At the break of dawn I was up. I was up but not immediately inclined to leave the cosy comforts of bed. Afterall, the night before was exceedingly cold. Since the bedroom windows of the State Guest House were facing East, the entire room was flooded with the free gift of sunshine. I got over my inertia upon looking at the timepiece. The tour of two Districts had to begin at 6.00am and it was already forty past five. Swift action followed. Even the daily bath and pooja had to be cut short. Breakfast had to be packed rather than taken. It was too early for performing the ritual.
2. We hit the road ten minutes behind the schedule. Outside it was foggy. Visibility was a problem but my expert driver could manage reasonably well to drive swiftly on the meandering road going down to Ranipul. While passing through the 6th Mile, one could presume that Jayshree Didi was struggling to wakeup Jeejaji for the morning walk. K C Daju ,on the other hand, was not only up but was deeply engrossed in looking after his marvelous collection of orchids.
3. Today being a holiday, majority of the populace of Gangtok was in deep slumber We could notice some traces of previous night drizzle. Opening the window screens enabled the cold piercing wind inside. For a moment, it was refreshing. Later, to keep myself in tandem with the outside atmosphere, I kept lifting the glass up and down a couple of times.
4. From Ranipul to Singtam, the Ranikhola , to our left ,gave us the much needed company in this quiet hour. Its water was light green but the overall flow was clean. Patches of forest on both the sides of the highway were not dense. They had the necessary relaxing effect,nevertheless. While sighting of traditional huts would be soothing ,appearance of unaesthetic concrete structures at quick intervals will propel me to think about the imminent ecological catastrophe ahead.
5. Though we had begun slightly late, we managed to reach Singtam ahead of time. A steaming hot cup of milkless Temi tea at Food Godown provided the required refreshment. Munching of a few Crackjack and Goodday biscuits too had the desired effect. One had to resist the temptation to have more of these as proper breakfast was arranged at Namthang, a distance of 33 kms.
6. The dependable Esteem car picked up momentum in a matter of seconds. As soon as we left Singtam, the mighty Teesta river began following us from the right side. Though the volume of water was low, its currents were horrifying, to say the least. What a contrast it was with the Rani Khola! While the scenario ahead looked more attractive, the road also became somewhat straight and wide. A fast drive of about nine kms upto the Mamring bridge was extremely thrilling if not exhilarating.At the sleepy village of Mamring , we were very close to the Teesta, so much so ,that I decided to feel its icy cold ajure water and followed up the same by taking a few rare snaps.
7. The Journey resumed soon. Now it was going to be an uphill drive both through the devastated and green well preserved patches. The vehicle will slow down occasionally whenever a slide or sinking area or for that matter, a causeway will appear. Not only many parts of the East and South Sikkim were visible, but the famous town of Kalimpong could fortunately be seen ,though from a distance,as we gradually proceeded to Namthang.
8. The simple yet appetizing breakfast,forty minutes later in the satisfying setting of a traditional Nepali house was something, one was longing for. Bright sun greeted us when we were in a mood to stretch our tired muscles. The drive further was enjoyable. We could see less of human beings but more of nature. View from some of the turns and bends was simply exotic. One came across cute and handsome tiny tots as also naughty small animals every now and then. Sight of waterfalls and streams was missing ,somehow.
9.Subsequent to a drive of little less than half an hour, the first view of Namchi, the HQ of South Dist. was possible. Apart from the rapidly developing town, the sparkling statue of Guru Padmasambhava, atop Samdruptse was very much noticeable. A small hamlet situated about 80 degree below a poorly maintained Viewpoint completed the picture. I could not prevent myself from taking more rapid fire snaps.
10. Very soon I was in the premises of the Namchi Food Godown. It appeared in better shape than what I had seen at Singtam. Though it did not have any space constraints, record maintenance left much to be desired. Without spending any further time we drove comfortably down to Jorethang(18 kms). Thereafter, began the steep climb to Soreng. The drive through steep dense forest of Zoom lifted our spirits. One could comfortably have a bird’s eye view of Jorethang and quietly flowing Rangeet river. A few nondescript hamlets in the vicinity of Darjeeling were also visible. In view of the fact that the total drive thus far was to the extent of about 130 kilometres and that we had to go down and then climb up at least three four times, signs of fatigue became apparent. After a relaxed lunch cum dinner, therefore, we decided to halt. For want of advance booking, no government accommodation could be accessed. Nonetheless, it became a blessing in disguise.
11. The arrangement made for the night stay at a small hamlet in the outskirts of Soreng was going to be a memorable piece of experience. One felt as if one was back to school days spent in the modest settings of small towns. The element of warmth, courtesy and care was prominent in the overall behaviour of our hosts. In addition to nicely prepared ethnic food, the looks of pets was something which needs to be flagged. There were dogs, cats, goat kids, pigs as also a talkative parrot.
12.The next day was not very bright .The feel of better and fresh air as compared to Gangtok was definitely soothing. Naturally, therefore, I was tempted to undertake a brisk walk in the congenial and pollution-free rural settings. Everyone appeared up and kicking by the time it was quarter past seven.
13.The journey towards Sombaria began around 9:00 am after we had helped ourselves with a hearty breakfast. All along, plenty of constructions were afoot. These concerned, mainly the footpaths, roads, bridges, culverts and a few community oriented facilities. Most of these were to disturb the ecological balance sooner or later. After going through many of these biotically interfered areas, we did get a chance to see gushing streams, thick canopy of forests and terraced fields growing wheat and seasonal vegetables. We also passed through some of the beautiful bailey and suspension bridges. More photo opportunities,therefore, came by .
14.Having seen a few minor waterfalls close to the road as also deep into the cliffs, I was astonished to hear the sound of a huge waterfall. I could not believe myself when a mighty fall very close to Geetang village was sighted, very much on the road. We had plenty of time to go up the stairs and onto the arched bridge in order to admire the breathtaking beauty of the roaring waterfall. A halt of half an hour amidst its pleasing surroundings, perhaps helped in laying the foundation for a meaningful day ahead.
15. Within twenty minutes or so we reached the quiet village of Sombaria. The building housing the Food Godown, though newly constructed, was under occupied. The round and inspection took about an hour. I was surprised soon to note the absence of some of the key employees. It transpired that the Godown’s watchman had lost one of his teenaged daughters, the previous evening.
16. Upon reaching the balcony of the office I could see a cluster of traditional houses down below. One among them belonged to Karma Thinley Lepcha, the watchman. A descent of about two hundred feet through the dilapidated village footpath led us to the house. A simple wooden structure having a place for firewood and domesticated animals at its basement, was buzzing with activity. Though a shocking tragedy had happened in a matter of a few hours, there were no visible or felt signs of same. Some of the visitors definitely wore gloomy faces. As per local tradition, however, they would not refuse tea, Channg or even beer, something I politely declined in deference to the custom we followed on such sad occasions.
17. With the passage of about ten minutes I was introduced to Karma. Unfortunately, he hardly showed any sign of grief. Rather, he appeared drunk. Having given my heartfelt condolences, I decided to speak to his two surviving daughters and three sons. I also got a chance to converse with his two wives, called Jethi and Kanchi in the local parlance. I was informed that two days ahead of her premature demise, Nim Doma, a bright and promising class X student of Govt. Secondary School, Sombaria had developed light fever upon returning from school. She refused regular meal, milk or fruit. The examination by the Nurse-in-Charge of the Govt. PHSC was of no help. Some of the friends and relatives, therefore, managed to pool in some money to reserve a jeep so that she could be quickly taken to a relatively bigger PHC at Soreng. A qualified doctor was very much there. He looked at her in a routine manner. Instead of giving her the desired attention, he lost no time in referring her to the Dist. Hospital, Namchi. In the meanwhile, Nim Doma is reported to have developed more complications. Though the facility at Namchi was better and responses were somewhat quicker, perhaps a lot of valuable time was already lost. Subsequent to a long struggle throughout the night, the helpless girl breathed her last. A bright, smart and loveable being ,thus left this amazing world, much sooner than expected.
18. I was simply stunned. I was left with no expression. Bouts of silence engulfed the room. Very soon I was taken to a corner room to get the first and the last glimpse of the dead teenager. I gathered enough courage to perform the ritual of offering Khada over her body and left behind whatever money I had at this juncture. When I looked at her fair face, it was still attractive and glowing. Her eyes were closed for ever but her face probably gave faint hints about what she was aspiring to be even in absence of any worthwhile encouragement or support from her uncaring but poor father.
19. Back to the living room, I tried to mingle with the villagers. Though this was not the time to talk official, a few of them did recognize me and addressed me as their unassuming D.D.O of late eighties. Within no time, a few energetic young men managed to put the dead Nim Doma into a large tea carton in a sitting posture. With the chanting of Slokas by a group of handsome Lamas, the box was sealed forever. Before it was taken out for the last journey, all the offered Khadas were placed over it .I folded my hands, bowed and bid Nim Doma bye from a very heavy heart.
20. Slowly walking upto the Food Godown ,I felt as if I had developed a very strange rapport with the departed young soul. I won’t speak a word while we began an otherwise fascinating drive down to Daramdin, the rich and highly fertile and possibly the only ‘rice bowl’ of Sikkim. Going through the middle of this breathtaking flat region, I was fondly reminded of the memorable lunch taken in July 1988 in the office of Verghese, the then area JE of RDD. My life partner had just joined me then. In view of what I had seen and experienced, I could not gather courage to look for the lunch venue of yesteryears.
21. Leaving behind the memories of the immediate and distant past, turning towards the historic Limboo village of Tharpu, my attention was drawn to a patch of smoke coming from the top of Sombaria. Perhaps the smoke emanated from the funeral pyre of late Nim Doma. A bubbling
and vibrant life was on the verge of getting reduced to ashes, I thought so, without confirming the origin of the prominent smoke. Once again I felt perturbed. Though I had begun my journey from Gangtok on a happy note, I was retreating with the feelings that brought me much closer to the realities of the mystical life cycle. Life has to go on. It must go on. Tragedies come and go but the scar left by some of them, perhaps, cannot be erased from our psyche.