A woman checks for Internet signal on her cellphone near the Sikkim border in Darjeeling.
Picture by Passang Yolmo
July 16: A month of shutdown has forced lifestyle changes on a hill population short of food, transport and Internet services. A look at how Darjeeling is coping:
Hill residents are walking the extra mile, literally, to keep their hearth burning.
A vegetable trader who didn't want to be named said he woke at 4.30am every day and walked 10km to Jorebungalow, and then walked back carrying 30kg to 40kg of vegetables to sell in Darjeeling.
"At night, villagers from various places bring vegetables that are stocked at Jorebungalow," he explained.
"Earlier, all we did in the morning (in Darjeeling) was unload the vegetables from the trucks. Now, with no transport, we need to do a lot of legwork. It takes us between one hour and 90 minutes to make it from Jorebungalow with the load."
Today, the trader and his friends carried back cabbage and squash. The shortage has raised vegetable prices by Rs 10 to Rs 20 a kilo.
But it's not just the traders - almost every Darjeeling resident is walking a lot more.
It's become an unwritten rule that at least one member from each family should attend the Gorkhaland rallies being held every day.
"Attending the rallies is the least we can do for the cause," said Sharmila Tamang, a regular.
Once the rallies are over around noon, the hunt for vegetables and other rations begins: which means some more walking up and down the hills. Almost every third woman one sees on the town's streets is carrying a shopping bag.
"The bag is always with me these days - who knows when I might chance upon some vegetables?" a woman said.
A resident of Darjeeling's Raj Bari neighbourhood said: "How long can one watch TV or stay indoors? After the rallies, my friends and I often walk as far as 10km to the town's outskirts, searching for vegetables, mutton and any other edibles."
Chicken, most of which used to come from the plains, has virtually vanished off the tables.
"Mutton, pork and beef can be sourced from the countryside but chicken, which used to be the most easily available meat in town, is a struggle to find," a resident said.
An official at the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park said: "We need 70kg to 80kg meat every day for the animals. While we are getting mutton and beef, there's no chicken; so we can't rotate the menu like we did."
Among vegetables, the choice is limited to squash and its tendrils, watercress, cabbage and potatoes. "I have occasionally been able to find beans. My family wasn't too fond of watercress before, but nowadays they don't grumble much," a woman said.
Darjeeling was known to sleep early and silent. Now it's making a beeline for the markets after dark.
The night is when food stocks mostly reach the hills, clandestinely - eluding what many allege are the authorities' efforts to stall food lorries at Siliguri to spite the agitation's spearheads.
"The moment the rations come and we open our shop, the stock vanishes," a shopkeeper said.
Hardship has kindled the spirit of humanity. "With likeminded friends, I have formed a loose group called the Darjeeling Initiative (DI). We are distributing free rations in the villages," said Arbin Subba.
Pooling their own money with donations from the well-off, Subba and his friends are buying food stocks from the plains, where they have contacts, and distributing packets containing 10kg rice, 500gm lentils and edible oil in hill villages.
"Since July 5, we have reached 224 households covering 14 villages in Okayti, Durpin and Thulung Gaon in Mirik subdivision. Today, we reached out to at least 100 households in Nagri," Arbin said.
A Darjeeling district court lawyer who lives in Lebong, around 7km from town, said: "I come to court with my bag full of vegetables and other foodstuff for my friends and acquaintances in Darjeeling every day. Sadly, I have run out of petrol for my two-wheeler from today."
The Internet ban imposed since June 20 - officially, to prevent rumour-mongering; allegedly, to prevent mobilisation of agitators - has virtually cut most hills people off from the outside world.
"I can't connect with friends and family members outside the hills. I even have to ration my phone calls; who knows when I might have the next chance to top up my phone credit?" a college girl said.
"Outstation friends have recharged my credit but you can't ask them to do it again and again."
The Internet ban and lack of transport has left many students struggling to apply for admission to colleges outside the hills.
Even local TV channels have been barred from airing. Local news is a trickle now, adding to the day-to-day frustration.
Some are attempting to beat the Internet blues.
"Sikkim and Nepal are helping us cheat the Internet ban, but we need to climb up the hills to vantage points to receive signals from Sikkim towns. The data speed is slow and, today, we had no signals from these towers, either," said Akash, a college student.
On the plus side, social bonding is improving. "People are now stepping out to socialise. We all gather at one of our neighbours' place in the evening, discuss the agitation and share meals," a resident said.
"This is a spirit Darjeeling had lost but is reviving now. Our neighbourhood is turning out to be one big family in this hour of crisis.
The children are probably the happiest lot. With the schools (and colleges) closed since June 15, it's been all play for them, with just a little studying at home.
Darjeeling, which hardly offered children any open spaces, has turned into a vast playground, with cricket and football having free run of its streets.
The parents are worried, though. "My son will be taking the ICSE exams next year: I'm concerned how long this strike will last and whether his school will be able to teach the full syllabus," a parent said.
A group of 11 teachers and some local youths are holding classes for 150-odd students at Takdah. "Since June 18, we have been teaching them free of charge at the Sirigaon forest community hall and the Tiny Angels School, from 10am to 2pm every day," said Trideep Basnet, a teacher.
A homemaker said the shutdown had opened a window of opportunity for her.
"Every morning, my milkman now delivers not just milk to me but also vegetables, cereals and other foodstuff from his village," she said.
"I have begun selling them in front of my home at a small profit. My stock of ginger, garlic, tomatoes and chillies sold out in no time today."