Last week we traveled just over the border to Darjeeling. Why did I go to India with my Nepal program? Because as we found, Darjeeling is any many ways more Nepali than the country itself.
The northern portion of India stretching to Bhutan was within the Nepali border until 1816 when in was won in a battle with the British. When the English overtook it they, they established it as their central trade post in the summer months to get out of the heat in Calcutta. Over the 19th century they deforested the hills in Darjeeling and brought in tea bushes from China (that’s right, even though Darjeeling is a great atmosphere to make tea, it is far from an indigenous plant to the area.) To undeertake this massive tea-planting project, thousands of Nepalis–individuals as well as families–crossed the border as laborers. The result over time was a society of almost entirely migrant workers lacking the socio-culutral infrasture of the homeland. To compensate for this, community centers called samaj that acted like cultural governments providing their people with funding for funeral rites and marriages.
Over time, the result was a place and people that was Nepali-speaking, Nepali heritage, Indian nationality, and distinct different from both. I talk to many locals about their identity: most just said that they thought of themselves as “from Darjeeling” and others said “Gorkhaland”, a term coined to push for the Darjeeling district’s battle for independence, which one can see spraypainted on nooks and corners throughout town. I found people very approachable, and when all else failed, a little Nepali made their hearts melt. They affectionately refer to Nepali as “mother language”, a refreshing difference to Nepal itself where hardly anyone speaks Nepali as their first language and it is, if any thing, a politically-enforced lingua franca that was the enemy to everyone else’s mother tongue. While it was nice to be somewhere where Nepal was appreciated and idealized, upon returning to Kathmandu–“home”–I had a new foundation for the reality it presented, however harsh it may be.