The hills are alive with the sound of stories: Are we ready to listen?

The hills are alive with the sound of stories: Are we ready to listen?

In an age of micro poetry and 15-second Instagram stories, time is currency. We waste it generously, even more now, thanks to the COVID-19 situation.

Of the several means to spend our time, often the most easily entertaining medium is on the palms of our hand, we casually spend hours on our smartphones. Not to sound like a book snob but I’ve got to ask – when was the last time you committed to a book? Not just read it, but let yourself be devoured by the literature and its depth. Let me ask you quite frankly when was the last time you read a local writer?

Darjeeling – a land known for its stellar tea and a 19th-century toy train has a lot to offer apart from these. The rich history and culture are displayed in stories, poetry and songs of the living and the dead quite unexplored.

The aroma of stories from this land, steeped in its vibrant history and gently wafts up, like perfectly made tea in a porcelain cup, from faces that are unlike the stereotyped appearance of what many believe an Indian must look like.

I speak Nepali. I write in English. No, I am not from Nepal. I’ve never been to the country, though I’ve heard it’s a beautiful country. I am an Indian citizen, sometimes misidentified by the world who hasn’t cared to understand our history, but I forgive these mistakes.

That is where literature aids history, to keep account of events and records of every bird that passes through the border. The gust of xenophilia has stretched globalisation but where are our roots? Here are few names to look for if you are looking for the local writers:

Monika Rana

A 24-year-old multilingual Assistant Professor of English at Salesian College, Siliguri is the published author of four books. Her name isn’t new among the Sahityik society. Writing came naturally to Rana, a legacy of being the daughter to the profound Nepali writer Jiwan Rana whose Nepali anthology has been translated by Monika in “Verses of Life” and Amrita Rana, the mother whose book “A few verses on Dalsing Para” has been translated to English.

Monika is deeply rooted in Nepali literature and is a frequent recipient of travel grants from the Sahitya Academy. She talks about the ethnographic pointers and geopolitical boundaries that have shaped and moulded our culture to a different one. 

“My father has been a major influence in my life. I used to browse books through my Baba’s Library. I wasn’t much of a reader but my father used to tell me and still preaches that one should contribute to Sahitya (Literature) and Samaj (Society) with individual talent because it is an important asset to society. It’s one’s heritage one got as a gift and should be given freely according to one’s measure of talent, as the singers sing, and the poets pen poetry. It is not just to propagate or advocate but as a contribution to make this society and to enrich the culture with its diversity.”

 “Ten years ago, there were no young writers in these seminars. I am glad we have a few now. I used to go around and read in four different languages amidst the well-versed poets.” Monika speaks candidly about her lonely journey.

There is indeed a scarcity of readers, especially for Nepali Literature, any bookshop owner in the hills will confirm that. The statistics on the dwindling numbers of Nepali leaders requires immediate attention.

Even if a few enthusiasts wish to develop a reading habit, there is no direction to quench the thirst.

Monica says, “There is a communication gap between the generations (octogenarian, sexagenarian etc), between the known and the unknown where lies a void. Nepali is a rich language with a rich culture, undivided by geopolitical boundaries; Nepali as an identity is an umbrella term.

“What I feel is that there is a need to curate books. There should be an awareness of consensus. It also depends on the narrative of literature that we are writing that is going to guide upcoming generations. It’s on us now. Maybe this is the resistance towards the other culture”

Monika further explains how Orientalism is a Western concept. “West defined East as not what it was but how the West thought it to be, Oriental society has been painted by the age-old Anglo society. For example, their concept of Oriental writers was different so when the West thinks about India, they think of temples, snakes and dirt but India is so much more than the shadows of its past.

Sadly, these are the ethnographic pointers that describe our nations. To tell you the truth, the Middle-East nations aren’t spared from the stereotyping as well.”

One cannot be ignorant of the information fed by the general media and that is where the younger, tech-savvy generation can contribute. Everybody is woke but what kind of awareness are we preaching?

It has become an individual responsibility to educate oneself. We blend in, sometimes so well mixed in that we might as well be hiding within other cultures, but it is important to remember that the Nepali culture is as unique, with its own set of cuisines, traditions and literature. Hence, it is time to create our ethnographic pointers. There is uniqueness in our tales and myths that want to come out and there is no scarcity of writers.

Anusuya Chettri

A published author and an MPhil student from North Bengal University, she has recently contributed on Terrible Tiny Tales’ “With Love” and has written for LiveWire; “Soul Food Stories: Of Devouring Books and Chewing Stories” an article with extended metaphors of American soul food.

“To all the aspiring writers, if you want to become a writer, you must read voraciously. Anybody can write but to excel in this art, one must read, not just fiction. There are many genres to pick. Read a lot and read good books. The mainstream writers have come a long way from their initial stage of bad writing and its practice and hard work combined,” says Anshu (a nickname), a resident of Jaigaon.

In a tête-à-tête over the issue of writing, she expressed, “You can show depth in simple writing. Even when I am writing I do not want to decorate my work with obscure words. I feel it’s our fault too, as the reader, for our choice in books rather than the authors who are pouring their words.”

Anshu is positive despite the present scenario of the country where content is aplenty but the lack of quality kills the overall joy of reading. However, commercial writers have managed to keep an audience in a country where English is still a second language.

According to the 2011 Census, 129 million (10.6%) Indians spoke English. 259,678 (0.02%) Indians spoke English as their first language.[1] It concluded that approximately 83 million Indians (6.8%) reported English as their second language, and 46 million (3.8%) reported it as their third language, making English the second-most spoken language in India.” (source Wikipedia)

Anshu is aware of the craving that the audience has for romance, from cinema to art and literature. Romance stands undisputed at the top of the charts. “You start thinking in a different way when you look past the genre of romance. It will make a difference in your writing.”

Writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy have an impact on Anshu, “No, it’s not a goal” she laughs when asked if she’d like to become like them. “As artists, we want to improve our craft and we look for growth. I want that growth. I don’t have a genre. When I write, I let it flow. I write my heart out. I write because I love writing, storytelling and when you love something you don’t let it go.

I don’t know if I’ll have readers, I won’t give up. It is important to write about our people, be comfortable with your genre but highlight the community that you live in. You can do it beautifully.”

It’s an illogical affair that an artist has with their art; a fatal romance that a writer has with words despite self-doubts and eternal pressure faced in the journey of their craftsmanship.

Manohar Thapa

Thapa is a 30-year-old teacher from Kalimpong and an author of two books. Published in 2016, “The Unaccepted” is an ordinary tale of self-identity faced by the protagonist in a world of parallel identities. The second book, “The Shutdown and Her”, published in 2019, highlights the lives of people from the North East in metro cities.

“My teacher used to call me Bhui Futuwa because my ideas were haywire which is prevalent in the first book. I wasn’t much of a reader but I felt this story within me and I wanted to publish it. This was something I wanted people to read.”

Manohar recalls the struggle of an author in a world of self-publication. The herculean task of promotion that follows with the criticism among the established peers. He recalls how the edits of his first book were done at a coffee table he shared with friends.

He refrains from calling modern technology a distraction. “The world is filled with different attraction and we can use it to benefit ourselves. Especially for writers, it is a lot easier. There is a whole new world out there. One can hardly carry volumes of books that’s why we have ebooks and Kindle.”

When asked about why the youth in the hills and the Dooars lack a knack for reading, Manohar corrected my query by replying, “the feeling is global.”

“Our culture is vast. The change we are waiting for will take time. With each generation, one can see the underlying change in our society. It will take time. I am positive the coming generation will be able to enrich our culture more.”

A quick Internet search for the “best books of the century”, you will come across some classics that were once deemed failures.

Some resurfaced after harsh criticism caused them to vanish off shelves. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ was called “Fitzgerald’s Latest A Dud”. For the rest of his life, he lived under the impression that it was a failure.

Stephen King’s record-breaking “Carrie” was rejected by 30 publishers and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first book in the saga, was rejected by 12 publishing houses until a small independent company put its faith on a book written by a single mother about an eleven-year-old boy who lived.

The recipe for success lies in how persistent one is under pressure, amid all adversity. The errors of Shakespeare, the plain plagiarism of his stories does nothing to shorten the height of glory he achieved. So maybe, if your work is highly criticised, you lack finesse or the right motivation or the right audience, have heart, because fortune favours the brave.

Lubina Kritika (Dahal)

The youngest on this list is a 22-year-old poetess from Singmari, Darjeeling. This young writer is a fierce artist, roaring at poetry slam sessions.

Kritika writes her verses in Nepali on themes of womanhood and women’s rights. Kritika cites her grandfather as her major influence.

“I also write about personal experiences. I first wrote because I was passionate. I write now because I do not know anything other than this. Spoken word poetry has given me a new platform. I like reading poetry. It is a different art when you read your poems; I cannot let it go.” Her voice was brimming with passion over the phone which felt highly contagious.

At the age of seventeen, Lubina Kritika published her first anthology “Ankha” (eyes), and there was no turning back.

“I had self-doubt initially when I started. My teachers in school helped me through. I am honing my skills now. I explored Nepal through my poetry session. I went on national television and the exposure has helped me grow. I am a little confident now.”

When asked about the struggle and troubles in her journey she recalls one incident.

“I was criticised heavily for my poem “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, where I used colloquial slangs to describe the plight of young girls. It was a satire meant for our society that approves of abusive words that are usually directed to mothers, sisters and daughters. I do not understand why our mothers get blamed when their children fail as human beings.

I was criticised because I spoke those words on stage while people are ignorant when it’s spoken to us on the streets. I am also criticised by the choice of my attire. I feel comfortable in jeans but sometimes I get to hear comments like “Slacks Lawne” poet. I understood this that one must rise above the criticism and learn from it. I have always looked at the positive side of everything. I wrote poems as an escape from my tragedies. I overcame them through my poems.”

When asked about the present scenario of our literature in our society, she was positive. “This generation is hungry for art. We as writers should not lack. There are many platforms to display our art. Social media can be used properly. There is YouTube which can broaden our horizon. Why not use it for the good cause. There is a need to evolve and we as artists must do so.”

She currently has a YouTube channel where she occasionally puts videos of her poems.

Yoshay Lama Lindblom

Living in Älmhult, the Ikea town of Sweden, Yoshay Lama Lindblom was born in the lap of majestic hills of Kurseong. She completed her education from St. Helen’s Secondary School, Dow Hill Kurseong and later from Mount Hermon, Darjeeling.

She recalls various incidents that occurred during the mid-eighties that left a great impact on her. “The earliest memory I have as a child is of my mum who was then working at AIR Kurseong. There were raids and frightening stories of hired leaders who were assassins, paid to chop off the heads of the opposition leaders. The atrocity was real and frightening.”

Yoshay’s account of the mid-eighties andolan (agitation) is vivid in her collection of short stories “The Way We Are; Dark Tales from the Himalayas”.

She is happily married and a mother to two boys, Noah Siddharth and Elwin Rahul. Though thousands of miles away, Yoshay’s love for her community lives on in her stories, “I miss the mountains. I miss the food, the sisterhood, and the camaraderie.” 

Some of her stories bear the rich macabre of Edgar Allan Poe, the melancholic undertone of death and fate entwined in her stories rise from their depths to bring alive each tale. Her characters are composite, and her tales are records of consequences that humans yield because of their actions.

Yoshay published her first novel “Over the Hills and Far Away” as an ebook with Amazon Kindle. The novel features shamanism, prevalent within the various communities living in the hills. She shares the self-publishing hurdles that an author initially has to face and the issues and mistakes that a debutante is prone to commit. 

“I read a lot of translated books from the Far East. I love their writing style and fantasy genre. We have been reading from the West, Brits and the Americans. There are many more to explore. I like diversity in reading”

 Murakami and Higashino have quite a strong readership in India and even in the rest of the world, when it comes to Japanese literature, Kawabata, Sōseki and Mishima are getting posthumously receiving due fame.

Now, the question arises, does translation play the villain in the dilution of the enthusiasm of readers eager to expand their horizon? 

“Sweden is a beautiful country far removed from the world” Yoshay continues. “I don’t own the language to use it to write. When I sit down to write, I always end up writing about my people.”

Reading, as the author claims, is the tool of a writer. “When you read, you realise your voice, you recognise it.”

When asked about the slow progression of the creative writing in the hills, and what we lack, Yoshay explained. “The younger generation has to be exposed to the world. One writer is not enough. We need a body of literary figures to guide and encourage each other.”

Currently, she is ready with the first draft of her fantasy novel. She has actively participated in NaNoWriMo, a creative writing project in the month of November where the participants are annually encouraged to pen down 50,000-word manuscript over the span of 30 days.

Regina Gurung

Last but not the least, the 27-year-old editor-in-chief of DCM Network, Regina Gurung’s journey from a ghostwriter to publishing her debut book “Heavenly Bodies & Human Things” is nothing less than a fairy tale, complete with happy endings.

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve heard her name. The reason why I chose to keep her last in the list is simple, the more you are exposed to the light, the greater threat you are to the darkness.

Regina’s poems in her anthology as she recalls were her therapy, “I was always a writer, many people don’t know about this, but I was a ghostwriter. I took a year-long hiatus before taking a Journalism course in Bangalore. It was a different journey as a journalist. We deconstruct as a writer, different from creative writing it has to be accurate. I kick-started my journey in New Indian Express for 2 years in Chennai and Bangalore.

I remember, my first report was on racism. With this new life, poetry took backstage. I switched from print media to Digital media in MEAWW where I worked as Senior features writer covering entertainment news and reviews. I sank into depression and insomnia with the odd working hours. I was far away from home.

That’s when I started writing again. I wrote for myself and it became my anchor. I wrote every day, I read some of my poems to my friends and they encouraged me. They suggested me to self-published and I did. My book made up to Amazon’s Top 100 bestselling books. With my job in Dubai at DCM Network where I work as Editor-in-chief, I curate content.”

Regina Gurung has also worked with Netflix original “Broken Wings” as Continuity Supervisor. “Art is the best weapon,” she asserts. “We try to defend ourselves, our identity. Nobody will listen to you until you are somebody.”

A firm believer of digitalisation, Regina has set her foot on a mission to gift Darjeeling the first-hand experience in digital marketing. She has five enthusiastic employees from her hometown. “It’s a digital age. Everything evolves. We are entering into the fourth Industrial Revolution. We do not need validation. If my book can make to the top 100, why can’t you? Miracles happen if you think out of the box. Don’t confine yourself.”

When asked why she likes to write and the purpose behind her writing, she admits, “Writers are healers. I wanted to be healed and heal others. There is no formula for good writing. Art has no formula. A language is a tool. You express what you want to say.”

Regina’s book “Heavenly Bodies & Human Things” talks about the different phases of the moon. Unapologetic in its tone and expression of its darker theme, Regina shares how she garnered love and hate for her first volume. “I get hate.” She is vocal about the struggle she has to pay as an artist yet boldly confesses, “I am not ashamed of my art.”

A 5ft girl from a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas has achieved dreams beyond belief and has set an example by being a model to thousands of young girls who are afraid to dream. Sometimes hate is a synonym of jealousy and as Keri Hilson says, “Jealousy is the ugliest trait.”

Like many of us, Regina understands that life has more milestones to conquer than to heed the haters. She believes in taking full advantage of the digital market and growing creatively. She is also looking forward to her scriptwriting journey.

These are the new writers rising from Hills and Dooars, unnoticed by the mass. The hills are alive with stories, its rich culture and history paraphrased and twisted by strangers who claim to this beautiful land’s lover, while stripping the Queen of Hills down to the bone. It is time for the children of the mountains and valleys to rise and tell their stories.  

The word Darjeeling has a certain weight to it. When I write the name, I cannot separate Kurseong, Kalimpong and Dooars from it. It seems this world isn’t small after all.

The land of tea bushes, abundant Cinchona and a steam engine of the late 19th-century, known by the people whose identity itself is under the shadow of dichotomy among fellow countrymen.

Often stereotyped in popular culture, this part of the world is open for all yet somehow remains unexplored. Our stories are in rich profusion, our artists in abundance. Struggling in between menial jobs to keep the fire burning, these people know nothing other than art.

I mention these names here, in the hope to encourage a revelation to highlight their names to the general mass living in the Hills, Dooars and other parts of the world. I hope to someday see their names in the pages of history.

Fow now, I am not rewriting history. I am documenting it.

The author is Sonia Thapa, who writes under the pen name Kate Sarah and is currently working as a middle school English teacher at Loreto Convent School, Darjeeling. Her writing can be found on her website Kate Sarah. She also works as a freelance writer.

Views/Opinions expressed in the article or write up is purely of the author or writer and not of the Sikkim Chronicle. For any queries or contradictions, the author can be contacted in his/her email id.