Sunday, May 17, 2015

“Have tried to write a full account of what happened during the last days of the Kingdom”

Andrew Duff

In conversation with ANDREW DUFF, author of Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom, about the story he wants to tell, how he discovered it and where he hopes it is headed…

NOW: How did the idea of a book on Sikkim develop from what started as an interest in retracing your grandfather’s visits to this State? What made you stay with the story beyond your grandfather’s experiences here?
When I set out in 2009 to retrace my grandfather’s footsteps from 1922, my intention was to write about my personal family connection to Sikkim.
My grandfather loved Sikkim and Darjeeling, visiting many times during the twenty-eight years that he lived in Calcutta. But it was the notes and photographs from his 1922 journey that captivated me as a child.
He had set out from Darjeeling with three friends and walked to Pemayangtse monastery and back.  Retracing his journey – along the old roads via Badamtam, Singla Bazaar, Chakung, Rinchenpong and Dentam – was a fantastic experience. Everywhere I went people were open, hospitable and generous. I had wonderful impromptu stays with some great families and fell in love with the landscape.
On the fifth day I reached Pemayangtse, where I met Sonam Yongda. He gave me a copy of Sunanda Datta-Ray’s book, Smash & Grab. I found the story fascinating, and when I discovered that Sonam Yongda was the Captain Yongda in the story (imprisoned in 1975), I was hooked.
On my return to the UK, I started to research the story properly. It did not take long to realise that Sikkim’s story was one that I wanted to tell in full.
How long was the research? And how easy/ difficult was it to find material?
I worked on the book on-and-off for five years, and the sources I discovered were vital in enabling me to tell the story. Finding them required some challenging detective work.
First, I was introduced to two women who were headteachers at the Paljor Namgyal Girls School – Martha Hamilton (1959-66) and Ishbel Ritchie (1966-1996). Some of your readers will know that they are both spirited women! (Sadly Martha died in March 2015). Both Martha and Ishbel had written weekly letters home to their parents while they were in Sikkim. Both had also been relatively close to the Palace scene. When I sorted through their letters, I realised I had an invaluable contemporaneous account of what happened in Sikkim during the 1960s and 1970s. They had been writing without an agenda, just commenting on events, and their letters gave me great insights into the period. During the early 1970s, for instance, Ishbel Ritchie had started to write sensitive parts of her letters in the Scots language in order to avoid the censors. Above all, their letters (as well as photographs and articles about Sikkim that they had kept over the years) helped me to understand the central characters in the story – Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal and his Gyalmo, Hope Cooke.
Second, I was helped enormously by the discovery in 2011 that British Intelligence had kept voluminous files on the situation in Sikkim. Then in 2013 (when I thought I had finished the book), Wikileaks made the “Kissinger cables” available, which contained correspondence between Washington and the US embassies in Delhi and Beijing between 1973 and 1976. I typed the word ‘Sikkim’ into the search box, and up came 1500 pages of cables. I realised that Sikkim had been a subject on the desk of not only Indira Gandhi, but also of Kissinger, Nixon, President Bhutto, Zhou En-lai, Chairman Mao and others. That helped to understand the complex geopolitical background to the Sikkim story.
Third, I returned to Sikkim a number of times while researching the book, staying at the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology and interviewing some of the people involved in the events of the 1960s and 1970s, all of whom were exceptionally open and helpful.

Why a “requiem”?
We thought quite hard about the word ‘Requiem’. I wanted to capture a sense of looking into the past, but tempered with the realism that the days of the Kingdom are unlikely to return.
One of the great things about Sikkimese culture is that it is always evolving and developing, and I certainly wanted to celebrate Buddhism and the cultural environment that existed in the 1960s.
The Chogyal is, of course, at the centre of the book, and I do feel his story is a sad one. Without getting into a deep analysis of the rights and wrongs of the way individuals acted, I think most people would agree that the last Chogyal was faced with extremely challenging circumstances, and that the events of 1975 were a personal tragedy for him.

What audience do you have in mind for the book?As big an audience as possible!
I hope the story will resonate with all kinds of people. It’s a classic tale of how the weight of big power politics overcomes small states. That is as relevant today as it has ever been. One journalist, for instance, has suggested that the mechanic Russia used recently to take over Crimea is remarkably similar to that which Indira Gandhi used in Sikkim.
I have also used Sikkim’s story to tell the background context of the complex India-China relationship, and the involvement of the USA and the USSR during the early 1970s, which had a significant impact on events in Sikkim. I’ve tried to make the book of interest to people seeking to understand India and China today.
Most of all, I hope that people who buy it understand that Sikkim is a unique and special place.

Why should a Sikkimese pick up this book?I think there is some advantage in approaching the story from an outsider’s perspective, which allows a level of objectivity. I have tried to write a full account, with fresh sources, of what happened during the last days of the Kingdom in the 1960s and 1970s, and I hope the people of Sikkim find it interesting.
Politics – and democracy – are always a messy business, and there is no doubt that Sikkim’s situation between 1947 and 1975 was complex. I do think, however, that human beings must always try and make sense of, and come to terms with, the past.
I discovered Sikkim’s story while trying to reconnect with my own family’s identity. I hope the Sikkimese – particularly the younger generation – find the book useful in reflecting on their State’s history.

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