A city in the hills can cause much stress. In the middle of the July monsoon, the days are gulped by the absolute whiteness of the fog. The whiteness is profound as though concealed by several layers of thick white quilt. The bright white clouds shower soft rains upon the hills throughout the day as though offering a slow washing away of sins from the summer. In the absence of sun rays, the lethargy seeps in like a chronic disease, and it feels like time has been prolonged steadily. Thereafter, following a troublesome day in the hills of Gangtok, when I am finally twitching in bed, I feel squeezed in between the sprawling buildings of Tadong.
In times like these, I offer myself an escape rope by simply shutting my eyes and travelling back in time to May 2019 when I fell in love with a place called Yangang in South Sikkim.
The hills are blessed with a short summer season. By the time we begin to feel the heat in the middle of May, it is already enveloped by fog and what seems like endless showers by mid-June. Although short-lived, summertime usually is an adventurous season. I was able to best witness the marvels in the tiny hamlets scattered a few miles below Yangang town in South Sikkim. In this piece, I will be replaying images and clips I vividly travel back to when I use the escape rope.
Yangang at first sight
I step out of the car and I am greeted by a bright day with the distant melodies of streams. I look across and observe the neighbouring hills of Khamdong in East Sikkim decorated with minute-looking houses. I try to make sense of the map by placing the hills of Yangang and Khamdong opposite to each other divided by the Teesta river. This mind game is usually an easy task while in the plains but it becomes challenging in the hills. Imagining the larger picture, the hills of Yangang and Khamdong and Teesta felt like a huge form of life where I was probably an arbitrary blood cell. The trails diffuse below the highway like an elaborate network of arteries and capillaries circulating from the hilltop until the banks of the Teesta and maybe even below the riverbed. The cavity of the hill felt well ventilated by the peculiar air. Every breath was impregnated by the scent that the season brought. This time it was the aroma of water crescent and other herbs lingering in the nooks and corners of the hill.
The general vicinity had begun the colour transformation from golden brown winter shades to lush green shades of summer. The brown was fading, and in replacement were some bright shades of emerald. There is a goreto or a trail that begins to climb down from the highway. The trail disappears after a few steps in the assembly of tall maize fields. It is the path that also leads to Dhuni Dara Homestay where I was to halt for the next few days. There was a commotion of emotions waiting to be explored beyond the images of the maize fields.
Dhuni Dara Homestay
The host family consisted of Bhavana, her husband Mandip, and her sisters Aradhna and Sadhna. Just as the trail, we disappeared into the tall maize patches beyond which stood their home. The short descent down to Dhuni Dara Homestay took us through a few households who were to be my neighbours. In the hills, life beyond the highway in the tiny networks of arterial village trails is a thriving experience. Unlike in Gangtok, the earth and air felt different and more welcoming. I was showered by greetings from Bhavana’s neighbours as we exchanged friendly smiles. Several faces emerged from tiny windows and from behind trees as Bhairav, the dog, promisingly monitored our walk as though to ensure we arrive at the homestay in one piece. I was taken back to my village several years ago when my grandparents were alive. There was haste in one particular household where the family collectively worked to beat paddy using the traditional mill known as dhiki. I suddenly recalled the thrill of jumping on the wooden handle of the dhiki while my grandmother placed and collected paddy on a nanglo or a tray made of straws. The sight filled me with joy and nostalgia. The trail took us through an auspicious montage of what life below the highway in the depth of the village appeared like.
After crossing one last patch of maize, the trail revealed a large expanse of grass where two ekra cottages stood strongly illuminated by the summer sun. There was one cottage in the middle with big windows and on its left stood another smaller cottage next to a prosperous hibiscus bush. On the right side was a shed-like structure made of bamboo and bearing a hammock. The grass on the ground glistened under the blue sky as though moist with fresh tears. There was another vacant hammock stretched between two trees inviting anyone to sit back and relax under the lone seemingly vast Rhododendron tree. There was a wall made of blocks of rock with messages and images painted on it. Every structure was outlined by several flowers and trees such as hydrangea, azalea, and rose. It reminded me of my primary school notebooks where I would always be tempted to outline borders of every page with daisies. I took off my shoes and offered my feet the privilege of walking on the grass. The tickle on my feet somehow relieved me from the weariness of the travel and ignited several curiosities that I began to address without further due. I repeatedly shot questions at my calm hosts. However, I stopped when after another scan of the home, my eyes met the hula hoop hanging on the wall. I grabbed it and began the drill. The commotion thus began to chalk out at Dhuni Dara Homestay. When one thing led to another and I took the liberty to begin stretching and striking yoga poses on the serene grass. I could hear birds singing melodies in the forest below and insects of the summer buzzing all around the maize fields waiting for the evening to approach to come out of their caves. This is how Gangtok became a place I needed a break from.
My relationship with my hosts became very family-like. I had already begun calling Bhavana by the term nana, which is a local term for elder sister. Apart from managing the homestay, nana worked at a nearby school as a teacher. She multitasked as we chit chatted by tending to the weeds that grow in the gardens with the summer rains. Nana and her husband were deeply involved in gardening. She narrated how the village functions under a barter system, where every family exchanges what is grown and made in their respective gardens and homes. This is when she also promised me a taste of the jaar or millet beer made by her neighbour known as Cheema.
Thereafter, she began painting a picture of evening walks in the villa during summer when the insects come out as it cools down. The fireflies of Yangang are tremendously active at this time of the year. They come out in the evening and that is when stars fell on her little village in Yangang. Nana decided to show me a glimpse and took me back to the highway. I had already begun to spot the swarm of fireflies glittering in the dusk hours in the maize fields. Then at 7.30 pm, I was a part of the magic that often stays hidden from cities. There were fireflies everywhere I turned. They glittered and shimmered in utter fiasco imitating shooting stars. The celestial drama only grew more intense when more fireflies appeared and I could no longer tell if I am still on earth. I played the song Junkeri by Bipul Chettri in my mind and I felt overwhelmed by excitement. The excitement began to take shape as attachment and it flowed out of my eyes as tiny droplets of tears. Nana and I screamed in excitement. A car passed by and illuminated the night; it made the fireflies merge into the night. I felt pity for the commuters who were unaware about the magical fiasco that their car was piercing through. I could no more tell if I was in the night sky or the ground.