[ Issue 5 / May 2013]
Buddha Nights by Anuradha Majumdar
No buttress in the wind tonight, the watchman sleeps. I open the gate noiselessly and step over him, into the street. The night is cold. I hug myself to shield from the lake’s chill breeze. My jacket’s gone, filched at the bus stand this morning. A minute that is all it took. I had turned to buy a newspaper and it was slipped away. Now the monastery dogs close in at my heels, suspicious, for I cradle an urn in my arms. But I’m no thief. This urn holds my mother’s ashes, and tonight, I am her pilgrim in this valley.
She named me Ishaan for I was born on a high north-eastern pass, facing Mount Kailash, just as the sun was going up. Mount Kailash stands at the centre of the universe. Or else, in Tibet. Or else, in the Republic of China. I was born on that sliding scale of truth, twenty-nine years ago, as my mother went into labour on the night of Buddha’s moon. I don’t remember the mountain, or the cold wind. Nor the Chinese soldiers at the check-post who stamped me to existence after much indignation. But there is one thing that did remain. A particular sound.
Rational experts told my mother that such a sound could not exist, but the fact is that I was born with it, flush in my ears, one degree inside the silence. In moments of shock or intense surprise it would surge through the body unexpectedly.
Tonight, this little valley is like a world away from the world, but that is only an illusion of the night. The dark outlines of mountains waver in the stillness. At daybreak the television tower will become visible. The next town is only a two hour drive away. After nine, the caves fill with people on rapid pilgrim tours littering the valley with plastic and a cacophony of ring-tones before rushing back to their hotel rooms to watch TV. When the monks see them arriving they disappear behind the rocks and become invisible till the last buses depart. Then, as the night grows still, the lake offers itself to the breeze.
I was five when Karim told us about this lake. We were travelling through Afghanistan, my mother, Imre and I. Imre was my half-Hungarian cousin, tall enough to pass off as my mother’s partner. It was a safe way for an ex Indian princess to cross Afghanistan in those dangerous days.
I must explain my mother. If not for her, I wouldn’t be here tonight. And without her intervention, I wouldn’t be on earth either. I would still be afloat, somewhere in the universe, wondering if I should have another go at life. But then, I heard her calling.
Parvati Singh Chauhan was a young, post-independence Rajput woman saddled with an old husband, a feudal prince, who lived in a palace near Jodhpur. Now, it is a posh hotel. Parvati had wanted to finish university but there were old family obligations and so she became the Chauhan’s third wife. He still required a male heir which the other two wives had failed to produce.
Her father died shortly after the wedding. ‘Of guilt,’ she told me once. But after his death, her options closed. There was no one to turn to any longer. She resigned herself to her fate and began to spend most of her time in the library where my father never entered. Parvati began teaching her step-daughters bits of English and history and simple arithmetic. Her husband tolerated it, because his two older wives, though jealous, seemed satisfied with the new development.
Seven years went by. When I heard her, my father was about to die soon, from too much alcohol in his blood and too many women in his entourage. Still, Balbir Singh Chauhan wanted to leave an heir before he died. It was a noble wish. And for once Parvati thought it was an excellent idea. If she were pregnant she would be left alone. So when Balbir Singh Chauhan raised his last vestige of manhood, she appealed not to the household gods but to a very personal godhead. She prayed that the child be blessed with the power to set her free.
Some people say the world is born from sound, some say from light. Parvati’s prayer sounded through the universe like an intense light till she found me, even as she spread her legs in her small personal chamber, which Balbir Singh had graced, to fulfill the wishes of his ancestors I heard her calling for me through the rough current of the universe and I was drawn earthwards, on its returning echo.
Eight months later, she lay far away from that jewelled chamber, on a rough blanket, before the towering northern face of Kailash, and I came out into the world, that sound resonating in my ear.
After her husband’s death and six months of ritualistic mourning done, her in-laws had let her go off on a pilgrimage. She wanted the blessings of Mount Kailash before the child was born. It was an honourable sentiment, her name was Parvati after all. Besides a pregnant widow was merely a burden unless she produced a male child.
I was a male child. I came out exercising my lungs in front of the giant snows of Kailash, my fists scrunched upwards as I wailed. I had arrived a full month in advance of my mother’s due date and in defiance of her travel permit. The pass echoed with my strident sobs but Parvati laughed, delighted, and caressed my face softly. ‘It’s because the Great Father wanted to see what you were like, chikoo-face.’
Parvati inherited Balbir Singh Chauhan’s wealth and estates in my name, and so, I set her free.
She never returned to the palace again. She hired a lawyer, sold the estate, divided the money with my two step-mothers and left the country for five years. Because Rajasthan is arid, she told me later. The Tibetan woman who delivered me on the north pass had advised her to keep me close to calm waters, preferably lakes, for the first five years of my life, for those born with the sound needed calm waters. To prove it she bathed me in Mansarovar’s icy water and I didn’t cry.
Parvati wandered through Europe, staying with friends and sympathetic cousins, who lived in places close to water. First by Lake Geneva, then by the Thames, and the sound remained fluent in my ears.
As I was about to turn five, we returned to India, travelling overland with Imre, my half-Hungarian cousin. Imre had an eagerness for history. While passing through Afghanistan we made a detour from Kabul to Bamiyan. We halted that night at Karim’s one room mud house inn, a place that offered a spectacular view of the colossal Buddhas across the Bamiyan valley.
It was full moon night that day, my fifth birthday. When Karim heard that I was born in front of Kailash he looked at Parvati with new respect and fed us kebabs. We sat outside, on his tattered carpet, and looked across the valley. The great Buddhas watched over us like benign giants. Karim seemed lost in thoughts. Too many people had been killed, too much blood even in this valley. He turned to Parvati and said his grandfather had also gone to Kailash.
‘Why Kailash?’ Parvati was curious.
Karim poked the fire with a stick and shrugged.
‘Because Padmasambhava went there. He was half-Afghan’ Karim said quietly. ‘I would like to go there, one day, but it is difficult to get permission.’
‘It is.’ Parvati agreed. ‘I got in with great difficulty. And I almost didn’t get out.’ She pulled me close as I sat by her drowsily. ‘Because Ishaan arrived illegally, one month ahead of time. I went there as one and came out as two. It was a terrible scene,’ she laughed. ‘Fortunately, an old Tibetan woman took it upon herself to look after us in every way. She told me about Padmasambhava. But, if you really want to go there…’
Karim held up his hand.
‘My grandfather visited another place. A small lake, in the lower Himalayan hills. It is said Padmasambhava created this lake and, like in Kailash, you can hear the sound of the universe there also.’
I looked up at him startled.
‘Where is it?’ Parvati leaned forward.
‘The name must not be said.’
‘Why not?’ Imre bristled.
‘People destroy what they don’t understand.’
‘You will go there?’ My mother asked.
‘Inshallah,’ Karim stoked the fire. ‘In that lake, it is said, the sound is still crystalline. I want to hear it once in my life.’
I put my hands against my ears. The world was roaring inside. Parvati looked down anxiously and wrapped me with her shawl.The next morning we left Imre in Kabul, and flew home, to India.
We settled in Delhi, in a small two-bedroom house in Jangpura, overlooking a gulmohar tree. Some years later, Parvati started a day school for the slum children of the area. Such things were not yet fashionable, neither for politicians nor society. It was an exhausting thing to fund and run.
‘Why do you do it?’ My visiting step-mother asked her with irritation.
‘When one gets a great blessing, as I did, one has to give something back, however little. Besides, Ishaan goes to boarding school now. It gives me something to do.’
She had put me in a boarding school, near Nainital, which has a lake. Once in school, the sound began to recede, growing faint and distant with each passing year, and by the time I was in my teens, the Walkman had replaced it. It only roared twice, before I lost the sound altogether.
The first time the sound came roaring back, I had gone on a shopping trip to Nainital with my mother. Once a year, Parvati drove up to be with me during the school’s annual sports week. We were at Suman Fotos waiting to pick up the photographs she had taken on Sport’s Day. I had won the hundred meters dash. I had come second in javelin. I was the best in high jump. I was gloating over my pictures, when another man standing at the counter spread out his photos and negatives and asked for a magnifying glass.
I heard Parvati exclaim, ‘Ishaan beta, look! That’s where you were born.’
The man turned to us with a curious smile and passed me a few photographs.
‘Do you have the North Face, Mister…?’
‘Laxman Roy.’ He extended his hand.
‘Oh.’ I was ready to faint. At twelve, what I wanted more than anything else, was to become a photographer like Laxman Roy. Parvati had all his books at home.
‘Born on the North Face? I would have liked that myself! Let me see,’ he rummaged through his photos and held out a picture for me. ‘Keep it, it’s for you.’
It was the first time that I saw the face of the Great Father.Without realising, I covered my ears with my hands.
Laxman Roy watched uncomprehendingly as the sound flooded my body.
‘It is a sound that has no amplifier, Mr Roy.’ Parvati put her arms around my trembling shoulders. ‘He was born with it, in Kailash. Come Ishaan,’ she nudged my arm. ‘A walk around the lake will help.’
‘May I join?’ Laxman Roy said. My mother was still a beautiful woman.
The Nainital lake was not yet the polluted thing it is today. As the three of us walked around it, something in our lives fell into place. Laxman became our life-long friend, Parvati’s closest companion, and a surrogate father for me in many ways. He was still a bachelor and he also lived in Delhi.
The last time the sound erupted was a year later, at school, during Geography class. We were doing Afghanistan. Mr. Kulkarni unfurled the map against the blackboard and pointed his stick randomly.
‘Bamiyan Valley!’ My hand shot up.
‘Did I ask you Chauhan?’
‘Answer when you’re asked.’
‘So it appears you know something about the Bamiyan Valley?’
‘Yes sir, we were travelling…’
‘Travelling! How old were you?’
‘Five years old, sir.’
The class snorted with laughter.
Kulkarni raised a hand. ‘Well, since you were such a travelling little nobleman at five Chauhan, please step in front of the class and tell us what you saw there.’
‘This is the Bamiyan Valley,’ I touched the map, excited. ‘It is fantastically beautiful and stark naked…’
Wolf-whistles went off. The n-word was dynamite at thirteen.
‘Watch your language Chauhan.’
‘Yes sir,’ I tapped on the map, ‘The highway runs through the valley to Kabul.’ The images were flooding back. ‘We reached there at sunset and stayed in a dhaba kind of place, run by an Afghan called Karim. Opposite Karim’s place, across the valley we saw two Bamiyan Buddhas. They’re huge! But their faces were crumbling, because men are restless Karim said.’
‘Rubbish,’ said Kulkarni.
I ignored him. ‘And then, at night, the whole valley filled with sound.’
‘What sound? I’m warning you, Chauhan!’
The sound was rising through my body now. I went on recklessly. ‘Karim said the valley reverberated with this sound every time the spirit of Padmasambhava passed by to bless the great Buddhas carved in the rocks.’
‘What has Padmasambhava got to do with this?’ Kulkarni sneered.
‘Padmasambhava took Buddhism to Tibet sir, but he was born in Afghanistan.’
‘Okay, hurry up, we don’t have all day for Buddhists, this is a geography class.’
‘Even Karim’s grandfather was Buddhist, sir. He even went to Tibet, to Mount Kailash, where the sound is clear as crystal. And though the sound is everywhere, people hardly hear it now. Because, in the degenerate age, Padmasambhava said, people are their own deceivers and makers of their own stupidity. That’s why, sir. No one cares about beauty. Now it can only be heard at night, when the whole valley is stark naked.’
‘Silence!’ Kulkarni bellowed over the whistles.
‘Detention.’ He spat through clenched teeth as everything roared.
Alone, in the detention room, I understood one thing that day: No one else could hear the sound. Not even my best friends. It was best to let it go.
The sound never came back again, through school, through two college degrees and a Ph.D in three different cities of the world. My life filled with the clutter of everyday things and that space grew veiled. After returning to Delhi, I began living with my mother again. I now had a job at the University as a lecturer in Economics.
Didn’t make it as a photographer after all, Laxman would tease.Parvati still ran the school along with a day clinic now. Her hours were longer.
It was my girlfriend, Neha, who noticed first.
‘Ishaan, your mother doesn’t look well…’
For the first time I noticed Parvati’s wrinkles, the stoop in her walk and the fatigue in her eyes. It shocked me that I had been so blind to all her changes. I offered to take her on a holiday but she refused. It was typical. So I prodded.
‘But isn’t there anywhere you would like to go?’
She looked away for a moment, at the gulmohar tree outside, her eyes suddenly wistful. ‘Do you remember Karim?”
‘He told us about a lake, remember?’
‘With the crystalline sound?’ I was wary about all that now.
‘It was your sound, beta. Can you try to find it?’
A month later Laxman called me at the university, distraught.
‘Come to the hospital. At once!’
When I reached her hospital bed, Parvati’s eyes were already clouded.
‘Ishaan, do you remember the Bamiyan Buddhas?’
I sat down beside her. ‘Of course.’
‘I was wondering if Karim managed to go to that lake.’
But by the end of that month Parvati had two heart attacks. The second attack was far more severe and it confined her indoors. Fortunately, Laxman was her constant companion now.
One evening, as I got home from university, I heard the two of them talking in the next room.
‘They’ll be destroyed, Laxman. We must go to that lake as soon as possible.’
‘How will the lake help?’
‘It carries the sound of our humanity. I want to hear it once before everything is destroyed.’
‘Parvati,’ I could feel the strain in Laxman’s voice, ‘why did you go to Kailash in the first place? You could have died there.’
‘Kailash saved my life, in every way! It even brought us together. Don’t you remember, your Kailash photographs at Suman Fotos?’
‘How can I forget?’ I hear the smile in his voice.
Parvati died the day the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed. The last days were rapid, as though she was sifted through a filter. Each time I entered her room, the air felt lighter. On the last morning it seemed light as a feather. She turned to me as I walked in and held out her hand.
‘Ishaan beta, did you find out where that lake is?’
‘Will you take my ashes there? My time is flying.’
‘Of course.’ I squeezed her hand softly, ‘Of course, I will.’
Laxman and I staggered home after Parvati’s cremation, two old comrades drunk in our effort to drown our grief together. As I opened the door of the house and switched on the light, I was hit by the blankness. But Laxman hobbled towards her door for a last look. He turned the handle slowly and stepped inside. The emptiness leapt at him then. He spun around, stung, tears crowding his eyes. He patted my arm and left. Everything blurred. I sank into the sofa and flicked on the TV.A heckling crowd filled the screen.
The camera panned upward, to the smashed face of the Buddha. I sprang up gasping. The camera moved to the next one. The face was gone. The eyes lay somewhere in the dust below. Men were jeering at the camera now in a show of defiance. Meanwhile newsreaders decried their actions vehemently. World leaders condemned them. Some called for justice.
Justice? I felt ridiculously orphaned by the world.
Through the cacophony on the screen, I heard it again, the stillness, and through it, a crystalline sound, born on the night of the Buddha’s moon.
I went back to work after a week. Don’t waste time, Parvati had made us all promise. And don’t tug me backwards. And so the years went, until Neha picked up the ceramic urn that contained her ashes, one day: ‘Ishaan, you made a promise.’
Where is Karim, I wonder, as I walk to the lake tonight. Did he ever make it here? Afghanistan had been bombed so many times.
I sense a stillness in the night air as I walk. I hear the sound flowing from its silence, in a soft, crystalline current. My body does not shudder in surprise nor does it roar. It absorbs the silence, step by step. It walks with the current. Every cell of the body drinks it up.
When I signed the visitor’s book in the monastery I noticed a familiar name. Mr. Kulkarni. He had left the school long ago. He is now a senior journalist offering opinions left and right. After the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed, he wrote a column saying people ought to turn their attention to the starving millions instead of making a fuss about a few old statues. The destruction of art was lamentable, but of what value were a few stone sculptures for those who went hungry? I thought of Karim in his little one room, mud-house, and of his grandfather, a simple herdsman, and wondered, who was right?
I met the abbot of the monastery this afternoon, an affable man, resigned to conditions. The government wants to make the lake a tourist hot-spot. Soon, no one will respect anything: neither the hills, nor the lake, nor the silent caves. The valley will be littered with plastic, the crystalline sound, drowned by loudspeakers.
The lake is deserted at this hour.
Was Karim killed in the bombing? Every side claims victory now.
‘But even the eagle flying high must one day fall and see its shadow.’
Those are Padmasambhava’s words. I found them in Parvati’s diary.
I carry her ashes around the lake three times, quietly. I had managed to get the dogs off my trail by ransoming my biscuits. I tie the prayer flags to the pole and read the last entry in her diary: And now, I turn my footsteps east, beyond the sun.
I go down the steps to the water and twiddle my toe at the edge. It is freezing. Still, a promise is a promise. I take off my clothes and step into the lake, stark naked for Mr. Kulkarni’s sake, and almost faint as the chill water stabs me like a million swords.
I remember to breathe. I remember the face of the Great Father. I remember so many things Parvati said to me as I grew up. I feel her smiling again, and suddenly, the lake feels warm. I open the urn and sprinkle her ashes.
Parvati’s ashes sway for a moment, like stars upon the water, then dip below the surface. My mother moves on, shimmering.
There is a dark silhouette on the lakeside steps. It is the abbot. I step out of the water, towel myself rapidly and dress. The abbot pours me a glass of hot tea from his flask.
‘Thank you.’ I warm my hands around the glass. ‘This is exactly what my mother wanted. She travels on the breath of the sound now.’
‘Sound?’ The Abbot turns to me surprised. Then he smiles. ‘Of course.’
‘I gave permission to only one other person so far, a few months ago. But it was not ashes he brought; it was the dust of the stone Buddhas destroyed in Bamiyan. He was a very old man, he had suffered much but his prayer was so intense, I agreed.’
‘And his name?’ I croak.
‘I think it was Karim.’
I sit absolutely still.
The sound in my ear is a symphony of the worlds. I feel particles of light rising from the lake and rush past, like Karim galloping in the wind.
‘He went back,’ said the abbot.
‘Do you think he is dead?’
He looks me in the eye. ‘He will be alright.’
Earlier that afternoon, Laxman called to tell me a fresh piece of news. I tell the abbot about it after sometime.
‘I heard that they’re going to rebuild the statues.’
The abbot smiles in the darkness again.
The prayer flags flutter.
It was never about rock statues anyway.