A Fortuitous Meeting

A Fortuitous Meeting

14 mins 17.2K 14 mins 17.2K

The sound of the gong that hung on the bough of an apple tree near the kitchen-cum-barn-house of the school was heard quite loud and clear. That characteristic spell-of-ringing announced the end of yet another working-day in Wamdong-Government-High-School. I, Suresh from Kottayam, signed the register to call it a day, lightly put the Chinese raincoat on my left shoulder, came out of the office and stood on the Badminton-court-sized-terraced-porch. I was looking for my soul-mate and colleague-cum-room-partner of our ‘self-imposed-exiled-life’ on the hills of Eastern-Himalayas. Others might have had different opinions but we, the duo at Wamdong, coined the same-phrase for it would befittingly describe our life out there.

I muttered, “The plant-maniac Sorcar must be in the lab still, absorbed in his God-damned-microscopic-studies.”

Unlike many others, what I loved the most of that secluded life, was the evening tea in the tshongkhag (shop) of Deki Aama. That act of waiting was irritating for me. I fidgeted with discomfort. Anyway reluctantly though I was waiting for him.

After-a-short-while, my friend, Sorcar, the lean-and-thin fellow appeared at the far-end of the left corridor, donning two trousers one over another, two shirts likewise, a Chinese sweater, and a fleece. In addition to those the head was veiled with ‘a coffee-coloured-Kashmiri-cap’ to give a subtle look to his emaciated face. And the feet had two pairs of stockings, one on top of another and a pair of white considerably conspicuous Chinese canvas-shoes. Climate out there was quite exotic for him. Born and brought up in a warm colliery township of Chhotanagpur-plateau, Mr. Binoy Sorcar found the Himalayan cold-wind was the toughest thing to bear-with. However he never complained for not getting typical Bengali food and Aadda, ‘a characteristic Bengali get-together’. Yes, I too, badly missed my favourite foods, boat-rides on the waterways, endless rows of stately coconut-trees and my gaiety friends back home. I hailed from the extreme south of India, Kumarakom on Vembanad-Lake a small-town of Kottayam district of Kerala.

“What dada (elder brother)! Want to spend the night over here? Should I send some momos from Zangmo’s shop?” I taunted him.

Momos were one of the very few delicacies available in that desolate hill-station. It was a kind of steamed rice-cake with either mashed-bone-less-meat or delicious mushrooms or just spicy-vegetables stuffed within.

With a childish-smile on his face Sorcar dashed in the office for signing the school-register and feigning the haste he said to me more with gestures than words, “You wait there at Deki Aama’s shop, I’m coming.”

On holidays or week-ends we would prefer to go out with one or two loyal students, well acquainted with the localities around Wamdong, and enjoy a long trekking across the woods-on-the-hills through unknown-paths. And it was those week-end trips, I, a language teacher, and few students too imbibed a lot about the wonderful world-of-plants from absent-minded Sorcar.

As the last bell had gone piercing the noise of all children, the student-leaders of all houses started gathering their tools and gardening paraphernalia to return to the store. The store was at the ground-floor of the school building of this little sleepy hill-station. A part of the ground-floor was used to keep old and broken furniture another part was being used as a granary by the nearby army-base. Small-kids had already reached the large kitchen-cum-dining-hall-cum-barn-house for their day’s grub. Their cacophony filled the air of the surroundings. By the time the little-ones completed their lunch at least half a dozen of dogs appeared form the nearby vicinity. A little later the bigger-pupil joined for their lunch and finally Aataa karma, the cook of the school, who would also eat with them.

The word ‘Aataa’ the locals would address to respect an elder-brother in their dialect, for the ‘grown-up boys’ Aataa was a friend, philosopher and guide. They did sincerely respect him because he had come across many people as well as incidents in his pretty long span of life. When he was a buxom youth, Aataa had joined the Indian Army. He had no opportunity to complete even his elementary school education. The hamlet, in which he was born and brought up, had no school in those days. He would vividly recollect the days of yore and share his experiences with the bigger boys. He used to guide them and advised them. Whether it was rain, cold wind or snowfall Aataa would invariably reach school early in the morning without fail, a few early-comers would help him in his routine work before the morning assembly conducted on the little stretch of terraced plain in front of the school. Boys would love to help him. Girls would raptly pay attention to his amazing recollections.

Kujo jangpo Laa; Aama” I greeted Deki-Aama, the shopkeeper.

With her persistent smile on her pretty-flat-face-with-sparkling-eyes she acknowledged saying, “Kujo jnagpo Laa, Lopen” (Lopen means teacher)

Out here the locals pay utmost respects to the teachers. Deki Aama, the lady in her forties, a homemaker cum shopkeeper, got married when she was studying in ninth grade then. She was a mother of five children. She could converse in English very well owing to her studies in the high-school.

“Where is your friend, Lopen?” Aama enquired.

“He is coming, please make two cups of coffee and give some snacks to eat.” I told her.

As I was immersed in my thoughts, there appeared, as if from nowhere, a procession of the Brokpaa people, the highlanders who had been living on the high-altitude places of the mighty Himalayas. They were the nomadic hill-tribes. They used live on the subalpine areas with their herds of yak and gaur. They would also keep horses, mules and dogs invariably.

By that time I found Sorcar approaching towards the shop. Before stepping on the first plank-of-wood he greeted Deki-Aama. She smiled and acknowledged his greeting.

“Today you’re quite late Lopen.” She said to Sorcar.

“Oh, yea... it’s… Bit late today.” replied Sorcar haltingly.

In winter when their high-altitude dwelling areas get enveloped by repeated snowfall the Brokpaa-people would come down at the lower valleys. They used to sell cheese and butter and buy their limited necessities of life from the local shopkeepers. They would buy certain kind of pulses, oil, spice, dry fish and the precious salt of course.

They were on their way back home. Their yak-hair-made headgears with five to six numbers of braids sticking out downwards were quite awesome. I found them talking to each other and swearing at their equine companions feigning with weird gestures.

A man was seen going up at the far end of the serpentine track around a chorten (a Buddhist-stupa). There stood a few prayer-flags on the windward side of the hill. His steps trembled a little. He might have had the locally made hard-drink out of malt a little more than the usual quota. His wife draped in Keera, a bright-checkered robe usually made in a-traditional-handloom, was following him and persistently nagging him.

While looking at them my friend shared with me this adventurous lovely anecdote, which in turn Aataa narrated him, last year.

It was some years back…

One by one the last couple of boys came out of the kitchen. They washed their hands and mouth, cleaned their dishes under the taps outside. Three of them, Wangdi, Sonam and Rinchen, the trio, were waiting for Aataa to walk together while going back home. Aataa scanned the Kitchen, inspected the surroundings, the four different kitchen gardens, which were raised by the students of four houses, looking for useful articles carelessly left by the students.

Wangdi wondered, “How does Aataa get up so early every morning without fail?” He took his soiled shoulder-bag and gestured the three boys to start walking. Keeping flat rock-pieces a couple of steps were made, which ascends up to the cemented road near Tshering-Aamaa’s shop. Some people also called AamTshering’s shop. Sonam bought few pieces of churpi (Hardened-cheese) and distributed among themselves, they exchanged a few words. Aamaa offered domaa (A betel leaf, a piece of raw betel nut with a little lime) to Aataa and wished him. Aataa thanked her for the good gesture. People used to say, “She was the best weaver out here.” She would create wonderful designs on the clothes she used to make by the help of her traditional loom affixed in one corner of the shop cum drawing room.

While inspecting his foreign bow AumTshering’s husband asked something from Aamaa. Looking at the expensive bow Wangdi enquired, “When did you buy it Aapaa?

- During the last “Losaar” (the festival of ‘blessed-rainy-day’)

- Do you have an archery match today?

- Yes, didn’t you see people have already gathered near the “Lhakhang” (a monastery)?

- Let’s go Aataa, Wangdi proposed.

- Then I have to bring my bow and arrows.

- Rinchen will do that, you just tell him where you have kept those.

While munching his domaa Aataa took time to think; wait I try to remember, most probably arrows are on the loft of kitchen near that part where I kept strips of meat for drying recently and the bow is kept hanging in one corner.

- Don’t you need to change your dress? Sonam suggested.

- It’s OK for a pretty old man like me.

People in that part still love more the traditional handmade bright-attire than western-clothes. Every youth would be dying for such robes. Rinchen borrowed one such robe and all three of them insisted Aataa to put that on. Aataa as usual was very reluctant to put that on. Finally the trio succeeded. They enjoyed that afternoon merrily shouting and running from one target end to the other. Later they joined the evening prayer in the Lhakhang. There were the exotic drums, which were played by some peculiar curved beaters, the unusually long horns, the sound of all these instruments was echoing in the mystic premises and spreading ‘His’ message of peace and non-violence.

Twinkling light of the distant hamlets around the valley started appearing through the dark woods. A good number of people came to attend a special ceremony from the nearby hamlets. The trio noted many unknown faces. Lamas decorated altars and the idols inside the sanctum sanctorum of the monastery. The thick smoke of incense was there everywhere. Sonam found Sherub Tashi, Aamaa Tshomo’s son, talking to an unknown girl. Aamaa Tshomo was the most self-reliant lady of the locality. She lived in a big house with her two children, a son and a daughter, they had a very big kitchen, and their house stood on the left of the road right at the entrance of that picturesque Hill station. She had a very hard time working in the fields raising potato, maize, beans, lettuce etc., looking after a few cattle & cooking.

Soon after a ‘Losar’ festival of the local monastery, Sherub Tashi was studying in second-grade then, her husband was found missing. Albeit she informed the administration but there wasn’t any clue. She didn’t give-up hope. Quite a number of times she had been to the collector’s office too along with her two little children but there wasn’t any hope left.

She accepted the reality.

Since then she had been living single with her two children. A Goorkha family lived in a part of ground floor on rent some time earlier. In one small part of that they had a shop; time and again Aama Tshomo would give the other rooms also on rent.

The girl, with whom Sherub Tashi was moving around, possibly came from Rinkchengompa, a nearby hamlet, situated at a distance of about two to three hours’ walk towards North West. Sherub Tashi was a very good student of the school. Most of his school days he used to live in teachers’ quarters helping them in their domestic work especially bringing firewood, milk, eggs etc. and especially lighting the Bukhaari, an indigenous grate. In return of his help he was bestowed with food, clothes and occasional monetary help. After his schooling he had a training somewhere and expecting a job in near future.

The ceremony continued in the monastery premises a few more days.

Sherub Tashi made a good relationship with Pema, the said girl from Rinkchengompa, meeting her a few more times knowing more about her, her family, friends and favourite things. One evening the trio discussed with Aataa about their budding relationship. Aataa never showed interest discussing matters related to other people or their activities. They came to know that Sherub Tashi had already requested Aataa for his help. He also conveyed that her parents were very simple & deeply religious. They would be happy if she gets married with a Lama or even a simple illiterate but well-built rural folk. Finding a solution for the said problem was not an easy task. Aataa recollected Sherub’s childhood days. He was a very obedient boy. Football was his favorite game. The school won several tournaments due to his excellent performance.

Aataa assured him that he would find a way within a few days.

That evening Aataa had been to the Lhakhang. One-of-his childhood-friends lived there as a lama. He came to know that the girl and the people with whom she came for the ceremony they all left. Sitting in one corner he prayed and meditated for quite some-time. And then he borrowed a set of complete outfit of a monk, from his friend and requested him not to disclose that to anyone out-there. Before that he had already told the three boys to inform their teacher-in-charge for housekeeping about his one-day-leave. He even instructed them how to manage the kitchen-work in his absence.

Next morning a middle-aged lama arrived in the little sleepy hamlet, Rinkchengompa. He blessed all the souls whom he came across on the way. With a perpetual-smile on face he prayed for the well being of them. Finally he arrived near the courtyard of Pema’s house. He stood under the peach-tree, which was adorned with celestial-blossoms. On the slope below their house there were a pretty good number of apple and peach trees. Deep down that orchard a few houses of another small-settlement could be seen. Beyond the lower hills he looked further down there was a little valley very far away from that house (at least about three days’ walk) and found the river Tsangmechu in the golden-sunrays amidst the lush-green serene surroundings.

While going out to work in the fields Pema’s father saw him. He bowed him with sincere respect and requested him to come in “kindly pray for our well-being. Please, come in and rest a while.”

He said, “Lord Rimpochey bless you, you are very devoted people”

While talking to them he found their daughter Pema, she came near and bowed him exactly the way their traditional etiquette demands. He sat on a carpet and took out a prayer-book from his side-bag. Before opening the book while untying the string he started chanting the seemingly-endless-prayers. They offered him fruits, nuts, cheese, and sujaa (the salty herbal-butter-tea).

As he was about squat on the brightly coloured carpet spread on the wooden-floor deodorized rubbing with leaves of wild-aromatic-plants, Pema noticed the conspicuous cut-mark close to the well-bulged calf-muscle of his left leg. She could recognize him. But she remained calm & composed except a faint smile flashed around her lips as she turned towards the inner passageway.

The lama announced “you are indeed very devoted couple; I tell you that a great soul is very much pleased with you, please keep in mind, your daughter Pema would be the mother of this great-soul”.

People in this part of the world do believe in reincarnations. His words strengthened their faith.

He foretold them, “The groom-in-waiting is the only son of a pious mother living quite near a monastery. The girl would meet him before their nuptial-knot.”

He farther-added, “I’d come from a distant-place and I’ve to go a long way.”

Saying these words, he started arranging his paraphernalia for he was getting ready to leave that pristine beautiful sylvan-surrounding.

- I’ve to go back to my monastery, it’s a long way.

- Pema’s parents bid him good bye.

Parents of Pema felt that they were bestowed by that ‘Fortuitous Meeting’. Thus the couple decided to worship together and planned to conduct a very special-prayer at home.

Pema was instructed to make all the necessary arrangements.

He stood under the same peach tree, adorned with celestial-blossoms having divine-fragrance, and looked at the long serpentine-trekking-path below. Deep down the orchard hazy-darkness of twilight set in slowly.

Pema came closer and bowed him with sincere respect and whispered with the characteristic flashing smile around her lips, “Kindly do take care while going back to your place because quite a good number of souls must be looking forward to you for their mid-day-meal at Wamdong-School.”

He was perplexed but didn’t react, remained calm & composed. He bid farewell to the snow-covered sleepy hamlet. He requested the almighty, “With all my simplicity-&-serenity I did pray honestly for the wellbeing of Pema’s house. May god bless them.”

He stood near the peach tree for a few seconds looking blankly towards the misty dark hills and the floating bizarre cirrus clouds.

Finally ‘Aataa-in-disguise’ was walking back home as fast as he could.

Sorcar opined philosophically, “I’m sure; one has to live in these remote and desolate hamlets of Shangri-La to know the subtleties of life on these mystic hills.”

Even today I wonder, what an adventurous anecdote it was!

I never knew the protagonist. And to be honest ……

“Who was telling the story? And whose story was it anyway?

The words fluttered and flew in the wind.”

The man with swaying-gait moved towards the leeward-side of the hill and gradually ceased appearing in the view along with his better-half closely following him at his heels.

And fluttered the tall prayer-flags-of-pure-silk decorated with traditional block-printings of Holy-Scriptures and tantric-motifs.

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