Master of the Moon: Chapter 1


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June 8th 2013
Published: June 8th 2013
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The entrance is unlit, and they pause to allow their eyes to adjust to the darkness.

“Go on!” she says, pointing up the crude wooden stairs with her chin. Hugging the wall for guidance, Frank climbs the steep, narrow wooden steps, and enters a wooden room illuminated by a dusty beam of light from the window. A man of indeterminate age, lank hair falling over his shoulders, is seated cross-legged on an old rug by the window. He looks disconcerted by the appearance of a westerner. Sunita greets him with a self-conscious mixture of bright boldness and deference, which he acknowledges with dignified smiles and nods. They know each other well. Frank puts his hands together briefly in a gesture like prayer, the standard Nepalese greeting, and says 'namastay'. The man reciprocates in like manner. He invites the young couple to sit on the floor in front of him, and they seat themselves cross-legged.
Hung just below the ceiling, and angled dramatically for easy viewing from below, three framed photographs of their host being handed what looks like a rolled certificate by the old king of Nepal peers down at them. Sunita and the bajay, a Brahmin astrologer, follow his gaze.
“The bajay has been awarded three times for his correct predictions about Nepal,” she says. Frank communicates his respectful surprise and admiration with raised eyebrows and nods.
Sunita explains in Nepali who Frank is, and asks him if the horoscope she has ordered for him is ready. He nods, and turns round to take out a scroll from a shelf behind him. He slowly unrolls it, and they lean forward to examine it. The text, written in Sanskrit on yellow parchment, is illuminated with intricately painted miniatures, and a larger portrait of the jolly-looking elephant god, Ganesh, in pride of place at the top.
He says something to her. She turns to Frank: “He says he is afraid you are coming to mock him. He says westerners don't believe and they just come to laugh.” Frank denies it emphatically. Sunita translates unnecessarily, shaking her head as she protests his innocence. He looks at Frank intently as if to ascertain his true intentions through the facade of his smiling, reassuring demeanour. Then, deciding to accept the risk, he puts on a battered pair of spectacles and takes his hand. He examines it carefully, referring, from time to time, to the tables in the horoscope. He turns to Sunita and begins to share his insights, all the time wearing a sweet, understanding smile.
“He says you come from a good family, and will be healthy and successful. And ....you will live until 90!” exclaims Sunita. Oh dear, thinks Frank. Why did I let myself be dragged here? This is fairground palmist nonsense. But then what else should I have expected?
The consultation is suspended briefly when the bajay's wife enters the room bearing a tray of tea in glasses. The visitors thank her, and she stands and watches them gingerly take the untouchably hot glasses by the rim and the base to take their first sips. Pleasantries exhausted, she squats down in a dark corner and observes the goings on.
The bajay takes his time to continue the analysis, which has seemingly become more complex. He frowns, and Sunita glances at Frank anxiously.
“He says you are in love with a girl from a different caste,” she translates, barely concealing her glee. How perceptive! Frank thinks. Why else would a Nepalese girl and an English boy be sitting there in front of him seeking reassurances about their future? “He says you will marry her when you are 31.” Sunita reports this disclosure with a look of dismay. That is too far off for her liking. The bajayquickly corrects himself. He means they will have children by the age of 31. He's getting their measure. Sunita grins broadly at Frank at this correction, and he grins back not wishing to share his scepticism with her. The great thing about such charlatans, he thinks, is that, like any service provider worth their salt, they give their paying customers what they want. Why should they pay him for bad news?
“How many children?” Frank asks, playing along. The bajay peers at the horoscope, and then his hand.
“He says you will have one son” says Sunita with a big smile. That's fewer than what he has in mind, but it's a prediction that he imagines, wrongly as it turns out, he would have some control over.
“If my wife came from a different caste from me would she be able to settle in England?” The answer is in the affirmative, although Frank suspects that Sunita would have given him this answer even if the bajay had, perversely, given the wrong answer.
The sun has abandoned the room. Frank is tiring of this encounter and brings the consultation to a close by thanking the bajay, and making as if to get to his feet.Sunita adds her effusive thanks, and takes possession of Frank's ornate horoscope. She discreetly hands over some money. The bajay acknowledges the payment with an inclination of the head.
They both stand up, and Frank sneezes. The Brahmin's wife, whose presence he has forgotten, insists that it's bad luck to leave the house immediately after a sneeze, and so they are obliged to hang around in the gloom of the bajay's room until their hosts are ready to release them. While Sunita passes the time chatting to her hosts, Frank peers around the room. A large framed photograph displayed on the wall his back had been turned to during the consultation catches his attention. It's a grubby, black and white photo of a perfectly circular lake cradled in a cwm that itself lies in the lap of a ring of snow peaks. In the foreground prayer flags are strung out between long stakes that have been jammed into the rocky ground.
Frank asks what the lake is called.
“Chandrapal Pokhari,” says the bajay.Sunita provides her own gloss: “You know, Chandrapal is one of the names of Lord Shiva, meaning Master of the Moon. Pokharimeans lake. So, it is the lake belonging to the Master of the Moon!”
Chandrapal Pokhari. It's a name that stirs the memory of a bizarre encounter Frank had some months back at the great Hindu festival of Shivaratri held in honour of Lord Shiva, the great Hindu God. He had stumbled across a wild looking devotee of Shiva, a sadhu, who had told him in perfect English that he planned to mark the end of his life with a pilgrimage to a holy lake of that name in the high Himalayas.
The bajayspeaks again through his intermediary. “It is believed by Hindus that anyone who goes to the lake on pilgrimage will receive God's blessings and gain merit. But few pilgrims succeed to reach it. Some even die trying to reach it.” Sunita twists her lips into a look of alarm. “It must be very dangerous,” she says.
“Ask him if he's been there.” The bajay has relaxed since the consultation ended. He laughs as Sunita translates.
“He says he is too old. It is a problem for him even to walk to the shops. But he says it is a regret. He dreams always of going.”
Frank is planning to go on a trek before his departure, and it occurs to him that this lake would give him an interesting and challenging objective. He has not yet dared tell Sunita, because he knows she would object to his spending any time out of Kathmandu in the few weeks he has left in Nepal.
He asks where the lake is located.
“It is north of Gorkha. You must go to where the road ends at Ramchap, and then walk. You must ask in the villages for directions.”
“Can anyone visit the lake?”
“Yes, but he says you must go as a pilgrim, with the right attitude, or Lord Shiva will be angry.”
“What does he mean by the 'right attitude'?”The bajay takes his time to answer this.
“He says that God is truth, and so you must sincerely seek the truth and the path you take will lead you to God.”
“Where do I begin, looking for the truth?”
“Begin where you are, what you know already.”
“How do I know I've found it?
“He says truth is like love. You will know when you have found it.” Sunita likes this reply and claps her hands silently. The bajay gives his trade-mark smile, although Frank senses it might contain a slight smirk on this occasion. He speaks again. “He says don't travel on a Wednesday. Anything that is started on a Wednesday takes a long time.” He has returned to fairground consultation mode, but he has dropped his former wariness. He's enjoying himself.
“A good day for love-making,” Frank whispers to Sunita.
“But you are not going, Frank, are you?”she says, ignoring his crude aside.
“I shouldn't think so.” He wants to shut down this new concern. “Not enough time anyway. Can we go now?” The bajay confirms that sufficient time has elapsed, and the pair are released into the moonlit street.

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