THE WOMAN WITH SIXTEEN CHILDREN
His face clouded over. He seemed to sag a bit, sunk still further into his mobile and listened intently. ‘Problem?’ I asked, not very helpfully. It was my last day in Rinchenpong.
‘Pong’ is such a schoolboy word, full of farts and chemistry. I liked saying it. Rinchen… pong! So adolescent.
Rinchen-pong! would bring a smile to my face as if the science lab was just yesterday. Rinchen-pong! I’d say in the silence, as the sun glowed orange on the snow, Rinchen-pong! to the black night sky.
Yansum Farm was idyllic, a living, breathing thing that spread out all around me, fell tumbling down the hill to the river far below. In the distance; glorious Kanchenjunga, her sister peaks; Rathong, Kabru, Kumbhakarna and Pandim, in the foreground a jumble of cottages old and new freshly decorated by the owner’s ‘artistic’ brother.
My host waved his hand and kept on listening. Obviously he was being given detailed instructions. He frowned, looked away distractedly, his eyes resting for a moment on the huge black pig snorting contentedly nearby.
‘That’s a very fine pig,’ I said to the owner and she nodded and giggled and didn’t understand a word.
This was the woman with sixteen children. The mother of the century and I were stuck together in the back yard with the pig while our conduit and translator was deep on the phone. Her English was non-existent, my Sikkimese likewise – so our conversation had foundered briefly. I was half-listening to the mobile, trying to interpret what was going on while at the same time discussing the merits of a pig with a woman of such astounding fertility it simply took my breath away.
Her sixteen children were scattered throughout the house, happily occupied taking pictures of themselves with my camera.
‘You can take one thousand pictures,’ I’d said as I showed them how the camera worked – they were taking me at my word. Mum was very happy and beamed proudly.
I was probably not the first foreigner to wander down the hill from Yangsum Farm to witness her living miracle of fecundity, nor would I be the last – but I was the first to cast his camera to the children and for that I got a special smile.
Rinchenpong put the phone down.
‘There is a bandh in Darjeeling,’ he told me, very seriously indeed.
‘All the roads are blocked from the border of Sikkim to Bagdogra.’
‘What’s a bandh?’
‘You can’t get out.’
Or, as it turned out, in.
A bandh was a general strike and in Gurkaland that meant total shut-down – including the roads. When a bandh was called in Darjeeling, poor little Sikkim – squeezed right up there between Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal – was isolated from the India side, cut off completely from the outside world, the only link the helicopter I had flown from Bagdogra to Gangtok. So that’s why the Government sponsored that helicopter…
His phone rang again. Once more he listened intently. His face brightened. He nodded furiously at me. He put the phone to one side.
‘There is a plan.’
He returned to his phone and furiously began writing notes on his hand.
Dogster was bundled into a local taxi and pointed towards India. It wasn’t far, an hour or so through a stunning valley of rock – down, around, down, around, down, down, down to Naya Bazar in the Ranggit valley where the next piece of the jigsaw would fall in place.
Dogster was dumped in the street. My driver, a kind local lad, disappeared with my passport and bags, leaving me alone to wander the crowded market. Mysterious forms must be stamped, official documents seen and signed. Nothing was explained, all was trust in total strangers. The white man was truly adrift in traveler space; no documents, no luggage, not knowing, not caring, on the road again – alone.
Instructions were to meet at Street No. 3 Naya Bazar. There were only four streets in town. Even the geographically impaired Dogster could work that one out. So it was, after an hour of wandering the market, the car, driver, passport and luggage arrived back in my life and I was driven out of town. By this time I truly had no idea what was going on. Explanation was minimal, as was my driver’s English. I picked up the occasional word.‘River’.‘Cross’.‘Permission.’That was all.We pulled off the highway after twenty minutes following the Ranggit River along the border of India and Sikkim. Just over there, on the other side of this muddy brown water was India. We drove down a side road towards the bank. I thought I’d have to swim across. It looked very deep to me. I pointed at the water.
He wiggled his head enthusiastically. Big smiles.
We were reduced to sign language. I was nearly reduced to tears.
We stopped. We had to. There was no more road. Six men in green jumpers and starched white trousers leapt to attention. They ushered me to a green folding chair, specially placed like a throne in the middle of the main street of the tiny town of Bangitar.
Ah-h-h, Mr. Dogster was to be King again.A green icebox was produced, opened, a thermos of cold nimboo pani and a damp towel extracted and then a tin de-lidded with a flourish. Cake and finger sandwiches were offered and my passport removed yet again, this time taken away to an avuncular local policeman for more inspection. There was much shaking of hands, wiggling of heads and smiling. Maybe I wouldn’t have to swim.
We set off down the hill, a hunting party of green sweaters and the Dog. One wiry man was given my large suitcase, hoiked it on his shoulder and charged ahead. It was heavy. I was impressed.
Barely a hundred yards down the hill was a path that led around the face of an outcrop of rock. We turned and there, unexpectedly, was an ancient and completely unnecessary suspension bridge. It seemed to cross from nowhere to nowhere. Bangitar Bridge, said the sign, was ‘constructed from provincial funds and opened for traffic in May 1902 in place of the old cane bridge carried away by the cyclone of 24th September 1899’. It still didn’t say just why there was a bridge here in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps it wasn’t the middle of nowhere in 1899.
The party crossed the Bangitar Bridge in single file. Things were getting very intrepid, indeed. Once we hit the other side we were in peril, a target for every disaffected Gorkalander with a gun. Maybe that was why they sent the guy ahead with my luggage – to draw their fire. Dogster looked up and around for the secret glint of sun on rifle, the hidden posse in the hills. We were at the bottom of a deep wooded valley. It was the perfect place for an ambush.
So far, so good.
Nobody else seemed to be looking out for assassins, he noticed. Obviously they don’t know what I know, he thought – then about half-way across the bridge Dogster realized that he didn’t know anything at all – and that he’d made the assassins up. Such was the state of his brain at the time. In the absence of any information at all, the stupid addled mutt had substituted his own.
He’d created his own little world of green cowboys – and Indians.
On the far side a tiny path led left or right on either side of an overhanging cliff. We went left; below us the raging Ranggit River – well, perhaps not so raging today, just a little pissed off. Ahead the track curved up into the tree line, disappearing in brush and green. Puff, puff went the tragic King Dogster. Wheeze, wheeze, his Majesty went. The monarch’s knees hurt. He was old.
One green jumper looked at another. I could tell what they were thinking. Soon, we’re going to have to carry the old bugger. Luckily, after another ten minutes of this there was a regal carriage. King Dog was glad.We drove off along the river bank for a mile and turned off towards the water. There in front of me was a river hut; in front of it a check blue tablecloth on a table set outside for four, a floral arrangement, a waiting staff lined up to greet me, the dashing young man who ran the place and a young couple who appeared to be from Outer Space. It was all somewhat surreal.
I had beaten the bandh – or rather this dashing young man had. He hatched the plan, he followed it through, a hundred telephone calls later had tracked my every step from Yangsum Farm in Rinchenpong till the moment I sat down beside him. He was the puppet master, the manipulator extraordinaire.
I was in.
Now I couldn’t get out.