Saturday, September 22, 2007

One month in September

As I write this article, Sony Entertainment's 'Indian Idol' reality show is into its final week. This is the first one that I have watched with dedication. As the month progressed, and local boy Prashant Tamang survived one elimination round after another, the interest in the show, orchestrated with all the glamour, glitz and hype in Sony Entertainment's arsenal built up a tidal wave of euphoria not just in the hills of Darjeeling and Sikkim but right across the country and overseas among the Diaspora of Nepali speaking peoples.

Finally, one of our own was in the glare and limelight of national attention, albeit in a reality show extravaganza. Beyond the coming week, this edition of Indian Idol too will come to an end. Both Prashant and Amit Paul will become stars of 'the last edition' and other youngsters in quest of fame and fortune of Mumbai and Bollywood will take their place. In the corporate offices of Sony Entertainment gleeful executives will draw up their battle plans for their next 'Idol' blitzkrieg. It is a tremendously successful and lucrative show and I imagine they will milk it for as long as they can.

For Prashant, his run in this competition is the stuff of which fairy tales are made. Regardless of who becomes the next 'Indian Idol' he has won, in ways he could not possibly have imagined. In the glare and centre stage of national and local media and television for over a month, he has become an iconic figure in the hills. The collective pride and joy of the hill people, cutting across caste, culture, religious and social considerations is absolutely phenomenal. At last, one of our own was in the national consciousness, not on the outside looking in, but on the inside looking out. With that the stereotypical image of the Gorkha will warrant a second look. It will happen, because the media, including the entertainment variety till date has largely and irresponsibly projected the Gorkha image in poor light. And if it takes a reality show to set things right, then so be it.

By the end of the week, along with the 'Indian Idol' show, it is my hope that the monsoons too will come to an end. For unlike "the rain in Spain " the rain here doesn't "fall mainly in the plains." North Bengal and Sikkim lie in an area which receives some of the heaviest rainfall in the country. The monsoons here last for almost six months, beginning in April and petering off in Sept; provided the weather plays to script. When it doesn't, the rains fall till October, resurrecting terrible memories of Oct 1968, when after a fortnight of relentless rainfall, the hills were mauled by disastrous landslides and floods that cut communications, destroyed property, and claimed hundreds of lives.

In the intervening years, we have seen almost forty monsoons and each one crafts its own story. Some years are better than others, but the underlying tale is the same. Landslides, disrupted communications (sometimes for weeks), homes and properties damaged or carried away. Eventually, the debris is moved, communications restored, the dead are buried or cremated, and the uprooted and dispossessed melt into the oblivion of apathy. Their homes gone. There lives destroyed. That is the rhythm of life in the hills. But that rhythm with its almost fatalistic overtones is now poised to go horribly awry.

During the first week of September the rains came down with unusual ferocity. For weeks before that, jhoras (mountain streams) and springs began to swell at an alarming rate, everywhere they assumed characteristics of turbulent rivulets as they thundered their way down the slopes sweeping everything in their path. Finally they flow into swollen and turgid waters of the Teesta or the Relli River in the east. In many places, trees toppled over; shaken loose from soil that long lost the right to be called terra firma. Power and telecommunication links snapped in many places. Roads were either blocked, or washed away, in some places they had just sunk into the ground. Elsewhere, in the suburbs, villages, and distant hamlets landslides had simply buried villages, felled huge trees, snapped road links, and people have died yet again. Those that survive will have to contend with an uncertain and bleak future.

It is an old story, and it is told every monsoon. But there is a twist to the story this year. Alarmed by the continuing onslaught of the rains and talk of largscale damages all over the subdivision, The Kalimpong Consumer's Association formed a small team comprising of Mr. N.P. Dixit (President), Wing Commander (red) Prafulla Rao, (Secretary), Mr. Bharat Mani Pradhan, and myself. Rajiv Ravidas of the Telegraph formed the fifth member of the team to make a survey of some landslide affected areas. A survey report of the extensive damages was prepared and we have since then begun to circulate this among district officials, leaders, and the media. Rajiv filed his own report in the Telegraph of the 13 th Sept. The detailed report is filed in this website. Praful has since then uploaded 50 odd photographs of many of the devastated areas. But nothing comes even close to begin telling the world of the tragedy waiting to befall these beautiful hills of North Bengal.

I dread to think what would have happened if the rains had continued to fall for another day or two more. If we are fortunate, this monsoon will play by the script and October will pass and our reprieve will be renewed till the next monsoon. Soon there will be the festive season. Dasain, Diwali, Christmas, Losung, Losar, and the New Year and several other festivals. It will be time to raise the glasses, set the tables, parties and dances and vacations. Like all other years, the monsoon will occasionally come up on the social circuits. Its great a great topic to fill in the gaps in the conversations.

It is time to change the script. Our hills are a disaster waiting to happen. It is long past the stage of whether it will happen….the question is when is it going to happen ? It is time for us all to come to together and ponder our collective fate and do something about it. Tomorrow may be too late.

Wangchuk Basi Sept 2007


Rajashree Khalap said...

Thanks for this eye-opener. Like many "plains" people, I always thought of the hills only as a beautiful holiday place. I do hope the authorities and locals act on your recommendations BEFORE and not after a disaster, as our government is prone to do.

jit said...

The widespread damage and havoc caused by the monsoon rains this year have affected every corner of our hills , lebong in darjeeling has sufferd a major landslide and a number of families have been displaced . We must act NOW , I have been fowarding this blog site to people who care for our lovely hills but we need to make sure the authorities realise the full impact of the disaster waiting to happen and corrective measures need to be implemented immediately .