BORDER TOWNS TEND to be the most interesting places. Here the seams of the modern nation-state are either fastened tight or are gradually coming undone thread by thread. These are areas where the pull and push of boundaries exert tension and create ambiguity. Here the lay of the land, the people and their cultures are closer to their neighbouring countries than the ‘mainland’; here the ideas of political identity—like an image from an ancient camera—tend to be shaky and hazy.
Among India’s several frontier towns, there are fewer places as fabled, as complicated, as the Darjeeling hills. A place that is both real and imagined. British officers in the 1800s started the process of creating a home in Darjeeling for themselves on foreign soil, so they could nurse their homesickness and escape the administrative rigours of the Indian plains. And where, once they left, their native administrators—more often than not people from the Bengali middle-class—projected another rose-tinted idea, that of the nostalgia of an ‘English’ hill station upon it. Even today, in several hotels, bungalows and plantations, time appears to stand still. You can have your meal served to you by liveried staff, at the call of a dinner bell, in a room cluttered with the trophies of old mounted animal heads.
Darjeeling is a small town that is more cosmopolitan and liberal than several larger cities. The only corridor that connects the Northeast to the rest of India—shaped like a vulnerable chicken’s neck—passes through it. Bhutan, Nepal, China and, a little further away, Bangladesh surround the hills, and the Himalayas push its beauty through this crowded geo-political landscape. By day, the hills are almost always wrapped in an impenetrable mist. And by the bright starlit nights, you can look up to find the inner working of the skies revealed to you.
“Today, of course, the hills are in the midst of its worst turmoil since the 1980s, when a bloody agitation for a new state almost tore down the place. A strike that lasted over 100 days has reduced and pauperised life. And more lastingly perhaps, when the fog of one hundred days withdrew, it revealed, amid the despair and ruin, that nobody really gave a damn. Local leaders, like always, are more interested in the struggle for a new state than the creation of one. And the state of West Bengal and the Centre are too concerned with electoral considerations to examine the demand for a new state, or to even attempt to alleviate the situation.
The curtains of the latest stage play have come down. Some new leaders have emerged, and some old ones have diminished. And nothing but poverty and hardship has been gained.”
Parimal Bhattacharya’s new book No Path in Darjeeling is Straight does well in bringing together the various strands of the story of Darjeeling. He weaves memory and research, anecdotes, his and others, with analysis; to remind us how Darjeeling came to be, who its people are, and what has led to the present unrest.
Bhattacharya arrived in Darjeeling to teach at a local college during one of the better periods in recent history— the early 1990s. A period when the violence of the previous decade was rescinding, and the gloom of later years was yet to tarnish it.
If you shear off the reasons behind why Darjeeling cannot be its own state, the smallness of the area, its strategic location, you are left with the unwillingness of Bengalis to part with the hills
Like perhaps so many before him, Bhattacharya arrived in this fabled town, carrying with him the anxieties of his mother and the memories of his grandfather—‘a pucca sahib trapped in the body of a Bengali babu, whose Bible was the Nesfield’s grammar book, Wordsworth his favourite poet, and the daffodil his favourite flower, although he had never set his eyes on one, who had spent a fortnight in Darjeeling back in the early 1940s as a government witness in a case.’
Bhattacharya reaches the town through a drizzle and an impenetrable fog, and checks into—with a tout’s promise of a great view—Hotel Sunrise. It is little surprise that the next morning, once the fog has withdrawn, like so many tourists who reach this town, his only view is the back of buildings, and in his case, a butcher’s store. But as the wet and cold days pass, as he gets over his homesickness and minor setbacks, he finds himself in the unusually warm companionships of new acquaintances and friends, and he comes to fall in love with the measured pace of this small town.
Bhattacharya tells the story of Darjeeling in a florid prose, perhaps too florid on occasion. But perhaps this comes with the territory. The beauty of the place makes its demands on language.
What sets Bhattacharya’s book on Darjeeling apart from the many others written on it is its examination of the demand for a new state. If you shear off all the touted reasons behind why the Darjeeling hills cannot be granted its own state—the smallness of area, its strategic geo-political location—you are left with the unwillingness of the average Bengali to part with the hills.
Bhattacharya seeks to examine the Bengali investment in Darjeeling. He explains how a groomed class of native intermediaries—‘a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect’—and administrators from the Bengali middle-class came to romanticise Darjeeling in much the same way as the Raj. They created in their minds the Lake District, the poems of Shelley and the daffodils of Wordsworth in the mists of Darjeeling. They borrowed the same colonial ideas of the hills’ locals as simple-minded people, and in more recent times have begun to look at them less as Nepali-speaking Indians and suspiciously more as immigrants from Nepal. After the colonial Bengal Presidency shrank and the country’s capital shifted to Delhi, and Kolkata slid rapidly from being the commercial hub of the country to just another provincial city, ‘much of the bhadralok Bengali’s material and cultural capital was lost’, the author explains, ‘Darjeeling was the last straw. It had big investments of nostalgia.’
If only the Bengal government could set aside its arrogance and speak in a kinder, more accommodating voice, like an elder brother to a younger one, the author suggests.
That unfortunately hasn’t happened. For all the beauty of the place, its living standards are pitiable. There is scarcity of water, lack of medical care, and every few months houses and entire roads are washed away. Its famous tea gardens are failing, the women employed there are often trafficked, and its once-famous residential schools are losing their sheen. The litany of complaints is long. And right up there is the issue of identity. Their political loyalty is viewed with suspicion at home, and often, when they are travelling in the Indian ‘mainland’, they are humiliated as Nepali watchmen and foreigners.
No path in Darjeeling is straight , Bhattacharya tells us in his book. Everything twists and twirls.