Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Three foreign women compose Sikkim?s dirges and vanish

Sikkim was a buffer between India and China. So no Chusul happened here, nor Bomdila or Lamding. No Sikkimese peak became a Siachen either. Pundit Nehru had enough punditry to let Sikkim remain a sleepy wedge between the two giants in this sensitive Himalayan theatre. So there were no geopolitical domino dramas ever enacted here as elsewhere.
But his daughter Indira ?India? Gandhi thought otherwise. She ruffled and muddled the calm waters of Sikkim for her new gameplan after Bangladesh. Therefore, she became the third woman to toss her ball in Gangtok?s green velvety court.
That means there were already two other women gladiators in the fray. One was the American Gyalmo of the Chhogyal. Hope Cook, from Vassar or Amherst and of a true-blue American line, wanted to introduce American democracy in Sikkim. How would that be possible in a feudally rutted niche in the Himalaya would be left to her own devices. She, as the Grace Kelly of the East, also dreamt of and worked on the concept of her own Monaco in the mountains and turned the Chhogyal into a henpecked husband. And by the way, she was already suspected of being an entrenched CIA agent.
The third ?witch? was the ?European? wife of Kazi Lhendup Dorjee who conspired in the personal and family feuds between the Namgyals and the Dorjees that had its seeds of enmity sowed in their monkshood days at the Rumtek Monastery?s outhouse or manilakhang.
A glance into their old Rumtek rumblings has been sketched in my previous story. This rootless European female, nobody knowing which nation she actually belonged to, had the lowest pedigree and priority in her machinations. Devoid of the lofty ideals of Indira and Hope, she merely wanted to avenge her husband?s humiliations at Rumtek.
But the windfall for both Hope and this wild-card European woman in their respective intrigues would be to achieve the First Ladyship of Sikkim while Indira wanted to change the face of South Asia for good. Sikkim would be her second Bangladesh. In these grand designs, Indira?s South Asian regional objective emerged victorious.
But all three women were non-Sikkimese or foreign. While the other two women played their husbands - one the ruler and the other as chief minister - against each other as trump cards for their individual ambitions, one mundane and the other mighty, Indira was a widow and without a man. But funnily, they had nothing to lose and only to gain while composing their devilish dirges for Sikkim.
All these were happening amidst rumours of international tensions percolating in Sikkim where the Cold War almost found a new hot theatre: That the USA, Pakistan and China would gang up on India and USSR to thwart Indira?s designs on Sikkim. What a series of Great Games on Sikkim was planned with its own domestic tourneys going on in Gangtok!
As this is not a political essay but a layman?s indulgences, the rest of the story is history. And when this chronicle had become old hat, by 1988, I visited Sikkim in its changed avatar as the newest state of India. My visit coincided with the dying decade of emblazoned women empowerment, conservation, environment, heritage awareness and other UN jazz.
By this time, needless to say, the three women conductors called Indira Gandhi of India, Hope Cook of America and that illegitimate European woman had disappeared from Gangtok after wreaking their individual and collective havocs on Sikkim. Of the three Macbethan Ladies, only Hope Cook survives today, and she is believed to have consigned herself to New York where she is a ?cultural guide?.
I enter the picture at a time when Sikkim?s chief minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari was making his clarion calls. One of them was on the conservation and rediscovery of Sikkim?s major Buddhist monasteries, tentatively 90 of them, strewn all over Sikkim and belonging to all the four schools of Lamaist Buddhism. He declared that it was not the Jain Maths or Hindu Mandirs or the Christian Girja Ghars but the Buddhist Gumbas that were the true heritage of Sikkim. He further opined that Sikkim?s maths, mandirs and churches were merely two hundred years old whereas the gumbas, manes and chortens went back to primordial Sikkim. It was a grand gesture coming from a chief minister born of Hindu Nepali Chhetri migrants on behalf of the ancien Buddhist genesis of Sikkim.
This was how Sikkim had settled down by 1988, and rather well too, in the new Indian scheme of things that began in 1975, so much so that it was ready to reaffirm its old glory and redefine itself as a Buddhist state among India?s confederation of innumerable ethnic groups, castes, religions, languages, ways of living, primeval traditions and diversities going back to prehistoric days of legends and oral history.
Chief Minister Bhandari?s project was not an empty pipedream. His political will would be translated into reality because he had Fort Knox funds at his disposal. The bursting coffers of the state government of Sikkim would further be buttressed by the largesse from the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation that would finance the gargantuan rediscovery of Sikkim by way of its celebrated Buddhist monasteries.
Bhandari?s grand designs were sounded out to me in Kathmandu by Narendra Pradhan from whose elder sister Chandra I receive my annual Bhai Tika in Tihar. It was a period when I was self-employed as a consultant in Kathmandu. Therefore, this kind of prospect fitted my style and working schedules. Narendra was a well-known architect in Thimphu, Gangtok and Kathmandu during those flourishing years.
Narendra and his older brother Jivan Kumar had studied at St Joseph?s School of North Point in Darjeeling. Crown Prince Birendra of Nepal and his younger royal brothers were close friends who visited the Pradhans regularly to enjoy to their hearts? content Narendra?s mother?s homely preparations of traditional Nepali dal-bhat-tarkari-achar-machha-masu-khir-and-phal-phool desserts.
It was the same Narendra, our close family friend for decades in Kathmandu, who offered me a job in the Bhandari mission on Sikkim?s monasteries. He would be the principal consultant in this national project. As Narendra?s counterpart, I was to research and record the history, denomination and development of each of the monastery in Sikkim?s heritage list and Narendra would be responsible for their rehabilitation, renovation and enhancement in which only indigenous building codes, techniques and materials would be employed and used. This would be in total variance with the construction principles of the Indian PWD or Public Works Department and their love of using Portland cement, concrete and iron rods at every excuse. No, Narendra would reintroduce cut stones and slates for foundations and walls; cleft, cracked and spliced bamboo for partitions with slapped mud or surki plaster, and siru and rice straws for roofs.
These were our academic-cum-pragmatic project statements for Sikkim, with our HQs in Gangtok where Narendra already had his architectural and consultation firm and base.
So, with these tentative job descriptions, I found myself in Gangtok for the great mission possible.
At the conclusion of the endless 90-monastery project, I would be man of substance and an expert on Sikkimese Buddhism, what!