Maestro Amber Gurung, 79, was declared clinically dead at 2:37 AM on Tuesday, June 07, 2016 at the Grande Hospital of Kathmandu. He had a number of chronic ailments for years, and a couple of them were more than sufficient to claim him after months of protracted hospitalization.
This is the last story on the music Guru of many famous names – most notably Aruna Lama, Karma and Gopal Yonzon, Sharan Pradhan, Ranjit Gazmer, Jitendra Bardewa, et al. It’s the obituary which had to wait for its fateful date. This has now happened, so the final tale is on, this one as the Last Post on this meta-musicmaker.
This obituary simply describes how the unprecedented legends of ‘Nau Lakha Tara’ – written by Agam Singh Giri and set to music and sung/recorded by Amber Gurung – received its poisoned bowl of bitter rice in a certain landmass called the Dooars of eastern India. Condemned and banned by India as anti-national, the song had received nothing but shocked adulation and reawakened admiration in the then Nepali world.
But there was one Nepali corner, unbeknownst to all till then, that was dead against the historic phenomenon in modern Nepali music. And that’s the story recounted here.
The Dooars/Dwar plains begin with the flatlands of Sukna and Sevok, the old Lepcha borders on the plains of Darjeeling. This leads to Siliguri, then on to Jalpaiguri, New Jalpaiguri and beyond to the east where Nepalis are concentrated. The Dooars tea estates have sizeable communities of Nepalis, and the plains lead on to the old NEFA (Northeast Frontier Agency), or the old ‘Greater Assam.’
This was the geo-scenario in the late winter of 1965, the timeline of this report.
The idea of the Dooars musical tour hosting Amber Gurung came from Samdhup Daju. He was a Bhutiya of Kalimpong town. He was the region’s Don Corleone for decisive and rapid-response actions on sensitive issues. He was an affluent civil contractor who funded his beloved town’s football teams and supported musicians, artists and writers who were mostly Nepalis and not of his Bhote Nation. This unique character was a constant mentor to Mr. Amber Gurung in his creative endeavors. When in Kathmandu with his Kalimpong soccer eleven, he always left enough bonus to supplement Mr. Gurung’s meager salary at the then Royal Nepal Academy.
In Kalimpong where Mr. Gurung lived after being harassed by the DIB (District Intelligence Bureau) sleuths and forced him to resign his government position as music chief at the Lok Manoranjan Shakha (Folk Entertainment Unit), Samdhup did his best to help and encourage Gurung. It was he who, among his many ideas to support Gurung, floated a plan to travel around, holding soirees to showcase Gurung’s singing and music in the district and outside.
This was how a troupe was formed for visiting the important places of the Dooars tea estates where Nepalis lived and worked as major percentages of the population. Samdhup’s two tough Land Rovers were pressed into service. The troupe loaded their personal ‘bedding’ and instruments and off the group drove downhill to the strange and unfamiliar plains beyond Siliguri.
The plains in winter are of various signatures. It’s Amber’s own ‘Ma ambar hun, timi dharti’ landscape of magic mirages and retinal illusions. The ambar-dharti imagination is a fated bad dream, a lost cause from Creation itself. From the vehicle, one saw various things, as in Parijat’s novella, ‘Toribari, bata ra sapanaharu.’ Just replace ‘toribari’ with ‘chiyabari’ and ‘bata’ with wide ‘sadak’ in this case. As for Parijat’s ‘sapanaharu’, this tour would nearly end in Amber’s murder as well as the tour members’. It would be a bad sapana when the journey ended midway. Also, the Dooars’ wintry starkness is quite akin to Juan Rulfo’s novella, ‘Pedro Paramor’, as an unending road full of desolation blues. But these feelings and impressions would have to wait for decades for vindication until these two works saw the light of the day.
The two Land Rovers trundle on. The troupe crosses bridges, the two sides of which show some life – fishermen throwing their nets in the rivers, livestock in the corral, children playing and scattering around. It’s a moist village, with palm fronds, flame trees, watered patches of kitchen gardens yielding green produce.
The paved road leads to a highway, with Tata trucks whizzing by both ways. This is Mahindra Willys Jeep country, so the two Land Rovers are noticed by people while stopping at a dhaba for khaja and lunch. Samdhup Daju produces Sikkim Distillery rum and beer. There’s a python of long railway wagons slithering on the far horizon. It has two diesel engines. It eerily shrieks into the midday distance on the other side.
‘That’s Assam Mail,’ one says. He knows the special whistle of the Frontier lines.
The banks of streams and rivers show rural and pastoral activities. Breaking the fallows, ploughing for the next season, dry sugarcane and tobacco carts pulled by stout Brahmi bulls, colorfully attired maidens riding pillion on bicycles pedaled by Bareli-styled men.
The next scene changes into a wasteland spread over hectares all around. This is a major tea estate. The laborers are busy on ‘bhari kalam’, the heavy pruning of tea plants. The outgrown branches are sliced shorter by four or six inches to maintain the bonsai height of the shrub. The pruning is men’s job, women collect the hardy sticks for fuel in the kitchen. The October Flush of the tea harvest is over, two months ago; now the pruning is for the next yield, called June Flush. The winter is grim, gray and windy in the Dooars; June is green, moist and rainy for succulent tealeaves.
The Amber Caravan’s stops are unpredictable. Yesterday, the night halt was at a big tea estate. The focal point of a well-kept plantation is its gleaming white factory, surrounded by two tasteful bungalows for the two managers, Indian or British. The impressive office complex is surrounded by executives’ quarters – the Chief Accountant’s, the school Headmaster’s, the Munshi Babu’s, the Daktar Saheb’s, the Writer Babu’s, and so on. The middle school and the hospital are major landmarks of an important tea garden. Most great estates have billiard and darts in the ‘club.’ There are roads, nightlights in prominent areas, public toilets and water supply for all. A tea estate is between rough rusticity and haphazard city life, and the best of both worlds are available in a tea ‘garden.’
The minstrel members find that most managers have taken winter holidays or home leave to Bombay or Brighton, Calcutta or Clyde, Delhi or Dublin, Simla or Swansea. This is the annual time for repairs, repainting and maintenance. School is over, and it’s the schoolyard or the playground that’s ideal for cultural shows, such as this one. There’s no worry about rain or heat in an open-air winter music fiesta.
‘The wind is blowing in a funny way here,’ one musician says.
‘It’s from the Bay of Bengal and it sweeps over East Pakistan,’ explains Samdhup Daju. He has civil contract works in the Dooars and is knowledgeable about the region. The mostly Mongoloid musicians are a strange lot in the dark-skinned, slim and intense-eyed milieu of the Dooars. Even the Nepalis here have gained a wan complexion of the tropics.
Writing about what turned out to be a deadly misadventure some fifty years later, which is today, one has forgotten about most of the important places the troupe visited, except such addresses as Binagudi, Hamiltongunj and such major dots on the map. The group was supposed to cover a dozen venues in a week, but the itinerary was scuttled in the middle because the visitors had to run for their dear lives and limbs in the face of the fatal dangers which fell upon them one night.
Before this life-threatening mishap happened, and so unwarrantedly and unexpectedly, the group did a show, perhaps its sixth on the road, at a sizeable community. The impromptu stage was lit by forty-watt electric bulbs and hissing petromax halogen lamps. After the show, a local singer named Bhaktaraj Acharya was given the mike and he sang some Bombay movie songs in Hindi composed by Madan Mohan, Khayyam and other ‘serious’ filmi music directors. This reflected on the fact that the Dooars, for its major parts, didn’t possess awareness of Nepali music, literature and such cultural heritages. In many ways, therefore, the Amber Gurung group, organized by Samdhup Daju, was sort of historical, and this visit would be a bridge onto the future of conscious Nepaliness in these diasporas.
The apostolic euphoria, however, was soon to be snuffed out. Because the lightning struck, but there was no thunder as forewarning.
This happened the next night at a new destination, somewhere further deep in the region.
Minutes before the nightly program was about to start, a strange group of Nepalis of all ages appeared before the stage and the musicians.
A man said aloud in a threatening voice, ‘Tyo Ambar Gurung bhanne ko ho?’
‘He’s here. Sir!’ One senior musician volunteered.
‘Ehe, timinai ho Ambare?’ The leader appeared in front of the raised podium. He was in a hanging shirt and flowing trousers, his warm coat accentuated by a patterned muffler around his neck. He had a monkey cap on his head which could be slid down as a mask.
The gang brandished poles and staffs, perhaps spears, too. Some carried khurpa, the curved knife to prune tea branches. These men didn’t mean and look well, disturbing the planned show before it began.
Soon it turned out that they were all dead against the song, ‘Nau lakha tara.’
‘You sing only about your blasted pahad and pahadi fuul and gurans and not about our maidan and nimbua and ambua. Why? How come?’
‘But it’s written by Agam Singh Giri. Ask him!’ Samdhup appeared to answer the ringleader.
‘Okay, where is he? We’ve come to hang that Agame!’
It was a tacit point given to Amber Gurung by Samdhup and senior troupe members that he would never sing ‘Nau lakh tara’ and ‘Sugauli sandhi’ – the two songs that had put him in such deep manure. He sang these songs only in camera, inside the private chambers of those tea estate managers who were still working in some of the gardens.
But the thirty-strong troublemakers knew every word and line of the song. They said they weren’t living in ‘sancho’ here but they weren’t complaining, either. ‘So who are you to say Gharko maya birsera kina po yahan ayauni? This is our land, bhoomi, maato. What’s it to you?’
‘Well, only the lyricist can answer you.’
‘Hamilai yahan chinyou ke?’ What do you mean by that? Where’s that Agam Bagam Singh? We wish to slash his throat!’
‘But he’s not with us. He isn’t a member of this group.’
‘Then we’ll finish you all in his place.’ Their metal weapons shone and flickered in the night light. They were ready for action.
Just then a Jeep roared into sight. It was the Munshi Babu of the large tea estate. ‘I heard about it. Somebody phoned me from the check-post. What’re you up to, huh? Come here!’
This Limbu godfather of the estate, born and gone potato-pale in the tropics, was the be-all and end-all in this land. He engaged the agitators to a showdown. ‘You dare ruffle my junga, eh?’ he pointed at the gang leader, a Nepali of mixed blood.
Samdhup pushed Amber Gurung into the dark shades where the Land Rovers were parked. The musicians unhooked and grabbed their dear instruments and dashed to the vehicles. In less than two minutes, the tour group had hit the highway. Hours later, they reached a place called Jai Gaon where Samdhup Daju was felicitated by the troupe for his calculated reaction in such times of danger. He was not a godfather of the hills for nothing.
The group rested at a wide shed of the tiny bazaar, drank Bhutan Mist and enjoyed fried fish from the nearby river. Samdhup Daju filled the tanks from the jerry cans he had loaded in the vehicles.
‘Bhaiharu ho!’ he said to the musicians, ‘what we saw was a group of political rowdies quite new here. But this also means that my civil contract works in the Dooars will be a thing of the past very soon. Albida, Dear Dooars!’
Only when they reached Siliguri and saw the hills were they able to feel safe at last.
Nobody in the troupe ever mentioned the Deadly Dooars Dangers, neither in Darjeeling nor in Kathmandu. By the way, the political rowdies ready to lynch Amber Gurung & Party were the first wave of what later came to be known as The Naxalites.