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SIKKIM

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Andrew Duff   Penguin   Pages 380  Soft cover  Rs 799

By GANESH SAILI

Fall last year found me breathless at Nathu La. At 14,150 feet, this border outpost on the Roof of the World is where two countries face each other, eyeball-to-eyeball. You inch along a road carved out of the mountain to face to a rusty barbed-wire that marks the LOC. Beyond, covered in indigo hues sprawls the Tibetan plateau. I gasp for air.

Comes another sledgehammer blow – sucking the very breath of life out of me. I gasp again but this time though, it’s on reading this well-paced history of what happens when a small kingdom hangs on to the hem of three bigger neighbours. This is also a cautionary tale fir those ruling elite who hand over the tilling of their traditional agricultural land to outsiders. Oftener than not, the outsiders end up with the land (and political power) while the original owner are left holding the story. For starters, Sikkim is a tiny sliver of land, no more than seventy miles by forty miles. It caught the imagination of the world when the Chogyal Thondup, of the last King of Sikkim, the scion of a ruling Buddhist family, fell hopelessly in love with a teenager. Hope Cooke was seventeen years his junior and when international media (including Time magazine and National Geographic) splashed pictures of their wedding, evoking images of a Shangri La to attract the very attention that some fault for the chain of events that followed.

Go back to 1890, in the days of the Raj, when a Resident was posted in Gangtok. He was no more than a ‘Whisper behind the Throne, but never for an instant the Throne itself.’ For the Brits, the place was a launch pad which served as an outpost to gain influence in the Great Game.

After schooling at BCS Shimla, Thondup joined the ICS school in Dehradun, then running from a tented colony, but nonetheless ‘renowned as the training ground for bureaucrats’. It taught them the fundamentals of administration with an eye on the day when the Empire would pack their bags and leave. ‘Twas here that the young man picked up his love for all things western. However, Sikkim’s sensitive geopolitical position dealt him an almost unplayable hand.

Summer breaks saw Thondup return to his unpretentious lifestyle of the Palace, to be with his two beautiful sisters: Coocoola and Kula. Almost everyone, who saw them, seemed to fall in love with them.

‘Who would have suspected,’ wrote the Italian traveller and author, Fosco Maraini, seeing Kula ski on the slopes below Nathu La, ‘there was so much strength and determination in her pearl porcelain body?

Yet again: ‘The Tibetan words to fall in live is sem schor wa and means to lose one’s soul… in case of Coocoola, both were accurate,’ a smitten Heinreich Harrer, the Austrian explorer later wrote.

Of course this book is much more than the telling of the Chogyal’s story – a man who failed to get others on board to understand that small can be beautiful. As you go through the gamut of political developments: the uprising; the revolt and the dithering before the final denouncement. On the morning of 29 January 1982, Chogyal Palden Thondup passed into history.

As I drove back to Gangtok, past the tin-shed built to facilitate border trade, past the rhododendron reserves (with thirty species, a favourite of the 18th century naturalist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker) I was lost in daydreams of the curtain that fell in April 1975, ending three centuries of Namgyal rule when Sikkim became, the then, 22nd constituent of India.

On a cold winter’s day of 19 February, the Chogyal’s body was carried to the royal burial ground six miles further up towards Tibetan border. ‘And when the clouds of smoke billowed on and on though the pyre the seemed to be taking away the last of a friend as well on and up and beyond in just the right way.’

Rarely does the retelling of history get better than this. Great reading that falls hallway between a fairy tale romance and a political thriller.