I am 30 years old now. Yet I look 40. I stay in a small hamlet near Darjeeling. It is basically a hamlet made up of tea garden workers. No, I do not own the land; they say it belongs to the tea garden. I am the driver of the Manager and hold a special position among my fellow workers.
When I was four years old I lost my father. He had gone to get sausages from Keventer’s in Darjeeling for the then Manager. My mother used to tell me that the earlier Burra Sahib loved to have sausages and poached eggs for breakfast. My father was the cook of the Manager’s bungalow, and his prized possession; the Manager had filched him from a very famous restaurant in Darjeeling for a bottle of Glenfiddich, the restaurant owner’s weakness. Twelve years later on that fateful day, there was a meeting for Gorkhaland in Chowk Bazaar. The crowd got so excited by the Supremo’s speech that they were almost ready for action. The cops sensed the tension and opened fire. My father received a bullet to his chest. The packet of sausages still lay clutched in his hand when they brought him to the police station. The Burra Sahib never got to eat those sausages.
Today I stand in Chowk Bazaar with thousands of people listening to the present Supremo. They say that this latest installment of bandhs and rallies has been caused by the Central Government’s decision to form the new state of Telengana. I could well understand why my father had stopped upon seeing such a crowd, but I do not really know if he was actually listening. It’s been twenty six years now and the fight for identity, the fight for land, the fight for Gorkhaland is still on. I wonder if anyone is listening.
I am a class five dropout. I went to the local school in the mornings and did odd jobs at the Manager’s bungalow where my mother was given a job as a maid after my father’s death. Our Burra Sahib was a very benevolent man. He threw lavish parties at Christmas. We all looked forward to when his wife, an Anglo-Indian, would come with their children to celebrate Christmas at the bungalow. We used to bring the best Christmas tree and the children and their mother used to decorate it with different toys and tiny bulbs. All the Managers from the adjoining gardens and important people from Darjeeling used to come to celebrate Christmas at our Manager’s house. The lawn would be full of cars. Some had red lights on their roofs and belonged to bureaucrats and politicians. The other servants in the house used to say that they were all important people who had to be served well as our future was in their hands. I wondered how. But the songs and music of the party generally deafened these questions I had in my head.
I used to wear my best clothes during this time. My mother used to neatly iron my Dashain clothes so that I could look presentable. I used to carry the trays of pakoras, meat balls, French fries and chips to the Sahibs (I never touched the sausages. I always felt that it was the sausages which took my father’s life). The Sahibs were always happy with me as I was smaller and quicker than the hired staff, and carried matches to light their cigarettes and a bottle opener for their beer. They used to say, “Grow up fast, your Sahib needs a driver. Learn to drive.” As for the Memsahibs, they used to stare at me very intently. For them, I was only ever the son of the cook who lost his life while getting sausages for the Burra Sahib. And so they often used to say “Grow up fast and become a good cook like your father.” They never told me to study. I always felt studying was useless. After all, they were important people and they knew what was best for me. “My life was in their hands,” I thought. I had to grow up fast so that I could cook and drive for my Burra Sahib. So here I am, thirty years old. The Manager’s best driver.
Three years back my new Sahib took me to Kolkata. He always talked about this great city. I went everywhere with him as his assistant and he introduced me to all his friends as his ‘Man Friday’. I did not understand what he meant by that, but from the reaction of his friends, I could well understand that he meant I was an important person, and I felt elated about it. What was strange to me though, was people in Kolkata always asking me where I was from. I didn’t understand what they meant till someone asked me where in Nepal my home was. Well, I couldn’t answer them as I only knew that I was from this small hamlet in Darjeeling.
Every year on 15 August and 26 January we had the flag hoisting ceremony in our garden. I was always one of the most enthusiastic during these ceremonies. Whenever there were cricket matches between India and Pakistan, I always used to wear the Indian jersey my Sahib had given to me. I was proud that I was an Indian. So how could I answer from which part of Nepal I was? My father never talked of Nepal, nor had I ever been there.
Sometimes, some local netas used to tell me that since those in the plains never considered us as Indians, we had to fight for the land we had lived in for generations. At first I did not believe them, but this trip to Kolkata opened up a bunch of questions, and suddenly the Gorkha in me was created. Questions began to germinate in my mind: why was I given the nationality of Nepal offhand? Why did my condition never change? Why could I only serve and never be a master in my own land? Someone told me the other day that the Government of Bengal never cared for us, and asked why the Governments in Kolkata and Delhi were incapable of providing a basic necessity like water to Darjeeling, when the British could get the train to reach us some 130 years back? Why were there no good colleges, or a University? Why are the people who represent us in Delhi always from Delhi and not from our place? Why is the condition of the road so bad? Why is it that the national highway, which was brought down by a landslide a few years ago, is taking such a long time to repair? Why is it that even though Nepali is on the Eighth Schedule it is still considered a foreign tongue?
They say that in 1956, the different states of India were created on the basis of language. What stopped them from making Darjeeling into a separate territory at this time? If Telengana can be created now, what is wrong in having Darjeeling as a separate territory? I do not understand the meaning of ‘Union Territory’, ‘Gorkhaland Territorial Administration’, or ‘Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council’. However I do know one thing – that the Gorkhas have continuously been asked about their loyalties even though they have been living here for generations, serving masters in both Calcutta and in Delhi. Is it that while we are serving we must also be constantly questioned about our supposed native place? I have heard that there is a statue of Durga Malla in the garden of Parliament and that Ram Singh Thakuri, a ‘Gorkha’ created the music for Kadam Kadam Badaye ja and gave the musical notations for our National Anthem to the Army Band. I do not know if there exists any ‘Bengal’ regiment or a ‘Delhi’ regiment in the Indian Army. But I do know that there exists one called the ‘Gorkha’, which the entire world says is the most fearless. They say so and I have no reason to disbelieve them. So why does the ‘average’ Indian always want to know where I am from?
Today, as I stand in Chowk Bazaar, I do not understand why our leaders are linking our identity crisis with the making of Telengana state. I have heard that there, they are fighting for a capital called Hyderabad. We do not want to take Kolkata, which is Bengal’s capital, so why do people in Bengal feel that we are trying to snatch away something that belongs to them? We do understand the anger when the strikes disrupt their holidays, but then right now we are fighting for something more important. We too love Darjeeling tea the way it is, and even if demand is granted there won’t be any change in its aroma or taste. But we too have grown, and want our own space in this beloved nation, one where we are not questioned about our identity and allegiance.
As I walked away from the gathering, I wanted to cry. I felt jittery as the feeling of disempowerment and hopelessness started creeping into my mind. I did not know how I could face my Burra Sahib with these distraught thoughts. He had been always nice to me, but was worried these days since the tea garden and the factory had been locked up for over a month.
Heading past Clubside and towards The Mall, I saw Keventer’s. It was locked. I walked past and entered a narrow alley. I knew the place where I could get fresh sausages. I knocked on the small creaky wooden door, and as it opened I went in and asked the old guy to give me a kilo of sausages. The rates were inflated, but I did not mind paying. I took the small packet that he handed to me and started whistling back to the tea garden. My Burra Sahib loved sausages and poached eggs for his breakfast. He was after all his father’s son.
~Satyadeep S Chhetri teaches at Sikkim Government College, Gangtok and writes regularly for Sikkim dailies.