A fly sat on a crumb of cow dung being carried away by the rainwater flowing down the street. The streamlet took it to the end of the village where a stupa stood. The streamlet then went around the holy structure taking the fly on a circumambulation and finally joined into a nearby tributary. The fly was born into a human being in its next life, blessed with an opportunity to hear the words of the Buddha. Thus a scripture says.
Dharamsala. Late December. It has been snowing for a few days now. There’s a chill in the air even though it’s a sunny afternoon today. The sun has just peeped out from behind the clouds at McLeod Ganj when Tashi steps out into the street.
Bored of staying at home, he has come out for walk. His languid stroll takes him to the end of the row of shops and stalls. There he bumps into Nyima (wearing an old blazer), shakes his hand, and Tashi says, “Hi Nyima-la!” Nyima, in reply, asks him “Lingkhor do gya?” (Want to go for a circumambulation?) Tashi replies “Do Ki Menke!” (No man).
He strolls into the McLeod Ganj streets, blissfully oblivious to the mass of different wares on sale, the cosmopolitan crowd, names of shops in English, Hindi, Tibetan, Punjabi, Tibetan music in the background as well as the natural sounds of a bustling small town that was Dharamsala. Tashi couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years old. He has an attitude typical of his age that shines on his face. He is a graduate, but still without a solid hold over his career. Today he is wearing blue jeans and a black and red striped jacket. The dirt and wispy patches and drawings on his jeans show that his parents aren’t at home.
Tashi was just setting foot onto the temple road when an Old Man passes by. Tashi checks his watch, looks back into the street, and continues to move on. He studies a vacant spot above a grocery store near Namgyal Monastery, meets Jampa there, inquires about Ngodup and Salman. Jampa was waiting for his girlfriend, Dolma. Today the teashop where they usually play carom is shut. This is turning into a particularly boring day Tashi thinks. He walks down the slope. Soon he was entering the Lingkhor path.
A strip of coal-tar path goes winding into the woods; pines, spruce, oaks and rhododendrons stand among the bushes. The narrow path goes around the green hill at its waist like a belt. On the top of the hill is the residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his exile house. People walk clockwise around the Lingkhor, just as they used to do around the Potala years back in Lhasa.
Tashi is now enjoying the warm afternoon sun. And from the Lingkhor path he sees the plains of the Kangra Valley laid open in front of him like the lines on his palm. Behind him stands the Dhauladhar range, snow-covered peaks standing shoulder-to-shoulder against the blue sky painted with balls of swift white clouds. There are patches of snow on the roadside as he walks. He passes by a heap of carved slates, rocks carved with OM MANI PADME HUM painted in the five elemental colours: blue, white, red, green and yellow.
When Tashi comes to the mani-engraver he stops to look at the craftsman in action. He watches a full ’OM’ being carved on a slate. There was a strange satisfaction on his face when the stone engraver sighed at the finishing of that sacred inscription. The old engraver glances back to acknowledge the presence of his young audience. “Isn’t it cold, po-la?” Tashi asks, releasing a cloud of vapour with his words. Letting his chisel and little mallet fall to the ground, the engraver replies, “In Tibet, it snows as high as your height,” raising his left hand in the air in an attempt to indicate a great height. He then picks up his tools again. Without a word Tashi resumes his stroll. The old engraver, looking concerned, watches Tashi as he walks away.
A little way further, he sees the Old Man who had passed by him in McLeod Ganj, moving slowly aided by a walking stick. He is bent slightly from the waist, but his gait is that of a healthy man with a strong persistent will. His chuba is of black nambu and goes well with the pair of zompa that he’s wearing. In his left hand he carries a prayer wheel, because of which he seems to be covering the whole breadth of the tiny Lingkhor path. Tashi, without the knowledge of the Old Man, was trying to gain a little space in the path from behind and overtake him. He tries from the left, but stops because he might hit the Old Man’s prayer wheel. He tries from the right, but the Old Man’s walking stick looks too unsteady whenever it hits the narrow tar road.
Tashi sees the path running over a drain. He quickly moves to the left and without disturbing the Old Man he zips past him. The Old Man immediately quips: “In a hurry young man?” Tashi turns to look back and then, without a word, continues to walk ahead. The Old Man stops by a mound of manis and says some prayers, closing his eyes. He could be anywhere around sixty to seventy years old. There are ravines of wrinkles on the Old Man’s face. His white and grey hair, plaited into two, buries into his woollen skullcap. A small photograph of the Dalai Lama is pinned on the cap. His rosary hangs from his neck when he bends forward to touch his forehead to the painted image of a deity on a huge rock on the wayside.
After a sharp turn in the path he sees the young man taking a rest at the roadside. The Old Man looks at his face and teases: “Tired already? It’s a long way to go young man.” After a thought he says, almost in an abusive tone, “The youngsters these days are good for nothing, whiling away their time and their parents’ money.” Tashi doesn’t like it and wants to answer. He gets up slowly and walks close behind the Old Man.
Very irritated and angry with his critic, Tashi spews out the first thing that comes to his mind- “You were the people who gave away our country into the hands of the Chinese!” He peers into the Old Man’s face. Tashi had just wanted to blurt it out of anger but not really with the intention of hurting the Old Man. The Old Man, on his part is composed but looks very hurt. He stops in the middle of the path. Tashi, because he is following close behind, is forced to stop too. The Old Man studies Tashi’s face, pictured against the snow mountains, cold and shimmering, and says, “If my son had been alive he would have been older than you. But he died fighting the Chinese. He died in my lap.” The Old Man thumbs his chest. “It’s a long story. You tell me what you have done for Tibet up to now?” The Old Man asks in a stern, interrogating tone.
Tashi, in his turn, boasts of the Tibet campaigns he organised in college with his Indian friends. He gives examples of protest rallies he has taken part in, exhibitions of Tibetan culture he’s organised, hunger strikes he’s sat for, but after a while he feels he’s sounding a little hollow in front of the Old Man. There’s a long, uneasy silence between them. Tashi looks at the two men facing each other in the late afternoon shadow fallen on the pebbles on the roadside. Then he asks, “Which part of Kham are you from?” Tashi guesses correctly that the Old Man is from Kham from his accent.
The Old Man is now walking step-by-step, narrating stories of how the Chinese first came into Tibet. Thus, deep in conversation the two men enter the Lhagyal Ri area. They are so immersed in each other that they almost become a part of the entire Lingkhor structure; stupas, prayer flags, lines of prayer wheels and other devotees walking, and the storytelling continues with the distinct voice of the Old Man ringing loud and clear. They follow one another in putting the lines of prayer wheels installed on the wall circling. There are other people prostrating at the stupas, tying colourful prayer flags to the trees. Some old folks are sitting in the rain shelter doing their prayers.
As the two men climb the steps towards the Palden Lhamo stupa there is no conversation. In front of the locked window, wherein the protector deity is kept, they stand straight. Their faces look serene — eyes shut in deep reverence and prayer, their hands folded at the chest. Tashi always has fewer prayers to say and is faster at prostrations than the Old Man, finishes first but stands aside and waits for the Old Man to finish.
They climb down from the Palden Lhamo stupa together against a backdrop of a maze of prayer flags criss-crossing on the hill behind them. Tashi watches the unsteady steps of the Old Man but doesn’t obviously extend his hand to support him. The Old Man is narrating yet another incident, but he only says one word for one step.
As they walk past another line of prayer wheels on the right side, the Old Man is heard saying: “I was near a river quenching my thirst with my son and fellow warriors with their horses. That day,” he demonstrates by raising his finger with the walking stick, “We killed ten Chinese, left many of them badly wounded begging for mercy, and we looted enough food and ammunition to last for two weeks. Our informer said that a small group of Chinese were stationed behind the hill waiting to get united into a bigger group of the Chinese army the next day.”
“That night,” he continues his narration, “We rode for sometime, and as we approached the camp from a distance, we trotted.” The Old Man is now riding his walking stick; there is temper in his voice and his face glows while trying to recreate the drama to this young man. “We crept,” he said bending onto his knees, directing Tashi to duck. They are now climbing a small slope west of the Lingkhor. The Old Man is gasping with excitement having to climb the slope on his walking stick, sweating profusely.
As they near the top of the slope they are bathed in the light of the setting sun. The Old Man in his narration has now reached the door of the Chinese hideout. He takes off his skull cap and asks Tashi to hold it, his prayer wheel too. He now has his walking stick across his waist as a sword. Then he screams, “KI HE HE!” “We entered,” the Old Man informs Tashi as an aside. He raises his sword high up in the sky, against the snow peaks, and brings it down in a slash, and immediately crosses it with another sharp slash slanted towards the wayside bush. In his next move, he lunges it at Tashi. Still holding the stick against Tashi’s chest, he says, “We killed rampantly.”
The Old Man’s braided hair has come undone in the front, and stray strands cover his forehead and he looks every bit the fearsome warrior, perspiring and gasping. “Once the dust settled I found my son lying down in the next room. His stomach had been ripped open and he was holding his entrails in his hands. I supported him in my lap, but he had only the last breath left in him. Three Chinese soldiers lay dead beside him.”
The Old Man took back his prayer wheel and the cap from Tashi without saying a word. The sword had gone back to pointing towards the ground, supporting the Old Man in his walk. There is a little unsteadiness in the Old Man. Yet he continues, “When the American agents withdrew their support, everything went haywire.” He is now walking slowly, adjusting his cap, tossing his locks of hair to the back. Silence accompanies them to a nearby whitewashed mound of mani stones.
The Old Man sits on a rock by the wayside, and Tashi sits next to him. They are now in the full glow of the absolute orange of the evening sky. The Old Man slumps his prayer wheel in his lap. They form a distinct cut-out silhouette against the sky. The Old Man declares: “We never gave up. We would have slit our throats if we had been captured by the Chinese.” Tashi listens closely to his old master. “Live one day, but with dignity and freedom” the Old Man advises, with one hand akimbo, and the other holding his stick. The walking stick stands tall.
The young man, mellowed like a ripe mango, listens. The Old Man continues to talk to Tashi with a voice full of expectations, like that of a father speaking to his son and asking him to keep up the struggle. Tashi grips the Old Man’s hands and the strength in his grip comforts the Old Man. The Old Man is not finished yet. He admonishes Tashi. “That’s not how you do it,” he says. He commands Tashi to get up. “We touch our foreheads and say prayers. That’s the way it is done.” The Old Man sensing the hesitation in Tashi says, “May you complete the work left incomplete. May you be successful in the struggle and take His Holiness the Dalai Lama back to a free Tibet.”
The Old Man says his prayers turning towards the Dalai Lama’s residence. His forehead bends to the prayer wheel he is holding in his folded hands. As he says his prayers in the last of the twilight, Tashi moves away, slowly vanishing into the cold evening.