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Published: July 10th 2013
Frank and Hamish lingered at the girls' place all morning, and watched them bustle around. Hakki's younger sister went outside to tend to the animals. The eldest sister was sweeping the floor and tidying the house. Hakki, the extrovert, was making butter in a narrow cylindrical butter churn, the wooden components held together with iron bands in the manner of a wooden beer barrel. The tube was almost as high as she was. She had rolled up her sleeves, and her sturdy arms were vigorously churning the milk with a wooden plunger, up and down, rather like a plumber unblocking a vertical drainpipe. She laughed whenever Frank caught her eye. Anpoorba noticed his interest in the procedure, and said:
“Hakki Sherpani making world.”
“We Sherpas believe there was first ocean, name Gyatso, and wind come and move water this way and that way,” he said, moving his hands back and forth, “and after long time make like cream when you mixing milk, like Hakki doing. First, cream is like….” he couldn't find the English word so spat on the ground and pointed at the frothy spittle. “Like this, very light, covering ocean. But after long time become heavy and yellow colour, like milk mother cow make for baby cow, and then become hard like butter. We believe earth created in this way from ocean. So Hakki making world!” When this was translated for Hakki's benefit, she stopped and guffawed which set them all off.
“Do you really believe that?” Hamish asked barely hiding his incredulity.
“Hakki make world?” said Anpoorba with a big grin, still enjoying his joke.
“I mean the Sherpa story about how the world began.”
“Of course!” he said as if surprised that Hamish should ask him such a question. “You don't believe?” he added with a broad smile.
“What you believe?”
Hamish gathered his thoughts. “The elements, you know, the ingredients of everything we see around us, were created from a big explosion, you know, 'Bang!', billions of years ago, and came together to form this world and other planets and stars.” Hamish's 'Bang!' was loud, and made them jump, and Hakki stopped churning.
“Mmm. Nice story,” Anpoorba said nodding appreciatively.
“Which one d'you think is correct?” Frank asked.
“Both, maybe,” he said with a laugh. “I think one way. Hamish think another way. Maybe both are truth.”
“Surely one must be correct, and the other wrong?” said Hamish, clearly irritated by a logic that would allow the possibility of two mutually exclusive accounts to co-exist. Anpoorba picked up an ornate teapot from a low table. He held it up. Both girls, Hakki and her eldest sister, stopped their tasks to observe what he was up to. “Maybe you see truth like this.” Then he turned it to present a different perspective. “Maybe Frank see truth like this.” He laughed. “Same truth!” And the girls laughed too, although they had not understood a word. “Or maybe both wrong. Maybe not teapot. Maybe something else.” He laughed uproariously at this, and they all laughed again with him.
The house was dark, and so they went outside to enjoy the sunshine. They watched the youngest girl picking the hens up and sticking her finger up their rears to feel for incipient eggs, and then, when their curiosity was sated, they read their books until the mid-morning meal was ready: tsampa
and egg soup.
They took their leave of the girls with great reluctance and set off up the hill, and when they reached the top of the hill they were rewarded with a show of snowy mountains to the north, which was sufficient reward for their labours. Then they descended and came to a small monastery. An inconvenient fullness in his bowels suddenly demanded immediate attention. Frank chose the base of a retaining wall in the monastery grounds, where he thought he had some privacy; but just at the point of no return a lama peered over the wall directly above him and told him that defecating so close to the monastery was a sin.
“I can't stop!” Frank shouted helplessly. The lama hesitated and then disappeared, perhaps to reflect on the extent to which Frank was culpable.
“A good one?” asked Hamish, with not a hint of irony in his voice.
“Excellent,” Frank was pleased to report, “But more bad karma
, I'm afraid.”
Further down the hill was Ungel's own village. There was a gentle wind blowing, and the flags and the strips of cloth along the tops of the upper windows of the village houses were in motion. They could hear water running and the only other sounds were the banging of a hammer and shouts of children and the caw of crows.
Leaving Anpoorba at the monastery desecrated by Frank, they walked down the hill. Before introducing themselves to Ungel’s parents, they treated themselves to an excruciatingly cold wash in a nearby stream, which gave Frank a brief headache, and then warmed their frozen bodies in the sun reading their books, while Ungel washed their clothes.
Once the sun slipped behind a hill, abandoning them to the prevailing chill of the mountains, they went inside and sat with the family by the fire. Ungel’s father was sitting cross-legged at the end of a long bench nearest the fire. In front of him, on a low table, was a brick-shaped loose-leaf book of prayer sheets. His mother was squatting near the fire, and nearby his married sister sat with her baby. Ungel introduced them to the two sahibs, and they murmured a welcome. Their greeting was polite but restrained, and a silence soon enveloped them. His father began reciting his prayers in a low, monotonous chant, ringing a little hand bell from time to time. His mother busied herself around the room. Frank found himself observing the plump rosy face of Ungel's attractive married sister, with her prominent cheeks and small snub nose. She had a young son in her lap, and from time to time he reached up to elicit a mouth-to-mouth kiss. He was puzzled by such intimacy, until he realised that she was transferring masticated food with the kiss.
Concerned about their diet, Frank asked Ungel if they could buy one of the family's chickens for the evening meal. He felt they needed some meat to supplement the meagre fare they’d been having so far. There followed a long discussion between Ungel and his family, with his parents seeming to hold out against the request. Eventually they agreed reluctantly to let Ungel kill one.
“Why’re your parents unhappy, Ungel?” Frank asked.
“They think it is sin to kill animal, sahib, even chicken,” he explained.
“Then don't. We don't want to upset them.”
“It's OK. They understand you not Sherpas, and don't believe same things. Anyway, they need money.”
“Why do they keep chickens then?” asked Hamish.
“For eggs.” Ungel put the struggling chicken's head on a block, and, as he took the knife to cut its head off, they put their hands over their eyes (but peeped through their fingers) muttering 'om mani padme hum'
repeatedly like an incantation to mitigate the bad karma that their son was creating. He plucked and cleaned out the chicken, and cut it up, and handed the pieces to his mother to cook. They assumed that she was cooking it just for Hamish and him, so they were surprised when she served portions of the cooked meat and rice, not just for them, but for Ungel, his father, sister and herself as well.
As Frank and Hamish settled themselves into sleep, they were conscious of a discussion being held between the family members that was not just about trivia. The voices were low but insistent, and not as good-natured as one might have expected. There seemed to be an issue pitting Ungel against his parents, the outcome of which would only become clear the next morning.
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