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Published: June 30th 2013
They proceeded down a broad path. It was a walker-friendly path, sliding very gently down towards the Sunuli river and eventually emerging onto its sandy bed. Hamish and Frank went down to the shore with their packs, and washed their feet and socks. Ungel and Anpoorba walked on a little way to a temporary tea shop and general stores, or dokan
in Nepali, and set up their pans there to make lunch. Hamish eventually wandered off to join them, leaving Frank to write up his diary sitting on the stones by the river.
He heard a child's voice shout: “Angrejee bye-bye!” and thought, oh no!
This was the name foreigners were given by the village children. They converged on him like flies to dung, fascinated by the act of writing. Frank never got used to being the object of such curiosity. It was unsettling to have even the simplest action commented upon. The acrid smoke from a powerful local cigarette, a bidi
, was stinging his eyes, and the snot snuffling noises were making him feel queasy, so Frank gave up and moved back to the dokan.
“Bye bye!” he said as he left.
“Bye bye!” they all shouted gleefully.
He found his companions drinking not tea but raksi
. It turned out that the tea shop doubled up as a little raksi
brewery. Hamish had already ordered him a glass, and so he felt obliged to drink it. While Ungel made lunch, they watched the family brewing their powerful liquor. The process seemed complex involving several urns over a fire, and the addition of cold water every now and again. They were offered a free top-up, which Hamish accepted on behalf of both of them. Anpoorba stuck to tea, and sat outside with Ungel who was preparing lunch.
They emerged from the dark guts of the brewery for lunch, blinking. The world was turning slowly, and they giggled as they tried to sit down. Enlivened and reckless, Hamish was in a provocative mood.
“How d'you know that Buddha was right when he said that clinging to this world leads to suffering?” Anpoorba was taken aback by this question, and had to ponder his reply
“We Sherpas believe this. It is our religion.”
“But you may be wrong.”
Anpoorba touched his heart. “It is feeling right here. We see suffering around us. Old people are there. Sick. Poor. The Buddha is giving us answer to this problem. So, teaching of the Buddha is good for us Sherpas.”
Hamish was not letting him get away with this. “But you might be wrong” he insisted. “It's true that there's suffering, but there may be no escape from that. Suffering's just part of existence, and then we die and that's the final end of our suffering.”
“Maybe. The Buddha said we must examine his words same way we examine gold. Find truth by putting his words to test of fire. It is like your science philosophy. You need, what you says? hyp, hyp...” Hamish supplied the word he was looking for. “Hypothesis. In our life we test the Buddha's teaching according to our understanding. We find truth that way.”
“But what about me? What happens to me if I don't believe Buddha's words?”
“If you live sincerely by your belief, we think you good, honest man.”
“And if I sincerely believe that killing animals is a good thing?” Anpoorba looked at him as though assessing whether he was being serious.
“Then, I feel sorry for you,” he said, shaking his head. “Hope you change your mind! I pray for you.”
They walked in silence for a while, stepping gingerly so as to avoid jogging their heads too violently. Ungel and Anpoorba walked together, and chatted. Whenever they passed a fellow Sherpa, they would stop with a greeting of “Tyangbo!” and a lingering hand clasp. The usual questions would be trotted out, and once both parties had gone through the customary ritual, they went on their way. They would have fallen far behind if it wasn't for the fact that Hamish and Frank had to rest more frequently than they.
Having annoyed Anpoorba at lunch, Hamish now started on Frank. “How on earth are you supposed to test Buddha's teachings?” he asked him aggressively, as if Frank was Anpoorba's spokesman.
“I suppose he's saying that you just apply Buddhist beliefs to your life, and see what they do for you. You can't just talk religion. You've got to do it.”
“So, when're you going to sign up for Buddhism then?”
“Who says I am?”
“Anpoorba said you've got to be in the right frame of mind for your encounter with the truth at Chandrapal Pokhari
. Right thinking, remember? He said Buddha was your man.”
“He didn't. He just said Sherpas use the Buddha as their
source of ideas. He only used Buddha as an example of a wise man.”
“So, it's going to be Jesus then?”
“It doesn't have to be any one
'wise man',” Frank said irritably. “Presumably I can get my right thinking from any of the stalls in the great bazaar of ideas. It certainly makes sense to listen to Anpoorba's ideas, not forgetting the Christian ideas I was fed as a kid, and take on board any that feel helpful. My intuitions are pushing me towards a belief in an after-life, but I'm happy to raid secular ideas too. I'm just keeping an open mind at present.”
“Believe me, cigarettes and booze're all you need,” said the resolutely unmetaphysical Hamish.
“But Anpoorba and Zion would say that in the long term you're on the path to perdition, and will suffer in the after-life. Your short term pleasure will lead to long-term pain.”
“No problem. My intuitions are not pushing me towards a belief in an after-life, thank goodness.”
“But actually, belief in an after-life might help you achieve your earthly goals: a bit like throwing your grappling-hook up to the parapet to get into the window below. I mean, no doubt Anpoorba finds belief in reincarnation a useful way of focusing his mind on his present-day behaviour.” Frank looked at him earnestly, in the manner of a life-style counsellor. “What you need to believe, Hamish, is that you'll be damned for eternity if you smoke and drink, and then you might just be persuaded to give up your vices and end up living a long and healthy life.”
“Just live for the present. That's what I believe. Forget about past and future.”
“Be it upon your head, my son!”
They found a nice enough house for the night, with a fair-sized veranda and a jolly household, and enjoyed a meal of rice, scrambled eggs and some of their precious tomato soup. They had drunk enough alcohol that day, and could not stomach the proffered raksi
. Instead they opted for a glass of nimki chiya
, a mixture of tea, clarified butter called ghee, and salt to round off the day in a wholesome manner. The conversation gradually faded into a soporific murmur, and as the warmth of the room withdrew into the dying embers of the fire, the travellers reluctantly roused themselves and went out on to the veranda where they had deposited their sleeping bags and rucksacks.
The great hulks of the hills around them were shrouded in darkness, but their presence could be felt in the breath that came down from them, and the party were soon lulled into sleep. They lay oblivious to the little rustlings and scratchings and murmurings of the night, but in the early hours of the morning, they were woken by shouts and screams. Ungel was hitting a boy over the head and shoulders with his fist and shouting dire threats at him. The rest of the household came out onto the veranda, and took the boy from Ungel’s violent possession.
“What’s going on, Ungel?” Frank asked. He was breathing heavily, and still had his fists clenched. He did not answer for a while, focussed as he was on the interrogation being conducted by the members of the household.
“He thief! He looking in our roopsacks!”
“Do the others know him?” Frank asked.
“Yes. He live in village.” He had been trying to steal Anpoorba's radio, and though it was obvious that Anpoorba was angry, he left it to Ungel to do the shouting and threatening. Eventually the boy was taken into the house, and they tried, unsuccessfully to go back to sleep. But it was early morning, the coldest time of the night, and their bodies and sleeping bags and blankets had lost their warmth.
“What will they do with him?” Frank asked Anpoorba.
“They take him home. Maybe his father give him thrashing; unless he guilty also, then nothing much happens. Maybe other villagers not speak him.”
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