It hit me in Kalimpong. Not one commercial establishment had ‘West Bengal’ on their signage. It was always Gorkhaland. I could always shield my ignorance with the excuse that I am from south India, which is far removed from the politics of West Bengal, leave alone Gorkhaland. But that is just plain lazy and lame. The truth is, we are all tourists at some level. The insensitive, check-list jockeys ticking off ‘to-dos’ on a holiday. The vermin that systematically destroyed the souls of beautiful places. So here I was in Kalimpong without a clue about why the words “West Bengal” were practically non-existent in the town.
I decided to spend a day in Kalimpong for various reasons. I just wanted to relax and enjoy some comforts after having roughed it the past week. Despite being unemployed, I booked myself a room in a star hotel-like resort called The Soods Garden Retreat, Kalimpong. Yes, so the haven’t-had-a-paycheck-in-a-year poor me alighted in center of Kalimpong, thanked my restaurateur, ex-army friend from Lava who’d given me a lift in his car, and took a cab to the hotel. Yes, took a cab to the hotel which was exactly 750 meters away and paid seventy five Rupees for it.
The Soods Garden Retreat looked nice. The room was posh. It had air-conditioning, which I never used. I am a Chennai boy and Kalimpong to me is like the North Pole. The room had running hot water, room-service… and carpenters making a racket in the floor above. 2600 INR per night. A criminal waste of money. I took a long, hot shower and lazed the whole day. In the evening I recalled that Ben, my friend in Kolkata and vocalist for Hip Pocket, had suggested King Thai as a nice place to hang out.
So I walked around a bit in the evening in the bazaar. Kalimpong is filled with old structures, just like in Kolkata. And there’s something about old buildings that attracts me. So I inspected quite a few structures as listless shopkeepers looked right through me. And it sunk in slowly that people– the locals– were distant. As if they suffered an incomprehensible ignominy in the muted recesses of their hearts. I felt like an incongruity. An aberration. Like a clown in a funeral. Maybe it was all my imagination. Maybe. But I was sure that people were not happy. I dismissed these ideas as I thought I was being hyper-analytical.
As darkness swooped in, I entered King Thai. The place was practically empty. An elderly gentleman was drinking in a corner. Something told me he was part of the furniture. A couple, seated at the table by the entrance, were having a fight. That’s all. And me. The waiters stood in a row by the bar. The Captain stared right back at me. I was confused. I stared at him for a bit. Not one guy bothered to ask me what I wanted. I walked up to the Captain, who was standing behind a small desk. He looked at me and said something in Bengali.
“I don’t understand Bengali… I am from Bangalore.” I said. That changed everything. The Captain ushered me to a table and was all smiles. I was actually waiting for him to ask the dreaded “Are you on Facebook?”
As I settled down, it struck me. The people on the streets weren’t unhappy or forlorn. They probably were trying to ignore me. So I started speaking to the waiter in pure Tamil to be on the safe side.
I was anyway being a vain, irresponsible jerk, so instead of the cheap Old Monk, I ordered a double of Teacher’s. Bob Marely smiled from the murals on the walls. He was the presiding deity I think, for he was all over the place. The top of the bar counter was festooned with football club insignia and memorabilia. Of course, this is football country.
Across the hall, behind me was the stage. No one performs on it anymore. A lonely bike stood at a corner as a stunning wall-to-wall mural of white people having a good time provided the backdrop.
I was half way through my third whisky when I heard commotion down in the street. King Thai is on the second floor and the windows were right above the street.
I walked up to the windows and joined the staff of King Thai in watching the procession of people below. It was dark now. And what I saw was poignant. A large group of protesters, carrying torches and chanting Gorkhaland slogans, marched on. But business was as usual. People continued shopping, eating, talking to friends, talking on mobiles, or just stand by. A cruel thought popped in my head. ‘Harlem Shake’ it said.
The staff said they marched every evening. A bunch of people marching on, reminding people about their cause.
My waiter hastened to reassure me. “Don’t worry. It is nothing dangerous.” He said. He asked me if things like this happened in ‘South.’ I wanted to tell him “No. Things like this don’t happen. Worse shit happens. For example, when a movie star dies, we go on a rampage of looting and arson.”
I walked back to the Hotel. What bothered me more than their demand for a state was their scream of agony to be seen as Indians.
In his book The Story of Darjeeling, Basant B Lama asks an important question. The import of it is that when you hear the word “Nepali” you think Nepal. When you hear “Bengali,” you don’t think Bangladesh, do you?
I was appalled when I discovered how our leaders and founding fathers have been woefully ignorant and discriminatory:
“…The People inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-mongoloid prejudices.” ~ Sardar Vallabhai Patel in a letter to Pandit Nehru.
Ironically, Patel had to call upon the Gorkha regiments during the Partition riots to police Bengal and Punjab. And, 90% of gorkha soldiers opted to serve India post-independence even though Britain had offered them jobs.