I passed by the little sweet shop in Tadong a dozen times before I ever went in. The sidewalk outside slopes down just enough for me to really catch my stride, so for a few weeks I just hurried by. But the stacks of moist, sugary balls of dough looked good behind the glass display, and I was tempted. I stopped and had a sweet. A few weeks later I started walking up from the office for lunch. I chatted with the proprietors and began to hear bits about the history of the place and the family that runs it, a five generation long tale of migration, of war, of a changing city and of entrepreneurial spirit. And I thought to myself, gosh, I have to hear the whole story.
Laxmi Sweets in MG Marg, a sweet shop cum fast food place, is the oldest such establishment in the state. They sell cakes and traditional Indian sweets, and have a kitchen to prepare momos, parathas, chow mein and other fast foods. A family run business, Laxmi Sweets has two additional branches, one in Tadong, which I patronise, and one in Deorali, by the ropeway. I sat down this week with Gaurav Kashyap, whose father founded the sweets business, to ask a few questions about the shop, his family, and how Sikkim has changed around them over the decades.
Unsurprisingly the exact date of the family’s migration has been forgotten, but Gaurav estimates that his great-great grandfather moved to Sikkim from Uttar Pradesh more than 150 years ago. He stresses that, having lived in the state for five generations, his family thinks of itself as Sikkimese.
“We are still considered to be outsiders here by some,” Gaurav says, “but we take pride in being one of the oldest settlers of Sikkim.”
Based in Gangtok, the family eventually made its way into Yatung, China where they established a grocery, shipping supplies in from Sikkim. When China and India went to war in 1962, Gaurav’s grandparents in China were put under house arrest due to their Indian heritage and were forced to “donate” all their savings and possessions to the Chinese war effort. With the help of a friendly tribal leader they escaped back into Sikkim and reconsolidated their family in Gangtok to focus on their rations shop, located in the center of MG Marg.
MG Marg was far less developed at the time: scarcely populated, filled with wooden houses and bamboo trees, still surrounded by dense forest just a few hundred metres away. The space for the shop had been gifted to Gaurav’s grandfather by the King of Sikkim, who was hoping to promote commercial growth in the state. The ration shop was fairly successful for many years, but by the early 1970s it was struggling. In 1974 Gaurav’s grandfather became ill and died. Gaurav’s father, who was just 14 years old at the time, took over the family business and converted the ration store into the sweet shop we know today. The new business flourished.
“We Indians talk a lot about destiny,” Gaurav tells me, “but I believe it was really our hard work and the good relations we had with the people around us. Gangtok is a small place. Knowing everybody has always been an asset.”
The growth at MG Marg has also been a boon for the shop, especially the recent construction turning the space into a pedestrian mall and one of the biggest tourist attractions in the state. During the tourist season Laxmi Sweets gets a significant boost, but even in the off season locals use the street in a different way than they did just a few years ago.
“The change has been 360 degrees,” Gaurav says. “The people living in the bazaar didn’t have enough space to relax or even think. Now people take their morning walks there.”
In 1996 the family opened the second shop in Tadong, and in 1998 they set up the third in Deorali.
“Laxmi sweets in Gangtok had become a brand name in Sikkim,” Gaurav says. “Looking at this reputation we saw opportunity to grow. Expansion was absolutely essential because we are a joint family. We have to grow the business as the family grows.”
Like MG Marg in 1974, Tadong in 1996 was significantly different. There were few buildings, and residents had to go up to the town center for even the most basic supplies. Now Tadong has enough local amenities to provide for its residents’ immediate needs. Gaurav says his family is proud to have been a part of that. Meanwhile, Deorali has gone from being a simple market area to one of the city’s main tourist hubs, and the Laxmi Sweets there benefits greatly from its proximity to the ropeway, Deorali Monastery and the Tibetology Institute.
Business remains good for Laxmi sweets, and the family is now looking for further opportunities to take their brand out of Gangtok into the other districts of the state, starting with the South District. Gaurav stresses me to, though, that at the moment this is “just a plan.”
Expansion is good, but Gaurav’s family likes to stick together. Most nights, after the shops close, the 35 member extended family gathers at their MG Marg home for one enormous meal. All six of Gaurav’s uncles (two of whom are now deceased) were involved in helping run the shop with his father.
The family has had enough financial success with the shop to send their children out of Gangtok to good boarding schools. Many than go on higher education elsewhere in India.
“We come from a business family. Everyone is too busy to raise kids,” Gaurav says. “But education is still paramount for us.”
Most of his cousins are expected to return from their studies to help run the family business. Gaurav is affectionately considered a bit of a black sheep in this respect. Educated in Kalimpong, he got his BA and Masters in Political Science at Delhi University, where he remained teaching on an ad hoc basis until his father recently became ill with heart disease. He came back to Gangtok to tend to his father and help fill in managing the shop, but he intends to eventually return to Delhi to take the UPC exam.
Though his ambitions are carrying him elsewhere, it isn’t hard to see that Gaurav has great love for Sikkim.
“Doing business in Sikkim has been very easy because it’s so peaceful here,” he says. “On the plains people calculate the advantages and disadvantages before they become your friend. Here everyone is very accommodating. We really believe in Sikkim and its people.”