Saturday, 26 July 2014
“Were you still the hero of your myth, Uncle Wink?” Asked Sam.
“Yes. But I was in a place beyond Greek myths and Western heroes like Orion. I had landed in the ancient nursery of Eastern philosophy, and their heroes were very different. I needed to find new context and meaning.”
“What do you mean?” Millie Asked. The smell of the roast boar was mouthwatering.
“I guess I should start from the beginning.” He said. “The whole story of individual heroism traditionally evolved from the collective spiritual belief that came out of each society’s view of the natural world. And there were only four possibilities: (1) They believed they were an integral part of a perfect Divine Nature, (2) They regarded themselves as interacting independently with it, (3) They considered themselves an integral part of a fallen or imperfect natural world, or (4) They thought they were a separate tribe, struggling in a hostile wilderness.
Morality depended on culture. Culture depended on climate. Climate depended on geography.
In the beginning was the Gaia myth, although even this was Greek. The world was an organism we belonged to. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. When a Sioux took the calumet pipe, he held the stem to the sky, so the Sun could take the first puff. There was humility in that.
The essential dilemma that came with living in the perfect world of natural harmony, however, was the tension created by the need for food, and its procurement. The hunter cultures came first. We owe them the form of our bodies, and the structure of our minds. Hunters were trained in individual skills that required very special abilities, resulting in individual heroic actions that would achieve a collective benefit. Their total focus was always directed outward, to the animal. Life was the business of living by killing and eating itself, casting off death and being reborn. The hunt was the ritual of physical participation in that uniquely individual act, and ritual is the enactment of myth. Every hunt was a different hunt than the last one, a place to overcome fear.
But the hunter didn’t only slaughter the animal, he killed a messenger of divine power, and generated guilt as a byproduct. A further ritual of atonement and restoration was required, propitiation in the form of a gift or a bribe, to the deity that was being invited to do something for him. Early hunting cultures imagined a kind of animal divinity, the animal master, who sent the flocks to be killed. Power and knowledge would come by going into the forest to fast and pray, and the animal would come to teach them. An accord would develop between the hunter and the hunted, in a mystical timeless cycle of death, burial and resurrection. Thus emerged the basic hunting myth, the regenerative life myth of a covenant between the animal world and the human world, and the alleviation of the guilt. From death came life; from sacrifice, Bliss. It was the first act of worship, and the seed of religion.
And the nature of life itself had to be realized in the acts of life, in rituals of birth and death. These required special places, rite sanctuaries where boys were initiated into the hunt, and went from being their mother’s sons to their father’s sons, like the cave of Altamira, where the bull was twenty feet long, and painted so that its haunches were represented by a swelling in the rock.
These required special people, like shamans, whose power came out of a, individual psychological experience, and not a social ordination. They weren’t priests. They were poets.
The restoration rituals were usually associated with the main hunting animal. To the American Plains Indians, it was the buffalo. On the northwest coast, the salmon. In South Africa, the eland. But the Indians in northwestern Mexico would sneak up on a peyote cactus, and shoot a little arrow at it. They were spiritual hunting.”
“Is that what you were doing, Uncle Wink.” Asked Millie.
“After a fashion, Mil. After a fashion.”
Thursday, 24 July 2014
“There is that difference between being kicked in the teeth and reading
a description of being kicked in the teeth. Some call it existential.”
Gita Mehta, Karma Cola
I dreamt about it all night. Soman’s flute. It haunted me. Perhaps it was the ruby-robed monk’s vampire tattoo. It was the same ogre. I tried to convince myself that I had seen many other things more beautiful. It was an illusion.
I paid Soman as much as I could barely afford, and what he was willing to accept. Remarkably, it turned out to be the same number of rupees. As I carried my prize out of the shop, it struck me. At the end of the 5th century, the Bodhidharma brought Kung Fu to the Shaolin monastery in China. He had taught that, to go from mortal to Buddha, you had to put an end to karma, nurture your awareness, and accept what life would bring you. At the end of the 20th century, life was bringing me another bout of dysentery, my awareness was in overdrive, and my karma was kicking the shit out of my mortality. If there was any left. I figured out that venerable thin aesthetes, like bodhidharma, had such long beards, because they were just too worn out from their chronic diarrhea to shave.
The girls went on to Dreamland, and I crawled back up the ladder of the roof our guesthouse, to feed the flies. I looked at the embossed ogre on my temple flute, and began to see the connection. It was a curse for my worldly attachment.
I emerged from the rooftop longdrop later that afternoon, to find an invasion of puffy grey clouds, ballooning over the barren snowcapped mountain ramparts above me. Down below ran the white noise of white water, and the ratchet staccato of the crested kingfishers in the garden. There was a wind picking up, but it wasn’t mine.
Below me too, the whole of Ladakh was crumbling. Life had been slower and happier before the arrival of the money economy from the south. Conveys of TATA trucks came like the clouds, crushing communal bridges, and their connection to the earth and each other. Cheap commodities displaced the time and space and love required for their traditional production, and the scale of everyday life. The superficial teenage boy aggression of the West came to town, speeding up growth and killing its quality. After we left, the streams would become polluted, replaced by water trucks. Flour and mustard oil, initially cheaper by the truckload from the Deccan Plain, would become rationed, because the goods could only get through from June to October, and the village infrastructure had been destroyed to the point where there was none in farming. A place where no one was poor would become an ugly garbage-strewn encampment, where everyone was impoverished, on every level. The family would fall apart, and the young future hope, too slow for the invading culture, and having forgotten the skills of the one they left, would languish. A Shangri-La where there was little or no fighting would see toy guns in the shops and real ones in the streets. The wisdom that had once defined what was useful and harmful to the future would be overwhelmed by the seductive cleverness of instant gratification.
But not just yet. You still couldn’t see the charcoal and saltpeter but, every once in awhile, on the wind, you could smell the sulfur coming. Gunpowder was supposed to make all men tall, but my night continued up and down the ladder by candlelight, and I was getting shorter by the hour. Robyn and Julie were hanging off the rafters downstairs, practicing their gymnastics. It got me rethinking about the Vegemite theory of immune competence.
“Julee!” Said the lady of the house next morning, heading somewhere in her armadillo cobra-headed finery. Carol left with my temple flute a little while later, promising to mail it when she got back to Washington. I needed two Lomotil, just to get out of bed. Smiling Steve had heard I was sick, and marched his dzi stones over to the guesthouse, to commiserate.
We sat in the sun-splashed garden, and talked the day away. Robyn and Julie went through the labyrinth, into town, twice. The first time, they bought carrots and turnips for our Dal lake houseboat host, Jimmy. We were planning to leave Leh the next morning. They also brought hard-boiled eggs and bread and peanut brittle for me, although it would be another day before I would be able to eat any of it.
Their second foray was for bus tickets. From the mood they were in on their return, it was, as the bank manager had confirmed, not France.
Tuesday, 22 July 2014
“It is better to travel well than to arrive.”
We initiated Carol into our group, over kerosene-flavored vegetable fried rice and jasmine tea, at the Om restaurant. The three women met another, about the time my stomach made contact with the ingested hydrocarbons.
I excused myself to seek enteric enlightenment, under the impression that I could pace the distance back to the guesthouse in time. I hadn’t counted on the labyrinthine nature of the pattern of paths, all lined by ten-foot high whitewashed rock walls, and fast-moving parallel mountain runoff streams. But for the occasional pigtailed laundry activity, and dogs in various states of disrepair, I would have lost my bearings altogether. A train of women twice my age, carrying loads of grass twice my weight, ran by me, chanting.
My guts did a twist, and I realized why Leh had so many Moslem mosques, Tibetan temples and prayer wheels, Hindu shrines and red Shiva lingams, and an ancient Moravian Christian church. They weren’t here worshipping perfection. They were praying for continence.
Traditional Tibetan houses had their toilets up a long thin ladder, in a hut on the roof, near the Yak dung collection. When I asked the reason, I was told that it was for strategic defensive purposes.
There is no experience that brings one closer to earthly release, than climbing a vertiginous set of steps in the dark, dehydrated and dizzy and debilitated from dysentery, knowing that you’ll have to do it every fifteen minutes, all night long. Ladakh was high and dry, but I was higher and drier. I still believe that, if the Tibetans had built their bathrooms on the ground floor, they would have been the ones doing the invading.
As bad as my own digestion had been, at least I wasn’t passing plasma. Julie’s situation had seemed to improve the previous day but, like most of Dzogchen school of Buddhist beliefs pervasive in these parts, perceived reality is literally unreal. The return of her bloody diarrhea may have been illusory, but it needed attention. We went to the hospital lab for a diagnosis.
The technician took her freshly supplied sample, and placing a cover slip over the glass slide, fitted it onto the microscope stage.
“No, there is no wisable pathogen to be observed here.” He said, bobbing on the eyepiece. I asked to have a look. He moved aside. The amoebas were playing polo with the salmonella.
We got a tour of the ward on our way out. They showed me their old defibrillator, an obvious source of pride. I asked about their ECG machine.
“Not in Service, for now.” Was the answer. I asked how they knew when to use the defibrillator.
“No problem.” They said. “Patient not waking up, we will awaken him.” I made a mental note not to fall asleep near the hospital. Julie got her medicine from the dispensary, and we roamed the back streets, junk stores, and stupas of Leh. Soman had his own shop, inside which was a stunning eighty-five year old silver temple flute, embossed with a Tibetan ogre, inlaid with turquoise and coral, wrapped around a tough briar stem. Here also we met Smiling Steve, a Los Angeles photographer. He had been traveling in Asia for the better part of the last three years, and wore a dzi stone, turquoise, silver and red coral necklace. He joined us for dinner at the Dreamland that evening. We had the ‘acrid soup.’ It was real.
Carol was real too. Next morning she invited us to accompany her on a jeep tour of all the regional Buddhist monasteries, courtesy of the World Bank. She said it was the least she could do for our ordeal in its little cousin, the previous day. Our driver, Philip arrived during breakfast and, sliding back the last of our peanut buttered barley bread, we zoomed off in the back of his jeep.
Past the Choglamsar Tibetan refugee camp, we climbed the fifteen kilometers to Shey Gompa, inside the ancient summer palace of the kings of Ladakh. The complex was half a millennium old, and had the largest golden Buddha in Little Tibet. It was forty feet high, and took up three floors of the monastery. From his upward pointing soles on the bottom, to the butter lamp soot-blackened ceiling at the top, were over five kilograms of gold, covering hundreds of hammered copper plates. Gilt and carmine and cerulean and navy blue covered him, and filled the surrounding walls of paintings, and the space in between. A soft lichen quilt of irrigated barley patches fanned out down the Indus Valley far below.
The funeral procession that arrived as we left, seated a recent departure in his sedan chair, for a last ride up the mountain to be cremated. His ashes would follow the same trail down, to stop at the riverbed floor, but we continued on, beside fields of whitewashed chortens, scattered across the desert landscape, each containing a relic of the Buddha, or one of his disciples. Every one of these stupas was a hierarchical model of the five purified elements. The square base represented earth, and the pregnant vase resting on it carried water. The conical gold coil armature above that was fire, the parasol and crescent moon symbolized air, and the sun and disappearing point at the top, was the element of space.
We rode up to the dizzy heights of Tikse Monastery, almost twelve thousand feet. Here were twelve red, ochre and white levels of stupas, thangkas, wall paintings, swords, and sixty Yellow Hat lama statues. It had been built on this opposite side of the river, because two crows had supposedly snatched a ceremonial plate of chickpea flour cakes, and transported them here, in perfect undisturbed order.
I sat crosslegged and transfixed in a lotus position, under the Tantric stoop of this mini-Potala, gazing out at the breathtaking panorama across the Indus flood plain, to where we had been west at Shey, ahead to Matho in the east, and Stok Palace to the south. Inside was a fifty foot high Maitreya Future Buddha, which took four years of clay, copper, gold paint and effort, constructed for the visit of the Dalai Lama, thirteen years earlier.
We had arrived in time for morning prayers and, as the chanting of the buddhist sūtras began to fill the frescoed room, one of the younger monks tried to sneak in late. Om mani padme hum...Om mani padme hum. The sound of the strap thwack he received was tantric, elaborating reality and providing salvation. It seemed a bit heavy on the reality, but Yellow Hat monks are celibate monks.
We traveled on back across the Indus, through a sensitive military zone, up to Hemis Gompa. A cavalcade of Indian army officers accompanied us. Their shiny new gray Hindustani Ambassador and Jeep were almost as decorated as they were. The vehicles had hood-mounted flags and roof mounted red lights, with rectangular red grill plates embossed with a row of large gold stars.
The officers were similarly colored in olive field dress, with jodhpurs and white spats, and bright red coxcombs standing erect off their turbans. They looked like roosters. The senior rooster asked for my lighter. I thought it was a security precaution. It was for his Dunhill. As he bobbled his appreciation, I almost expected him to start pecking the ground.
Hemis was over three hundred years old, as was the butter tea we were served inside the courtyard, during the chanting. Cymbals and drums added joy. One ancient ruby-robed monk showed me his vampiric ogre tattoo. It would have struck fear in the heart of any biker on the planet. Mischief, pure and boyish, leapt off the golden gleam of his smile.
Philip piled us back into the jeep, and on to Stakna Monastery, perched high on a tiger nosed hill. It appeared deserted at first but, finally, a solitary monk gave us a tour of what could have been a lonely existence, expect for his joking and singing and marveling magnificence.
We diverted off down the valley to the Matho Gompa. I threw stones with the young local boys on the long climb, before the girls caught up. Breathless at the top, we spun the prayer wheels, and crawled into a spectacular view of the highest room, to be greeted by rug-making monks. One of them showed us the collection of 16th century thangkas, before dematerializing. Robyn and Julie and Carol danced a can-can descent. It is better to travel well than to arrive.
Our last stop was Stok Palace, for its exquisite conch shells, butter room king’s crown, semiprecious stone-inlaid paintings, and a library containing all the volumes of the Kangyur, illuminated by a 12 volt battery, and the Buddha, himself.
It was late in the day when Philip drove us back to the Dreamland. The sun disappeared fast behind the mountains. We bought Carol a vegetable foo yung dinner. Following the sounds of the running streams back to our guesthouse, Robyn and I bid her and Julie goodnight.
A man often meets his Destiny on the road he took to avoid it. On that night, on that road, mine told me she loved me. Despite the usual irrefutable nature of the Buddha’s wise insights about life’s illusions, there are still rare but real occasions when it’s better to arrive than to travel well.
Monday, 21 July 2014
“The speed of jet travel appears to have eliminated the distinctions
between geography and philosophy…which means that although
one can get anywhere, one is packing all the wrong things for
simple survival, let alone for having a lovely time.”
Gita Mehta, Karma Cola
The altitude and dysentery made the other confusion even worse for Julie.
“Julee!” They said, greeting us with their friendly Tibetan bright eyes, brown faces and ivory smiles.
“Julie!” She thought they were calling her. It was just their word for hello.
The first to say it was Soman, sitting astride his bicycle on the tarmac. He convinced us of the merits of his guesthouse, and put us on a three rupee rickety wreck of a J&K bus into town. We passed under the medieval nine-storied 17th century domination of Leh Palace, modeled on the Potala in Lhasa. The deserted white stone monolith, with its massive inwardly sloped buttressed walls and projecting wooden balconies, gave no hint of the colors of the crushed gemstone Thangka paintings inside.
On the bus we met Carol, a Washington lawyer working for the World Bank. Instant friends all round. Soman had a complimentary jeep taxi waiting to take us the two kilometers to his Changspa guesthouse. It was bright and spacious, with two big, Spartan, whitewashed rooms. Carol and Julie took one, and Robyn and I dropped our packs in the other. The jeep took us back into town. The main street ran between square whitewashed walls and square wood timbers. The sun had that rarified air glare sparkle, and the fine dust came off the ground like I remember it did half a world away.
The Ladakhi women weren’t just suntanned, they were suncreased peanut butter bronzed. It would have been a mistake to misinterpret their slow movement for dimwittedness. Pig-tailed, top-hatted and plump, they sat cross-legged in rows on the main drag, selling their root vegetables. Their smiles were gold-capped, and their hearts were big, and beat strong. I bought some fresh peas from an ancient grinning beauty and, for a moment, thought I was back in Bolivia. How I would have loved to have arranged a meeting between the two mamitas from the two continents, and watch them gasp in Tibetan and Quechua.
“Julee!” Called the Kashmiri shopkeepers. But they didn’t mean it in the same way.
Because we needed to go to the bank, and Carol was one, we arranged to meet her later. There was only one financial institution in Leh, the small, infrequently open State Bank of India. Julie and Robyn and I entered, to find a single ticket booth populated by a single moustached teller, and a tier of bleachers, populated by most of the foreign travelers in Ladakh. They looked tired and forlorn, and had obviously been there awhile.
Changing traveler’s cheques in the more remote places of the World was always frustrating and time-consuming. It usually involved triplicate pads and single-mindedness, and we thought we knew the drill. But the State Bank of India still had more gods than rupees, and had festooned them all with the bloody British red tape of the Raj. Bureaucrats in India are called ‘Babu’ in Hindi, which also means father in the same language. One must never underestimate the power of the State to act out its own massive fantasies. And the mother of all massive fantasies, at the State Bank of India, was the illusion of customer service.
The babu in the booth had a white part down the middle of his slicked down black hair. It was the Nazca landing strip of bank transactions. He glanced up momentarily to check our passport photos against our fallen faces, added our documents and traveler’s cheques, to the large stacks on both sides of him, handed us three round metal chits, and went back to whatever babus do, when they’re not babuing.
The word chit is also from Hindi, ‘chiṭṭī.’ And so it was. We looked down at our chitty chits to find embossed numbers, but not so you would know there was any sequential order. We took our places on the babu’s bleachers.
Nothing happened for an hour, and then it happened. A middle-aged Frenchman entered the proceedings. You could tell he was French because he wore a beret, and he spoke French. What you couldn’t tell was which planet he had arrived from. His wardrobe was white, real white. Not the kind of white you might get from pounding your cotton on river rocks in India all day long. Starched white. Never seen a single bacterium white. Shirt and pants white.
He cast a condescending glance in our direction, and thought better of it. He approached Babu. Nothing happened. He cleared his throat. Babu was deeply babuing. He dropped his passport and traveler’s cheque on Babu’s counter. This got Babu’s attention but not his eye contact, except for a moment to check the photo against the Frenchman. Babu handed him a chitty chit. The Frenchman eyed it suspiciously. He looked over to us. We were all smiling. Waiting. He turned back to Babu.
“Allo.” He said. Nothing. “Allo.” He said again, louder. Babu looked up. We winced in pain.
“What is this? He asked, looking at the chitty chit. “I want my monnaie. I want my passeport.” Babu went back to babuing. The starch in the Frenchman’s white stiffened. He looked back at us. No joy here. He pounded his fist on the counter. Babu pushed a button, Showtime.
The curtain behind Babu opened. Standing behind him was a larger version, moustache, white Nazca line landing strip, greased black hair, suit.
“I am the bank manager.” He said. You could feel the building tremble, just a little. “What is going on here?” The Frenchman channeled his inner Napoleon.
“I am waiting here.” He said smugly. “I want my monnaie. I want my passeport!” The manager stood taller.
“So you must wait over there, with the others.” The Frenchman’s starch turned to concrete.
“Where is my monnaie? I demand my passeport. This would not happen in my country!” He shouted, with obvious superiority. The bank manager, unfamiliar with the obvious Gallic charm, asked the question on every schoolboy’s lips in the subcontinent.
“What is your country?” And the answer was snooty, like he should have known.
“I come from France!” He exclaimed, with distain.
The Indian bank manager rocked back on his heels, and inhaled. We cringed.
“But this is not France.” He said. “This is...INDIA!”
The bleachers rose in a standing ovation. The starch in the Frenchman sagged in defeat.
The reason the British had the word queue was that the French thought they had no further need of it. He joined us quietly, in the bleachers.
Chitty chitty bang bang.
Sunday, 20 July 2014
“Now in Injias sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time...”
Rudyard Kipling, Gunga Din
In the sun that rose on mountain pine forests, somewhere in the valley between the Great Himalayas and the Pir Panjal range, I began my romance with India, starting with the Kashmiri road signs.
‘Darling I like you, But not so fast... I am curvaceous, Take it slow...This isn’t a rally, Enjoy the valley...After whiskey, Driving risky...Don’t be silly, In the hilly... Peep peep, Don’t Sleep...Drive fast, And test your recovery... Be Mr. Late, not Late Mr.’
Passing orchards of apples, cherries, and walnuts, led us further into the vale of pashmina shawls and silk carpets, gems and saffron, and rogan josh lamb and spiced tea.
Except for the fatigue, we arrived in a princely state, to the city of floating gardens, lakes and houseboats. A cab took us along a park-lined boulevard, to Srinagar’s ten-mile long jewel in the crown, Dal Lake.
Across the blue water were rows of stationary ornamented houseboats of different sizes, but all with rectangular signs above the open decks at their stepped entrances. Sandwiched along from the awnings and umbrellas of the Rolex, the Yuvraj, between the Sansouci and the New Australia, was a much smaller houseboat. Water lilies and lotuses grew out front. An oarsman, standing on the far stern of his canopied spade-bottomed shikara, waved to us from the near lakeshore, standing on the tip of a dragonfly tail. We boarded under the sign of his small vessel. Best Spring Seats, it said. He paddled his craft across the short expanse to the thin white-haired Hanji man with an embroidered Kashmiri hat, leaning over the wooden porch.
“Welcome to the New Cherrystone. I am the owner, Jimmy.” He said, helping us onboard. Jimmy had deer eyes and a camel nose. A younger version emerged from the interior, with a tray of cinnamon and cardamom chai.
“And this is Rashid, my fourth son of seven.” We made our own introductions, and sat for tea inside the decorative gables and carved balustrades of the verandah. Shikaras slid along the Himalayan panorama, between spicy sips of paradise.
The Maharaja of Kashmir had forbidden foreigners from owning land, but the British got around this by building cedar houseboats. The first, constructed in 1888, was named Victory. A thousand more floating palaces followed. One of them was where Ravi Shankar taught George Harrison to play the sitar.
Rashid showed us through the dining room and carpeted lounge to intricately wood-paneled bedrooms. Julie took the one opposite. Ours had stained glass ventilators, Victorian dressers and other Raj furniture, and a broken ceiling fan over twin beds. Robyn pushed them together. I got the fan working, spinning with a quiet clack-clack-clack. Cold showers gave way to warm hospitality, served on china, from tureens and large platters. After dinner we reclined in the lounge easy chairs and on sofas, reading under the standing floor lamps. As we fell asleep in ‘a little piece of England afloat,’ it occurred to me that there might have been a bit something extra in the chapatis.
We awoke to roosters in India. The shikara commerce was thick outside the breakfast nook. Oarsmen called out their wares as they paddled by. ‘Flowwwwwers...Vegetaables...Maasaaala...’ Arrived and left with a Doppler effect, followed by vendors we had no idea even existed. ‘Ruubies...Hashshiish...Cofffiins...’
“Coffins?” Julie asked of Rashid.
“Why not coffins?” He answered. Why not, indeed.
Best Spring Seats arrived, to take us to the bank, a carpet factory, to watch a room of children hand tying tight silk knots, the emporium, and the Indian Airlines office, where we secured seats, eighteen to twenty positions down on the waiting list, to Leh, in Ladakh.
In the afternoon we visited the 14th century mosque, and returned to the New Cherrystone, for curried vegetables, and later, to play music on the verandah as the sun slid slowly into the lake. Rashid’s flute carried us far out onto the water.
Jimmy had an early English breakfast waiting for us in the nook, before dawn. I learned how to paddle a shikara, down the narrow black channel waterways, breaking the lush green-carpeted vegetation on the lake.
We arrived at a jostling jam of hardwood hulls, some canopied and some open to the powdered sky, but all full of vegetables and the clamor of negotiation. The Sunday floating market was a feast of color. Rupee bills danced over gunnels, in exchange for ripe tomatoes, tan-pink lotus root bundles, and green corn husks and cucumbers, groaning off adjacent boat bottoms. There were chrysanthemums and roses and blue Himalayan poppies. Tea flasks were handed to friends in pherans, the Kashmiri blanket with sleeves, keeping the purveyors warm. Just before seven, as the sunrays began their surface shimmer on the water, it was all over, and we returned to the New Cherrystone, with our fresh groceries and experience. Other vendors came to us through the day, on their shikaras.
‘Saphiiires...Saphiiires...’ Came aboard. He would make me a ring.
Next morning we were paddled us all the way to the inspiration for Shah Jahan’s namesake garden in Lahore. They had existed in one form or another since Pravarsena II built his cottage on the lake fifteen hundred years earlier. He named it Shalimar, ‘Abode of Love’ in Sanskrit. Crossing the difficult snowy passes of the Pir Panjal on elephants in 1619, Mughal emperor Jahangir turned the thirty one acres into a masterpiece, for his wife, Nur Jahan. Her name meant ‘Light of the World.’ In 1983 I arrived with Destiny, on Best Spring Seats. Here, from three chinar sycamore and flower-lined shallow terraces, smooth sheeted waterfalls flowed out of an endless line of central trough fountains, and into wide canals. Calm reflections were broken only by the stepping stones across their streams. At the high top of the first terrace was the famous Persian inscription, Gar Firdaus rōy-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast. If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.
Best Spring Seats took us home via a papier-mâché factory. We bought two boxes. The something I had thought was in the chapatis the previous two nights, was even more evident at dinner that evening. Robyn and I admitted our love. In chapati, veritas.
Gradually, Rashid’s camel nose for finding the aesthetic weaknesses and wallets of his guests was producing commissions. We had purchased papier-mâché, embroidered Kashmiri raw leather jackets, and sapphire and silver jewelry. On our final day in Srinagar, I almost bought an intricately carved walnut jewelry box, but it was too expensive. Rashid’s disappointment was written all over his deer eyes. We were welcomed as family, mailing our postcards at the Lal Chowk Post Office, and posed with the entire staff for a group photo. Our favored status continued at the Indian Airlines office, where we discovered our lottery windfall of three air tickets to Ladakh for the following morning. On our way back to the houseboat, we drove past the Crescent Intensive Urgent Heart Unit Cardiac Care Unit. The sign was bigger than the hut it adorned.
After dinner at the New Cherrystone, Julie announced her affliction with bloody diarrhea. It would be something I promised to attend to next day, after we landed in Leh.
Early next morning, Best Spring Seats took us across the lilies and the lotus, to a black and yellow motorized rickshaw, to a winding bus ride, to the airport. We walked across the tarmac, and climbed the stairs of the 737, to hard third world candies and soft first world seats, and the long taxi takeoff to Little Tibet.
Srinagar dropped away below and behind us. The 737 hesitated at the wall of snow-splattered Himalaya. The throw of the penetration dice into the ‘Land of High Passes’ was rigged equally for failure and fortune. Half the flights to Ladakh had to turn back. Once committed to a landing, the pilot had no second chance. But this was a good day. We glided beside the sun, dancing on sharpened pinnacles. Engine cowlings gulped for air.
Far below the hypoxic views of aloe green river valley filigree, the brown ribbon squiggle of the treacherous NH 1D pony track we would need to return on, tried to keep up. Somewhere on the azure edge of space, we crossed the Shangri-La point of no return, spiraled down three times, and began a final descent onto the incongruous Nazca line of Leh’s Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport.
It had cost twenty-five dollars for the thirty-minute flight to Moonland. The landing thud applause was a religious commemoration.
“Kashmir, the rest is worthless.”
Jahangir, asked his most cherished deathbed desire.