Sikkim~ A Memoir
By: Rajiv Doulagupu
I am taking one of the last taxis to M.G. Marg, it shall be one of the last evenings strolls to the busiest landmark of this hill station. As the sun and the clouds are pushing one another for a space in the heaven I sit quietly and sigh while the breeze gently touches me reminding me that all good things shall pass as well.
On our way to NJP railway station on the train, Megha asked me with both excitement and a look of nervousness, “Are we going to be alright?” I just smiled at her with a nod of assurance. We had never been to Gangtok before, and when she got an opportunity to work there we knew that it was a new lease of life for us. I often hear people saying that hills are only good enough for a vacation. For me, perhaps I can never express it in words how I feel in the hills.
Sikkim has got a pleasant weather all throughout the year, but towards the end of October it starts to get chillier and that’s when one knows the winter is quietly knocking at the door. I can’t get enough of winter ever, winter makes me alive, and the gloom of this season is only when I feel everything is alright. And that’s when we arrived in this panoramic hill station, and the best thing was not to stay here as a tourist but to by being as one of them for many months to come.
Searching for a nest
For the initial five days, we stayed in NHPC guest house. As I was still recovering from a slipped disc I was taking it slowly. Working on my laptop during the day and giving some interview tips to the son of the cook who was preparing for the staff selection services. His father came to me with the request to guide his son when he heard us conversing in English, this language can be really funny on how it brings strangers together.
Be it a metropolitan or a hill station searching for a rented house is always going to be a difficult task. Megha’s colleague had a space to rent out, and we were quite relieved to know about this. So we went to check the place. We were not impressed. As much as I remember the room had a dark and cold feel to it with a typical north Indian appeal, and although the rooms were freshly painted and were big enough it still reminded me of the rented two room apartment in Indra Vihar in Delhi, and that annoying ‘Jai Mata Di’ tune of the calling bell.
Bheem uncle who happens to be the uncle of Megha’s elder brother’s friend and who works as a senior inspector with Sikkim police helped us in getting some information for the accommodation. When he came to know about a two room house to be let in Tadong he took us there. The place was sandwiched between other houses and the area felt more like a chawl. We went inside the so-called two room accommodation only to find that it was just one big hall like room separated by wooden partition panels. It was a dark and filthy room reflecting the underbelly of this beautiful state. Then my glances straightly fixed at the remnants of the Dettol soap kept near the bathroom. It was looking filthy.
Perhaps the person misunderstood with what kind of house we were looking for. We were gradually becoming anxious on these unexpected results with our searches. Bheem uncle then informed us that he has got a single room in his house which the tenant vacated a few days back but he was reluctant to give as he thought it would be too humble for us. However, we requested that if we could shift to that room until we are able to find a place. It was our bad luck that his other corner of the house which was a two room apartment was rented out just before we arrived in Sikkim.
But bad luck can’t sustain for so long, and we just have to be persistent. Bheem uncle decided to take us to his home so that we can check it out before taking any decision. His house was situated in Rajgram which is down below Entel Maruti showroom, but one has to climb down some 150 odd concrete steps to reach the place. As our luck would have it we met a lady in her mid 50’s (Padma aunty) in Rajgram whose house was located some 60 steps above Bheem uncles house. She mentioned that their tenant just vacated and its ready to be occupied. When we came to know of it we decided to check the place immediately, and yes we loved the place at the first glance. That’s how we found our first nest together of starting to live-in together.
For the next 11 months, Padma aunty and Athop uncle were our landlords. I have stayed in several rented accommodations but this one was different. We never felt as tenants here but a part of their extended family. They even took us in their car and showed us around Gangtok. I was touched by their gesture of offering prayers in the Enchey monastery for us. But the best part was when they treated us in a very hip restaurant called The Square for lunch,
The winter was here and I could feel the days getting already shorter. The locality was anyway very quiet but after the dusk, there was an eerie melancholic silence which was very uncomfortable to the senses as we were only used to the chaos of the cities. But we soon got used to it.
In the initial days though we had trouble getting a sound sleep as we would wake up in the middle of the night only to hear some fading sounds of the footsteps supposedly coming from the stairs outside. We thought since the narrow passage of concrete steps passing right beside the balcony connects to the nearby hills and they would be one of those drunk lads who lost their way back home. However, we felt that the footsteps are subtle and it was more like a small kid trying to run through the steps. Probably it was our mind that was forming the mental images, but how it started roughly at around 3 am almost daily was confusing. The chilly winter nights anyway adds a scary glamour to the subject in question. After few uncomfortable nights, we decided to change our sleeping positions. As strange it gets, Interestingly that worked for us as after changing the position of the bed we never heard the noise again.
Then almost after a month, we were abruptly awakened at the same time from a different noise. We were not able to comprehend the sound but it seemed like it was the sound of a flute like an object but with a screech. It was too sharp for the ears and pierced through the night. Without any doubt, we were terrified, horrified and what not because I have never heard anything like that before in my entire life let alone hearing someone playing the flute like object during the devil’s hour.
Later in the morning we got to know from our landlord that a group of people called ‘ban jhakri’ visit each and every vicinity of Sikkim couple of times in a month and their job is to cast off the evil spirits that may be residing in the nooks and corners of the hills and gorges where human habitat is present. Nonetheless, it’s really scary to wake up to the sound of someone playing an instrument knowing what it is meant for.
The heart of Gangtok is its people and even though I am a stranger I never felt out of place here. Perhaps it might also be because I look like one of them. As a matter of fact, people always initiate a conversation in Nepali with me, when I politely tell them that I don’t speak the language they get confused whether I am not a local.
On weekends the M.G Marg is significantly congested with tourists and locals alike. But it’s quite different from the other crowded places of India as it’s not chaotic or noisy. Although exceptions are there in the form of those typical tourists who flock from the nearby states.
In M.G. Marg my favorite two things to do is to hog and to sit on the bench with Megha to admire the smartly dressed and beautiful people walking by. For the first one, The taste of Tibet serves really nice momos, and they have various stuffings ranging from chicken to beef, besides momo I love their thukpa (I am salivating as I write this). M.G. Marg has only Khan uncle‘s which serve good tandoori dishes.
However, I like Thakali for their authentic Nepali thali and a good range of cocktail drinks but it still can’t beat the Newari thali we had in Singsor bridge. There is a snack corner which serves healthy smoothies with waffles. Coffee shop serves good pizza (it’s big!!) and spaghetti, they keep beers too! Densberg and Hit which is brewed in Sikkim and the former is owned by Danny Denzongpa and it tastes really great. Although I like Densberg better if you are with friends with some couple of mugs to gulp down, it really sets the tone of the conversation. Hit is another brand of beer gets to your head really fast and it can really give you a bad hangover. Mu kimchi is a Korean restaurant that serves delicious kimbap, bibimbap and other delicacies. Once you go there you can’t help but visit this place on numerous other occasions. I found the aesthetics and taste of the cuisines quite similar to the tribal community. I forgot to mention their mouth watering sushi!
Towards Tibet road which is adjacent to the M.G.Marg Cafe Live and Loud is located. After many months, we finally thought of giving this place a try and it became one of our favorite places in Gangtok. I remember how dead drunk I was after sloshing down several drinks in our first visit. We never visited Thungdel though but of course, there is always the next time and I would visit when I am there again.
But Sikkim is not about restaurants and cafes but it’s people. It’s about the innocence and honesty that is ingrained and imbibed in the culture here. In the next blog travel with me in Maruti 800 to the nooks and corners of Sikkim when one of my favorite people come all the way to Gangtok in his legendary car. And also how our stay in Gangtok became all the more exciting with Sudarshana joining us in Gangtok all the way from Delhi.
Excerpts from the next chapter of Sikkim memoir…
Our stay in Gangtok was more special as it gave us an opportunity to host our friends and family. Himadri, was the first one to give this opportunity to us, and he came all the way from Guwahati in his Maruti 800 (a small family car from yesteryear) and it was in his small but very sturdy car that we mapped almost all the parts of Sikkim. The irony is that when you are living that mesmerizing moment you don’t even realize it that the moment is passing by and what is left is a just distant dream of memories.
So we packed our bags, took out some cash, and got some food supplies and we three headed towards the interiors of Sikkim. Our first stoppage was Jorethang, it easily became one of my least favorite places in Sikkim as it’s a valley of a commercial hub with its developing congested buildings. Nonetheless, all the districts of Sikkim have a similar look in the form of its nicely paved pedestrians way and wide alleys for the people to take a stroll. But it was very humid there and I didn’t see much people from the hills living there but mostly the people migrated from neighboring states in search of a livelihood. (…to be contd)