By Mridu Rai
Sandhya Aunty's photo albums from which she selected three photographs for this particular story/ © Aswin Sharma Family Album/TCC Photo Archive
This is a fragmentary piece about my brief interaction with Sandhya Aunty through the agency of three photographs. Following Walter Benjamin (2013), this is also my small quest to tell her story with the hope that it will open a space for experiential assemblages—a relationality provoked by photographic encounters, perhaps.
© Aswin Sharma Family Album/TCC Photo Archive
Four schoolgirls, all in white shirts and blue skirts, hair plaited and adorned with colourful ribbons. Indu is looking straight into the camera, Parvati’s gaze is fixed on something beyond the frame, and their entwined hands signal their closeness. Saraswati’s eyes are again drawn away from the camera, but her smile resonates with that of her friends. Amongst them all, Sandhya’s smile is the widest, her gaze the most direct. The four girls form a group of tight-knit friends, and they are all students of Class IX, Saraswati Higher Secondary School, Mungpoo, a town in the Kurseong subdivision of Darjeeling district. The photo was taken in 1986.
Sandhya, or Sandhya Aunty as I will call her, is now 53-years-old and lives in Kalimpong with her family. Reminiscing, she says, “They used to say that student life is golden life. We were so happy back then. School parda k ko tension!”¹ When asked if she is still friends with the girls from the photograph, she says she is not. She is friends with Saraswati on Facebook and occasionally runs into the others when she’s in Mungpoo, but there’s no real attempt to stay in touch. Sandhya Aunty then takes another long look at the photograph, her facial expression a bit more sombre now. According to Julia Hirsch, the places and times we photograph are never the same that we return to and those moments are “innocent of the emotion with which we revisit” them later (1981: 48). As Sandhya Aunty spent more time with the photograph, her emotions became more sporadic, excited one minute, solemn at another. When she felt silent, I wanted to probe further; but I also did not want to disturb her flow of thoughts. I believed that this was also a small but sacred moment between her and the photograph.
“They asked us to smile when taking the photo, so we had to smile,” was one of the first things Sandhya Aunty had said when asked about the photograph. Yes, the smiles and the bond amongst the young school girls are striking. And this is what Aunty chooses to speak about. She also uses the affinity that the photograph evokes to recollect fond memories from school. However, there’s no escaping the Barthesian exorbitance— there is just too much in this frame to distract one’s attention from the felicity in the foreground. The obvious one is the word “Gorkhaland” written in Nepali on the wall. The slogans belie the tranquillity of the time and immediately lend dynamism to the static image. I thought it was her school and was surprised at such overt activism in an educational institution, but according to Aunty it was probably a Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF)² office space nearby. Nevertheless, the agonistic confrontation of public space (Mouffe 2007: 3) through this textual intervention immediately belies the tranquillity of the time. And the visible political index lends a whole different aura to the photograph. But what does it mean that Sandhya Aunty, revisiting the photograph today, has nothing to say about this until asked? Even more fascinating is the fact that she was an active participant in the movement volunteering, as she informed me, as a cashier in the Gorkha National Women’s Organisation (GNWO) and GNSF³— “We even extended our support to a group in Kalimpong. I personally handed them Rs 3000 on behalf of Saraswati Higher Secondary School.” And yet, this photograph does not elicit any political leanings when she looks at it now—emotions are aroused only by who’s in it and not what’s in it.
© Aswin Sharma Family Album/TCC Photo Archive
“In 2017, I walked everyday to Kalimpong bazaar for the procession because I felt abo hamro nai jeet huncha anta hamiley Gorkhaland paunchaun⁴. Of course, doing this every single day was not easy. I used to wrap up all ghar ko kaam⁵ in the mornings before rushing to bazaar and then hurriedly head back home in the evenings. Even though I used to be exhausted, I had to complete all the ghar ko kaam.”
As mentioned earlier, Sandhya Aunty volunteered as a cashier for GNWO and GNSF during the 1986 Andolan. Her responsibility included going door to door, mainly around Mungpoo bazaar, and collecting Rs 10 from each household as a monthly contribution to the cause of Gorkhaland. The funds would then be distributed among families and political groups in need of financial assistance. She said that in 1986, one person from each family had to volunteer, and she made herself available of her own accord. “We participated because we felt that it would be good for everyone if statehood was granted,” she says. This previously held belief seemed to have lost some of its solidity today as she adds, “Maybe we hadn’t completely understood the ins and outs of the movement. Gyan pani thyo, agyan pani thyo⁶.” The dormant activist in Sandhya Aunty came to the fore in 2017, when the cry for Gorkhaland reverberated across Darjeeling Hills again. Dipti Tamang (2020) reminds us how women have always played consequential roles in the political movement in the Darjeeling Hills, “taking on multiple responsibilities” in public demonstrations and even using their bodies as human shields (494). Women’s bodies have been deployed as powerful tools in many a protest throughout history, and the Gorkhaland movement is no different as parent political parties position women’s wings like the GNWO to keep their campaign buoyant (ibid.). From a feminist perspective, such a bodily occupation of space can be seen not only as a support for the cause but also a way of exercising identity rights—“It is, in fact, the right to have rights, not as natural law or metaphysical stipulation, but as the persistence of the body against those forces that seek its debilitation or eradication” (Butler 2015 :83). Such participation, however, is more often than not tentative as is clear from Sandhya Aunty’s quote at the beginning of this section. Her participation is contingent on her household chores, corroborating Tamang's assertion that whilst political parties have mobilised women’s agency to further their agenda, the patriarchal order that upholds women’s inferior status remains unimpaired (2020: 494).
The second image is of Sandhya Aunty and her husband, Kishore Sharma, at Mungpoo Pokhari (lake), taken in 1989. They had returned to Mungpoo for the Duran ritual, which is performed by the Nepali bahun (Brahmin) community three days after the marriage ceremony. Aunty clearly remembers Krishna (Niroula) Daju⁷ as the photographer. She married soon after she passed her Madhyamik (centralised exam for Class X students in West Bengal) and moved to Kalimpong while her husband, a school teacher, was posted in Sikkim. Aunty initially joined Class XI as she wanted to study further but had to drop out as personal circumstances made it difficult to continue her education. She says that if she had studied further, maybe she would be “working in an office in a high position”. But when urged to specify what “high position” she aspired to, she revealed, “What I really wanted to do was to become an air hostess.” In an ideal world, could she have become an air hostess? Or could she even have led the political movement in Darjeeling Hills? As a young student, she certainly displayed leadership and commitment to the cause. Over time, individual and career priorities appear to have shifted. However, interacting with a photograph prompted me to imagine the alternate life that women like Sandhya Aunty could have experienced. After a few moments, I came to the realisation that this photographic encounter had not only affected me but had also offered Auntie herself a space for contemplation and articulation—“I was just a housewife, but I feel happy that because of these photos, I have found a space to at least say a few words. Abo esto photo shoto na bhako bha ta mo kei bhannu pauthina hola⁸.”
© Aswin Sharma Family Album/TCC Photo Archive
One year before her marriage, Sandhya Aunty attended a GNLF meeting in Darjeeling as a member of GNWO. This was the year 1988. Later that day, they visited the Mahakal temple to seek divine blessings for the formation of Gorkhaland. To commemorate the occasion, they took a photograph. Aunty recalls a dulney (travelling) photographer lingering around that day and supposes that it was him who took this picture. There are two copies of the photograph in her album. This suggests that she might have intended to print an extra copy for someone but never got around to giving it to them. Alternatively, the occasion could have held a special significance for her, leading her to preserve two prints of the same picture. But she does not remember why exactly she has two copies in her album. Has the importance of the day faded with time?
She immediately says yes when asked if she recognises the people in the frame. However, after identifying two people, Anita Rai and Meera Dahal, her memory falters. She keeps her gaze fixed on the photograph for some time but only manages to identify one other person, Bhauju⁹ she calls her, “She lived near our home in Mungpoo, but I can’t recall her name.” The united front presented by these women in the photograph seems to have retreated to the background as life happened. But the photograph still stands testimony to the participation of these women in the Andolan, and this is activated by the very act of looking, the glance that warms the flatness and bestows the gift of life (Hirsch 1981: 131). As long as the photograph exists, you cannot negate Sandhya Aunty and her colleagues’ contribution to the movement. Although, this act of looking itself seems to elude women. “Heryo bhaney ta yaad auncha ni, nabha kasari yaad auncha¹⁰. I’m busy all the time. I’m flipping through the album and looking at these photographs today after years.” But I wonder, how do we engage with photographs besides this act of looking? How do we ensure that this moment of female participation, written out of history but manifested in an image, is so profoundly impressed within our bodies, our memories so that eventually, we no longer require the object as proof? This is not a call to erase the photographic object, but to seek a more sensorial engagement with them, beyond the visual.
As a teenager still in school and participating in such a major political movement must have been both exciting and daunting. So I asked Aunty if she had any mentors at GNWO. A long sigh followed a few seconds of silence. She could not think of any women mentors or inspirational figures from that time. What about some prominent women leaders? “Maybe Meera Dahal was the president. Teti saro thaha hunu sakena how¹¹.” The fact that Aunty cannot remember any women leaders or mentors from the 1986 Andolan speaks volumes about women’s participation in the political movement in Darjeeling Hills. Rallied to fulfil the political parties’ interests, women in these movements have never been able to emerge as real decision-makers. They are instead “co-opted into existing structures of power” (Tamang 2020: 495). “Women have other responsibilities, so they cannot come to the political fore,” says Sandhya Aunty. “Jati bela bhanyo phut phut niskinu sakdai na hami field ma¹². It is not the same with men. We have more responsibilities within the home as women.”
Nevertheless, the photograph is a testimony that exists despite the patriarchal structures, which have obscured women's presence in the public and political arena. You cannot deny the claim of “having been there” (Barthes 2002: 40).
Releasing the story
My time with Sandhya Aunty and her photographs has now been sensorially recorded. The visual has transformed into the visceral. I now carry her story with me. And I will relate it to others, in words, in actions and in emotions. And you, the readers, perhaps, will do the same at some point; for a story, any story, will never exhaust itself. Instead, it “preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time” (Benjamin 2013: 3). This faith comes from my belief that photographs, after all, are never the end goal of the act of photography. Photographs are rather active portals inviting more encounters and building wider relations. Sandhya Aunty’s stories emerging from and evidenced by photographs will continue to co-exist and will be co-created through multiple encounters across time and space, as they should be.
¹ What tension when you’re a student!
² The GNLF, established in 1980 by Subhash Ghisingh, is a political party that played a pivotal role in advocating for the creation of a distinct state known as Gorkhaland.
³ Sandhya Aunty could not remember the full form of GNSF, and even I could not find an exact answer through my research. People that I have consulted have conjectured that it could be an abbreviation for a student wing of GNLF, such as the Gorkha National Student Federation. It is also possible that Sandhya Aunty has misremembered the abbreviation. I have decided to keep it in the text, as affiliation to the body was clearly important to my interlocutor.
⁴ We will emerge victorious and Gorkhaland will be ours. ⁵ Household chores ⁶ We were both informed and ignorant. ⁷ ‘Daju’ translates to ‘elder brother’ in Nepali. Colloquially, it is employed not only to refer to biological siblings but also any male who is older in relation to you. ⁸ If these photographs did not exist, I wouldn't be able to tell my story.
⁹ Literal translation: sister-in-law. In the Hills, these terms are also used to refer to people who are not actual relatives. ¹⁰ Only if you look will you remember. If you don’t look how ill you remember? ¹¹ I don’t seem to remember at all. ¹² We cannot step out into the field as and when required.
Barthes, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. London: Vintage Books.
Benjamin, Walter. 2013. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, 83–110. New York: Schocken Books.
Butler, Judith. 2015. “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street.” In Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 66–98. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Hirsch, Julia. 1981. Family Photographs: Content, Meaning, and Effect. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mouffe, Chantal. 2007. “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces.” Art & Research 1 (2): 1–5. http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/mouffe.html.
Tamang, Dipti. 2020. “Rethinking ‘Participation’ in Women, Peace and Security Discourses: Engaging with ‘Nonparticipant’ Women’s Movements in the Eastern Borderlands of India.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 22 (4): 485–503. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616742.2020.1803098.
I thank Sandhya Aunty for her generosity in sharing her time with me. This piece would not be possible without her life and her stories. I am grateful to Ashwin, for all the behind-the-scenes support. And finally, Dipti for urging me to write this in the first place.