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Regular-article-logo Thursday, 13 June 2024

A mid-air crisis, averted

Once upon a time in Sikkim, when the air was thick with VIPs

Sudipta Bhattacharjee Published 30.05.20, 10:33 PM
The Singshore Suspension Bridge

The Singshore Suspension Bridge Sudipta Bhattacharjee

Sikkim has managed to keep the coronavirus at bay — except for one case — and during a visit to the Himalayan state some time before the nationwide lockdown, it became quite evident why.

The journey from Calcutta to Pelling and Yuksom in West Sikkim was uneventful, glorious weather prevailed and the Kanchenjunga, in all its glory, enthralled the senses. We sped along the highway, stalled at some stretches by ongoing work, gazing at waterfalls that flow along the paths into gorges, the snowcapped mountains playing peekaboo at Pelling. We headed for Khecheopalri Lake, which is considered sacred by Buddhists.

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The customary trek from the village by the same name to this pristine lake saw octogenarians to millenials, in modern or traditional attire and attitude, hobbling along the broken path. Some even organised puja on the shore as the lake is said to be a catalyst for wish fulfilment.

Past the roaring Kanchenjunga waterfalls, alongside the Khecheopalri falls, where makeshift stalls sell chana and chai to ever-ravenous tourists, the roadside is a medley of colour with winter blossoms like marigold, hydrangea, cherry and rhododendron in full bloom.

We proceeded northwards to Yuksam, where the Kanchendzonga National Park offers a sylvan expanse, complete with a helipad and a smattering of hotels. This is the last point for vehicles; one has to trek the rest of the way to the Kanchenjunga base camp.

We stopped to sample our packed lunch with a mug of tea before embarking on the return journey. A foreigner sidled up. “Hi,” he said, “Going to Pelling?” The dope was making itself evident, his eyes were already glazed. “Mind if I join you?” he slurred. The driver acted with alacrity and we sped off.

On the way back, we detoured to the Singshore suspension bridge, the second highest in Asia. The architectural marvel connects two gorges and leads to the Nepal border. India’s first glass skywalk, just three kilometres from Pelling, is also an experience to savour.

We stopped at Kalimpong to break the long journey to the airport. Our base was the Himalayan, constructed by David Macdonald in 1905, said to be the first hotel in eastern India, now taken over by the Mayfair Group but with the heritage intact. Would we like the room Jawaharlal Nehru stayed in (he was there on April 29, 1952, and then again the following year with then Bengal governor Padmaja Naidu, chief minister B.C. Roy and daughter Indira Gandhi)? Or would we prefer the room sherpa and mountaineer Tenzing Norgay occupied? Or perhaps the one actor Richard Gere preferred? Even George Mallory and Edmund Hillary had camped there, overlooking the Kanchenjunga.

We decided to steer clear of VIPs and chose one that stared Kanchenjunga in the face. Avoiding any association with prime ministers, legendary mountaineers or Hollywood icons, however, did not inure us to VIP presence.

As we boarded the flight, we found the overhead luggage bins chock-a-block. An ADC entered, then a governor, two officials, with more cabin baggage than the hoi polloi are allowed. The VVIP occupied the seat in front, the ADC the one next to us, while the companions sat across the aisle. The entourage craved tea; but with the governor not responding to the cabin crew’s repeated “Sir, Sir” entreaties (how would they know our democracy deems it necessary to address him as Your Excellency?), his companions had to forego the brew.

As the aircraft began its descent, the VVIP jumped up, flailed his arms and said he’d lost something. It transpired that His Excellency could not find his hearing aid. The cabin crew was made to crawl on all fours, when they should have been in their jump seats as the pilot had announced landing, but could not locate it.

The distraught governor, asked to be seated, landed up in the seat next to ours while the ADC searched the crevices in the glow of his mobile phone. We watched with a modicum of amusement as the head of state tried to extricate a cellphone from his pocket and out popped the missing hearing aid! He had the grace to smile sheepishly.

But what a metamorphosis once the doors opened and his reception committee was spied! His Excellency donned an expression that hollered veni vidi vici with the aplomb of Julius Caesar!

But now with Covid-19 breathing down our necks… er… noses, such encounters will remain a memoir of the past, at least for a while.

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