Darjeeling And Its Discontents
In 1929, Sigmund Freud argued that civilization “obtains mastery over the individual’s dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.” [link]
A recent article by Satis Shroff – Drinking Tea in Darjeeling – seems to equate India with Freud’s aggressive “civilization”, and the hapless Nepalis who live there as its weakened and disarmed subjects.
I’m not going to argue over the fact that the multi-cultural people of the Darjeeling hills, be they Nepali, Sikkimese, Tibetan, Bhutanese or Bengali, have it tough – economically, politically and socially. Its all too real.
However, one inescapable fact remains. Darjeeling, despite all its problems (and there are many), depends , for better or for worse almost entirely on two things — tourism and tea — to sustain itself. Bemoaning the presence of the Bengali tourist or the “Indian brown sahib” seems to me a tad counter-productive. The tendency to view all problems as the malicious work of the “other” does not lend itself to open discussion and honest debate. The future of this beautiful place that evokes such pride among all who live there, and romanticism among all who have been fortunate enough to visit, is critically important.
Yes, the forests have been depleted by the acres of tea plantations, exacerbating the monsoon landslides. Yes, the average tea garden worker has a tough go of making ends meet. These are all sad and undeniable facts, and must, and should be brought to the forefront. Nothing could be more important.
Darjeeling evokes nostalgia for me – a worry-free childhood with summers spent at my British grandmother’s Darjeeling cottage, roller skating with my brother and our friends at the Gymkhana Club, frolicking in tea gardens, eating freshly baked hot-cross-buns at Glenarys every afternoon, waking up every morning hoping for a clear day so we could rush out into the garden and view the snow-capped Himalayas in all their glory. And momos. Glorious, endless, mouth-watering momos.
Yes, these were all decidedly “privileged” pursuits, and I know all too well that it does not in any way reflect the reality that is Darjeeling. But my love for the city centers around the sense of “place” I felt there. This was the place that even at its most violent, had adopted my foreign grandmother and protected her. This was a place that celebrated diversity and welcomed you with open arms, no matter who you were.
Darjeeling has changed a lot since I was a child, and I was afraid I might not recognize it ever again. But even on our most recent trip, accompanied this time by my American wife, the memories all came flooding back as I secretly knew they would. I felt like a kid all over again. Darjeeling has changed, but for me, it remains the same.
Despite the obviously nostalgic, privileged and biased lens that I view my Darjeeling with, I would like to believe that the situation is not as intractable as Satis Shroff makes it out to be. We need to engage, not blame. Tea and Indian tourists ( I am the very Bengali-babu that Mr. Shroff is contemptuous of) are here to stay. The debate ought to center around finding ways to include all of Darjeeling’s stakeholders and not trying to assign blame to certain groups. Mr. Shroff is obviously very proud of the Nepali people, and I applaud him for his passionate writing. What Darjeeling needs now is not another Gorkha separatist uprising, but political and economic participation by all its people to begin to address the economic inequality and lack of social recognition some groups feel.
This is happening, even if it is via the slow and lumbering machinations that are the hallmarks of India’s democratic system. It is happening, Mr. Shroff’s gloomy portrait notwithstanding.
I could be wrong. I hope, for the sake of my beloved Darjeeling, that I’m not.
Filed under: darjeeling, gardens, history, india, nostalgia, politics, tourism | 4 Comments