I remember clearly, it was a bright sunny day, blue skies accompanied by gentle breeze of crisp air… kind of chirpy weather that would cheer anyone up. I must have been about 11 years old. It was a Sunday, sometime in late October, it was cool but not terribly cold. A weather all of us in Darjeeling refer to as “Dasain ko gham lagyeko din… ”
Around 10 in the morning that day after having taken a nice warm bath – I guess only those who are from the Darjeeling region will understand the connection between Sunday and taking bath – I was sitting outside to dry myself. Back then no one in our neighbourhood took shower, as we didn’t have showers… lucky few would have geysers or electrical immersions to warm their water, but most of us would have to rely on ‘daura ko ago ma, pujari tel ko tin ma tata ko panee‘ for our once in a week ritual, we still do. So here I was having washed and dried, soaking the sun, rameeta herdai – much like ‘Shit Happens,’ in Darjeeling “Life Happens” and to watch it happening is called rameeta hernu… so there I was, rameeta herdai…
The advantage of living right next to a road is that there is always something or the other going on. Even if there was nothing going on we would keep ourselves busy by playing a game called “Gadee Gan-ney,” in which we would literally count the number of vehicles that would cross our place.
Believe it or not, we would even compete against each other in counting the number of vehicles that passed.
This is how the game was played – you would have to choose a type of a vehicle and someone else would choose another type and we’d compete on what type of vehicle crossed our house more than the rest. So say if someone picked an ambassador, someone else would choose a land rover, and someone else would choose a bus and so on. Back then there were much fewer vehicles on the road than today, but despite that we would passionately play the game. Imagine how idyllic life must have been in the outskirts of Darjeeling town.
The game was competitive because from the word go to whenever Ama called someone to do some chore/work, we would count the number of vehicles that passed our house. Till the moment Ama started to yell out our name on the top of her voice, whoever’s chosen make of vehicle had passed our house the least would be the one to answer Ama’s call for “bring this” or “do that”. Sort of like spinning the bottle, just that ours took much longer and was much more boring than that.
Anyway, so here I was soaking up the sun on our baranda (that’s how we in Darjeeling pronounce veranda) enjoying rameeta and playing “Gadee Gan-ney” with my brothers and friends, I think my choice was Truck. There were too few trucks to begin with, and at 10 A.M even fewer plying on the road so unfortunately when Ama’s call came it was my turn to answer it, in my defense ambassador, land rover and bus had already been taken.
You know how Ama haru are… they won’t come to you and say ‘do this’ or ‘do that’, they will either be too busy doing stuffs, or don’t want to move from the place where they are at… so they will use their God given right to yell and summon you in their presence… if any of your Ama were like mine, you will understand this…
Ama would be like: “Krishnaaaaaaaaaaaa….”
and I would be: “Hajuuurrrrrrr…”
Ama: “Yaaaaa aaijaa bhaneko suni nas?”
Me after going in front of her, cheekily: “Kaa aija bhan nu bha? Krishnaaaaaa po bhan nu bha ta”
Ama taking off her Bata ko chappal: “Nikkai mukh chalaune po bhako cha ta yo aaj kaal…? Thik parnu na paros hai…”
Me sobered down: “Haina hau… k bhan nu bhako bhaneko hau?”
For a kid, Sunday’s were dreadful… first we had to take a bath – can you imagine the horror of having to do that every week, living in a cold place like Darjeeling? As if that was not bad enough, we had to rush to line up in order to put the ration or kerosene ko card in ‘turn ma,’ and after a while, go and help Ama or whoever was doing the shopping to bring stuffs home.
I don’t know how the ladies did it back then? May be it was instinct… but honestly, Ama would be like… “Jaa ta ration thapi sakyo hola… liyera aaija ta”…. off we’d go and indeed Didi would be waiting with the ration ready to go. I still don’t get it… forget cell phone, we didn’t even have land line back then… how did they do it?
So I was like: “hajur kina bolaunu bhako?”
In our house (for which I am now thankful) there was no “Kina bolako?” business… Ama and Bata ko chappal ensured that we used appropriate amount of respect at all occasions.
Ama goes: “Jaa ta ration thapi sakyo hola… Didi lai sagai dey ta…” BINGO!! See what I told you…
It’s funny how Ama would be like, go help out your sister “Didi lai sagai dey ta…” and Didi took it to mean, “here Choree… your slave for the day” and she’d make us do all the leg work, while she checked out new shoes or clothes or whatever caught her fancy..
She would be like: “mo yaa basdai garchu kee.. jaa taa Baba ko khaini, Badee ko paan, Kaka ko shirt, Daju ko khata, Baini lai lamo pyaket ko churan mithai, Ama ko dabai, Adhee kilo khassi… ra Duita Suparee liyera aijaa taa….”
and I’d be: “Jandina mo ta… aafai janos na…”
she’d be: “Ghar ta pugnu dey… Ama lai bhanera tero hyer na…”
A bit worried, I’d try and bargain: “Gur (jaggery) kini dinu huncha?”
Unimpressed, she’d be: “Paila liyera aija na… anta bhanchu”
Godddddd she knew how to keep me in check… so finally I would relent and after walking about ten paces, I would hear her go… “Masu chai fila ko haldey bhanai…”
In those days, I used to envy Sita… I had heard that the earth had swallowed her… that’s the trick I wanted to learn… (Didi if you are reading this, please know that I love you and miss you a lot)
So off I went towards bazaar to pick up the ration.
One of the best things about growing up in a small town and an even smaller suburb is that we all suffer from a rare disease called ‘Jodi Bandhnu’ – That is a rare condition where an individual is incapable of going anywhere without her/his friend (preferably friends) in tow. So luckily for me my best friend tagged along.
We reached the ration shop, and Didi was almost done paying for the ration – Man, the timing… I tell you.
If any one of you have ever gone to a ration shop on a Sunday, you will know how crowded it gets… so we were enjoying the sights and sounds and after Didi paid for the ration, we lifted up the two super heavy net ko bags (does anyone remember those halka jaali-jaali bhako net ko bag?).
There is a trick to lifting heavy bags, you shouldn’t carry it on your arms, instead you should lift it up to your shoulders and use your other hand to hold on to the bag ko bokney part, that way you are not carrying the bag, you shoulder is.
So my friend and I lifted the bags and put it on our shoulders and started walking back towards our home… we had just crossed bazaar and were walking, when initially we noticed a few people run towards the direction of our house… then in about 30 seconds it was almost like pandemonium … everyone and their grandmother started to run everywhere, and we could hear them shouting, yelling and screaming…
In the babble we could not make out much, but we were panicked… Didi asked someone what happened? This person didn’t even bother to stop – jerk… and yelled out the three most dreaded words in those days… “CRP”
Poor Didi she was only 3 years older than me, so she must have been 14… she was as clueless as we were… but all of us knew, CRP meant bad news… so we started running towards our home as well.
Now when I think about it, I find it comical, but also equally telling of how simple and dumb we were… all three of us – my friend, I and Didi were running with heavy bags in each of our hands. It never entered our head that we could leave the bags and run to save our lives. For us the bags and its contents were very precious, because at the end of the day they were our responsibility… and we couldn’t leave them behind.
So here we were three kids… with sacks full of ration ko chamal, chini, gau and additional Sunday shopping stuffs… running for our lives (or so we felt)…
Children and the sound
That is when we heard a loud sound and its echo… we knew it was the sound of firing
My life experiences some happy, some sad, some sober and some downright mad, had by that point taught me to recognize the difference between the sound of a gun fire vs. the sound of the firecrackers going off.
Where we live used to be very near an army firing range, it was close enough for us to be able to hear each and every bullet being fired, sometimes all day long. It’s funny how when you are a kid, you are always wondering about stuffs that no adult would even imagine was possible to wonder about.
Once I found my younger brother upside down, with his feet on the wall, and his hands balancing his body on the ground – these days yoga people do that – and was saying “chito jaa.. chito jaa.” He must have been around 10.
So I asked him: “K bhayo? K gareko? What are you doing?”
Him: “Sending the medicine to my head…”
I: “What? Duhhh!! who told you doing that will send the medicine to your head?”
Him:”Ama le bhan nu bhako” (remember no ‘ama le bhaneko’ business in our house)
Exasperated, I left him like that, and went to the kicthen yelling, “Ama… Ama…”
Ama: “Ama bhan dai gar hai… Ama bhan nu birselas nee”
So I asked her: “Kancha le k gareko tyesto?” what was my younger brother doing?
Ama: “K garyo? What did he do now?”
I: “Ulta bhai rako chaa… he is trying to send medicine to his head harye, and says you told him so”??
Ama: “Dui laat dey ta tellai… give him two kicks”
Glad, I went got my brother down from his position and gave him dui playful laat and brought him to the kitchen…
On seeing him Ama goes: “Kina ulta bhako thyees? why were you upside down?”
Him: “you said medication travels fast… to head that way”
Ama: “When did I say that?”
Him: “Asteeeee nai bhaneko chai? Bhullinu bha? Long time back did you forget?”
Ama: “Bhagwaannnnn yo janminda ta boksee panee kaa gako thyo holau? Gooddd where was the witch when you were born?”
Him: “Pani bharnu – to fetch water?”
When I look back to that day, I find it so funny, it was perhaps the weirdest conversation ever. To those who do not know, the allusion to the ‘boksi – witch going to fill the water while someone was being born’ is a sarcastic way of telling them, you would not be having this conversation with me right now…had the boksi not gone to fetch the water… she would have taken care of you for good
So on further digging this is what I found was the reason behind my brother hanging upside down willing the medicine to travel to his head faster. This version was narrated by my sister, who said she was present that day…
“Kancha after taking his medication for headache had some time ago asked mom…
Him: “Ama does this Dabai enter our head?”
Ama smiled, pointed at his tummy and said: “no no, it goes to our tummy”
He looked baffled and asked: “When we have a headache, we take a medication that goes into our tummy… so when we have a tummy ache does our medication go to our head?”
Ama smiled a little, and replied: “Jancha ta….”
and my brother wondered: “Tyeso bha if someone stood upside down, would the medicine can travel faster?”
I don’t think Ama was paying any attention by then and said: “Jancha ta…”
Apparently that Ama-Chora conversation had happened some 6 months ago, and hence my brother hanging upside down raicha…
Children ask weird curious stuffs like that you know… and when they do please don’t give them utpatang answers, sometimes they take it literally… but the point I was really trying to make was that children wonder about things that adults cannot even was possible to wonder about.
Living near a firing range, I always wondered why those guns fired in the Army range would fire with a more base like sound, a loud, but dull thud more like “Dhhuu, Dhhuu, Dhhuu, Dhhuu followed by a faint k” ek chin pachee nai… so it would literally make a sound that sounded like “DHHUUUuuu…..k” “DHHUUUuuu…..k”
“DHHUUUuuu…..k” instead of those cool gun sounds we heard on the movies, “Dhikkkk-Chyaauuunnnnn…. Dhikkkk-chyaaauuunnnn”
So growing up hearing the sound of a real gun being fired at least for 10 days every month, it was easy to tell that what we just heard was the sound of a gun being fired.
A history of naughtiness
There is another solid reason behind why we – my best friend and I that is and not Didi – knew that it wasn’t the sound of a firecracker going off, because we knew what firecrackers sound like. When I say we knew, I am speaking of the vast experience we had gained in bursting crackers in
Some of you will know what I am talking about, we would light a type of cracker which we used to call Chaklet Bomb -Syanu ma in Darjeeling no one said Chocolate, but Chaklet – and cover it with a rang ko tin, when the cracker went off, it would make an awesome sound, and at the same time the tin would make a short trip to heaven and fall back. We used to find it awesome!! So we would experiment bursting crackers in/on different things and places to see what it sounded like.
So one day during Diwali (the previous year, we were 10 years old) we had finished playing deusi for the day and were coming back home, we came via bazaar and bought ourselves ek ek khili paan – do kids do that these days? Buy paan from the money collected by playing deusi and chew it to feel all grown up? – and ek ek packet jugmag (that was the brand of chaklet bomb that was most famous).
On our way we had to pass a public toilet, this toilet had a neat row of small ventilations that opened up towards the main road, as we were passing it, my best friend and I looked at each other and it was apparent we were both thinking the same thing. So we went as close to the toilet as possible, lighted the Choklet bomb and threw it in the toilet through one of the vents. We waited for a bit, and nothing happened… so we assumed that the cracker had been a waste, as it didn’t burst… I thought that it must have dropped into liquids and must have snuffed out, my friend thought it had dropped into solids… but whatever the case the cracker didn’t go off… but as we started to turn to walk away, we saw this bright glow and this distinct glow of an ember… we knew someone was inside, letting out the nastiness and smoking the cigarette… in a way my friend and I were relieved that the cracker didn’t go off… we were like transfixed in away, and still staring at the toilet, thanking whatever powers that be…and that is when it happened…
An UUUJJJYYYYAAALOOOOO flash of light, followed by earthshattering BBBOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMM
Both of us were like.. “Oh! My God…”
And then we heard this ANGRIEST VOICE EVER… go…
“AAAYYYEEEEEEEE Ja*** Sala… Tero Ama ko…. ***!! Pant ta launu dey *** Tollai ta nee mo ***!!…. Kassam bhaneko kee…. ****!!!”
We didn’t wait to find out how long it would take him to put on his pants after reeling from the shock and awe…
We were probably home, before this dude could put on his pants…
Not Chaklet bomb
So my friend and I instantly knew that it wasn’t the Chaklet bomb that had just gone off on that fateful Sunday… and all three of us started to run… then we heard another firing… we ran faster… and another…
By the 2nd sound of firing we had taken the turn to our home, and we saw Ama and other villagers were running towards us… as soon as they saw us they ran faster, once they reached us, they grabbed us and literally carried us along with our ration ko saman and took us home safely.
Our house is set up in such a way that when we look towards bazaar, we can see a huge section of houses that are right by the main road, as the road curves and we can literally see many verandas from our kitchen.
Ama, Badee and others were already crying, and us children were in a state of shock perhaps, but even in our shock and trauma we were all a curious lot, looking out from our kitchen window to the houses that were closer to the bazaar, and what was unfolding there was mayhem.
Darjeeling Andolan – everyday violence
The CRPF were all over the place, and they had started to break down doors and windows of almost all the houses that were facing the main road.
Much later we found out that someone had wrongfully tipped CRPF that the Gorkha Volunteer Cell (GVC) cadres were piling up arms and weapons by the droves in that neighbourhood, so they had come out in a large contingent, and as soon as they landed they had gone into houses and started to beat people up. As they started to throw out all their stuffs outside, some people began to resist and a group of men who were in the Samaj Ghar, which was above the main road – alik mathee patee – saw this and had started to pelt stones at the CRPF.
This apparently infuriated the CRP further, and they had fired 3 rounds in the air to disperse the crowd.
That is why I do not like Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which Irom Sharmila had been fighting against for over 16 years. This Act had given the security forces total immunity against law, and they could do anything and everything and justify it as being doing it for their personal safety and security. They could enter those houses, fired those rounds, even kill someone without having to get permission or give an explanation on what they did so.
The mayhem went unabated for over 2 hours. Many people who were perhaps just sitting at their house were brutally beaten up. Later we found out that there was this 18 year old daju, who was chopping meat in his house, he had a khukuri in his hands when the CRP entered. Thankfully the CRP for some reason did not shoot him, but he got arrested on the charges of “possession of weapons” and was so brutally beaten that I still shudder when I think about it.
You know how surreal it is to see someone being beaten up in a distance, you can make out the shape and the form, but you cannot tell who that person is… after beating him to an inch of his life, the CRP put him in their van and took him to what was then called “Thulo Ghar” – Bhanu Bhawan
He was not alone who got arrested, the CRPF must have arrested over 50 people that day, both male and female, anyone who resisted got arrested, anyone CRPF thought were resisting got arrested, anyone who was passing by, even they got arrested.
All said and done, that day the CRPF must have completely destroyed at least 20 houses, and thrown out stuffs from over 50. All they could find in the name of the weapons were Khukuri. They did not even find a single bullet, forget the “massive cache of guns” they had come to seek out.
There was no GVC in the area. Never had been.
Darjeeling Andolan – PTSD
Homes destroyed, people beaten to pulp, children running for their lives… these are painful memories, but I refused to be bogged down by them. I find solace in humor, and making light of things, but I have lived a nightmare and it took me over 20 years to feel normal again.
After that day, my friend and I had never burst anymore fire crackers…
In fact we used to be terrified of the sound of crackers. My best friend still is, I thankfully got over that when I burst a choklate bomb when he got married. He now has a kid a handsome son, but his son is not allowed to play with fire-crackers even to this day.
In civilized countries, we would probably be sent for psychological and psychiatric evaluations, perhaps we would be hospitalized for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but it was Darjeeling in 1986, no one had time to mourn the dead, or solace the hurt…
People were busy trying to live for a day more, for no one knew when the next bullet would come flying with your name written all over it…