Five Points, Vol. 21, No. 3
There Was a Strike and Then it Was Over
One foggy February morning, in the foothills of the Himalayas, kids with grubby faces and chapped cheeks ran through the village in their play clothes. Normally at that hour, those same children would have been walking to school in their uniforms, hair shiny with coconut oil and an ironed hanky pinned to their cardigans. The contrast, in their outfits and in their demeanor, was the first thing we noticed. The women, too, looked different. Usually lugging buckets to and from the municipal pump, they were standing on their porches, still in their nighties, unhurried. Then, arriving along the one main road known as “town,” we saw that every shop was closed and shuttered. The buses and Jeeps that usually lined up, engines chugging, to ferry people throughout the Hills, instead sat silent and parked in a row. “Strike,” a waiter we recognized said when he saw us, waving his hand around to imply that the whole area was affected, or his apathy, or both.
In the winter of 2001, I was living with my fifteen-month-old son and his father in Mirik, a small Indian town in the hills of North Bengal. Three hours’ drive from Darjeeling, Mirik was popular with couples on honeymoon, families on picnics, and the occasional Bollywood ingenue on a budget shoot, whirling through the tea estates. Though we are both American, my son’s father J and I were studying Tibetan Buddhism, and J’s teacher, a Tibetan Rinpoche living in exile, had a monastery there. I was twenty-five years old.
That February morning, we were planning to take the bus to Darjeeling, change money, go to Oxford Books, and spend a few nights in a heated hotel. Instead, with the baby in the backpack, we stood in the middle of the street, disoriented. “General strike,” our friend Jagjeet called out. The older of two affluent Sikh brothers, Jagjeet owned a hotel named after himself. Instead of the loafers and crisp, black turban he wore while standing behind the cash register of the hotel restaurant, Jagjeet was in track pants and sneakers, playing cricket with his son between parked Jeeps.
He explained that Gorkhas, the political faction of ethnic Nepali separatists, had declared a strike after an assassination attempt was made on the party’s founding leader, Subhash Ghisingh, the night before. Although Ghisingh survived, his driver and a bodyguard were killed. Jagjeet told us that the Gorkhas were promising to uphold the strike until the attackers were arrested. Not unusual for the area, a general strike, a bandh, meant everything closed: no food shopping, no private or public traffic, no schools, no visits to the doctor, no nothing. Although we’d been planning to stay in Mirik for several months, the strike meant we couldn’t have left if we wanted to. No one could.
This was five years before Kiran Desai’s novel The Inheritance of Loss put the Darjeeling District and the Gorkha uprisings on the literary and international map. “[F]or a long while there had been severe food shortages, as there always were when political troubles arrived on the hillside,” Desai wrote, the story at once familiar and illuminating when I read it. At the time, though, I was bewildered, wondering what good could come from letting vegetables rot inside dark shops.
Mirik was tiny and the majority of its residents were Nepali, which meant that most people were sympathetic to the Gorkhas, or at least habituated to their clout. As a result, the days that followed were calm. But I also didn’t trust the quiet. During previous Gorkha strikes, when Tibetans and various other political or ethnic blocs in and around Darjeeling proper had violated bandhs by re-opening their shops or voting during elections, people had been decapitated. So although Mirik remained “peaceful,” the history of brutality and the general air of uncertainty kept me more preoccupied than usual with the baby and wondering what we would do if he got sick or hurt—wondering what anyone in Mirik did if they needed help but had to risk their lives to seek it.
Gorkha demand for greater self-rule began in the early 20th century, during the British Raj. The Hills were an asset to India, providing what everyone still referred to as the Three Ts: tea, timber, and tourism. But both during colonialism and since, the revenue made off the Three Ts was treated as more valuable than the roughly one million people living in the Hills, the majority of whom spoke Nepali and whose citizenship within India was ambiguous at best. Subhash Ghisingh, who once served in the Indian army, originally founded the Gorkha National Liberation Front to advocate for water, access to education, and Gorkhaland, a separate state within India.
In the mid-1980s, though, when the GNLF was at its strongest, their push for political recognition had been violent, and the struggle proved bloody, chaotic, and arguably futile. Between 1986 and 1988, an estimated 1,200 people, of varying ethnicities, were killed in the Hills, many at the hand of the GNLF, but also by the police. In 1988, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi persuaded the GNLF to drop their plea for a separate state in exchange for an autonomous Hill Council to administer the region. Though the violence largely subsided after that compromise, several predominant GNLF members rejected the move, splintering off into more subgroups with more acronyms and lingering attacks.
By early 2001, when I was living there, the Gorkhas remained a visible political party come election time but otherwise didn’t appear to do much beyond declaring strikes. In the dilapidated Gorkha Headquarters building by the lake, the only evident activity was an occasional Bon Jovi song coming from inside. And given the lines at the pump, running water hadn’t become any more available.
Across from Hotel Jagjeet, Sonam Lhamo ran a small shop with her husband. That first morning of the strike, I found her sitting out front with her son, who was a few months older than my own. Sonam was Tibetan but dressed like a Nepali, with long painted toenails and a fuzzy sweater over her salwaar. We sat together for a bit every other day or so while the kids played. I didn’t know her well, but I knew her better than anyone else in Mirik. “What do you think about the strike?” I asked while the boys threw rocks against the wooden planks boarding up her shop. “Isn’t it bad for business?”
“So boring,” she replied, shrugging. I had expected her to be exasperated. But if ‘boring’ was the worst of it, I hoped that meant the strike wouldn’t last long.
Back in our kitchen, we took inventory. Because we bought food daily and had been planning to leave for Darjeeling, we had fewer eggs and less butter than usual. We had no milk and very little rice. A couple of tiny red onions and three days’ worth of dal sat on the aluminum counter. Assuming the bandh would be lifted in a day or so, I thought having to use powered milk would be the worst part.
We rented a small flat on the first floor of a creaky wooden house belonging to a Sai Baba worshipping, middle-class Nepali family, who lived upstairs. From our narrow balcony, lined with potted orchids, we could see Mount Kangchenjunga, the third tallest mountain in the world. When the clouds lifted, the snow and the sunlight on the peak shone like glory.
But in winter, the clouds rarely lifted. The wooden house was unheated and freezing. The baby’s cloth diapers, which we washed by hand in water heated on the burner, hung from a line over the bed and never quite dried. After a state-wide postal strike was declared weeks earlier, I stopped writing letters. I finished the three John Grisham novels borrowed from the lobby of Hotel Jagjeet. J’s teacher, the Tibetan Rinpoche, was stuck in South India, unable to return because of the strike. And although less was happening than usual, the fact that we had nothing to do other than wait meant that in waiting for something I could not name, my anticipation sharpened with uncertainty. With the threat or fact or fear of being watched.
We drank a lot of tea. We walked around the lake and through the bamboo forest. We hiked up to the gompa, the monastery, and sat in the back of the prayer hall while the young monks, who were supposed to be reciting texts, folded paper planes under their robes when the chant master wasn’t looking. Every night, we watched out the window as the electricity cut out in Kurseong, the next town across the valley, their darkness a way to measure our time.
During the days, nothing was open, but people were out because they had nowhere to go. Once in a while, restive young men in leather jackets and red bandanas drove around ten or more to a Jeep, brandishing their kukris, traditional curved knives, and whooping through a megaphone. Everyone watched the Gorkhas go by, but it was tough to gauge the reaction. No one seemed intimidated, but neither did anyone holler out with camaraderie. The strike did not appear a meaningful sacrifice or a display of solidarity, but nor was anyone openly critical. An obstruction of freedom rather than a means toward it, the strike soon came to feel arbitrary. Mostly, I couldn’t understand why there was no outrage, no insurgency. Instead, a kind of resignation hung in the air, the weight of which I found more menacing than the original ambush on Hill Cart Road.
The family upstairs gave us mustard greens from the garden. Jagjeet sometimes let us in the backdoor of the hotel restaurant to fill our backpack with Nescafe and blocks of Cadbury Fruit and Nut. Although Manjeet, his younger brother, made sure we put the coffee and chocolate under a sweatshirt, he never said what he was afraid would happen if our missions were exposed. While it was clear what we weren’t allowed to do, the stakes themselves were unclear.
Most days, we searched for rice or vegetables, knocking at boarded-up shop after boarded-up shop because shopkeepers, we discovered, were often furtively watching TV inside. Sometimes, we were ushered in to grab noodles or packets of detergent, dropping the rupees we’d wadded up in our fists on the counter. If the interaction felt relaxed enough, we might press for batteries or salt. Other times, our inquiries were less welcome. More than once, the door slammed in our faces. Eyeing two bags of potato chips in our bag one morning, an old woman spat at us near the bus stand.
Another afternoon, as we made the rounds in Mirik bazaar, the bigger market on the far side of the lake, we encountered a man who sold oats and barley out of old butter tins. From what we could tell, most families either owned a shop or had a relative who did, and everyone snuck in periodically to get things for themselves. Catching people coming or going was when we’d had our best luck. If someone was grabbing cooking oil for himself, it was harder for him to refuse it to us.
“Sir,” J said, quietly cornering the man while he locked up, the keys still in his hand. “It’s possible we could buy a little rice?”
“No,” the man said, his eyes frantic. “Strike! Everything closed! My shop closed!” His voice was low but urgent as he trotted away from where we stood. As foreigners, our visibility made it that much more dangerous for anyone to violate the strike on our behalf. We understood that we were a risk. And yet, we had no other way to procure food. On one hand, the baby was still nursing, and we had not yet gone to bed hungry. On the other hand, the scarcity of food was real for everyone. As was the unsettling ruse of the quiet, the mist on the pine trees and the snow on the mountains. We were unable to leave, and the people around us were unable to live. The stasis was cold and suffocating, at times terrifying in its beauty.
Two weeks in, the bandh was lifted for an afternoon. Intending to then reinstate the strike for as long as they deemed necessary, the GNLF was placating everyone enough to keep us complacent, giving people time to stock up. With the baby in the backpack, I ran relays, carrying as much chana and Nescafe as I could, emptying everything in the kitchen before racing back to town.
J, meanwhile, caught a ride with Manjeet and his family’s driver down to Siliguri, the big, smoggy city at the edge of the plains, where the Hills erupted, and which was outside of the region affected by the strike. J was going to call our parents in the U.S., which we’d been unable to do for weeks, go to the bank, and help Manjeet with the food shopping.
Later that afternoon, during the last half an hour before curfew, I waited along the main road, pacing in front of Sonam Lhamo’s shop while the boys bounced a new ball on the steps. Everything seemed tenuous, and I worried Manjeet’s driver would be stopped on the road if they were late. Though I was relieved to have a kitchen full of food, the break in the strike made me feel that much less in control, knowing we were all just stopping and starting at the whim of some unseen, elusive power I didn’t understand.
Finally, I spotted the Jeep. As it pulled up, Manjeet’s household help was waiting to unload four chickens, three canisters of cooking gas, dozens of eggs, and several boxes of food. Seeing J climb out after the chickens, I ran to hug him. Public displays of affection between men and women didn’t happen in small towns like Mirik and, for a moment, we were both surprised by the force with which I buried my face into his sweater.
There are a lot of different ways to tell this story, and for many years I failed at all of them. According to American expectations of narrative, there is action or transformation. There is, at the very least, self-actualization. But in attempting to recount this experience, I remained stymied for a long time because I was convinced nothing happened—not in Mirik and not in my own life.
One morning in March, nearly four weeks after the strike began, I was walking toward town when I heard honking and the rumble of a bus ignition. The gates were up at Hotel Jagjeet and, inside, a John Cusak movie was playing on the TV above the bar. Jagjeet rubbed his palms together for warmth while his plump father sat in the empty dining room, as if waiting to hold court. The pyramids of Toblerone and Kinder chocolate had been replenished since our raids. The waiter we’d seen on the first morning was back in uniform, delivering Jagjeet’s Daddy-ji a half-chai on a metal tray. It wasn’t yet 9 a.m. and again I was bewildered, wondering how, years before mobile phones or WhatsApp, everyone already knew the strike was khatam, finished. A relief, it was also confusing to have waited so long for such an anticlimactic ending.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, the strike was called off when a man named Chatrey Subha was arrested in Nepal for allegedly masterminding the attack on Ghisingh. The two men had once been close. Subha previously served as head of the GNLF’s militant wing but disapproved when Ghisingh dropped the demands for statehood. Their subsequent fallout was hateful and public, and many believed he wanted Ghisingh dead. But in 2011, after a decade in prison, Subha was acquitted and released. Officially speaking, the 2001 attack on Ghisingh remains unsolved, and Ghisingh himself died in hospital in New Delhi in 2015.
Millions of people undeniably suffered during the strike, which history has since revealed to have largely been a personal dispute gone awry. Compared to previous strikes, though, this time was relatively uneventful. In the Hills, this bandh would not have constituted a “story” because it was unexceptional, predictable even. Common. There was a strike and then it was over. In the U.S., the bandh would also not constitute a story because the low-simmering suffering of brown people in places Americans have never heard of does not contain the type of interior revelation or transformation Western readers have come to expect.
And yet, this experience has continued to resonate with me, in large part because of the ways that time has reflected back my own ignorance. I was outraged. I was convinced that there must have been something to do. And because I had been unable to understand what action that might have included, I was miserable—bored, scared, and mildly certain that even though I was the foreigner, I was also still, somehow, at fault for failing to help. “A one-day strike. A three-day strike. A seven-day strike… More strike than no strike,” Kiran Desai wrote of life, or the absence of life, under the GNLF.
The use of disobedience, of refusal, is powerful. Resistance, when undergirded by love, is to assert one’s dignity for the sake of others. But during the strike, the inverse was also true: obstruction, in this case, not an act of solidarity calling attention to poverty or injustice. Rather, the strike unfurled across the Hills an abuse of power, borne out of legitimate frustration, but upheld to the detriment and denial of the very people for whom the GNLF had once purported to speak, to act.
But the people of Mirik also resisted — not by violating the restrictions of the strike but in refusing to be shocked by them. In her book Tiger Writing, which explores the contrasts between “the interdependent self” and the typically Western obsession with independence and self-focus, author Gish Jen writes, “The collectivist self can be more accepting of certain realities than the independent or individualistic self.” At the same time, Gish underscores that “acceptance hardly constitutes passivity.” “What’s more,” she writes, “the independent self can be a navel-gazer extraordinaire.”
During the strike, I mistook acceptance for passivity. In the process, in the quiet, I became so fixated on my own torpor, I couldn’t function. “I’m not going to sit here while you just lie there and think,” my son’s father said while I lay on the bed in defeat. Caught in a relationship I did not want to be in, with a nursing toddler and no childcare, I was stuck in an unheated house in a Himalayan village I could not leave. Without the choices and “freedoms” to which I still felt entitled, I did not see any way to be except overwhelmed.
I grew up lonely and alienated in the suburban Midwest, drawn to India and to the Buddhist teachings because of their overlap, because of the notions of interdependence and the possibility of compassion that daily life in a crowded country both offered and demanded. But although I had been studying Buddhism for several years at that point—and had, in fact, come to Mirik with the hopes of deepening that study—many of the concepts remained abstract and out of reach. Academically or philosophically, I “understood” the promise of “liberation.” We suffer, the Buddha taught, because we expect pleasure and security from things that cannot last, that will inevitably change and fall away. The “problem” of the human condition, according to Buddhism, is cognitive, something we can, therefore, learn or unlearn. We can cultivate clarity around aversion and desire. We can develop the discernment between what we cannot change—often external circumstances—and what we can—including how we relate to those circumstances. And yet, in my panic—entangled, trapped, physically held in place—my kneejerk reaction was still to believe that if only I could ride the bus to Darjeeling, if only I could do something, I would feel better. I would be better. I misconstrued geographic movement as action. I misunderstood freedom as going out to dinner.
The fact of which began to emerge right after the strike ended, when I asked Sonam Lhamo, who sold eggs and cigarettes across from Hotel Jagjeet, why the bandh had been called off. She shrugged again, uncertain but also unconcerned, though this time with more of a smile. “Now not so boring.”