Wednesday, February 13, 2008

6th Mile and the Global Beckham Connection

We were all gathered around the TV set, myself, Rich, Liza, Neema and his family, watching the latest soccer highlights. The atmosphere in Neema’s sister’s home wasn’t all that different from any informal social gathering back here; we had food, drinks, were talking with the TV on, having a good time in general. The setting, though, betrayed the fact that we were certainly far from home; the walls were made of mud and plaster, the room was not much bigger than a closet. Rich’s head came uncomfortably close to the ceiling and the couch, while functional, was not exactly comfortable. On the walls hung a collection of items, a clock, a portrait of Jesus, a poster of a famous Indian actress as well as one of David Beckham. It would be easy to write a paper just on these objects and their significance. We had chai tea and biscuits, a typical example of the hospitality we were always offered. While the people around Kalimpong were poor, they always offered their best to guests, were polite and went out of their way to make us feel welcome. I found that remarkable, a characteristic that seems beyond the capacity of our own society. We continued to Neema’s home, also small but as with most homes in the area, it was respectable, well-kempt, and had a simple beauty about it. As usual, it was painted a tropical blue and was surrounded by flowers which bloom even in the middle of winter. The inside was clean, comfortable and warm, but as compared to our own standards, sparse. Yet again, on the wall, David Beckham emerged in the form of a collage carefully put together by Neema, the highlight of the room if not the house. Football. Manchester United. David Beckham. The situation very much echoed a National Geographic I had brought along with me which highlighted soccer (football)’s global reach and popularity; I gave Neema the magazine, perhaps the start of a new collage. Today, I think it would be hard to find a celebrity more recognizable and worldwide than Beckham. As the embodiment in many respects of the global sport of soccer, it’s not hard to understand why. Just as During explained that Schwarzenegger’s global popularity was the result of Hollywood’s dominance and action movies’ universal appeal, Beckham’s fame has spread on the heals of the phenomenal growth of the game of soccer itself. Likewise, Manchester United was a popular team among the Ashram boarders; games between Egypt and Cameroon bring the same excitement for them as games between the Red Sox and Yankees do at Colby. David Beckham, Manchester United, and soccer itself exemplify globalization, allowing people of uncommon backgrounds around the world to participate and enjoy a universal sport. While European in origin, I don’t believe the growth in soccer comes at the cost of local culture and practices; rather, soccer at least adds to and is shaped by that culture to the point that today, soccer cannot be claimed by any one culture but is instead shared equally. On the way back from Neema’s house, we once again passed by the soccer field where he regularly plays. To have a soccer field on the side of a mountain presents unique challenges; this field was terraced just like the rice paddies in the surrounding farms, small with steep sides. A runaway ball would certainly fly down the mountainside, presenting an interesting obstacle to play. Other Kalimpong touches were visible; the goals were made of bamboo and prayer flags stood on either end. While still soccer, it was certainly a game played much differently than how I’ve played it here at home, a way that is uniquely Kalimpong. It was dark but we could still see the banner hanging over a road under construction, a project sponsored by one of the Gorkha parties. Earlier Neema had shown me his kukri, a traditional Gorkha knife and a symbol of the Gorkhaland movement. I wondered what his thoughts on the subject were, and I was surprised by the complexity of the situation. As a Sherpa, a clan sometimes the object of discrimination by the Gorkha population, he said that he and his family felt threatened by the movement which, after all, is in many ways a movement intended to promote the goals of a specific ethnic group. Sherpa, Rai, Lepcha, Gorkha, Nepali, Bengali; all groups vying to maintain, protect or extend their identity in the region, a dilemma certainly explored in Chakrabarty’s article. What is this concept of Gorkhaland? Who are the Gorkhas, where do they come from, do they have a history? How at all can this fit into a larger Indian identity? In many ways, Kalimpong felt separated from the rest of India, even from the rest of West Bengal, as if it were in fact another country. The people look different, speak Nepali, and have a totally different culture. Instead of Indian flags waving in the streets fly those of the Gorkhaland Parties; it would be hard to try to construct a larger Indian identity from such patchwork of peoples. Equally difficult, though, is to try to merge all these identities into a single Gorkha one. While the Gorkhaland movement presents a legitimate argument against the ineffective governing abilities of the far removed Kolcutta based government, I never really felt as though either of the Gorkhaland parties presented a realistic alternative or had any concrete plans; the potential racial divisions being drawn made me even more wary. I can only hope the violence and turmoil of the 1980’s movement doesn’t repeat. I sat in the pizza place in town one day with Harsh, the result of us both having a craving for the fatty, cheesy, doughy delight, something outside of the routine white-brown-green-yellow diet. In many ways, the restaurant resembled a pizza place back in the US; cheap tables equipped with parmesan cheese, high school kids hanging out after school, Journey playing in the background. The pizza was good, but different from the pizza back in the US, certainly adapted to the available ingredients and tastes of the people in Kalimpong. In no way did I feel the impending conquest of Westernization or Globalization as some fear; the restaurant was more of a curiosity as Pad Thai is in Waterville, not the start of a subversive shift to pizzas, burgers, and fries and even less the wider acceptance of a single global culture. While the presence of globalization and western culture could be easily found in Kalimpong, from cell phones, Cokes, KitKat bars, knock-off, cheaply made Yankees merchandise to second hand clothing, it never amounts to a real transformation in culture. These things are popular not so much because the people of Kalimpong prefer a western identity to their own, but more because they serve a purpose or fulfill a want; cell phones aid communication, KitKats taste good, and Western style clothing, be it new or second hand, is cheaper and more accessible than traditional clothing. Overall, it felt as though all these influences were simply mixed into the local culture, changing it to some degree, but often for the better. In the end, regardless of what happens in the world of Beckham, Metallica, Schwarzenegger or Kelly Clarkson, the world of Kalimpong – Gompu’s, millet wine, momo’s, kukris, and the “.com” healer – will largely remain as it is, at least for now.

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