The alarm rang at 5 a.m. on a cold October morning. Norbu woke up to the deathly silence of the house interrupted only by the ticking of the clock. Tick tock tick tock. He had to pick up Nathan and Grace at the airport. They were visiting Ladakh for a 12-day trip and all preparations had been made. It was still dark outside; he was tempted to go back to sleep for another fifteen minutes. But what was the point? He would eventually have to leave the warmth of his bed; unravel the ubiquitous layers of the bed cover, blanket, quilt and the sheepskin to wash his face. Fifteen minutes would hardly make a difference. Also, it was unfair to keep guests waiting. He twisted the tap open and a splash of icy water jolted him awake.
By the time Norbu was outside the airport, the sun had floated above the horizon. Drivers and guides waited outside to welcome tourists by the morning flight from Delhi, wrapped in mufflers and cardigans. The policemen in their sharp uniforms overseeing the arrivals and the armed military men unflinching in their stand, added gravitas to a situation which would otherwise feel like any other tourist welcome gig. He spotted Grace from a distance and Nathan came behind her, carrying a backpack, fiddling with his phone, sporting wayfarers, chewing gum. They both nodded as they saw Norbu. “Julley,” he said, flashing his smile. Always with a smile.
When Norbu built his family home after toiling for fifteen years at his travel agency, with the Ladakhi business partner, he factored in a spare room to welcome guests who wanted to experience the local life. It was quite a delicately honed homestay experience in Ladakh, with the comforts of first world life; an attached toilet, block-out curtains, hot water, bed side reading lamp, a room heater and a rocking chair in the right-hand corner beside a bookshelf that he engineered on the porch. Books from all over the world rested on its uneven edges, most of them gifts from past occupants of the room who left them behind, these little keepsakes. The room was also a much-beloved oasis for his friends from all over the world, who came to spend a week or two with him. Fifteen years of dealing with tourists did leave one with a handful of people who became brethren despite being separated by geography, economics and culture. Everyone at home was happy with this arrangement. Especially Jungnay, his wife, because the guests kept Norbu at home more often, which gave her more time with him, and more importantly, for Leki and Tara.
The phone rang in the afternoon. It was from the monastery where Ama, his mother, was volunteering at a month-long Meditation retreat. Norbu had his hands full with the twins who were busy clamoring for his attention when the call came. The call wasn’t a happy one. His mother had been nursing a cough for the last month. While they thought it was due to the change in weather, she had a violent fit last night with no recollection of the entire episode. The fasting, which was part of the retreat ritual, didn’t help with the situation. “I think you should take your mother to the hospital. She refuses to listen to us” The nun whispered on the phone. Tick tock tick tock. Norbu untangled himself from the set of limbs that the twins had entwined around him. “I am on my way.”
The road meandered up a leisurely mountain. The monastery stood perched atop, far removed from the world below; a dot of white and red set against the magnanimity of the Himalayas. Brown sand washed the slopes that led up to the monastery. Smooth stones were piled up near the gate like an ancient cult ritual. It seemed like prayers and demons haunted this valley, alike. The clouds dotted the sky intermittently, offering a distraction to the bright blue. At the monastery, Norbu seated himself in the waiting room. Sunlight came cascading in, illuminating the frescos on the walls and ceilings. The reds, greens and blues whirled in a fluid pirouette, he had a moment to marvel in amazement. In about half an hour, Ama appeared from the stairway. Although stooped with age, she floated into the room with an ethereal grace, as if she was the healthiest person in all of the Himalayas. Norbu reminded himself why he was there. “The nuns like to fret over things, my child. I am fine. I have a slight cough, who wouldn’t, in this weather?” Ama offered him a walnut and a prayer flag. “Take this for the terrace.”
The stubbornness was a family thing. Norbu and her had had their share of disagreements over the more serious things: moving to Delhi to study, grow his hair, date a Hindu girl, and almost weekly, the arguments about the days he would disappear with his motorcycle boys. But when he needed her the most, Ama was always there. When Norbu wanted to start his travel business, he partnered with a Chogyal, a Ladakhi, because Tibetans are prohibited from owning businesses in the country. He was never a business owner on paper but he paid 50% of all dues, took 70% of the responsibilities and brought home 50% of the profits. This was done purely on the basis of trust. “We left everything in Tibet to come to this land. We live on borrowed land and borrowed time.” Ama often told him and this kept him steady, this kept him strong. While the world warned her otherwise, she believed in her son. And he tried, he really did, to never let her down.
“Mother, please, would you listen to me?” Norbu’s mother looked at the monk who was sitting at the reception desk with a prayer wheel in his hand. He hummed while he swung it gently, as if in a trance. But his eyes were open to the world. “The doctor will have to do a test. He has been asking us to get this examination done for a while, but you have never taken it seriously. Please come to the hospital with me.” She shook her head. “Mother, please?” She grimaced. The monk softly spoke, almost like a song. “Your duty towards your son always comes first. The nuns are here to take care of things. Get well and come back. We will be waiting for you”. Ama was perplexed. She knew she didn’t have an ally in the nuns, and here Norbu had come with his car to pick her up. Eleven minutes later, she arose and said “Alright, son. But remember I have to be back by sunset. We have our evening duties.”
“What exactly is an endoscopy?” Grace asked while sipping a lemon tea with shreds of ginger in the bottom of the tumbler. “It’s a camera that goes into your food pipe.” Nathan said, between gritted teeth, while cupping his palms to light a cigarette. “It takes pictures of what’s going on inside. Generally used to aid biopsies.” He blew out the smoke and immediately realized how insensitive he probably sounded. “I am sure it will amount to nothing,” Nathan volunteered, knowing very well how empty it seemed. Especially to someone who had spent the day with his mother in the only medicinal facility in this mountain town, sending biopsy specimens to the capital city for a diagnosis without knowing when the results will come back. He remembered his days in the hospital with his father. He had not been so lucky with the diagnosis.
The promenade was awash with the golden light of the street lamps where souvenir stores on either side of the street sold their wares to curious tourists. Imports from Kashmir such as Pashmina, walnut wood furniture, and such, sat smugly with their cousins from the cold desert; coins, silver jewelry, flasks, prayer wheels, Thankas, and tea sets adorned in turquoise. It was a treasure trove of wondrous objects from another world. A world that they felt fortunate enough to get a peek at, but was a regular of any street in India to be fair.
Next morning Norbu woke up at 6 to prepare for the couple’s trip to a village, Diskit. As he stepped out to his porch the purple haze of the horizon warned him of bad weather. A call was made to the mountain station which was on their route for the day, and the driver confirmed his fears. The news of the delay in the travel plan was doled out alongside cups of consolatory tea to the couple. This streak of bad weather continued for four days. Four long days. While he devised clever plans to keep the tourists busy, it also meant that Norbu had to spend a considerable amount of time with them. He reminded himself to call the hospital to check on the status of the report. Tick tock tick tock. His mother had refused to return home despite his repeated pleas. “It is my duty to be here with the students, son. The nuns are here to take care of me,” she reasoned.
Grace and Nathan had gotten used to the rhythm of the house, and they found a way to be around, without intruding, yet partaking in daily chores. They eagerly went to the market with Norbu to get the day’s supplies; the meat shop, the vegetable vendor, the fruit seller and the juniper hoarder became familiar territory. They found comfort in Jungnay’s thukpa and Norbu’s post sunset brandy. Along with the mountains, they waited.
A phone call from the monastery woke Norbu up from his autumn reverie. “Your mother suffered another fit last night, Norbu.” The five minute call ended in chaos, as Norbu tried his best to explain what they clearly thought was a lack of apathy. The nuns didn’t understand why he could not come to fetch his own mother and take her home, despite her protests. “She coughs all day, so much so that the Rinpoche has got her a spittoon. She is obeying all the fasts despite her health.” Norbu felt helpless. Ama refused to yield to his pleas and he could do nothing. Tick tock tick tock. Repeated questions from Nathan and Grace about weather forecasts and internet speed were not helping him either. He just about managed to smile the last time. Tick tock tick tock.
It had been a week since the test and Norbu still hadn’t heard back from the doctors. No matter what he did to distract himself, the thought kept needling him. He decided to go and visit Ama at the Monastery. Jungney made him a stock that he could take: a bowl of goodness with pulses, stock, bone marrow and vegetables, stewed to give her strength. The rickety mountains that lead him there reminded him of the picture of Tibet that Ama still kept pinned to her mirror. The photograph was fading into sepia but the images were still fresh in her head and she would relay stories to Norbu as a child and now to Leki and Tara.
Ama lived a very different life in Tibet. It was all shades of lemon and apricot. A cold desert that would thaw only after spring. But everything changed one summer. They packed everything that they had into a few bags and fled, with their closest friends. These mountains made for formidable barriers. They reached Chitkul on the other side and meandered northwards. Ama says the landscape in Ladakh was comforting and the cold harsh winters had a reassuring familiarity. Except for the refugee camps, everything else was the same. Refugee camp homes were a lot different from her house in the orchards. All the families stayed huddled together in a narrow strip of cultivable land. Water was scarce, electricity was doled out in structured time frames. People were simply grateful to be safe. Home was longed for.
Ama smiled when she saw him in the waiting room, relished her broth, kept some back for later and gave Norbu a few walnuts to take home. It was a quiet meeting, very few words spoken. An hour of savoring creamy soup together, felt like ten minutes. Norbu, satiated to see his mother looking healthy, let down his guard.
While he drove away he marveled at Ama’s calm despite her illness, however meek it was. The retreat gave her a purpose and she saw her cough as a little impediment on the way. She didn’t let it define her. He found comfort in that, and hope. Winding roads took him back to the familiarity of home and the thought of Jungnay carrying Leki and Tara on her back, standing by the window made him smile.
The next day brought some good news as the sun yawned into the valley. The Manali-Leh highway had opened a few hours earlier. Nathan and Grace could now leave for Tso Moriri Lake and the village. Travel bags had been packed for four days, so it took them a few minutes to get ready. Norbu bid the couple goodbye, as Jungnay came and stood beside him with a cup of tea. “Thank God, the roads opened. I wonder why they were shut for this long, it rarely happens. I felt bad for the girl” she said.
“Doctor Sonam did not approve the samples”
“The air strip was closed for two days due to the weather, no samples have left Leh”
“The laboratory in Delhi is closed for Diwali this weekend”
The sunflower wilted in the garden. The stream trickled slower. The trees grew scrawny. The afternoon winds got gustier. The clock struck one. Days faded into an endless dusk. The prayer flags got tattered. The moon became more solitary. Things were walking around as their course lay.
Norbu received the call one crisp Wednesday morning. Leki and Tara were playing ball in the other room and a Chukar landed on the branch of the apricot tree.
Sudeepta Sanyal is the Founder of Blueberry Trails, which creates alternative holidays throughout Europe. She has been featured in GQ, Elle, CNBC and Bloomberg amongst many more. She is a musician, songwriter and blogger for Moonlitekingdom. Sudeepta is a Dumpukht 2019 alumni. She lives between Bandra and Siolim with her dog and partner.