Goodbye, Salugara*Gorkhaland. Sounds like a pretty picture. A land where the Nepali immigrants from a century ago and more can finally be self-governing, under the auspices of the Indian feds, but with the semblance of autonomy they crave. They can fix their own roads, educate their own children, and figure out their own taxes.
One problem: Gorkhaland, or the proposed sliver on an Indian map that would become Gorkhaland, is in West Bengal. And, as the name might imply, there is a sizable Bengali population in that sliver that’s not thrilled with the idea.
At first, being in the middle of all this didn’t seem like such a big deal. We were in Darjeeling just before the strike started. Then we went into retreat in Mirik for the duration. We watched from the monastery guest house as all the shops closed and all the traffic stopped. People gathered in the streets, some of them looking peaceful, some not. We made plans to leave for Bhutan by taxi early on January16th, the day the strike was scheduled to end.
And we did leave early on the 16th, and the strike did end that day.
Unfortunately, the Bengalis called a counterstrike on the plains to punish the Gorkhas for their five day strike in the hills. We almost made it through Siliguri distict. But around eight in the morning on January 16th, four hours into our drive, we were turned back by a bunch of angry Bengalis with cricket bats and machetes.
We ended up in Salugara. Dirty and tired, Salugara’s not even listed in the 1100 page Lonely Planet guidebook we lug around. The only definitive space in Salugara is an exquisite stupa built by Kalu Rinpoche in the 80s. A few Tibetans have gathered around that landmark, and they more or less adopted us while the strike grew hostile in the neighboring towns.
By the time the Indian military intervened, the street clashes between Bengalis and Gorkhas had claimed something like half a dozen lives. We heard reports that forty houses and two buses were burned. That people had been stabbed and set on fire. It’s hard to know what really went on, but by the time we drove down the road, there were soldiers patrolling with rifles and tear gas canisters.
Sometimes I feel a little jaded about the human experiment. And sometimes traveling in India doesn’t do much for my assessment of our potential as a species. It seems like the most basic lessons have yet to be learned. Like: how to get along. Like: how to work out opposing views without killing each other.
I think the problem is I expect progress. I expect, on some level I demand, that our intellectual, emotional, and political intelligence keep pace with our other advances. If we can get cell phones into the hands of half the earth’s population in less than ten years, surely we can learn to treat our neighbors right.
That’s the thought. It just doesn’t seem to match up all that well with the reality on the ground sometimes. And lest I give India a bad name, we heard about the shooting in Arizona while we were waiting out the violence in West Bengal. There are no firm borders to useless aggression.
But now for the sweet spots:
Lama Sonam Dorji, the Rinpoche who would be our guide through Bhutan, sent us a wonderful Bhutanese monk named Pema. Pema lives in Salugara. Pema took care of us, and showed us around the enormous monastery and school Tulku Saan Naag Rinpoche is building just outside the city. Pema made sure we had a place to stay, and called every half hour for 36 hours to check on the road, until the road finally opened. Pema came with us to the border, then came with us over the border, and, just to make sure, Pema rode with us in a taxi all the way to Thimphu, seven hours on the mountainous road into Bhutan. And in Salugara Kalu Rinpche’s stupa was gorgeous. And in Salugara we met up with Mai, the Taiwanese woman who has been our companion ever since. And there were the Tibetans, and their momos and their kindness.
*Although this blog entry was written on January 19th, the whirlwind tour of Bhutan kept me from posting until now.