Drinking Tea in Darjeeling

The 126 year old cobalt blue colored narrow-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway train chugged and snorted its way from Kurseong to Darjeeling via Ghoom along the serpentine route, against the silvery backdrop of the 8598m Kenchenjunga Range, past the tea gardens, shanty tea-shops and tin-roofed huts. And painted across white-washed hillside walls you could still read the words:"Jai Gorkha! Jai Gorkhaland! Jai Hind!"

Hind is an anachronistic, pre-partition name for India, namely Hindustan: the land of the Hindus. After independence India became a secular state, because it didn�t have much of a choice due to the Muslims, Jains, Sikhs and other religious communities who all started demanding their own rights under the constitution. And the 750,000 Gorkhas in the 70 odd tea-gardens of Darjeeling District (north Bengal) also made it clear that they didn't have autonomous ambitions like: the Sikhs and their fight for Khalistan, and the Nagas with their Nagaland claims. The Gorkhas, who are ethnic Nepalese, only wanted a Gorkhaland within India's framework and the recognition of Nepali, pardon me, Gorkhali, as one of the languages of the secular Indian Constitution.

After a 28-month fight which began in the spring of 1986, the GNLF (Gorkha National Liberation Front) submitted their arms, and pledged to join India's mainstream.

Darjeeling (2123m), like in the hey-days of the British Raj, has remained a cool mountain resort for rich Indians and a few foreigners with its fresh air, British fashioned public schools, churches, Planter's Club, Gymkhana and the blue-domed Governor's summer residence. The English schools bear names like: Victoria, Dow Hill, St. Joseph's, Goethals, St. Helen's, St. Paul's...reminiscent of a nostalgic era of colonial British establishment. My parents had sent me to the Kindergarten at St. Helen�s, near Kurseong and I have pleasant memories of that convent school. The morning prayers, breakfast with porridge and toast-marmalade and the sumptuous Indian cuisine at lunch, because we were Hindus and didn�t prefer to eat at the English refectory, where they served beef.

Darjeeling is a dying Queen of the Hills, ignored and neglected after the British left the Raj. Its streets have become mean and violent, and you see the economic decline on the faces of the Nepalis living in the small towns and the sprawling tea gardens. The obsolete infrastructure is corroding. It never received the much-needed financial shot-in-the-arm (like Sikkim did from the Central Government) from the ego-centric, troubled and arrogant West Bengal government.

"The British sahibs have gone. And now we have Indian brown sahibs who try to be more English than the English", said a Gorkha waiter at the Glenary�s near Chowrasta.

Today, a visitor to this restricted area in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas will be witness to a sad, depressing scenario. The houses look dirty, rusty, poor, dilapidated and neglected. And the tea garden worker has a hard time trying to make ends meet. The wages are low. Even the mono-culture tea-production in Darjeeling went from 25,503 hectares in 1935 to 19,739 hectares in 1983. The Gorkhaland conflict reduced tea harvests by about 65%.The breakdown of the Soviet Union market has caused a total slump in tea-export. The price for Darjeeling tea was never so low, due to the heavy reliance on the Soviet consumers.

In the past Darjeeling has been neglected by the Central government in Delhi. And Sikkim received top priority. The administrative offices are all occupied by the Bengalis. The Newar community in the Darjeeling district has been pushed out by the clever Behari businessmen and shrewd Marwari money-lenders from the plains of India. The Gorkhalis attend the schools and colleges, but the only university of the district still lies in Siliguri in the plains, and they have to compete with the Bengalis, Beharis and the rest of 1000 million Indians for seats in the different faculties. And for jobs.

In the jungle of Indian bureaucracy, where corruption, nepotism and communal feeling is rampant, the common, honest Gorkha hillman cuts badly and gets a bad deal. No wonder the Gorkhas were enraged. Their very existence was being endangered. Their demands were apparently justified, for they only wanted to stay inside the Indian Union on better terms.

"The longstanding friction between the Nepalis and the Bengalis was always there", said my school-friend Sushil Basnet, a burly Gorkha hillman with a public school background, over a cup of excellent Darjeeling tea at his home.

"But when the Meghalaya State Government threw out some 7000 Nepalis from Assam, the matter really exploded and took the present form of the Gorkha National Liberation Front headed by Subhas Ghising as its president".

He only stops to catch his breath, because he�s wheezing with asthma, and says, "The evicted Nepalis were mostly from Darjeeling and some were from Nepal. When this happened, the age-old treaty between British India and Nepal, which was ratified later in 1950 between Independent India and the Kingdom of Nepal, was violated. As a result, it placed the Nepalis residing in India at an insecure position with dual nationality or without any nationality."

He explained further, "Actually the Clause 7 of the Indo-Nepal Treaty states that the citizens of both countries can do anything under the sun, but have political rights, like asking for a separate state.

"In fact a Gorkha can be labeled as a Nepal-ko-raity (Nepalese subject) and thrown out of the country, and you can't do anything: like the Nepalis of Assam.

How's that for calling oneself Indian all these years?" he says with bitterness. Sushil Basnet was born in Darjeeling and so was his father and grandfather.

His tirade went on: "It was in protest to this Clause 7 that the GNLF dished out an 11-point programme, and it was supported by all sections of the people of Darjeeling. This irritated the Communists (CPM)and so violence and killing broke out on both sides. Like the police shooting down people, women and children included, and midnight arrests. At least 200 people died.

"What we really wanted was the creation of a Gorkhaland district and the recognition of Gorkhali (Nepali) as one of India's national languages and better job opportunities. But the Bengali politician Jyoti Basu and Rajiv Gandhi made a hash of it" says an angry Sushil Basnet.

Gorkha is a fortress in Nepal belonging to the House of Gorkhas, from where the Gorkha King Prithvi Narayan Shah led his troops to conquer the whole of Nepal. In 1810 Nepal's domain extended from the Tista river to the Sutlej, that is from present day Sikkim to Kashmir. The word 'Gorkha' is derived from the Sanskrit word 'go' which means a 'cow' and 'rakh' which means 'protector,' and the Gorkhas are the 'protectors of the cows', that is, they are Hindus primarily. The Indian Army uses the term 'Gorkha' which is correct, and the British Army uses the term 'Gurkha'. The English also say 'Nepaul' when they mean 'Nepal'.

The Gorkhali population of Darjeeling is made up of: Tamangs, Rais, Newars, Thapas, Poudels, Gurungs, Topdens, Lepchas and Sherpas. In 1800 the British encouraged the migration of the Nepalese to the eastern Himalayas to work in the newly opened tea gardens in Darjeeling (West Bengal) and Assam (Meghalaya).

At Glenary�s I met Riddhima Pradhan, who said: "I can assure you, it was more than a storm in a tea-cup." She was a 26 year old college student from Darjeeling, referring to the Gorkhaland crisis. She went on to say, "The town was crawling with Sikh soldiers armed to the teeth and there were Gorkha civilians getting arrested, and night-raids that made us pretty uneasy. I was scared to go out in the streets even during the day."

Akin to the British Raj, the Central Government sent Sikh soldiers to Darjeeling to fight down the Gorkha demonstrators. The British, it might be noted, deployed Gorkha troops in the 1857 Indian Sepoy Mutiny and the Jalainwalla massacre. In April 1919 troops under the command of the British General Dyer fired on civilians killing 379 people and injuring 1000 in Amritsar (Punjab).

Pitching one ethnic group against the other seems to work even today, after the age old divide-and-rule tradition so well practiced by the British in its colonies.

Reynold Gurung, a 32 year old Gurkha soldier on leave says: "My father was a British Gurkha who fought against the Japanese in World War II in Imphal and Burma. He died in action in the jungles of Burma. We'd settled down in Burma. Later, we were driven away by the Burmese nationalists from Rangoon and came over to Darjeeling. I'll be damned if the Indians can drive me away from these hills", he says.

"In 1961 our school soccer team defeated the 2/8 Gurkha Rifles," he says with a boyish twinkle in his Mongolian eyes. "Yes sir, that was a terrific match in Kurseong: School-team Beats the Gurkhas!" A year later, the 2/8 Gurkha battalion, which was then stationed in Lebong, was wiped out in the Himalayan war against China in a decisive battle at Nathu La (Sikkim). It was India's Himalayan blunder. After that Nehru and Menon were dubbed "the guilty men of '62," said Reynold Gurung, whom I chanced to meet near the Rink cinema. He lost an elder brother in the war. He took me to his home and told me the story of his family. He invited me for a cup of tea in his house, which was a one-storied, with lots of windows and a lovely garden full of marigolds, because it was the Nepali festival season of Dasain.

A Gurkha-hat that hung on the wall of his spartan sitting-room, a few regimental swords, a khukri in silver and a Naga spear were all that remind him of his dead Gurkha father and the Burma war. Huge well-polished artillery shells serve as vases for marigold flowers. He supported his mother with his small Indian Gorkha payroll, and said he was stationed in Punjab with the elite Black Cat battalion.

Soldering still seems to be the best profession for a Gorkha in the hills of Darjeeling.

"You can at the most be a low-paid teacher or a clerk here, says Adip Rumba, "but you can't climb higher. There's always a Bengali blocking the carrier ladder." The polytechnic school in Kurseong produces only junior engineers (overseers). The senior engineering schools are located in the plains of India, and financially too expensive for Gorkha pockets. Even the medical college is located in Siliguri and thus accessible only to the Bengalis.

At high-school age, a lot of young males tired of learning boring subjects like integral calculus and the Moghul Dynasty took off till recently for Dharan's British Gurkha Recruiting Depot or enlisted at the local Indian Gorkha office in Kurseong or Darjeeling.

Take Kunjo Moktan for instance who joined the British Gurkhas and "saw the world beyond the mountains" namely London, Gibraltar, Hong Kong and Brunei. Or Ganju Tamang who joined the Indian Army and landed in Sri Lanka with India's Peace-keeping Force. Keshab Namgyal, a 1961 Congo blue-helmet veteran, who was disgusted by the war in Katanga, said he gave up soldiering, and worked for the Indian Railway as a clerk, and looked forward to his railway pension.

There are quite a few Nepalis from Darjeeling who have gone to Nepal seeking better jobs after the Darjeeling district was declared a 'restricted area'. Jobs were scarce in Darjeeling after 1962. A sizeable number of Gorkha civilians car drivers with experience in the heights of Darjeeling, Sikkim and Bhutan were hired for their driving skills in the difficult mountain areas of Ladakh, Bomdila and Tripura in the wake of the Himalayan conflict with China.

Lain Singh Bangdel, a talented artist went to Nepal and became the president of the Royal Nepal Academy. Likewise, Amber Gurung ,a singer and composer, has carved himself a niche in the Nepali world of music in Kathmandu. Banira Giri is internationally known for her poetry and lives in Kathmandu. The air-hostesses for the expanding Royal Nepal Airlines were mostly girls from Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Tourism was booming in Katmandu, and English-speaking smart Gorkha-guides and hotels personnel were in demand. Not in India, but in Nepal.

Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Darjeeling and the first Nepali to climb Mt. Everest with Edmund Hillary, was an exception who stayed on in Darjeeling and was made the Field Director of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute located in Birch Hill, now dubbed Jawahar Parbat. The principal of the institute was naturally an Indian from the plains. I can still hear the refrain of Dharmaraj Thapa's song praising Tenzing's feat and his glory:

Tenzingga timi, sansara bhari.
Amara huney chau (refrain).

However, the plight of the Sherpas, Lepchas and Tamangs of Darjeeling hasn't improved since then. You see them carrying heavy loads for Indian tourists from the plains and foreigners from abroad with their namlo-ropes for almost a song.

"The Indians take almost a sadistic delight in putting down the prices," says Maila Tamang, a porter at Darjeeling's Chowrasta.

"Pairo Ayo!" is a dreadful cry that is often heard in the Darjeeling hills when a landslide occurs. The Gorkhas have mixed feelings about the landslides in the monsoon period because of the endless suffering caused by the disastrous and torrential rain. The monsoon is good for the tea, but bad for the humans living in the hillsides, for they live in the angst of being swept away in a landslide. The forests in the Darjeeling area are denuded and the ecological balance of the hills is threatened caused also by the monoculture: tea. Thickly wooded forests are a rarity. The flora and fauna have dwindled.

"Here's to the Pagla Jhora, the Mad Torrent!" is a toast that you hear frequently in Darjeeling. The local contractors rejoice secretly when a major landslide sweeps away the railway tracks and blocks the only road leading to Darjeeling. Gorkha contractors rush to file tenders at the junior engineer's office bureau of the Public Works Department. The tenders go to the chief engineer, who is inevitably a Bengali gent who takes the cream of the bribe.

"It's a game called: oiling-up-the-Bengi-babu", says a Gurkha contractor who chooses to remain anonymous. Corruption is as common as tuberculosis in the government offices and at the border check-posts at Kakarbhita and Manebhanjyang. The Bengali policemen take bribes from both sides: Nepal and India.

A home-coming Johnny Gurkha from Hong Kong was telling his woes to a sari-clad Nepalese woman about the corrupt Indian customs officers at Kakarbhita, for his problem was getting his worldly belongings across the border to Darjeeling where he lived. Since the Gorkha bride has a high affinity for gold from Hong Kong (in the old days it was Lhasa), it's a big headache for a Gorkha to get his gold through the Calcutta customs. The Bengali customs officers do their best to confiscate the luxurious (by Indian decree and standards) and jewellery brought into the country by the thrifty and spartanic living Gurkhas, and probably hand them to their own Bengali wives in Calcutta. It is a never-ending tale of corruption and injustice.

"It is this harassment at the Indian customs that made me build a house in Katmandu than in Darjeeling, and now my family is all the more happier", says Wangdi Lama, a Hong Kong retired Gurkha-major.

Due to the early exposure to the British, the Nepalese of the Eastern Himalayas (Darjeeling area) tend to be smart, extroverted, street-wise, intellectually awakened, and generally well-informed about current world affairs. The level and percentage of education is also much higher than in eastern Nepal.

Most Nepalese in the Darjeeling area have a school or college background. Even a simple jeep-driver or policeman speaks a smattering of English, in addition to Hindi, Bengali and Gurkhali (Nepali).

The influence of Hollywood and Bollywood's masala films shown at Darjeeling's Rink and Capitol cinemas and make-shift, mushrooming video-parlors is evident in the streets of Darjeeling. A Gorkha is well-dressed, his shoes are polished, his trousers well-ironed and he has a certain smartness about him, despite the fact that he may be living from hand to mouth. The Nepalis take delight in joking about themselves and you hear often: bahira rumaley, bhitra gundruk umaley. It's his positive attitude towards life and his indomitable cheerfulness that distinguishes him from the rest of the ethnic groups in the sprawling Indian subcontinent.

"A Gorkha never begs. We are too proud of ourselves and of our self-respect," says Kiran Singh Rana who runs a photo-shop in the Laden La Road in Darjeeling. He seems to hate haggling with what he calls "deshi" customers from the plains. We're having a chat in his shop and a Bengali babu (civil servant) wants him to reduce the price of a picture of 'sunrise from Sandakphu' done in black and white print and hand colored. The Bengali speaks in the typical tactless and arrogant Indian manner. Kiran tells him in no uncertain terms to "take it or leave it" in no uncertain terms.

"I have my own local customers and don't have to rely on these seasonal hagglers", he says. He and his brother have opened a lodge below the Chowrasta at the Danth Koti, and seem to be doing well in comparison to others. The strange thing was that when I visited Kiran in his shop a decade ago, he was also having a jolly row with three customers from Calcutta. Another friend of mine, a Gurung, runs a travel agency and takes French tourists to Sandakphu and the Kanchenjunga base camp during the tourist season.

"Survival isn't much of a problem for a Nepali", says Sushil Basnet, who has a pot-belly and looks like the Italo-German actor Mario Adorf. He explains: "Once a year during the Maghay Sangrati festival, we eat sweet-potatoes and other boiled stems and roots in memory of our ancestors, who lived on such roots and stems from the forest".

Maghay Sangrati marks the turning point between the winter and summer months, and Nepalis bathe in the tributaries of river such as the Narayani and Bagmati and chant religious hymns.

"The beggars in Darjeeling or Katmandu are never Nepalis or Gurkhas. They're mostly Bhutias or Indians from the plains," says Ajit Subba, another Gorkha teacher.

In my childhood, I remember seeing a lean old Limbu Gorkha lady wearing a glove in one hand, and brandishing a sickle with the other, busy cutting stinging-nettles for lunch in a wayside bush. Sisnu-ko-jhol (nettle-soup) is a Nepalese delicatessen. Nettle-soup, which is called Brennesselsuppe is also used in Germany and other Alpine republics. Hunger makes one creative. And the Nepalis are creative. Gundruk-ko-jhol is another frugal but delicious speciality, which is dehydrated salad served as a soup with rice. Sikuti-machha (dried fish) is another fine dish.

Unlike in Nepal, where it is forbidden to carry out missionary activity, the Gorkhalis in the Darjeeling hills have been proselytized into Christendom by the British Jesuit priests in the major hill towns like: Kurseong, Kalimpong and Darjeeling, where they opened dispensaries, 'English Medium' schools, chapels, grottos and churches. The British missionaries have left but even today it isn't common to find Gorkhas with names like: Lawrence Gurung, Benjamin Rai and Nelson Mukhia. Darjeeling also has its own Gorkha bishop.

The Nepalis in the hilly tracts of Darjeeling have certainly arranged themselves with Bengalis, Beharis, Marwaris, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. Inter-caste and inter-ethnic love-marriages are also not uncommon. Though not without problems. Raj Basnet, who has married his college girl-friend Geeta from the Rai tribe has problems with his pollution-conscious high caste parents with their orthodox attitudes. He left his father's house and eloped with his Rai-girl and lived like an outcaste in Thimpu (Bhutan). "But my wife and I are happy, so what-the-heck!" he says with a shrug of his shoulders and an air of optimism. "It's not my problem. It's their 's". He now lives in Darjeeling and recalls nostalgically the many traditional Bhutanese gates and bridges he built during his tenure as an engineering and contractor in the Himalayan Kingdom.

It is understandable that Subhas Ghising is rather sulky and disappointed with Nepal because of its neutrality during the Gorkhaland-crisis, and hence wishes to have nothing to do with the Himalayan Kingdom. But in view of the fact that the Gorkhas of Darjeeling wanted to be officially recognized as an autonomous district within the Indian Union, especially West Bengal, the reluctance on the part of Katmandu to respond to Ghishing and his GNLF`s gestures, was diplomatically perhaps the best solution.

The Gorkhaland struggle cost 200 lives and brought a new amendment to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council Act. The Gorkhas have their Gorkhaland and the Indo-Nepalese relationship and cooperation flourishes, without any evident changes whatsoever in the 1950 Treaty between India and Nepal. And Nepali has been recognized officially in the Indian Constitution.

It's all quiet in the Gorkhaland front, despite the poverty and discontent.  


More by :  Satis Shroff

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