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 the 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.