On these broken roads, squatting in circles, sitting on the rocks, having a leisurely chat as if in a living room, for it is the single place at this time of year that is not squelchy and overgrown with foliage, are bands of resting villagers. A group of women in ruffled flowered nighties, which have become a daytime fashion here, admire a baby held by one of them. The baby has big kohl-lined eyes and a large black painted spot to ward off the evil eye. They get up to let our Jeep pass, resettle, and entertain the laughing baby by pelting him with lantana flowers.
Large signs—barracks, canteen, officers’ mess—mark sad concrete buildings. Little groups of soldiers go jogging by in comically big shorts, skinny legs sticking out, looking not nearly sturdy enough for combat. But when I ask the driver if he thinks India is properly defended against the Chinese, so close across the mountains at Nathu La, the old trade pass into Tibet, he says: “Oh, we are well defended. No need for worry. With roads like these how many Chinese will make it over?Ha ha ha!”
Perhaps the bad state of the roads has also kept many monasteries remote. They feel so far from the world and its dirty problems, it is jarring then to descend to military checkpoints and see these two aspects of Sikkim side by side, to witness how this place with a fairy-tale reputation has faced the problems of the modern world, with particularly tragic consequences.
The British began their forays into this region in the early 1800’s, starting tea plantations in the drenched and misty landscape after they lost their monopoly on the tea trade with China. Darjeeling was forcibly annexed from Sikkim by the Raj in 1861. The British took Kalimpong from Bhutan after the Anglo-Bhutanese war of 1864. They brought in Nepalis to work the tea plantations, for the area was too sparsely populated to provide sufficient labor. Soon the Lepchas, who practice Bon, a form of animism, and who believe that they are descended from sacred Kanchenjunga snow, became a minority in their own hills. The population is now 75 percent Nepali, less than 20 percent Lepcha. Later India adopted much the same attitude toward Sikkim as the British had earlier. Despite a desperate attempt to keep his kingdom’s sovereignty, the last chogyal of the only Himalayan Buddhist kingdom other than Bhutan was forced, after a plebiscite, to succumb to the vote of the Nepali majority. Sikkim was annexed by India in 1975. Wary of a similar fate, Bhutan adopted an aggressive policy against its Nepali population, attempting to keep out new immigrants. Nepalis were also hounded from the Indian states of Assam and Meghalaya in bouts of terrible violence. And in yet another twist of history, shaken Indian Nepalis demanded a separate Nepali state, Gorkhaland. For years, through the 1980’s, the mountains were engulfed by a separatist movement called GNLF, Gorkha National Liberation Front. Perhaps it was an inevitable occurrence in a nation cobbled together in this fashion, with shifting populations and borders, with so many competing loyalties. Ownership will always be contested—it is just perspective, after all.
When I was a child, my family had a house in Kalimpong, across the Tista River from Darjeeling. The hills of Sikkim were blue in the distance. Some 20 years ago now, and I still remember how the air was thick with the threat of what was to come. People here refer to what occurred as “the Agitation.” What exactly happened will always be debated. Bridges and police stations were bombed, roads destroyed, government buildings went up in flames, police brutality was sanctioned by politicians. Business came to a standstill. Tea plantations were shut down, the tourism industry vanished, schools and colleges closed. No water, no phones, no electricity, no food. In the end, the GNLF was granted a political platform and greater autonomy, which stopped, however, short of statehood. In the air today is the stink of something not quite over.
The ghost of the Raj lingers on not merely in the politics, but in moldy buildings that once were grand. I have an aunt who still lives in Kalimpong, in an old English stone house that she discovered as a ruin, roof loaded with ferns, seemingly deserted, but with a blind Englishwoman being eaten alive by maggots in her big brass bed, abandoned by her servants. Eventually the woman died, and the house was sold by relatives in England. My aunt bought it, she says, because this place offers something that life elsewhere never could. She loves it for its beauty, fierce beyond the reach of civilization. Above her home, the mountains soar in twisted, hornlike peaks and convolutions that seem to mirror the region’s history and politics.
We spend a rainy-season dusk on her veranda. Below, the army is eating dinner in the mess.