MARK TURIN The Allure of Darjeeling



© Mark Turin, 2000

A couple of days ago I returned from my first ever trip to Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Sikkim. Before I left for India,

a Nepali friend from Kathmandu who had studied in Darjeeling warned me that I might like it so much out there that I would never want to come back to Nepal. I didn’t take her very seriously, I must say. What place could be more pleasurable to live in and more special than Nepal, I thought? Now that I am back again, two weeks later, I think I know what she meant. In fact, even as I crossed back into Nepal at the border of Raniganj-Kankarbhitta, I felt I was entering a poor relation’s house from the comfort of a wealthy neighbour.

I don’t claim to have any special insights into Darjeeling that no one else has had. To the contrary in fact, I am largely ignorant of the details and intricacies of local politics in the area. I am writing from the perspective of a sometime foreign resident of Nepal visiting the Nepali Diaspora of north-eastern India for the first time. To be honest, I was impressed.

The first thing worthy of note is the great appreciation for the British. Albeit largely for motives of self-gain and pragmatism, the Britishers did build and leave an infrastructure of roads and schools,. The result was that when the colonialists went back home in 1947, there existed at least an outline which could be filled in by the newly independent Indian administration. The collective memory of the failings of the British Raj seems to have faded in tandem with the crumbling houses they built, and I only encountered an ironic sense of appreciation for what had been achieved in the name of Empire. That India was occupied for 200 years by the Britishers then, doesn’t seem too important. After all, and for better or for worse, it didn’t happen in Nepal.

As a non-Asian traveling in Asia, the other immediately noticeable thing about Darjeeling is that one is not stared and gazed at the whole time in the way that one is in Nepal. This may also be due to the early British influence in the area, in contrast to Nepal where the first pale-faces only started arriving under 50 years ago. It is a refreshing relief to be able to walk down a street or through a village in Darjeeling and not have everyone point at you and say something on the lines of kuire aayo, hera ta!. The other explanation for this difference can be put down to education. When taking a taxi from Ava Art Gallery to Chowk Bazaar in Darjeeling town one day, I got involved in a lengthy discussion about anthropology with the taxi driver. I had a flashback to my last taxi ride in Kathmandu before I left, during which the guru-ji asked me how much it costs to get a plane ticket to Amerika, how much I paid for my wristwatch and whether I might be interested in marrying his daughter. Education should not be underestimated.

After a week or so in Darjeeling, it began to dawn on me that all the people I had met who were holding down government jobs were actually going to work more or less on time and earning a decent salary as office staff, junior clerks and store keepers. Very unlike Nepal, where the best and brightest young men and women end up in the private sector or working for NGOs, and never for a moment think of entering the unrewarding and muddy world of government service. It appears that government jobs are taken seriously in Darjeeling in a way that they aren’t in Nepal. A primary school teacher in Darjeeling earns something near IC Rs. 6,000, about four times that of his or her counterpart here in Nepal. In India, the teachers are better educated, therefore they teach better, and in due course are better remunerated. The drama of Nepal is that it seems to be stuck in its own chakra, with poor teaching being rewarded by low pay and little impetus for improvement.

I returned from my trip with a mixture of conflicting emotions. I was as impressed by the standard of living in Darjeeling as I am disheartened by the present condition of Nepal. India is not free of problems, corruption and poverty, but then I am not comparing Lukla with New Delhi, two unrelated places. The comparison I am making is between Kathmandu and Darjeeling: between similar people living in very similar environments, and yet the difference in lifestyle and aspiration is impressively vast. With some careful planning, better education and a good dose of pride, could Kathmandu ever be Darjeeling? I do hope so.