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Tea estate

An incident occurred when I was touring one of Darjeeling’s famous tea estates with a friend I made in Gangtok. I’ll call him E—. He was from Italy and we toured Darjeeling together. We were walking when a loud voice from below said “Hello!” My friend stopped so I stopped. He said there were two men below and they were motioning for us to stay where we were. Following him I stayed put (otherwise I would’ve kept on walking).

In a few minutes, while I changed the batteries in my camera, they arrived to where we stood. They were two men of average height, one slightly stocky and one slim. The former looked of Tibetan descent and the latter Bengali. They wore t-shirts and trousers and the stocky man held onto an umbrella (it was drizzling on and off).

They approached us, smilingly, and the stocky one in a blue polo shirt asked us where we’re from. My friend said he’s Italian, and in my turn I said Indian. I didn’t realize till later, after my companion pointed it out, that their words were slurring and they were most likely drunk.

Not understanding what they were saying my friend had moved away, leaving me alone in their line of fire. They proceeded to ask me where in India I’m from, what my religion is, and what my caste is. I told them I’m from Delhi and Hindu and I don’t know my caste. They asked, “Are you Punjabi, from UP, Gujarati…” I pretended not to understand but when they persisted and asked repeatedly I said I’m from UP just to shut them up and get them off my back.

I tried asking them why they’re asking (in English) but they didn’t comprehend. Thinking maybe they’ll understand Hindi I switched over. They didn’t understand my question, or if they did they didn’t care to respond. Instead, on learning I spoke Hindi, they set off on an abusive tirade. The Bengali one spoke first, initially politely. He said something like (in poor Hindi), “We wanted to make introduction… introduction, you know?” I nodded in agreement. He continued, “That’s problem with Indians… we all Indians… want to make introduction” – at this point the other man turned to my friend standing a few steps away and emphasized “introduction” with large eyes. His words were slurred and I had to repeat them for my friend to understand.

I don’t recall who spoke next but again they addressed me: “We want to make introduction… you Indians so rude.” Then at some point, the stocky man, with an angry face in an angry voice said, “You wear sunglasses and hat and you think you foreigner?” The whole time we were talking I was aware that, being drunk as they were (I knew by now) and the nature of their questions being personal and potentially contentious, they could resort to violence if I spoke in anger. The chances were slim but not none. I stayed put and, to try to clear the air, said “I didn’t know who’s asking and why, that’s why I didn’t say anything.” I managed to get out of them that they were workers on the estate. There was anger in their drunken faces so eventually I stepped away and we walked off. They kept repeating “introduction” and soon walked away as well.

What came out of this encounter, I wondered later. Who was right and who was wrong? Should I not have been suspicious of strangers who didn’t identify themselves and asked fanatical questions? Should they have known that such suspicion runs common outside their little world? Sadly, one common thread emerged in my mind that ran three ways: a bad image of India and Indians through them for me, through me for them, and through the whole event for my foreign friend.

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