By the time the flight landed at Bagdogra, the October sun was going down the manicured tea gardens and a soft haze was escorting the night in. We got into the car, headed out to Gangtok, up the Himalayas. I was going there to deliver the 15th convocation address at the Sikkim Manipal University.
As soon as we were on the highway, our vehicle got stuck in a jam. We were about to enter Siliguri town; the municipal election results had just come out and there was revelry on the streets. Mercifully, that cleared out after a half-hour wait, but by that time, it had become dark, and my fond hope of catching a few dusky shots of the mountain was dashed. The three-hour ride was dotted with several curves and bends, and worse, there were a lot of potholes. It is one of the most badly-maintained national highways with heavy traffic and frequent landslides. After a tiring ride, we were happy to reach the Mayfair Hotel, a beautiful property, one-time palace of sorts, and Susmita and I crashed for the night.
The convocation ceremony at the Sikkim Manipal University was one of the best I have attended in India. It was presided over by the Governor of Sikkim, Shri Shriniwas Dadasaheb Patil who is an IAS officer-turned-politician, a two-time Lok Sabha MP before taking the up the gubernatorial assignment at Sikkim.
For the convocation address, I chose the theme of “identity”. Click here to read the full text of the speech.
I thought, because of the strife that many young people are experiencing in the country today, this would be relevant. The convocation was well-conducted. Not a single cell phone rang out, the dignitaries on the dais were not texting and the students paid attention.
That afternoon, I drove down from Gangtok to Rangpo where the University’s engineering and MBA campus is located right next to the beautiful, vigorously flowing Teesta river; she is like a stunningly beautiful woman in a tremendous hurry. At Rangpo, we turned right from the highway, into the campus where close to 500 young men and women were waiting; it was such a joy to engage with them in a free flowing conversation. We spoke about innovation, leadership, personal turning points in life and how start-ups worked.
I wished I could spend more hours with them but I had to return to Gangtok to be in time for a visit to the Rumtek Monastery. http://www.rumtek.org/
Susmita had gone out with a local host after the convocation and she was to join me for the visit. By the time we reached the Monastery, it had turned dark. Thanks to our hosts and the local Commandant of the Indo Tibetan Border Police that guards the monastery, we were taken around the beautiful sanctuary of worship and study at an unhurried pace by an English-speaking monk. After going around, we prayed for a while and soon it was time to head back for the customary Convocation dinner with the faculty of the Sikkim Manipal University and the Governor.
At dinner, we met Prem Das Rai and his wife Jean. Prem Das Rai (“call me PD,” he said), is the first Indian MP who is a graduate of the IIT and the IIM and happens to be an Eisenhower fellow. A self-made man, he has been part of the Sikkim Democratic Party for 17 years now, actively engaged with issues concerning mountain ecology and the environment while balancing human habitat and livelihood issues. PD asked us over for breakfast the next morning. For me, it was a choice between an early morning ride up to Hanuman Tok from where I could get a clear view of the Kanchenjunga or meet an inspiring political leader and the only parliamentarian for over 6,00,000 people of Sikkim. The mountain will wait for me, I thought and agreed to an “organic” breakfast with PD.
The morning started with a jolt.
I knew it was an earthquake. Somehow, I liked the feel of it. It made the visit interesting in a boyish way; what good is a trip to the Himalayas without a feel of its fault line! Susmita didn’t realize it was an earthquake. But how could she? Does an earthquake feel itself? Stupid joke. But very boyish.
Soon we were ready, checked out, and greeted by a beautiful view; it was a Saturday – there was hardly any traffic as we drove down to PD and Jean’s home.
PD showed us around their organic vegetable garden and his orchids. We said hello to his 92-year old father who was having his breakfast. He was sharp as a nail. “Subroto! Your name suggests you are a Bengali. Ah, your speech yesterday was very good; I read about it in today’s papers.” I wondered if I would be blessed to be half like him when I grow old myself.
After the tour of the garden, PD, Jean, Susmita and I settled down to a nice breakfast, lovingly made by Jean. We discovered we had common friends, concerns and many shared ideals. The buckwheat rotis, bhujia, homemade red chilly pickle, sautéed greens, and eggplant bhurta made for a great brunch with generous helpings of the local Sikkim tea.
After our breakfast, we headed off to the helipad to catch the 11 AM ride back to Bagdogra and then, onward to Bengaluru.
There wasn’t much activity at the airport. The single-engine Bell helicopter can seat four passengers. How much activity can you have around that? We had landed up early. So I looked around. Two mountain dogs were fast asleep outside the hangar. They ignored me completely as I took a few pictures and one of them, Kanchi is her name, the airport manager told me, allowed me to scratch her but refused to open her eyes.
At 11, the helicopter was airborne, lifted to a height and gently turned right; as the bird picked up speed, we quickly left behind the busy Gangtok town and just as we did, below us, appeared terraced mountains and then returned the beautiful woman in a hurry – Teesta, she is simply gorgeous!
The flightpath, for the most part, follows her as she bends and straightens and bends again between timeless, tall and proud mountains that retain their dense foliage. After a short 30-minute ride that seemed far too less to me, we landed back at the Bagdogra airport.
Susmita bought some tea and along with it we had the finest cheese toast, fish fingers, potato chips and lovely Makaibari tea at the airport restaurant. The gentleman waiter brought us some kasundi mustard to go with the nibbles. I couldn’t remember when an airport restaurant food tasted so good. I could confer a Michelin Star on the Bagdogra airport restaurant.
Soon it was time for security check; I lifted my heavy camera bag and computer, made sure Susmita wasn’t left behind and somewhat reluctantly, started back for Bengaluru.