Other than a few physical details and the amulets that some of my students wore around their necks and arms, it was impossible to distinguish their ethnic identities. Sometimes the codes of identity were preserved in rituals of birth and death, in recipes, or in the way they treated guests. But the younger generation never cared much about these things.

All were devotees of Western trends in dress and music, and though not as passionate about cricket as their counterparts in the plains of West Bengal, adored the idols of Bollywood. But what was most important, all had made the Nepali language their own.

The acute scarcity of water in Darjeeling had never led to water riots, as it had in many other parts of the country, but blood was shed here for the constitutional recognition of the Nepali language. Being a Bengali, I was not ignorant of the ways the demand for the right to a mother tongue can lead to the demand for freedom, and that could eventually lead to the call for an independent republic. This is the story of the birth of a nation called Bangladesh.

But I also knew that many ethnic groups in Darjeeling had their own languages. Nepali became the medium of communication for these groups as the majority of the population spoke it and, for over a century, was the lingua franca.

But how could a language be more precious than water? I wondered.

“You’ll never understand this, sir.” Newton Subba, my student, told me politely one day.

Short in stature, and stout, Newton had a shock of glossy black hair that constantly fell over his lively gimlet eyes. He was a firebrand student leader. Once during an examination, when one of the teachers was making an announcement in shoddy Hindi peppered with Bangla, Newton had stood up and urged, “Tapai Nepali ma bhannus, sir!” The teacher didn’t pay heed to him and so Newton had registered his protest by tearing his answer script to pieces and storming out of the hall.

Later he came to me and repented the act. He also explained why we Bengalis would never understand their sensitiveness about a language. Bangla is the official language of a country which shares its border with the state of West Bengal. However, no one in the country would normally confuse a Bengali from West Bengal with a Bangladeshi.

But the term Nepali was interchangeable for both linguistic and national identities: it could mean a Nepali-speaking Indian, it could also mean a citizen of Nepal. The inclusion of the Nepali language in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, made after a prolonged agitation, automatically validated the citizenship rights of a few million people living in this country for generations.

Language is a crucial aspect of the complex identity of a Darjeelingey. This was addressed when Nepali language was given official status. But something that can never be altered by wielding a pen or passing a bill in Parliament are the physical features of most people here – the shape of a nose or eyes, the colour of the skin – that set them apart wherever they go in the rest of India.

“Do you realise the problem, sir?” Newton had said. “In Kolkata people mistake us for the Chinese, and when we go to Delhi we are treated as Tibetan refugees.”

“But isn’t this also true about all the people of the North East?” I had asked him.

“Yes, you are right. But then they have their own states. We haven’t.”

Every time Newton said these words, he stifled a sigh and fell silent. His bright eyes grew dim, his jaws stiffened, his hands clasped each other like a pair of animals locked in a battle.

The Darjeeling War Memorial commemorates Gorkha soldiers who died in wars for independent India | Image credit: Judith / Creative Commons
The Darjeeling War Memorial commemorates Gorkha soldiers who died in wars for independent India | Image credit: Judith / Creative Commons

One day, Newton invited me to his house in Jalapahar.

I met his great grandmother there. The ancient woman looked out of the window at the distant mountains and recited poems and prayers in the Limbu language. When they had migrated here from Nepal at the end of the nineteenth century, the entire area was covered in thick bamboo forests. Many years ago, there was a big forest fire that had continued for many days; the hill has been known as Jalapahar since then.

In those days the surrounding jungles were infested with tigers. Newton’s great grandmother had fought off a tiger to save a new-born calf. She rolled up her shirt sleeve to show me the paw mark on her arm. But it was impossible to tell from the creases left by time on the skin.

I wanted to know her age. A bashful expression fluttered in a nest of wrinkles as the lady spread out her arms like a tree. Everybody laughed. She, too, joined in and flashed her toothless gums.

She didn’t know how old she was, but informed me that she was married at the age of eleven. “Eleven or nine?” Newton asked her.

There was another round of laughter.

It was a standing joke in the family, I gathered. She was nine years old when her future husband came to stay in their house. It was an ancient custom in their tribe, Newton’s father explained to me. The prospective bridegroom was required to live in the bride’s house as a member of the family until her mother was impressed about his dependability. Only then could he take away the girl to his home after paying the bride price.

“The practice had ceased before my own parents were married,” Newton’s father added.

When the family migrated to Darjeeling from their ancestral village in Nepal, they had brought antique copper vessels used in religious ceremonies. They had also brought their language. The copper heirlooms were displayed in a glass cabinet in the sitting room, alongside other bric-a-brac. There was also an English-Limbu dictionary. Language and metal, the vestiges of uprooting. Like the vessels, the language, too, had gathered patina inside the old woman’s feeble brain.

The only person in the house who could converse with the grand old lady in Limbu was Newton’s father. He was an advocate in Darjeeling court. One of his brothers was a major in the Gorkha regiment. A sister had married an Australian and was settled in Adelaide. A framed photograph of the woman alongside her husband, with the Sydney Opera House in the background, stood inside the glass cabinet.

No one in the house would ever speak Limbu after the matriarch’s death. Another language would move a little towards inexorable death; the universe of images and sensibilities would become a little poorer.

“Why didn’t you learn the language?” I asked Newton.

He gave me an amused smile and shrugged. His mother came to invite me to the dining table. I had wished to taste their traditional food, so she had prepared sel roti, a type of fried bread made with rice flour, and gundruk ko jhol, fermented vegetable soup. There were also other dishes.

The dining hall was the hub of the house: on one side there was a sitting area around a TV set, on the other the open kitchen. Every inch of space was appointed with care and good taste; even the crockery on the shelves was aesthetically arranged. There were potted plants in the corners and an aquarium full of colourful fish.

There was also a hen house in the basement. The ceaseless chatter of the birds came diffused through the wooden floor and animated the air of the room. The wall behind the dining table was covered with posters of pop singers: Eric Clapton, Freddie Mercury, Whitney Houston, many Bob Dylans and a few others I couldn’t recognise. In this motley group, clinging to a corner of the wall, was Sathya Sai Baba, not an odd figure in the bushy-haired crowd.

Newton hadn’t learnt Limbu, but he was an accomplished guitarist and singer of Western pop. His involvement with politics and music didn’t allow him much time for studies. His mother deplored this and requested me to show him the right way.

Could I, really? Would he listen to me, give up his guitar and politics, and commit to memory the history of English literature? Or did she want him to sit at his great grandmother’s feet and learn Limbu? How did I know what was the right way? If I suggested any of these, Newton would surely offer me a helpless smile and a shrug.

Parimal Bhattacharya
Parimal Bhattacharya

In the late twentieth-century Darjeeling, the Newtons were more real than their great-grandparents.

Years of intermarriage across caste and ethnic groups had brought forth a new generation of men and women who couldn’t be slotted into narrow anthropological categories. And yet the notions that an average Bengali still nursed about hill people – that they were simple (read, brainless), emotional (read, headstrong), plain (read, easy to please), and obedient (read, never ask questions, tame as a pet animal) – smacked of the attitude of a ruler, not a neighbour. I have seen the cultivation of this attitude at different levels of the hill administration, and even in the college teachers’ council. It had a dark harvest: anger.

Subash Ghisingh, and his political party, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), used the adhesive power of this anger to bind together different hill communities into a single political entity. The term “Gorkha” had earned recognition as the embodiment of valour from British rulers. In independent India it degenerated into “bahadur”, which means fearless, but is actually an euphemism for silent, robotic obedience. The political turmoil of the 1980s gave birth to a new form of radical Gorkha pride.

Newton’s father explained this to me.

“You see professor saab, I don’t support Ghisingh and his party. But even his biggest critic cannot deny him this achievement. If history ever remembers him, it will be because he has been able to breathe a new meaning into the term Gorkha.”

Gorkhas were the people who had migrated from Nepal. Gorkha is a district in the country, and, in one version of the story, the community living there got its name from the eighth-century warrior-monk Guru Gorakhnath. According to another version, the name “gorkha” had come from “go-rakha”, the protector of cows. During the Mughal aggression in western India, it is claimed, a group of Rajputs had fled to the kingdom of Nepal; they intermarried with the local Khas and other ethnic groups and the Gorkha race was born.

I was never good at history, but I was aware of the notion, popular among the Bengalis, that the Gorkhas were people from Nepal who had driven away the indigenous Lepchas of the Darjeeling hills and settled there. Newton’s father told me how a new slogan was coined during the militant movement in the eighties:

Lapche Bhote Nepali, Hami Sabai Gorkhali.”

“Lepcha, Bhutia and Nepali, We are all Gorkhas.”

Excerpted with permission from No Path in Darjeeling Is Straight: Memories of a Hill Town, Parimal Bhattacharya, Speaking Tiger.