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A quick Look at Reading Culture in Darjeeling and Sikkim


Are We Reading and Growing?

Part I

Some cardinal questions that seldom get asked and therefore not adequately pondered, much less answered are – is our growth as a community guided by reading? Or are we growing first and reading later? Or even worse, are we never reading anything other than school textbooks?

To say that a reading culture is on the wane in the hills is only partly true. For anything to wane, it has to have flourished in the first place. Just when the habit of reading was beginning to pick up in Darjeeling, it was strangled in the cradle during the 1980s. In this article, ‘by the hills’, I am referring to Darjeeling and Sikkim. Of the twin hills, Darjeeling has definitely had a much more glorious history in terms of literacy, and by extension a reading culture. But Darjeeling’s momentary honeymoon with a reading culture couldn’t really rich its full potential. The bloom was soon off the peach. Literacy in Darjeeling decelerated, letting Sikkim outpace it. It might seem an unfair comparison given the massive resources that post-merger Sikkim had at its disposal as a state as opposed to the Darjeeling’s limited resources as a mere district in West Bengal. However, for Darjeeling, which started its educational journey in the mid-1800s and become one of the top-ranking literate districts in West Bengal, to lose her grip on literacy is a case of a colossal failure of administration and loss of vision.

There is no denying the fact that Darjeeling becoming an educational hub during the British raj hardly meant anything locally as those globally renowned schools pioneered by the Church of Scotland Mission initially benefited anyone but local pupils. Even after the British left India, locals couldn’t take advantage of all the top-notch missionary schools for many, many years. However, all the British educationists were not inconsiderate of the hill children. There was, in fact, a parallel academic initiative taken, targeting hill children – limited, but it was a good start anyway. For example, right around 1850, Rev W. Start opened a school for Lepchas. A German missionary, Mr. Niebel also devoted his time in pioneering a school work for the Lepchas. One could say that these isolated efforts, however, didn’t make many inroads for obvious reasons. But these isolated efforts were soon followed by other endeavors. Education started spreading into the larger hill communities after 1869 when Rev William Macfarlane introduced vernacular education in Darjeeling. Interestingly, nearly a century later in 1961, Darjeeling district was ranked 7th in literacy among all the districts of West Bengal. According to the literacy test conducted, 287 individuals out of every 1000 people of Darjeeling could read and write with understanding. It is certainly still a low figure but it meant a lot given the standards of that time. In subsequent years, Darjeeling experienced a steady increase in literacy.

Educational development in Darjeeling gathered tremendous force in the beginning of 1900s. The locals were not just gaining basic literacy but many of them had come of age. So much so, the first half of the twentieth century became a turning point in Nepali literature in India with the birth of great writers and poets in Darjeeling. Parasmani Pradhan (1898) Rup Narayan Sinha (1907), Shiv Kumar Rai (1919- although born in Sikkim, he lived most of his life in Darjeeling), Agam Singh Giri (1927), Indra Bahadur Rai (1927), Achchha Rai Rasik (1929), Lakhi Devi Sundas (1934), Parijat (1937), Asit Rai (1843), Ramlal Adhikari (1946) are some of the names whose contributions have been colossal. (The list of the names of writers from Darjeeling are not exhaustive).

Also, the temporary migration to Darjeeling of literature giants like Dharnidhar Koirala and Surya Bikram Gyawali by way of exile in 1918 and then Ishwar Ballabh and Til Bikram Nembang in connection with their higher studies in the 1960s added to the momentum of the literary movement that was gathering force in the hills. Two Nepal born stalwarts, Dharnidhar Koirala and Surya Bikram Gyawali formed a trio SuDhaPa with the Kalimpong born Parasmani Pradhan. In a dramatic repetition of events, the two Nepal born literati, Til Bikram Nembang and Ishwar Ballabh formed a trio with the Darjeeling born Indra Bahadur Rai. Darjeeling became the center of language and literature development for the Indian Nepalis/Gorkhas. Watching the vibrant literature development from across the border was a celebrated Nepalese dramatist Bala Krishna Sama who famously noted, “What Darjeeling thinks today, Kathmandu thinks tomorrow”. Darjeeling had outpaced Kathmandu on many fronts.

Darjeeling was definitely not sitting idle. Books were being written and most importantly they were being read among some circles in the hills. There was an emergence of a reading culture of a profound kind. However, the reading was largely an elitist enterprise, confined to a few who had a certain level of educational qualifications, access to books and trained cognitive ability to grasp literature. The group of people who had rarified taste and sophistication was even smaller. Reading culture at the public level was announcing itself in need of massive promotion penetrating the mass base.  That brings us to the next group of people who played a major role in fostering a reading culture in the Hills outside the exclusive group of literature elites or, shall we say, at the non-literati level. Here, the contributions of the late Padri Ganga Prasad Pradhan cannot be underestimated. The late Padri Ganga Prasad Pradhan was reaching out to the grassroots with his translated Nepali Bible and first Nepali Christian hymn book Ishai Bhajan. His Nepali Bible, in a sense, was making the same kind of impact upon Christian Nepali speakers from 1914 onwards in Darjeeling as Bhanubhakta’s Ramayana did to their literate and semi-literate Nepalese counterparts in the late 1800s and the English Bible did to English speakers in the late 1500s. There is no denying that the reading culture in the west was largely fostered by the Bible as it was the only book in that culture for many, many centuries. (Noted thinker and playwright CK Shreshtha says that the Nepali Bible was already in circulation in Darjeeling in 1821 when Bhanu Bhakta was just 7 years old. He is probably referring to parts of the New Testaments translated by William Carey. He also says that AJ Aton had already prepared a Nepali grammar in 1820. These extra-ordinary claims ascertain the initiation of a reading culture in the Darjeeling hills in the beginning of the 1800s. The sphere of influence of these books was understandably narrow but some reading was happening at the very least.)

However, a reading culture hadn’t quite penetrated the secular mass base. Just as the Nepali Bible and Christian literatures were confined to a small Christian community in the hills, the works of Nepali literati were accessible only to a small chunk of the educated and semi-educated urban population of Darjeeling. It was exactly in such a crucial juncture, that the emergence of Prakash Kovid, arguably the most widely read Nepali novelist, not only provided alternative reading materials for the secular non-elitist mass but also revolutionized the reading culture in the hills of Darjeeling and the transborder Nepali population in Nepal. With 50 novels, this prolific novelist became a household name among literate Nepali speakers. Almost every one of his novels reached almost every literate and semi-literate household in Darjeeling. He was arguably the best-selling author among the Nepali authors. The late Sharad Chettri wrote that Prakash Kovid and a few other writers like Yodhir Thapa, Harish Bamjan, Subhas Ghisingh had started writing around the time when Hindi writers like Ranu, Gulsan Nanda and Karnel Ranjit had been able to attract Nepali speakers to their works.

But unfortunately, the emerging reading culture was blown into smithereens in the mid-1980s.  The armed Gorkhaland agitation not only put on hold any literary activities, but the unrest and political instability led to the hemorrhage and even premature death of literary talents. Distressed, displaced and dead hill people were not writing and reading as much as they were in the pre-eighty-six agitation. Their priorities were changed and inversed. Ironically, Agam Singh Giri’s appeal, “Khukuri Kalam Bhaee Aao” (Let Khukuri come in the form of a pen) was forgotten and the agitation had evoked the exact opposite response. The Khukuri was back in action and the pen went silent. The agitation ravaged Darjeeling did not see the birth of an Alexander Solzhenitsyn who had the incisive intellect to self-introspect the role they themselves played in creating the mess that they had found themselves in. The rest is history.

“Darjeeling became the center of language and literature development for the Indian Nepalis/Gorkhas. Watching the vibrant literature development from across the border was a celebrated Nepalese dramatist Bala Krishna Sama who famously noted, “What Darjeeling thinks today, Kathmandu thinks tomorrow”. Darjeeling had outpaced Kathmandu on many fronts.”


(To be continued)

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi