One might wonder why it’s easier to bathe a cat than it is to enter Sikkim. I certainly did. But when I asked Nidup about all the stamps and paperwork and military checkpoints, he just shook his head and said, “It is a very special place, Sikkim. Very significant.”
“Yes, I gathered,” I said. “But why?”
He laughed and threw up his hands. “Why not?” This was Nidup’s signature expression, which I’d come to learn could mean “why not” or it could mean “I don’t know,” “I don’t want to try to explain it in English,” or “Please be quiet, you’re annoying.”
I nudged Chris. “What?” he mouthed at me. I nodded my head toward Nidup, sitting shotgun next to Dustin the driver. “You ask,” I mouthed back. Chris frowned and jerked his head no.
I rolled my eyes then leaned out the window. It took a while to find the thread of the River Teesta that glinted like tinsel 1,000 feet below. The dirt road had no guardrail, but that didn’t stop Dustin from hugging the loose-gravel edge in order to skirt a boulder smack-dab in the middle of our way.
“How much longer?” I asked as I pulled my head back into the broiling tin can on wheels. The question was eerily existential considering how close our bald back tire had just come to the road’s edge.
Nidup looked at his watch. “Three, maybe four hour.” The potholes jerked us back and forth, and we held onto Nidup’s and Dustin’s headrests for support.
We bounced in silence for a while, until Chris asked Nidup if he was from Sikkim.
“I am from Darjeeling. But my father is from Bhutan and my mother from Tibet. They met, and now there is me!” He laughed.
“Yes, why not!” I said.
“Why not!” Nidup laughed. Then his face grew serious. “Many people in my family are refugees. Those lady I introduce you to, they know my mother.” He was referring to the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center we’d visited on the way out of Darjeeling. Established in 1959, the center helps Tibetans who were displaced after the Dalai Lama’s escape from the Chinese earlier that year. No wonder he wasn’t eager to discuss border politics.
“This was a very difficult time for many Tibetan people,” Nidup said. “It still is, even in my family.”
What I found out later, from an intriguing book titled Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom, by Andrew Duff, is that the small state of Sikkim, located in one of the biggest chinks in the Himalayan massif, has long been geopolitically valuable.
According to Duff, in the early eighteenth century the British wanted to trade with Tibet and so took control of the Kingdom of Sikkim. That situation lasted until 1947, when India gained independence from Britain after Ghandi’s Quit India movement. Sikkim then remained an independent country until 1975, when it was annexed by India—much to the chagrin of its chogyal (king).
In 2003, the Chinese government announced that it would recognize Sikkim as an Indian state, on the condition that India officially recognize Tibet as a part of China. As a result, the Sikkimese and the Chinese could trade once again—albeit with so many restrictions it seems hardly worth the effort.
What I found even more compelling about Sikkim was a black-and-white photograph in the lobby of our hotel in Pelling. A glamorous young woman with piles of hair and kohl-lined eyes, she looked like a brunette Princess Grace Kelly. The brass plaque attached to the bottom of the frame identified her as Hope Cooke, American Queen Consort of the Kingdom of Sikkim.
An American had once been queen of Sikkim? It seemed incredible, but I knew what Nidup would say. Why not?
To be continued next Friday …