Fuzzy conversations on politics, religion and literature with a monk in Yuksom

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I was woken up at 6 a.m. the next morning by the loud clattering of guides and porters packing up for another trek into the wilderness. My head was throbbing with a headache from all the drinking the previous night. I said a feeble goodbye to all the boys from the group and popped a paracetamol to numb the hangover. Then I went to the common squat toilet at one end of the basement to answer nature’s call but it had been rendered filthy and unusable by the trekking staff.

Normally, I would have “adjusted” to this situation by controlling the urge to take a dump and waiting for some of the cafes/restaurants to open to use the better-maintained toilets there. But these weren’t normal times. My body was crying for a rest after living on a shoestring for 7 months. I looked at my room whose dimensions were only a little larger than my body and this claustrophobia was only making my headache worse. If I was going to stay any longer in Yuksom, I had to upgrade. So I went upstairs and woke up the receptionist to ask if any of the good rooms were available.

The receptionist informed me in a drowsy drone that a German trekking group had checked out that morning. He charged me a 1000 Rs. for one of them (that was 900 more than my bargain basement room and more than I had ever paid for a room before) but I said yes in a heartbeat. The rooms hadn’t been cleaned and the cleaning staff wouldn’t be in for a few hours, he said, but I could use the toilet if I wanted to. It was just about perfect.

I wanted to take a walk but it was freezing outside. I didn’t have the layers to protect me from the cold. The only place to hang out was the desolate restaurant area. So I whipped out Robert Rankin’s Witches of Chiswick which had helped me kill many an hour in the last couple of days. Just as I was about to finish the first sentence, a voice crept from the chair opposite to mine saying, “Witches of… Kaunsa book hai yeh bhai?” (Which book is this?). It freaked me out as this entity had been invisible when I had opened my book. For a moment I wondered if I hadn’t stumbled off to sleep and was dreaming a lucid dream.

The voice belonged to a lama who was squinting at the book cover trying to get its title.

I put the book down and said, “Witches of Chiswick.”

“Is it a good book?”, he asked in a crude Hindi. (For the purposes of brevity, I’m recounting the conversation in English).

“Yes, it’s very good.”

He shrugged half-heartedly and said, “Ah, you must be from England.”

“No, sir. I’m from Mumbai”, I said with a mix of puzzlement and anger.

“Arre, Mumbai se? How are you reading books? I never see Indian boys reading books. You must be doing a course. Which college are you from?”

“I don’t go to college. I just like reading books. Anyway, this is not the sort of book they teach in Indian colleges.”

“Why not? What’s wrong with the book?”

“There’s nothing wrong with the book”, I said, testily, “it’s just not the sort of book they would teach as part of a syllabus.”

“Why? What is it about?”

I groaned inside. The last thing I wanted to do in the wee hours of dawn after a night of zero sleep was explain the convoluted and twisted plot of Witches of Chiswick and its mish-mash of characters to a complete stranger. So I told him I had just started the book and directed him to the plot summary at the back of the cover.

He read attentively, then laughed heartily and said, “I don’t understand this. But Sherlock Holmes! A man from England once came to my monastery and gifted me his book. Too much tension. Haha. What does he do in this story?”

I said, “I don’t know. I think he’s trying to find out who Jack the Ripper is.”

“Ah”, he said, “Good, good. It is good to read books. Keeps your mind fresh.”

I was feeling crabby and irritable and wished my room would get ready soon so I could get some sleep. I went back to reading my book in the hope that some anti-social behaviour would make the monk go away. But he pulled the chair opposite to mine and sat there staring at me reading the book. This was annoying and I felt like my reading skills were being judged by his squinty eyes. To add to this, I was also guilt-tripping myself for ignoring his presence so blatantly and all that conflict was making me lose track of what I was reading. So I kept the book down and stared back at the monk.

“I used to read a lot of books because my guru also liked to read books,” he said, as if the break in conversation never happened, “He always encouraged me to read more. I was the only student who listened hahaha. I read everything. Charles Dickens, Kipling, Mark Twain, Hemingway, all classic English authors.”

“Who was your favorite?”

“Mark Twain. His stories had a lot of morality and taught you how to be a good human being. The lessons you learnt from his books are applicable even today. Tom Sawyer makes his friends pay him to do his work and tricks them into thinking it’s fun! That’s what big companies try to do today. If you can do what Tom Sawyer did back then, you could be a very rich man. Charles Dickens wrote good stories but they are nothing more. I found them boring.”

“What about Kipling? How do you like the monk in Kim?”

“I don’t like that book. The monk was a very unrealistic character. All mumbo-jumbo about our Buddhism that Kipling knew nothing about. I like Jungle Book more. Mowgli and Bagheera and all those animals. It was more fun to read. Kim was telling lies about our people to the world and the world believed it without batting an eye-lid. Tibet in Western books is either some mystic land or some peaceful utopia. Nobody gave a thought to the idea that the people living there were as human as anyone else on this planet. I think books like Kim and Shangri-La did more harm to the Tibetan idea than the Chinese because they helped them use these ideas from the West to subjugate and conquer the land. Listen, I need a cup of tea. I know a good place down the road. Would you like to join me?”

So we strolled to the tea-shop in the crisp 7 a.m. Himalayan air of Yuksom. This was the first time I was looking at the village in daylight and my first impressions led me to believe that it was just a tiny one street hamlet. Guest houses and small wooden shacks were stacked on the sides of the road and the village was surrounded by thickly forested Himalayan hills on all sides. It felt like a peaceful slice of Himalayan heaven and a perfect place to wind down a long journey.

The tea stall was a cramped, wooden shack that looked like it had been assembled in an hour with the raw materials available at hand. There was a creaky wooden bench with space for 3 people to sit and it was already packed with three men who had covered themselves so thoroughly with all manner of woollens that all one could see was their weary eyes. The man making the tea barked at the people to get up and make space for the monk. The monk ordered them to remain seated and told the teamaker that we would rather have the tea standing outside. “They are labourers from Nepal and Bihar working on a house in the village. They need to rest their bones more than we do. In any case, the breeze outside makes the tea taste better”, he said with a smile.

Our discussion now veered to the Dalai Lama issue. “I admire the Chinese very much”, he said thoughtfully, “The Dalai Lama admires them too but I admire them in a different sense. The Dalai Lama likes the industrious, hard-working nature of the Chinese and he likes them in spite of the fact that Tibetans had to flee enmasse from Tibet because of their policies.

“But I like the Chinese because of their policies. China couldn’t have achieved what it did without gaining control of the Tibetan plateau, with its glaciers and its minerals. Today it’s challenging America to be the biggest power in the world and if it had given independence to Tibet, that would have been impossible. You have to be ruthless to get what you want in this material world.”

I was surprised to see an ordained Buddhist monk so openly contradicting the Dalai Lama’s word. So I said, “You’re the first monk I’ve met who disagrees with what the Dalai Lama says.”

The monk said, “Oh, but you’re allowed to disagree with the Dalai Lama. If I met him, I could tell him what I told you and he would have no problem with it. Some of his disciples may have an issue because they are as corrupt as some of our politicians but he himself would be fine with someone disagreeing with him.

“And that’s where his weakness lies. He’s not ruthless. He’s very wise and says a lot of wonderful things. He gives good advice to people. Everyone in the world should read his books because they tell you how to be happy while being a good person in simple words. But his wisdom only works on the smaller scale. This world is ruled by politics and money and he knows nothing about either. Yes, he’ll advice you to be selfless, donate money to charity, do a good job etc. but he’s not going to tell you how to crush people to do the job better and the world is ruled by people who crush other people under their foot for success.

“If the Dalai Lama had been dictatorial and cunning like the Chinese, he would be living in Tibet right now and his people would have faced fewer troubles. I could say what I did to the Dalai Lama himself but I shouldn’t be able to. He should crack down on monks like me who speak their mind openly but he won’t. He’s too democratic and too good a human being. Which is why his people are still suffering.”

“But don’t you think that’s the reason he’s respected all over the world?”, I said.

“That’s all a tamasha (circus). People make money off his books and his name while he begs for the freedom of his people. Do you think Obama (then President of America) is going to tell Hu Jintao (then premier of China) to get out of Tibet? And even if he does, all the Chinese are going to do is have a big laugh, drink a lot of wine and forget about it.”

“So you think the Dalai Lama should surrender and do what the Chinese tell him to do for the good of his people.”

“No, no, the time for that is over. If he surrenders, they will kill him just like they killed the Panchen Lama. If he had done it during Mao’s time, before he attacked Tibet, something good might have come off it. But Tibet was always weak. It thrived on spirituality and had no idea about politics. The Dalai Lama keeps telling us about the wisdom of his predecessors but they weren’t so wise in negotiating political deals. They made stupid demands on the Chinese leadership. It’s like an ant pleading with an elephant to please avoid squishing it but at the same time, being adamant that it won’t get out of its path.  The entire world knows about the Tibetan struggle but you tell me, what has come of it? They’re still in the same place they were when the Dalai Lama fled. They’re keeping it alive only because their entire economy depends on foreign donations and if they say they’re going to end it, that money will dry up too.“

After these cynical observations on Tibet, the monk elaborated more on Chinese progress vis a vis India, why he thought India was lagging behind in development, how shiny the roads and the villages looked across the border, why democracy and lethargy are dragging India down a slippery slope to failure, why the UPA government has been utterly useless in giving incentives to industries, why everything is Nehru’s fault and a litany of diatribe directed at Indira Gandhi.

By the time he was done with his clinical analysis of all the things that were wrong with India, we had spent an hour standing outside that chai stall. The monk now wanted to go visit an acquaintance at the Dubdi gompa and asked me if I would join him.

“It’ll be good for you. I’ll show you the way. Free guide, no money. Haha.”

So off we went to the Dubdi gompa.

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