I consider myself to be a relatively intelligent human being, but there are some things that I simply cannot fathom. Take recreational running, for example. I can understand the concept of legging it if you’re being chased by a pack of rabid dogs, certainly, but running just for the heck of it, apropos nothing? Sorry, I’ll take an autorickshaw, thanks. Or airplanes, to name another dark mystery. There’s aerodynamics and thrust and propulsion and all of that, but still, an aircraft is the world’s heaviest plumbing pipe – how does the damn thing stay in the air? The crux of it is something that I will never fully grasp, no matter how many times someone explains it, and I felt a familiar wave of incomprehension sweep over me as I sat shivering in the back of a Series 1 Land Rover, high up in the hills on the India/Nepal border.
It was cold up there, really bloody cold. The wind was howling right through the partially covered back of the Land Rover, bringing with it a fine spray of rain, and despite being kitted out in a thick winter jacket and a woollen hat and gloves, I felt for all the world like I was sitting there clad only in Speedos. My friend Chandra, who intended to make a film on these Land Rovers, was in even worse shape, running a high fever and barely being able to speak. We were only part of the way through a 7-hour drive, on a road that had more big rocks in it than a Tiffany’s store, and I was flat out miserable.
The thing I simply couldn’t figure out was our driver, Sanjay. He was wearing a tattered T-shirt, thin pants and well perforated shoes, and by rights should have been in an advanced stage of hypothermia. Instead, he had a grin on his creased face and was whistling a tune as he stepped into the rain, to go and pluck some leaves off the hillside. I had no idea what the fuck he was doing, but I watched with growing fascination as he took his time collecting them, getting absolutely soaked in the process; he then rubbed them vigorously together in his palms and wiped the resultant sap all over the windscreen. Getting back in, with rainwater streaming from his hair, he turned to me, still grinning, and said “Wiper not working, no? Waterproof – no windscreen block.” And he was right – whatever the stuff was, it prevented the windscreen from fogging up, and every now and then, with one hand on the steering wheel, he would lean out the window and rub some more on.
We crawled further up the torturous road through the spectacular Singalila National Park, crisscrossing India and Nepal at various points, the Landie dismissing everything in its path, and it grew even colder. The rain stopped, thankfully, and as the clouds went off to spread misery elsewhere, the full majesty of the hills was revealed; even in my numbed state, I couldn’t help but marvel. I continued to be stunned by Sanjay; instead of being the end result of a cryogenic experiment, he had only grown in cheeriness. When we finally reached our destination, Sandakphu, it was pitch dark, most definitely below freezing – and there was no electricity. Sanjay helped us offload our bags, saw us into our suitably icy digs for the night and then bounded off, no doubt to take a cold shower after the day’s exertations. I dove under the pitifully ineffective quilts on my bed, and as I tried to drift into sleep, I realised that remarkable as the old Land Rovers were, it was the men who drove and looked after them that were the real deal.
Nobody seems to know exactly when these Land Rovers found their way to the town of Maneybhanjang (speculation veers from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s) but what is clear is that they’re the remnants of the fleets the British used to have in the tea plantations in Darjeeling. These Series 1 and 2 Landies were almost impossibly tough machines, able to go through any kind of terrain. They were light, they were mechanically simple and their reliability was the stuff of legend; it is precisely these traits that have helped them survive here for so long, tended to lovingly by men like Sanjay and Kalu Tamang, the head of the local driver’s and owner’s association.
In many ways, these machines are the lifeblood of Maneybhanjang, which is a base camp for the popular journey to Sandakphu, from where, on a clear day, you can see four of the five highest mountain peaks in the world. Those so inclined trek there over two days, sending luggage and supplies up in the Landies, and others choose to make the trip in them, as we had done. The 27 km journey takes seven hours, such is the nature of the terrain, and these classic machines make this trip day in and day out, sometimes reaching Sandakphu and immediately turning around for the return leg. Tamang said that despite having driven several other kinds of jeeps, the Land Rover is at a different level. “These new vehicles, they might last two or three years on the Sandakphu route, but then they’ll fall apart. The Land Rovers are the only vehicles that can take such a sustained beating, and I can tell you that they will last another 20 years, at least.” He threw in a (probably apocryphal) anecdote about how the examiner repeatedly failed him during his driver’s licence test, but then passed him on the spot once he learnt that Tamang regularly drove up to Sandakphu.
Tamang and his colleagues are fiercely protective about their territory. When the government drew up a plan to tar the road leading up to Sandakphu, the Land Rover Association shot down the idea. “Trekkers would have stopped coming, because the route would have become easy to walk on, and we would have gone out of business, since other vehicles would have been able to drive up there. You can call this selfish, perhaps, but we can’t help it – this is our only source of income, after all”, said Tamang. “It’s not just that”, said Akbar, the chief mechanic in Maneybhanjang. “We depend on these machines to put food on our tables, yes, but we also love them – to me, all the Land Rovers here are like my children, and how would I live without my children? I would even say that I love them more than my own wife, but please don’t tell her that.”
Watching Akbar at work, in his dimly lit garage, I began to understand just how important he is to the small community here. “I’ve been a mechanic since I was 12”, he said, as he put the clutch chain from a Royal Enfield motorcycle onto a Land Rover engine block, using it as a timing chain. “I wanted to be a driver, at first, but then I realised I really loved looking after the Land Rovers, so I taught myself how to fix them, with some help from an older mechanic. It’s difficult to get original parts these days, so I make do by using Ambassador parts, Mahindra parts and pretty much anything I can find – if I can’t find it, I make it.” He’s as much of an artist as he is a mechanic, to be honest – his calloused hands have a surprisingly delicate touch, and his every move is well-considered, precise. “I’ll do this for as long as I can, but I think I’ll be the last person here to do it. Why would youngsters these days want to become mechanics, with all the opportunities they have now?” It’s a sobering thought, and one that brings with it the classic tussle between tradition and progress. The march of progress is usually inexorable, no matter how strong the pull of nostalgic memories, and these men and the Land Rovers they live and work with won’t last forever. While they’re still around, though, you can be sure that whatever they do, it’ll be with an insouciant whistle and a broad smile.