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Published: June 18th 2013
The trail was crowded with people of all colours and shapes: Rais carrying their turbaned babies on top of the basket of wares they were carrying, Chettris with their gaily printed cottons, a shaven Brahmin and his family, Sherpas, hot in their woollens, and, going in their direction, streams of porters carrying steel cables for a new bridge. Their fellow travellers were very friendly. A smile and a 'namastay' was all that was needed to delight them. Foreigners were still a novelty to many Nepalese in those days.
They came across a tea shop by a huge pipal tree, the great trunk of which was surrounded by a tiered stone platform, one tier for sitting on and the tier above to take the weight of a rucksack, or a doko, the kind of large basket that Ungel bore on his back. They eased their arms out of their straps and went over to the tea shop and had a steaming glass of sweet, milky tea. Sugar and milk were boiled up together with the tea in the big kettle on the stove. They were thirsty, and it tasted like nectar.
A group of dishevelled Tibetans joined them. Both parties viewed each other with wary curiosity. They were able to communicate with Ungel, though Frank didn't know whether they were speaking a Sherpa or Tibetan dialect. Ungel was being even more polite and attentive than he usually was. When he was able to extricate himself in as unthreatening a manner as he could from the conversation, he came over and whispered to Frank:
“Sahib. They are Khampas. Very dangerous. Get angry.” The Khampas were the Tibetan tribe at the forefront of Tibet's unofficial military struggle against the Chinese, in spite of the Dalai Lama's insistence on non-violence. With their shaggy black hair and grimy, sun-burnt faces, and woollen clothes and boots that must have felt hot in these lower reaches of the Himalayas, they were certainly different-looking from the Nepalese porters. They were carrying woollen goods down for sale in Kathmandu.
For the Newars in the cities, like Sunita, all Buddhists from the north were regarded as bhotiyas
, including the Sherpas, and were considered to be dirty and wild, and godless. They would discover that they were far from godless, but it has to be said that they never once saw Ungel wash anything more than his face and hands, and close to, he harboured a pungent smell of wood smoke.
The path descended through a large forest to a stream, and then steeply up beside it, through a delightful forest to a pass. The two companions found the climb exhausting, and failed to appreciate the beauty of the trees, and the light filtering through and illuminating the strands of moss that hung from the branches. They rested at the top of the pass, and recovered their strength sufficiently to admire the scene. The colours of the nearby mountainsides were gentle and warm, but beyond these mountains, which were mere hills in comparison with the true giants, stood the line of the snowy mountains. There was a vibrancy generated by the stark whiteness of the mountains against the egg-shell blueness of the sky that demanded a response. They danced and laughed maniacally, much to the embarrassed amusement of the stoical Ungel.
They began a very long descent, taking them northwards, along a high ridge, and then more steeply down to a village. The sky was overcast for much of the day, and they could see clouds racing up the hill they were walking along. Steering clear of gods, talk of which he knew would put Hamish off, Frank decided to sound him out about the nature of truth.
“I wonder what the fortune-teller meant when he said I might find the truth at Chandrapal Pokhari
?” he mused nonchalantly, so Hamish wouldn't assume that he was taking the bajay
's advice seriously.
“The truth that he's a charlatan, I should think,” snorted Hamish.
“So you don't believe in such a thing as ‘truth’?”
“I didn't say that did I? It depends what you mean by truth. I believe in scientific truth. That's the only truth around.”
“I'm sure he wasn't talking about the truth of the physical nature of the lake. He was talking about a different kind of truth.”
“Yeah. I know. Such charlatans aren't interested in the truth about the material world because they don't know anything about the sciences. They prefer to waffle on about spiritual enlightenment because it earns them a living, and because no-one can prove them wrong.” His face was becoming an angry red, a bad sign. But Frank plunged on, forgetting his initial resolve to handle the topic in a tentative manner.
“Come on! We've been seeking spiritual truths since becoming human. We've got truth- seeking brains. Our minds seek truths wherever they can be found!”
“The difference is that the search for spiritual truth's a dead end. There is no spiritual truth. Just because you think there's a non-material truth to discover doesn't mean you're right. In fact, you'd be barking up the wrong tree.” Hamish looked him in the eye. “Or simply barking,” he added.
“But how do we know we can't find it unless we go looking for it?”
“If you can't think of a way of testing an assertion, then you can’t say anything about its truthfulness. If there’s no way of constructing such a test, or of imagining how such a test could be constructed, then there's no point in continuing the search.”
Frank needed to ponder that, so they walked on silently for a while and stopped at the next village for some tea. It possessed a few poorly stocked shops, and he was able to get a tin of 'Bon' coffee, and biscuits, and Hamish managed to find a packet of 'Craven A' cigarettes, a couple of candles, and a tin of pineapples.
A wooden carom
board, the size of a card table top, had been placed on a rough table outside one of the shops, and two young lads were flicking a plastic disc at what looked exactly like black and white draughtsmen to send them flying into the string pockets hanging from the corners. It was a mini-version of snooker, played with fingers rather than cues. They watched them for a while admiring the accuracy of their shots. When they had finished, the boys invited them to join in, but flicking the disc was tricky, and painful, and their success in pocketing the pieces was derisory.
However, playing the game had given Frank an idea with which to challenge Hamish's reductionist views about what constituted truth. He decided to conduct a Socratic dialogue. It worked for Socrates, so why not for him?
“Why do we play games?” he asked. Hamish looked at him quizzically.
“Because they're fun?” He was treading warily to avoid falling into a trap.
“Is that the only reason?” Frank asked.
Hamish pursed his lips and thought for a moment. “Yup,” he said. Socrates was lucky he didn’t have such an unimaginative disciple, thought Frank. Surely Alcibiades would have come up with something for Socrates to get his teeth into?
“Surely games and sport resemble aspects of our lives in the way they mirror conflict, and create problems that need solutions?” he suggested.
“Go on.” Hamish was being unhelpful, and Frank was already beginning to doubt that Socrates was right about the truth lying in wait, within all of us, to be discovered with a few questions. Suspecting that the truth had shunned Hamish and had settled elsewhere, he decided to just tell him.
“My point is, we play games because they're challenging, they can teach us something about ourselves, our intelligence, our powers of concentration and so on.”
“So?” Now Hamish was leading him on.
“We don't expect them to provide an accurate model of the way the world or a non-material world works.”
“Where's this going?” he asked suspiciously.
“You can't say that the rules of carom
are true by referring to the outside world. They're true because the game designer said they were. The players take turns to pot their pieces, and the winner's the one who pots his pieces faster than his opponent can pot his.”
Hamish smelled a rat. “If you're suggesting that games tell you 'the truth', they don't. Games may be fun and instructive and possibly revealing, but they don't tell you the truth. As I said, the truth is what you discover when you subject a hypothesis to an empirical test.”
Now came Frank's coup de grâce. “OK. What about Maths, then?”
“What about it?
“Well.” He took a deep breath. “For example: what’s 7+5?”
“12,” said Hamish hesitantly, wandering where his maverick friend was taking him.
“Correct!” said Frank. “You knew the right answer without having to look for oranges or whatever to count!"
“Hold on! 12 is exactly the same thing as 7+5. It’s just a logical truism. You can’t say it’s a truth. It’s just like saying a bachelor is an unmarried man.”
“So you’re saying there are no truths in maths?” Frank slyly insinuated.
“Well, unlike the rules of carom, maths can help us in our pursuit of truth, so it’s a useful tool for the truth-seeker.”
“What about E=mc² then?” said Frank throwing whatever came to hand in the hope of hitting a target.
“E=mc²?” repeated Hamish furrowing his brow in his effort to follow Frank’s line of reasoning.
“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?”
“E=mc² may be logically correct, but that doesn’t mean it can necessarily tell you the truth about reality. In fact E=mc² is a bit of maths that can and has been tested. It turns out that it does tell us some truths about space.”
“I read somewhere that Einstein knew it was a truth because it was so elegant. It just felt right. It wasn’t the testing that told him he had discovered a truth. His gut feelings told him.”
“We can only say it’s true because we can check E=mc² against our observations of reality, not because it feels right.”
“Surely E=mc² would still be true, even if there was no way to test it?” said Frank.
“Well, yeah. There’s plenty of maths out there that might or might not say something truthful about reality. But you can’t be sure an equation, for example, says anything true about the world outside maths until you check it out. I mean, nothing is self-evident.”
Frank felt the need to retreat to ground of his own choosing and regroup. “Come on Hamish! Your definition of truth's too narrow. You’re just talking about the physical world. As far as I’m concerned, anything that tells us something insightful about ourselves is a truth, whether or not it can be tested. We judge it by how useful it is, or by our subjective response to it, as in religion, or art. Or carom for that matter. Does it tell us something truthful about ourselves? I’m sure that’s the kind of truth the fortune-teller was talking about, and I’m happy to go along with that.”
“That's exactly the kind of sloppy thinking I want to avoid,” Hamish said grumpily. “Follow that line of reasoning and you get as many truths as there are people. How could we judge one man's truth against another's?”
A cheerful cacophony of oboes and large curved horns interrupted their learned discourse. A party of villagers passed them on their way to a wedding ceremony. The ornately dressed groom was being escorted to the bride's house.
The two trekkers continued their walk in silence, stopping for the night at a prosperous looking village where many other travellers had gathered. Some camped out beneath the trees, others chattered in the verandas of the houses. Frank and Hamish were among the latter, and Ungel set to work lighting a fire at the end of the veranda. Frank offered to cook, and made a meal of thick gruel of peas and mutton soup accompanied by rice and radish, after which they lay on their beds drinking a bottle of raksi
, and listening to the songs rising up to them from the encampments in the woods - sad songs about leaving home, and homesickness, and the sorrow of parents who have lost their sons. The two sahibs persuaded Ungel to sing them some Sherpa songs, and he sang, in the high-pitched way of the Sherpas and Tibetans, about an improvident soldier who had made merry while on leave until he had no money left to return to India with. He had to sell all his clothes, and disguise himself as a sadhu before he could return to his regiment.
Frank was reminded of his genuine sadhu, who had once been a soldier, but had since renounced the world and was now, if all was going according to plan, making his way to Chandrapal Pokhari like them in the hope of finding the truth. He had a head start on them, but he was walking all the way, and in flip-flops. He was going to have to take his time. Was he following in their footsteps, or were they following his?
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