Satyajit Ray’s documentary on Sikkim is perhaps the best glimpse of a master at his decadent best. Every frame is voluptuous, Ray shows us sweeping landscapes otherwise only found in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, the cacophony of children going to school, impossibly quaint market squares, the mesmeric whirling of prayer bells and even a bizarrely gorgeous long take of a man trying to tame a wild horse.
While this certainly sounds like an Orientalist wet dream, the cinematic hypnotism that Ray executes makes you fleetingly amnesiac about all those well-intentioned lectures on Edward Said in college. Originally, Ray had his trepidations about doing the documentary, but he eventually acquiesced after Hope Cook (the American wife of the Chogyal of Sikkim, Palden Thondhup Namgyal) convinced him to take on the project, expressing her admiration for his movies.
Ray devoted quite a bit of time to the film, and while it was a commissioned project, his bewitchment about the autonomous kingdom is pretty evident in the final product. During its first private screening, the Chogyal and his Queen found some parts of the documentary objectionable and demanded a few cuts. It was, after all, intended to be a propaganda film that would boost tourism in the unchartered kingdom, and Ray’s Orientalist flourish of depicting the abject poverty that existed alongside Sikkim’s grandiosity probably didn’t sit well with the monarchs. The film went through production hell, got banned after India’s annexation of Sikkim in 1975, and eventually got its second screening decades later in 2010.
The book, not the film
A similar fate would meet another intrepid, genteel Bengali Sunanda K Dutta Ray, who operated from Sikkim at around the same time Ray shot his documentary there and was far more transfixed by the place. Smash And Grab: The Annexation Of Sikkim is a richly detailed account of every conceivable factor that led to the Kingdom Of Sikkim being martially co-opted into the Indian republic, which was published a decade after the incident in 1984. The book wasn’t exactly banned, as Dutta Ray stresses in his retrospective introduction, but rather, a defamation suit was slapped against it and while the court case trickled away at the pace of glacial drip, all efforts were made, rather successfully, to clamp down on its distribution and sales.
It was eventually republished in 2013 by Tranquebar Press. At its core, the book eviscerates the formerly prevalent, mainstream notion that the incorporation of Sikkim as India’s 22nd state was all hunky dory. Dutta Ray draws an intricate tapestry of characters – a benign, trusting monarch in the Chogyal, a partisan politician and his opportunistic wife with Kazi Lhendup Dorjee and Kazini Elisa Maria, a flip-flopping political officer in Gurbachan Singh, and a shrewd, merciless tactician in Indira Gandhi.
The book also delves deeply into the historicity of the event, right from a primordial moment, through the British skirmishes in the area, the Nepalese migration, the ambivalent Nehruvian years, the mounting geopolitical tensions with China, the anti-royalist protests staged outside the palace, right down to a dubious referendum that officially sealed the deal.
Much like the Ray that preceded him, Dutta Ray has the keen eye of a documentarian while still managing to retain a breathless, poetic quality to the prose. The reader turns voyeur to conversations, hushed whispers and letters that only those privileged with such a proximity to all the players in this piece of theatre can be privy to, with Dutta Ray providing the perfect, punchy background notes for their character. Take: “They were under Emil Manuel, the Goan housekeeper whose habitual black suit and lugubrious expression concealed an acid wit.” Or, on the Kazini: “The language of the kitchen, in which memsahibs give household instructions to the bearers, was her only means of communicating with her husband, an appropriate one as it happened. She was an accomplished woman of the world, wrapped in the air of rococo intrigue.”
Even Dutta Ray’s supercilious attitude towards the mainstream Indian media covering Sikkim, with his frequent barbs about their obsequiously jingoistic reportage, provides for fascinating reading, especially at a time where the nature of jingoism in the mainstream media has acquired a steroid boost. If I were to nitpick, the only disconcerting aspect of the book is Dutta Ray’s transparent bias towards the monarch of Sikkim. There is hardly anything critical said about the Chogyal by the author himself, who by most accounts did cut the figure of a “benevolent king”.
But shouldn’t a journalist be sceptical of any form of power, especially one that a dynast wields? The book is far from being a people’s history of the annexation, but perhaps the onus of that narrative doesn’t fall on Dutta Ray.
But why must Dutta Ray’s book be read today? To most people, almost all modern day notions of imperialism often only evoke a colonial past or the post-war American enterprise in the minds of most. What we fail to see is the subterfuge on our own soil, the history of betrayals and the political doublespeak of the Indian state.
While the state of Sikkim does well on most indicators, and was historically “funded” by India even when it was an autonomous kingdom, does this necessarily make for a “successful” expansionist tale? Most of all, the book shines a light on one of the lesser known imperialist overtures of Indira Gandhi. The next time she felt emboldened enough to send her hordes to a sacred place it would cost her her life, and she even bequeathed this talent for misjudgement to her son Rajiv.