Notes on a Birthday

This is the world at 23:

Yesterday I went with one of the office guys (I didn’t catch his name) to renew my permit to stay in Sikkim. We drove up to the Foreigners Registration Office in a little coup with seat belts that only I used, and on the way we were stopped by a police officer who stood in the center of the road and carelessly waved for us to pull over. I couldn’t quite follow the conversation between my driver and the cop, but it seemed genial enough and ended with my comrade handing over a little, plastic-bound packet, what I took to be documentation on the car.

The cop ran back across the street, and we pulled forward out of the way and waited. My driver checked his phone. Then we drove down to the next curve and turned around, then drove back down the hill and pulled over again. We waited some more. My driver checked his phone. We drove all the way back down the hill and wheeled around the little round police stand in the center of the intersection. There was a lady cop standing there with rigid posture and a face mask against the exhaust, and my driver called out to her: “Excuse me. Excuse me.” at first, and then louder, “Ay, didi!” My driver waved his phone around and tried to explain, but the conversation was unproductive and cars were starting to get backed up behind us. Again we drove up the hill, and this time, at the top a different cop ran up to the car. This one was baby-faced and conspicuously clean shaven, and again the conversation was genial. They exchanged phone numbers, but no documents (which the other cop still had), and off we go at last. I ask what that was all about. “Oh, he’s my friend,” my driver says, and I let it drop.

We go and get my permit renewed without incident, and on the way back we chat in Nepali, my driver inexplicably interrupting me on occasion to point out different hotels we pass.

“Sikkim is nice,“ he says between hotels, “All the people are very nice. Except the police. All the police are thieves.”

“But your friend is police, yes?” I say, and my driver chuckles and nods.

When we get to that same stretch of road, he pulls out his phone and calls. The cherubic police officer lopes over. Again they talk. The cop gives my driver back his documents, and my driver gives the cop a rolled up copy of NOW.

“How much did you give him?” I ask in Nepali as we roll off.

My driver looks at me. “One hundred rupees,” he says.

“Was it a bribe?” I ask.

He humbles a non-answer. In the world at 23, people will tell you how much they slipped the cop, but they won’t admit that it was a bribe.

Twice this week I went out to lunch with other reporters. The first was Joseph, a Lepcha who has been working as a journalist in Sikkim since the mid-90s. His English isn’t perfect, but he is nice and always greets me with a handshake. With no paper to put out on Republic Day, we walk up in the late afternoon to a Chinese place I passed last week, one that bills itself as “the only authentic Chinese food in town! Including crab!” Joseph gets the chicken spring rolls, I get the sweet and sour chicken. Both are good and reasonably authentic, though apparently the cook is actually from Bihar and the portions smaller than I’m used to. We eat and talk of astrology and religion and romance. When the bill comes Joseph refuses to let me pitch in, and he smiles indulgently at my assurances that I’ll pay next time. The same thing happens when we stop for sweets on the way back to the office.

The next day I go with Tshering to take photos for two profiles she is doing. Tshering is 27, Delhi educated with excellent English, and has been working for NOW only a couple months. The first photoshoot goes off without a hitch. The second man, an old Tibetan goldsmith crouched over his work, is more trouble. He only speaks Tibetan, and the Tibetan-speaker that was going to meet us to translate during the interview doesn’t show up. His wife speaks some Nepali, and through her we learn that the goldsmith isn’t interested in being interviewed after all, at least not until he has less work after the Tibetan festival of Lhosa.

As we walk back down I suggest lunch, and though Tshering is, like most Nepalis, used to only having two large meals a day with a snack in the afternoon, she quickly comes around to the idea. She takes me to her second favorite momo place (I’d already been to the first), where I order excellent fried pork momos (Tibetan dumplings and basically my favorite food here) and she a too-spicy beef dish. We eat and talk of development and dying cultures and how much Gangtok has changed in just the last few years. Again my attempt to split the bill is rebuffed, and again my offer to get the next one is met with the same indulgent nod.

In the world at 23, adults will have lunch with you like a peer, but don’t actually believe that you will ever hit them back for picking up the check.

Today is my birthday, and I am now fully ensludged in the mire that is my twenties. There is a full moon tonight, and I’m internally torn between leaving office early to enjoy the dinner of puffy ti-momos that Shurep has promised to make, and staying late to drink beer or wine with the guys at the paper. A part of me also wishes I could just take the day off and stay in bed finishing Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics.

You’re 23. Shouldn’t you have your priorities here figured out? my internal monologue frets. But then a saner, wiser voice comes along and says, Hey, you’re only 23. You really don’t have to have this stuff worked out yet.

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