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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
All photographs by Rana Chakraborty.