25 December 2004
In the crowd hands reach out for a shake and lips automatically stretch for a smile, a ‘Hi!’ or a ‘Hello!’ The bustle does not come in the way. Actually, the bustle becomes pleasing. A ten minute walk turns into a twenty minute one but no one minds. This is characteristic of life in Darjeeling. There are smiles and smiles every step of the mile, as it were. Smile to all you know and all you meet. And being a small town, you keep bumping into friends, relatives, colleagues and acquaintances.
There are those whom you know only by sight - people you keep seeing but have never spoken to. It is normal to smile at them too. The hawkers lean out of their shops, playfully bargaining with tourists. Young porters march down the street, smiling. People stand chatting in the middle of a raging concourse, evidently happy to have met each other again – perhaps for the third time in the day.
A giggly bunch of young girls wend their way through the crowd, while old men sit on a Chowrasta bench smiling in the sun. A smile is the mascot of the hills.
Visitors always remark on the abundance of it, taking back photos of smiles from the remotest to the busiest corners. It is hard to imagine the hills without smiling faces.
Noticing the cheer, Indira Gandhi, during one of her rare visits here, is said to have remarked that residents seem to have no problems. For an Indian prime minister, who has to face petitions or demonstrations to which ever part of the country he or she goes, Darjeeling must have been a rare reprieve.
But poet Agam Singh Giri warns outsiders not to be misled into thinking that the the smiling Nepalis here live comfortably.
We smile despite our lot. We are not rich. We are simple, honest and downtrodden. So why do we smile more than anyone, at least in this part of the world? This is my question. Why do our faces break into smiles, sometimes even when we do not want it to? Are we stupid and therefore keep smiling no matter what? Is this the smile of an idiot? Or are we possessed of a rare buoyancy that keeps us riding the course of life through all its ebbs and tides without getting overwhelmed? Or do we have that humour which comes from the innate knowledge of not taking oneself seriously?
The answers may be a vague. But one thing is clear as one looks around the world today – it is a good thing to be a smiling community. As the world becomes more complicated and dangerous and personal happiness is confined to shopping malls, a simple, honest and cheerful people will be God’s own. This is the thought to masticate over during Yuletide, when the season of happiness and giving is here. This is our Good News, our reason for hope –our smiles, which we still have not lost. It takes courage to smile, to remain honest and simple. To not to find excuses to become weak or corrupt. We must beat our oppressors but we must not end up becoming like them. The day smiles disappear from the streets of Darjeeling, we shall be lost.