I try to visit Gangtok, my hometown, at least twice a year. Short trips leave me wanting more and often make me wonder why I don’t live there part of the year. Longer trips leave me suffocated. To venture out to MG Marg — our pedestrianised square, our pride and joy, our attempt at becoming the most European of Indian cities — is to run into at least a dozen people you know. Contrary to what movies and books would have you believe, very little is charming about a place where everybody knows everybody.
When I was growing up, Gangtok was a sleepy town just about awakening to its tourism potential. The tourists we attracted — monkey-capped Bengalis on a budget — weren’t the tourists we desired. But we had competition. Darjeeling next door had more natural beauty, history, and character than we were endowed with. Gangtok was either an afterthought or a pit stop before visitors moved on to more exotic locales within the state.
The relative isolation — we still don’t have a railway station or an airport — accounted for a place that was unapologetically small-town in its outlook. The world didn’t come to us the way it descended on Nainital, Mussoorie, or Shimla. We didn’t have world-famous schools. We didn’t have charming bookstores. We didn’t have traffic jams. Not every second building was a hotel.
We walked everywhere. Uphill to the Community Centre Library, where a ₹150 membership gave you access to dog-eared Enid Blytons and tattered Sidney Sheldons. And downhill to Porky’s restaurant, where we felt sophisticated and grown-up when we ordered something other than momos. We walked up the stairs — one flight, two flights, three flights, and the final fourth flight — to Tashi Namgyal Academy, our school, and even higher, through the woods, to temples that doubled as viewpoints and were ideal for playing hooky. We walked down the stairs to Paljor Stadium, the sports ground that hosted Independence Day celebrations and football matches.
In Land Where I Flee , I call Gangtok a city of stairs. I admit there’s no point feeling special about that. The sobriquet could apply to other cities — many other cities — with inclines and declines, with slopes and curves. Even to this day, a new city’s stairs connect me to Gangtok far more strongly than similarities in roads, views, cuisines, and people. How else could I explain the peculiar familiarity I felt with Monte Carlo, Monaco, on my first trip there? The town — with its massive yachts, botoxed people, and super-luxury cars — wasn’t much like Gangtok.
I was certain it wasn’t just the size or the mid-rise buildings but the abundance of stairs that brought about the intimacy. I usually have a poor sense of direction, but within the first hour of arriving in Monaco, I had figured out innumerable shortcuts. The next several hours, I huffed and puffed my way up and down the principality’s stairs, avoiding the streets, and was delighted about feeling at home in a place so foreign. My phone’s Fitness dashboard recorded 29,834 steps at the end of the day. Whereas in Monaco, my reward for traversing up city stairs was views of the Mediterranean Sea; in Gangtok, it was the sighting of Mount Kanchendzonga.
During my Class X board exams, I’d often go up to my family’s rooftop terrace to catch a glimpse of the Kanchendzonga early in the morning. This wasn’t with the object of appreciating the mountain change hue — like many Gangtokians, I took the views for granted — but to exchange notes with a neighbour, also a classmate, about the academic progress we had made the night before. When the Himalayas got boring, I’d turn my attention to the Paljor Stadium, the sports stadium bustling with exercising people. Anything was better than returning to text books.
Fifteen years later, I can no longer see the Kanchendzonga from my parents’ terrace. Instead, I see ganji -clad tourists brushing their teeth. A building — its length and breadth intimidating — has gone up on the vacant land next to us. Like many new buildings in Gangtok, it’s a hotel. There’s been an influx of tourists — some of them moneyed enough to spark the establishment of four- and five-star hotels — and a mushrooming of buildings. Another five-storeyed construction — it started out innocently enough as a cottage but probably felt dwarfed by its neighbours — obstructs the view from the terrace to the sports stadium, now carpet-grassed and world-class. We used to joke about never having to purchase tickets for a football match. These days we hear the cheering but can’t see any action. My father was considering adding another floor to the house so we aren’t deprived of views, but the recent earthquake dissuaded him.
Not all is lost in the name of development. On a trip home in 2007, as construction to convert the town square into a vehicle-free zone accelerated, I walked up a few flights of stairs to the Community Centre Library. When I entered the gate, a sign distracted me. Across the street, a bookstore stood gaunt and proud. Rachna Books was older than I, but I hadn’t known it as anything other than a store that sold non-English books. In its new avatar — with its carefully curated collection, an event space for gatherings, and an owner determined to get the town reading — it had gradually metamorphosed into a hub for all things literary and cultural. The owner had added a coffee shop — delightfully named Café Fiction — a couple of years ago. A bed-and-breakfast — again, delightfully named Bookman’s B & B — soon followed.
I don’t know if the Community Centre Library exists today — an office building has usurped its old location — but I don’t really miss it. Porky’s is still around; I hope it’s doing strong business as the Subways and Café Coffee Days of the world penetrate Gangtok. Our MG Marg is new and shiny and car-free. It looks nice. Gangtok is much cleaner now than it was during my childhood. I am really, really proud of that and brag to everyone that it’s, without doubt, the cleanest capital in India. We have a couple of casinos. There’s been some talk about bringing high-end designer stores to a stretch and naming it Fashion Street. I don’t walk much these days because I am conscious of being recognised. On my parents’ terrace, newly installed, is a pair of water tanks. When I precariously balance myself on top of a tank, I can sometimes catch a glimpse of the top of the Kanchendzonga.
(In this monthly column, authors chronicle the cities they call home.)
Prajwal Parajuly is the author of The Gurkha’s Daughter and Land Where I Flee