A professor of computer science at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, Kamal Lodaya was an editor of the children’s science magazine Jantar Mantar in the 1990’s. Kamal occasionally writes stories for English and Gujarati magazines.
It was foggy that evening in Tawang and the shops were closing down. We looked at places which might serve us chhang, the local beer, but they looked rundown and not very inviting. We decided to check out the Dragon restaurant.
Tenzin, at the counter, said they were open until nine. “No,” she smiled, “we do not have chhang but we can give you beer.” Mild or strong? “Strong,” she said. I made a face and she laughed, saying “we also have whisky.”
One of the tables had emptied and Tenzin went about organizing chairs for us. We ordered our drinks, and some momos to start with. On the next table, two women were having their dinner. Near the doorway a group of young men was downing whisky. Although it wasn’t too big the place looked well-lighted and its wall decor was not grim. It also had a good clean toilet.
We relaxed and talked. Tenzin kept walking from the cash counter near the door to the back where the cooking area was.
Our order arrived. The young women finished their dinner, paid and left amidst cheerful chatter with the ladies at the cash counter. A younger, shorter, stockier woman, was there now, together with an older woman who looked like her mother – and she was.
A thickset young man and his friend came in through the door and stood chatting at the counter. The older woman said something to the younger ones and disappeared into the back of the restaurant. The daughter’s name was Sange Dolma and Tenzin was her cousin.
Sange Dolma, it turned out, was here only for the vacations. In another week she would leave for her medical college.
Where was that? “Bagalkot,” she said, taking our breaths away.
I wanted to know how she went from Tawang to Bagalkot. She recounted,
“One day to reach Bomdila, then reach Tezpur the second evening, take a night bus to Guwahati, catch the Bangalore express on the third day morning. Fifth day afternoon the train reaches Bangalore. From there another night bus reaching Bagalkot on the sixth day morning.”
I was reminded of a conversation with a lady I got talking to in Dirang, on the road to Tawang. “Maybe when Tibet was there,” she said, “we monpas (Buddhists of the monyul, lands to the south of Tibet) might have had a hard time deciding between Tibet and India. But once China took over Tibet, there was no question for us that India was our country.”
Tawang is a district in Arunachal Pradesh, to the north of Bhutan. It was administered by Tibet until the second world war, when the British occupied it. Independent India established control there in 1951, with protests from Tibet. When China occupied Tibet, it continued the demands on Tawang and later extended them to all of Arunachal Pradesh. The current Dalai lama fled from Tibet in 1959 and came to the Tawang monastery. Some major battles of the Sino-Indian war in 1962 took place in Tawang.
The drinking group had left and we were having a difficult time deciding our dinner. Shobha turned to Tenzin and told her we wanted to eat some local food, and requested that she fix us a nice dinner. Tenzin smiled and bustled away into the kitchen.
Shobha asked the men at the counter if they wanted dinner. The young man declined. He laughed and said, “I am here only to propose to Tenzin. You know, I have proposed to her so many times and she still says no.” Shobha encouraged him to keep trying. Tenzin walked past, smiling.
Our dinner came in. It was delicious, with black mushrooms, cheese made from yak’s milk, momos and thick-grained rice. And we asked for more beer and whisky. We were now the last people in the restaurant and it was clear they would close when we finished. We invited Sange Dolma and Tenzin to join us for butter-tea with salt, a speciality of the mountains. Sange Dolma came and sat with us. Tenzin had a cup of tea sitting at the cash counter, slim and erect as she went through some accounts. We told them how sorry we were that we had discovered this restaurant only on our last day in Tawang.