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1947, Kham, Tibet

In the semi-darkness of his childhood evenings, Lhasang’s father, Tsepon, enacted the life of King Gesar of Ling. Tsepon leaped and swirled, dodging arrows here, thrusting a sword there, the sleeves of his chuba, hanging well below his hands, rustling as they kept up with his heroics. “I am King Gesar,” Tsepon said, “Sent by the gods to save the dharma. And to kill the enemies of the Buddha.” He swung his sword in a wild arc. The performance ended with Tsepon swooping down to lift Lhasang into the air. Or it ended when both father and son were grounded as Pema, Lhasang’s mother, hustled them into the kitchen for dinner.

Lhasang was six when he first saw Gesar being performed outside his house. The wandering drungpas who performed the epic visited Lhasang’s village. As soon as he heard about their arrival, Lhasang ran to the tent that had been set up for the drungpas. “Hurry up, Pa-la,” He screamed to Tsepon who followed, panting, behind him. But when he reached the drungpas, his enthusiasm was sobered by the first sight of the performers. They were too quiet, settling with a rehearsed ease on the cushions waiting for them.

“But they look … they look …,” He turned to Tsepon, “ordinary!”

“No, they’re only acting normal now. That’s because they’re saving their energy,” Tsepon said.

“For what?”

“For the evening. When they perform. Just wait and you’ll see.”

In the evening, Lhasang got to sit in front, the children forming the first ring around the bards. Beside a bonfire, dried barley flour, tsampa, was sprinkled to form a temporary stage for the singers. The evening began with a prayer for the life of their Kundun, the Dalai Lama. After the gods had been pleased, the drungpas started. Their shoulders were padded, heavy gold brooches hung down their chests. And from the crowns on their heads, four poles with flags shook in the wind as they leaped, their arms slicing the air. They were giants in the evening!

As the embers faded, Lhasang heard the whispers that were rippling through the audience. Those closer to the arena swore they saw hoof marks appear in the tsampa as Gesar’s ghost joined them. Lhasang felt the chill of the night close in. He looked behind him and saw Tsepon, one eye fixed on Lhasang. Lhasang turned back towards the performance, reassured. He peered through the flames, searching the ground for Gesar’s presence.
Later, he admitted to Tsepon that he was scared. “Always remember Kundun,” Tsepon said, “He will always keep you safe.”

Lhasang heard that many of the drungpas had learned the epic by magic. At home, he told Pema his theory, “They suddenly wake up from sleep. And they already know all the verses. It’s a seed of magic in their heads.” But Pema was quick to dislodge this idea. “All magic is nonsense,” she said. “But you see, sometimes real life is more magical than magic.

Hundreds of times, the story has been passed. From an old man’s lips to a waiting young man’s ears. Each time one dies, another takes his place. Isn’t that magic?” “Actually, I don’t care if it’s magic or not,” Lhasang concluded, “I still prefer Pa-la’s performance.”

Riwoche, where Lhasang grew up, in 1947 was a little village in the Kham province of eastern Tibet; to call it a town would have been ambitious though official records might have done so. About thirty kilometers northwest of the village was a monastery that preceded the village by at least six hundred years. Riwoche nestled on the banks of the Dzachu River.

Lhasang learned early never to venture into the Dzachu. “You do not ever enter the river!” Pema screamed when she saw him step into the water, her fingers twisting his earlobe around, “Do you want to be taken away by the lu-naga spirits hiding there?”

Riwoche’s proximity to the monastery meant the villagers could make the short trek to the monastery and tap into the hearts and wallets of the pilgrims. Tsepon went further than most, braving expeditions to different corners of the country. He returned from his excursions with goods that could again be fed into other travelers’ routes to sate the hunger of the larger cities: Kathmandu to the south or the Tibetan trading centre of Chamdo on the east. Often the dregs of his exchanges were stored at home, becoming momentarily a treasure trove for Lhasang—tea from Yunnan dried into cakes and wrapped with yak hide or salt from the lakes of the northern changtang plateau. And the most bewitching of his father’s hauls—the rare coral, lapis or turquoise—which in other hands and ears would have denoted nobility. But in Lhasang’s palms, they were just a seductive palette of colours.

Safe as the world may have seemed to Lhasang, it was not. And since nature refused all that humans needed, they had to steal from one another. Thus some of the nomads who roamed Kham had to pounce on trading caravans, forcing the redistribution that a frugal geography denied. Traders often had to cross perilous passes in the mountains, where bandits lay waiting. A good bargain didn’t guarantee a successful deal. A trader also needed a sure foot and a surer gun. But Tsepon never carried a weapon.

“Why don’t you carry a gun? I heard everyone who goes outside the village needs one,” a concerned Lhasang asked Tsepon during one of his daily prayers.

“Come here,” Tsepon patted his knee. He fished out an amulet hanging from his neck under his chuba, “You see this?” Lhasang fingered the cylinder; it contained little paper scrolls crammed inside.

“This is from the Jokhang. The House of the Lord in Lhasa. All the gods that protect Bod have blessed this. You must remember—if the gods want to protect you, then no human can touch you. And if the gods want you dead, then no gun can save you,” Tsepon said.
“All the gods? How many are there in Tibet?”

Tsepon screwed his eyes closed, “I don’t know. As many gods as there are humans I think. But if you have to choose one, then choose Kundun—the Dalai Lama. He watches over all of Tibet. The whole of Bod might be just a swamp, but he is the lotus. He will always keep you safe.”

“Then how come you have never told me any stories about him?”

“Because he has just been found; he is still a boy. There are many miracles that he will perform in his life, but we have to wait. Do you want to hear the tale of Padmasambhava tonight; the man who brought Buddhism to us?”

“No Pa-la, I don’t want to hear about any more lamas,” Lhasang complained, “Tell me about the man with the black cloak. The assassin.”

“Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje,” Tsepon squeezed his head with his fingers, as if he was kneading the story out of his mind, “The man who conquered fear. And killed the godless king…”

For Lhasang the boundaries of fear lay much closer, at the sight of the neighbour’s mastiff, straining at a rope that tied him to the door. Thankfully his mother Pema was always available, clapping at the dog as she did to repel evil spirits. Pema was, in Lhasang’s world, already a source of magic and protection, someone who could shield him from forces he could not comprehend, who could even transform the nature of things. For had he not seen clumps of yak-hair, laid out on the floor, foam up into balls of fluff when she trashed them with a thin cane, the stick whistling through the air as it flexed back and forth? And had he not carried with his own hands the yak milk that she transformed into the hard balls that he kept snuggled in his mouth for hours before they softened and the first hint of cheese trickled through? Pema also assumed the role of protector. So Lhasang’s play zone was restricted to their courtyard, under the sometimes-watchful-sometimes-vicious eyes of the mastiff. In fact, sometimes if he was being too frisky and she was busy in the kitchen, she just bundled him into a blanket so he couldn’t disappear into the fields outside. And she left him squirming inside the blanket, dumped on his mattress, for an hour or two. “That is no way to treat a six-year-old kid,” Tsepon complained to Pema’s back. “What do you know about how to treat children?” Lhasang, from inside his blanket, heard Pema huff. “Well, I have one, don’t I?” “I’ll let him out when I finish cooking,” Pema said and Lhasang heard the ladle scratch the noodle bowl from his blanket-world, “You don’t know your own son, Tsepon. He only pretends to obey. But he never does. He needs hard love. Especially if he must survive Kham.”

Thus Lhasang grew up between reality and stories, straddling the uncompromising fact of his mother and the untiring fiction of his father. Pema rebuked him all the time: “Don’t go out alone,” “Don’t tease that dog,” “Don’t stand behind the mule downstairs when it’s eating.” And Tsepon fed him stories every evening: about Padmasambhava, who came to Tibet from the Swat valley at the insistence of the ruler Trisong Detsen; who had subdued the demons of the land, spread the words of Buddha; who even convinced his consort—temporarily converted into a flying tigress—to give him a lift to Bhutan where he worked his wonders again. About Milarepa, who started his life with great evil but found enlightenment later; whose heart was as white as his robes and whose skin turned as green as the nettle tea he drank all day.

“Why do you have to spend all your time telling him these fantastic tales?” Pema sighed.
“Because,” Tsepon would insist, “These are the saints who have created Bod, who have shown us the dharma.”

“Saints?” Pema said, “Now Bod has more bandits than we have saints.”

Lhasang nodded at both of them; he couldn’t understand either anyway.

That year—he was six—Lhasang was taken by his parents to the nearby monastery for Losar. Their mules followed the river north for two hours, first cantering along the road, then grappling for some time with the gravelly slush of the narrow path where the river lapped the foot of the hills, and finally climbing a ridge to see the Riwoche monastery sprawled in front of them. It was a brilliant sight for Lhasang: a massive, squat building like a giant wrestler crouching on his toes. The vertical stripes of red, white and brown on the walls enhanced the height of the main structure but it was still the breadth—spanning for almost half a mile—that seemed extraordinary. There was a smaller second floor topped with a shingled roof that curved outwards. And above that, in the centre, a spire-like tower reached upwards, like a lotus stem on a lake. And though he had heard of many wondrous buildings in the tales that filled his evenings, this immense structure suddenly seemed very alien, it even seemed frightening.

Tsepon swung Lhasang down from the mule. Lhasang was also dressed in a chuba like his father, swathes of lambskin hanging down from both shoulders and tied at his waist by a leather belt. His braid had grown so long that when he was play-acting as a Khampa warrior, he could whip his hair around till it reached his mouth and therefore he could ride his steed into battle with a dagger clenched between his teeth. However, his bravado melted when he absorbed the scene in front of him.

They entered through the huge doors on the eastern flank into the dukhang, the large inner courtyard. It was imposing even when bare and now looked endless, filled out with a sea of praying monks in their orange robes. On the fringes the crowd pushed forward and still couldn’t unglue itself from the walls. Lhasang walked into the hall, and was lost at once in the bear-hug chaos of the monastery.

The crowd of the faithful had a life of its own, swirling like the ocean that the gods had churned for nectar. Darker clumps of chubas filtered into the lake of maroon and saffron that led the chanting. Initially the three of them hugged the walls, even Tsepon taken aback by the thousands of monks and laymen who had gathered. Guttural incantations bounced off the corners till echo and voice met midway, in the closed eyes and open hearts of the crowd. As the crowd sank further into their faith, Tsepon shut his eyes and loosened his clutch on the immediate. Pema, usually wide eyed in vigilance, also shut herself off in prayer. Lhasang stood in front, his vision cut off by the grey-brown walls of people around him. Like the gods they were beseeching, the crowd too moved in inexplicable paths carrying believers along, moving people this way and that. Soon Lhasang had been swept away by a surge of the ardent.

There was no way he could move on his own, or find his way back, in the crowd. When Lhasang realised he had been separated from his parents, he looked to the walls for reference. Craning to see over heads, he saw the statues and murals lining the hall, but no sign of Tsepon or Pema. Among the numerous Buddhas he saw the thousand armed version of Avalokiteshwara, an eye embedded in each palm looking down on Lhasang’s despair. And all around him, there was a wall of people. He felt giddy with desperation, it seemed like the prayers were rising from everywhere. And soon the gods seemed to be mocking him. “You Khampa warrior! You little Gesar!” they screamed, “You can’t even find your parents now?” He clawed his way through some of the legs surrounding him, but none of the lurching figures were his parents.

His screams for “Ama-la” and “Pa-la” faded into the chants. And the reverberations that shuddered through him gave birth to many fears—not seeing his parents again, never being able to find his way back home. He tried to remember home; maybe concentrating on his desire would somehow bring it closer. He remembered squinting as he entered the ground floor and his feet shuffled through the straw, the four mules tethered to the central pole, chewing their fodder and shitting, he remembered feeling the yak-dung wall till it led him to the inclined tree trunk, climbing the trunk to his parents’ bedroom, walking to the little corner where his mattress lay bundled. Suddenly Lhasang was snapped out of his visit back home and he was back in the anguish of the monastery; he felt a large hand planted on his shoulder.

“Are you Tsepon’s little one?”

“La ong. I am Tsepon’s son,” Lhasang whispered.

“We’ve been combing the whole crowd for you. Where did you disappear?”

Lhasang waved his arm around, signalling the general direction—which was everywhere. In front of him, a thick man’s eyes followed his arm. The man had his hair tied in concentric loops above his head, wrapped in a black tassel and topped with a silver nugget. A turquoise earring dangled from his left ear and was almost as long as his beard. His name was Dawa and he was a senior dignitary of the region who knew Tsepon. And part of the crew of searchers his parents wailed into action when they realised the little hand holding on to Tsepon’s chuba was not Lhasang’s.

“Come; let’s go find your parents. They must be going crazy with despair.”

Dawa grasped Lhasang’s hand and eased his way through the gathering. The cloud lifted from Lhasang’s mind. He held on tight to Dawa’s hand. They searched all over the monastery, squeezing through the crowd, trying to fish out his parents, but couldn’t find them.

“Where are Tsepon and Pema?” Dawa roared at the crowd.
A hail of replies followed,
“They went upstairs”
“No, Tsepon went up to the ridge”
“Pema was talking to the dob-dob lamas; they’re riding towards the river now.”

“Bah,” Dawa spat out, “I have to leave for the village. Tell Tsepon I’ve found the kid, and I’ll be taking him back home. I’m not leaving him here with all you lkug pa—you fools will lose him again. They can come back, no need to scamper all over the hills.”

They didn’t wait for Tsepon; Dawa was an impatient man. And Lhasang didn’t know what to say as Dawa explained, muttering under his breath, the need for communication in such times. Dawa pitched Lhasang onto one of his yaks and set off for Riwoche. While Dawa and the other men gripped the yaks with their legs, Lhasang’s legs stuck out on both sides, and he had to rely on the good temper of his ride for safety. Each time the yak hunched over to climb a slope, he had to grab a handful of yak hair to stay perched. And when the yak group flagged, one of Dawa’s servants whipped out a large stone, pounding their behinds, and the beasts—mildly irritated—picked up their pace again.

When they crossed the bend in the river, Lhasang knew the village would sneak out from behind the next hill. And soon, despite the reluctant yaks, he would be home. Where he could sink, like butter in the morning tea, into the world where he belonged.

Home finally, where all the stories were born. And where all stories should come to rest. n

Judges Comments:

Shilpa Agarwal: This first chapter in what I hope will develop into a full novel stood out for me for its beautiful language and its ability to evoke a certain time and place in Tibet.  The child-protagonist’s perspective was well done, especially the juxtaposition between his wonder at the traditional stories told in his village and his growing consciousness of the frightening changes that have come to his world.

Ronica Dhar: As the first chapter of what I trust is an epic novel, this submission distinguished itself for its ambitions around historical and mythological themes.

Kaushik Barua works with the United Nations and is mostly based in Rome. He has written for The Guardian, the literary journal Pyrta and the poetry journal Kritya. His first novel Windhorse will be published by Harper Collins India in 2012. Windhorse follows a group of Tibetan refugees who set up a guerrilla resistance force against Chinese occupation. It is set in Tibet, India, USA and Nepal from the 1940s to the 1970s. The novel follows two main protagonists, Lhasang and Norbu. Lhasang loses his home and all that is familiar when the Chinese occupy Tibet. As a refugee, he realises that to regain his life, he must defy his family and his faith. Norbu grows up in an affluent expatriate Tibetan family in India. As he moves towards the Tibetan resistance, he prepares to forsake more than just his family fortune. The extract describes Lhasang’s childhood in eastern Tibet.