Our first posting in 1973, was to The Gida Kom Leprosy Hospital in Khasadrapchu, a few miles away from Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan.
Before we went to Bhutan, we traveled to Singapore for Rekha’s christening at Christ Church, before My Dad retired on the 31st of December, 1972, the day before his Birthday on the 1st of January. It was an emotional time for all of us, as my Mum and Dad said goodbye to their extended family, the congregation of Christ Church. Saying goodbye to families that grew up around you, was not an easy task. And, they were moving out of The Parsonage at 118 Keng Lee Road which had been their home for 33 years . Ruthlessly discarding memorabilia to downsize, they moved to a flat in Thomson Ridge.
Soon after he helped settle us into the flat, Sam went to take charge at Gida kom. Rekha and I stayed back, as the Himalayas would have been bitterly cold for the baby in January. The plan was, that we would join him after 3 months when we hoped it would be a little warmer. A few weeks after he landed , he sent me a desperate message, asking us to join him, as he could not stand the loneliness. He said, that as long as he was working and busy, the loneliness did not worry him. But, when he returned to the empty cold house, he said that it was so silent, he could hear his own breathing and it was driving him nuts. Except for the howling of the wind, that rattled the glass panes of the windows, that were shut tight to keep the cold out, the house, he said, was a Mausoleum.
We were on the first flight out to Calcutta and were delirious to be all together again. From Calcutta we flew to Bagdogra, to travel by the Leprosy Mission Landrover to Gida kom.
Whenever I asked Sam how much further we had to climb, he kept dodging saying, Its just here…just here . I believed him and we sat huddled in the land Rover for what seemed like an eternity. We stopped at Taktichu at 10,000 feet above sea level to have coffee at a small kiosk. I could not believe my eyes, when I met the proverbial mundu clad, Malayalee Chettan, bundled up in a monkey cap, muffler and sweater , selling yards of steaming coffee in a tea shop atop the Himalayas. He was just as delighted to meet a saree, someone that he could chat with. Someone, who knew Malayalam. Out of respect he kept addressing me as “Saar”. Unused to being called “Saar” , I kept looking behind my shoulder to see if he was talking to a gentleman standing behind me.
He’s talking to you, Susie, said an amused Sam. He is talking to you. Get used to it !
After the welcome break , we were bundled up in the Landrover, as we continued to climb. The roads going up, were narrow winding challenges, that managed to let traffic up and down mountain, simultaneously, without metal touching metal, as the vehicles crossed. The traffic coming down hugged the curve of the mountain. As we were going up, we drove on the cliffside of the road , which sported a sheer drop of several feet. If a car went down , rescue operations would be futile, I was told.
At some spots, I closed my eyes tight, clutched Rekha, who slept through it all, close and whispered Dear God… Dear God…Dear God, through clenched teeth. I had no clue what I was praying for. I could not get past the two words, Dear God . All I knew was that if I called on Him, He would get us safely, to wherever it was that we were going.
The driver’s skills were wasted on me. I was sure that this was the last ride I would ever take on this earth. We were going to hurtle down an unknown mountain to oblivion. The only mountains I had climbed, growing up on the Island of Singapore, were The Fraser’s Hill and The Cameron Highlands, when we went on holiday in Malaysia. They had now shrunk to pimples on the horizon, when compared to the mountains of the Himalayas.
When I had my eyes open, the sheer beauty of the landscapes we crossed, took my breath away. The mountainside was covered by green forests, with Rhododendrons and Poinsettias waving out from the foliage, that covered the mountain side. Linear Tibetan Prayer Flags, wafted as reassuring colourful strands in the chilling wind, welcoming visitors to the ancient Himalayan Kingdom, instilling a calm and peace, as we rode up . Sometimes a spectacular waterfall would break the monotony, to gush and tumble down the side of the mountain, spraying rainbow colours, as the water spray burst in the air. Far in the distance, the snow capped mountains, peaked as they stood tall and proud, in silent witness of God’s Magnificent Creation.
After about 9 hours of telling me that it was only a short distance away , Sam said Look there it is. We had finally reached Gida Kom. The Hospital Campus was pitch dark, as there was no electricity. They only had a Hydel Plant that supplied a faint and temperamental flicker of light for about 2 hours in the evening, after which the whole place went to sleep, with Kerosene lit Hurricane Lamps for emergencies. It was several hours after “Hydel Time”, when we finally reached.
We creaked and cranked up the last lap and stopped at the dimly lit Superintendent’s Bungalow. A crowd of staff and patients were waiting to welcome us. They had been tracking the head lights of the Landrover, for an hour, as it climbed the last lap of the climb. Crowding around, they inspected us from head to toe, holding their lamps high up above their heads. Shaking their heads they muttered “Tsk Tsk Tsk “.…and something in Bhutanese that I did not understand “. I had no idea what was happening. Neither did Sam.
The next morning, we found out what the “Tsk Tsk Tsk’ was all about. Sam had tried to set up the home before we arrived. He had placed some random photographs on the Mantelpiece of the Fireplace. Some of them were from the wedding album. Apparently, they had inspected the photographs on display and they were expecting the slim wife from the wedding photographs, to alight daintily from the car. They were confused to see a chubby person, several kilos richer, stiff with several hours on the road, roll out of the car, bundled up in several layers of warmth.
Thats when they did the Tsk Tsk Tsk. What they muttered in Bhutanese, I believe was …..Poor thing the first wife died and the Doctorsahib married again… Tsk Tsk Tsk…