Portrait of a village in Darjeeling hills: In picturesque Tuia, poverty feeds on the past, and the future
Read an excerpt from No Path in Darjeeling is Straight by Parimal Bhattacharya, published by Speaking Tiger
Editor's note: No food, no medicines, no essential services, no internet, no power — this has been the situation in the Darjeeling hills over July-August 2017. The incessant rains and landlslides meant the roads in many places were blocked. How did the one million plus people who live in the hills cope? News still trickles in from the towns — but what about the villages? What is life like there? We find out about one such village, in this excerpt from No Path in Darjeeling is Straight (July 2017) by Parimal Bhattacharya, published by Speaking Tiger.
Tuia: Portrait of a Village in Darjeeling Hills
Less a village, more a thin dispersion of cottages upon the steep hillside, Tuia, to me, was the sound of its name: the call of a tiny bird that plucks a ripple in the air and dies. There were about 20 cottages, made out of tin and pine planks, which belonged to Lepcha and Tamang residents. Old people dressed in striped apron-like garments sat on doorsteps, turning rosaries with slow fingers. Prayer flags fluttered from tall bamboo poles, orchids hung on moss-covered rhododendron branches, the crowing of roosters and the whack of hay being chopped were suspended in the air. Pale, thickset women carrying baskets of cabbages and carrots on their shoulders flashed oblique eyes at the outsider as they hurried down a trail.
The narrow farm plots received little sunlight as they were on the north-western side of the mountain. In Tuia, maize and some winter vegetables were grown on steep slopes. The strips of land were so narrow that cattle could not be used to plough them and the fields had to be prepared manually. But the fruits of such hard labour were entirely dependent on rainfall.
Rangeet flowed a few hundred feet below in the gorge, weaving a foamy green plait upon a bed of pebbles, but the water couldn’t be drawn up. Electric poles had been planted before the last general elections, but electricity had not come. The poles stood at regular distances, covered with wild creepers on which violet flowers bloomed, like demi-gods guarding the unchanging pattern of life in the village.
In the government records, Tuia was a forest village. Unlike a revenue village, it did not have an elected panchayat, and all development activities of the state were supposedly channelled through the forest department. And thereby hung a tale of apathy and corruption.
Electricity had failed to come to Tuia, so had modern appliances. Time remained suspended in the dark, soot-encrusted huts made mostly out of unplaned wood from the surrounding forests. Most of the furniture and articles of daily use, too, were made by local craftsmen. In a settlement where nature and human ingenuity had struck an age-old balance, the only import from the outside world appeared to be plastic: plastic pots, plastic sheets, plastic pipes and plastic toys. The item that was exported in exchange was much more precious: youth. Very few young people could be seen around the village; most of the residents I met were children and the old. Grown-up men migrated in search of work. A handful of them, like Pratap, went off for higher studies. They never returned.
‘Why would anyone care to live here?’ Pratap asked me. ‘What is there to hold us back?’ He uttered these words in a tone of soliloquy, as if he could see his own destiny before him. Then perhaps it struck him that it was improper to speak like this before a guest. So he took me on a tour around the village and to an orange orchard above it.
Pratap and I strolled through the orchard to a clearing that rolled up to a pine grove. Blocks of basalt carved with ‘Om mani padme hum’ were laid on the grass. The mountains of Sikkim and Nepal rose like walls behind the trees. Tuia lay on the slope below, its tin roofs glimmering in the oblique rays of the sun like a swarm of dragonflies gathered around a secretion of resin. Fleecy fog continued to rise from the gullies. It was time for me to take my leave. Bijanbari was a two-kilometre downhill trek away. A car was waiting there to take me back to Darjeeling.
‘So that is your village, haan? What a quiet and beautiful place it is!’ I said, and put my hand on Pratap’s shoulder. ‘Yes, Sir. But there’s another thing worth viewing. I’ll show it to you in the evening.’ I protested. I was supposed to return to Darjeeling by evening. Besides, the following day was a Monday.
A bus left from nearby Poolbazaar every day at six-thirty in the morning, Pratap said. It reached Darjeeling before college started. He would accompany me in the morning. Everything had been settled beforehand, it seemed; my excuses only elicited smiles — the trademark smile of Pratap Lama, Buddha-like, but firm. ‘Okay, Sir,’ he said. ‘This is the first time you have set foot in our village, who knows if you’ll come again. Let’s go home. If my mother allows you to leave, I won’t protest. It’s a promise.’
As we picked our way to the village along a steep trail through the pine grove, we ran into a group of charcoal-makers. Seeing me, they tried to hide behind the trees, but came out when Pratap assured them that I was not a forest official. The group consisted of three people, possibly members of a family, though it was impossible to gather anything from their looks except that they were human, so completely covered were
they in charcoal dust. Barefoot and dressed in rags, each of them was lugging three plastic sacks stuffed with charcoal. They stared at us with dazzling white eyes set in black, mask-like faces, and sneaked away down to the ravine. They would walk on through the rest of the day, cross the valley below, ford streams and climb up to Darjeeling in the darkness of the night, Pratap told me.
Though a contraband, charcoal was much in demand in Darjeeling to light household angithis, a type of heater, and grills in restaurants. Depending on the time of the year, a sack of charcoal fetched between two to four hundred rupees in the town’s black market. But these poor men received only a fraction of the amount. The hazards, too, were great. The forest guards made life hell if they were caught in the act. So they had perfected the art of burning wood deep inside the forest and of camouflaging the smoke against thick fog by covering the embers with green leaves. Then there was the arduous journey across hills and valleys under cover of darkness. The juicy legs of chicken browned over the grills of fancy restaurants in Darjeeling had hidden costs; these rustic people were paying them. The forests were vanishing, the village springs were drying up, homestead plots were turning landslide-prone. But poverty is an insatiable beast. Not only does it devour forests and the age-old systems of faith that have sustained them, it also feeds on the future of coming generations.
I tried, and failed, to get permission from Pratap’s parents to depart that afternoon. That I would stay the night had been taken for granted; a couple of neighbours had been invited to dinner. Their hospitality was so spontaneous and yet so understated. Pratap’s father knew the art of communicating the depth of his feeling with the hint of a smile or a fleeting touch upon the shoulder.
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