Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Hands that Help

On this January’s stay in Kalimpong, I got to know some of the boarders at the Gandhi Ashram really well. You’d find all they were all pretty genuine people just chewing the fat with them for a while. After one the first few days of school I was sitting on the ledge out in front of the meal room, still a little exhausted from a full day of singing the moose song with class two, competitively playing four-square, and teaching Beatles song after song on guitar, you know, pretty rough stuff. So there I was, still trying to fathom that these hills around me, which seemed to cup and fold the light so elegantly over the endless rice paddies and orange trees, with the random toots of the colorful goods carriers whipping around like insects busy at work off on another hill, were actually as real as the familiar warmth of the sun I had not felt in months. So at peace and at ease I was that I probably wouldn’t have moved all afternoon had Karendra not approached me and asked me if I wanted to go for a walk. I was pretty faded by that point but figured a walk wouldn’t do any harm. Off we went, through the big intimidating blue gate, and we began to walk down the road. We were going to a village called Boshir (I’m not sure how to spell it) where he was born and raised and every relative and everyone he ever knew in his whole life was from. There’s nothing like walking down from 6th mile after school and seeing the hustle and the bustle of a place that is so seemingly imperturbable. We passed men huddled together around fires heating enormous drums of dark, bubbling nigrescent oil, their steam powered road machines noisily at work. We passed house after house, vivaciously colored some blue or green hue, with the older men out front on their haunches smoking and dogs running back and forth as I gave my best attempt to greet them all in Nepali. All the while I’m trying to avoid getting hit by any of the jeeps carrying as many people inside and outside as they possibly can, while the jeeps themselves are trying to avoid each other as they play chicken around blind turns that drop off into cliffs of certain demise. Karendra and I finally get off the road and begin walking through the forest. I began to ask him about all the Ghorkaland signs and flags that seemed to decorate the road and every back alley wall in town. Thinking about Pankaj Mishra’s article Exit Wounds, I wondered how Karendra identified himself as an Indian. I know we can all talk about how India is such a culturally diverse place but does that have any real meaning except just talking about it? As he was telling me about the different political parties, the Ghorka people, and their dream for their own state, some children of the Gandhi Ashram began to walk along side us on their way home. They were pretty little, too shy to talk, but content enough to have our company as we walked along to the village. I wondered too about their future. These children are given so much more opportunity than their parents were. How would they shape the land they were from? The Kalimpong/Darjeeling area is a prime example of the heedlessness the British government took in the formation of states after independence. Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, is twelve hours from Kalimpong. It is too far a distance physically and in the conscious of those to the south. Sadly, I would only come to realize the situation had much more complex ethnic implications and that in reality, in a country of 1 billion people it is very difficult to make your voice heard or garner any importance. But that would be in weeks to come. At the moment, I was crossing over bamboo bridges and walking through race paddies. Karendra was going from house to house asking if they had drink while I stood out in front with old women washing clothes giving me apprehensive glances and chickens that ran freely across my feet. I went in to a sparsely decorated room, with a small TV in the corner playing Nepali pop videos, except for one cabinet which featured some sort of Christian shrine. The raw wood floor was worn down, the room was dimly lit, and as Karendra went out to get something, I found myself drinking distilled millet grain moonshine with some older gentlemen who had no idea what I was saying, watching a beautiful Nepali woman on the television. If only I could have talked to them as well! I had so many questions by that point, but at last I had experienced just the tip of the Indian cultural iceberg. The Ghorka story is just a miniscule part of the Indian identity, yet even that story would become much more complicated. Another day Karendra and I went to the home of Jerome, the teacher of class five. He rented a couple rooms in a large house with his wife (who was also a teacher) and his small 9 month old child named Garrett (named after a Nepali singer). He began to tell how he and his wife both work very hard, sometimes he can’t afford to put food on the table, or he can’t afford medicine for his wife when she is sick, but as a family they get along and he can at least find peace in God. The Gandhi Ashram did not provide contracts for its teacher; hence he did not have job security. But Jerome managed to pray everyday, even if that meant missing church on Sunday to care for his family, and found solace in teaching and drawing, as well as providing a paternal role for the older boarders, especially Karendra. Jerome began telling me about the ethnic makeup of the Ghorka people. I had previously thought that the term was just reserved for the Nepali people who inhabited the area. But in reality, they consisted of several Nepali tribes, which are still very much part of the social structure and hierarchy in Nepal. In fact, Jerome was part of the Tamang tribe whereas Karendra’s family was Nepali royalty, his grandfather a famous Nepali poet. In Kalimpong they were equals, but in Nepal it was quite a different story. However, if either of them went to the South, they would be ridiculed or looked down upon for the way they looked. It was becoming more apparent to me that Gandhi’s dream of unified India was much more difficult and complex than the British partitioning of India seem to reflect. But hold on, things got more complicated.

I went to Chogin’s house with Gordon and Rich one day, and we talked a lot about the Lepcha culture. I learned Lepcha was not the same as Ghorka, in fact, they were the first aboriginals (before Jerome’s tribe and others) to inhabit the area. So it leaves one to wonder, with this mix of religion, language, tribal ethnicity, and competing political parties, how the Kalimpongese coexist so well. One thing that somehow was failed to be mentioned to us was the uprising that occurred between such political parties and cultural contexts in 1986, in which 1,000 people were killed. One of Jerome’s friends back then was particularly connected with one party until one day he was chased down by a mob of a different party’s persuasion through a field of rice paddies. He managed to get away, but not before they chopped off both of his arms. The situation is much more peaceful these days, and from the people I spoke with it seems like the people of Kalimpong are much more unified in their effort for Ghorkaland. However, they also will never forget what happened twenty two years ago, as no one wants something like that to ever reoccur.

So I found myself talking to the hotel staff in Delhi at a questionable hour about the American political process, the American dream, about my ancestors who were immigrants, and they loved it so much they ate it all up. Then I brought up Ghorkaland. There I was trying to defend Ghorkaland to a bunch of guys who never mind the fact they thought the Ghorkas were a bunch of lazy hicks, but were trying to explain to me Aryan races in India and who at the table was superior over who. When I told them “race didn’t exist in America”, they lost it. I got up, raised my fist, let out a defiant “Ghorkaland!”, and marched right out of there. I wasn’t going to let them talk like that about some of the most caring and hardworking people I have ever met. I’m sure that’s how the rest of India thought about it. “Who gives a damn about those hilly’s? I sure as hell don’t” was the impression I mostly got. Their whole situation seemed helpless to me. This feeling was only reinforced one afternoon as I sat atop a grassy hill overlooking the busy streets of Gangtok that seemed to disappear effortlessly into the mountain fog. Around me were Karendra and Subash, both boarders at the school, Johnny (Subash’s roommate who lived in Gangtok), and all of Johnny’s friends who were circled around in the familiar squat position. As we watched the sun slip behind another hill far off in the distance, Johnny’s gang of characters (oh man, were they characters, and most likely a gang too) began describing a little bit of their lives in Gangtok. For example, all eighteen of them lost their virginity to the same prostitute when they were fourteen, or the week before they took a little too much amphetamines and just got a little too rowdy at the club when Johnny happened to get into to a fight with twenty other guys. In the background, on one of those mobiles everyone seems to have was playing a certain Bon Jovi song with the lyrics:

It's my life

It's now or never

I ain't gonna live forever

I just want to live while I'm alive

It's my life

There it was: their doctrine of life. Who was going look after them if no one else would? That’s why places like the Gandhi Ashram need to exist. Someday these children will heal the wounds of partition. Maybe it begins with Ghorkaland, but I hope it begins somewhere in the hearts of the students we were so blessed to have taught.

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