Tea?

The thing about England. (You forget so easily—if, indeed, you ever recalled.) It is grey. Damp, almost depressing grey, clouds looming close to rooftops; trees tipped darker, wet from the onslaught from the skies; houses, droop eyed and blank faced, stoic in the eye of the English— and therefore very mild—hurricane. I now understand what all my neighbours in India mean when they ask, deeply concerned, ‘So depressing this time of year, isn’t it?’ and I smile vaguely, unable to distinguish one country’s sky from another’s.  There is an advantage to returning to a city part stranger—your lens is cleaned.

This trip feels different from the last. McLeod had a surge of strength to it—an almost unfathomable space contained in those cluttered, narrow streets. There was more happening, more to learn and to experience. England feels strange, but familiar. I have done this tube journey a hundred times, stared at variations of heeled, polished and designed shoes, sat at this large space of Kings Cross a million times, with the same tourists posing at the 9 and ¾ sign. (—Except, now there is a red coat attendant and a Hogwarts scarf and tourists lift their legs as if running, with the attendant gratuitously holding the tip of the scarf in the air, to make it look like you are sprinting head-first into the world of your mind. When did that happen?)

England smiles at me, lit warm by the memories it holds. It is a long journey ahead of me: England, Canada, Italy, four and a half months of living out of a backpack that I wish was bigger, but that I probably wouldn’t be able to handle if it was. It feels good to start a journey with an old friend, matronly in its stoicism; an old lady bundled in cardigans, peering over her half-moon spectacles to say, amid the lashed trees, and the cracked sky, and dark shadows, ‘Tea?’.

We are the world!

I am supposed to be working right now, but god help me, there are things that must be written about.

When I was fourteen years old — or it may have been ten, I cannot remember. Anything past last Monday is ancient history — my sister proposed her plan for the world. It was simple: we do away with countries and all these ‘artificial borders’ as she called it, and we all live in peace and harmony. (She may have left the peace and harmony bit out, but I like the picture I am building of her.) Countries are stupid, she said. Lines were unnecessary. We are all one. Now, I was wise at fourteen (/ten). I knew such a thing was impossible. There were flags to love, freedom histories to learn, a sense of identity to feel connected to. And, of course, the very obvious fact that we didn’t make as much money as America. Oh, no. Such a thing was ridiculous — the UN would collapse, power struggles would disintegrate, presidents would be at loss, people would be anchorless (crazy, I tell you, crazy) and the economies that ran the world would disappear and plunge us all into chaos. Of course it wasn’t possible. I wrinkled my nose, made some suitably cutting comment — as the practical one in the family must — and turned the page on my book.

Years later, my maturity has grown into idealism and foolishness, and I wish desperately to travel the world — see what cultures have to offer, how people think, act and believe across the world, not to mention the buildings, the art, the adventure. Having finally landed a job that will give me both the money and the freedom to do so, I have made the most beautiful, most ambitious, most glorious plan of travel ever conceived. This may be hyperbole (aided by the large glass of red wine I am now drinking), but it is important enough that such a plan was/is glorious, ambitious and beautiful to me. Four and a half months of friends, art, love, culture, family and all that is soul inspiring in nature. Such a thing has not been conceived in my 22-year-old life — it was beginning of a new age, and a new me.

Except, you know — I have to get the visas.

You cannot believe the legal requirements and red tape that can surround travel if you’re not doing it conventionally (and I cannot afford to). No, honestly — if you are European, American, or British, you cannot imagine. I have spent weeks filling out forms, getting documents together, worrying about processing times, and if I am allowed to get a visa at all. I have spent hours researching the Internet, desperate for some nugget of hope regarding a clause in the visa rule that — turns out! — does not apply to me at all. And right now, a world without borders is looking pretty damn good to me.

When I began this blog, I promised myself that I would only write about the things that strike wonder in my heart; the memories that remind me that this is kind of life I want to lead. A trail of breadcrumbs, so to speak, connecting the past to future (and not leading you home, as Hansel and Gretel so desperately needed). The only excuse I can offer for this post is that my fourteen year old or ten year old (or eight, or twelve, or twenty one year old) self would never have imagined me saying, on a public forum (albeit slightly drunk) that yes, indeed, my sister was right. Drunk or not, that is a thing of wonder in itself.  

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIGYeoqHPOE

Mists

I like Tibet Hope Café. There is warmth to its walls, a hippie vibe to its floor cushions and red, low tables. If you go outside on its narrow terrace, you’ll see the mountains yawning into the distance. It feels normal now to see the mist lift and have this view placed before you. Folds ranging and then curving back onto themselves like sharply folded papier-mâché. I wonder if I will miss this when back in Bombay — if I will expect space that I cannot get, silence (with the humming cicadas) that cannot be imitated.

McLeod Ganj is a complicated place. I have lost the ability to see it as a total stranger. The streets no longer feel narrow, with their own secret network of movement. (Avoid that car; swerve around to miss that tea stall. No, tilt your body more to the right to slip through that cluster of monks — be careful of the bike that will not slow — watch out for that pothole!). Now my body seems to have shrunk in proportion, so that I no longer feel like Gulliver in Lilliput: my feet know the smooth stretches of road, and I don’t have to peer out for the tiny gutter (displayed proudly as a ‘road’ on the McLeod Ganj map) that connects Jogiwara road to Temple road. I have a schedule now: mornings at LHA, working on Contact Magazine, afternoons teaching Khenrab, and evenings for conversation class. With lots of tea, writing and reading in between.

But McLeod Ganj is a complicated place, irrespective of how I see it. Perhaps I am being influenced by Pico Iyer’s book, The Open Road, where he probes our desire to elevate Tibet into a fairy tale. All Tibetans good. All Chinese bad. (He writes poignantly that the Dalai Lama would probably say, Potentially good Tibetan. Potentially good Chinese.) But I have found little in McLeod Ganj to dispel this fairytale. Yes, the monks carry iPhones, but where does the Dalai Lama ask them to shun technology? He welcomes it, in fact; it is time Tibet met with the world. Yes, certain monks are vociferous in their opinion — I have met one till date — but most are baby faced and always smiling or playing. (A week later, this same monk will ask me how I overcome anger. He seemed to genuinely seek answers). It’s their stories that get you: tales of walking over mountains, abandoned home and dangling identities. It’s hard to connect the tale of fear, frostbite, and hunger to the smiling face that is telling it.

Of course McLeod Ganj is a complicated place. It carries too many cultures at once. There are Indians, who bow their heads and say ‘Namaste’ as you walk past. The drivers that lean against their white Tata Innovas (too big for the McLeod streets) and ask, “Taxi, Madam?”

Then there are the Tibetans, sitting slant eyed behind their momo counters and trinket stalls, watching the traffic, all these people with their different colours and cultures, here to see them. What must they think of Dharamsala? How must it compare to Tibet? [“Sun. Finally.” Dukthen says, when the mist clears.] I stand in the volunteer coordinator’s office and explain to Jane how I need money to travel. Rabsel, her Tibetan colleague, laughs. “Me? I need money to go home!” Red robed monks and nuns mark the streets; emissaries of a culture lost, a culture changing. New, uncertain tourists gaze at them with reverence; old hands with familiarity.

And then, there is the west. Carrying their backpacks and searching for their fairytale, like me (a curious take on the western traveller). Searching for peace, philosophy, change, travel, an elusive knowledge. Wide-eyed and suspicious at the same time, they roam the streets, curious and yet aware of their skin leaves them open to. They bring their lens with them, waiting for something to come along and crack through.

I attend a fundraiser for Tibet Hope Center. The tickets are 150 rupees, but we get ours for free because a friend is performing. The place is crowded with nationals from most countries: India, Germany, France, Korea, Tibet, USA, UK, Israel. The concert turns out to be an eclectic mishmash; nothing can better represent just how culturally diverse McLeod is. The Tibetan toddler next to me watches in fascination as Sonny and Nate played the Beatles; an Isareli comes on and plays a beautiful original song with a travelling guitar, a Korean group dances to everything from Katy Perry to “All is Well” from the famous Bollywood movie 3 Idiots. There are renditions of Tibetan songs, of Korean songs, and some incredible piano playing. And, as the grand finale — Gangnam Style. Niccola, French, laughs when it comes on, and observes how perfectly we all know the tune. A group of talent Korean dancers — only fifteen!— execute the steps perfectly. Kunsang, the head of Tibet Hope Café, puts on dark glasses and bursts through in the second chorus to join in. We all clap, laugh, whistle and cheer. Here was something distinguishable, yet known. Something culturally unique, and yet, that belonged to all of us.

Home: Part II

Dukthen, of course, cannot go home. I share an office with her every morning; she sits on her official computer and I prise open my laptop, and we work on the magazine together. She cannot be more than three years older than me; there is liveliness to her eyes, and a genuine caring. You can make out she must have been a mischievous child. (This is confirmed when she tells me her childhood stories.) She has taken to feeding me oranges and biscuits, and making sure I get free milk tea. I don’t complain.

She is Tibetan. Her parents sent her to India when she was five. I cannot fathom how she made that journey. “There are two ways of doing it,” she says, like I have asked a factual question, “Some parents cross the mountains with their child, to make sure they reach India safely and then cross back over to Tibet. Others pay a guide a lot of money to make sure that their children reach India safely. India is to so many people in Tibet a wonderful place. Such a large democracy. So free. Many parents want their children to come, even if they cannot come themselves.”

She is lucky (her words, not mine); she can remember her parents’ faces, speak to them. So many of her classmates in TCV have no idea what their parents look like. The last time she met her parents was years back. Sometimes the parents come to India to visit, sometimes both parties travel to the Nepal. “China doesn’t give you a visa to go to India, “ she says. “It’s the seat of the Dalai Lama, so they don’t like you going there.” Once, a whole group of Tibetan illegally crossed the mountains so that they could attend the Dalai Lama’s teachings in McLeod. When they returned, they were held at the Chinese border for two days. China would not let them back in. “Of course,” she says, “they were eventually let back in, but all of them had to go through political ‘re-education’ classes.” She laughs good-naturedly.

Now, of course, she hasn’t spoken to her family in months. The line will not go through. But, of course, everything is tapped anyway. A friend of hers called her parents back home, in order to decide whether to send the sister back to Tibet (she was very ill). The next day the Chinese show up on her parents’ door and warn them: no one is allowed back. Nothing is said of how the police know; they are listening, always.

The question is if Dukthen wants to return to Tibet or make her life outside of it. She’s worked in human rights and as an editor, has her bachelors in literature and is now facing the painful task of deciding what to do her masters in. Human Rights? Journalism? Education? In the UK? US? Europe? “Ideally,” she says. “I would like to go back to Tibet and start a human rights NGO for the Tibetan people.” We both lapse into silence. The truth sits between us, too obvious for expression: of all the options, that, of course, is impossible.

Home: Part I

There is a different breed of person, I think, who seeks permanence in movement, belonging from a certain kind of alienation. I have met more and more of them in my stay at McLeod. At first, I think it is just India — Dharamsala, the allure of something exotic and unknown; people, like me, seeking a measure of the mysterious. But they do not travel as I do. Their trips are long, immersive. Niccola has been here a month and plans for staying another month at least. “Of course, then my visa runs out, but I might go back to Nepal to renew it and then come back. In a way it’s good.” He laughs. “I get lazy and this forces me to move.” I meet his flatmate, a Russian, when she pokes her head through the kitchen door. This is first time Niccola and her are meeting as well. When she finds out he’s French, she smiles apologetically. “Ah, all my French is forgotten. It’s been replaced by Tibetan.” She’s been in McLeod a year, learning with a Buddhist monk, and plans to stay at least another year. But, before that, she stayed in Paris; before that, Russia; and, in between, god alone knows where.

The lifestyle demands different subtleties, of course. When you settle down in a home, you seek to understand yourself within and outside it. Simple things — speech, food, washing — are not your main preoccupations. Here, of course, they are all. The Russian and Sonny (also French) get talking about where one can find French cheese (“Impossible,” she says) in McLeod. It is indeed possible; but you have to know the right people who know the right people. Apurva, down from Delhi, is teaching Niccola how to make good Indian curry (I am standing on the side, eavesdropping). He is asking precise questions, interested to imitate it on his own. Later, we get talking about languages. Niccola is learning Tibetan, but Hindi is his main interest right now, and he is delighted with the opportunity to practice with me. Sonny is learning neither, but has picked up the tabla instead; Apurva, the flute. Learning is a way of life, the embroidery of the everyday.

It is the time that gets me. Renata has been here thrice, and will travel down south for a while once she feels she is finished with McLeod. Nate is from the US and plans to stay here for six months, copying editing textbooks for a company back home, teaching in his spare time and playing the guitar with Sonny at Tibet Hope Café when there is a jam night. “And, of course, if I get bored, I can just up and go somewhere else.” Time to know a place, to live in it. To collect the subtleties of speech and food, and pack up a culture with you. I don’t know how long the effect lasts, or how permanent or touching the absorption. But travel is not an indulgence, but rather a way of being. Time stretches before them; a month can become two, possibly three. Lives seem to beckon, waiting to be lived. 

Saint John’s Church

It’s an ordinary church, really. Small, the kind you can imagine settlers building when they first hacked their way into this large, impenetrable country. A little ruined, as you would imagine age to do. Stones rounded off into smoothened surfaces, moss leeching its way into corners and pits. I am sharing these steps with four cicadas, all of whom seem unconcerned by my presence. I am a temporary fixture. Time will flow and I will be gone. These steps however, this air, this noise, this space — their space — remains.

What must my country have been like before man and the world got its roots into it? Jess, an English friend doing a six-month trip around India, once said how ridiculous it was to imagine Jaipur and Shimla were the same country. I agree. India is so vast, so beautiful, so strange. This church, perched in the middle of two villages, reminds me of this. It is a lazy structure, its main fixture small, but its grounds stretched to pull and use as much space as possible. The pathways that wind around trees; gardens you think have ended until you walk on the thin stone slab bridging a gully, and the land opens out again — another garden, another cemetery. It is skilfully done; organisation that tones the wilderness instead of disturbs it, settling into the hill rather than reshaping it. I can see an Indian priest, sitting on the parapet that drops down and looks out into the vast mountains. He is reading his psalms. I can understand why he finds this place sacred.

It is ridiculous to believe I am not a stranger here. Bombay has no relationship to this place, other than by name only, that cavernous sounding ‘India’. This, then, is the exotic India —or part of it anyway. This is what foreigners mean when they unfold their dreams and say they have longed for Incredible India, when they pack their large hiking bags and plan six months, years, in a place they have never seen.  I am as much a foreigner as anyone else.

Rome: First Impressions

There is a moment — one I have not experienced until now — where reality matches your imagination. Walking out into Rome — large cobbled streets, listless tourists in shorts and deep black aviators — was to walk out and drown in sunshine. There is a quality to the sun here. In India, it holds its place in the sky and beats down on you, sparking every surface into fire and filling the air, so that when it comes to kiss you, its breath is wet and belaboured (the musky warmth of a beloved dog). Here its rays are sharper, finding your eyes and squinting them shut. Painting everything and anything — table chairs, buildings; the wooden shutters that lid each window and flutter shut; the archway that comes out of nowhere to branch across the street, curving over your head in its gown of vine; the fountain that lies in ambush waiting to dazzle you with its marble white — in a diffused, almost alive golden.

So that when you walk, arms open to welcome a city that must build its history upon more history, to make way for all its culture (Renaissance over Roman), you feel truly, and incredibly, incandescent.

Norbulingka

I cannot feel anything here except the beauty of this place. Planned so that every corner is a framed image, constructed for you. And yet, there is a wilderness to this plan, diversity even within its order. Symmetry is used sparingly, so that it hooks your heart; asymmetry wisely, so that you find yourself falling into, entangled in the mishmash of brick red, yolk yellow and different parading greens. Spiky tipped leaves among sun-dappled heart shaped foliage. Dark green spotted with flowers of a tiny red, pink and peach. Amid all this, the water flows, little loops of spilling movement that curve and peak underneath the stones arranged along its path. And its sound, soothing you under the crack, crack, crack of some handicraft tool (being worked in some forgotten distance), under the lively murmur of morning voices.

I feel like I have walked into something out of The Garden of Evening Mists.

Beauty

[Note: This was written after my third conversation class. Faces are now more familiar and have names — even if they are the incorrect ones — attached to them. But the sentiment still feels important.]

There is a moment when you start something new where you think there must be a way to do this; a code floating out there, used by people who have tried their hand at this time and time again. I felt like that at my first conversation class. Were my questions too hard, or were they too easy? Was I meant to be correcting grammar or was I just supposed to be allowing them to speak, to let their mouths curve  around the alien sounds English makes? (And my, are those sounds alien. What a strange language we have mastered, with what made up rules).

There rarely, is, of course, a code. And the practice people usually follow are the rules they’ve made up themselves (little personal paths through the woods that can lead them there and back again safely), secure in the knowledge that everyone else is doing the same.

Today then — secure in the knowledge that everyone else is doing the same— I throw open the topic of beauty. (A change from the usual, So how long have you spent in Dharamsala? Do you like it here? What are your hobbies?). I have no idea how this will work. Abstract concepts are nice: they allow you to squabble over what you understand by them. But they are also difficult, demanding a vocabulary that you don’t tease from an English beginner. I expect silence, some awkward looks, and possibly me, struggling to reframe my questions (what do you find beautiful?), with examples that I find very hard to dredge up. Some creative writer I am.

I get a debate. An energetic monk beside me explains that there is external beauty and internal beauty. External beauty depends on how others see you, on what others think. But internal beauty — kindness, compassion, caring — is all yours, and depends entirely on you. The definitions intrigue me: can you see internal beauty unless you perform it on someone else? So if I say I am kind (internally beautiful), then surely the only way to test it is to see if I am kind to others? The question throws things into the air. All beauty, says a young Tibetan across me, depends on others: on how they see you, and what they think. Internal beauty is only beautiful if you show it to other people. All beauty, says the small Tibetan girl next to me (so soft-spoken, I have to lean forward until my face is nearly pressed to the ground) is in the eye of the person. What is beautiful to me — she points to the bag of the monk beside her, a cheeky and hilarious man who seems to lead the group even when he is not speaking. Later, I will know him as Darren’s monk — may not be beautiful to you.

No, no, no. Someone is shaking his head. There are things that are agreed upon as beautiful. Why do we say a rose is beautiful? Or that Tibet is beautiful? I have not thought of that. There is an accepted definition of beauty, it may not be solidified into its specific, but it is there. I think, says another monk beside me. His face is set and determined. That external beauty depends on your internal beauty. If you are an angry man, you will not see anything as beautiful. One day you are happy: you see a beautiful woman and think she is beautiful. But next day, you are angry and she is not beautiful anymore.

BUT — the young Tibetan is back in the fray — it does not mean that she stops being beautiful. To everyone else, she remains beautiful. Maybe he thinks she’s ugly because she rejected him.

They are interested now. Some one cracks a joke in Tibetan and they all laugh. On the side, a fraction breaks into a side debate of their own, each insisting on their idea of beauty. I lean forward as much as possible, scooting around this big group, trying to hear the more soft-spoken ones. Their English is not wonderful, but we’re all so focused on getting our thoughts out, that little of that matters (Oops.). Some one cracks open an iphone software that translates from Tibetan to English. I think, says Darren’s monk, that all beauty is unimportant. The monk beside me is sceptical. If all beauty doesn’t exist, he points out, then all ugliness doesn’t exist. Darren’s monk seems okay with this; the group laughs. Okay, then, I say, pointing, once again, to his bag. This bag, a pretty ordinary bag, has become our symbol of beauty. You chose this bag yes? He agrees. Now if I gave you a blue bag like this, or a white bag like this, or a purple bag like this, which one will you choose? To choose you must like one, yes? The question cracks the group up, including him, but his answer is smooth. The red one, always, teacher. It matches it my robes.

Maddi says that if you can get them to laugh, then the group is a success. To be able to laugh in another language shows real ease in it. I find myself agreeing. Dynamics change when people laugh — thoughts free and that little circle, that group, becomes a light and easy space to make mistakes, to play around, to re-find yourself. Expression opens, ideas flow.

Perhaps there is a deeper lesson in there for all spaces.

Travel

It turns out to be a girls’ night. Excite, the bar (if it can be called such) is empty except for the four of us. I order a beer— a large Kingfisher that yields three glasses— and settle in.

All three of them have travelled more than me. Maddi has been en route for about three and a half years now; she is up from Thailand, and has another four weeks left in McLeod Ganj. Renata, the anthropologist in the making, has been to McLeod Ganj twice before, this time her first time alone. She loves Tibetan culture and therefore this place. Nici, German, has travel stories of her own, one of which is six months spent in Australia, where she lived in a car and wished she had a fridge. I ask the question, partly because I have been trained by conversation class to formulate all my thoughts into questions, and partly because it is a pertinent one and the perfect opportunity. Why?

“It gets into your system I guess,” says Nici. “It’s like a bug.”

“There is also a certain feeling to seeing something new, something so culturally different from what you know, and taking the time to settle down into it, to understand it.”

Maddi is nodding. “And the more you travel, the more you realise just how similar human beings are.”

“Exactly,” says Renata. “You have to communicate with them on a simple level, a common one. Just the essentials.”

Just heart, I think.

“It’s important not to judge, though,” says Nici. “To see what you can and learn from it, not compare it to your home.”

I don’t know. It’s the comparison that allows you see your home with foreign eyes, to mystify the familiar. And the more you do that, the more everything becomes a perspective. Different perspectives crouched in different corners of the world. The thought gives me joy, and fills me with excitement. It’s a bug, all right. All those different perspective, lined up; all that’s left is for you to choose.