Delving into Darjeeling

As a first generation American Desi, I am intimately familiar with navigating a “third culture” space. My family is from Hyderabad, India, but I was born and raised in the U.S. When I came to India for the first time in college I became “the American girl” after a lifetime of being considered “the Indian girl” in America. Since that first trip to India I returned twice to participate in Urdu Language fellowships. For me, learning Urdu was necessary to reclaim pieces of my heritage that I didn’t otherwise have access to.

Celebrating Bhai Tikka, the last day of Diwali celebrations in Nepali culture, with my host family!

Joining AIF, I was thrilled to be returning to India with language skill, assuming that my Urdu/Hindi would be transferable to Nepali. After arriving I realized that although many people can speak Hindi and/or English, Nepali is generally spoken and it is not mutually intelligible to Hindi. Learning how to navigate a largely Nepali only speaking office has been my largest fellowship hurdle thus far. Learning about the socio-political context of Darjeeling and its movement for statehood/recognition within India has helped me understand the pride associated with speaking Nepali over Hindi or English.

Darjeeling is home to the Gorkhaland Movement that calls for a separate province to be created for the Nepali-speakers. Interestingly, Nepali is one of only two languages that are recognized in the Indian constitution that does not have its own province; Gorkhaland hopes to be that province. Estimates of the Gorkha population within India range from 4-10 million [1]. The term “Gorkha” comes from the name of a district in Nepal, 40 miles west of Kathmandu, and is synonymous with “Nepali” in India [2]. The movement aims to address the marginalization and discrimination that its citizens face within the state and country.

My favorite pandal, or structure used in a religious event, in honor of Durga Puja in Siliguri, West Bengal.

The Gorkhaland movement cites the West Bengal state government and Indian federal government’s inability to address Darjeeling’s water crisis or the need to establish basic sanitation systems in the district as examples of marginalization. Outside of Darjeeling and Sikkim, Indian Gorkha often report being treated as outsiders rather than full citizens [3]. This discrimination is touched on in Bollywood movies like Chakde India, Mary Kom, and most recently Pink. In each of these movies women from Northeastern states describe sexualized discrimination and not being seen as “really” Indian, despite their ancestors being in India for generations. The Gorkha slogan “Jai Hind, Jai Gorkha” emphasizes the call for statehood within India, a demand for recognition of the lingual, cultural and historical diversity of this district [4].

Learning about the struggle for Gorkhas’ experience to be recognized as Indian feels similar to my journey to carve out space as an American Desi. I understand the need to claim multiple aspects of identity at once as a strategy to deal with the frustration of being othered in your own country.

The view driving into the field to do classroom observations of the Community Health and Hygiene Improvement Program (CHHIP).

I’m happy to report that my Nepali classes started last month. I’m working with a private tutor for an hour a day, six days a week. Hopefully, I’ll slowly begin to understand Gorkha identity in its language of choice.


[1] Sinha, Satyabrat. “The Battles for Gorkhaland.” New York Times India Blog. New York Times, 8 Aug. 2013. Web. 1 Oct. 2016.

[2] Golay, Bidhan. “Rethinking Gorkha Identity: Outside the Imperium of Discourse, Hegemony, and History.” Peace and Democracy in South Asia 2.1&2 (2006): 24-49. Print.

[3] Sinha, “The Battles for Gorkhaland.”

[4] Sinha, “The Battles for Gorkhaland.”

Yasin is excited to explore, live and work in West Bengal. Her goals are to gain a practical understanding of how to overcome structural inequality and provide sustainable public health services. Prior to AIF and after completing her MPH, she participated in an Urdu fellowship in Lucknow, India. She is excited to combine her Urdu/Hindi with Public Health.

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