Hill hamlet fights to stand on its own feet
Chuikhim (Kalimpong): A hamlet of about 1,500 people in the Darjeeling hills is fighting to improve its impoverished lot.
So much so that the village has pooled in its meagre resources to build itself a high school for the local children.
And extending them a hand is Culture Monks, a Calcutta-based artists’ collective.
Chuikhim is in Kalimpong district and perched on a hilltop about 65km from Siliguri.
“We want to create a centre for creative expression where international exhibitions and film festivals can be held and people can come to do art residencies. We intend to build not a gated complex but one involving active participation of the local community so that visitors can experience a vibrant life,” says Sudipta Dawn, the founder-director of Culture Monks who has been working on the project for six months.
The organisation integrates social transformation with artistic research, development and production.
The villagers are ready to grab the chance with both hands. “The government does nothing for us. It is the tourists who help,” says Hom Bahadur Khawas, the president of Chuikhim Village Welfare Society.
The village has 200-odd houses made of mud or wood, save seven or eight pucca ones. Most of the residents are farmers. A few are guards in the forest downhill, peons in the local gram panchayat or school teachers.
Chuikhim has no medical centres, big shops or mobile towers. The villagers make the best of a few stray spots from where they can make phone calls intermittently.
The nearest government primary school is in the neighbouring village of Yalbong. “For a high school, our children had to walk 8km downhill to Bagrakote. So, they would drop out fast,” said Bahadur Khawas.
In 2011, the villagers built a wooden structure for a high school. “Some people donated Rs 100 or Rs 200, while others gave days of labour or gifted wood for the furniture which was handmade. Rooms were added as and when money came. Now each class has a room. We also have CBSE affiliation,” said Bahadur Khawas.
Two groups of tourists, one from a Melbourne school and another from a Singapore university, helped erect a barbed wire perimeter wall, a gate and set up a community wash basin with a water tank overhead.
Procuring the monthly salary for the six teachers is still a struggle. Yet, the villagers are not giving up. “Fifteen students appeared for Madhyamik this year,” school in-charge Amar Bahadur Subba said.
Culture Monks handed over some books to add to their scant collection kept in the computer room where five defunct desktops are gathering dust. “Wish we had the funds to repair the computers or get new ones,” Subba said.
Manju Gurung, 18, has appeared for her board exams from an English-medium school in Kalimpong and is a bright volunteer at the school. “I help out whenever I am here. We need good teachers,” says the girl who has applied to Presidency University.
Every afternoon, she takes tuitions for children in a roadside shed. “I have big dreams for my village,” she said.
But it is the lack of medical facility that worries Dawn the most. “Maternal and neonatal mortality rates are high here.” So for starters, Culture Monks plans to equip a single trained paramedic in the village, who has no medical instruments.
Chuikhim is betting big on homestays. “At present, we can accommodate 35 people. More houses are getting ready to take in guests,” says Nares Gurung, who runs Valley View homestay.
The society used to organise an annual orange festival for some years but the demonetisation drive has thrown a spanner in the event.
Hom Bahadur, who is respected for his football skills, had tried to start a soccer academy but to no avail.
“Our youths have no avenues of employment. When tourists come, especially from schools in the plains, they act as guides for rock-climbing, bird watching or rappelling,” says Ramesh Gurung, the secretary of the society.
The Culture Monks team has recently visited the village to shoot a performance by artist Shahar Marcus from Israel who also held workshops with the local children. Students at the school got a taste of avant garde performing arts with Marcus leading them in a set of exercises.
Culinary experts will be brought in from Calcutta to show villagers how to improve local cuisine, like the butter they make at home using a bamboo churner called dhorong. “Tourists would love to see the process and take some home,” said Dawn.
Culture Monks plans to host the South Asian Fringe festival here in October. “Once the village is in focus, infrastructure will automatically improve,” Dawn summed up.