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Published: June 27th 2013
They arrived at the banks of the Triyangdiriver, and found that the only way to get to the other side was to squat uncomfortably with other travellers in the bowels of an unstable dug-out log-canoe. They gripped the gunwale for dear life as the young ferryman paddled them across against the strong current. As they looked back at the bank they had left, they could see a worker's encampment and piles of cables and girders that had been carried laboriously over the mountains for the new bridge.
They found themselves walking with a group of travellers. Some were Sherpas with new shiny beads from the south. Some had been in the British Ghurkha regiments and were eager for them to know it. One ex-sergeant latched on to him, and tried to make conversation. He was drunk and Frank was not inclined to talk to him. He pretended he couldn't speak Nepali, but the ex-soldier wouldn’t believe it since his British Gurkha officers would have spoken good Nepali. He offered Frank a swig of raksi, which most ex-soldiers seem to carry with them on trail, but he declined. He tried to move away, but his unwelcome companion stuck to his side like a goat. At last he gave up and tried to make friends with Hamish instead, with the same lack of success.
They spent a couple of hours climbing up to a pass and rested at the top, while Anpoorba and Ungel walked on. The sky was overcast, and details of the mountains were unclear. Beams of sun, like light through a lattice window, illuminated parts of the river that glistened far below like the trace of a snail. Oranges shone like coloured lights in the trees, and splashes of scarlet petals set off the shifting greens of the woods, and the yellows of the fields. The clouds displayed a myriad of mono-chromatic shades. It was a heavy, lazy scene and Frank felt blissfully happy.
“What d’you think about Anpoorba’s belief in re-birth?” he asked Hamish as they rested.
“Baloney, of course. You can only test it when you’re dead. Identifying a re-born lama by getting children to pick out the possessions of the dead version of the lama is a ridiculously flawed empirical test. There would be so many ways in which a child’s actions could be influenced and interpreted.”
“Yeah, maybe, but I think there’s an important role for beliefs of that kind. We’ve got to get through this life by hook or by crook, and I think it's legitimate to use whatever means we can lay their hands on to manage the journey in the best way possible. Whether or not they’re objectively true, we need beliefs to get through our lives.”
“Come off it! It’s in our interests to act on the basis of true beliefs even if success isn’t guaranteed,” Hamish said.
“Not necessarily,” Frank said. “Take free will. Do you believe in it?”
“Not really. Science is pointing to the opposite view: that our actions are predetermined.”
“Be that as it may, even if you don't think there’s any scientific justification for it, I bet you act as if it did exist. It feels right, doesn’t it? But it also makes sense to believe in it, because if we didn't we couldn't be held responsible for our actions, and that would undermine our system of justice. I bet you have a whole stack of unverifiable beliefs, just like that. Go on! Be honest! Think of one!”
“Useful lies?” Hamish made a show of racking his brain, and concluded: “I honestly can't. And if I did catch myself holding an unjustified belief, I’d feel obliged to discard it.”
“Well, the other day you were telling me all about how an imperfect vision of reality is sufficient to get by with. I mean, we couldn’t just sit here until the boffins came up with goggles that let us see things as they really are.”
“Eh?” Hamish sometimes found it difficult to follow Frank’s lines of reasoning.
“I can’t see the difference between that and adopting a belief, any belief, that helps us get through our lives in a satisfactory manner. For example: do good actions have good consequences?”
“Well, yes, maybe. Not always,” he said cautiously, trying to avoid Frank’s trap. “It'd be hard to find evidence for it.”
“Exactly. It just feels right. It's a good rule of thumb, isn't it, for a moral life? So think of some more like that.” Hamish stood as if in thought, although Frank doubted he was trying very hard.
“Nope, sorry. Can’t help.”
“OK, I’ll help you. How about Amor vincit omnia
“Amor vincit omnia? Why not just say 'love conquers all'? Or are you trying to be pretentious?”
“No. I was just thinking of the nun in the Canterbury Tales. She had a brooch bearing that maxim in Latin. I came across it when I was studying Chaucer at school, and thought it was worth memorising for the exam. Let's see.” Frank screwed up his eyes to recall the words:
“'Of smal coral aboute hire arm she bar
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene,
On which there was first write a crowned A,
And after Amor vincit omnia.’”
“Bravo! Fancy remembering that after so many years!” exclaimed Hamish.
“OK. Now, I hope you agree that Amor vincit omnia
is an excellent example of a useful but unverifiable belief.”
“Maybe. Maybe not,” said Hamish, hedging his bets. “But where's this leading?”
“It just seems perverse to reject such life-enhancing intuitive beliefs just because they lack scientific rigour.”
“Well, so long as you don't fall into the trap of claiming that they represent the truth,” said Hamish.
“Well, if they stand the test of time, you could argue, as I have been arguing, that they’re truths. An unverifiable belief that stands the test of time, and enhances the believers’ lives, is a truth,” Frank said. His argument was revealing itself to him as he spoke.
“Don’t kid yourself. They’re just beliefs; not truths,” Hamish said emphatically. They roused themselves, reluctantly shouldered their rucksacks, and followed their companions down a very long descent, taking them northwards, along a high ridge, and then more steeply down to a Rai village. The sky was overcast for much of the day, and they could see clouds racing up the hill they were walking along. It had been a long day, and they were weary. There had been no human habitation on the way, and so they had had no chance to refresh themselves with chang
or milk. They stopped at the first house they came to. Their hostess, a young woman, offered them raksi
They sat close to the fire. While Anpoorba counted off his beads with a murmur of prayer, Ungel gave their hostess and her elderly mother news of his village which consisted of such topics as the prices of everyday items, the condition of life, what work the men did, and why salt no longer came from Tibet. The women wanted to know why sahibs walked in the hills and flew in aeroplanes, where their country was and so on. The grandmother was the most inquisitive of all, and wanted to know by what method sahibs got married, by arrangement or abduction. Frank told her that abduction was the method, and this tickled the old girl's sense of humour. She suggested they carry off a couple of the young village girls.
“You could do that,” said Hamish.
“Abduct your girl.”
“Sunita? Could do that, or elope with her rather. It happens all the time here. The trouble is I don’t have the money. Couldn’t afford it.” It was an intriguing possibility nonetheless. The last encounters with her flickered through his mind, and he felt weighed down by sadness. He suddenly felt fed up with the trek, and longed to return to her and make her happy.
Before turning in for the night, they tried to read by the light of a candle until it guttered rather dramatically, briefly giving off a powerful scent, and died. As they lay in the darkness, Frank was struck with an analogy.
“Look. If we'd transferred that flame to another candle, then you could argue it was the same flame being fed by a different candle. It's a bit like re-birth, don't you think?”
“If you think that proves re-birth, forget it. It doesn't. A flame isn’t a soul, or whatever, OK?” He was fed up with Frank’s speculations, and turned over emphatically to indicate that he wanted to sleep.
But their sleep was disturbed by rats. Hamish sat up and lit a cigarette, and Frank entertained him with ghoulish stories about the rats in his flat. Much though he fantasised about killing his unwelcome tenants, Frank was squeamish and hid his cowardice behind a religious regard for all life. He tried to keep them out by stuffing the gaps between the ceiling joists and the wall with newspaper, but all through the night he could hear the sound of paper being ripped, and in the morning he would find rat droppings on his bed, and little shreds of newspaper piled up on the floor.
Frank had discussed the ethics of killing rats with Lakpa, his Tibetan flute teacher and friend, as they sat on the floor chatting after one of his lessons. He was adamant that Frank should not kill them, and was shocked that he could even entertain the thought of doing so. On his next visit to his flat, Lakpa presented him with a portable cage with a trap door. That night Frank baited and set it before going to sleep. When he heard the trap-door drop, he edged his way to the trap to see what he had caught. And there it was: a huge rat. He put it in the store room until the morning, and then, when the local cat was in the garden, he carried the caged beast out, squeamishly keeping it as far from his body as possible. He placed it directly in front of the bemused cat, lifted the cage door, secured it in the open position, and then retreated to a safe distance to see the cat do its work.
“I thought killing animals was against your principles, or does doing it by proxy make it all right?” remarked Hamish.
“That particular method of dispatching rats happens to be in accord with my principles of non-violence, since I was doing no more than assisting nature to take its natural course,” Frank said with mock formality. Although he justified his actions in this way, he had not told Lakpa. He had an uneasy feeling that he would have disapproved of his interpretation of the Buddhist injunction against killing. On the other hand, Sherpas make their compromises. It's not so easy to follow ideas to their logical conclusions in this complex world of ours.
“Did your murderous plan succeed?” asked Hamish.
“It took time. The cat was obviously not used to having its dinner handed to it on a plate, so to speak. At first it didn't notice the rat. The poor thing was standing rigid with fear inside the cage, so there was no movement to catch the cat's eye. I thought the plan had failed, but then the rat moved and the cat locked eyes with it for a few long seconds. And then it was in the cage in the blink of an eye. You can imagine the scene: cage rolling alarmingly around the garden as they slugged it out in close combat. The cat emerged with the rat in its jaws. Mission accomplished. It's a pity objectionable humans are less easy to dispose of.”
“You're not referring to me, I hope,” said Hamish.
“No. Just someone I know in the UN office.”
Early in the morning there was a lot of squeaking under the table by their heads. Frank woke but not wanting to emerge from his pleasantly soporific state, he kept his eyes closed. He had become inured to the presence of rats. But he was sure the little house cat had been at work.
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