1947: Kham, Tibet
In the semi-darkness of Lhasang’s childhood evenings, his father Dadul enacted the life of King Gesar of Ling.
Dadul leapt and swirled, dodging arrows here, thrusting a sword there. The sleeves of his chuba, hanging well below his hands, rustled as they kept up with his heroics.
‘I am King Gesar,’ said Dadul, ‘sent by the gods to save the dharma. And to kill the enemies of the Buddha.’ He swung his sword in a wild arc.
The performance ended with Dadul swooping down to lift Lhasang into the air. Or it ended when both father and son were grounded as Pema, Lhasang’s mother, hustled them into the kitchen for dinner.
Lhasang was six when he first saw a Gesar performance outside his house. That was when the wandering drungpas who performed the epic visited their village. As soon as he heard about their arrival, Lhasang ran to the tent that had been set up for the bards. ‘Hurry up, Apa,’ he said to Dadul who followed, panting, behind him.
But when he got there, his enthusiasm was dampened by his first sight of the performers. They were so quiet, sitting placidly on the cushions.
‘But they look … they look …’ he turned to Dadul, ‘so ordinary.’
‘That’s because they’re saving their energy,’ said Dadul.
‘For the evening. When they perform. Just wait, and you’ll see.’
That evening, Lhasang got to sit right in front, the children forming the first ring around the bards. Beside a bonfire, dried barley flour was sprinkled to make a temporary stage for the singers. The evening began with a prayer for the long life of Kundun. After the gods had been pleased, the drungpas began. Their shoulders were padded, heavy gold brooches hung down their chests. And from the crowns on their heads, four poles with flags shook in the wind as they leapt, their arms slicing the air. They were giants in the evening.
As the embers faded, Lhasang heard the whispers rippling through the audience. Those closer to the arena swore they saw hoof marks appear in the barley-tsampa powder as Gesar’s ghost joined them. Lhasang felt the chilly night close in. He looked behind him and saw Dadul, one eye fixed on Lhasang. Dadul smiled at him. Lhasang turned back towards the performance and peered through the flames, scouring the ground for Gesar’s presence.
Later, he admitted to Dadul that he was scared. ‘Remember Kundun,’ said Dadul. ‘He will always keep you safe.’
Lhasang heard that many of the drungpas had learnt the epic by magic. At home, he told Pema his theory: ‘They wake up from sleep and they already know all the verses. It’s a seed of magic in their heads.’
But Pema was quick to dislodge this idea. ‘All magic is nonsense,’ she said. ‘You see, sometimes real life can be more magical. Hundreds of times, the story has been passed from an old man’s lips to a young man’s ears. Each time one dies, another takes his place. Isn’t that magic?’
‘Actually, I don’t care if it’s magic or not,’ said Lhasang. ‘I still prefer Apa’s performance.’
Three hours by horse from his village, Riwoche, there was a monastery. But Lhasang had heard more about the Jokhang temple in Lhasa than about the Riwoche monastery. When people returned from Lhasa, the whole village sat around them as they stretched their arms to show how big the city was. It was bigger than the eye could see, they said.
‘Do you have to cross rivers?’ Lhasang asked one of the pilgrims.
‘Many,’ he replied, ‘but one sight of the Jokhang, and it’s all worth it’.
But Pema never allowed Lhasang anywhere near the river skirting their village. ‘You do not ever enter the river!’ Pema screamed and pulled his ear when she saw him step into the water once. ‘Do you want to be taken away by the naga spirits hiding there?’
‘But then, how will I ever see the Jokhang?’ Lhasang asked.
He often heard of villagers making the trek to the nearby Riwoche monastery. ‘The pilgrims there have big hearts. And they have bigger bags of silver,’ said Dadul. ‘You can sell them anything.’
Lhasang knew that Dadul went further than most, braving expeditions to different corners of the country. He returned from his excursions with goods that could again be fed into other travellers’ routes. All of Dadul’s merchandise eventually reached the large cities: Kathmandu to the south, Chamdo in the east or Lhasa across many rivers to the west. Often the dregs of his exchanges were stored at home, momentarily a treasure trove for Lhasang: tea from Yunnan dried into cakes and wrapped with yak hide, salt from the lakes of the northern Changtang plateau. And the most bewitching of his father’s hauls—rare gems like coral, lapis or turquoise—which in other hands and ears would have denoted nobility. In Lhasang’s palms, they were just bright seductive playthings.
The world seemed safe to Lhasang, but as Dadul and Pema reminded him, it was not. Their village was part of Kham, an eastern province of Tibet. And since nature refused all that humans needed, they had to steal from one another. Nomads who roamed Kham ambushed trading caravans, forcing a somewhat fair redistribution that a frugal geography denied. A good bargain didn’t guarantee a successful deal. A trader needed a sure foot and a surer gun. But Dadul never carried a weapon.
‘Why don’t you carry a gun?,’ Lhasang asked Dadul during one of his daily prayers.
‘Come here.’ Dadul patted his knee. He fished out an amulet hanging from his neck. ‘You see this?’
Lhasang held the cylinder; little paper scrolls were crammed inside.
‘This is from the Jokhang. The House of the Lord in Lhasa. All the gods that protect Bod, our nation Tibet, have blessed this. You must remember—if the gods want to protect you, then no human can touch you. And if the gods want you dead, then no gun can save you.’
‘All the gods? How many are there in Tibet?’
Dadul screwed his eyes closed. ‘I don’t know. As many gods as there are humans. But if you have to choose one, then choose Kundun, our Dalai Lama. The whole world knows his power. He watches over all of Tibet. The whole of our country Bod might be just a swamp, but he is the lotus. He will always keep you safe.’
‘Then how come you’ve never told me any stories about him?’
‘Because he has just been found; he is still a boy. There are many miracles that he will perform in his life, but we have to wait. Do you want to hear the tale of Padmasambhava tonight—the man who taught Buddhism to Bod?’
‘No, Apa, I don’t want to hear about any more lamas,’ said Lhasang. ‘Tell me about the man with the black cloak. The assassin.’
‘Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje.’ Dadul smiled and started. ‘The man who conquered fear. And killed the godless king …’
For Lhasang the boundaries of fear lay much closer, at the sight of the neighbour’s Mastiff, straining at a rope that tied him to the door. Thankfully his mother Pema was always available, clapping at the dog to repel evil spirits. Lhasang believed Pema could do anything, even transform the nature of things: she could whip clumps of yak hair into balls of fluff. She could transform yak milk into hard balls of cheese that he kept snuggled in his mouth for hours. Pema was his protector.
Lhasang’s play zone was restricted to their courtyard, under the sometimes watchful, sometimes vicious eyes of the neighbour’s dog. In fact, occasionally, if Lhasang was being too frisky and Pema was busy in the kitchen, she would bundle him into a blanket so he couldn’t disappear into the hills outside. She would leave him squirming inside the blanket, dumped on his mattress, for an hour or two.
‘That is no way to treat a six year old,’ Dadul said to Pema’s back.
‘What do you know about how to treat children?’ Lhasang heard Pema retort.
‘Well, I have one, don’t I?’
‘I’ll let him out when I finish cooking,’ Pema said and, from his blanket-world, Lhasang heard the ladle scratch the soup bowl. ‘You don’t know your own son, Dadul. He only pretends to obey, he never does. He needs hard love. Especially if he is to survive Kham.’
Thus Lhasang grew up between reality and stories. Pema rebuked him all the time: ‘Don’t go out alone,’ ‘Don’t tease that dog,’ ‘Don’t stand behind the mule when it’s eating.’
And Dadul fed him stories every evening: about Padmasambhava who came to Tibet from the Swat valley at the insistence of the ruler Trisong Detsen; who subdued the demons of the land, spread the words of the Buddha; who even convinced his consort—temporarily converted into a flying tigress—to give him a lift to Bhutan where he worked his wonders again. About Milarepa, who started his life with great evil but found enlightenment later; whose heart was as white as his robes and whose skin turned as green as the nettle tea he drank all day.
‘Why do you have to spend all your time telling him these fantastic tales?’ Pema sighed.
‘Because,’ said Dadul, ‘these are the saints who have created Bod. Who have shown us the dharma.’
‘Saints?’ said Pema. ‘Now Bod has more bandits than we have saints.’
Lhasang nodded at both of them.
For Losar, when the year was turning new, his parents took Lhasang to the nearby monastery. Their mules followed the river north for a few hours, first cantering along the road, then grappling with the slush of the narrow path where the river lapped the foot of the hills, and finally climbing a ridge from where they could see the Riwoche monastery. For Lhasang, it was a spectacular sight: a massive, squat building, like a giant wrestler crouching on his toes. The vertical stripes of red, white and brown on the walls enhanced the height of the main structure, but it was the breadth—spanning almost half a mile—that seemed extraordinary. There was a smaller second floor with a shingled roof that curved outwards. On top, in the centre, a spire-like tower rose from the roof like a lotus stem. And though he had heard of many wondrous buildings in the tales that filled his evenings, this immense structure now seemed very alien, even frightening.
Dadul swung Lhasang down from the mule. He was dressed in a chuba like his father, swathes of lambskin hanging down from both shoulders and tied at his waist by a leather belt.
They entered through the huge doors on the eastern flank into the monastery’s courtyard. It must look imposing even when bare; now it seemed endless, filled with a sea of praying monks in their orange robes. On the fringes the crowd pushed forward but still couldn’t detach itself from the walls.
Lhasang walked into the hall, and was lost at once in the all-embracing chaos of the monastery.
The crowd of the faithful had a life of its own, swirling like the ocean that the gods had churned for nectar. Darker clumps of chubas filtered into the lake of orange that led the chanting. Initially the three of them hugged the walls; even Dadul was taken aback by the thousands of people who had gathered. Guttural incantations bounced off the walls till echo and voice met midway.
As the crowd sank further into faith, Dadul shut his eyes. Pema, usually wide-eyed in vigilance, also shut herself off in prayer. Lhasang stood in front, his vision blocked by the grey–brown walls of people around him. He couldn’t figure out which way the crowd was moving, like the gods that he had heard no one could understand.
Soon, Lhasang had been swept away by a surge of the devout. There was no way he could move on his own, or find his way back. When he realized he had been separated from his parents, he looked to the walls for reference. He saw the statues and murals lining the hall, but no sign of Dadul or Pema. Among the numerous Buddhas, he saw the thousand-armed version of Avalokiteshwara, an eye embedded in each palm, all of them looking down at Lhasang’s despair. He felt sick; it seemed like the prayers were rising from everywhere. While putting on his Khampa warrior act, he could whip his hair around to his mouth, so long had his braid grown, and he could ride his horse into battle with a dagger clenched between his teeth. However, this bravado had melted. Soon the gods too seemed to be mocking him. You Khampa warrior! You little Gesar! You can’t even find your parents now? He clawed his way through the legs around him, but none of the lurching figures were his parents.
His screams for ‘ama’ and ‘apa’ faded into the chants. And the reverberations that shuddered through him gave birth to many fears: not seeing his parents again, never being able to find his way back home. He tried to remember home; maybe thinking about it would somehow bring it closer. He remembered the ground floor of his house, his feet shuffling through the straw, the four mules tethered to the central pole, chewing their fodder and shitting; he remembered feeling his way along the yak dung wall till he reached the inclined tree trunk, climbing the trunk to his parents’ bedroom, walking to the little corner where his mattress lay bundled.
Suddenly, Lhasang was back in the anguish of the monastery—a large hand had clamped down on his shoulder.
‘Are you Dadul’s little one?’
‘La-yin. Yes, I am Dadul’s son.’
‘We’ve been combing the crowd for you. Where did you disappear?’
The man had his hair tied in loops above his head, wrapped in a black tassel and topped with a silver nugget. A turquoise earring dangled from his left ear and was almost as long as his beard. His name was Dawa, he said, and he was a senior official of the region. He was part of the crew of searchers his parents had wailed into action when they realized the little hand holding on to Dadul’s chuba was not Lhasang’s.
‘Come, let’s go find your parents. They must be going crazy.’
Dawa grasped Lhasang’s hand and eased his way through the gathering. Lhasang held on tight. They searched all over the monastery, squeezing through the crowd, but couldn’t find his parents.
‘Where are Dadul and Pema?’ Dawa roared at the crowd.
A hail of replies followed.
‘They went upstairs.’
‘No, Dadul went up to the ridge.’
‘Pema was talking to the dob-dob lamas; they’re riding towards the river now.’
‘Bah,’ said Dawa. ‘I have to leave for the village. Tell Dadul I’ve found him and I’ll be taking him back home. I’m not leaving him here with all you lkug-pa, fools—you will lose him again. Tell them to come back, no need to scamper all over the hills.’
They didn’t wait for Dadul; Dawa was an impatient man. And Lhasang didn’t know what to say as Dawa explained, muttering under his breath, the need for communication in such times.
Dawa pitched Lhasang onto one of his yaks and they set off for Riwoche. While Dawa and the other men gripped the yaks with their legs, Lhasang’s legs stuck out on both sides, and he had to rely on the good temper of his ride for safety. Each time the yak hunched over to climb a slope, he had to grab a handful of its hair to stay perched. And when the yaks flagged, one of Dawa’s servants whipped out a large stone and pounded their behinds, and the beasts—mildly irritated—picked up the pace again.
When they crossed the bend in the river, Lhasang knew the village would sneak out from behind the next hill. And soon, despite the reluctant yaks, he would be home. Where he could sink, like butter in his morning tea, into the world where he belonged.
Excerpted with permission from Windhorse (HarperCollins India, 2013)