Whatever you might say about the British as a colonial power (and you might say a lot), they definitely had an eye for a view. Seeking somewhere to escape the stultifying heat of the Indian summer in Calcutta, the Raj surveyors stumbled across a ridge at almost 8,000 feet in the foothills of the Himalayas. From here you can see into Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan, and dominating all is the magnificent bulk of Kangchenjunga, third highest mountain in the world. "Splendid!" they thought to themselves, "a suitable spot to take periodic repose from the rigours of running an empire. Terribly wearing, don't you know?" And so they built Darjeeling.
About 50 years later they hacked a railway track into the mountainside. Built in Glasgow in the 1880s, the narrow-gauge "Toy Train" locomotives still puff their way up the 7,000 vertical feet to Darjeeling, taking 8 hours (if you're lucky) to do it. Modern India, of course, takes the road and gets there in three much-less-charming hours. But from both the road and the train, which parallels it for much of the way, you'll spy a uniquely Indian phenomenon adding spice to the journey: road signs!
But these aren't just any road signs. Oh no, these are Indian road signs, flamboyantly daubed on the cliff faces to which the route clings. They come in two varieties. First, there are government exhortations to slow down, touching statements of optimism in a country where road accidents are considered unavoidable karmic encounters and which has one of the highest fatality rates in the world. These signs are earnest, well-meaning, and will brighten up your day. Who could not smile at "Hurry-Burry Spoils the Curry!" in four-foot green and yellow letters? And who could fail to nod sagely at the following in white and red: "Better to arrive 15 minutes late in this world than 15 minutes early in the next!"?
The second type is the commercial plug, more familiar to North Americans and Europeans. Mostly they are fairly straightforward, but still luridly colourful. I liked the one for Lux Bulbs ("Dispel Darkness!") which had a radiant eight-foot light bulb emblazoned on the rock wall. But the one which really caught my eye was the slogan that forms the title for this Fribble. It was advertising an endowment policy and ever since I have periodically asked myself over and over that unanswerable question, that koan of the Indian insurance industry: "When, oh when, IS the time to misuse money?"
One day I'll find the answer and it will explain not only the enigma of India, but perhaps life itself. In the meantime, I'll stick with the Foolish Four.