Last night, a bear came down the hills into the District Magistrate's office", said PD Pradhan, our guide in Gangtok, looking and sounding exactly as he did when we met him in the lobby of the Norbhughang Hotel two years ago -- a toothy, cherubic, middle-aged man with a fondness for bomber jackets and, with the right audience, a treasury of made-up local lore.
We had tea and he had biscuits. With a bite of his second biscuit, he returned to the bear. "They shot it with a tranquiliser gun, but this year, it's been hard to put them to sleep. It was the same with the bears in 1975, the year the Chogyals (the Sikkimese royal family) were forced to give up the throne, hmm, to India", said Mr Pradhan and got up to look out of the window. Outside, the Kangchenjunga (to the Sikkimese, it's more than a mountain, it's a protector deity) rose buffeted by clouds over the roof of the red post-office.
"The birth of India wasn't, you know, all rosy. There were injustices done. We were forcibly annexed to become its 22nd state in '75", continued Mr Pradhan with a sigh. We stared at him in silence, determined to be on the side of the victims of history.
Result: He sold us the Pelling trip for Rs 2,000 more than the standard rate. "We start day after tomorrow," he said beaming.
We the people
The first time we came to Gangtok, we had gone slightly crazy. Every morning as we sat on the stone seats along the Mall, my friend and I played, what we sheepishly called, our little ethnographic game. "Was he a Lepcha?" "Could she be a Bhutia?" "Or, a Nepali?" we went each time a local passed us by. Harmless stuff I am sure, but were we as amused when the Sikkimese turned the tables on fellow Bengali tourists?
Here's a story that actually belongs to our first visit, but I can't resist telling it now. It was four in the morning and we were on the way to Nathu La, a pass on the Indo-Chinese border, 55 km from Gangtok. (The pass was part of the famous Silk route connecting the plains of Bengal with Tibet and Bengalis, therefore, have a soft spot for it. I have a cousin who keeps threatening that the day the road to China opens through Nathu La, he will be on the first bus to Lhasa).
Well, there we were three Bengali couples -- and children -- stuffed in a jeep on the way to the Tsomgo Lake on the way to Nathu La.
By six, the sun had slipped behind the alpine trees. Our fellow-passengers, feeling hungry, began, as most Bengalis do at the drop of a hat, remembrances of lunches and dinners past. One couple mentioned their fondness for luchi-torkari (puris with potatoes): "Six plates, but only on holidays". The early-morning trip to Nathu La, another said, had made them kill their appetite and settle for "omelette-bread". The Sikkimese driver, we noticed, bristled at these details. But after every three minutes when they piped up before every pond to ask whether it was "Tsomgo naki? (Tsomgo, is it?)", he lost his cool. He stopped the jeep, called the passing lake "Tingu Lake," and said it was the point from which all tourists had to trek up to Nathu La.
I mentioned this to P.D. Pradhan this time. The reason for our driver Tsering's (impossible as it may seem, Pradhan seemed to know every driver who drove a taxi in Sikkim) anti-Bengali vibe was that he was half Sikkimese. The other half was Gorkha -- from Darjeeling. Tsering, he said, was also a Gorkha Janamukti Morcha member.
"If Sikkim, with over five lakh people can have a state", asked Mr Pradhan, "why can't Gorkhaland have one with more or less (people)?"
We tried to tell him that it wasn't about mathematics but he went into a blue funk.
The missing link
But we love Sikkim. We love the people of Sikkim. But most of all, we love the pigs of Sikkim, especially pork when made with rai saag, churpi (cottage cheese made with yak milk) and chaang (fermented millet) on the side. But this time, we had a bit of bad luck.
At Pelling, tired after the day's sightseeing around the Khechupiri Lake, we were looking forward to dinner. And it was nearly served, by mistake, to the table next to ours!
Then at Gangtok, on the way back, we drove around the city for two hours before we could spot a shop selling local sausages. It was ten at night and we were hungry. As we entered the shop, the last sausage sizzled in the pan for a waiting customer.
The journey to west Sikkim completes our Sikkim story. Our friend Mr Pradhan was in his element at the Pemayangstse monastery. His knowledge of Sikkimese customs, literature, rituals and holy texts, were, unparalleled. Well, at least to us, his word was law. He reeled off facts and dates related to the three stages of the Buddhist paradise. He told us the significances of the prayer flags. He told us of Guru Padmasambhava, the "second Buddha".
And then he said something astounding. The Buddhist holy books, he said, has kept an account of all living creatures born on earth. My friend, Mr Pradhan said, had been a lion in his previous birth.
"And me?" I asked expectantly.
"Pig," said Mr Pradhan and wouldn't take his eyes off the mountains.