Deepchand Agarwal (Rampuria) – one who treaded the high passes of the old trade route between Sikkim and Tibet

A deep voice and a man of authority – those were perhaps my first impressions of दीपचंद अग्रवाल Deepchand Agarwal.

‘Agarwal’, is, but a generic name used to classify a large number of people from a migrant, trader community who were called (and now call themselves) Marwaris (in parts of Sikkim, Darjeeling and Nepal, sometimes, one might hear the more derogatory variant – कईयां ‘kaiyan’). The Bengal Code of Census Procedure for 1901 defined Marwari as “a trader from Rajputana” – “includes Agarwalas, Mahesris, Oswals, Seraogis, etc. The true caste should in all cases be entered.”

The more specific name for Deepchand Agarwal was दीपचंद रामपुरिया Deepchand Rampuria – the word ‘Rampuria’ implying hailing from Rampur – a village in Rajasthan (though I found a village/town with the name Rampur in a few states in India, and also in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal). The Rampurias, pronounced ‘रामपरिया Ramparia’ (with an ‘a’ following ‘Ramp’) by the Marwaris (who are adept at mutilating any given name) were supposed to have been given a boon whereby they, with their mere touch, can heal a skin eruption called ‘करांत karaant’. I’ve seen my Rampuria cousins (much older in age than me) being called upon to touch and heal those in Gangtok who suddenly had an eruption of ‘karaant’ on their bodies.

The other name of Deepchand Rampuria was ‘Deepla’. A Nov 7, 2002 article titled, ‘The truth about Sikkim’ by Major General (retired) Ashok K Mehta in mentions how in 1911, the British Captain Francis Younghusband pioneered the invasion of Lhasa through the Chumbi valley fighting battles at Yatung and Gyantse. He writes, “Till the late 1950s, Indian Army detachments were posted at Lhasa and Yatung, protecting the trademarks. Until [the year 2000], the owner of Gangtok’s Hotel Tashi Delek, Mr. Hira Lal Lakhotia [the owner actually is Moti Lal Lakhotia. Hari Lakhotia was his younger brother who passed away a couple of years ago — as per a clarification by Tenzing Chukie and Rajni Sarda Khemani], whose parents came to Sikkim much before Younghusband, had a bank account in Yatung. Along with fellow Marwaris, they still own much of the businesses in Sikkim.” Motilal and Deepchand, better known as Motia and Deepla, were close buddies. Both partnered in trade with Tibet (I often heard Yatung mentioned). I would assume it must either have been through the Nathula pass above Gangtok or the Jalepla pass near Kalimpong (a small hill station 2 1/2 hours by road from Gangtok, but part of West Bengal – currently fighting, along with Darjeeling, Kurseong and surrounding areas to form a new state with a distinct identity called Gorkhaland ). The stories I heard included Deepla often driving in the roads in Gangtok in old classic cars and his dining with the Chogyal (the King of Sikkim). I wonder whether it was Chogyal Sir Tashi Namgyal, the founder of my school – Tashi Namgyal Academy, who ruled till 1963, or Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal, the last king of the independent kingdom of Sikkim, who was forced to abdicate in 1975. It is fascinating I’m writing this on the day a cover story on Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal hits the stands in ‘Talk Sikkim’. Yesterday, 4th April, was the 45th anniversary of the coronation of the late Chogyal (as per a status update on Facebook by Tenzing Chukie, who wrote the cover story).Other stories included his returning with Tibetan stones and jewels and his wife throwing them away as they were touched by the ‘Bhotias’ (the ‘we’ versus ‘them’ happened on all sides, and continue across the world today, at various levels). My child’s mind (along with those of my siblings) would feel sorry for the loss and wonder how rich she’d have been had she kept them. There was another tale of Deepla being put behind bars once (was it in Tibet?) and his wife taking money to him (100 rupee note inside a ‘फुल्का phulka’ or ‘फलका phalka’ – chapatee). I imagined the process of the rupee note making it safely inside the phulka without getting burnt. Was the note rolled or put flat? Or, was it inserted once the phulka was made? I’m not sure the extent to which these stories were true, but they helped build the mystic of the man who these were attributed to. In 2003, after then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to China and the talks on the resumption of trade between Sikkim and Tibet, now India and China respectively, through the Nathula pass close to Gangtok, Deepla was very excited and full of energy. Despite his age in the 70s, he wanted to seek permission to resume trade again (and demanding priority treatment owing to his status as an old trader along the route).

The other, more respectful, name for Deepchand Agarwal or Deepchand Rampuria or Deepla was दीपचंद जी Deepchand ji. This was how he was referred to in my immediate and extended family, and one that I heard all the time. All the stories about him I heard were told using this name. The ‘ji’ is added as a mark of respect, in this case, for being the जंवाई janwai or son-in-law of the family (a similar measure unheard of for daughter-in-laws). The deference in pronouncing the ‘ji’, I suppose, came from being the husband of the elder (only) sister of my father and his two brothers. There was something more to it, though. The man himself demanded respect, commanded it, and got it – respect not by following the norms of society, but by being himself; by living life in his own terms.

Deepchandji had one daughter and three sons with my aunt (father’s elder sister) – all of them doing well, with grown-up children, and grandchildren, in some cases (one son had once gone to Bombay wanting to be an actor – I was intrigued to see old photographs of Devanand, Vaijyantimala, etc. on a film shoot during a visit to the Kalimpong home of my aunt). Deepchandji continued to live life on his own terms. The not-so-nice mentions included his visiting the casino in Kathmandu (much before casinos became a ‘hip’ term, with even Singapore bowing down to having its own), drinking, eating ‘अडंगो adango’ [stuff i.e. meat] (not sure how true – a complete ‘No, No’ in Marwari families), etc.

The name I used to address Deepchandji was फुम्फोजी phumphoji. फुम्फा phumpha is the Marwari term for father’s sister’s husband. My father would call him जीजोजी jeejoji (brother-in-law). His kids (at least from the first family) called him बापू bapu (father). Phumphoji attended the weddings of all my siblings (my four sisters and two brothers), including my own in 2003. He would visit otherwise as well. What impressed me was his forthrightness. Even when I was 10-year old, he gave me the kind of respect people would give the grown-ups, and had no compunctions referring to his virtues or his vices. The only other place where I’ve seen such forthrightness is in Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography ‘My experiments with truth’. He talked about how he had studied only till Class IV (fourth grade), but managed well, during all his experiences. He greatly respected my mother. I remember him once mention his age as 74. He would surprise the youngsters with his energy and the elders would be forced to listen to him, as he talked sense. Once the room he was staying in had a faulty (fluorescent) tube light, and had been faulty for years. He immediately got that fixed. In the days leading up to my sister’s wedding in 1990, there was a shortage of water. He got a pump installed and personally made sure there was adequate water during all the days of the wedding. I really respected him when I saw his stature during a particular incident. There was an undue demand from the groom’s family, and he (the main person), and other elders from the family took the lead to go and give a stern warning to the family that we would withdraw from the wedding (even at that stage – and considering we being the bride’s family) if they did not behave. Everyone quickly fell in line. He would be there wherever he could make any difference. He took the responsibility to see his granddaughters married and oversaw the entire process. These are, but surfaces of his life I know about. His success reflects in the success of his kids today.

In the last decade or so, he developed a skin condition called psoriasis. One would find his skin peeling off. He had told me about the disease and how it is non-infectious. During one of the weddings, where some people were perhaps avoiding his flaking fingers, somebody was taking a big ‘thaali’ of ladoos around. He expressed interest in them, touched almost each one of them, and returned them saying he didn’t want them. It was perhaps an indication to the crowd around not to make a big deal of his skin condition. He had once, perhaps similarly, taken my engagement ring, and tried it on his flaky-pink finger. He told me how he is getting old, and how, he must (or how he had already – I’m not sure), now, start praying and thinking of God.

During my last trip to Delhi in July 2009, I saw him in my cousin (his son’s) house. I forget the exact words, but he spoke in Marwari. “कद आया kad aaya – when did you come?”…and something else. Every 3-4 minutes, he would come back and repeat the same set of questions again. After about an hour or so, he suddenly recognized me and asked if I was still in Singapore and how was I doing. A few minutes after that, it was back to “कद आया kad aaya – when did you come?”…and something else. My भुआ bhua was lamenting how he refused to be shaved for days (he had a short white beard – in the preceding years, he would always be clean shaven). He had developed amnesia and didn’t remember things. I was sad to see him in that state. The person with so much of zeal to do things, and with his vast treasure trove of information on Tibet and Sikkim – and one who was a part of Sikkim’s history, had lost all he knew. I was told he had gotten lost in Delhi for a day or two. The police helped find him back. My भुआ bhua said she watches over him all day, fearing he doesn’t venture out. The next day, when I touched his feet to leave (he was sleeping; then got up and came outside). He asked me, “सारो काम हो ग्यो? saaro kaam ho gyo? Is all the work done?” I asked, “कुन सो काम? kun so kaam? Which work?”. He thought hard, then said, “बो पुजा हारो? Bo pooja haro? That work related to the worship?” Then he raised both his hands slightly, as if to bless, and asked again, “सारो काम हो ग्यो नी? saaro kaam ho gyo ni? I hope all the work is done.” “बो पुजा हारो? Bo pooja haro? That work related to the worship?” I said, “हाँ फुम्फोजी, हो ग्यो haan phumphoji, ho gyo. Yes, phumphoji. All’s done.”

That was the last time I met him. A month or two ago, I was further saddened to hear that he had fallen down and fractured his hips (and supposedly underwent two surgeries). He was bound to a wheelchair and was bed-ridden (with somebody taking care of changing and feeding him). Last night 4 April, after I’d reached Boston from New York, and sat at my desk around 11:30pm Eastern time (5 April, 9:00am in India) preparing Powerpoint slides for a lecture on ‘Observation Research and Usability Testing/Think Aloud Protocols’ to teach my class this morning, I got a call from home saying, “दीपचंदजी गुज़र ग्या Deepchandji guzar gyaa. Deepchandji has passed away.” He was supposedly alone at the Delhi home of his son with the caretaker (and maybe a grandson – not sure). His sons and their families had gone to Haridwar to attend the Kumbh mela and were rushing back. My भुआ bhua (even though she was in the same house, but too fat and frail to climb upstairs) had not yet been informed. My sadness on the news was coupled with a sense of relief for him for getting freed from his misery, especially after the fracture. My mother advised his son to take out a ‘बैकुंठी baikunthi’ – an elaborately-decorated funeral procession given to a person who had lived a long, fulfilling life and leaves behind children and grandchildren who are all doing well (I hear this was eventually not done due to lack of time or know-how). He supposedly was 85 years old.

I spoke to two of his sons who were on their way to Delhi. The elder of the two said, “फुम्फोजी तो गया भाई phumphoji to gaya bhai. [Your] phumphoji is gone, brother.”

Further telephone calls this morning told about the extended family coming to my house in Gangtok condoling his death.”को को आयो? ko ko aayo? Who all came? (in Nepali)”. Among the people who came, I’m told, was Moti Lal Lakhotia – the Motia to the Deepla, both of who traversed the high passes from Sikkim to Tibet (he said, in a matter of 2-3 days, he had lost his only 2 friends in the world; and that he was older than the two).

I was asked a question, to which I gave a simple answer without much thought. The question was, “चेतन के छोरो है की छोरी? Chetan ke choro hai ki chori? Does Chetan [his grandson from his second son] have a boy or a girl?” I had met all of them last year and had taken photos. I thought the question might be related to taking a gift for the baby when people from my family go to Delhi. I replied, “चेतन के शायद छोरी है, रशमी के छोरो है Chetan ke shaayad chori hai, Rashmi ke choro hai. Chetan, most likely, has a daughter. Rashmi (his sister) has a son.” The response was, “ओ, फेर तो सोना की सीडी कोनी चड O, pher to sona ki seedi koni chade. O, then a ladder made of gold can’t be made”. “अगर पड़पोतो होतो तो सोना की सीडी चड जाता agar padpoto hoto to sona ki seedi chad jaata. If he had a great grandson [instead of a great granddaughter; and not counting that his granddaughter has a son], then his body could have been accompanied by a golden ladder [and he could have climbed the golden steps to heaven]”. What followed was a brief argument on gender divide and whether such views are applicable anymore, with both sides too deep in their conviction to budge.

My phumphoji was the tallest person of his generation I knew. For good or for bad, he lived on his terms. If only for his sheer honesty and his ability to face up to and confront things squarely for the way they were, and for not distinguishing between कईयां kaiyan and पाड़ीया-भोटिया padiya-bhotiya, and seeing humans as humans – equally gifted and equally flawed, I hope, on the 45th anniversary of the day Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal of Sikkim ascended his throne, Deepchandji gets a golden ‘सीडी seedi’ to heaven!

P.S. When I shared the article with his son a couple of days later, he added a few more things I hadn’t known about, “A good footballer, photographer. Amiable and could mix up with people easily. Fond of playing Mhajong too and could be seen playing with the Chogyal of Sikkim and the Dorji,s of Bhutan. Would not give up easily once he made up his mind.”

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