Monday, December 22, 2008

A “Mess-rable” State of Affairs

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A New Roommate

Having spent more than a month now living with a man, I have a new female roommate for company. She’s got big round alert brown eyes, a white snout, a black body, white socks and a curly prawn tail. Our recent guest is Mayna – I can only hope that the name is correct. This mongrel with absolutely no hint of pedigree belongs to an officer currently on leave.

Sources have it that Mayna has spent the last month or more locked up in her mistress’ room during the night and tied up outside during the day. Feeling very sorry for the poor dog, who has spent nights whining in her room alone, we asked that she be brought to stay with us until her owner returns.

While she appears quite thrilled for the company she has now, Mayna also seems somewhat disconcerted at the sudden change. She slept peacefully last night, shifting place once in a while. That is more than I can say for overly concerned Ducky, who lost precious sleep checking on her every once in a while during the night.

This morning I bathed her – she badly needed some cleaning up. Initially, I was unsure of how she would react to a stranger dousing her with water, but she took so well to the bath that she’d put my two pedigree boys back home to shame. Not a whimper, not a whine. While one of my boys back home would have howled the place down like he were being slaughtered, the other would have slipped out to go flaunt himself out in the open, wearing nothing but soap suds. Mayna, on the other hand, just stood there while I applied ample amounts of Ducky's shampoo on her and gave her a good scrub. (I figured that after his super-short haircut this morning, he wouldn’t need much shampoo anyway.) The water ran black and I definitely needed a bath myself after that.

Mayna was given her marching orders almost as quickly as she was brought here – she turned out to be quite a handful to look after – the idea of cleaning up a strange dog’s poo did not appeal to any of us.

Menmaichhu Lake

Another day, another picnic, another beautiful locale. Having heard a lot about this lake, my expectations were rather high and, as is becoming regular with Sikkim, I was far from disappointed.

Menmaichhu Lake is about 2.5 kms away from the new Baba Mandir. It doesn’t seem to be a tourist hotspot just yet, which is just as well – the place is pristine, quiet, and absolutely spectacular.

Of course, the approach road leaves a lot to be desired. This probably deters people from making the trip too often. We were driven down in the Army Gypsies, and the ride was rather similar to sitting on a bucking bronco. The road is steep and is made of nothing but boulders. I was spared somewhat, being snugly sandwiched between two other ladies.

After gratefully scrambling out of our bumpy rides, we walked another half kilometer or so. There was a thick mist that lifted just about a foot or so as we approached, revealing clear sparkling water. The weather gods were in a jolly mood apparently – the mist soon disappeared altogether and the sun shone down, setting the water all a-twinkle.

Maintained by the state’s fisheries department, the lake is completely unspoiled. There are rainbow trout in the lake – although we didn’t get a good look at the fish, we could see bubbles rising every once in a while and a slithering form beneath the clear water’s surface.

A well-laid stony path allows one to walk the entire perimeter of the lake – this took us a good hour or more, including breaks for dozens of pictures. In some areas, it was difficult to believe we were in India. There wasn’t a soul besides us in the area and nature shone in all her glory – the crystal water reflecting an aqua sky and the thickly wooded perimeter battling the onset of winter. At the far end, the water escapes down a rocky path over which the authorities have constructed a little bridge. This provided yet another photo op!

Once done with the trek around the lake, we headed back on our bucking broncos for lunch at the Army Hut at Baba Mandir. The walk had made us ravenous. The Pav Bhajji on offer was delicious and we stuffed ourselves to the gills. This time, the souvenir shop was absolutely empty and I got a good look at everything. I picked up a little Buddha head made of fishbone that is supposed to bestow health, wealth, and prosperity – I figured a good dose of each could do us no harm!

On the way back, we stopped off at the war memorial that is a tribute to all those soldiers who gave up their lives during the Indo-China conflict at Nathu La, post 1962. The marble tablets with the list of martyrs’ names are as much a record as they are a reminder of the families those great men must have left behind when they put country before self.

Crooks and Croquet

A picnic at the Yak Golf Course, the highest course in the world according to the Guinness Book, for all officers at the brigade, their families, and a dog – a Miniature Pincher who is adorable if you fancy wide-set bulbous eyes on a ratty face that is constantly trying to lunge at you and take a good nip.

A croquet course adjoins the golf course and everything was set up by the time we arrived. We quickly divided ourselves into two groups – officers in one team with the ladies on the other team led by one officer.

The afternoon passed quickly as both teams got into the spirit of the game, vying to get the ball around the course first by hook or by crook. We ladies were lucky to have the one officer who believes that winning is everything and no means is too low or too crooked to achieve that goal! To our credit, we did win one game without being sneaky.

After six rounds of croquet, a game of golf – chipping by the men and putting by their respective partners – followed. Ducky teed off with great enthusiasm and just about avoided sending his ball into the little lake nearby. Incidentally, this lake is actually an ice hockey rink when it freezes over later in winter. Once Ducky had chipped our ball back onto the browns, I putted it into the hole in three attempts – a far cry from my nightmare that I’d keep putting till the cows came home before I managed to get my ball home.

I’m not sure whether it was the chill in the air, the physical exercise, the general uncharacteristic bonhomie of the group, or the lovely Sikkimese brewed beer, Dansberg, but I was quite famished by the time lunch came around and quite enjoyed the chicken biryani on offer. The group was livelier and more engaging as opposed to its usual stiff uncomfortable stance and strained conversation about the weather (of each month of the year), children (their games and schooling), and turbulent stock markets (a subject that everyone seems obliged to bring up because of the nature of my job).

Baba Mandir

The Baba temples – the new one and the old – hold utmost significance for the troops in this part of the country. The temples have been constructed in homage to Harbhajan Baba, a soldier who died in an avalanche in the area. (There are various versions about his death and I will get into these at a later point.)The others could not locate his body until one day, he reportedly appeared in a comrade’s dream and told him where to find his body. They found the body exactly where he’d said it would be. Ever since then, Baba has supposedly looked after the safety and well-being of troops in the area.

The old Baba Mandir has Baba’s bunker that is now a shrine of sorts. His study table has a pile of notebooks in which one must write one’s wishes and they will supposedly be granted by Baba. On Sundays, the temple is crowded with soldiers and tourists alike. The halwa doled out as prasad by the soldiers who look after the place is absolutely delicious. Note: This is doled out only on Sundays – I found out this disappointing fact on my second visit here which was on a week day.

The new Baba Mandir was constructed when the adverse icy conditions of the area impaired accessibility to the original temple. Opposite the new temple is CafĂ© Thirteen Thousand – a coffee shop with a nice souvenir shop if you’re game to jostle with and out-yell hysterical tourists for little silk purses, mobile covers, Chinese fans, Buddha statues and other curios.

At the new Baba Mandir, hubby dear and two comrades, all in uniform, were asked to pose for a photograph with an awestruck tourist from Gujarat. He said he was grateful to the men in uniform who protect our nation. It appears that the apathetic Indian civilian population is finally waking up to realize just how much we actually owe our armed forces. It took a disaster like the Mumbai terror attack to evoke this. I can only hope that the recognition, respect and gratitude do not fade with time – public memory seems so short – and that it will translate into something good being done for our armed forces.

Temple Tok

Hanuman Tok and Ganesh Tok are two temples in close proximity to the Himalayan Zoological Park. Although quite a few people, both locals and tourists, visit the temples, the atmosphere is serene and quiet – qualities that I find are becoming Sikkim’s trademark.

Ganesh Tok is smaller than Hanuman Tok but offers a good view of Gangtok set against the backdrop of Mt. K and the Himalayan range. As we ascended the steps to the temple, a signboard instructed us to remove our shoes. “Should we remove our socks also?” asked a genuinely confused visitor. May be the scarcity of oxygen at this altitude was doing strange things to his brain.

Hanuman Tok is a bigger temple with a pretty, colorful garden. Again, the now omnipresent Mt. K and his comrades paint a spectacular backdrop for the temple. It appeared that the two foreigners at the temple were equally bored with Mt. K’s constant presence – they were keener on photographing a bunch of Nepali women workers squatting in the temple premises, eating out of their steel tiffin boxes. Scoop!


The park houses both the Snow Leopard and the Common Leopard (Spotted Panther). The single snow leopard was napping peacefully in his concrete house when we arrived. On the face of it, he paid us no attention at all and did not budge while we clicked pictures. However, the shrewdness of the beast was apparent, as he slyly watched us retreat through the corner of his eye, which was open just a slit. The Snow Leopard is a beauty and inspires some kind of awe. We scarcely even whispered in his presence. There is just something about the animal, which compels one to stay in his good books at all times! Opinion: Do not tug his thick fluffy tail no matter how irresistible the urge. I doubt he’d let you go with just one tight slap.

The Common Leopards were sunning themselves too. Apparently, this time in the morning is tanning time for the park’s inmates. No doubt Ducky heralded the prospect of a tasty snack for, as we climbed up to their enclosure, one leopard immediately adopted a crouching stance and licked his chops in anticipation. Watching him, we almost missed seeing his considerably larger partner sunning himself right next to us.

I rather cautiously turned my back to Big Spotty to pose for a picture with him in the background. I didn’t think my little ticker would be able to survive the shock if he caught me unawares and decided to roar and hurl himself at me through the bars.

Crying Wolf

The Tibetan Wolf looks exactly like a slim white Alsation. The pack of them did not seem one bit bothered by our gawking presence. They were more intent upon soaking up as much sunshine as possible in this land where the commodity is scarce. With complexions as pale as that, they certainly looked like they could do with a lot more sun.

Himalayan Palm Civets and their sour-puss neighbors

The Himalayan Palm Civets were clearly Ducky's favourites – I doubt he’d love them as much had they decided to unleash their stink colognes on him.

However, rank odors aside, they are very cute to behold. They curiously crowded around Ducky as he posed for a picture with them. Their stance was not unlike meerkat lookouts.

Their neighbors, the Himalayan Wild Cats, were quite literally sour pusses. They kept their backs to us, scowling surly at us over their shoulders. Gee, someone sure got out the wrong side of their beds this morning!

Pheasantly Surprised

We came upon a path marked “Birds”. Not particularly into ornithology myself, and Ducky not quite keen on birds of the feathered variety, we, nevertheless, decided to take a look. We came upon the brightly colored Lady Amherst Pheasants. While busy photographing them for posterity, we noticed something bushy and red running around in the caged enclosure next door. I could scarcely control my yelp of delight – it was a podgy little Red Panda! What on earth he was doing along with the birds, I have no clue. The little guy kept running in circles around his enclosure – obviously not a slacker when it comes to the good old morning jog. He may have been in some distress due to the slightly warm temperature or the singing workmen nearby.

However, he decided to go right up to Ducky and take a good sniff – perhaps he rightly suspected that a certain someone had forgotten to bathe that morning. Astute fellow. I couldn’t get enough of the endearing little chap with his shiny round eyes and fluffy cheeks. With a good deal of reluctance, we finally left to visit the other inmates.

The Red Pandas

I need not have fretted about leaving our little panda friend. There were two more smaller specimens in the designated red panda enclosure further on. Although curious about our presence there, the two little red pandas were also very shy and quickly retired into the safety of their shed.

However, they did offer us a good view of themselves as they gracefully ran along logs and through the light green grass in their enclosure. I couldn’t get enough of them and it was with considerable reluctance that I dragged myself off to the next lot of inmates.

Dare to Bear

Ducky and I tromped down a path and came to a concreted viewpoint that offered a breathtaking sight of the snow-clad Himalayas and Mt Kanchenzonga that is now a regular feature in all my “scenic pictures”. Seeing the stupendous mountain so often has now begun to make it lose that novelty. My heart has ceased to skip a beat when the mammoth mountain displays itself!

While busy posing for photographs at this viewpoint, I suddenly noticed something peeking out of a little concrete shed in the walled enclosure just below us. It was a Himalayan Black Bear who just couldn’t decide whether he wanted to come out or not. He’d peek out every few seconds, raising our hopes that he’d make an appearance for our eager lenses (and give us a full frontal maybe?), but then he’d vanish again. He was almost as fickle as Ducky! His partner, who we spied much later, refused to oblige us and remained lolling about on his back behind a clump of bamboo.

The Himalayan Zoological Park

The existence of a well-administered and pristine manicured zoological park just about 9 kms from the heart of Gangtok seems largely unknown. This is just as well as the place is thankfully devoid of noisy, boorish tourists, who otherwise infest every other place of interest in Sikkim. My obsessive trawling for information about Sikkim before this trip placed the park at the top of my must-visit list. The park was far from disappointing. I was impressed with its upkeep and the overall health and well-being of the animals housed here.

The animals are kept in a semi-natural environment. After driving a certain distance, visitors have to walk on a path that snakes right through the park taking them up, close and personal to the park’s inmates.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Talk of Gangtok

Gangtok is a place after my own heart. The weather is ideal - clear blue, sunny skies with just that right amount of chill in the air. The place is clean and the people polite and friendly. Did I say the place is clean? Well, "clean" is an understatement. The main road here, M.G.Marg is a litter and spit-free zone. Littering here invites a fine of Rs 5,000 and/or six months imprisonment. The cobbled road is a walker's road and all vehicular traffic is banned here. The road is divided by a row of flowering plants, water fountains, and ornate street lamps. There is a sense of calm, quiet and general contentment as window shoppers, locals and tourists go about doing what they do best. The buildings along the road are neat and well-maintained. You could be in any quaint European city. One feels far removed from the regular dirt, hustle and bustle of other Indian cities.

I was struck by the well-laid pavements around the city. It is neatly cobbled with a green railing all along the side, separating it from the road. One can almost get from one end of the city to the other using these well-planned walkways without having to skitter through traffic. Even better, you can walk without fear of busting an ankle on uneven stones or falling through gaping holes in the pavement - a far-cry from the sorry excuses for pavements we have back in Bangalore. Shame on IT city.

For a woman, Gangtok seems ideal - at least as far as I have experienced. I could walk through the place without fear of lecherous men with groping hands, catcalls, or lewd comments.

Although I have little information on just how effective law enforcement is in Gangtok, the appearance of the police officers of the city is something to write home about. Policemen and policewomen here are very smartly turned out and look very fit and alert. No disheveled, potbellied, paan-chewing, head-scratching, lathi-wielding types here. Note to self: Must try to sneak a picture of one or some of these police officers for my blog viewers.


That night we dined in Siliguri at Hotel Ranjit. The place was filled with big Marvadi families with dozens of spoiled, wailing kids. Ducky and I settled down to enjoy some beer, tandoori chicken and fish tikkas. However, it was not to be. The fish was a letdown and I got a few disapproving looks from the women around. Virtuous women do not guzzle beer around these parts apparently. Not that I really gave a rat's arse. One kid came and stared at me (the sinner) with her kohl-filled eyes until I began toying with the idea of issuing her some kind of threat of bodily harm. Fortunately (for her), she lost interest and wandered off to hammer a table with a pepper shaker. I was entertaining all sorts of images of permanently destroying the little wretch, when even nature decided it had tolerated more than enough. The child simply toppled over and whammed her mouth against the table. I had to restrain myself from standing up and applauding. Her bleeding mouth and loud wails finally caught the attention of her so-far unconcerned mother. We decided this was a good time to vamoose from the place. Please note: My maternal instincts have obviously not kicked in even now.

Miles to go Before I Sleep

The next morning, we set off by road for Gangtok in Sikkim. As we crossed the border into Sikkim from West Bengal, I felt a little thrill. I also felt a lot of relief to see the last of West Bengal. The drive was absolutely spectacular. The narrow road snakes all along the Teesta river. Although there isn't much water in the river at this time of year, the emerald green water studded with smooth grey stones set against the thick green mountains is a treat to see. The crisp and fresh mountain air was a welcome change after smelly West Bengal. In about four hours after we'd started out, we reached Gangtok. We halted here briefly to visit the ATM and pick up some baked goodies from Baker's Cafe, which I'd read about before my trip. From there we zigzagged our way up to Mile 17 - the acclimatization camp and my home for the next six nights.

Bargains at Bagdogra

We disembarked at NJP and proceeded to Siliguri, where we were to spend the night at the Army guesthouse. From Siliguri, we made a quick trip to Bagdogra to shop for warm clothes and take a look at the market there. I picked up a nice warm hooded jacket for Rs 350 and a thick, soft polo-neck sweater for Rs 100! For someone used to expensive Bangalore, this was quite a jaw-dropping shopping expedition. We also picked up 36-movies-in-one DVDs for Rs 50. I now possess a single DVD with almost all of Johnny Depp's blockbusters! I feel quite ashamed for having rejoiced in Bangalore when I ferreted out a place that sold single-movie DVDs for Rs 60 or even 4-in-one Bollywood DVDs for Rs 40!

Time Pass

The diminutive fellow with large mischievous eyes and a cheeky smile arrived at our compartment with a host of his homemade fried goodies. "T-T-Time p-p-passsss", he called out in a sing-song fashion. He then proceeded to dole out little samples of his condiments with an interesting story for each. "Whatever is loose will become tight after you have this", he told Ducky with a wink and a sly smile, before proffering some fried mixture. "Hello, half-young man!" he called to the grey and balding Gaseous Clay and offered him a sample. As we tasted each thing, he'd croon "t-t-time p-p-pass" before fishing out another sample. "For bachelors and those who have nobody to love", he announced with aplomb and revealed a packet of fried peanuts. He had us all completely amused, fascinated, and more than willing to buy his goodies with his unique charm. He had us stuffed to the gills with just his samples and I was more than willing to forfeit dinner at this point. Nonetheless, he wouldn't stop plying us with more samples. "T-t-time?" he said and cocked a brow at me. "P-p-pass" I squeaked back in what sounded like a very poor imitation. "P-p-passss", he replied, nodding his approval with a smile and refilled my eager open palm with another crunchy delicious mixture. Needless to say, he did booming business and was a hit with passengers of every gender, age, and creed. He will remain etched in my memory as the best salesman ever. The poor fellow will no doubt be disappointed to hear that a thieving rat at a guest house in Siliguri ravaged the t-t-time p-p-pass we bought from him. B-b-blasted v-v-vermin.

Footprints to Sikkim

Getting to Sikkim in itself was quite an adventure. Ducky and I boarded a Spicejet plane from Bangalore to Kolkatta. I mumbled at having been allotted an aisle and middle seat. Luckily, a very (and I cannot underline that enough) rotund lady waddled up and told us to take her window seat and plonked herself into the aisle seat. The rest of the flight proved quite uneventful save my having to curb Ducky's ill-concealed amusement at the rotund lady's continuous eating habit. I don't think either of us would have survived had she decided to bean us one each on the head for his comments. Toward the middle of the turbulence-ridden flight, a woman fainted while walking along the aisle. A call for any medical practitioner onboard yielded no results - whatever happened to the millions of doctors this country supposedly has? Not even a quack onboard? Strange. I suppose Bangalore-Kolkatta flights carry only software techies or Satyajit Ray-wannabes.

From Kolkatta airport, we took a cab to the railway station. All cabs there are the good old (albeit beat-up) Ambassadors. However, my initial nostalgic glee quickly turned to a feeling that I was too young to die. This was a cab from hell, a cabbie with a death wish. As he swerved around other equally homicidal vehicles and suicidal pedestrians at breakneck speed, I distracted myself by taking in the shabby, filthy streets, loud people, and quaint trams and smoke-belching buses. I realized with horror that the city's smoky air turns you into chimneysweep of sorts. After freshening up at the Army rest house at the station, we boarded the Kamrup Express for New Jalpaiguri (NJP).

Our fellow passengers included an Army Colonel, who couldn't understand why I would voluntarily give up a place where "oxygen is free" and head to the oxygen-scarce boonies of Sikkim. On my first day at the acclimatization camp, coping with strange symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), I must admit I thought he had a valid point! Our fellow passengers also included a belching old man and his gold-bedecked wife wielding the proverbial five-tier tiffin carrier. Almost needless to say, Gaseous Clay and Aunty Gold kept me amused for quite a while. However, they paled in comparison to the singularly most amusing character I have ever encountered on a journey - the "Time Pass" man. The written word can do very little justice to this enterprising seller of peanuts and other fried condiments. I wish I had captured his unique style on video.

Sikkim Ahoy!

I am finally here and I write this sitting "13,200 feet closer to God" as a sign board outside very aptly puts it. Inking my thoughts (and trademark strong opinions) about the place, people, and general setup has taken some time in coming. I shall attribute that to the fact that this cold freezes everything - including one's brain cells apparently! Not to mention a highly unreliable Internet connection!