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.