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The Sherpas of Darjeeling hope for a day when their children don’t have to climb mountains

Darjeeling's stagnant economy imperils the lives of its tribe.

Outsiders are often flummoxed by the erratic weather of the hills of Darjeeling in West Bengal. Within minutes, or a few kilometres, the facade of the sky changes from a clear blue to an ominous grey.

In some ways, the life of a Sherpa in Darjeeling is erratic like hill weather: given the dangers of their profession, a sustainable, happy life can become overshadowed with grief and loss within the span of just a few treacherous steps.

The Sherpas have been inseparable from the Himalayas in popular imagination, ever since the 1920s, when European mountaineers began to first scale the mountains. On climbing missions, Sherpas frequently suffer the loss of physical and mental faculties. Some lose their feet to frostbite, thus losing the means to continue their profession. Others lose their mental balance due to traumas suffered during climbs, and retire early.

Paralysed physically and mentally, Sherpas who can no longer climb get no financial support.

Mani Sherpa lost his feet to frostbite on Mount Chomolhari, a mountain straddling the border between Tibet and Bhutan, in 1971. He says he received no compensation from anyone.
Mani Sherpa lost his feet to frostbite on Mount Chomolhari, a mountain straddling the border between Tibet and Bhutan, in 1971. He says he received no compensation from anyone.

Pemba Lamu Sherpa’s husband Dawa Wangchuk Sherpa was accompanying West Bengal mountaineer Chhanda Gayen on an expedition to Mount Kanchenjunga, Nepal, in 2014, when they got caught in an avalanche. When their bodies could not be found, they were declared dead.

Her neighbours claim Pemba Lamu Sherpa was offered a compensation of Rs 50,000, which she says she never actually received. In contrast, according to some news reports following the tragedy, Gayen’s family was promised a sizeable compensation.

Pemba Lamu Sherpa, widow of Dawa Wangchuk Sherpa, at her residence. Dawa Wangchuk Sherpa was one of the guides for Chhanda Gayen during an expedition to Mount Kanchenjunga in Nepal. On May 20, 2014, Gayen went missing along with Dawa and another sherpa in an avalanche, while descending the western side of Mount Kanchenjunga. Pemba was married to Dawa on January 25, 2014, and he left for the expedition just three months later. Image: Rana Chakraborty
Pemba Lamu Sherpa, widow of Dawa Wangchuk Sherpa, at her residence. Dawa Wangchuk Sherpa was one of the guides for Chhanda Gayen during an expedition to Mount Kanchenjunga in Nepal. On May 20, 2014, Gayen went missing along with Dawa and another sherpa in an avalanche, while descending the western side of Mount Kanchenjunga. Pemba was married to Dawa on January 25, 2014, and he left for the expedition just three months later. Image: Rana Chakraborty

Most professional Sherpas today go for expeditions where there is a huge risk to their lives, only so they can earn enough to ensure that their children receive a good education, and do not have to venture into this line of work. Young Sherpas are increasingly turning to convent education as a tool to escape this high-risk profession and find other means of livelihood.

But there are few other opportunities in Darjeeling.

Darjeeling still subsists on its tea gardens and tourism.
Darjeeling still subsists on its tea gardens and tourism.

Till date, the economy of Darjeeling, also known as the Queen of the Hills, primarily subsists on its tea gardens and on tourism, which gained primacy during the colonial era, when various Himalayan tribal groups began to migrate here in search of better livelihood.

In 1980s, the Gorkhaland Movement, or the demand for a separate administrative unit in Darjeeling, reached in its peak under the Gorkha National Liberation Front. Sherpas, usually known to the world only as prolific mountaineering guides, too formed an ethnic tribal community demanding self-determination.

Nima Doma’s husband Angnima Sherpa died on an expedition to Changuch Peak in Uttarakhand in 2007.
Nima Doma’s husband Angnima Sherpa died on an expedition to Changuch Peak in Uttarakhand in 2007.

“There is not enough social and economic development in this area and among the community,” said Jamling Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, son of the legendary mountaineer Tenzing Norgay. “So, if you manage to come after 100 years, you will find someone of the community is still working as guide for mountaineers.”

 Jimling Tenzing, in his study. “Sher-pa stands for eastern people, not a porter or a helping hand for some other climber. Over 500 years of living in high-altitude areas, sherpas have accumulated a special natural ability to climb high altitudes and sense the weather. Especially in the Himalayas, they are irreplaceable."
Jimling Tenzing, in his study. “Sher-pa stands for eastern people, not a porter or a helping hand for some other climber. Over 500 years of living in high-altitude areas, sherpas have accumulated a special natural ability to climb high altitudes and sense the weather. Especially in the Himalayas, they are irreplaceable."
Within minutes, or a few kilometres, the sky in Darjeeling can change from a clear blue to an ominous grey.
Within minutes, or a few kilometres, the sky in Darjeeling can change from a clear blue to an ominous grey.
Kushang Sherpa, a trainer at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, holds a record for climbing Mount Everest from all five routes. Seated in his living room with his son, Kushang says he has lost several family members to mountaineering expeditions.
Kushang Sherpa, a trainer at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, holds a record for climbing Mount Everest from all five routes. Seated in his living room with his son, Kushang says he has lost several family members to mountaineering expeditions.
Some children return from their convent school in Darjeeling.
Some children return from their convent school in Darjeeling.
A child plays while her family builds their hut. Professional sherpas continue risking their lives so that their children can get good education.
A child plays while her family builds their hut. Professional sherpas continue risking their lives so that their children can get good education.

All photographs by Rana Chakraborty.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.