Sailing out of the mist, the houses on the mountain slope of the other side of the valley twinkle like electric stars forming the constellations of a human universe. In the giant shadow of snow-clad Kanchenjunga many homes emit a light of their own. One of them, a Limbo house of stone and wood, accepts us for a while as observers of its play. And life turns round it, illusonary static, as if orchestrated by the moods of the holy mount. You can see the peak from the square window of the blue painted upper floor, proud and indifferent; it dominates the view from the creaking planks of the balcony and it even shamelessly peeps at anybody squatting in the outside toilet through the gaps on its wall. But although omnipresent, Kanchenjunga has his divine schedule. Gloriously glowing, he is all unveiled only early in the morning and often for some time before the sun sets. He curiously comes out of his palace of clouds when all the actors of the theatre of village life gather around the tap in the yard, the only source of water in the house. Just like Kanchenjunga, we quietly watch the way a sort of simple living unfolds before our eyes. Tired of rushing through people’s realities, we are happy to stay on hold seeing through the magnifying lens of settled routine. The slow motion of the stretching minutes is a blessing. Waking up in a sunny yellow room under the warmth of a soft pink blanket, walking down the grumpy speaking stairs, taking a look at the mountain and cooking in a shared kitchen, separate tiny wooden hut, feels like a therapy for tired feet and cloudy heads.
As true gossipy hardened neighbourhood aunties we can’t avoid entertaining ourselves with the stories of the immediate surrounding. You can’t help knowing everything when the neighbours are talkative and the walls of your place are information-friendly – in our ‘home-made’ house, no stone on the ground floor or plank on the upper one is of the same size or shape, and voices whisper through the gaps. In the sun-lighten meadow in front of the kitchen and by the water tap near the toilet social life is in its prime. There we often spend our time in the company of Arjun, the younger brother of our landlord. Friendly and with a way of thinking at times surprisingly close to ours, he is a ‘good-mood’ guy. Arjun is a part-time sherpa who, in times of emergency turns into a self-proclaimed engineer, and takes on pen and paper after the earthquake that shook only mildly the Sikkimese side of Kanchenjunga but struck violently beyond the mountains. In two months we experience several earthquakes that luckily cause no further damage than a broken plate and panicked screams, but since they are a monthly reality in the area, Arjun has decided to take safety steps. With a ruler and pencil, he draws detailed plans of a new home. ‘One of my brothers is an artist of Tibetan iconography, but I prefer to draw straight lines’. Arjun has the feeling, that after each ground-shake, his house changes its inclination and leans towards the valley. ‘I better think of a new home. And it will even have an “American toilet” so maybe more travellers will come down to our village and stay over’. It is probably easier to deal with tourists at home than carrying their luggage uphill, and Arjun walks around collecting food for the cows while fantasizing with a “Happy Homestay”. Then he takes an untuned guitar and walks up to his room. ‘I am twenty-eight now, and after thirty-five maybe it is children time, and besides for the cow I will have to look after them too. So now I must take time for my hobbies’ – he says as the notes fly out of the glass-less window of his room.
Meanwhile, Arjun’s mother, a quiet woman with a dungri (Nepali ring) hanging from the nose and a mischievous young flame burning in her wrinkled eyes, takes a rest from the daily chores and sits on the stairs smoking a biri. Her husband, a man of small constitution and happy mood comes around for a body language session mixed with Nepali lesson. Always laughing, he is happy to have little daily chats with us, disappearing for a while only during his ‘detox’ weeks. He has diabetes and ‘is very shy if not drinking, but for his health too much rice beer, not very good’ – tells us Monita, his youngest daughter. Energetic and capable arranger, she is ready for the position of a matriarch in any household. If Arjun is not around Monita will always successfully help us with any trouble. She unceremoniously introduces us to the local way of long-distance communication. Walking up the hills in vain is a waste of time and energy, so before paying a visit to a neighbour you should know whether he is at home or he has what you are looking for. That’s why shouting on top of your voice and inquiring beforehand is paramount. ‘Do you have potatoeeees?’ – the air vibrates –’ Nooooo!’ – an invisible voice responds. ‘ And eeeegs?’ ‘Come tomorrow morning, Monitaaaaaa!’ Monita, although a master of phoneless communication, is by no means alone in making the pines tremble. Shouts crisscross the slopes from dawn to dusk while we wonder why nature, so cruel at times, has not gifted birds voice to the hilly people.
Under the cacophonous melody, life follows its pace. The blacksmith, a couple of houses away, sits in clouds of smoke, his colourful cylinder hat standing out from afar, forging hot metal with a heavy hammer. Arjun’s father and the old man next door tirelessly weave bamboo baskets in between shots of spirits, while man and women fill them up with sand and bricks climbing up and down the hill as a new house raises around the turn. Grandmothers churn milk, cook and cut grass, the students nearby think of an excuse for skipping school and spending a day off with their girlfriends, the cows graze idly, the pig munches hungrily unaware that winter is coming and Burma bites the tale of her new friend, the puppy of a neighbour, who distracted by games and the smell of fish from the cat’s plate repeatedly forgets to go home and curls in front our door. And under the angelic orange tubes of the Rhododendron, a group of kids, impatient to join the doings of their parents, emulate grown-ups activities. They ‘sell’ imaginary and sweets in a customized shop, and bake sand-cakes in an ‘open-air’ restaurant. If feeling tired or hungry, induced by the nature of their games, they run to the kitchen to steal sugar and fruits and leave their tooth-prints on coconuts or chocolate bars. As a band of accomplices they move harmoniously under the cover of daylight, when everybody is busy, never caught in misdeed. The team has only one weak link. A little fatty ball of the age of three, with long hair tied in a pony tale over the head and a face that knows only the extreme expressions of laughter and cry, Onmul is still learning how to use his hands and feet, but his naughty imagination surpasses that of his friends and older sibling. Short in size, but a giant in disorder he is continuously involved in unimaginable calamities.
Dangerously unpredictable, Onmul nevertheless follows a cohesive timetable. Our infallible alarm, he is more reliable than a rooster when it comes to waking up the house. Every morning at sunrise, way before Monita begins her vocal exercises, Onmul gives a cry to the skies followed invariably by his helpless mother loud exclamation of disbelief. ‘Laaaa! Bebeeee!’. Buddha, Onmul’s father, busy with driving tourists across Sikkim, is fortunately absent while his son accidentally chops his finger in two, decapitates Arjun’s chicken, opens a box of black paint and plays ‘shower time’ pouring over his and a friend’s head, imitates the pig rolling happily in the dirtiest spot possible or enforces tactics of corrective punishment to any unlucky animal that happens to pass by his reach. Our landlord, Arjun and Monita’s brother, proves to be the most capable of dealing with the little fury and when around spends most of his time with Onmul. ‘Monkey this, not human. Baador‘ – he laughs in half English half Nepali trying to tame the wild energy of our alarm clock. A devoted Budhist in a Hindu family, he recites mantras and changes the offerings to Buddha idols, his room always twinkling with a decorative light in front of an altar. Orthodoxly religious, our landlord fights daily a lost battle, uprooting the unchecked growths of marijuana plants in the yard, most certainly unaware he is damaging a potential branch of the family business. Meanwhile, obviously disapproving, Ram and Lunga, our flatmates and government employees, watch in silent terror sipping glasses of rum in the company of Arjun. ‘Come and join us! Only a little for good mood!’ Originally from a village 30 km away, they take advantage of their families being far (at least for the Sikkimese standards) engaging in joyful and peaceful drinking activities. ‘Please, don’t mind and good night!’ – they knock each evening on hour door, smile widely and repeat twice and thrice making sure we grasp the gist of their statement. ‘Please don’t mind and good night!’
Fully immersed with the peculiarities of non-travelling life, we write our book with a window to Kanchenjunga, get entertained with the gang of children enthusiasm, speak to our neighbours, cook and occasionally walking to the next town for our shopping or taking random hikes with Arjun, Ram and Lunga, here and there having some rice beer or tongba, always ‘a little for good mood’. The days begin with ‘Laaa’ and finish with ‘please, don’t mind’, with the white snows of the mountain and the fire-flies swimming like bulbs through the sweet fragrance of the Rhododendron. In between, now and then, our lazy routine happening with a cup of milk tea courtesy to Arjun’s cow, is interrupted by the unexpected visit of a random foreigner trekking to a nearby lake. ‘The lake is really beautiful’, ‘The lake is OK, but everything around is to expensive’, ‘True that you have to pay, but it’s normal, because it has facilities’, ‘All is fine with the lake, but damn it, it is sacred and you can’t swim in it…’ Piece by piece, bit by bit and we start giving tourists information on Kacheperi lake, while wondering whether we should first go and see it or just write a guide about it. And while we cherish the beauty of village life, thinking over the uncountable details taking place “when simply nothing happens” we wave an abrupt and unexpected good-bye to the Himalayas. A day of dusty curves and noisy crowded jeep drives away, we fall asleep in a hospital of a busy West Bengali town. We have heard before of gall-stones, but we are about to figure out that they cause unbearable stomach ache, jaundice, weight loss and most importantly, besides their medical profile, they set travel itineraries. The lake in Sikkim should wait for another time, but another lake, an urban one, awaits us in Bhopal…