Skateboarding is taking the country by storm, stretching from the plains to the hills - and we explore Darjeeling's new-little community that skates with passion.
Amidst fog enveloping the whole of Jorepokhari and visibility reduced to a thing of myth, some 20 odd kilometres from the quaint Darjeeling mall, the silence in the dewy air was rustled by the sound of rolling wheels of the skateboard, coming downhill - splicing through the mountains and the mist.
Forget smoke machines to conjure drama, Darjeeling, in West Bengal, comes well prepared with a mis-en-scene all its own - with a motley set of skateboarders making most of the natural foggy scenes, little threats of snowfall, a nonchalant drizzle of the rain, the chilly cold - and just their skateboards speeding along Chowrasta.
Upon one such wintry January noon, Pemba Dorjee Sherpa, bored at his little bustling hamlet home at Sukhia Pokhri had biked uphill to Jorepokhari to have a go with his skateboard - a must-do activity for him.
With his college, St. Joseph's Darjeeling, being closed during the Republic Day week, Pemba was back home but there is hardly much to do, with most of his friends being back in main Darjeeling.
With blessings of the pandemic and the absolute need to find something liberating to do, come every afternoon till dusk they'd spent skateboarding near and around Mall Road, practising tricks, whooshing and swooshing, flipping and balancing and grabbing a lot of eyeballs - from tourists, locals, kids and every other curious passer-by. It's difficult to not stop and stare at this bunch of enthusiastic lot.
"Skateboarding is life for me now. Whatever I do, wherever I am, every day I have to skate," Pemba told us, sitting by the Jorepokhari lake, as the mercury teased, eager to dip lower.
"There isn't much to do here. I don't have friends at Sukhia Pokhri. Hence if I am not in Darjeeling, I come up here - skateboarding makes me feel free," the 20-year-old, student of Political Science gushed.
But Pemba isn't the only one afflicted with the skateboarding bug in the hill station destination of Darjeeling, famous for its peek-a-boo's of the Himalayas and golden cups of Darjeeling tea fresh-picked from the tea gardens. Call them a 'jhund' if you will - but Pemba's skater friends - Rahul, Aditya, Gigden, Rinchen, Ayush and even a girl skater, Pragya, among others assemble every noon, tied together by a passion that is brewing fast in this Toy Train town.
With skateboarding making its debut at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, the skateboarding fever has only spiked in the country that is fiddling with its latest obsession - a skateboard, with several groups sprawled all over the country, knitting together a larger community that loves the wheels.
For Pemba as well, skateboarding was a thing he stumbled upon quite by chance.
"I had got into a bike accident a few months back. My family was very angry because I would ride the bike too fast," he says sheepishly.
"That is when a few kids in my locality…they were trying to figure out the skateboard. It drew me instantly! Even I wanted to do it, I started watching videos and slowly, I was hooked, I just knew I had to get my own skateboard," Pemba says.
So the switch from speeding on bikes to that on a skateboard - does it come with a flailing green signal from the family?
"Oh no, it's not that simple. They don't mind me skateboarding, it's also very economic, skateboards cost around Rs. 3500 but the cautionary warnings come often. But you know, that's how it is, mothers tend to worry - what if you fall?", Pemba muses.
Catching up with the youth keen on the lookout for new hobbies to take up, skateboarding is an open invitation to a different world - one where it's just you, the wheels, the feel of the air on the face and not to sound like a cliche, but freedom, however momentary, as you race ahead, throwing all cares to the air.
"At first, I wanted to do skating because I would find it very cool. But then when I started, the feel of the speed, the need to be fully aware and take control of the skateboard, I found it very liberating," Pemba explained, trying to analyse the newfound love that has also brought him, friends.
"I know that if I have any problems eating me up, skateboarding can magically take all of it away. It's a wonderful gush of adrenaline that I feel," he says.
It's not just in Darjeeling, however, where you will find skaters with really fashionable, pop coloured skateboards but rather, skateboarding is growing as a lifestyle in pockets all across the country, from the far hills to the most cocooned of valleys.
In neighbouring Sikkim, a full-fledged community of skateboarders exists thanks to Tenzing Tsundu Bhutia's SkateKonnect, one of the leading organisations in the country, after Bangalore and Chandigarh to promote skateboarding as a sport. Keeping the youth away from drug abuse and giving them the opportunity to make better life choices, skateboarding in the streets of Gangtok, Namchi, Jorethang arise from a point of a social cause.
In fact, SkateKonnect's efforts have seen the skaters participate in the 2019 and 2021 editions of Jugaad as well as go on exchange trips with skaters from Arunanchal Pradesh, Nepal, Manipur across Bangalore, Hampi, Gokarna and finally Delhi.
"Skateboarding requires an urban infrastructure, which is lacking in the hills. Over here because of the weather conditions, local political disputes we can't skate so freely yet," Jack, the founder of SkateKonnect tells us.
"We are almost on the verge of forming our own association in Sikkim and hopefully we'll get it registered with the Roller Skating Federation of India (RSFI) and be able to support more of such skating communities, train them better, a lot of plans are in place," he conveyed.
Even though the Toy Train town - Darjeeling's skateboarding fraternity is new and not too organised yet, their relentless commitment to it is wildly inspiring. With skateboarding still in its 'new' stage, a lot of resistance is also seen towards it, and Pemba and co. have to reason it out time and again - cop trouble, being chief of them.
Considered to be a nuisance by many locals and tourists, some of who even go and complain to the police, these skaters of Darjeeling have often had to get into spats trying to simply skate. With just the bustling Chowrasta and its accompanying lanes being their hotspots for taking the skateboard on a ride, this motley group has little place to go to as there are no skateparks around.
As much as skateboarding is a freestyle sport as well, it comes with its risks and amateur skateboarding, without the right training can be dangerous. Only recently, an unfortunate death had also taken place of a skater at Darjeeling and that has been more cause of panic, especially among the family members.
But while this panic resides, there also resides the curiosity and desire of people towards the sport. "There is a popcorn seller at the Mall Road who always takes interest in what we do and almost every day he comes up to us and we let him skate and you know what, he is pretty good!", Pemba mentions with a laugh.
"There are a lot of little kids as well who are coming up to us, seeing us skate. We have gained quite the niche following here," he says. "But only if they gave us a skatepark, let it be small, but then we wouldn't have so much trouble doing what we love."
Skateboarding requires you to be extremely aware of your surroundings - even the slightest of pebbles on a cement road can upset the balance and lead to injuries. A skatepark would help solve a lot for this little community.
With only a handful of 15-20 skaters currently in Darjeeling, the skateboarding community is still blooming in this hill town. While most want to skate to escape, feel free, there are still others busying to perfect tricks, learning new things and thinking about the Olympics at the back of their minds.
The dreams have started forming, not only in Darjeeling but all over the country, and they are all driven by the one desire to wheel towards a more sporty and fitter and oh well, 'cooler' future.