Arrival in Birpara

By Indian standards, Birpara (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: BEER-para) is indeed a small town – 39,000 souls, a number which rises dramatically if you include the tens of thousands who arrive to do business each day from the surrounding tea gardens and communities. Still, anything under a million is considered small in the world’s most populous nation.

Birpara, though green around the edges, is, at first glance anyway, an unattractive truckstop of a border town, only 11 kilometers from Bhutan. As such, there is a constant flow of commerce on the streets, where Bhutanese Ngultrums are used interchangeably with Indian rupees. The main drag is choked with auto repair shops, dive hotels, and, as you approach the market and bus stand, an explosion of hardware, home furnishing, cloth, and paan shops, all crowding the rain-soaked, dung-spotted streets and alleys.

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Mani drove us straight to our new home, a two-bedroom flat on the second floor of a newly painted building, tucked a few meters off the main road. We were introduced to our neighbors, “Bodi” and “Dada” (or “Sister-in-law” and “Big Brother”). They brought us warm fizzy drinks and sweetmeats consisting of fried milk and cheeses smothered with syrup and sugar, and we all sat on Debasish and Sarmishtha’s bed in the one room with a fan.

Then a taller, neatly dressed man entered, wearing slacks and shirt with a narrow face with black hair. This was Bulbul. He sat on the bed, lit up a cigarette, and alternately chatted with us in English and the others in Bengali. Later that day, Bulbul took us shopping, spending an entire afternoon with us in the market to make sure we didn’t get cheated.

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In addition to equipping the house with fans, beds, a desk, and kitchen supplies during the first few days, we were taken to meet the local political leaders, including the head of the local Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) with whom we sat in his tiny office in the middle of the market. Sarmishtah explained that these two Americans were IUF representatives (International Union of Foodworkers, based in Geneva), here in Birpara to do a study on the nutritional state of the tea workers. Although true that an Indian IUF member helped place us with JSK, our direct IUF membership was pure fabrication; but, explained Sarmishtah, it was the simplest way to explain our presence, especially to the communists.

I was used to this, as I often change my profession as I travel – in Pakistan I was usually a “teacher,” but in places where it behooved me, I was a “journalist.” Big Commie Chief offered his help if we needed, and as we left the place, we were given a rather cynical version of the true workings of the CPIM and the trade unions they represent, one that did not place the needs of the poor workers first.

The same was implied about our next meeting with the head of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). “He is an old communist!” proclaimed one of his cronies from beside me, “He was a freedom fighter! Do you know what that is? Freedom Fighter?” Actually, I didn’t, as I am always wary of this term whose meaning changes with the political tides, but I assumed correctly it meant he had fought against the British, so I nodded yes (my assumption as to the meaning was correct, but I was informed that it was a lie that he had actually fought).

The Old Communist sent a small boy to fetch us tea and proceeded to hold us captive with his boring speech, mostly in Bengali and untranslated, for nearly an hour. Finally we left to eat momos in “Lovely Sweets,” where Sarmishta and Debasish ran into a bunch of men from one of the closed tea gardens, one of the only in the area that has remained closed when most others have re-opened. They formed a huddle and discussed the critical situation for another half-hour – an impromptu mobilization of the masses.

I’m barely beginning to understand the complicated political web behind the hunger and abandoned tea trees. It involved all these individuals, the party members, trade unions, estate managers, and of course, the workers and their families, who we will meet tomorrow during our first day of field surveys.

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