A Happy Place
A Happy Place17 mins 1.7K 17 mins 1.7K
Siddhi looked out of the splintered window of the old, dusty Landwind X7 that she was in, the vehicle winding up the narrow mountainous roads of the Shaoshi mountain, cutting its way through the cold mists that seemed to engulf them with an increasing vigour as they climbed higher. She was in the passenger seat beside the driver and had been shifting uncomfortably for the past half an hour, her legs still hurting from the long hike from the Pagoda forest, a world heritage site at the foot of the mountain to the summit near the second of the seven peaks of the Shaoshi, where they’d met Xi Ling, who’d promised to drive them from there to their destination.
When her mind had been filled enough with the scenic details around her, Siddhi turned around to look at Xi, their driver for their trip. He was a young man in his early twenties, he was still cherubic and beaming with the exuberance of youth that had still not left his face. He wore a young ranger’s attire – a white t-shirt and khakhi shorts, trekking shoes and a large hat that was too big for his small, round face. Siddhi looked at his hands and feet, still amazed at how deftly he seemed to be handling the multi-terrain vehicle, his skills and technique far beyond a man who still hadn’t sprouted a full moustache.
She found herself smiling involuntarily as she looked at back at her two co-passengers, Ram and Vignesh, who had accompanied her on this unique trip. They’d believed her when no one else would, they’d put their faith in her when everyone else had dealt with her with different levels of scepticism.
“The happiest place on earth? Sounds like another one of those elaborate hoaxes designed to lure explorers like us, Siddhi!”, her own uncle had told her, looking at her with a disappointment of a teacher who’d expected better from one of his brighter pupils.
Siddhi had been only nineteen when she’d decided to follow the footsteps of her illustrious uncle, Vinay Laxmanan, who had scaled many a mountain and crossed many a river as part of his job as the lead explorer with the Indian Heritage Foundation or IHF as it was called and had just recently been awarded a Padma Shri at the hands of the Indian President, almost fifteen years post his retirement.
“Would have been so much better if they’d given it to me when I was still younger. I would have had more strength to boast about it!”, he’d often joke.
He had been pleased with Siddhi when she had chosen a trainee job with the IHF over other offers with the IAS and the IFS that her parents would have wanted her to take. He had then guided her through her career with the IHF and had been filled with pride on seeing her take up the deputy lead position with the foundation, after just twelve years of service.
“It had taken me eighteen years to get there!”, he’d say to her, with mock lament.
He’d supported her on many a mission, giving her priceless inputs from his own experience, which invariably had given her an edge in everything she’d done so far with the IHF.
However, even old, trusted Uncle Vinay had refused to help her on her latest one.
“No such place ever existed or will exist in any possible future, Siddhi…. If it did, wouldn’t we all rush to be there?”, he’d told Siddhi.
”I don’t think you should put yourself and others at risk due to the unverified claims of a Tibetan monk… have you even met the man?”
Siddhi knew that he was probably right, maybe no such place existed. She might lead herself and her team into an unknown rabbit hole. On the other hand, over time, she’d learnt to trust her heart on matters where taking a straight forward decision was difficult. On this one, she knew she had to go with her heart.
After all, she’d met the monk and what she’d seen on his face was something she could never forget.
Tenzing Llama was a short, plump man in his late fifties. He had chosen the path of monkhood in his early teens and had devoted decades of his life in the many monasteries of eastern Tibet in the search of spiritual bliss.
It had been twelve years since he’d taken an oath of silence. It was on a beautiful, sun-soaked morning on the slopes of the Himalayas that he’d realised he no longer needed words to communicate with the external world. He’d been given the spiritual gift of knowing that words were so superficial in their nature of communication and that a few gestures were enough to express what one human felt towards another.
After years of dedicating his life to human service at the Jokhang Temple in Tibet, Llama had decided it was time for him to move on to something greater in life – finding an answer to man’s unending pursuit of happiness.
It was then that he’d embarked on the trip that would eventually lead him to the Shaoshi mountains in China.
It had taken Siddhi’s team nearly ten months to convince Llama to meet her, but when she did meet with the monk, it had been well worth the wait.
Llama didn’t speak, but then Siddhi realised that he could do so much more with mere glances and a few gestures. Llama had explained to her the true meaning of happiness and he’d been the one who had told her that there existed a place, nestled deep in the peaks and valleys of the Shaoshi, and inhabited by not more than a few hundred people, which was the happiest place on earth. He’d guided her with directions on how to reach the place and he’d also asked her to keep all her apprehensions aside, should she eventually decide to visit.
But more than anything, what Siddhi had never forgotten was the look on the old monk’s face, as he narrated her further details about this mysterious place. His face seemed to have been lit with the beaming radiance of his own little sun, orbiting around his rotund face in its invisible orbit. His eyes seemed to have been filled to their depths with a sense of true fulfilment. His lips hadn’t moved to curve into a smile, but they’d still seemed to be smiling the whole time he spoke.
As Siddhi had left the monastery with more answers than she’d hoped for, she was still wondering how Llama had managed to communicate everything to her, without speaking a single word.
Now, as she heard Ram scream at her from a distance, signalling her to dislodge from the vehicle, Siddhi’s state of free thought was brought back to the moment from its wandering ways.
“Xi says his Landwind X7 won’t make further than this”, Ram was yelling through the cold, heavy winds, the trekking shoes he was wearing burying themselves deep into the soft snow on the mountainous slope.
Siddhi looked at Xi, who nodded sheepishly.
“Ok, we trek from here”, Siddhi said as he gestured to Vignesh to scan through the rucksacks they’d brought along.
“Only the bare necessities stay. Make them as light as you can. We need to conserve all our strength for the climb ahead”, a touch of urgency had crept in Siddhi’s voice now.
As Siddhi, Vignesh and Ram bid goodbye to their young Chinese driver and saw him turn the X7 around and drive off into the distance, Siddhi felt a tinge of concern infiltrate her mind.
“From here on, we are on our own”, she thought to herself.
Llama had given her precise directions for the trek, once they reached the second peak of the looming Shaoshi ranges.
It was going to be a two hundred foot climb through the spiralling furrows of snow and layers of thin, dubious ice that connected one slope to the other on these mountains and they’d have to use climbing hooks and ropes and all their experience to make it through the rough terrain and uncertain weather.
Post the climb, when they’d reach Peak Five, they would have to look for the entry to the forest of a thousand blooming chrysanthemums which would lead them to the doors of what they’d come looking for, the happiest place on earth.
“These flowers, they bloom mostly in warm climate, but there, on the slopes of the happiest place on earth, they bloom throughout the year in cold weather” , Llama had telepathically told her.
Now, as Siddhi dug her ice-claw into the face of the slope, making sure the surface underneath is not hollow and fastened her harness to the carabiner hook attached to her waist mount, she wondered what it Is that lay beyond the forest of the thousand blooming flowers.
They landed on Siddhi, Ram and Vignesh in small groups of five or six at a time. The land beneath them was a beautiful vision in yellow and white, the gorgeous, dreamy yellow from the thousands and thousands of chrysanthemums that had fallen from the trees fusing with the white, snowy carpet of the slightly sloping plateau.
The climb to Peak Five had taken them twelve exhausting hours and their bodies were spent from the arduous climb. And yet, when the magical, translucent, nine-legged creatures landed on them, all they felt was pure bliss.
“They look like jellyfish swimming in thin air”, Vignesh called out loud, with a palpable, childlike excitement in his voice.
The creatures were as light as the softest cotton candy they could remember from their childhood, and as delicate and gentle as the finest silk when they landed on their faces and arms and bodies, a pinkish light emanating from them through their translucent skin. The creatures’ fragile bodies were no more than a few centimetres across and a radiant white light emanated from the follicles on their feet as they made contact with their skin. A soft, soothing sensation enveloped them as soon as these creatures made contact and they could feel a rush of adrenalin flowing to their brains within a few seconds.
“The Conscience Keepers, they’re here to inject each soul who passes through this forest with a genuine sense of purpose before you enter The Happiest Place on Earth. These little beings make sure all your scepticism and apprehension is dissolved somewhere deep within you so that it doesn’t surface when you are finally ready for your destination beyond this forest”.
The words had been spoken by a faint voice which seemed to belong to someone quite young.
Siddhi, Ram and Vignesh turned around to see the smudgy outline of a small child through the mist walk towards them. He wore the maroon robe of the Tibetan monks and carried a small umbrella over his bald head.
“I’m Norgay, Tenzing Llama is my guide and mentor.”, the young boy, not more than 10 years of age, said as he focussed his attention on Siddhi.
“You must be the explorer from India my teacher keeps talking about.
Welcome to the Forest of a Thousand Blooming Flowers. I’ll be your guide to take you to the happiest place on earth”.
The enthusiastic young boy who had introduced himself as the old Tibetan monk’s pupil led them through rows and rows of yellow flowery carpets that lined the forest floor, his small, bare feet not seeming to react at all to the cold snow below him.
The nine-legged creatures had slowly started ascending back into thin air as they neared what appeared to be a small, frozen lake.
“The Lake of Truth”, Norgay told them helpfully, “Please take off your shoes and follow me across it, our destination lies on the other side”.
As the three explorers from the IHF looked at each other, confounded by what the young boy had just said and not knowing what exactly to do next, Norgay seemed to be reading their thoughts as he continued in his low voice,
“Only those with the absolute search for true happiness in their hearts are able to cross this lake. The lake remains frozen and solid beneath your
feet only if you have a true pursuit in your heart.
Else, the ice beneath you will melt, and you would be ejected through the Whirlpool of the Fake Seekers”.
Norgay noticed that the additional information shared by him hadn’t helped. He could see lines of worry forming across the three explorers’ faces.
“Don’t worry. The whirlpool only ejects you back to where you came from, Peak Two of the Saoshi. It also cleanses your memories of any traces of visiting this place. Once back on Peak Two, you will be able to descend back to the foot of the mountains.”
As Siddhi egged on Ram and Vignesh to step out of their trekking shoes, she wondered if all three of them would be able to make it across the lake.
The huge gate, almost a hundred foot in height and twenty five feet wide, was covered with climbers and flowers of all kind, but what dominated its self-grown floral design was beautiful, purplish Westeria. A sweet, fragrant scent emanated from them as Siddhi and Vignesh followed Norgay through the imposing door.
“Welcome to my home, the happiest place on earth!”, Norgay exclaimed as they stepped foot on the land beyond the huge door.
The door stood at the end of the frozen Lake of Truth and mid-way through the journey, as their feet had trembled and shivered on the icy cold surface, Siddhi and Vignesh had only been able to watch with a mix of emotions as the ice below Ram’s feet slowly gave way to a whirlpool of cold water and he’d slowly got sucked into it.
As Ram’s face had fully disappeared into the whirlpool, they’d been filled with lots of fear and a tinge of disappointment.
“Don’t worry, he’ll be safe when he comes out on the other side”, the young monk had calmed them down.
Now, as they set foot inside the huge, plant-covered door, Norgay led them through the wide, open lanes, dotted with a few houses on either side.
Siddhi noticed that the houses were not lined in any particular pattern and seemed to have been built at random spots.
“The believers, who choose to stay back here – they are free to choose a spot they like across the length and breadth of this place and build a house for themselves wherever they want.
You’ll see for yourself if you choose to believe”, young Norgay was smiling at Siddhi now.
The place beyond the door was in itself like a huge, vast, unending expanse of clear, green pastures on either side, with neatly carved out lanes connecting various sections of the place as they walked by them.
Men, women and children of all nationalities, race, sizes and shapes were strolling on the streets in their maroon robes, a sense of genuine happiness radiating from their faces.
Large, unmarked and unnamed buildings of all shapes and sizes lined the various sections.
As the young monk helpfully guided them with the names of each section, Siddhi was beginning to wonder who ran the place.
“How is something so beautiful administered on a daily basis? What’s the deal with the unnamed buildings?”, she was thinking to herself.
Again, almost as if reading her thoughts, Norgay reached out with his tiny hand and took her hand in his.
“Don’t worry, you will know everything on your own when we reach The Temple of Happiness”.
As Siddhi wondered if Tenzing Llama would be waiting for her at the temple, the young boy smiled at her again and said,
“Yes, he will meet you there”.
As Norgay led the through the wide lanes, they’d arrived in a section of the place where the lanes seemed have to have gotten narrower. The openness of the lanes had been suddenly replaced by a congested, haphazard approach and the large, roomy houses that had lined the earlier sections had been replaced by smaller, dingier apartments lining both sides of the roads.
Men, women and children seemed to be quarrelling with other on the narrow roads and in the dingy houses, some screaming and yelling with more abandon than the others.
“What… what is this?”, Siddhi asked the young monk, before looking at Vignesh, who seemed as perplexed as she was.
“Isn’t this the happiest place on earth? Why are these men and women and children screaming their lungs out”, Vignesh couldn’t hold himself back either.
Norgay looked at them and nodded, an acute sense of understanding in his little, dark brown eyes.
“To reach the Temple of Happiness, one must pass through the Section of the Discards”, he said, looking at them with utmost sincerity.
“Come”, he said, as he led them around another narrow bend,
“Teacher must be waiting”.
Contrary to what Siddhi had imagined, the Temple of Happiness was a rather nondescript place.
It was a small single-roomed house at the end of the narrowest road towards the end of the Section of the Discards. The house itself was built of old, decaying bricks and its moss-covered walls seemed rather ill maintained. Layers of icicles had formed on its thatched roof and cold, snowy water was dripping off the walls.
Siddhi noticed that a small door, not more than 5 feet tall was the only entrance to the house, the only other opening being a small window towards the top of one of the walls.
As Siddhi and Ram hunched their backs and bent down to enter through the small, creaky door, Norgay bid them farewell.
“Teacher will take it from here”, he said as he smiled the most beautiful smile Siddhi had ever seen and ran away into the distance.
The small room was empty except for a little table at the centre of the floor, with an old, little, white marble statue of a pair of smiling lips standing on it.
“When you think about it, happiness…”, Siddhi heard someone say from behind, “…is just a pair of smiling lips, isn’t it?”
She turned around to see Tenzing Llama entering the small door, smile at her and keep his hand on her shoulder.
The old monk was actually speaking.
“Were… weren’t you on a vow of silence??”, Siddhi blurted out in her confusion, and was immediately ashamed of what she’d asked.
The old monk smiled back at her and caressed her shoulder reassuringly.
“That’s only outside this room. To those who do manage to make it here, I must speak”, he said in his quivering but calming voice.
As Siddhi stared back at him with a thousand questions in her expectant eyes, Tenzing Llama continued,
“On my travels from India to Nepal to Kazakhstan to China, I encountered countless men and women who wanted to be happy, but didn’t know where to find happiness.
So I travelled to this unchartered land and established this place.
What you see here really is only the beauty of what nature has graced this place with, along with the efforts of a few men and women who have chosen to believe in what I believe.
That forest has been filled with the yellow flowers from a time unknown, I guess. And the little creatures you saw fall from the trees are just another species of the fauna found here. They’re like fireflies, aren’t they? Only instead of the dark, they glow in the light. They don’t really have any special powers…. ”
“….the lake and the whirlpool…”, Llama continued, “they’ve been there forever. You didn’t think it was really a magical lake, did you? It’s just your destiny… whether you make it across it or get sucked through one of many the watery troughs and end up on the other side”.
Siddhi and Vignesh looked at each other in amazement, only now beginning to understand where the old monk was going with all this.
“The Section of the Discards is nothing but a manifestation of a human’s worst tendencies ... to quarrel and shout and scream… out there for you to see as you enter from the beautiful expanse of the sections before it.
As you enter this little house seeking the Temple of Happiness and look at this small idol, it is for you to realise -
Happiness is just a pair of smiling lips, isn’t it? ”, Tenzing said, repeating what he’d said when he’d entered the room.
Siddhi and Vignesh walked back past the narrow lanes full of quarrelling men and women, and then along the wide open lanes and large, roomy houses and the hundreds of happy men and women and playful children lining them before reaching the huge, imposing door that opened towards the frozen lake that would take them back to the flowery forest, from where they would hike back towards their Peak Two summit.
Along the entire journey, Siddhi found a sole thought embedded in the depths of her consciousness.
She would choose a random spot – it would be somewhere she liked to be and with someone she wanted to spend her life with – and build a house, and make sure that she smiled.
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22 Minutes of Love and Other Short Stories