Last fall found me at the gates of Nathu La. At 14,150 ft, this border outpost is perched on the ‘Roof of the World’, where two countries face each other—eyeball-to-eyeball—as you inch your way along a road carved out of the mountain up to a rusty barbed wire which marks the Line of Control.
Covered in indigo hues lies sprawled the Tibetan plateau. I gasp for air. And I gasp again. But this time it’s on reading this fascinating story of what happens when a small kingdom hangs on to the hem of three bigger neighbours.
Or, where a ruling elite hands over the tilling of their own traditional agricultural land to outsiders. Oftener than not, the outsiders end up with the land (and political power) while you are left holding the story. For Sikkim is a tiny piece of land, no more than 70x40 miles.
It caught the imagination of the world when the Chogyal Thondup, the last King of Sikkim, the scion of a ruling Buddhist family, fell in love with a teenager, Hope Cooke, 17 years his junior.
With magazines worldwide splashing pictures of their wedding, some blamed the resultant attention that spun the kingdom into a vortex.
The book also takes us back to the days of the Raj, which had a Resident in 1890. He was no more than ‘the Whisper behind the Throne, but never for an instant the Throne itself’.
To the Raj, Sikkim was a launch pad to gain influence in the Great Game.
From school at BCS Shimla, Thondup joined the ICS school in Dehradun, then running from a tented colony, but nonetheless ‘renowned as the training ground for bureaucrats’.
It taught them the fundamentals of administration with an eye on the day when the Empire would leave. ‘Twas here that the young man picked up his love for all things western.
Summer breaks saw Thondup return to his unpretentious lifestyle of the Palace, to be with his two beautiful sisters: Coocoola and Kula. Almost everyone seemed to be in love with them.
‘Who would have suspected,’ wrote the Italian traveller and author, Fosco Maraini, seeing Kula ski on the slopes below the mountain pass, ‘there was so much strength and determination in her pearl porcelain body?’ Of course this book is much more than just telling us about the Chogyal’s story. It takes the reader through the gamut of political developments: the uprising, the revolt and the dithering before the final denouncement.
As I drove back to Gangtok, past the tin-shed built for border trade, past the rhododendron forests (those favourites of the 18th century botanist Sir Joseph Hooker) I thought of the curtain that fell in April 1975, ending three centuries of Namgyal rule as it became the then 22nd constituent of India. Reading rarely gets better than this. Eminently readable, somewhere between a fairy tale and an unputdownable political thriller.
Sikkim caught the imagination of the world when the Chogyal, the scion of a ruling Buddhist family, fell in love with a teenager, Hope Cooke, 17 years his junior