An Independence Event Untold in India

Charisma K. Lepcha

Kalimpong: where time and tide waits…

Painting a dreamy picture of this enigmatic haven, Praful a local blogger titles his online journal while describing his hometown. “It is where tourists are seduced by some inexplicable mystique of this sleepy little place. It is where the fun loving locals willingly sketch maps for tourists wanting to go to monasteries. It is also where the pace of life slows down, as people here have “oodles of time because time and tide gently quiver to halt as you enter Kalimpong.”

Remarkably true and many would agree without doubt.

But once a year, this sleepy town redeems itself. It wakes up to prove otherwise and the celebration is more than grand.

Drumbeats welcome the morning sun as the marching steps find rhythm to the swinging arms. School children are up before the rooster crows. With ironed uniforms, polished shoes and perhaps a new pair of socks for the occasion, they line up with their classmates and march towards the one venue where almost all of Kalimpong is bound to assemble.

It is the Mela Ground. Hosting nearly all the major festivities in town, it is a “must-be” location for anybody and everybody. It is the stadium where our fathers played soccer while our uncles cheered with ecstasy. It is the stage where local rockers performed while the fans had their Woodstock experience. It is the podium where politicians made promises while the citizens said Amen to that. It is indeed the same hallowed ground where all school children are amassed to exhibit their marching skills.

Villagers have walked miles and parents have traveled from neighboring countries to witness the grand festivity. School principals have devoted time and teachers have invested energy as students practice with aptness. Vendors have long waited as local restaurateurs prepare to feed the hungry crowd for the day. There is a certain air of anticipation that brings this day.

Indeed, it is Independence Day and the celebrations were no different this year.

Smartly attired in khaki uniforms and green hats with red feathers, the National Cadet Corp (NCC) could be seen marching downhill. It is around eight o’clock in the morning and people have already lined up streets to cheer the marching students. Inside the ground, early birds have found the best seats as youngsters can be seen scaling walls. It is but a few latecomers that can be seen trying to squeeze their way through the crowd, as vendors get busy with their sales.

Slowly but surely, each spectator is modestly accommodated as the ground below presents a neat arrangement of students lined up for the event to begin. Unalike uniforms separate one school from the other as they all seek to stand out with dignity. Each school hopes to be the eventual winner of the Independence Day marching parade.

The event is to begin.

A pipe band from the Scottish Universities Mission Institution (SUMI) is seen marching to greet the chief guest. Clad in black jackets and a red kilt topped by black hats with a red pom, C.K. Kumai, chairman of Kalimpong municipality is respectfully guided through the tunes of bagpipes as he takes his seat. As if to contend with the school students’, Kumai is donning a navy blue blazer well complimented by a Nepali Dhaka topi. His speech includes a brief lesson of Indian history as a reminder to the gathering today. The crowd is a little restless but Kumai still remains popular. His prolonged speech is welcomed by a loud applause while declaring that schools remain closed on the 17th of August as well. It is an additional holiday for the already two-day celebration that takes place in Kalimpong.

The drums roll once again. Left and right, the footsteps neatly mark their pace. One after the other, they march under their school banners while upholding the Indian national flag. Their uniformity is unmatched as each participant gives his/ her best. Smartly dressed in identical uniforms, there is an unexplained pride as the arms swing two and fro. Everybody is focused and prideful. They have come together in celebration of their country’s freedom.

Interestingly, it is a colorful event beyond the blue blazers and gray uniforms. Each school has a cultural delegation representing the different ethnic groups that reside in this hill town.

With SUMI on lead, their cultural contingent is led by native Lepchas in their traditional gear followed closely by Limbus under the direction of a bouncy “witchdoctor.” Next are the Rais, the Magars and the Tamangs, each presenting their cultural traits as a masked figure in orange accompanies the Newars. Clad in Daura Suruwal are the Bahuns as the Chhetris carry Khukuris to symbolize their legendry tales. Despite the weather, Gurungs are in thick woolen jackets as the Bhutias have pseudo yaks running around that is shadowed by the Sherpas. It is then the turn of the Kamis, Damais, and Sunars as they walk under their respective banners. Leaving no people group behind, the latter entourage includes the Marwari’s, Muslims and Biharis all marching under the same flag.

It was truly “the land of unity in diversity,” as one banner read. Every ethnic group inhabiting the hills was well represented. It embraced each people group and celebrated the differences. It did not separate the upper and the lower caste. It did not separate the rich or the poor. Everybody was somebody.

A visiting friend from Shillong, Meghalaya remarked, “This is my first ever Independence Day celebrations. Where I come from, our people are busy with bandhs and strikes, nobody is willing to celebrate 15 August. But here it seems that the celebration is beyond the tri-colored flag as the whole town comes together. This is extraordinary.”

True enough, the preparation and participation does present perfection.

Besides the country’s capital New Delhi, Kalimpong is perhaps the next place in India where 15 August is celebrated in such an impressive fashion. But, Kalimpong does not even exist in the map of India. “Indians” do not even know where Kalimpong is. They are unaware of Kalimpong-Indians and their contribution to the bigger picture of the Republic of India.

Politically speaking, it is just a sub division in the district of Darjeeling in West Bengal state. Otherwise, go figure yourself. Neighboring Darjeeling hills and Sikkim enjoys quite a lot of attraction and attention but Kalimpong is without.

Still, Kalimpong has been able to exhibit their nationalism in a way no one does. People from different tribes, castes and religion come together as one. Middle age women in tri-color kurtas, children wearing Indian flag imprints and a “flawless” presentation of “jana, gana, mana…” by a school band goes unrecorded. It is an event untold to India as Kalimpong salutes the saffron, white and green. But how valid is it vice-versa?

Perhaps, Independence Day is just an excuse but I am wrong. Come next year, I guarantee that the marching bands, swinging arms and the ever-enthusiastic crowd will bring out the non-existing nationalism from within you.

5 thoughts on “An Independence Event Untold in India

  1. Jaya Chhetri

    The article made me nostalgic. I was taken back to the days where 15th August meant like a festival to us.It is indeed a festival of unity in diversity where all people take active participation in the Marchpast, Drills, Dances of different communities and many more events,I miss Dasai and Deewali and moreover the thing I miss the most is 15th August.

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  2. susan westerberg

    Today another Independence day has come and gone ,but the people of kalimpong are still talking about it over supper and the stories will be told for days to come.Your article really revived memories of my school years in St.Joseph’s Convent.I still remember when we had to march on 15th August as if it was only yesterday.Braving the scorching heat and then the torrential downpour,it was still the most awaited day for all of us.It was a day,when after the march past parade and dances we were allowed to go for outing.We would be free to roam wherever we wanted and buy tuck and eat in restaurants.I can never forget the excitement over this day.I too will always miss the enthusiasm and friendliness of the people of Kalimpong .

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  3. Kalimpong is indeed the next place after New Delhi where Independence Day is celebrated with much pomp and show, but it is ironic that our countrymen have not even heard about this town. If ever I say that I belong to Kalimpong to people here in Delhi, they assume that it is in Nepal. Maybe it is just a wild guess for them, but that completely robs our identity and leaves us as an alien in our own land. I am sometimes questioned about my nationality and people find it hard to accept me as one of them.
    Our identity fades away as soon as we cross the magnificent Teesta bridge, our culture and tradition may not be the same with the one’s living on the other side of the bridge but we still are Indians born and brought up in this beautiful country. Be it the Kargil war or the cricket match between India and Pakistan, we all feel the strong rush of adrenaline in our blood and feel proud to be an Indian. Unfortunately we are not even thought as Indians by our own country men, long time back I used to parade at Mela Ground on 15th August braving the wind and the cold rain with a smile on my face but little did I know that this feeling of being a proud Indian was confined within the hills of Darjeeling only. “IT’S TIME TO STAND TOGETHER AND MAKE OUR PRESENCE FELT TO OUR COUNTRYMEN IF NOT TO THE WORLD”

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  4. definately this article has revived fond memories.as i look back into my school days in kalimpong there can be no other occasion so great than the independence day celebrations.even as i child i would wonder wether the entire population of kalimpong actually gathered for the day as the streets would be flocked with people.it definately meant a day for freedom a day to forget worries and just enjoy.
    i remember fondly the much awaited anxiety each girl would have as we would prepare much in advance for it. especially missing classes for it.we would sulk and groan about the pain we were feeling but yet we would always have a spirit of becoming a winner in ourself.
    kalimpong is very dear to me. over the years it has changed but it has not lost its glory.the essence of home is what i feel whenever the reach the see the teesta river.the fragrance of kalimpong will remain in my heart forever no matter where i may be.
    i thank kalimpong for somehow i am what i am because of you.

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  5. Lesline Kane

    I went to school (boarding school) at Dr. Graham’s Homes! When I saw the picture of Daelo Hill I was amazed what a beautiful place they have changed it to be. I remember going camping, with other senior Girls and Boys and climbing the trees to bring back all the most beautiful colored orchards … I am wondering now, does Daelo Hill still have the Orchards?

    I used to stay at Mansfield Cottage and loved the beautiful Himilayan Mountains all around our Cottages.

    I now live in California, USA and talk about the beautiful Kalimpong Town.

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