One of the few pleasures of work is a browse at the bookstore in office. Push open the door to this other world, inhale deeply, and you immediately shut out the noise of the clanking glasses at the juice kiosk and the relentless chatter of the crowds thronging the supermarket. Lunch, however, isn’t always the ideal time to go in if you fancy being alone with the books, for there will always be those idiots- yes, I said it- asking at the counter for Chetan Bhagat, when their uninviting spines are already staring them down in the face from the shelves in the Indian authors’ section, ranged alongside the more smug types like Shashi Tharoor and Arundhati Roy.
It takes all kinds to make the world, though, and none of us is above the occasional leave-your-brains-behind easy read, so I’ll move on to my next, more reasonable grudge- people who talk loudly on their cell phones in the otherwise quiet confines of the bookshop, or worse still, let them ring loudly on. Why anybody should be interested in their ring tones I really don’t know. A bookshop should be as sacred as a library when it comes to peace and quiet, but the fact obviously sails smoothly over some people’s heads, so they’ll laugh and giggle and organise games of tug-of-war in the aisles when you’re trying to find a quiet corner where you can forget your latest confrontation with your team lead.
Despite these aberrations, though, the bookshop is still a happy place, thanks to the discoveries you can make. You must know the joy of having coveted a book very, very long and suddenly realising that it is no longer as expensive as it once was- and then you’re prepared to worship the hordes of people who’ve conveniently ignored Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene in favour of Stephenie Meyer. I stumbled upon hardcover editions of The Heart of the Matter, Brighton Rock and Vile Bodies in this fashion. (Only Decline and Fall remains unbought, and I’m going to get a copy very soon.) They were sold at throwaway prices for hardcover books, the original price being a prohibitive GBP 5.99. Only Christopher Columbus could have been slightly more ecstatic when he “discovered” America, but on that particular day, you could easily have spotted the happiest person in the world.
However, I did make another discovery today which was by no means as heartening. A sudden impulse to revisit Heidi made me look up the Wikipedia page, and I discovered that its English translator, Charles Tritten, had taken it into his head to write sequels about Heidi’s life as an adult, and about her children as well. I read an abridged version of Heidi when I was around seven, and Heidi has more or less stayed the same age to me. I definitely do not want to think of her as an adult with a family of her own.
One of the charms of the books we read as children lies in the eternal youth of their characters. I have never enjoyed the sequels to What Katy Did or Anne of Green Gables as much as I enjoyed these wonderful celebrations of the captivating innocence of childhood. It’s bad enough for me to have to grow into an adult- so why on earth would I want to be bothered with Anne’s fretting over her children’s attacks of whooping cough? Childhood is about abandon and having somebody else worry for you, trusting and liking everyone you know, throwing tantrums and being ingratiated. Watching young boys and girls grow into adults in books is a premonition of the future, of the distant days best avoided as long as possible (which, with the endearing ineptitude of childhood, you don’t really realise till you’re a full-fledged grown-up). These chronicles of adulthood should be saved for their readers’ own adulthood, when people begin asking why on earth they would want to read juvenile fiction- oh the travails of life!
Only JM Barrie really understood this, and if I knew where Neverland was, I’d be getting on a plane this very moment.
For a change, the cricket World Cup is taking a backseat on Indian news channels.
While the Centre and various state governments have long been guilty of or struggling with scams, corruption and social unrest, there now seems to be a sudden spurt in efforts to bring the culprits to book. Whether they will endure and be brought to closure is yet to be seen, but any step forward is welcome. However, as the investigations proceed, it is evident that the rot runs deep; the scams have resulted in massive losses to the exchequer, and with evasive replies and cover-ups, the government is not helping its cause. The Prime Minister’s press conference was a disappointment. No substantial answers were received, and if anything, it only threw up more questions on the methods through which the wrongdoings of various parties would be reversed. Equating the financial losses to subsidies and pinning the blame for corruption on coalition politics are examples of a weak defence. It smacks of the idea that the only intention of those in power is to stay there at any cost, and the interests of the people do not come into consideration at all. If this is the way a democracy functions, it makes you wonder what the countries in the Middle East agitating for democracy are in for. Stabilising a democracy is by no means an easy task, and considering the responsibilities the new governments will have to take up, the road seems to be going only uphill.
Interestingly, while the Middle East grapples with political problems that involve dethroning the existing leaderships, Belgium is facing a situation of an entirely different nature. The political impasse since last June’s elections has gone on for 250 days now, which means the country has existed without a government this long. It now holds the dubious distinction of having had no government for the longest period in recent times, taking the mantle from Iraq. While this has been a source of some hilarity in Belgium, it isn’t quite the ideal situation, the differences between the Flemish and the French areas asserting themselves and preventing political stability. How much authority does a caretaker government assert, after all? The monarchies of most European nations aren’t involved in major decision-making; they need properly elected governments at the helm of affairs, especially considering there might be important steps to be taken with the unrest in the Middle East. The volatile situation here might be a threat to oil resources and transportation in the Suez Canal. Trade will be affected, and so will the livelihoods of the large numbers of immigrants in the region. Bernie Ecclestone has indicated that the Bahrain Grand Prix, the season-opening race of the 2011 Formula One season, might not go ahead if the state of affairs doesn’t improve. This, however, may only be the tip of the iceberg.
One positive aspect that the protests have made visible is the power of the media- and not just the traditional versions, but new media as well. Facebook and Twitter were used to rally support and mobilise public opinion; though restrictions were eventually imposed, it is apparent they played a huge role in helping the public channelise its hopes and ambitions.
Change is in the air, and hopefully things will take a positive turn here on. It is a rocky road and several difficult issues need to be tackled. It is important for these movements not to lose momentum but to sustain their initial enthusiasm and continue to work for reliable leaderships which will lift them out of poverty and aspire to meet their citizens’ needs. As for democracies like ours, we need to ensure that the corrupt are punished and the country’s wealth properly used- easier said than done, yes, but we have made a start, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t keep going at it.
I have memories of a sunshiny, airy house in Hyderabad, whose walls were kissed by the swaying branches of trees on soft summer afternoons. This house was populated by kindly spirits and filled with a quiet salubrious energy. I particularly remember a room lined with large bookcases- they might have appeared mammoth and daunting to a seven- or eight-year-old who was just learning to enjoy abridged illustrated classics, these bunches of different spines- but I also found it very welcoming and awe-inspiring.
More than fifteen years have gone by and much has changed. Two of the people whose kindness I remember from when I was a young girl have passed on. Aunty’s shrikhand has sadly disappeared from memory. Uncle has left behind something more enduring- plenty of stories. I was enthralled when I came to know that this Uncle I knew was a celebrity in his own way; his stories won competitions for adults in Tinkle and were published in CBT books (an important part of my childhood reading), and how delighted I would be to see them in print! I stopped buying Tinkle a few years ago, but when I bought a copy on a whim, I’d be doubly thrilled to see one of Uncle’s stories in it. And I came to know yesterday that there wouldn’t be any more of them. I see a blank spot on the shelf.
His daughter is trimming her collection of books. I ask her how she can summon up enough strength to sell away well-loved books. She tells me with a laugh that she has reconciled herself to it; these are books that she has read twice or thrice every year, over many years. She is circulating the list of books she is giving away among a close circle of friends, people who she knows will care for them as she has. I’ve asked for some of them- Ishiguro, Dick Francis, JRR Tolkien, Sheridan Le Fanu. I don’t know if I’ll ever have enough courage to give up my own books. I gave away a copy of Kafka on the Shore a couple of months ago, and I still regret it at times, even though I know the recipient well and am sure that he will look after it properly.
Sometimes, though, keeping your bookshelves stocked isn’t the most important thing in life.
As the plane begins its descent, objects detach themselves from the general golden haze and begin to exist again as individual entities. The undulations that ‘could have been’ hills and brown-and-green patches of earth assume their proper identities. The furrows on the broad silver river, ploughed by ferries and large boats, become visible; smoke spirals rise from the obelisk-like structures of the numerous brick kilns that dot the countryside.
Being in Eastern India is always a homecoming of sorts for me. Having grown up in industrial towns, I’m at home with massive chimneys vomiting ugly dark smoke into serene blue skies, or pink smoke into star-sprinkled black nights. Small towns delight me with their stolidity, with their propensity to be excited into a flurry of activity once or twice a year during a festival perhaps, only to retreat into their shells once the burst of energy has run its course. Neighbours hail each other in the morning across the fence and talk while they’re watering their gardens. Happiness is more about knowing that someone you know has made it to the “city” and gone to a good college, than flaunting a sedan or designer clothes- for the quintessential ambition of “small town” parents is to see their children get out of the confines of the colony they’ve grown up in.
Calcutta isn’t a small town, but despite- or because of?- its size and bursting population, there is a quality to it that makes it very warm and human. I felt at home on my first real trip to the city- maybe it helps that I am a little familiar with Bengali, having heard it quite a lot while I was growing up- and I wasn’t stuck with the unpleasant task of having to peel off a façade to expose the skeleton to my wondering eyes. Calcutta isn’t a city caught in the rabid clutches of impersonal modernity and progress, unlike a couple of others I’ve lived in.
Calcutta has a large South Indian population, particularly around Lake Market. A small shop, tucked away between stately buildings and nondescript stalls, sells everything that a homesick Tamilian population can ask for. On a nearby wall, a poster advertises the Telugu movie ‘Orange’. And for a moment, you could well imagine you were in a street down south in the peninsula, and not traipsing through the eastern parts of the country. The old juxtaposed against the new; cultures mingling and acquiring a new identity. This is what Calcutta is about.
At the Esplanade, where buses from the states around West Bengal converge (there are even buses to Bhutan here), there is a flurry of activity. The roads are packed; a few hundred metres away, red flags are being held up and men are climbing aboard a van in preparation for a rally. Some distance away, a rival party readies itself for its own rally. These converging masses of men will bring the traffic to a standstill. More traffic policemen will be pressed into service to deal with irate motorists near the New Market area.
The New Market is perhaps one of the oldest shopping areas in the country. Bustling even on a Sunday morning, it doubles up as a flea market and up-market shopping destination. Vendors quote outrageous prices for their wares, and it takes all your bargaining skills to bring them down to a reasonable level. What I’m really looking forward to on my next trip to Calcutta, though, is a visit to College Street- that haven of secondhand bookshops. On the pavements of Gariahat, a number of rickety stalls sell pirated editions of Chetan Bhagat, Sidney Sheldon and Dan Brown. People here like to read and to learn- I can barely remember an edition of the Bournvita Quiz Contest, Mastermind India or University Challenge without a contestant with Bengali affiliations (not forgetting the quizmasters, of course- Derek O’Brien and Siddharth Basu respectively).
Timeless charm, grace and tenacity- this is what Calcutta is all about. Vast tracts of slum land surround the city and the airport is in desperate need of a facelift. The government has plenty to deal with in terms of the Maoists and industrialisation glitches. It struggles its way to progress and may not strike a newcomer fresh from the glitz of swanky glass and steel as the most exciting holiday destination. If you don’t care to delve beneath artifices, though, Calcutta is the city for you, because it lays itself bare and isn‘t confused about its identity.
Author Patrick French was in Bangalore this evening, promoting his new book, ‘India: A Portrait’. Not having heard of either the book or the author earlier, I wasn’t too sure if I wanted to attend the session, until, through sheer coincidence, I stumbled upon this review on the Guardian website. Aravind Adiga hasn’t been too kind to the book- while praising the author’s style and in-depth research, he has denounced the large number of loose ends he claims to have discovered.
It will be unfair of me to take sides with either French or Adiga in this debate, considering I haven’t read the book. The Englishman came across as a keen, intelligent person in the hour-long session. Beginning with Ladakh, he talked of his journeys down south and among the Khasi tribes. He read out excerpts from his book and described the amount of research that went into it. A great deal of statistics was evidently involved, and French gave examples in the form of an analysis of the dynastic politics rampant in India. He was appreciative of the UID scheme and marvelled at the diversity of the country, and its acceptance without question, unlike in many other parts of the world where people were just learning to come to terms with it. He spoke of how science and religion weren’t treated as separate entities but coexisted in India, unlike in Europe a few centuries ago.
At the end of his reading, French fielded questions from the audience. When asked what differences he saw between India and China, having written about both, he spoke of the difference between India’s democracy and China’s single-party system where public opinion couldn’t be voiced as openly, and about the latter‘s single-child policy which was resulting in an aging population. He explained how a factor in the lack of young politicians in India was the number of career options available to the youth. On being asked what other facets he would have liked to cover, he mentioned that he wanted to write more about the North-East. He explained that he hadn’t written about farmer suicides and some other issues because they didn’t fit in with the tone of this book.
French steered clear of the more controversial excerpts that Adiga has discussed in his review. Perhaps, having published the controversial Liberty or Death – India’s Journey to Independence and Division earlier, French has decided to play it safe this time. It was disappointing though, for in bringing out some of the more colourful parts of the book, French might have excited greater enthusiasm for and interest in his work.
Adiga, in his review, has said that most books on India tend to be either literary or journalistic. Considering French writes with style while also laying emphasis on facts and figures, this book seems to be treading the middle line. I must admit that I didn’t think there was anything new explored in the book. In talking about the dabbawallahs and the small-scale entrepreneurs, French is only charting familiar territory, discussing subjects that we’ve seen Suketu Mehta and Mark Tully do earlier. If, instead, French had gone ahead to open up the North-East to the rest of the world and focused on things often ignored in favour of the exciting story of India’s growth coupled with the inevitable comparisons with China, this book would have been something to talk about. As of now, though, it just seems like yet another book on India from a foreigner’s perspective. Not a travelogue, not a book of dry figures, but something in between.
Please tell me that Christos Tsiolkas isn’t writing ‘The Sequel to The Slap, The Reverberations of an Uncalled-for Act in Civilised Society’. Put my fears of column inches and breath going waste over a clunky, plotless, ineffectual mass of drivel to rest. I wouldn’t want to see trees destroyed and the earth endangered to put into circulation so much inanity, re-creating caricatures that already scream at you from your television screams in sexed-up soap operas. If The Slap has a point, it’s invisible to the naked eye.
With shallow characters proudly boasting weaknesses which Zeus and His entire Pantheon would quail at themselves, and writing that sounds like it has been ripped off an uninterested Class Seven student’s English homework, The Slap is easily the most irritating book I’ve ever read. It beats England, England hands down and makes you wonder at the intelligence (or lack of it) of befeathered panels of judges who propose and extol the clumsiest pieces of writing as introspective studies into societal patterns- I seriously doubt even Tsiolkas ever thought his episodic mishmash of characters would ever be construed seriously. Well done, then, Christos, because you’ve managed to pull the wool over the eyes of quite a few people, and I hate myself for having fallen prey to the frenzy and the hype. I confess to my crime- I read two-thirds of the book. Persecute me in any Court of Law if you will, but please don’t write a sequel. If you don’t have any such ideas, I hope I’m not giving you some.
And to think this embarrassment of a book won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, something that was once sensibly awarded to the sublimely beautiful Lloyd Jones novel Mister Pip, shakes my faith in humanity and gravity and everything we’re taught to believe in. The characters are extremely weak and you never have a chance to get into their skin and feel things the way they do. The attempt at threading together multicultural influences in Australian society isn’t remarkable in any way, and the idea I take away from the book is that all immigrants stick together and seek flings with other immigrants when bored of their own lives (which is almost all the time). No one is happy, and life is one big frown between scrunched-up eyebrows. The only positive thing is that the book arouses your curiosity in a way- you keep reading, hoping you’ll stumble upon some kind of plot. Right now, though, I think life is too short, and maybe even gloomy (I learn from my reading experiences) to keep plodding through the rest of the ‘story’.
The blurb on the cover says the book is about how the lives of a group of middle-class people are affected after they become unwilling victims/witnesses of an ugly incident at a barbecue, where a man slaps a three-year-old child. (If, in the course of reading the book, which I sincerely wouldn’t wish upon you, you are inclined to side with the ‘wicked man’, don’t worry- Hugo is the most irritating child in the history of literature. Blame it on the parents- the most annoying ever, in their own right, so there you have it, a family of excellence.) Relationships suffer, affairs are ended or embarked upon, and whether or not they’re all because of The Slap (my roommate likened it to the title of a cheap movie, and I wouldn’t disagree, because this is a literary equivalent) I haven’t been able to, or bothered to, figure out. Tsiolkas has an OCD-like fixation with carnal pleasures and four-letter expletives, and you can’t go past two pages at a time without being treated to voyeuristic images and sounds of moaning and sighing. Christos, my man, too much of anything isn’t good. Anything. That isn’t half the problem, though, because you cannot write. Period. You’ve had your fifteen minutes of fame, so get yourself a beer and retire to the pleasures of the desert and the ocean, drive from Perth to Melbourne and back, play rugby if you will, but don’t let us hear of you publishing a book ever again. Unless, of course, it’s a manual of some sort.
PS: Those who know me will understand that I must have detested this book to spew so much venom against a poor individual. I might think differently tomorrow, but I don’t want generosity to efface the truth.
Irish-born writer Emma Donoghue’s novel, Room, was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It didn’t win, and like any novel propelled into publicity thanks to its appearance as a contender on major prize lists, had its fair share of fans and disparagers. Despite all the hype surrounding it, though, Room does come out as an honest novel, deceptively simple, but in fact possessing a depth that reminds you of life as it used to be, before you stopped letting the wool be pulled over your eyes and decided to open up to reality.
If you’ve forgotten the first time you visited the beach and the various sensations the pricking of the sand underfoot and the tang of the salt-air evoked, then Room will remind you of them. Swinging in the park, making real friends out of cartoon characters on television and forming an instant camaraderie with total strangers will no longer seem like childish pursuits to be looked down upon the length of adult ego-sized noses.
Having lived for five long years in one eleven-by-eleven cork-lined room, Jack is unaware of the world outside. Everything on television is just fantasy, his long-suffering mother tells him, to snuff out any craving he might have for an impossible whiff of fresh air or a romp in the streets. Their captor, whom they call Old Nick, visits them almost every night, bringing them supplies, taking the trash out, and then ‘making the bed creak’ while Jack stays closed up in the wardrobe until it is safe enough for him to scramble into bed beside his mother. Life goes on thus, until one day, Jack’s little, room-sized world is shattered by the revelation that there is an ‘Outside’, that television isn’t all fantasy- Dora the Explorer is, but not the men and women and children, the aeroplanes and the birds. What Jack and his mother see through the skylight actually exists, the objects whose names Ma keeps forgetting are real, and she has a name- two names, in fact- for the rest of the world to call her. For a child born into captivity, fathoming that the various planets on television are in fact all pieces of one large reality isn’t easy.
When Ma finally reaches breaking point and makes a daring plan that she and Jack call their ‘Great Escape’, he is extremely nervous. He has to be ‘scave’- brave though he is scared- and rescue his mother from the clutches of their captor. But things don’t just end there, because that’ll mean opening the door to reality, to a world that Jack is unsure of entering. And while Jack runs in pursuit of liberty, you find yourself egging him on, hoping and praying hard that he’ll make it safely into the arms of a trustworthy adult.
In Room, Donoghue makes you see the world in a way that you used to, through a pair of forgotten lenses buried deep inside but fished out with urgency as you realise that there is much that should be valued but is taken for granted. You warm to Jack instantly as he describes his life alternating amid Wardrobe and Bed and Skylight, his personification of all the objects around him, even as the existence of real people outside seems like a mystery. Inspired by the horrific Josef Fritzl case, Room portrays brilliantly the horrors of a life that most of us would struggle to imagine. Told entirely in Jack’s voice, it is innocent and devoid of any frills or sensationalism.
There are instances towards the end of the book where it seems to lose a little steam and the tautness of the narrative seems to slack away a bit- however, as you read about Jack and his mother coming to terms with change and absorbing the ways of life around them, little by little, you cannot help but put yourself in their shoes. You do wonder at the tremendous intelligence of a boy who has lived a confined life for five years, exposed to the world outside only through an hour of television everyday and the five picture books he has obtained for ‘Sundaytreat’. While most of it seems to draw from real-life incidents across the world- and they are shockingly many in number- the powerful imagery Donoghue evokes brings credibility to the story.
Touching without being unnecessarily dramatic, Room is a strong recommendation if you’re looking to fall in love with writing all over again.
For a city bursting at its seams, the streets of Lake Market, Calcutta, are unusually quiet. The brilliant yellow taxis, ubiquitous in other parts of the city, make only sporadic appearances on the tree-lined roads. Green and yellow autorickshaws splutter past arrays of bouquets, funeral wreaths and dyed flowers (where else on earth could you find a parrot-green bunch of petals?). Tinny-looking buses- which seem to be gingerly held together by a handful of bolts- rumble by indolently, window-panes missing, variously-clothed elbows shoved out through the bars; the names of the origins and destinations are painted on the sides of the blue and maroon bodies in loud, curly-edged fonts.
In these quiet streets, time has come to a standstill. It is a Sunday afternoon towards the end of November, but it feels more like spring than winter- the end of March, perhaps, when the cold season departs reluctantly, lingering longingly in its favourite patches while the firm, lengthening arms of the sun nudge it away. Old-fashioned, stately bungalows cast their sleepy eye upon the loitering rickshaw-pullers who rest in the meagre shade of the slim trees that bend their supple bodies to the song of the wind. Who built these houses, and when? The slatted windows speak of a different era altogether, and the old man in a dhoti and vest, thick glasses perched on his nose, might well be a surviving relic of the days that live on only in the mottled yellow pages of old books (and on the screen of a Kindle, perhaps). An elderly lady, wearing a discoloured white saree in the traditional Bengali style, shuffles down the pavement. This street is vintage Tagore, and as I stand by a dripping hand-pump on which some homeless crows take refuge, I cannot think of a more effective way of time travel.
Calcutta, in many ways, has withstood the ravages of time. The grime of decades lies so thick on some of its buildings it can probably never be washed away. Broken balconies bend under the weight of decades of footsteps. There is a timeless grace to this city that endows it with a character of its own, unlike others that succumb to the lure of snazzy modernity, often bereft of any identity or uniqueness. I haven’t seen much of Calcutta, really- just seen a battered tram or two, caught a glimpse of the Victoria Memorial and been driven a short distance by a paan-chewing taxi driver from Bihar who spits out red squirts with clockwork-like regularity while talking politics. I’ve seen the soot-blackened facades of shops in the New Market and the relentless crush of people milling around in every inch of space available. Through the crowds and the sticky heat, though, you sense the throbbing that drives this city and puts things together in its own sometimes ramshackle way, keeping the wheels turning with the occasional glitches.
I might have stepped right into the midst of two rallies, one led by the Trinamool Congress and the other by the Communists, but we’ll leave politics to another day. Words on a screen aren’t the best way to experience it, but I’m sure that at any given moment, Calcutta will impress you as a city with a heart, amen to that.
I have a mortal dread of elevators. No traffic, precipice or liberally-potholed road gives me more jitters than a closed elevator, so cramped and gloomy that the idea of a dungeon with bread-and-water begins to sound like Paradise in comparison. I might have to travel ten minutes or an hour through thick, honking traffic to reach home, but the worst part is almost always the eternity-long journey in the elevator up to my seventh-floor flat. There was a time when I enjoyed riding up and down elevators in shops, but that was when they were scarce- when do we ever want anything once we have plenty of it?
This particular elevator isn’t the most modern of its kind- Elisha Otis himself would have shuddered it, because though physically safe, it isn’t the best capsule for a tired mind winging its way home. Its walls are painted reddish-brown, just a shade lighter than the black on the doors. Profanities (more morally corrupting than the Rani heart-pierced-with-an-arrow Sunil kind) are liberally engraved on the paint, covered over, engraved again with the kind of determination that, if only displayed in more useful pursuits, would have allowed us to bid for the 2012 Olympics. Anyway. The only window to the world in this elevator of ours is the narrow dusty corona between the fan on the roof and the circular aperture it is set in. All you can see through this gap are grey-brown ropes, from this angle looking much too flimsy to be able to support potato-chip-and-soda-nourished weights. The only good thing about this lift is the privacy it affords- so you can pretend to be Vanessa Mae, play air-guitar, or waltz in the arms of an imaginary (or real) partner without fear of being found out. For when the elevator does stop, it does so with a noticeable convulsion- enough time for you to unentangle yourself from those imaginary (or real) arms and put on a poker-straight face, whip out your glasses from the cavernous depths of your handbag and assume the impression of a hardworking, ill-used software engineer with glazed, unseeing eyes.
Visitors to my flat will testify to the unholy claustrophobic gloominess of this elevator, and how it can drive you to hitherto unknown levels of temporary disturbance. (I have been known to talk to the fan in the lift, pitying it for its loneliness, perched up there amidst the grime and grease.) It also has a tendency to halt at the fifth floor for no reason. When it jerks to a stop and the doors slide open in a sinister manner, they reveal, almost always (only because nine of ten times cannot be an unqualified ‘always’) a nothingness, backed only by white walls. I jab frantically at the button to draw the doors shut and retreat into the unspirited safety of my four walls. The ride further up gets progressively eerie, because at half-past four in the morning, the slightest movement in the shadows is an impetus to an active imagination. Two floors up, the doors slide open, the familiar carpet appears and ground underneath- I’m home.
There was one occasion, though, when I was scared out of my wits as I stepped out, singing to myself, only to be confronted by the surly neighbour, who isn’t the genial old ‘Uncle’ of books, but someone who grudgingly responds to your hello through set teeth, eyes boring into you as if you were a vile worm (I’d like to use the ‘If looks could kill…’ line, with a clever comparison, but looks can’t kill, so I don’t see why I should bother). On this particular morning, he was carrying a small brass plate with camphor burning on it, dressed in a dhoti and angavastram, looking askance at me as I almost bumped into him. I mumbled a greeting and walked away- spirits are trouble enough, without having to mention people. I turned the key and walked into my house, to the peace and quiet of wide spaces and large windows.
The driver arms himself with a sackful of potatoes from Lachung and off we go, back to Gangtok. I look at the mountains, now hidden in the thick cloudy mist, that I feel like I’ve known forever. I cannot tear myself away from them, but leave I must.
Dusk falls in an hour or two after we set off, and the driver negotiates the tortuous slopes of the Himalayas in near-darkness. The Seven Sisters Waterfall, vibrant with human voices added to its relentless gush on our upward climb, now has nature’s night music for accompaniment. The tea stalls are shut, their proprietors walking about briskly in the cold air, and the prayer flags are no longer visible. For all we know, we could be driving down a road never traversed- and we still wouldn’t realise it.
The jeep halts suddenly and a torchlight is flashed through the windows. The tension inside is palpable- but then the man holding the torch grins broadly, says something in his language to his friends, and our driver steps out for a laugh with them. A collective sigh of relief is heard, confused questions are asked, and once again, a little weary, we’re on our way to the capital.
The fairy-lights of the city come into view, spread across vast Himalayan slopes. It stretches out into the distance, wide and endless, even as we dip into one trough and emerge onto another crest. Dropped off at the “bus-stop” where all the jeeps to and from major towns in the region converge, we make our way up a steep, moss-covered flight of steps- there are narrow stairways connecting one street to another all around town- to Mall Road. It is past eight o’clock and the last of the souvenir shops are preparing to wind up their business for the day. A teacher in a red cardigan over her synthetic saree shepherds her girls down a narrow lane to a hotel hidden in its recesses; a schoolmaster asks his restless students to line up so he can conduct a headcount. We find a vegetarian restaurant and finish dinner quickly. There is one dream yet to be fulfilled.
I go to the balcony in the morning to be confronted by a strikingly beautiful view- where clouds have swirled for three days now, mountain peaks now stand out in snow-covered glory, their peaks softly tinged by the first rays of the sun. The sky has been washed clean and is deliciously blue- our last day in Sikkim is one of the finest the town has seen in a while.
We take a taxi to Tashi Viewpoint, and our garrulous driver sets off at breakneck speed, anxious that we should make it there before the sun comes out or the weather stops behaving. All through his hurry, however, he talks rapidly, his left hand gesturing and waving as he frequently takes it off the wheel to establish a point. He is a practicing Hindu, he says, but was born in a Buddhist family, where the norm was to give one child away, male or female, to the monastery. His elder brother is a monk. He points to the shiny prayer wheel on his dashboard, a ubiquitous presence in cars in the region, and talks of its powers- about how it must be blown on by a monk before its effectiveness can be made visible. He shows us his house, and the school where his son studies. All along the way, we see children trudging up to school, some reluctantly, others nonchalantly; a little boy opens a bottle of mango juice and pours some into his younger sister’s mouth, giggling at a secret joke they share meanwhile.
We make our way up to Tashi Viewpoint, and from there, magnificently rising into the clear skies, I see the Kanchenjunga, the third-highest peak in the world. It is in fact a series of five peaks, and they spread out gloriously on this cool, crisp morning, unencumbered by their burden of clouds. A tour guide tells us of people who have been visiting for days for a glimpse of the mountain, but returned crestfallen each time, defeated by the weather- we should consider ourselves extremely lucky to have been blessed with such brilliant skies. And so I do- every inch of these ancient mountains teems with life, and to be able to see them in their full splendour, bathed in sunshine, is to have an imprint etched in my memory, one to pull out of the closet every time the question of the purpose of life nudges and haunts me.
Our final stop in Sikkim will be the Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Ranka, an offshoot of the one at Rumtek, the monastery at the heart of the Karmapa controversy. We are delayed by an altercation between the drivers of two vehicles which have brushed against each other, taking the entire thoroughfare ransom- our cab-driver gets out to talk to them and manages to placate them. “Men from my village,” he explains, as he gets back in and drives us up the road that sweeps into the monastery gates.
A long line of dark prayer-wheels greets us. We are told to touch them, one by one, before we go up the flight of steps to the monastery. It is a graceful, red-roofed structure with a spacious courtyard, at the end of which is a brightly-painted wall. We greet the two monks seated near the door and they invite us in. We are directed up the steps to the large hall where Buddha, serene and beautiful in His golden form, flanked by other deities, looks upon humanity benevolently. The profound silence seeps is overwhelming, and I think of this quiet temple, tucked away in picturesque pockets of the Himalayas, cut off from the bustle of the world below. The corridors are lined with closed rooms, warmed by the mild sunrays that slant into them. Young monks learn their lessons, talking to one another in hushed tones, smiling, giggling- but there is also an air of grown-up wisdom about them, perhaps endowed by the discipline and their maroon robes. We can hear lessons in English from a classroom window- a disembodied voice talks of rising early and sleeping early, and a group of boys repeats after it. Behind the monastery, the ground slopes up further to another building that we see monks walking up to, going uphill effortlessly. Tall trees canopy the sky- what a beautiful place this is in which to learn and live- it must be so much easier to be good here than in the unholy machinations of the plains! The older monks tell us the monastery is twenty years old, and follows the principles of Mahayana Buddhism- differing from the Theravada form of Buddhism that is practised widely in Singapore, where I had my first tryst with the religion. We request them to light a butter lamp for us, because the lama is not around, and they agree to do so.
We slip into the souvenir shop, where, as we look around, we have a conversation with a Tibetan man who used to be a monk, but now helps out around the monastery and teaches children. He explains some of the characters on the scrolls in the shop and asks us about our stay in Sikkim. He is genuinely pleased when we tell him how much peace we’ve found here, and shakes hands with us as we leave.
This also marks the end of a fulfilling journey, my first visit to a tiny bit of the little-explored Northeastern parts of the country- and nearly a month on, the hangover has still not subsided. The Himalayas still populate my dreams, rising grandly into the clouds and blue skies, some with sunshine and shadow chasing each other on their green slopes, others coarse from erosion and showing off snow-speckled surfaces. The river Teesta, meanwhile, flows silkily through the valleys, fed forever by the melting ice, pure and crystal-clear. This, after all, is what will remain when we have managed to self-destruct with all our callousness- rigid testimony to the history of millennia.