A wide mud scar runs down, down from Topkhana, where the army’s Watershed Eagles have a camp; down, curving past the Sangchen Dorjee monastery; down, to a clearing where a mouth in the woods opens on a gorge. The broken old road on this treacherous decline has disappeared. Three months ago, the rain still annoyingly lush, you might have slid down with the mud and launched yourself over Rachela into Bhutan, or over Jelep La into Chumbi valley, where China holds a dagger to India’s chicken-neck corridor. If you steered yourself well, you might have coasted to your village home on one of the mountainsides.
In the seventies, when my wife would walk to St George’s School in town with her friends, the thicket here was charged with childhood terrors. Uttis trees packed close over a cardamom field and giant pines ringing with crickets made it the children’s black forest, sunless and windless. The lyamlyamey witch, her droopy breasts slung crosswise over her shoulders, would chase them with flappy strides. Malevolent lamas waited smiling, with maroon bags, to pluck juicy limbs.
Now the clearing nurses a dull throb from an orange concrete mixer, boxy, and set morosely on a slab. It has MACONS emblazoned on it; the name kindles a vague memory, but I cannot place it. Earthmovers with caterpillar tracks tremble up and down the slope, gnawing at the mountainsides. Piers are being erected, so broad that four men with outstretched arms might not encircle them. Some are topped with transoms, turning them into huge Ys that will bear the road to Nathu La in Sikkim, where the Indian army keeps vigil against the Chinese in occupied Tibet.
With the upcoming road have arrived stolid toilers from the plains, almost invisible, like the shacks of tin sheet and black plastic tarp in which they put up, hidden behind the piers or up by a stream, where nobody looks. Three men wearing drawers or lungis, no hardhats or protective shoes, are carrying, stretcher style, a folded TMT rebar of more than 70 kilos. It swings to their gait. A little away, a young man squats, molding concrete into little cylinders for ballast, a ribald Bhojpuri song playing on his mobile. They are all from Bettiah, in Bihar, and go wherever the contractor takes them.
I wonder if, as John Berger imagined, their accents will lie “like needles of pine assembled by ants,” waiting for another wanderer’s stumbling cry to set them alight. Nepali is the lingua franca here, but Bhutia, Tibetan, Dzonkha, Rong, Tamang, Sherpa, and Newari lounge and saunter. Words alien to this nook of India peekaboo their presence. Someone has scrawled “viaduct” on a pillar in red chalk. A mini-tanker, DIESEL BOWSER painted on its side, attacks the slope at speed, gives up and retreats. Later, Google reminds me that Macons is a construction equipment maker from Ahmedabad, more than 1,200 miles away. It’s the city I, who live here post-pandemic, grew up in.
Pedong, an east Himalayan bazaar town to the extreme north of West Bengal’s Kalimpong district, abuts Sikkim, across the Reshi river, and Bhutan, hardly 10 miles on the wing. The Jelep La pass into Tibet, immortalized in Nicholas Roerich’s serene painting, can be sighted from the high points and many villages on the east of the Pedong ridge. Since the late 1600s, Pedong has stood at the crossroads of trade and intrigue between Bhutan, Sikkim, Tibet, and much later, the British Raj, passing from one to another.
Hardly any records exist before the arrival of the British in the mid-1800s. This much is known, however. The oldest inhabitants were the Lepchas; later came the Bhutias and Tibetans. Except perhaps for a handful of Newar traders and minters with links to Tibet and Sikkim, the Nepalis came to this region with the British. Myths and fables – of Lepcha warrior-kings, the machinations of Bhutanese and Sikkimese rulers and lamas, magic, poisonings, and beheadings – mingle with history like the fog that permeates the forests here for most of the year.
So the quaint grey presbytery, standing solid and symmetrical since 1901, might be a good place to tell a story about. It is now home to Fr Francis Crasta, principal of the St George’s High School, founded in 1885 by the French Foreign Missionaries. The first occupant was Fr Auguste Desgodins, a bearded, zucchettoed figure whose influence still looms over the region. The prevalence of Christianity and education here speak of the energetic scholar-priest’s zeal. The père also led a last-ditch attempt to take Christianity to Tibet with the South Tibet Mission. In silent testimony to its failure stands the crucifix he erected on a high hill, a grim semaphore of homecoming for missionaries returning from Tibet.
In The Unveiling of Tibet, Edmund Candler, a journalist who accompanied Colonel Francis Younghusband’s sanguinary Tibet expedition of 1903-04, writes about meeting Fr Desgodins. The père chides the British for not having forced a treaty on the Tibetans as early as 1888. But it’s an amusing incident after the meeting that piques my mind, for it reflects how erratic the flow across borders can be, whether of people, religion, goods, or ideas. And how borders lie between minds and cultures, as much as between territories, to deceive.
On the road below the presbytery, Candler runs into Phuntshog, a Tibetan friend and frontier trade examiner for the British. He works from an office bare but for iron plates, pipes, and bellows, seized from a lama trying to take them to Tibet for arms-making. Since the Tibetans have given up using this route to smuggle, he has little to do. Candler, seeing two books on his table, asks him if he reads much.
“I’ve learnt a good deal from these books,” says Phuntshog. One is the Bible, and the other? Dead Men’s Shoes, a Victorian romance of fortune and murder.
“You’re a psychological enigma,” Candler bursts out. “Your mind is like that cast iron huddled in the corner there, bought in an enlightened Western city and destined for your benighted Lhasa, but stuck halfway. Only it was going the other way. You don’t understand? Neither do I.”
Col Younghusband and his troops never went via Pedong, taking the Rangpo route instead. (Candler, sent back wounded earlier, touched this town while returning to join the troops.) But a narrow road in front of the Sangchen Dorjee monastery – gumpa road to the locals – was once part of a mule track to Lhasa named after Younghusband. Tomo, Tibetan, and Newar traders used it before Nathu La and Jelep La were closed during the 1962 war with China – the Old Silk Route, some call it, a misnomer if any. The road, once bearing the name of the colonel the British sent to punish Tibet, is now cut by the mud scar with the piers that will hold up a wide road to those passes, this time mainly for the Indian army, this time to hold off the Chinese.
The occasional car or bike goes by on gumpa road, and once a fortnight, a mini-truck full of plastic buckets, chairs, and flowerpots crawls along, with a barker offering any piece for Rs 150. Schoolchildren take the road to reach their villages, carrying backpacks printed with Mickey or embroidered with three tiny yaks, and sucking chocolate or jelly from little tubes they buy at the bazaar. Many have cellphones, and their selfies might soon show them framed by the piers and the overpass, a howitzer draped in camo going past above on a military truck.
Like everything everywhere, the monastery bears witness to annica, or impermanence. The buildings in use came up in the early nineties. They are of brick and mortar, unlike the old one of wood, brick, and lime, arrayed with wooden prayer wheels, that stood atop a stepped path on a shaded knoll across the road. Last year, the old monastery, built in 1863, was razed. Restoration would have been too expensive; they are raising funds to rebuild it.
Sonam Tashi, a tanned, smooth-faced young monk, takes me around the ocher buildings housing the prayer hall and monks’ rooms. He’s from Ladakh, like most of the present cohort of monks at the monastery. Not knowing the local Nepali, he speaks in Hindi. I ask him if the noise from the machinery disturbs the monks. Filtered by some trees that still stand tall and tight, it’s surprisingly faint. He says they don’t have study sessions right now.
In a shaded area above stands a broad white building in the Bhutanese style, with traditional trim on the doors, windows, balcony, and roof. A rimpoche’s remains are enshrined in a chorten inside. Two handsome axes, probably left by the monastery’s helpers, rest casually against the plinth of the building, their red-and-black soft-grip handles long and shaped for efficiency. Prayer flags flap and flutter. To the north, snow-streaked peaks rise above the trees.