In Kiran Desai’s novel The Inheritance of Loss, which was for the most part set in Kalimpong, the author evoked all that the Himalayan town is famous for—beautiful rhododendrons and orchids, colourful butterflies, the mighty Kanchenjunga range turning pink under the morning sun, and even the bloody agitation that took place in the 1980s. One all-too-noticeable facet, however, skipped the author’s eye. One that hangs over bamboo poles in so many backyards like the day’s wash, drying in the sun—Kalimpong’s famous egg noodles.
For reasons unknown, this town, which is home to many Tibetan families, has a number of noodle factories. And it is one of these factories that the Dalai Lama, every time he visits the town, makes a point of dropping by for lunch. The factory is called Trans Himalayan Food and is run by the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, Gyalo Thondup. It is located a little away from the town square in the 8th Mile region of the town.
Unlike other noodles, which mostly cost between Rs 25 and Rs 35 a meal, and leave much to be desired by way of packaging (they are often wrapped in newspapers), this dish is different. Each packet is delivered in a green plastic bag, bearing the auspicious Tibetan Buddhist symbol of fishes and also an advisory not to litter. A single packet of 400 gm costs Rs 45. It calls itself pasta, although most local families use the noodles to prepare either thukpa (a Tibetan dish of broth and noodles) or aloothukpa (a spicy potato and noodle dish prepared by Nepali households).
Thondup is a remarkable figure in his own right. Born in Amdo, Tibet, he is the only one out of five male siblings to have not led a monastic life. He studied in Nanjing before Communists took over China, and married a Chinese national, Di Kyi Dolkar, whose father was once a key Kuomintang officer. He is known to have even visited Chiang Kai-Shek, who ruled China before the Communist takeover, and dined with him on a few occasions.
Although well-respected in Kalimpong, because of these links with China, many Tibetans have been suspicious of him. However, not known to many, the 84-year-old was once a key member of the Tibetan resistance movement that took shape after China invaded Lhasa. Before the invasion, Kalimpong was a trading hub between Tibet and India. Once Lhasa fell, the town, with its Tibetan population, turned rife with talk of rebellion. Thondup moved to Kalimpong and got involved in talks with foreign governments. He, in fact, played an instrumental role in getting the CIA involved with the Tibetan resistance movement. For a number of years, the CIA clandestinely trained Tibetan rebels and supplied them with arms. Eventually, the US backed out, and Thondup moved to Hong Kong. He returned to Kalimpong later and set up the noodle factory. Over the years, he has been part of several missions sent by the Tibetan government-in-exile to China. But with talks failing, he has now come to concentrate on the noodle business. Thondup doesn’t flaunt the name of his famous brother in promoting his wares. But go to any noodle retailer in Kalimpong, pick up that packet for a glance, and the name will inevitably drop.