Himalayan Times - Darjeeling: High up on the roof of the world, the Gurkha Front want freedom

Himalayan Times DARJEELING
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HIMAL SHERPA is trying to put me right on a few cultural details. "People think a Sherpa is just someone who carries loads," he says as we sit on the terrace of his family home, dizzyingly high above the Rammam river and the tea-covered hills of West Bengal.

The western notion of Sherpas as hard-as-nails porters has its roots in the ascent of Everest but Himal's extended family have never fitted the stereotype. His great-grandfather crossed the border from Nepal in the last century to work on the tea estates which make Darjeeling one of rural India's least poor districts

"In our bones we know we can climb," says Himal, 27, though his own experience above the treeline is limited to treks in Sikkim, the former Buddhist kingdom just across the Rammam river. Himal's parents went into the hotel business, opening a trekkers' lodge on the edge of Rimbik Bazaar - a market village serving some 2,500 Gurkhas, Sherpas and Bengalis.

A day's walk above the lush terraces and the higher forests of moss-draped giant oaks and Himalayan pines yields perhaps the most fabulous mountain panoramas on Earth. Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain, seems almost at touching point while Everest and two other 8,000- metre peaks stand to the west.

As the youngest son, it is Himal's duty to help his parents run the lodge. His elder brothers are doing well in Darjeeling and his sister- in-law runs a beauty parlour above the chaos of the Hill Cart Road where the town's 19th-century "Toy Train" shares a pot-holed thoroughfare with overloaded trucks and buses.

The ridge-top town is in a perpetual state of reconstruction, although around its central square little has changed architecturally with the years and it retains the shabby air of a run-down English spa.

History has made a bit of a misfit of the British tea planters' resort and its hinterland. Economically and politically it is tied to Calcutta, while culturally and topographically it is more a part of Sikkim or Nepal. It was granted a degree of autonomy with the Darjeeling Gurkha Hill Council but the Nepali-speaking hill people want more. They resent the fact that however good a Sherpa's or Gurkha's education, the top jobs go to Bengalis. Separation from West Bengal and the establishment of a self-governing state within India is the goal.

The Gurkha National Liberal Front champions the cause, but Himal, for one, doubts semi-independence will ever be realised.

Darjeeling, with its three lucrative `Ts' - timber, tourists and tea - is too juicy a plum for Calcutta to let go. The most famous Sherpa of all, the Tiger of the Snow, Tenzing Norgay, is buried in Darjeeling above the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute founded after he and Sir Edmund Hillary reached the summit of Everest.

Tenzing was the institute's director of field training for 22 years. His boots, ice axes and sundry items of kit from the 1953 Everest triumph feature in a museum here. The display touches discreetly on the controversial issue of who actually stood on the summit first.

An Indian press cutting indirectly quotes Sir Edmund as saying he did. But this note by a woollen mitten suggests that without the Sherpa's help Hillary would never have made it: "Its pair was lost while helping Hillary from a crevasse."

Nearly 50 years later, Sherpas are still hauling Westerners out of trouble in the Himalayas. But as for portering, most resent carrying much more than an umbrella below the snowline.

Stephen Goodwin