For as long as the earth goes round, there will be some men not considered equal to some others. From the former, will rise a few, who shall shine, if not by their success, then by their deeds. And we, who were more equal by virtue of our birth or money or blood should feel ashamed for such travesty.
6 AM, Day 7, Gangtok: As we piled our bags and entered the car, Binay introduced us to his friend Prashant, who was going to assist him while driving. I nodded mechanically. To complete North Sikkim in two days, we would have to be on the road for at least 15 hours each day. Only later I would realise that there were finer reasons for me to feel glad about his presence.
We were headed to Lake Gurudongmar. At 17,100 feet above sea level, it is India’s second highest lake.
We drove out of the city. We smiled at the mountains, the sky and the sun. We stopped for chai and omelettes. With soaring spirits, we carried on.
At every waterfall in sight, I would yell and Binay would stop the car. While I ran to clamber over rocks and make my way up, the rest would laugh at my antics.
I love waterfalls. There are few things as overwhelming as standing right under a waterfall, and looking at the water fall from the top of the mountain.
We broke for lunch at Chungthang. When Binay and Prashant sat at a separate table, we took out plates and joined them.
We drove on. Somewhere along the way we got down to play in the waters of the Teesta river. We screamed with happiness and pain as the freezing cold water cut into our soles like a hundred knives.
By 5 pm, we had rolled into the small town of Lachung, more than 9,600 feet above sea level.
From here on, everything changed dramatically. For one, the brightness of the sky started fading. It was soon going to be pitch dark. Second, at these altitudes, the vegetation changed from green to brown and red, what is commonly referred to as the alpine variety. Wild orchids sprouted from the hills along our way.
Changes were also happening to the dynamics inside the car. Till now, Binay and Prashant had been chatting mostly with each other. Now, they started opening up to us. They told us about their families, and work – driving taxis to Kalimpong every day for a living. They spoke of how they fell in love and married their childhood sweethearts, how the wives were now working in the US.
They asked us how we got married. We did not tell them that we weren’t. In their simple minds, our being married was probably the only explanation for us being on a trip together.
It grew dark soon.
As we went past dark hills and streams, we continued talking. Then Prashant switched on his phone and played songs, all sentimental tracks that we grew up listening to in the 90’s. We all started singing in chorus. We knew ever word, every tune and in the darkness of the mountains, only our voices broke the silence for miles. Somewhere in the beauty of the environment, and in the beauty of the moment, my mind took me back a few years; and my heart, well it just cracked a little. Some things shall never change.
Looking back, those few hours of singing together were my best moments in the trip to North Sikkim.
Around 10 pm, we reached Thangu.
Not a single room was available for hire in the village. Both the hotels had been occupied by workers of a construction firm. We decided to ask the villagers. Ten minutes later, a man offered to let us sleep in his storeroom. Binay asked Snigdha and me to take the room, and said that Prashant and he would sleep in the car. Obviously I declared that we would not separate, that we had come as four friends, not as drivers and customers, and that we would either all sleep together in a room, or in the car.
Thankfully, Prashant managed to get a room in another house, so we had two rooms now, and nobody had to sleep in the car.
Our storeroom was tiny. Hanging on its door was the leg of a yak leg. Inside, there were two thin beds, they were loaded with warm mattresses. Prashant brought out a bottle of brandy. Binay and I disappeared into the street to get some snacks. It was blisteringly cold, and every time I spoke, puffs of air came out of my mouth. I laughed and looked up at the sky.
I have never seen a sky full of these many stars in my life. Take me to a court of law and I would swear there were a billion. For a moment, time stopped, as I gaped, and stared and stared at clusters and clusters of silver that shone above.
Back in the room, we drank our brandy with gusto. After dinner, Binay and Prashant went back to the other house.
They were back to wake us up at 4:30 am.
After drinking hot tea, we set off for Gurudongmar at 5 am. There is no human settlement ahead of Thangu, and the land is under Army surveillance. Gurudongmar, itself lies just five kilometres from the Tibet border.
At dawn, we passed through blue mist. As the day progressed, we passed through large magnificent stretches of barren land and colourful mountains. The lake is about 15 km from the last check post. It is mandatory that everyone be back at this check post by noon, as the winds at Gurudongmar blow faster as the day progresses, enough to lift you off the ground.
We reached Gurudongmar at around 9:30 am. After paying our respects at the Gurudwara, we walked to the banks of the lake.
It was incredible, for it is a blue that no river is, no lake is. It was a blue that no blue is. It is one of the most beautiful lakes you will see in the world. Do go there some day if you can.
Mad with joy, Binay and I rushed to take off our shirts and prance about in the ice cold waters. Our first bad decision.
The second bad decision was to attempt to walk around the 6 km perimeter of the lake. It doesn’t sound strenuous, but at 17,100 feet with low oxygen levels and fast blowing winds, it is a lot. That day, the four of us were the only ones, besides an Army regiment, walking the perimeter. We plodded on and reached one bend after another. At every bend, we thought that we had reached the last, only to realise that we were not even close. Finally, we completed the entire circle with Prashant and Snigdha beating us to the end.
Having seen the lake to our heart’s content, we returned to our car to drive back to Gangtok. The journey back is probably one of the most treasured ones in all of my travels.The roads were terrible, in fact for stretches there were no roads at all, only mud, but we were so busy talking and singing and laughing that we never noticed or felt any discomfort. It was not just the company, but also the nature around us. The alpine steppe vegetation made my heart sing. Mountains full of red and brown bushes, orchids, blue streams, yaks… it all overwhelmed me. It was as if we had come into a ‘Lord of the Rings’ or a ‘Narnia’ setting. We clicked a thousand pictures, and I kept shaking my head in disbelief, at the beauty I was seeing around me.
If you can, do visit the region between Lachung and Thangu some day.
And those two men. Binay, ever the friendly boy, ever the impulsive man. Knows only two things, to follow his heart and to not care about the consequences. He does things on instinct. When he told me that he agreed to come on the trip because of the excitement in my voice, and not for the money, I smiled. And I believed him. Because I understood how this man functions. To do things for the love of it, or because your heart or gut tells you to, and to worry about the consequences later, is his mantra, and maybe mine.
I have often looked at a waterfall and a rock and jumped to climb those, but few companions have been as enthusiastic. But Binay would join in everything. We jumped out of the car when we saw yaks and ran madly with the herd. We stopped the car when we saw a beautiful massive thirty feet rock and raced to see who would reach the top first. We would climb up only to realise that we did not know how to come down. When we were finally back, we were out of breath, our heads ached, our ribs were almost bursting with the exercise, but we were still laughing.
In Binay, I found an alter ego. Hopefully, he found something in me too.
Prashant, on the other hand, was relatively sober. An immensely practical man, he wouldn’t give way to emotion as easily as Binay or I did. He was the right man to be Binay’s best friend, I felt. As Binay repeatedly said, every time he would be in trouble, Prashant would help him out. He wasn’t just Binay’s best friend. He was also his guide, his counsellor and brother. ‘Daju’, Binay called him affectionately, the Sikkimese word for brother.
We spoke non-stop throughout the journey. It amazed me that both men’s wives were working in the US (as housekeepers). When I asked them if they did not miss their wives, they smiled. Both men answered that they missed their wives terribly. When I asked them, why then, their replies were simple. Their wives wanted to see the world, and they wanted to help them fulfil those dreams.
Here were two men, working as drivers in Gangtok, raising their kids all by themselves, so that their wives could at least try and pursue their own dreams from life. Here were two men, themselves not educated beyond eighth standard, but making sure that they worked long enough to ensure that their children studied in good boarding schools in Kalimpong. What an example to set for Indian men.
Here were two men who kept checking on Snigdha to see if she was okay, who kept praising her for the stoic way in which she walked around Gurudongmar, who accorded her all respect and warmth, and who were ready to sleep in a car after driving for fifteen hours, only because they felt she would be uncomfortable with their presence in the same room. As Snigdha told me later, ‘never, not for a single moment did I feel insecure as we drove through the night in the hills of a strange unknown land with two men we did not know at all.’ We were too busy singing to be worried, I guess.
For two days, they kept calling her ‘Bahini’ lovingly, the Sikkimese word for sister.
While our country rages and despairs over the rapes that engulf it, while the world media rightly questions India’s disgusting patriarchal behaviour, while men in Delhi and other parts of the country still continue to grow more lecherous and vicious, while tourists wonder whether or not they should visit this country, here are two lowly educated men deeply in love with their wives, secure about themselves and their partners, doing everything they can to encourage their partners to live life on their own terms. I wish somebody would use these two men as an example when they wrote that article about ‘The Good Men of India’ in the New York Times.
To anybody who reads this blog from outside India, and wishes to visit this country, I would like to say that these are the stories that never come out. And while we have rapists, we also have such men here.
That night, we reached Gangtok at 11 pm. After 18 hours on this road, we still weren’t tired at all. We shook hands, hugged and promised to stay in touch on Facebook. I felt sad about leaving these two men and going off to a new land the next day.
I still remember asking Binay his wishes from life.
“Neeraj, I just want to do one thing. I don’t want to be too rich. I just wish I had money enough to travel. I want to see as many places as I can, talk to new people, understand how they think, and learn something from the experience.”
If only you knew, Binay, you spoke the words that fill my mind.