Gurung Busty More Siliguri
There dwells a ginormous tree in the heart of the village where I live.
The big trunk has given way to many branches that dangle haywire. I remember trying to swing on them as a little girl, in vain. Every autumn, the tree blushes orange with abundant berries that it has borne. Soon, from the window of my mother's two-storeyed house under the Mahananda Bridge, I witness migratory birds flocking in herds to perch on the branches of our village tree.
Shiny emerald emperor pigeons, some grey hornbills, and numerous chirpy parakeets relished these berries every morning. As winter arrives, the berries are all gone & so are the chirpy birds. Here is where my maternal grandmother built us a home, our Mamm ko ghar. I don’t remember her as often anymore, begrudgingly swinging between the lure of the capitalist rush and existential despair.
During late evenings, when the woody redolence of saang permeates this heady Terai air or when Ama calls out to me with her shrill voice, I remember Mamm, briefly. Her name was Maitheba Lama, and she built her Home in Gairi Gaon, Gurung Busty More, Siliguri below the hustle and bustle of the Hill Cart Road, the promised road of Destiny to Darjeeling.
My Aunts recall that there was only one bridge here back then, and the other side was a shallow plateau of unhindered greenery through which the Mahananda River meandered.
Gairi Gaon is where I mostly grew up, hurrying here from the cold Darjeeling town as soon as my school holidays began. This is Mamm’s Home. I’d always dwell in the comfortable memory of her achaar bottles glistening in the winter sun. Sometimes I’d gaze lazily into the front yard where Mamm’s hands would dexterously light the chulha with paper shreds for warm bath water. During baths, I’d stare at the solitary areca tree looming over my grandmother’s garden or the afternoon sun shimmering into my bucket of water, pumped freshly from the chapakal. I’d presumed that this iron-rich heavy water of the Terai was all she had known. To imagine that my steadfast and feisty grandmother must’ve missed the sweet spring water from the hills of Kalimpong fills me with disconcerting melancholy.
Mamm's garden in 1990's
Sometimes when I go out and get a seat on a crowded auto-rickshaw, my eyes wander towards the Old Lady on her daily jostle in the hot Siliguri sun. I inadvertently steal a glimpse of her slender hands, tawny and brittle with toil. My mind travels to a sunny January, reminiscing roughness, a stone slathered in soap that my grandmother scrubbed my face with, “majjale safa garnu” (clean it well). I remember trying to get her hand away as she insisted on it. They felt bony, and moist against my skin. The last Dasai with her, she had slipped me some dakshina, her firm grip had felt frail, tender even.
My grandmother's hands were once plump with rushing blood, spinning spools of soft wool at a godown in Kalimpong is a story the resilient lines of her hands never showed us.
The Kalimpong hills along with adjoining Buxa-Dooars & Assam-Dooars were annexed by the British Crown after the Anglo-Bhutan War of 1864 & the signing of the Treaty of Sinchula 1865. The annexation was soon followed by enterprise, and a cart road was swiftly constructed connecting provincial Bengal via Siliguri upwards to Kalimpong. Throughout the 20th Century, The British Crown reaped the benefits of a flourishing trade route between Bengal & Lhasa via Kalimpong. My grandmother was employed by one Marwari trader’s family at a Wool Godown in Kalimpong during one such time.
After the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Jelep La, a mountain pass connecting Kalimpong to Chumbi Valley in Tibet was closed permanently. According to historical accounts, the closing of the mountain pass rippled into the shrinking of livelihoods, especially around settlements such as the towns of Algarah, Rhenock, Pedong, and even Kalimpong. Through the next decade, economic hardship inevitably ensued, stirring Mamm’s employers to migrate to Kolkata. And with them, My grandmother trotted along to the Himalayan foothills and coastal plains of Bengal, holding safely within her the fragments of familial roots in her pickling prowess that we would later relish.
In the 1980s, after two decades of the war, Mamm added brick-unto-brick to build a house with her husband here in Siliguri. For several years before that, my mother and her siblings grew up in a rented room on the other side of Hill Cart Road, below what is now known as Gurung Busty More. They were tenants to one Gurung Sardar, whose two-storeyed home beset with a garden full of roses was nearby. They remember a private pond and a cage that housed rabbits, turkeys, and other such fanciful pets. My aunt recalls being reprimanded by Sardar's wife as she and her friends played knucklebones in their courtyard. "She feared the concrete floor would break," my Aunt recollects.
Ama often talks about a big field that once existed below three towering buildings that now house hotels and hospitals. It was their “Mukhia ko baari,”. There they would gather, a group of cousins, and take turns picking mangoes from the trees until the furious man chased them away with his walking stick in hand.
Numerous such stories reverberate even through the din of cars constantly honking today. My elders, caught up in their journeys, sometimes pause to reminisce on their carefree days, singing old songs and laughing together at the memory of the old and furious Mukhia.
I don’t know much about my maternal grandfather. I’d never known about Mehme, except for some photographs. He looked like a good man in photos, someone whose hands looked tender. The name on his documents read - Bahadur Lama. I like to imagine that his real name sounded more eloquent, perhaps brave, and equally compassionate. But my elders don't know much about his odyssey. My Aunt’s best guess is that his ancestors belonged to a place somewhere in Okhaldhunga in present-day Eastern Nepal. They speculate that he’d been working odd jobs around Darjeeling town and other places before he came to live in Siliguri.
I have a hazy memory of Ama telling me that Mehme and his friends built the Coronation Bridge. I was smug about the fact until later when I found that it was a “John Chambers” whose name is etched near the Tiger's head at Baghpool and not our grandfather's.
My Mehme’s name is, however, written on an appointment letter as a porter to Indian Airlines in 1957. “We didn't ask him much," my elders shared. They simply recall him staying inebriated most times. I wonder if he ever missed Home. Now, as I flip through old photographs in reconciliation from this room where Mamm’s garden once stood. The colour washed away from them, they smell of damp resentments and survival.
The story of Maitheba Lama and Bahadur Lama is not one to be etched on bridges or preserved in museums. Their hands built a house for their family and fought through court-rooms for us to have this oasis overlooking the noisy Hill Cart Road from where I can type these mumblings.
The rush of the city keeps my Mother worried. She thinks I ought to scurry and purchase a house. As my friends, neighbours, and cousins move to faraway places to forge their own lives, I wonder If I too should fly away from this impending feeling of belonging only at the threshold of the land where I grew up.
I gaze out into this tall nameless tree bearing wild fruits. The giant trunk of this old tree gives way to many branches dangling haywire in directions of their own. I wonder if these emerald pigeons and parakeets will come next year. But this time, I am sceptical. A barbed wire now encloses the land on which this tree grows. This remnant of our grandparents’ village in this sprawling city on the Mahananda River tucked between Mechi & Teesta, will soon sprout another skyscraper.
Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the brevity and insignificance of our footprints being washed away by the tides of time. Philosophers and scientists talk about an endlessly expanding universe, a constantly growing entropy. Even as people keep expanding further apart, do we sever from the trunk completely. Or do we keep tugging at the roots that entangle us?
I witness migratory birds flocking in herds to perch on the branches of our village tree.
As winter arrives, the berries are all gone and so are the chirpy birds.
Mamm ko Ghar - Grandmother’s Home, Mamm means Grandmother in the Tamang language
Saang - Pine incense
Ama - Mother
Chulha - A clay stove
Chapakal - A Hand Pump
Dasai/Dushera, the Nepali-Hindu festival wherein families gather to receive blessings from elders
Dakshina - Blessings from elders, usually monetary gifts
Sardar- Recruitment contractor
Mukhia ko Baari - Mukhias’ Field, Mukhia was a title held by the village head.
Mehme - Grandfather in the Tamang language
Ardussi, J. (2020), "Lepcha Chieftains of the 17th-18th centuries, based on Tibetan and Bhutanese Sources", Journal of Bhutan Studies
Majumdar, E. (1994). THE ROUTE : A Study of the Trade Route Connecting the Frontier Trade Part of Kalimpong with the Plains of Bengal and Lhasa (1865-1965), Proceedings of the Indian History Congress
Sherpa, Diki (2017), Sino-Indian Border Trade: The Promise of Jelep La, Delhi: Institute of Chinese Studies
Roy, DC (2011), “Damsang Gree - A Historical Holy Place of the Lepchas”, Aachulay
Pinn, F(1839), The Road of Destiny: Darjeeling Letters, Oxford India Paperbacks
About the writer:
Simran is a freelance writer from Darjeeling. She runs कथाkokatha an independent blog engaging with multiple & alternative narratives of the Eastern Himalayan region, particularly Darjeeling and Kalimpong. She likes reminiscing on the ideas of Home and community. She is currently researching Land & its intersections under Land Conflict Watch.