‘It’s been nine years since sir was murdered,’ I said to Guruma, whom I was meeting after a decade and a half. ‘Will you ever get justice now?’
Guruma remained silent for a while. Then she turned her eyes skyward and smiled wistfully. The smile which she had forced to her lips was like a streak of lightning across a dark raincloud, which casts a flash of light on the world and vanishes.
She sighed deeply and said in a near whisper, ‘God is in his heaven.’
I remembered that rhyme from many years ago, which I had sung along with her.
Who made you and I? You and I?
God in his heaven
1985. Four years before I was born. Darjeeling was a different town then. It was peaceful and lovely. There was no theft or robbery. No murders or violence. People were satisfied by what they earned. The dreams they dreamed were small, not even the size of mustard seeds. Which, once fulfilled, they could die in peace.
At that time, the village of my birth was so remote and inaccessible, its folks didn’t have any dreams at all. If they came back from the jungle with a load of fodder and were given a glass of cold buttermilk, that was one dream which had come true. If they could drink a tall mug of jaand, millet spirits, at the end of a day of exhausting labour, that was another dream fulfilled. Two full meals of dal-bhat a day and they were beyond happy. When did they ever have time to dream of those things they did not possess?
That was the time when Shakuntala Guruma reached my village. My village, or the remotest corner of Kalimpong – then a subdivisional town of Darjeeling district in West Bengal, now a district in its own right. Which didn’t have electricity. No motorable roads. No shops and commercial centres. It had zilch, absolutely nothing. But it wouldn’t be right to say that now, would it? My village had an ancient primary school. Which, at any moment, could collapse in a heap.
A school can be as dark and dilapidated as it can be, but the alphabets taught therein are always brand new. Don’t you agree? It was those bright and shiny letters which were taught in the school.
And Guruma had come to teach those bright and shiny letters.
Shakuntala Rai. That was her full name. But her name was of no use in my village. To everyone she was the teacher of Biga School. So her name became ‘Biga Guruma’.
Guruma used to live in a room in that dusty old school. All day, she would teach the children there. In the evenings, she would come to the village. She might even drink a little jaand and, afterwards, go back to her room and sleep soundly.
Guruma’s arrival brought in new enthusiasm. Student numbers increased dramatically. Children from many surrounding villages attended Biga School – from Sungure to Maidan, from Dalapchand to Gidang, and from Kamere to Malbung. There is a famous English-medium school in Kalimpong town, Saint Augustine’s, some thirty kilometres from my village. Guruma would bring books included in the English language syllabus of that school to teach the village students.
About a year after she started teaching, the Agitation began all at once in Darjeeling. It was the leader Subash Ghising who launched the Agitation for Gorkhaland, a separate state for the Nepalis of India. The hills started to burn. In Darjeeling, the politics of murder and violence held sway.
That fire spread and gradually reached our village too. First came Subash Ghising’s diktat: ‘You are no longer allowed to teach English in schools.’
Guruma pretended fear. ‘Okay, I won’t.’
But when the messengers left she told the students, ‘We need English. How can we not teach it?’
Then she continued telling the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves which had been interrupted. Two months later, all of the Darjeeling hills shut down. The school too.
Darjeeling burned for two full years. Only then did the Agitation finally abate. None of the dreams which Darjeeling had dreamed came true. The political leaders who had shown citizens grand dreams of a state all their own eagerly accepted that gross compromise, the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. Those political leaders who claimed that they would give up their lives for the cause transformed into building contractors. Then began the Age of Development in Darjeeling. Those same structures which had been destroyed on the excuse of the Agitation were rebuilt on the pretext of Development.
What did the common man gain from all this? Nothing. They returned to point zero, from where the Agitation had begun.
The shut-downs ended. Schools reopened. Guruma returned to my village.
Having remained shut up for a long time, the school had become a ruin, a cave. Students had grown bored and disinterested in learning. Still, she called the villagers together and asked them to repair the school. She collected new admissions and started teaching again.
A new generation began learning the alphabets.
Some years passed thus.
Only when they had gained a little education did the villagers understand –
The wounds of the village, scorched by the Agitation, were still raw but no official, no government representative ever arrived to provide succour.
Those leaders and revolutionaries who came to my village at the height of the Agitation, to demand that we make the ultimate sacrifice of our blood for the common cause, did not realise that for years we had been yearning simply for drinking water.
Those who told us that after we achieved Gorkhaland ‘even pigs will eat fragrant Nuniya rice’ did not know that every summer, in the months of Chait and Baisakh, half the people of my village made do with just one meal a day.
To fetch drinking water we had to climb down half an hour to Kujudang in the valley. The nearest hospital was in Malbazar, a full day’s walk away. To sell ginger, our main cash crop, we had carry it up to Jorline, two hours up steep mountain roads. To sell the fiery dalley chilies, our other cash crop, we had to go down to Odlabari in the plains. To collect our PDS rations we had to reach Nimbong, across two valleys. And to meet our political representative we had to walk to Kaffer, which was a day’s worth of walking.
There was one sole primary school in the neighbourhood. That too was slowly crumbling into ruin.
As the school gradually disintegrated, Guruma had a new idea. She gathered all the villagers and explained the situation to them. Then she prepared an application for a new school building. She got the literate to sign the application; from those who didn’t recognize the alphabets she collected thumbprints. She then set off for the office of the Divisional Development Committee in Kalimpong.
Two years passed but nothing happened. One of the school walls was about to collapse. The roof leaked so badly it was impossible to attend classes in monsoon.
Then, elections arrived.
Be it political leaders or government officials, come elections, both were sure to put in an appearance. Only now could we villagers see how prosperous and expansive these leaders – so bedraggled and desperate for support during the Agitation – had become after the Council was formed.
These people, who would never stop speaking about Gorkhaland, gave us a new slogan: ‘Give us your vote. Soon as we win, a road will reach your village.’
The dreams of the village received a fresh infusion of urea and they grew a little.
Guruma, who was despairing at the condition of the school, hurriedly called together all the villagers. ‘This time, no one will cast their vote. Why? Because I will not certify this school as a polling centre. If I don’t give my consent, this school cannot become one. Only after the government puts up a new building will this school become a polling centre.’
The villagers were dejected. People started to talk. ‘Just when we were about to get a road, Guruma messed up everything.’ My village, united when it had nothing at all, cleaved into two merely on the back of an election promise. My village failed to understand how easily politics divides people.
Guruma understood. She spoke to the polling officer. The officer assured her that he would reach the report of the school’s condition to the relevant department. She gave her assent and the school became a polling centre.
Then what. After elections the party leaders vanished. They didn’t even as much as mention a road. But, astonishingly, the Divisional Development Office built us a new school building. And I started to learn ‘ka’, ‘kha’ and ‘ga’ in it.
It was just one room. All by herself, Guruma taught from the lowest – ‘pebble’ class because that’s how we were taught, with pebbles – to the highest class, 4. Which is why there weren’t more rooms. Later, a Sir arrived and then a separate room was made for Class 4.
Didn’t I tell you earlier, that Guruma lived in the school itself? Now that I think about it, sir had come to our village for Guruma’s sake. He was teaching us as a volunteer.
Things were going well. Then, suddenly, a new school was set up in our village. Ainam Daju began to teach there for two hours each morning. We all attended both schools, in the morning and in the daytime. We just had to take care of one thing. In the morning school, we had to address the teacher as ‘Guruji’; in the daytime school it was enough to say ‘sir’ and ‘Guruma’.
Only much later did I understand: the morning school had been set up by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, where preaching predominated. As nursery rhymes we were made to sing Hindu bhajans. The daytime school was a government institution. But Guruma was Christian and so taught us the Lord’s hymns.
Now, in the mornings, we began to sing ‘Janani Bharat bhumi’ (Bharat, our creator, our Motherland). In the daytime it was still ‘God in His heaven’.
What do children have to do with religion, or with religious songs? We learnt the hymns of both religions by heart.
But would the matter ever die down even after we learnt both the hymns by heart? A new problem cropped up. In those days, Christian missionaries would come to the village to evangelise. The Guruji who taught us in the mornings started using us openly to stop the missionaries’ activities. Could we ever disobey Guruji? Reluctantly, we became sworn enemies of the evangelists, mostly girls.
Christian girls would travel in the villages, distributing small pamphlets. We would follow them around, collect those pamphlets, tear them up and throw them by the wayside. At such a time, two families in Kamera village converted to Christianity. When the priest baptised them, it was as if a fire engulfed the whole village. Everyone got together went to houses of the baptised families for a gherao.
The struggle lasted twenty-four hours and almost deteriorated into fisticuffs. But the two families did not return to the Hindu faith and decided to remain in Christianity. It was then that one faction in the village targeted sir and Guruma. ‘These are the people who’re evangelising, this sir and Guruma! It’s only after this Christian Guruma came here that these missionary activities started.’
My village cleaved once more into two, on the question of religion. Once more, Guruma sussed out the situation. Calling everyone together for a meeting, she said, ‘Fools quarrel over religion. The RSS cannot dictate things like this. Go to my room and check the pictures of the gods I have on my table.’ In her room, all the gods from Jesus to Budhha were arrayed, smiling serenely.
The villagers had begun to understand the state of affairs. But just at that time, Guruma made a final announcement: ‘I struggled for fifteen years for the sake of this village. But, ultimately, I failed. I have been transferred and I am going to Kalimpong, never to return.’
I’d finished Class 4 that year. Guruma called us all to school for the last time. For some time she just stood there blinking back tears. Then she sang softly, ‘God in his heaven…’
Sir and Guruma both left our village.
Time passed, nothing changed.
Those in politics kept playing the games that would fragment our village. Those waging battle for the sake of religion kept tearing up Bibles. The school, once new, gradually grew old and decrepit. The few who wanted to study headed towards the towns. It was at such a time that I finally set foot in college.
By now, the memories of Sir and Guruma had become like alphabets lettered in pencil on paper. Some memories were tearing like the pages of an old book. Others were peeling away. And those that remained on the page were fading away.
Then one day, without warning, I saw a photograph of Sir, drenched in blood, printed on a piece of paper.
At that time I had just begun practising journalism. Darjeeling, in the throes of the second phase of Agitation, was completely shut down.
Ten days after the murder of Madan Tamang, my sir was lying on a hospital bed, covered in his own blood.*
I couldn’t breathe. Only after I read the news did I understand that he had been beaten to death. Do you know what Sir’s biggest mistake was? He didn’t quit the old party of which he was a member. He didn’t hold aloft the banner of the party agitating for Gorkhaland.
To be murdered for a party flag, a banner? This is possible only in the Agitation. This is possible only in Darjeeling.
But what could be done? Sir was not a cadre of the agitating party. So even though he died in the Second Agitation, his name wasn’t on the list of martyrs.
The world forgot about him in the same way that, having drunk their fill of water, people forget – briefly – the spring that slaked their thirst. The same way that, having eaten their fill, people forget – briefly – the kitchen that quenched their hunger. I too had forgotten Sir in that very same way.
Had my Guruma too forgotten sir? No! How could that be?
Then one day in Darjeeling, where thousands lived with their lips sewed up, my Guruma spoke up all at once. I couldn’t believe it. Who knew where my Guruma, reduced to skin and bone, found such strength? She told the world, ‘No one killed my husband. Let his death not be politicised.’
The one who taught me the alphabets. Who showed me how people conduct politics and wield religion to achieve their own vested interests. Who explained life, more or less, to me. How could such a person tell such a huge lie about her own life?
Now I just had to meet her.
A full decade and a half had elapsed before I met my Guruma again. Her hair, black and always sleekly combed, had become dry and unkempt. Those cheeks which used to dimple prettily when she smiled were wrinkled. Her once comely limbs were so emaciated, the veins popped and strained against the skin.
To that weakened frame I addressed one of her life’s most difficult questions: ‘Guruma, what’s happening with sir’s case?’
For a few minutes she was wistful. Then she said softly, ‘I am a widow. Where can I go to demand justice? I have withdrawn my case. It’s not the court of justice which will punish the perpetrators but God himself.’
Thereafter she stammered the final line of that rhyme, ‘God is in his heaven.’
I was no longer a child. Which is why I didn’t believe her.
*Madan Tamang, the president of the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League, was cut down on the morning of May 21, 2010, near Planters Club in the heart of Darjeeling town.
Translated from the Nepalese by Anurag Basnet.