Wednesday, August 7, 2013


So I went nervously to the conference I had been invited to. I am a good traveller, because I like visiting new places, and not surprisingly I work myself into knots when I set out, wondering what I will face, what whale in a tea cup will splash my equilibrium. When I reached the airport where I was to be met by the organisers, I found it was very hot, the light very bright, and it was making me steam like a scalded tomato. I was stunned. I had thought we were going to Darjeeling, and as for Bagdogra, I had never even heard of it. Later, my middle child, Sandhya, told me that the airport had great cutlets at its cafe, and that this was the gateway to the North East. My ignorance is not surprising, because its a big country, and I usually only travel to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I asked the taxi drivers who were hollering away, why people went to Darjeeling if it was so hot, and he said laconically, 'go to the hills, go to the hill'. After a while the organiser representative turned up, looking terribly hot and bothered, since he had not anticipated my plane arrriving twenty minutes early. We went back into the airport with a pass, ostensibly for me to cool down, since I was really stewed up by the heat, but actually to wait for two more participants, one a well known Dalit activist from Kerala, the other a nun who was a scholar and Mother Superior of her order. The police woman who checked our passes on the re entry to the airport was a pretty Malayali girl, who said acerbically but gently that we should not have wasted money on passes if I was a bonafide traveller who had just got off the plane. The Malayalis are to be found everywhere, and they usually give excellent advice, so when the other two scholars came back in, we made them show their tickets on re-entry.

Riding out to Siliguri, the young lanky academic, formerly a JNU student now teaching in Darjeeling, told us sadly that the Gorkhaland agitation was on, so we would not be able to go on to Darjeeling, but we would be accomodated in Siliguri. The driver of the van told me that Siliguri is the second biggest city in Bengal after Calcutta. There were tea shrubs outside the airport, but otherwise the road from Bagdogra to Siliguri seemed very desolate, small town, unremarkable. I was dropped off at a Convent School, which became my home for the next five days. The student nuns scattered on seeing us, and said they had no news of my visit, leave alone stay, and we would have to wait for for Mother Superior to arrive. I was quite distraught, and thought to myself, no wonder I never leave my beaten track, where friends and relatives always await me. However, everything got sorted out very fast, and the other eight women participants also arrived over the course of two days, and we spent a very peaceful five days with the nuns, who were really charming confident women, silent in their interior disposition, but comfortable with our secular selves.
The conference happened in a local college, which was the extension college to the Don Bosco institution in Darjeeling which had hosted the conference on Christianity and Indian Culture, supported by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research. 96 seminarians who had helped plan the event, and organise the details of the publication of the brochure and collected papers  were disappointed at not being present, however, the faculty members who had arrived with a few students went out of the way to make the 45 participants who had travelled from all over India very comfortable and intellectually stimulated. Academics are always looking for cool circumstances in which to read their work and  eat their meals at appointed times.......there were no disappointments. Inspite of the traumatic political conditions, all the papers and  public speeches or addresses were given, and the long hours of work went unnoticed by the participants because of the  nature of the discussion. The cafe in the College provided us with wonderful food, very simple but delicious, and since I have an allergy to most  cooking oils, specifically butter, I had breakfast and dinner with the nuns of the Convent School.
 After two days of lock out in the hills, Siliguri also shut down, so  on the first day of the conference the eight women participants set out in some fear and trembling, but the Salacian Centre for Excellence was only two kms down the road from where we were staying and  though occasionally we saw a man with venomous eyes looking at us, for breaking the Bandh (lock out), we had no trouble. But we did want to buy tea for our families, and on the last day of the Conference we got our opportunity, for there was a window of time, when the bandh was lifted. The issue was that the Bengalis wanted to starve the Gorkhas out, so they locked their city, and no food went to Darjeeling. Meanwhile a woman immolated herself, a man called Chauhan who was a partisan to the Gorkhaland Movement got shot, and independently of all this, the Maoists stranded the train from Delhi by removing the fish plates on the tracks at Bodh Gaya in Bihar, and trains were now coming eight hours late, and leaving seventeen hours off the time table . We started worrying collectively about whether we would ever get home. The Bandh was beginning to strain our nerves, there was an undercurrent of depression, since many of the participants were travelling by train, or going to the airport in Bandh circumstances.
As we went to buy Darjeeling tea, our spirits were quite high, because we were leaving the closed spaces of the conference hall after so many days. However, everybody in Siliguri had the same idea, since they had to collect their supplies, and the traffic jams, the heat, the sweat, the smell of carbon dioxide will forever be inscribed in my memory. As we stood choosing the flavours we wanted from Siliguri's most famous shop, the sweat just dissolved us in pools, and since there were ten of us in the group, two hours outside the tea shop was excruciating. I bought mine in five minutes flat, choosing a fragrance rather than asking about its characteristics. I am very happy with what I brought home, it has a delicate flavour, and it is just amazingly good tea..worth the sweat and the waiting which followed, for the others were packing theirs in small packets with different names and weights and costs, and it took ages. All I took in of the city was the heat, and the look that people had, all coming out in families, not for an outing, but to buy supplies. I would have liked to have bought a cotton sari, but the heat was so enervating, I just stood there in a catatonic trance waiting for my friends to finish choosing their tea. One of the participants has her tea couriered in from Calcutta to Delhi twice a month, so you can imagine what purists I was with! They had been thoroughly disappointed not to have a leisurely outing in Darjeeling, where they could shop and eat out. In Siliguri, there was seriously nothing to do, except hypothetically, given the Bandh, go to a movie, see a tea factory, buy nylon sarees and tacky umbrellas at Hongkong Market, drive to the border of Nepal (Kathmandu 18 hours away!) and purchase more useless Chinese goods such as toys and umbrellas with lead content. The host organiser said " You can go if you wish, we can arrange transport, but please write your wills first."
The Salacian monks were a charming erudite bunch with a tremendous sense of humour, so it was a great conference. They took care of every detail of our stay, risking their own well being for the perfection that they sought, and since it was very much a secular meeting I can say how much I wish that we could all live in peace in India without fearing for our lives and the lives of others. On the way to the airport, we suddenly stopped, because a coffin as large as a  boxbed was being taken in a psuedo military parade by the Gorkhaland supporters. Were there two bodies in it, or one? It was a suddenly humbling moment, the idea that the spruced up white jeeps with the red and black flags on it were carrying  a dead man in a procession around Siliguri. However, inspite of the Bandh called by the Bengalis, and the mortuary ceremonial procession of Gorkhaland supporters, we drove through the pastoral campus of North Bengal University, and went on to the  Bagdogra airport.
In my own university,  while I was away, a boy had attempted to murder a girl (by crushing her head with an axe,) who had been his friend, because she had refused to accept his sexual advances, and then he had eaten poison and died in the  full view of his class mates who were traumatised by the horrific incident, and will carry the brutality of his actions stamped in their minds all their life. In times of normlessness, we try to keep calm, we try to make sense of our lives, and we know that every day is different, but we hope that there will be tomorrow.