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Demise of a Place: An Obituary

Thursday 27 December 2007, by Topden Tsering

A prominent part of Mcleod Gunj, Dharamsala, was gutted by a fire two days ago. Luckily, no lives were lost; but the blaze that was subdued all too late left forever scarred and altered a small town, which spawns a history and identity almost parallel to the story of Tibetan exile. The death of a place and with it a physical reference for nostalgia and memory, the end of a life as it was.

I was born in Mcleod Gunj and I grew up there. But I take it my right to write this obituary primarily because very few others might have so restlessly and hungrily tramped up and down the town’s twin streets as I did while growing up, even well into my adulthood. "If, in a day, you take one round of Mcleod Gunj, you have an errand to run; if you take two, perhaps you are a visitor; if you do three, you are without doubt a vagabond, a pakla," so ran a local ditty. Given the unashamedly unending rounds that I and my friends were given to circumambulating - both during the days, bright and chirpy, and at nights filled with unsettling desolateness - we could well have qualified for a Vampire recognition, had the limerick gotten any darker.

They looked over me once, those landmarks in concrete and wooden planks. The row of shops with their low steps and shy awnings; and sitting on their top the Kailash Hotel and Restaurant, its name inspired by the sacred mountain of Hindu mythology rising from the plains of western Tibet: that snow-capped abode to Shiva and his consort, Parvati; a magnet to prostrating pilgrims from places as far-flung as Lhasa and Thimpu. The hotel’s dozen windows overlooking the streets were public eyes to my private business; while sometimes a chance glance at an open window revealed to me the sight of a beautiful Tibetan girl giggling with her friends over soda and chowmein and set in a quick march my own little pilgrimage of heart.

The glass and wood paneled counters in the shops, the dingy interiors, the draperies, the trinkets; the shop owners, women in bright aprons and young men in leather jackets; they were all known to me, and I to them. They were the unwitting witnesses to the curious trajectory of my being and becoming, both the people and the things, right down to that little tap which no longer produced any water when I was last in Dharamsala, but which was the site to a lively commotion of elementary school goers quenching their mid-day thirst of my distant childhood days. Perhaps all that remains of the tap now is just a scrap of metal, black and nowhere to be seen.

The Hotel

Kailash Hotel and Restaurant was the YMCA of exile Tibetan context. During the late eighties and into the nineties, the place provided a convenient lodging for Tibetan visitors of all stripes; soccer players competing in the celebrated Gyalyum Chenmo Memorial Gold Cup, students vacationing from other schools, businessmen and women from Nepal, monks and nuns from Ladakh and surrounding regions, and of course the customary sprinkle of foreign tourists. Amongst the Indian pilgrims too, in town for holy dips in the sacred Bhagsunath, Kailash was a popular choice; and they came from Bombay, from Ludhiana, from Jaipur even, and could be seen awkwardly slurping away on the Tibetan noodle soup, while their screaming children kicked at chairs. It was in Kailash that the local Tibetan youth whiled away their time, playing carom boards or just watching television. Occasionally, an angry mother would storm in, and take by surprise her unsuspecting and wayward son with a resounding whack on his head, causing a tremor of laughter through the wooden structure under the night sky.

One side of the hotel, actually the very first table beside the counter, was a brewing cauldron for local Tibetan politics. Or so the gossips had it. It was not uncommon to see a President from this organization, a General Secretary of that organization, an executive or two from the Tibetan Youth Congress headquarters lost in a discussion of one sort or the other, huddled over the table, their tea glasses half-empty. Oftentimes it was during these meetings that provincial alignments were broken and reconnoitered, the effects of which would be felt in our own exile parliament, no less. But in terms of the politics that mattered, the ones involving impassioned debates, Kailash was no Hotel Tibet bar of later days.

Things were different, more exciting, in the seventies, so I was once told by Peter Khamba. Peter is an American, in his sixties, who is more recognizable to Dharamsala masses as the Injie guy with long, white hair, forever zipping around on his 650 CC Enfield motorcycle. He was perhaps the first ever Westerner to come to Dharamsala - to come, to fall in love with the place and its people, and to live there. He is a Rangzen veteran of that rare kind; talk to him about today’s Tibetan politics and he’d spit, curse and rant like a mad man, all that in heavily-accented Khampa dialect. "What a bloody joke have we made of this movement, Kunchoksum?" very occasionally his Brooklyn roots would reveal themselves.

Peter once told me, that in the seventies, Dharamsala was a truly rocking place: Rangzen was in the air and that people were brave. From his accounts and those that I was later to cull from listening to Tibetan elders, I have this picture to paint of Dharamsala of those days. Khampa warriors reminiscing their battles with Chinese soldiers, monks remembering the courage of Yurupon, women knitting woolen garments for an imminent journey back to Tibet. The younger lot, still in Indian colleges or freshly graduated, are working in the Tibetan administration, and for amusement on Saturday nights, they drink chang at local taverns. On their way home, lurching toward Gangchen Kyishong in a drunken thread, they sing songs of homeland and freedom, and before retiring to bed, outside their quarters, they gather one more time around a raging bonfire. Then they talk about Tibet, about U.N.O, about CIA, about killing the Chinese soldiers. (In an old issue of Tibetan Review, I once chanced upon this observation by a then young Tibetan man, now a very senior diplomat: "China only understands the language of sword!") And intermittently the revelers laugh, because someone cracks a joke about one of the tavern girls.

Kailash Hotel too played host to such explosions of earnest heartspeak, both in the languages of politics and women. Long before local Tibetan leaders traded regional alliances over strong Indian tea, long before teenage boys stole glimpses of their school crushes through open windows, long before swaggering youths in denims and leather parked their motorcycles across from the building.

For the longest time, the signboard to Kailash: "Hotel and Restaurant" caused me the biggest puzzle. In my early years of grappling with English, I scratched my head over the difference between the two words: Hotel and Restaurant. I could tell one meant a place to eat and the other a place to sleep in, but which was which, I had no freaking idea. In my own arithmetic of the language, I deduced that since "Restaurant" contained the word rest, it had to stand for a sleeping place, and how wrong I was! For that I had only the rampant Indian Shalimar Hotels and Lovely Hotels to blame, which only served food, albeit on jute-knit bed-like cots.

I wonder if that signboard still survives? If in the aftermath of the fire, the two words, which instilled in me the dubious power of guesswork when it comes to foreign language, have not become one, meaningless and charred beyond recognition?

The Store

Purang Dorjee Shop # 5. Before there was a Walmart, there was this store run by a sprightly man with a razor-sharp speech. A multilingual, no less. He could speak, with equal ease, Tibetan, Hindi, Nepalese, local Gaddi dialect and Pahari too. His smattering of English was legendary: "What Want? I Give." Considering his proficiency in Gaddi, the language of the ancient shepherds, you’d think he’d been born and raised, along with the sheep and goats, in one of the very villages up there, hidden between the folds of the hills. He was given to even addressing the Tibetan customers in Hindi: "Ha…Kya lega?" A true man of the salt he took, a proprietor to the boot. For all I know, Purang Dorjee is still alive and I address him in past tense with no irony. It is just that the man was the shop he retailed from, and one’s memory of him cannot be separated from the business of which he was the king.

His was a one-stop shop. Notebooks, stationary, bulbs, switches, umbrellas, raincoats, bags, shoes, slippers, envelopes, stamps, socks, underwear, needles, ropes, candies, chocolates, biscuits, you name it. You could run around the whole town not finding what you are looking for, and at his shop, you’d just have to ask, before he spreads out for you the item in all its multi-hued glory, black, blue, red, even pink. Looking back, I find it amazing that he even carried plastic flowers. And I can quite easily guess that before anyone else, he stocked whatever make-up materials that were then available, lipstick, kajal etc. The popularity of his plastic shoes amongst his Gaddi customers was the subject of a joke that Tibetan children amused themselves and each other with: "Aa Dorjee ka Jooda, Din mein saat number, Raat ko paanch number (Uncle Dorjee’s shoes, they are size seven during the day, and five at night)."

The store occupies a special place in my memory. It is because it was at his shop that I received letters from the pen pals I made in distant countries, from my friends in other schools, and finally from my parents when they left for winter sweater business in some northern Indian city. A small mirror hanging by one wall and its protruding base a receptacle for all mail, domestic as well as international. "Shop No.#5, Mcleod Gunj, Dharamsala, H.P., India": our collective code in the larger labyrinth of postal world. This was before letters were personally delivered to individual houses, at least in Mcleod Gunj, and way before email made traditional letter writing obsolete.

There was a bench in that store long time ago, before Purang Dorjee’s growing business put it out of sight. On rainy days, also otherwise, on that bench, I’d often see Tibetan men thumbing rosary beads carrying earnest conversations with Gaddi folks, turbaned and spinning wool around some stick. That was a real bonding I witnessed there, without all the celebratory scarves, Thumbs Up drinks and the customary flapping of "Indo-Tibetan" friendship anniversaries. Purang Dorjee was a true emissary of goodwill to the Indian hosts and his shop a common ground of two disparate worlds. Both the man and his shop, they were characters straight from the pages of R.K.Narayan’s Malgudi Days.

Purang is a word for Western Tibetan region and it was no surprising that the shop derived its sustenance from the towering Kailash. I am sure that until the last day it was standing, the shop no#5 received mail for many Mcleod Gunj denizens still without personal addresses. I wonder if a loving mother’s letter to her school-bound son was also not burnt to ashes along with all the plastic shoes, the umbrellas and the notebooks?

The Restaurant

For its sheer utilitarian prowess, Bhagdro Sakhang almost rivaled Shop Number#5. It was the first fast food joint of the Tibetan kind. On the menu were just two items: Thukpa (noodle soup) and Momo (steamed dumpling stuffed with meat), but this meager offering was stuff that legends are built on. Suffice to say that both the noodle and momo were lip-smacking, finger-licking, smile-inducing good. One minded little having to sit crammed together on the three or four benches in that low-ceiling restaurant, each person’s elbow threatening to dig into the next customer’s ribs, or worse still, topple his bowl of noodle soup. When I was a kid, a plump elderly lady served the food, and as a grown up man, I noticed that in her place now skirted around, smiling and handing out changes, a sickly-looking woman, wiry of frame.

As a child, I often found myself looking intently at two or three framed photographs in the restaurant. Beautiful, regal looking women in exquisite costumes, quite unlike the Tibetan chuba, their hair done in impeccable buns, smiling cheerfully under huge canopies. I thought they were pictures of relatives, but for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how somebody as plump and disheveled as the Tibetan woman running around before us could have blood relations as gorgeous as those ladies in the pictures; and I wondered if they sent her money. It was much later that I realized the pictures were actually posters of random Japanese models in Kimono.

It had to be the restaurant’s time-honored tradition that the men were always in the kitchen, sweating and squinting in front of huge cauldrons being licked by blazing flames. At the time of the plump woman, it was the husband, Bhagdro himself after who the restaurant was named, and another male relative. Now, in the wiry woman’s turn, it was her husband, her brother-in-law and sometimes Bhagdro himself. The wiry woman, it later dawned on me, was the daughter-in-law of the plump woman of bygone days. How empires are built on momo and thukpa, and family members multiplied?

Looking back at Bhagdro Sakhang of my childhood days, standing outside the restaurant, I still can’t shake off from my mind the view of a big jar of kimchi, carrot and radish pickles, displayed on a window sill. Closer in time, I believe the jar still being there the last time I had momo in that restaurant. But I cannot remember either once having had kimchi myself, or seeing others savoring the pickle. Was it an illusion of my perception? Or the cleverest marketing gimmick ever in the sleepy Mcloed Gunj town? And now, after the fire, has the jar vanished in thick, black clouds too?

And how places die? V.S. Naipaul wrote somewhere that an expatriate’s life is checkered by news from his home of two kinds: Death and Wedding. With the deaths of people that one know, his grasp over his life as it once was is receded; so too with weddings of this friend, that relative, or this neighbor. That prominent block of my hometown now having been burnt to ashes, I feel a part of me has now also died!

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