,” Ujjawal was saying.
Darjeeling is a small town and we bumped into Anurag and Chirag again. Everybody in Darjeeling has time to stop for a chat. We went to Lion’s Gate, popular with the college crowd, and where local music bands play on weekends. It has a fabulous view of the Indo-Nepal border, and on a clear day, the Kanchenjunga peak.
I asked Ujjawal why he chose to return to Darjeeling – his wife still lives in Delhi working at an Embassy. He talked about what he saw on his travels, and the ideas he felt he could bring back to Darjeeling. In Rajasthan and Agra, he said, he met women who ran cooperatives that created products to bring in extra income. They were the inspiration for Reyso. “In Darjeeling, every woman used to knit.” His mother, Menuka Rai herself was something of a knitting fanatic. Along with his mother, and cousin, Ajay, Ujjawal began Reyso. But, he admits, the call of the mountains was also pretty strong.
Now in Darjeeling, Ujjawal is keen to pursue his interests while involving the community. Of the home stay, he says, “I want to offer a unique Darjeeling experience – of music, art, food, trekking, nature and societal welfare.” He talks about his Reyso Home Studio – that explains the ukulele I saw – where young musicians can come over to play, jam and record music – something very useful in Darjeeling where houses are too close together and neighbors are likely to complain of noise.
Is there anything you want to do for yourself, I ask, and he talks about a solo music album that he is working on.
Our meeting ended with Ujjawal heading home for the daily Skype chat with his wife, and I returned to Siliguri, a little bit wiser. Everyone, I had learnt from Ujjawal, needs to stop and take stock once in a while, and change course, if necessary.
To shop for tea cozies from Reyso, click here.
Photos by the author