Above Deorali, outside the Tashi Ding hotel, the chowkidaar budo stood letting smoke from his beedi trail down to the mist that had begun erasing the valley. Inside, men and women were celebrating. Singing the old anthem from the time of their king. Glass after glass of imported liquor flowed. The hotel had reached its golden jubilee, almost a decade later than its chowkidaar outside.
Old kings and new politicos had passed through these rooms. Now their photographs hung grim and solemn over these rejoicers. Since the doors and windows were tightly shut, the Kanchenjunga cold never strayed here too long. Neither did the fragrance of men and women who preferred not to smell as themselves, escape outside.
Paljor called for a refill. He was the grand host with grand plans. Plans to turn Sikkim into the top most tourist destination in the country. That would require replacing this ageing relic with a five star hotel. But he had his own share of woes- “A few weeks ago my material was coming from Siliguri, when those Gorkhaland people called a bandh. Highway bandh. So I told my driver to rush right away. Have you seen the size of that highway? Anyway, he banged into another cargo truck, falling straight into the Teesta river. It took a while before they could fully rescue the truck.”
Piling everything he could on his plate Rabi added- “Good loyal drivers are impossible to find. Here no one wants to do that kind of thing anymore. The Darjeeling ones are just too reckless.” He himself had jumped straight from the poor oblivion of Kalimpong haat bazaar right into the top leagues of Gangtok society.
Paljor thought nothing of this pot bellied, pork marked man. But he had scattered a string of consumer labels along the city. Plus with this new found money, he had even started on some philanthropy. A business mind is quick to recognize another so nodding in approval he continued -“Too reckless indeed. This fellow has a wife and kids already in the kamaan. Here he was keeping another woman before falling into the Teesta. She must be hardly twenty and he had been saying he was just twenty five for the last two decades.”
Reuden owned a string of ethnic but world class cottages offering unique village experience all over the state, and a son who refused to get married – “Maybe I should send my son to do some driver’s handy-boy thing. Gain first hand experience in these matters. As they say- driver ko life/ golai pichi wife.”
Laughter resounded as Paljor continued-
“Men will marry when they will. My chowkidaar, the one outside, is already sixty plus. All this while he had remained a pure bal brahmachari. As soon as my driver fell into the river, he went and married his girl, young enough to be his granddaughter.”
“God give the old man good health, and us, young wives like those” These days Reuden had been meditating. They were teaching him to think only positive at the camp.
“But it was no happy ending. She turned out to be more clever than pretty. She first came here as the handy-boy’s girl, then he ran away and she became the driver’s girl , until he drowned and she jumped into the arms of my chowkidaar budo, before making off with the poor unsuspecting fool’s entire savings in less than a month. What would you call that?”
“Enterprising, that’s what you call it” Rabi insisted. “Is she anything to look at?”
“At that age even a goat looks good.” Paljor assured.
Laughter rippled into those glittering glasses. They would soon retire, some right up towards Baluakhani, others right down towards Ranipool. Since the whole of Sikkim was a hill station, there were only highs and lows.
When it snowed up in the north towards Nathula, icy fangs would descend down to where the chowkidaar stood. He would light another beedi. It often snowed in Nathula. People came from all over just to see that snow. She had wanted to go too. Said she had never seen snow. He hadn’t either.
A draft struck drying out the beedi in hand. He had to light it again. Beedi had kept him warm, beedi would keep him warm. But just three more remained and the bitch had run away with every single penny.
When Birey’s wife ran away, they found her within a month. Living with another man down in Siliguri. Siliguri was taking in anyone and everyone. Indiscriminately. But Birey had friends and relatives who took it upon themselves to hunt her down. As if their own wives had escaped.
Untainted, uninterrupted, all these years passed. A few more and he would have remained, just a chowkidaar like any other. That cursed morning he had to return from this chowkidaari, nothing but an old fool. Saab must have heard too. Today he had asked if everything was all right.
Dogs began their parliament from afar. Hunter dogs could smell out anyone from anywhere. She, smelt of rotten kinema and burnt sidra ko achaar that he loved. He hoped she would return.
The party inside was over. The lights turned off. The blue hills turned bluer before vanishing altogether. The scavengers began their rampage. Now quibbling over an old decaying bone. Now barking in unison at some common enemy, a jogi perhaps. But not a soul stirred.
Flinging the dying beedi into the darkness, picking up the stick from the ground, he rooted himself, ready to face those intruders clawing in. The barbed wire was already giving way.
Kritika Chettri writes from Kalimpong. Till recently she had been teaching at the Sikkim University. She is now concentrating on writing.
HUG thanks Pavel Chakraborty for the two chowkidaar photographs.]