Siliguri is a blink and you miss sort or town. A curve in the road, a couple of bridges over fast flowing rivers, shops on either side, mountains in the distance. Except for me it was my destination and I couldn’t afford to blink. It was around five in the evening when we got out of the bus and collected our baggage from the rack. After eighteen hours in the rickety bus from Kolkata Gaurav and me were really looking forward to resting on a flat bed, but the journey wasn’t yet over. Gangtok was another three hours from here and the last buses up the mountain left at three pm. It was as if everything that could go wrong was in fact going wrong. We had missed the train from Kolkata yesterday. Blame it on the mercurial traffic. Salt lake to Sealdah station in normal days took not more than half an hour. Yesterday it took us one and half painful hours. We then went to Ultadunga hoping that we could hitch a ride on one of those private buses to Gangtok or Siliguri or Darjeeling. We had four days off, and really didn’t mind where we were going. Having stood for an hour at Ultadunga it became obvious that we wouldn’t be going anywhere from there, and on someone’s suggestion decided to go to Esplanade and check our luck from there. Esplanade was from where all the long distance buses started. We managed to get two seats on an ‘additional’ (which actually meant ‘makeshift’) bus to Siliguri. The rickety bus broke down twice on the way and eighteen hours later dropped us off. Stepping out of the bus we were swarmed by beggars, hotel agents, taxi walas and various peddlars of goods ranging from children’s toys and Darjeeling tea to ganja and charas. We practically swam past that crowd to a nearby tea stall and sat down on a wooden bench.
Rain was like a curtain in the backdrop. It was always there and even in the summers of Bengal you wouldn’t be surprised if it turned dark all of a sudden in the evening and the clouds burst with mighty vengeance. Right from the time we started it was there flirting romantically and threatening furiously at the various times. Here in the valley it was floating in the air. Tiny droplets almost moved in the wind rather than come crashing down with fury. I sipped down my second tea, served in little round cups of clay, my mind trying to figure out the course of action. We didn’t have hotel reservations in Gangtok, and not sure if we’d be able to make it up the mountains and beat the falling darkness to our destination. Gaurav wasn’t the one who’d normally keep his mouth shut, but the mood of the day seemed to have got to him too. I saw him gazing intently at a snail making its way to a hole in a fungus infected piece of log. The tea done and seeing no point wasting any more time we set out to find someone who would take us up to Gangtok and managed to find a Sumo already filled to the brim calling out for more passengers. We got two seats in the back which faced sideways and were absolutely cramped for space as there already were two others there. Three hours through the winding roads in this wasn’t exactly going to be a pleasure trip.
My mind wandered, thinking of holocaust and concentration camps and lines of trucks and rail wagons with people cramped like sticks in a matchbox. The taxi started and we sped through a well paved road with an overhead canopy of thick trees making the driver switch on the headlights. But soon enough the road began to wind as we approached the base of the mountains. The lowest folds of the Himalayas were fairly nonthreatening. It was much like the demure façade of a wicked witch almost enticing you to come closer before it revealed the jagged ridges and jutting rock faces. I get an eerie feeling whenever I start on such mountain journeys; I guess remnants of several trips to Munnar gone bad long long back. The road started twisting and turning as our Sumo boldly took on the hills and the Teesta soon appeared to our right almost in reassurance to keep going. And almost as if inspired by it a Sikkimese girl who sat in the front with the driver and two other girls started singing a hindi song in a sing-song Sikkimese accent and a strangely soothing nasal voice. Apprehensions of a treacherous journey melted away and I was soon drifting off to sleep and didn’t notice the darkness envelope us and the rain getting heavier.
We were nearing Gangtok at around 8, when I was brought back to consciousness by a vicious turn in the road. To my amazement the Sumo had shed many of its passengers on the way. The group of girls an old couple and we were the only ones left now and Gaurav had moved into the middle row of seats and was chatting away excitedly to the singer girl, whose name I later found out to be Ganga.
Gangtok was a typical hill town with one arterial road, a mall road and a market. Gaurav had talked with the driver of the Sumo who agreed to take us till Lachung in North Sikkim the next day from where we could hike to Yumthang to the origins of the Teesta.
The next day we started very early in the day and I was surprised to find Ganga and the other girls also were traveling with us. This time Gaurav and I took the seats up ahead with the driver and the girls were sitting in the middle row. The distance to Lachung was just about 125 kilometers but it would be a whole day’s journey through treacherous terrain made accessible through the snaky roads of the Border Roads Organization.
Half an hour into the journey, bending a curve we saw the first glimpse of Kanchenjunga in the distance. The majestic snow capped peak glimmering in the golden morning light was magnificent. Throughout the journey our driver, Lapang Sherpa, a young man of 21 was chatting away as if we were long lost friends. Ganga and Lapang were both from Lachung and they knew each other. Along the way Lapang picked up people and it seemed that practically all those people knew him from such travels earlier. He has been ferrying people and goods that route for years. Lapang and Ganga were both prolific talkers and by lunch time we had made good progress and were in schedule to reach Lachung before nightfall. We stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch which was nothing more than a small hut and the lady served us rice and chicken, which for me tasted much like that I was used to at my home.
By around two in the afternoon we reached another small village from where I bought a pair of woolen gloves and a cap because I was having apprehensions that the flimsy jacket I had with me was going to be no match for the harsh mountain cold and Lapang advised that I should get reinforcements. But then when we were about to resume our journey we were told that traffic up ahead was stopped because of a minor landslide and it would take at least an hour or two for it to be cleared. Lapang suggested we spent more time in the village rather than get stuck in the middle of nowhere. We went back to the shop from where I had bought the woolens which also acted as a grocery store, a vegetable store and a tea stall. Gaurav bought two woolen scarves and gifted them to Lapang and Ganga, which they accepted extremely reluctantly but with much gratitude. We sat sipping warm tea flavored with herbs and spices and watched the sun slowly starting to go behind the mountains above the village.
It was almost dark by the time we started from the village and we had another couple of hour’s journey left to Lachung. Ganga started talking about her dreams of coming to Kolkata to study to become an airhostess and making it big. Lapang teased her that her life was in the village and there’s no point weaving up impossible dreams. The other girls who had started out with Ganga had got out on the way. The last leg of the journey to Lachung all of us shared our stories. Gaurav of his rather farfetched adventures of being attacked by a jaguar in Hrishikesh, me about life in Kerala which to them might as well have been in another continent and so on. By around eight in the night when we reached Lachung the small town was almost entirely dark. Lapang found us a place to stay. For dinner we had rice and a stew of all different meats thrown together, which to my surprise was extremely delicious. After dinner we bade good bye to Ganga and Gaurav made sure that she got his mobile number and asked her to give him a call when she came to Kolkata for her air hostess training. We found a place where they sold liquor and we got a half bottle of whiskey.
The next morning we were awaken by the sounds of Lapang banging on our doors. Our plan was to travel to Yumthang on our own and then travel back to Gangtok that day evening to Gangtok. Lapang had come to say that he was free for the day and that he can take us up the mountain to a place called Katao which is actually an outpost of the Indian army near the Chinese border and was forbidden for tourists. Villagers were talking of it having snowed up in Katao throughout the night and Lapang made us feel that it would be almost scandalous to come till Lachung and not visit Katao. We decided to go with our excited Sherpa friend and take a chance. The sight out of our balcony overlooking the village of Lachung was absolutely amazing. It looked like a lost village that I imagined up reading Enid Blyton’s and others’ novels as a child. The village was at the confluence of two of Teesta’s tributaries and a steel bridge over it was reminiscent of some war movie.
Our trip up the mountain to Katao started with the crossing of this bridge and it was straight up hill from there. We could see snowcapped peaks quite near and the chill in the wind was getting unbearable. I put a hand on Lapang’s shoulder and thanked him for having asked me to get those woolens yesterday. But in stark contrast to the Lapang that we had got used to, he was quite silent. I tried gently prodding him to see if he would open up. He kept his silence for some more time focusing his attention on the road and the herd of Yaks that were walking around freely by the road, and then almost when I was about to give up he started talking about what was bothering him. He told us that Ganga and he had grown up together in Lachung and that they were in love with each other. Nobody in their families knew about it.
Lapang was a darling of the village and even Ganga’s parents liked him. He was much like the run-to man in the village. But the problem was that Lapang was a Nepalese and Ganga was Sikkimese. Their parents would never agree to the marriage no matter what. Moreover he was an uneducated taxi driver, a sherpa and she was a graduate with big dreams. He said he’d do anything to see her achieve those, but this village wouldn’t be the place for it. They had to get out and that too soon. Kolkata was the most logical port of call, but they didn’t know anyone there. Gaurav and I were keen to help. We gave our phone numbers to Lapang and assured him that we’d do all we can to help. Lapang’s eyes were almost filled with tears when we said this and the look of relief, hope and anticipation combined, conveyed his gratitude more than words ever could.
Three days later we were back in Kolkata. Three years since that trip, and I haven’t heard from either Lapang or Ganga, neither has Gaurav. Our phone numbers have changed now. For a long time I kept my old Kolkata number active even after moving to Mumbai thinking that he might someday give a call. It never came.