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Published: June 14th 2013
It rained on and off the whole day, and they were obliged to keep an eye on every foot-fall as they picked their way along the slippery trail. They had expected to reach a large settlement called Argat for the night but came to a premature halt at the river Daryandi. Argat stood invitingly on the opposite bank, but, to their dismay, they found that the only way across the river was by a ropeway, and that they were at the end of a very long queue. Ungel estimated that their chance of getting a ride across that day was very slight.
They settled themselves on a veranda to pass the time out of the rain and chatted over some of their precious coffee while Ungel kept an eye on the queue. A cheerful Nepali calling himself Adon Lepcha joined them. He told them he was from Darjeeling, in the Indian part of the eastern Himalayas.
“Actually, my real name is Zion,” he confided in a whisper. “I am a Christian.” The secrecy was necessary because the government of Nepal, the only Hindu monarchy at the time, banned any form of proselytising by Christian missionaries.
“What are you doing here?” Frank asked.
“I am a preacher, and I am telling people the Good News about Jesus Christ.” He clearly assumed they would be pleased to hear this. He opened his rucksack surreptitiously to reveal its contents: half a dozen bibles.
“Why are you trying to spread Christianity in Nepal?”
“It's my duty to tell people about Jesus Christ.” He opened one of his bibles, and read for their benefit: “'I am the way, the truth and the life. No one cometh unto the Father but by me.' See? John, Chapter 14, verse 6.” Frank queried why he was carrying around the old King James version of the bible. In response, Zion invited him to have a peep inside his bag and Frank realised that he was also carrying bibles in Nepali and Hindi. Only the English bible was in an antique language, inaccessible to anyone but a well-educated native-speaker of English. He must have been anticipating the likes of Hamish and him on his travels.
“When did you become a Christian?” Frank asked.
“I was born a Buddhist, but was unhappy. I drank a lot, and got into trouble with the police. I thought alcohol could make me happy, but I became more and more miserable. Then my brother died of drink. I felt despair.I was told by a Christian brother that Jesus could save me, but I didn't listen. But on 5th of November 1964, Jesus came to me and I knew at that moment that he had chosen me to be his disciple.”
“You have no doubts?”
“None at all.” He hesitated. “Have you been born again?” he asked.
“You have been born of the flesh, but you must be born of the spirit. Until you have been born again in Christ, you will not be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“No. I haven't been born again, in that manner at least. But I'm interested in religion. Not just Christianity,” Frank said. Zion looked at Hamish.
“I'm definitely not a believer,” said Hamish forestalling his question. Zion shook his head and tutted good naturedly.
“Do you feel there is something missing in your life?” asked Zion. “Are you at peace with yourself?”
“Yeah,” said Hamish presumably in answer to the second question. “But my friend here might be having problems. He's looking for the truth.” Frank shot him a look. Zion needed no encouragement. He riffled through the bible’s intensively book-marked pages:
“See here! John, chapter 16 verse 33: Jesus said: 'These things I have spoken unto you that in him ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.' And…,” he turned the pages with assured expertise finding what he was searching for within seconds: “ 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only begottenSon, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ John chapter 3 verse 16.”
“How d'you feel if people reject the Good News?” Frank asked, interrupting his flow.
“My duty is to tell people about the transformation that Christ can bring to their lives,” said Zion. “It is for them to decide. God will judge them, not me.”
“Do you manage to convert many?” Zion shrugged good-naturedly.
“I don't think so, but who knows? I scatter the seeds. Some fall on stony ground. Some fall on fertile ground. Maybe these ones grow into Christians, in good time. The poor and the needy, the outcasts, are the ones most likely to listen to the word of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
“How do you make a living?”
“God provides. When I need something, it is given to me. These jeans were given to me by one of our Christian brothers.” Frank glanced at the battered pair of jeans. There was not much life left in them.
“But you have no regular income?”
“No. But God looks after me.”
“I believe that some Hindus claim that Jesus Christ is an avatar of Vishnu: Vishnu in his loving form,” Frank said, changing tack.
“Yes, yes. Also Hindus believe Buddha is an avatar of Vishnu. Other religions have to fight hard to avoid being absorbed into the Hindu religion,” he said, laughing. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“We're going on a pilgrimage to a lake called Chandrapal Pokhari. A fortune teller told me that I would find the truth there.”
“You don't need to go to a lake to find the truth. You can carry the truth with you wherever you go,” he said. He picked up a bible and fixed him with a look. “The truth is in here,” he said.
It was time for them to rejoin the queue. Zion was going in the opposite direction, and so they said their farewells.
“I'll add you to my prayer list,” he promised.
They crossed a little ramshackle wooden bridge to the platform, where Ungel was doing a valiant job trying to get them a place.
The ropeway consisted of a kind of primitive cable car, with a bamboo cage running down a rope ‘cable’ that had been slung across the river, and suspended over simple wooden towers on either bank. They watched as it started another journey. The operators let go of a rope tied to the cage, letting it run down the cable on its pulley to the lowest point, over the middle of the river. It swung there for a while until the operators on the other bank took up the slack in their rope, and started pulling the cage up to their side. Then the process was repeated in reverse. Sometimes the people pulling the cage up had difficulties in doing so, because of the weight, or because of excessive friction as the cage travelled along the‘cable’.
The policeman supervising the operation looked at their passports, impressing the others with the methodical way in which he checked their names. Frank casually mentioned that his friend was a lecturer. He should have said it a long time ago, for teachers, it appeared, had priority over ordinary mortals, and if the policeman had known it earlier, they could have got across in the morning without paying. So they took their place ready to board the contraption the next time it arrived at their side of the river. But Frank noticed a group of new arrivals slipping a few cigarettes to the two policemen, and when the machine had been emptied, it was that group that got in, and sailed off. He established the order of priority: friends first; then greasers of constabulary palms; then soldiers; then teachers; followed by the rest of humanity. It never occurred to him to draw the policeman's attention to his diplomatic visa.They managed to sail across the torrent around 9pm without mishap, and found accommodation on the damp veranda of a shop.
“That's something else we've got to face again,” Frank said.
“Let's cross that bridge when we get to it,” said Hamish lugubriously and they laughed maniacally. They passed the time by crushing millipedes that lived in the rotten woodwork of the veranda. Hamish hit upon a particularly gruesome but intriguing method of destruction by dropping candle wax on them.
Throughout the night they were woken up by passers-by who knocked on the shutters of the shop to purchase cigarettes. The shopkeeper would open up without a grumble. Frank and Hamish woke up in the morning in a foul mood, and said nothing to each other until after breakfast.
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