Black Hill Joys - 6
Getting work done in the Village
Tiding over somehow
Rajiva Shanker Shresta
With house cleaned and surroundings cleared to a satisfactory level, it was but natural for me to get the approach road to our house restored. A short stretch but needed good wall in support that demanded some hill cutting and stone work. Bimal, who had earlier done the renovation work not much to our satisfaction with every room wet due to seepage, asked for a hefty sum. This could be for the reason that he had to bring his men from Darjeeling who knew the work like the last time when a wall was constructed to cover half a stretch in front portion of our house. A portion had to be redone later but at our cost. We had earlier got another stretch of back wall constructed for our house by Ravi Lepcha, a young local mason who was equally good. Somehow they sometimes get more demanding and ask for huge amount to work on lumpsum basis, i.e. on contract. Once engaged on daily wage, they usually work alright but often with absence even on little pretext while we well realize sometimes they too have some social obligations to attend like death in the neighbourhood. It was Dhalai in their neighbourhood that they could not help but oblige. This giving them the opportunity to enjoy company of their lot and free food with more noise than the work. Over the years, this concept of getting local hands for Dhalai have changed here. Instead, the work is given to some contractor who bring his gang of workers from Gangtok or outside and finish the work quickly without any hassles of getting food and meat prepared and drinks served. Earlier, constructing a building was a rare and deemed to be a big affair in the society that carried much fanfare and show business. Getting many workers and even a whole goat was slain there to mark and celebrate the occasion. When it was more than enough, we thought and decided of entrusting the work to another on contract basis but that too was with the same problem again. We had no option but to wait and see if Ravi could be engaged back showing some more works including repairs of the out-shouse and godown on a Goru-Molai basis, i.e., lumpsum contract as it is difficult to get workers here. Getting a good hand is a distant thing to expect around this time of the year when people otherwise get sick in the bed. Further, rains often come on the way that prevent a satisfactory progress in the work. Finally, we decided for him after a round of negotiation but it took him time to get his team and resume the work.
People often go to work for MGNAREGA and GREF where it is much easier life than working on daily wage or even in their own field unless compelled or dedicated to farming like our milkman Arjun Bhai, who is always cheerful, more so during this sowing season. He had to go all the way (to get two Lepcha workers on contract basis with three meals a day over and above the daily wage of Rs. 350/- prevalent here to help him) to Kolbung near Labha on the other side still known also as Company-side, i.e. West Bengal side long after the British Raj or East India Company have left the country. Avenues open for easier life everywhere has resulted in overall lethargy in the people here too. This does not mean that all have gone that way. If workers who come as helpers show such a tendency that would reflect on the work culture of the mason also who, otherwise, was a good hand. When it is a hot day they find it difficult in the scorching sun, naturally. But when it is little drizzling they avoid working in the pretext that rain does not suit them healthwise. Shyam is a sincere hand and often has a woollen cap as he cannot work without covering his head however strong be the sun. It is after he had suffered from typhoid some years back. He has enough work to do of his own with his cow and poultry unit and vegetables grown on our land nearby yet he finds time to work as little allowance in time give us a good hand to engage on regular basis. If his wife Manu goes for some work outside to attend, he has to stay back home to guard the poultry fowls and crop from the menace of monkeys and boys both. Yesterday, it was a sunny day after a long spell of rains for last few days and he thought it better to harvest the corns as he found that the crop attacked and damaged by porcupines.
It is generally believed that our men do not work and even if they do, their quality do not match with that of the workers from outside. As a result a number of workers of all kind have entered here. Only thing you have to do is to find out right one that would lead to many others linked with the construction business. Some manage to get work at more than one place and that leads again the work stretched taking longer than necessary. Yet it is worth employing fr the sake of quality work. When Bijoy had his Sanima and Sanuba from Nepal recently visiting here, a successful businessman Gobind was in utter surprise to see such a vast landed properties of The Chandra Nursery / Woodland Nursery lying unutilized going in waste, he could just term it as criminal waste even. He suggested him why not get people on contract basis to work from Bihar. This is exactly what a contractor in the neighbourhood just next door was found doing with some 25 workers thus brought here for getting government contract works done. When we visited the work site where a huge Hall was coming up at the place where the Rhenock School was originally constructed with public participation when the School Managing Committee had our Bajey Babu Durga Shamsher Pradhan as President, Thulo Mama Bhishma Pratap Pradhan as Vice-President of the School Managing Committee and Mama Sunder Kumar Pradhan as General Secretary. Rhenock was amongst the earliest of the few/four or five places in Sikkim where first Scottish Christian Missionary Schools were started (in 1884?). It was there at a place in bazar falling under the present parking lot opposite the firm Sagarmul Madan Kumar of Nandkishore Agrawal that also had a dispensary and quarter for the Compounder, a local Lepcha gentleman on one side with our class next and some rooms upstairs, me to have attended in 1950. This was a primary school when Buba joined in 1958 as the Head Master and it was raised from primary to middle level with classes V and VI run at a portion of Kutcheri belonging to Thulo Mama. Shifting to this newly constructed venue with a huge hall upstairs was something unimaginable for a school in those days. We used to enjoy movies like Raj Kapoor-Nutan starrer Dil hi to hai shown by the Army as a goodwill gesture to the school students and for public, it was shown at night on the ground. Its level was soon upgraded to Junior High School as the Education Department with S. R. Ghosh as Director and John Phurba Tsering Lepcha* (and later Nari Babu alias S. D. Rinchen* and M. C. Mathur*, D.C. Agnihotri*, K. L. Bamola and Bodola where ex-army G. K. Bakshi also joined) had no problem to man and run it with well-qualified my Buba as equally efficient and popular to be the Head Sir by then. So much so, that J. P. Tsering found it somewhat uneasy and no need even to inspect the school with the person more qualified than him in charge. Buba also mentioned of such a visit by Nari Babu when he fell sunk on the ground as he sat on the garden easy chair (still we have in use) when visiting our house once. He had a cordial relation with all of them as Agnihotri used to narrate his stay at our place when I was in the Finance Department looking after files with proposals from Education and other departments in late 1970-80s. Kesang Wangdi Bhutia* Mandal, Nyaltung Sherpa* Mahajan and Chyagu Tsering* Mandal were also in the School Commitee, if I correctly remember it now. Incidently, Rai Saheb Ratna Bahadur Pradhan with his brother Babu Durga Shamsher Pradhan had started in fond memory of their mother Bhima Devi Memorial School inthe outskirts of The Chandra Nursery they had established named after their father Chandra Bir Newar in 1910. This gave access to education to the girl child in the society here with their own daughters enrolled as students along with some others from the locality - one of them being Ankit Lepcha and Kanar Lepcha that my Muma remembers to be her classfriend. She later went to St. Joseph's Convent in Kalimpong where Shankh Gurung (wife of B. B. Gooroong) from Algarah was her classfriend. I too happened to read in both these schools for my primary education with Dhungay Class here and kindergarden there learning lessons of Sing, Sing, Sing - Sing Mother sing - Mother can sing - Pat can sing ... in the Radiant Way Primer that our children later read in Tashi Namgyal Academy, Gangtok.
Coming back to Rhenock School, Dr. Shanti Chettri has written in her memoirs about Head Sir in Shraddhanjali - Jai Shanker Lall Shrestha (2003) his foresightedness when once the weather suddenly turned bad and she heard ringing of the bell to announce closure of the school allowing students to go home before the usual time. They had not even reached the road below, a huge sound of the hall crushed down by hurricane was heard. The new hall is being constructed in its place for last two years for some Rs. 2 crores and would take another one year perhaps as was given to learn. Anyway, the school is getting the hall damaged in 1963 in near future for sure. How long the approach road to school takes to get metalled lies, however, unkown but people wish it could be with the inauguration of the new hall as some VIP would grace the occasion. Long time back, perhaps two or more decades ago, it was the Governor when visiting the school assured this little stretch of approach road to be black-topped from the very next day of his return to Gangtok, but things are not that easy to get done and the school has not been fortunate enough for such a kind promise full of assurance converted into action so far. So, it is a long due favour we all need here - rather it would be a dream come true for many. Recently this road got attention to get repaired with potholes and ditches filled with mud and stones for the visit of another VIP that was cancelled due to some reason, probably due to the Municipal Elections in Sikkim. When I mentioned people of my petition to the local MLA on coming back here this time, they feel little pessimistic to suggest that a signature campaign by the public as stakeholders could be of help, otherwise. It was, however, found a generous hearted student had built the gate to welcome all inside though he sold off his ancestral property including the home and hearth to move with his sons at a better location in the same neighbourhood and for the better perhaps. Another illustrious student after Dr. Shanti Chettri did her Ph.D. in 1986 to make my Buba proud that we all his family members are too proud of and who excelled academically much later in life after Head Sir was no more amidst us to know. To get his doctorate after his retirement is agriculturist turned educationist Dr. Hari Prasad Chettri of the Himalaya Pharmaceautical Institute at Majhitar, Rangpo and Rhenock Educational Trust that runs Damber Singh College more popularly known for his entrepreneural Five-Ways Institute at Deorali, Gangtok since 1980s. Recently, a heavily loaded truck was seen entering the school gate while it was locked for cars teachers come with. A dozen of them are seen on the Highway below while students come by SNT bus and taxis even. It struck me why not start collecting some amount from such truck-owners/suppliers - most of whom also a student of this school - to build some fund that added with a public donation drive could probably help mitigate the situation and get the work hopefully done once for all. Most of the public expect the initiative should be from the concerned authority in the school like in the private school nearby who got the work done when the Highway was being broadened last year!
Shortage of workers here has further been aggravated by the recruitment of young boys between18-35 years of age in hundreds to work as Porter for the Army from 11th July being taken to high altitude places nearby. This entitles them a monthly wage of around Rs. 15,000/- with good food to eat and some enough to drink. They get Dangree to work that being oversized are cut to fit the Gorkhay height with their khukri. This assignment to carry a headload of 20 kgs each keep them away from home and family, yet they look forward rest of the year for this opportunity that keep them there till December end. A large number of boys from the plains too came to appear in the recruitment drive that they have to pass through rigorous endurance test but nothing like our local boys well acclimatized further before sent higher up. White gumboots are provided to them. Money is paid after two months and the family has to pull on till they get the renumeration credited to their ATM/Bank account if brought to the attention of the concerned Porter NCO and every month thereafter. They are treated like any other Army personnel with rules and regulations with discipline applicable to them as well. Manbir Tamang, who worked for me here and is leaving his wife, five-year old son Adon doing LKG in the Seventh Adventist's Day School and parents behind, says it would be his last such trip away from home. He gave me a missed call from his mobile and it was not even 5'o-clock in the morning on the day of departure. When responded, he requested for some monetory help as he was in dire need with no other source to look forward to get his family tide over this period. He did not stay back like his friend mason Ravi Lepcha to work for me. Reason being that the rains would not usually ensure regular wage during this part of the year whereas working for the Army, there was as such no such a problem. He being a good worker I could not deny for which he was so grateful ever. Wishing all the best I tell him to work happily since he decided to go there for the better avenue but on coming back do meet me once as the door was always open for such a good worker!
Disclaimer: This is author’s personal account of memories updated to cherish and treasure often on a detour here and there en route to share the joy of the journey called life. Some names (asterisk for those no more), quotes, places and events mentioned are just to connect with and no malice whatsoever intended. He can be reached at email@example.com. His recent book The Newars World~Wide Connecting the Dots Sikkim is available at the Rachna Books.