Ajanta Chakraborty, TNN, Jul 9, 2016: A priceless piece of heritage is being rebuilt in the Hills, reviving its historical ties with Bengal, one brick at a time.
Roy Villa, the 115-year-old mansion where Sister Nivedita breathed her last in 1911, is getting a Rs 2.8-crore revamp, making the stately structure with its Italianate Victorian facade one of Darjeeling’s finest.
Rechristened Ramakrishna Mission Nivedita Educational and Cultural Centre (RMNECC), it is being given a 21st-century makeover while retaining and restoring the period qualities that were the hallmarks of Roy Villa. The ball started rolling on the afternoon of May 16, 2013, when CM Mamata Banerjee visited the building on Lebong Cart Road.
On seeing the condition of the mansion that resembled a dilapidated Middle-Age European castle, she called up an unsuspecting Gorkha Janmuti Morcha (GJM) chief Bimal Gurung, asking him over to the villa.
What transpired over the next hour caught Gurung completely off guard. Bureaucrats accompanying Banerjee wrote an agreement on a swap on the upkeep of two buildings — Sister Nivedita’s Roy Villa, then in the possession of the GJM-controlled Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), and the Tenzing Norgay Youth Hostel, belonging to the state youth affairs department.
GJM had turned the beautiful building into a dingy camp for its “military wing” Gorkhaland Personnel and in between, the heritage structure was believed to have served as a haven for the local underworld.
Following the hurriedly inked agreement, the place was vacated with immediate effect so that Roy Villa could be handed over to the Ramakrishna Mission.
Thus began the fairy-tale preservation of the edifice, so strongly associated with the Irish woman who made India her home at the behest of Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th century. Nivedita, who came to India in 1899, stayed at Roy Villa for a total of 242 days in seven different visits.
RMNECC secretary Swami Nityasatyananda says: “We had lost all hope of getting Roy Villa. Twenty years ago, Swami Lokeswarananda came to Darjeeling and met Subhas Ghisingh seeking the handover. Nothing came of it.”
For two decades, Siliguri-based NGO Association for Conservation and Tourism campaigned hard to make Roy Villa a declared heritage site and rescue it from institutional ignominy and the vagaries of the weather.
Finally, on Rath Yatra on July 10, 2013, the villa’s keys were handed over to Belur Math. Not only is this the place where Sister Nivedita breathed her last on October 13 over a century ago, Swami Vivekananda would frequent the villa as well. Records say he spent 97 days here, in different stays in 1897, 1898 and 1901.
Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose had brought Nivedita to this house belonging to his wife’s brother Dwarakanath Roy on May 27, 1903. In September 1911, despite her failing health, Nivedita planned a trip to Sandakphu from Roy Villa. The trip was postponed to October 2, but Nivedita was still too ill to travel. As her health deteriorated, Bose called in doctor Nil Ratan Sircar.
On October 7, Nivedita willed all her property except the school in Kolkata named after her to the Ramakrishna Mission. She passed away a few days later.
Her last words — “The boat is sinking but I can yet see the sunrise,” — have now become especially significant as Roy Villa’s wait for resurrection is finally over. The sun, viewed from the room on the top floor, now seems to be smiling brighter from behind the Kanchenjunga ranges.