Mungpo in West Bengal, India, temporarily hogged the limelight in April 2020. This was because hydroxychloroquine was touted by experts as being a possible antidote to the killer coronavirus.
Hydroxychloroquine is extracted from the cinchona plant, one that has been grown in the Mungpo area since 1864. There was a robust quinine processing unit for many decades but with time, its use became limited in the treatment of malaria. Sometime in the early 1990s, the cinchona plantations, and its processing unit, were more or less abandoned. But for a brief while in 2020, there were some enthusiasm over the fact that Covid-19 may prove a shot in the arm for Mungpo.
Unfortunately, hydroxychloroquine as a possible medicine was quickly rejected. All the furore that had been drummed up former US President Donald Trump, was quickyl brushed aside. And Mungpo, meanwhile, continued about its way as it has for all of time.
Host to a Nobel Laureate
This sleepy town was, however, once host to an iconic personality. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore stayed on a few occasions at the cinchona plantation director’s bungalow. He was a guest of the then director and quinologist Dr Monmohon Sen, and his wife, Maitreyi Devi. Mrs Devi was an accomplished writer herself and was considered Tagore’s protégé. In fact, she was recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1976 for her novel entitled Na Hanyate. She also penned a memoir on Tagore in 1943 called Mungpote Rabindranath, detailing the final years of his life — from 1938 to 1941. Its English translation is called Tagore by Fireside.
The renowned academic is said to have visited the Sens’ home on four occasions. His mahogany writing desk is still preserved at the bungalow, as is his writing chair. The front porch looks out to the valley below and even in current times, the bungalow’s location offers unmatched calm and quiet. On my visit there, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like some seven decades ago, when there was hardly a motor vehicle.
Formerly a nondescript bungalow
As a child, I’d regularly travel the Mungpo route since it ensured the shortest travel time between Darjeeling, where I studied and a tea plantation in the Dooars, where my parents lived. I vividly recall seeing the bungalow during our drives but did not think much of it then. There was no signage informing of the bungalow’s once distinguished occupant. However, I do recall my mother mentioning about a bungalow in Mungpo that Tagore would stay at.
It was only in 2018 that I came upon a signboard at Rambi Bazaar that stated that Rabindra Bhawan–as it is now known–was located some 12-14 kms away. Incidentally, Tagore would be ferried up from Rambi Bazaar in a palanquin. As I drove up the pretty Mungpo road, I soon realised it was the same bungalow that I’d seen, many a time, as a child. The colonial era home was just being renovated at the time, and it was heartening to see how thoroughly the state government had commissioned the work. The wooden floors were polished to how they would originally have been, the red oxide elements were shining too, and some of Tagore’s works were framed and displayed on the walls.
On a birthday
I later found out that it also doubled as a research centre, much like Bose’s home in Kurseong. I also learnt Tagore had celebrated his birthday on 09 May 1940 at this bungalow. He’d graciously invited over a few workers from the cinchona plantations and the adjacent quinine factory. It is said this event inspired a volume called Janmadiney — meaning ‘on a birthday’. This year marks Rabindranath Tagore’s 161st birth anniversary. It is only apt then to quote an excerpt from Janmadiney that possibly references this bungalow.
Last morning, on my birthday
In this up-hill guest-house
A Nepali devotee of Buddha came hearing my message
Settling sitting on the floor
He sang a hymn of Buddha for my pleasure
I accepted that message.