Courtesy: Sound of misty Hills
Vortex of electric, electronic and techno-mechano music By Peter J Karthak, the founder member of the HILLIANS band, Darjeeling

Soon after the British left Darjeeling after India’s independence in 1947, Americans appeared to fill in their vacant slots. There were some Canadians, too. This was noticeable in the Protestant missions deserted by the centuries old British missionaries.

By 1956, the year I arrived in Darjeeling town from my village farm in Nor Busti, American missionaries had occupied many niches in Darjeeling. They established a big Bible school in Mirik.

My proximity with many American arrivals was due to my mother working for some of them. The first were the Alvin Bergs at the Eden Chine below the Gymkhana Club. The ex-head mistress of the Scottish Mission School in Nor Busti, Mother worked as their cook preparing Nepali dal-bhat-tarkari-achar-and-masu cuisine, the local tastes the Americans wanted to acquire in the new environments. Mother also assisted them in translation and interpretations in Nepali and English, acquainting the Yankees with the local colours and ethos of Darjeeling.

The next American family she worked for were the Roy P Hagens. They had four sons, and Carl was quite friendly with me because he relished our bhat-and-masu khana by many platefuls. And he ate with his right hand in our kitchen in the “servants’ quarters” where we lived.

I was only 11 at that time. But many questions haunted me. One, didn’t they go to the Korean War that had just ended in a stalemated armistice? Perhaps they did, and they returned alive to do the Lord’s bidding in Darjeeling. Secondly, why were they all with German surnames – Berg, Hagen and all that? Three, why did they live exclusively and secluded in the lovely cottages and bungalows camouflaged by the sylvan surroundings of the town’s scenic hills? They hardly came to the town’s still active churches manned and managed by Nepali Christians. Occasionally they did, only to disappear again for long intervals in Stephen’s Mansion, Kutchery Road, Jala Pahar, St. Paul’s and behind the Union Church. They had a nice and comfortable colony in Mirik where they produced Bible graduates to found new churches in the northeast and Nepal. Likewise, the entire northeast of Assam also had many new American missionaries, and a family took my mother to work with them. Having lived in Shillong, where her two boys were born during WWII, she was quite familiar with the then Assamese surroundings.

The American missionaries helped me help The Hillians form and mature in the early 60s by lending me their acoustic guitars. From them, I knew about Gibson and Martin brands of guitars. One couple had a metal guitar called dobro which intrigued me. It was a white-and-gold shiny and stylistic Roy Rogers type. The elderly dobro owner, whose difficult name I sadly forget today, also gave me a glossy booklet of rudimentary guitar chords and notations. I remain thankful to the Americans for their kindness. To me, they were open-minded, egalitarian and liberal as opposed to the hidebound British in Darjeeling.

By the end of 1963, The Hillians and I were self-sufficient in our gears and equipment. We had three electric guitars – rhythm, lead and bass – and three powerful amplifiers with suitable pre-amps, and a complete drumset. I had two standard stabilisers or “step-ups” ready to maintain a steady 200-watt voltage in power-starved Darjeeling. We had spare guitar and electric bass strings, both round-wound in brass and flat-wound in aluminium, brought from Thailand by Lek because India did not produce them. We also had three spare acoustic guitars. All these I had managed to buy by scrounging, borrowing, saving and through many other devices. Plus we had maracas, tambourines, harmonica, tablas and bongos. Harmonica, called “mouth organ” in the early days, was my first instrument, and I played it quite expertly. But gone were by now my expertise in bamboo flute playing and “bimbili” reed piccolo from my childhood years in Nor Busti.

Then Lek brought a new amplifier after his vacation in Bangkok. It had two large speakers set in a perpendicular Victorian wood design. It had 12 knobs. One was for dreamy vibrato for the trilling and lingering notes and sounds on the guitar strings. We called it vibrator until the Playboy magazine scuttled it away for female erotica. Embarrassed, we settled for “tremolos”. Another knob was for creating lightning and thunder reverberations in echoes. We called it “thunder box” but realised it was an excremental contraption. So it was “echo chamber” to us and it suited us just fine. Other knobs facilitated for two guitars to be connected for professional sound with great watt power while other dials were for hi-fi combinations and the like. In short, it was a versatile machine for sonic engineering. Rock ‘n’ Roll and Pop was going from electric to electronic to techno-mechano. But I had no money to buy this 1,000-rupee magic sound box. So I approached my Maili Chhyama, my mother’s immediate younger sister, for a loan. She would migrate to Canada in two weeks, and was clearing her income tax and property deals while making her farewell calls on friends and relatives. I had brought the device home, and I demonstrated its multifarious functions on my guitar and hi-fi works for her to appreciate and wonder. She was impressed, and gifted me the precious amount as her last leaf to me. Lek was happy and threw an extra acoustic guitar in the deal. With this great help from my aunt, The Hillians became the first truly professional and the best-equipped boys band in Darjeeling.

Until this time, I was alternating between Mr. Amber Gurung’s Art Academy, Mr. Louis Banks’ Quartet, The Hillians and Sangam Club, the last one under Saran Pradhan, Ranjit Gazmer, Aruna Lama and Jitendra Bardewa. Now it was time to concentrate on one or two activities instead of moonlighting all over town.

The first job was to tighten and streamline the composition of The Hillians. I became the official bandleader, lead guitarist, co-singer, negotiator, manager and trouble-shooter. My younger brother Mark was given the rhythm and singing. Kamal Kumar “KK” Gurung, our Cliff Richard, was given the bass portfolio and singing while Phurba Tsering Bhutia took up trumpet, French horn and flute. Ranjit Gazmer, the co-leader of Sangam, was our drummer, tabla player, music arranger and harmoniser. Lalit Tamang was the other and original Hillian, now in Gangtok in Sikkim, and I had to do something about him in due time.
This timely realisation arrived when Choden took me to her house where I heard the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” and “Ask Me Why” for the first time in my life. The age of self-sufficient, self-contained and multifarious Rock bands had come. The Hillians had to confront the times, or go bust as a bunch of had-beens! Either The Hillians had to touch the summit of the Kanchanjunga or drown in the muddy waters of the Teesta River.

The choice had to be made for the new year!

Note:This memoir was originally published in The KATHMANDU POST, 2003