Summer Travels II: A bitter brew in Darjeeling
The Buddhist flags that flutter over Darjeeling hills remind you that both your joys and sorrows are fleeting. Nothing stays. So resist attachments - the root of all suffering.
As I look upon this place, and ponder over a cup of divine tea that it produces, the flags are the only thing that my heart can clutch onto. For outside the world is falling apart. I have arrived to these hills already two weeks into a “public curfew.” Nothing moves outside; it’s a ghost town. No cars on the road, no shops or offices open. Schools are closed, and tourists long gone.
In the evenings, the deathly stillness of the place is broken by angry demonstrations demanding “Gorkhaland.” Once the demonstrators have gone home, fear and uncertainty linger deep into the night. For nearly three decades now Darjeeling has not seen normal life.
All in the name of Gorkhaland - a separate state made up of the Darjeeling hills and adjoining areas in the plains. The region currently is part of the state of West Bengal where the majority isn’t happy with the idea of the hills separating.
My parents live down in the plains, which still happens to be part of Darjeeling district. It is richly forested with sal and teak trees and where wild elephants roam. A mile south from the village life is normal - transport is available, shops, schools and offices are open. Thankfully, the party president of the village allowed us to come home in a car. Otherwise we would have to walk the last mile - a maddening prospect after nearly 12 hours of flying with wife and two small kids.
We are here to visit my old and ailing father. And while here I had plans to visit the tea gardens and meet old friends. I was only able to fulfill my first aim. My father, who was a forester for 40 years and had led a very active and healthy life, was dealt a rather poor hand at the end. I had to visit the doctor several times for him (he was not very good on the phone), and everytime I had to seek the permission of the local party president to drive out.
There was no internet at my parent’s place. A falling branch had snapped the internet cable a few days before we arrived. The technician would not come to repair because of the strike. We were really marooned.
I called up a planter friend of mine. He had managed to go to another town in an ambulance (the strikers allowed ambulances on the road) to withdraw money from a bank so that workers could be paid. The tea gardens had been kept outside the strike. However, no tea could leave the gardens nor fuel be brought in because of lack of transport.
It was monsoons. It rains in almost Biblical proportions; every evening we were there thunderstorms came in the evening like clockwork, bringing the only relief from the heat. During this period the tea gardens make “rains tea”. It is a coppery tea with a rather flat taste. But it is widely used in blends and makes for nearly 40% of Darjeeling tea production.
Darjeeling tea producers felt beleaguered. I saw them bemoaning the situation on BBC Business News. Yet a tea plucker said she was ready for the sacrifice just so that her children could have a better future. But would they?
The background to the whole problem is the cultural rift between the hill people, who are of Nepalese ethnicity and the majority of those residing in West Bengal, the Bengali people. Further, it also arises from the arbitrary nature of borders that the British drew during the colonial rule. Darjeeling was originally part of Sikkim, an independent Himalayan kingdom. In the early 1800s it was annexed by Nepal. In 1817 the British arrived in the scene, defeated the Nepalese forces and handover Darjeeling back to Sikkim.
However, the handing over was not without a price for Sikkim. The British kept the town of Darjeeling (then a sleepy hamlet) for themselves.
During the early years of British rule in Darjeeling, the place was defined as a “non-regulated area” where the Acts of the government did not automatically apply. It was believed that was mainly so that the tea planters had little interference from the government in the running of the garden. The labor relations in the tea plantations during the time was modelled along the rules of the cotton plantations of the South.
It was only after Independence in 1947 that Darjeeling was amalgamated in the state of West Bengal. This “unnatural” grafting notwithstanding, and although like most hill people I feel the demand for a separate state is justified, I seriously doubt the integrity of our local leaders. Time and again in the past they have been “bought” by Kolkata and Delhi. They have compromised the movement and used their office for self-aggrandizement instead of looking out for the common man.
The present lot of leaders is no different. I hate the scare tactics they use.
After two weeks it is time to say a goodbye to my family. We are again “permitted” to leave the village for the airport in a car. The heart is heavy. My father is dying and so seems this place. As the car turns the bend, I look at a prayer flag and ask to be raised above my sadness and joy - which for this moment is Darjeeling.
*The strike, or “people’s curfew” as called by the political party because the Courts had outlawed it, was finally called off on 11 September, one month after it began.