During bandhs, I am just a shade better than a beggar perhaps," says Krishna Chhetri. One week into the indefinite strike called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in the Darjeeling hills, the 39-year-old tourist taxi driver is looking at days of strict rations and scarce vegetables. With the Rs 2,000 salary that he gets from the owner of his taxi and the little savings that he had, all Chhetri could stock was 30 kg of rice and 10 kg of pulses. Vegetables being perishables were left out. "If the strike stretches further, which many morcha leaders forecast, people like us will simply die," says Krishna.
Daily routines matter little since the strike began on August 3. Chhetri has no work, losing
Rs 400 a day that he earned by ferrying the tourists who flock the hill station of Darjeeling, apart from his salary. Schools shut, his two children, 12-year-old Bhoomika and Anut (6), are also at home.
It's only Chhetri's 35-year-old wife Anju who finds her life more hectic than ever. The children are a constant distraction in their small one-room wooden house on a hill slope in Darjeeling's Firmal' forced inside the small space by the rains'while the dwindling rations are an incessant worry. "I feel terrible when my six-year-old asks for milk everyday. I can't give him that," says Anju.
Apart from that, she is required to be at rallies and dharnas for Gorkhaland from 10 am to nearly dusk everyday.
The Chhetris are also worried about Rinki, their pet dog whom they call the fifth member of the family. Holding the dog, Bhoomika, who has had Rinki since she was five, says with tears in her eyes: "We can only give her khichdi once a day as we need to save rations. She does not like it. She has become quite frail. I take her on my lap and try to calm her." Adds Chhetri: "The poor dog cannot cry like we do, Rinki can only bark." And she has been doing that a lot lately.
Chhetri does go out once or twice daily to meet the owner of the taxi to keep him posted about the developments at the Darjeeling Taxi Stand, as the owner has told him to do.
Chhetri admits that life in the hills isn't easy, particularly as his earnings depend entirely on the tourist season. However, the lean period this time will stretch on. "Even if the bandh is withdrawn, it will take quite some time for tourists to assess the situation and plan trips. With uncertainty looming, we are one of the worst sufferers," he says.
If this were any other day, Krishna would have barely had time for this conversation. He would leave home early to be at the taxi stand by 8 am. Anju would get up at 5 am to prepare the children for school. "Bhoomika studies in Class VI and starts school at 7.30 am. Anut is in upper kindergarten, he has to reach school by 8 am," she says. Her mornings suddenly free, "it seems our lives are at a standstill", she adds.
A student of Assembly of God Church School, Bhoomika has been revising syllabus completed in school. "I have tried reading the new chapters but I am not able to understand them," she says. Worried about her half-yearly examinations in November, she adds: "I do not know how I will appear in the exams. My friends' parents can afford tuitions, but my father cannot." Listening in, Chhetri nods.
As part of the new routine in Anju's life, she needs to reach Chowk Bazar'a central location in Darjeeling town'5 km from her home, to join rallies for Gorkhaland. "Our village society leader has ordered everyone to reach Chowk Bazar by 10 am. There leaders chalk out the protest programme and we join the sloganeering," she says.
Originally from Sikkim, Anju says the demand for Gorkhaland is close to their hearts'but increasingly not the means to get there. "To tell you frankly, I am tired of shouting slogans. But I cannot say no. Like many of us, we now harbour doubts if we are getting anywhere."
Chhetri, who has seen the GNLF (Gorkha National Liberation Front) movement of the '80s, also questions the GJM's methods. "We have to participate in the agitations, but we are not sure if this indefinite strike, the suffering of common people like us and the daily hardships will fetch us Gorkhaland. I saw the GNLF movement in the late '80s when I was a student. The GNLF strike led by Subhas Ghising continued for 40 days and we almost starved. Almost 26 years have passed, but we did not get Gorkhaland. The hill parties and leaders come, start a movement and then compromise on the demand after signing an agreement with the government. We have been seeing this for almost four decades," he says.
For some hours, in the quiet, sprawling evenings of a hillside city, their worries take a backseat. The Chhetris go to Mall Road, and amidst closed shops, take in the panoramic view of the mountain range around and the Kanchenjunga peak, hidden by the clouds. As they run into friends, the matter of the strike comes up, they ventilate their anguish and anger and they return home a little bit more prepared to take on another day.