Monday, January 16, 2012

Highway to heaven?

Because of a threatened strike today, my Gangtok hosts suggested I head down to the plains where the airport is already on Sunday, directly after our excursion. It was an adventure. I sat in the front of a shared jeep, only slowly becoming aware that besides the three of us in the front seat, there were another dozen people behind us, four each in seats and four more (plus a baby) in the hold behind the last row. For all I know we were even more - I saw similar jeeps with up to six people sitting on top and another three or four hanging off the back. One van I saw must have been transporting twenty people, half inside, half outside!

However many we were, agile driving and near continuous use of the horn helped us make good time, arriving in Siliguri from Rangpo in just two and a half hours, in the dark. We followed the grand windy Teesta River, sometimes in broad valleys (two with big dams in the works, I think) and as often high above narrow S-shaped gorges. It's a stunningly beautiful region, and watching night fall around it (don't suppose anyone lives here to puncture the scene with lights except us cars) was like a dream, all of us in the jeep silent (praying or snoozing?) ... at least until something triggered the driver's clear plastic Ganesh dashboard charm to start blinking in alternate blue-white and red-green.

There had been people walking along the road the whole way - shadows emerging briefly into color as we drove beeping by - but come Siliguri the road was full of conveyances of every size and speed, and most of them without lights. That we didn't run over several pedestrians and many cyclists and knock a few cycle rickshaws and an auto-rickshaws off the road before ourselves slamming into the back of a larger jeep seems a miracle. Some calves trotting through the traffic towards us nearly had our hide, too. But arrive safely we did, and an auto-rickshaw (they're called tuktuks in other places) festooned with Jesus stickers took me the rest of the way to my hotel in the airport town of Bagdogra.

So my Himalayan foothill adventure has ended. (Four days in Delhi remain.) I'm not entirely sure what it all adds up to, beyond the connections I made to research partners of our project ERSEH (Everyday religion and sustainable environments in the Himalaya). I did lots of interesting things, but this is a bad time to visit if you're hoping to meet people. In Gangtok in particular, where the university is in recess and many people have headed to the plains for various reasons, there was an off-season deadness to it - even as, of course, the "everyday religion" is concerned with hummed along, in and out of view. (Thank goodness a New School colleague hooked me up with the wonderful world of Rachna Books, Gangtok's nascent public sphere.)

What I take from my time in Darj, Gangtok and Rorathang is that these mountain cultures are complex composites which found ways of accepting and even perhaps embracing the plurality of languages, cultures, and religions, both at the lived and at the governance level. They are under great strain now, though, because of demographic changes including galloping urbanization (Gangtok's population tripled between the census of 2001 and 2011) and the arrival of new purity-focused religious and political groups.

For instance, I'm told old-style Nepali Christians received the tika on their forehead from their priests, and didn't observe Christmas when in mourning, but the newer missionaries insist on strict separation from other practices. I understand Hindu fundamentalists are making similar claims. Lepchas, the indigenous(ish) people of this area, most of whom have in recent centuries assimilated more or less with Buddhist and Christian traditions, are now asserting a distinct religious identity. Meanwhile there are all sorts of new religions (in Darjeeling prominently the followers of the recently deceased Sai Baba), most of which preach the mantra of love and the unity of all religions, which can mean all sorts of things in practice...!

And then there's Kangchenjunga, tea, millet beer, vestigial Brits and trans-territorial Tibetans, tourists and dam-builders, and whatever it is that inspired a Beatles-themed lodge in Darjeeling and let the Sikkimese death metal band I heard at the rooftop bar Little Italy in Gangtok do a pitch-perfect cover of "Highway to Hell" on Saturday night. I suppose it's a sign of success when you start to understand that you really don't understand a place, but that there's plenty to understand!

1 comment:

joseph joseph said...

I love your travels...