Exactly a year has passed since I visited Darjeeling. My two-day tour of the exotic hill-station was sandwiched neatly between two hartals [shutdown of all normal activities]. Hartals used to descend upon the hills of Darjeeling like the mists without warning. The hartal that followed the day after my visit was announced only when I was already in Kurseong, halfway from Darjeeling to Siliguri.
The new chief minister of West Bengal, Ms Mamata Banerjee, has put an end – hopefully – to the hartals in Darjeeling hills. She has signed a pact for a new political body in the land of the Gorkhas. The new setup would have full administrative, financial and executive powers with a high degree of autonomy. The Gorkhas are pacified for the time being, at least.
The agitation for a separate state of Gorkhaland goes back to the 1980s. One visit to the hill areas which the Gorkhas designated as Gorkhaland on every single name board in front of shops or offices would make clear the determination of the people to secure their demand. The people were ready to suffer any inconvenience, even poverty, to get a separate state for themselves.
The towns in the proposed Gorkhaland looked pathetic. Even Darjeeling, the biggest town perhaps, revealed the murky sides of governmental neglect. It lacked the sheen of a majestic tourist centre it could have been. The roads, the transport system, the buildings, the railway station for the ‘toy train’ and the toy train itself, all revealed absolute neglect. It was not easy to find a clean place for eating. In consonance with the degeneration stood a disproportionately large number of rabbit holes that served cheap liquor. There were not many smiling faces in any of the shops or on the streets. People looked preoccupied and overburdened.
Only the teagardens smiled and frolicked. While I stood in a teagarden along with Maggie, a teagarden worker approached Maggie asking if she wanted to take a snap with the tea plucker’s conical back-basket. Ten rupees would be the rent for the basket. It sounded more like a plea than a business deal. The woman explained that she could make only about Rs50 a day by plucking tea. Pointing at the building far down the hill she said, “That’s the tea factory where I’ll have to reach the leaves after plucking them. The distance is much more than you can imagine. It takes me two hours to reach there.”
When we climbed back to the top of the hill we were met by a young boy who offered us a peep at the Kanchenjunga Peak through his telescope. The charge was Rs10 per peep. I must add that his telescope was indeed of good quality; the glory of the Kanchenjunga came alive through its lenses.
Almost everyone we met along the way had something or other to offer for a price. Even our taxi driver wanted us to prolong our trip. He offered many options. Money was hard to come by in Gorkhaland.
Mamata Banerjee seems to have brought cheers to the Gorkhas. Let their dreams bloom. Let there be smiles on those charming faces among the rolling teagardens.
The blog I wrote last year after my tour of Darjeeling: Darjeeling and Gorkhaland