I. The Boy Monk
At the top of a hill, in the Chemry monastery, darkness is becoming light. In a large prayer room where the monks sit on benches and meditate, there’s a single shaft of light coming in through the crack in the ceiling. It is a broad shallow room, full of reconciliation. The light falls into it, hits the boy’s face, spreads outward. He wears prayer beads around the neck of his maroon robes, chants like the rest of them.
The boy monk has been up early, I can tell because there’s still sleep in the corners of his eyes. He looks exactly as he did when he first appeared to me after Cyrus Mazda was found at the bottom of the ocean with the body of a naked girl. I want to tell him that all the light in the room is concentrated on his face, something Cyrus told me the morning after our first night together, at breakfast in a roadside restaurant. But it would mean bringing up the city, and Cyrus, and things that never really belonged to me; things I had come to forget about.
The boy monk belongs here with these peaceful vibrations and hypnotic thangkas, this starkness of air. He alone is illuminated, sitting with a halo of light around his perfectly shaped head. He does not see me kneeling by the open door with the morning fallen around me like bits of fragile broken butterfly wing. I haven’t learned how to dress for the mountains. I wear bulky jackets, gloves, woolly caps, socks, heavy boots. I cover every inch of skin and am still cold. I’ve scoured the markets in Leh looking for things that will keep me warmest, not bothering to bargain with the shopkeepers because I’m in love with their faces, just as I’m in love with the boy monk. I want to tell them that I’ve come from the sea and am a stranger in their high place of snow peaks, glaciers and valleys.
I wake every morning with pinpricks at my temples to see the sun rise from between the mountains exactly like the pictures I used to make in kindergarten: the mountain, a giant improbable M, and in between, a careful semi-circle of orange-yellow crayon-streaked light extending out of the picture onto the wooden table. I watch the mountains change from grey to pink to startling white, getting sharper and sharper as the light increases. It seems they are watching me too, expecting me to be able to move them, scale them, jump and conquer them. The overwhelming size of them makes me wistful for the petty foothills of grass, the landscape of my own pictures with a solitary farmer and his oxen ploughing his paddy fields, where the hills are always brown, small, climbable; not the Himalayas, not wintered.
Outside the monastery it is bright. The day has come down with big swooping arms to cast light onto the barren fields, the mountains beyond, the tops of houses. I want to be there now, in those mountains in the distance of Stok, where it is all snow-strewn, snow-capped, snow-laden; somewhere so far and remote I’ll be able to lose all my ideas. Instead, I start walking slowly back to the jeep, leaving the boy monk to his prayers. I must get into town where Sid is waiting to take me on my first expedition.
Bahadur, the driver, is standing with his back to the monastery rolling pebbles in the palm of his hand. Before walking over to him, I wrap my scarf tighter around my neck and turn to take one last look at the boy monk to make sure he’s still there. He has risen and is walking toward me. He appears to be floating across the floor all the way outside to where I’m standing, watching him. The other monks are lost in prayer, they don’t hear him leave.
I know the boy monk has come for penance because he woke up dreaming of me. He has come to soften his body and cleanse his mind.
"Sister," he says, "I dreamed of you last night. "
"I know," I say.
"You have come to ask me something sister? You’ve been wanting to ask me something for a long time. Don’t come to me for guidance. I can give you none."
"How did you come to have such a sweet face?" I ask.
The boy monk smiles. He is not shy or baffled or uncomfortable. "Sister, I am your means to paramita. Paramita is to cross over to the Other Shore."
I want to tell him my reasons for coming here, how I have searched for him everywhere and found only the hollow empty resonance of maroon air to swallow me. I want him to explain things to me, because there is all this soaring inexplicable need.
"Consider your body sister," he says, still smiling. "Think of its impurity. Think of misuse. Knowing that both its pain and its delight are alike causes of suffering, how can you indulge in its desires? That is what you have come to find out about, isn’t it? Desire and suffering and action."
There is a small shard of dawn still inside me. I’ve been saving it especially for this. I’ve been carrying it around in my breast. Not just this morning’s dawn—all the mornings since I arrived here. I’ve been collecting their warmth, the rose hues, so I can save myself.
"What are you telling me?" I ask. "Why are you telling me this, here, outside this room of reconciliation? See the way the light shines down on your face? See how it is only me that sees you, how they cannot see me, those close-eyed monks chanting their prayers. How is it they don’t see me? How is it that when I’m alone I see you, I hear and speak to you, and now I can even touch you?"
"You see this light sister?" the boy monk says, words coming off his lips like waves. "Make of yourself a light. Consider your body. Consider the mind. Consider the light. The whole world of delusion is nothing but a shadow caused by the mind."
"You are not a shadow," I scream, thinking by now the monks must have raised their heads. Surely I have shattered something: glass, window, wooden shaft. "You cannot be a shadow," I say again, softer.
The boy monk turns to leave me and goes back to the room, to the monks and the tanghkas on the wall. He is not a shadow, he is not real, he is not unreal. I dreamed of him last night too. I didn’t tell him, but he appeared in my sleep; dark and colourful, and it felt like a love affair. He had spoken of the mind; how powerful it was to shape and mould. "Our one chance of purity," he’d said. Of becoming Buddha. It’s the same mind from which maya is born. Delusion. The same mind from which the world of enlightenment begins.
I’d woken up in my empty bed with the shape of his body beside me.
II. The Panorama Guest House
The first morning I wake up with a headache and dreams of tiger trekking in Patagonia, landing amidst bald mountains covered in patchy snow, furious wind.
Sid had warned me of the dreams. He’d given me all the precautions for altitude sickness. No moving, no walking, nothing more than necessary, small sips of water. We are 11,500 feet high up in Leh. We’ll go for a slow walk later in the morning to get some air into me. At the top of the hill there will be a group of Japanese tourists trying to figure out the exact angle at which to capture the entire stupa into their camera frame.
After Sid leaves I feel so tired I think my legs will open out and be sucked into the ground. The room is small with two single beds, white sheets, and warm red blankets rolled up at the bottom. Extra blankets, extra cost. Don’t forget to unplug the electric blanket. There are no pictures on the walls. White walls. Two chairs and a small round table by the window. A whole wall of complete glass with white wooden panels. Outside there are mountain ranges I don’t yet know the names of, brown terraced lands, two hill donkeys settled in the mud, rows of poplars and willow, a lake. There’s so much light coming in through the curtains, through the windows. Sun-drenched windows.
The woman I call Kim knocks on the door with kava, the Kashmiri tea that people drink here with hints of dried fruit and cinnamon. The women of the Panorama Guest House treat me like a child. Here’s your kava, here’s your lunch, here are your clean clothes, here, what have you done with your skin? They come with questions, looking at my bottles of creams and ointments to preserve the moisture in the skin. Their faces are wizened and streaked with lines, beautifully charged pink cheeks. None of this will do, they say, looking at my city accoutrements. They know I have come to forget. They are not even mildly curious of my life or the place I belong to. It’s the same with Sid. It’s as if they know they live in the most spectacular corner of the world. So when you come here, it doesn’t matter what you left behind, you stand with your mouth open. Because these are mountains, they can fill anything up.
The first morning there is a little boy in a checked shirt and green shorts riding his bicycle around the lake ringing his bell constantly. He has no shoes, no slippers, nothing on his feet. I wonder about his toes being chilly. Perhaps he is used to it. The colour of his skin is brown—nut brown, mud, sand, chocolate, biscuit, bone, bitter—all over his arms and neck and legs. Burnt brown. Out of his face, shiny bright button eyes, not mischievous like most little boys’ eyes; like the lake, changing from turquoise to deep green, calm and glossy. I have seen so many children since coming here. They are all red-cheeked from the strong mountain sun, bright-eyed, earnest. They shine in their scruffy clothes and calloused hands. They are little snowmen sliding along, leaving light behind them.
III. The Beginning Of The Journey To The School At The End Of The World
The drive to Pangong Tso is treacherous. It is March in Ladakh and everything is frozen: the lakes and rivers, the small beads that hang to mountain trees, the people and their meagre huts, the sturdy animals. Everything seems frozen into a landscape of unforgiving ice. We are in two jeeps—one with the three Israelis and the other the local contingent, which I have become a part of.
I sit in the back with Bahadur, man of many professions: sherpa, driver, cameraman, travel-agent, yak-rearer. He is young and old, I can’t decide which. Today, driving toward the high pass of Chang-La, he looks ancient, like he’s done this many times before and will guide me through any difficulty. Sid sits in front with the burly Sikh from Delhi, the boss of this whole outfit, who has come to facilitate the journey for the Israelis with their proposals and promises of money, both of which are important commodities in this moon-land, little Tibet, Shangri La. Bahadur is the kind of man who would make a good lover but a terrible husband. His eyes flit over things with apparent casualness, but he’s always observing, always keeping records. He smiles at me now, revealing a lower jaw of broken teeth.
Before we start climbing we must pass through the village of Thiksey, famous for its huge monasteries that cover entire mountain ridges. Beyond Thiksey there is nothing but mountain, which rise like huge walls of undulating snow, bleak colossal desert. We must drive for 160 kilometres before reaching Pangong Tso.The Sikh thinks we should break the journey and spend the night in Tang-tse which lies comfortably in the floor of a valley. It is cold, very cold up here. The three men have decided to become my guardians for whatever reason; they must think I need protection. A sham astrologer around the Ooty lake once told me that I would always be surrounded by love, by people wanting to love and do things for me, that it would be my responsibility to accept or reject this love. For some reason, this sham prophecy has taken root inside me. He also told me that a great sorrow would come to me at a time when a great sorrow was coming upon the world, and I would have to find the world in order to ease myself. By this I think he meant that I would have to make my apologies to God and let him into my life. "You may be young and beautiful now," he’d said, "but you do not know yet, that to look upon the face of God is more beautiful than anything you’ll ever see, more beautiful than any mirror or reflection."
I remember those prophecies gathering strength in my subterranean caverns, making the long journey back home to find Cyrus fallen asleep in front of the television with all the lights still burning. I sneaked into his body that night, lifted his arms and shifted the air in the cavity of his torso so I could be accommodated somewhere in the great vastness within him. I whispered all my stories that ran like rivers into the great blue ocean of his body. We lay like that all night on the couch like a pair of mating butterflies. In the morning I waited for him to carry me up to the height of a fir tree like the male Monarch butterfly, after a session of love-making, is meant to do. Instead, he left me fluttering with all the grey of a dying bush, taking the whimpering dog outside so they could both relieve themselves.
Sid drives quietly, without comment. He keeps turning back to see if the Israelis are following. One of them is a photo-journalist. He stops every five minutes to take pictures. The burly Sikh thinks himself a keen photographer too, although his equipment is rather basic, an automatic point and shoot.
"Stand in the photo no? Otherwise it will be empty."
I struggle out of the car and hobble over to the edge of a frozen river with my furry cap and goggles to keep the glare off. I feel ridiculous, but I stand anyway, complying. Once in a while I beg Sid to join me. He saunters over, placing one hand over my shoulder. The Sikh takes the picture and I feel things loosening under my feet. There is knowledge here; either with Bahadur or the Sikh or with Sid, one of my three protectors, but no one is giving me any answers. I have come to forget. I keep telling myself this. This is not about journeying into myself, finding peace, calm, nothing like that. I have no such illusions.
At the village of Thiksey, we stop for lunch. Slices of bread with nuggets of hard cheese, roasted almonds from the bazaar in Leh in newspaper cones, chocolate. This is the only food we’ve packed. We don’t expect to have a cooked meal till evening in Tang-tse where hopefully one of the hospitable villagers will give us some dal and rice, or boiling water which we can use to make our cup of soup or noodles.
The house we will stay in later that night is basic. There are only two rooms: one for the Israelis, and one for the burly Sikh and me. Bahadur and Sid will go somewhere else to sleep. They have friends in every village. I saw Sid talking to one of the local bright-faced girls with burnished cheeks with a look that showed he knew her well. I don’t like the idea of sharing a room with the burly Sikh as I don’t know him at all, but nothing matters when it’s -20 degrees C and you’re sheathed in seven layers of material.Even I couldn’t reach my hands under the layers separating my skin from cloth to touch myself.
We leave our camping gear in our rooms and head back to the jeeps for the upward climb to Pangong Tso which is the world’s highest brackish lake at over 14,000 feet above sea level. While we drive, I note down signposts and things I see in my journal. I have to remove the glove of my right hand to write. I do this quickly, and as the jeep lurches forward to avoid blocks of ice and stone, my fingers lose control, making deep scars across the page like those of a child learning to write.
War memorials to commemorate the soldiers who lost their lives in the Indo-China war of 1962
Army bunkers and trenches
Pashmina sheep, long tailed yaks
Don’t be a gama in the land of the lama
I sleep. I always sleep on long car journeys. I dream we’re driving through rough landscape. Suddenly, all kinds of animals begin to appear—elephants, leopards, a tigress with her cubs. It’s magical at first, to watch them coming out of the mountains, but then they keep appearing, closer and closer to the jeep, their coats lustreless and deflated. The leopards hang at the windows with frothy mouths. They are hungry and thirsty and they don’t know it yet, but it’s the end of the world.
The Sikh wakes me up when we reach Chang La Pass, which he informs me is the third highest motorable pass in the world.
"I thought you might want to put that down in your notebook too," he says, smiling like a fat cumulonimbus cloud.
"Also," he continues, "you know that Pangong Tso is divided between Ladakh and Tibet, so actually only 150 kilometres of the lake belongs to India, the remaining 100 kilometres belongs to China. In 1684, the treaty of Tingmosgang was signed between the King of Ladakh and the Regent of Tibet."
"I see," I say, wanting to ask if he knows anything of the animals with the frothing mouths; which country do they belong to, and how are they going to save themselves from the unending thirst?
At Chang La we alight to take pictures and to have tea and biscuits with the Assamese regiment who are currently stationed there. The burly Sikh is ex-army, so he’s well known by the people of this area. In these politically sensitive places with issues of border control, permits and passes, it is good to maintain cordial relations with the authorities. The captain of the Assamese regiment is a handsome man; dark, with the skin of a smoothened walnut. He stands in his smart uniform, his boots and polished medals, his cap, his gloved hands. He extends his gloved hands for a handshake, not in the least taken aback by the presence of a woman among this motley crew of men. He invites us into the sparse bunker, pours out steaming hot tea into little cups and passes a plate of ginger biscuits around. He speaks only to the Sikh. Colonel, he calls him. They speak in Hindi. I catch only strands of it because I’m not really paying attention; the Israelis are talking Hebrew among themselves, and Sid is outside standing by a line of fluttering prayer flags looking beyond them to the giant walls of white. I re-tie the laces on my boots and remove my ridiculous fluffy cap to show the Assamese man that underneath, after all, I am a woman. I eat my biscuits and drink the tea which is fast cooling. I join Sid outside and we take pictures of the temple on the side of the road. It is a Hindu temple with a simple idol of Vishnu inside. I don’t go inside. I don’t feel compelled to go into places of worship like I used to. There were times when I would seek out the sanctuary of a quiet church or cathedral in the early hours of the morning, to sit on one of the benches and look up at the roof of stained glass. There was a church in Germany, in Mainz, a church full of brilliant blue glass—Chagall’s—where I thought it would be a fine thing to believe in something. Sometimes I visited the Jain temples just to observe the priests with their covered mouths walking about on their soft feet, making sure not to kill anything. Somewhere, between one quietness and the next, was my entire unknown family; there was my dead limestone-quarrier organist grandfather, and my live insomniac grandfather.
They were speaking to each other in unknown languages, both holding God by the scruff of the neck. They had something in their palms but wouldn’t let me see what it was. Here, on top of this lonely mountain peak, I thought I might like to go into this anonymous shrine to place something at the feet of the God; a flower, or a biscuit crumb, but I had nothing save my notebook and pen. It was enough to stand in the freezing cold and watch the shape of Sid against the fluttering flags.
The Assamese captain gives us permission to drive further along to Pangong Tso. The Sikh climbs in happily to drive the last stretch. He asks me if I know any Hindi songs and won’t I sing for them?
"No, No," I tell him. "Not my strong point," and turn back to the window. The Assamese man is still standing by the bright yellow sign that says Chang La Pass—17,525 feet. He’s waving his hand at us while his eyes are turning into creases, tiny slices of the moon as a sudden gust of wind blows over us all.
IV. Under False Skies
At Pangong Tso there is a school. I remember only this. A school with seven children and a frozen lake caught between two countries. I remember the burly Sikh offering me the wheel and me, cautiously moving over the ice, trying not to think of the dormant lake below, the living water that in summer turns seven separate colours of blue and green. The Israelis drive recklessly, testing the traction on their tyres. Sid pulls me aside to show me the mountains behind which lie Tibet, the land he is supposed to know. He shows me the garnet hills and promises to find my laughter hiding in the red heart of one of those stones. There must have been more, but I remember only the school.
It was a rectangular room with windows and no roof, almost like a dollhouse set against the starkness with the dolls sitting outside the house rather than inside. They were lined up against the wall; seven children—six boys, one girl. The schoolmaster stood beside them with a pathetic wooden ruler in his hands. The children’s heads were bent over their slates and in their hands they held pieces of chalk. They were leaning against the crumbling wall of their schoolroom in dirty torn sweaters and bare feet. I went up to the lone girl among the boys and tried to take a picture of her face: the girl looked up at me and scowled. I asked the schoolmaster how these children got to be here. There didn’t seem to be anything in sight; no village, no town, just this lake, these mountains, this ramshackle building. Where did the children appear from? The schoolmaster told me that they walked miles and miles from their villages to get here. Their parents were simple people who wanted to educate their children. Himself? He was from Delhi, here on a temporary teaching assignment. Soon, he would return, another teacher may come. It works this way, he said.
There was nothing inside the classroom—no board, no chairs, no desks. In fact, it was an empty room without even a roof to shelter them from the wind. In this bitter cold, the children sat with their fingers and toes and ears open to the cold. I watched them sitting in a row, saying nothing.
In my school there had been such dreadful heat. There had been school uniforms and socks and shoes and march-pasts in the suicidal sun of April mornings. There had been heat strokes and letters from family doctors excusing girls from exercise due to weak constitutions. There had been power cuts in the afternoons between maths and chemistry when our stomachs were full of rice and lime juice and raw tamarinds, when the fans stopped whirring and the sound of teachers faded into one long drone of a faraway aeroplane. There had been note-passing and book cricket, attempts to keep the drooping lids open. There had been only the promise of monsoon when we could rip off our socks and shoes and go squelching in the puddles only to get home and have our mothers tut-tut at the mud-splattered bloomers where we’d hitched up our skirts. There had been all that dreadful heat and only the dreams of ice-cold drinks or the rare ice-cream after school to take us through the day. There were water bottles lined up with the school bags along the shelf, class monitors with special badges, graffiti desks with brown-papered books lined up in neat towers for all the subjects of the day. There were pencil boxes with sharpener, eraser, ruler, pen, pencil, ready for use. There were geometry boxes and dissection kits for special days.
I want to take a picture of all this, of the school house with the windows through which you can see the world’s highest brackish lake and the mountains of two different countries. But mostly, of this lone determined girl scowling at me, writing her three times tables. The children have their heads down, too shy to show me their dirty faces and runny noses, but I take the picture anyway. Later, I can’t remember if it was really like that; blurry and inconstant. If the air and the mountains and the snow all merged to become the lake, if Sid putting pebbles in my pockets from the garnet hills was anything. If the boy monk was really coming toward us laughing at the solid solemn snow. If he raised those tender arms like wings of a red dragon. If we watched him and were silenced by him.
After getting a Master's in poetry from Johns Hopkins University, Tishani Doshi moved to London where she worked in publishing. She received an Eric Gregory Award for her poetry in 2001, and has since shifted base to Chennai where she writes, travels, and dances. She is currently in the midst of completing her first novel, a collection of short stories, and Muttiah Murlitharan's biography.