The Flaneur: Letter from Jogibara Village

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Photo by Liz Highleyman.

A storm blew through these mountains a few hours ago, freshly icing the peaks and knocking the power out again.

It was a big storm. Unseasonably violent winds, heavens full of thunder, trees tossing around like raptured spirits. And now like so many times before since moving to the Himalayas, I’m writing in candlelight again.

One butter candle splutters and smokes out and I light another. One cigarette fills my lungs with death, and my mind with life, and I write a little more and light another. The lamp strapped around my forehead attracts moths. They flap around between my eyes. I blow them away. They come back.

Beyond my candle-limned reflection in the window the mountains illuminate with silent lightning.

At this late hour I’m thinking about the building being slowly, more slowly than erosion almost, erected less than 50 meters away from my house. I’m thinking about how all that removed dirt and foundational rock and cement – and every brick and every hammer and steel rod that has gone into the structure so far – was carried down from the road in a bucket atop the head of a woman.

And how the entire nation of India is carried atop the head of a woman.

And the men, out there all day, every day, crouched down in the dust, clanking at the stones, clank clank clanking as I read, as I work, clanking with their skinny arms and giant hammers, hammering heavy chunks of formless mountain into smooth white rectangles, one after the other, all day, every day, for less than two dollars a day.

I think of the saffron-robed Thai monks, foreigners here, who light incense and candles and chant and pray among the bricks and mortar atop the unfinished top floor.

The building was originally meant to be a guesthouse, then, months ago, these Thai monks began to materialize.

Word around the village is that they felt something particularly auspicious about the ground on which the building was being erected, something irresistibly holy, so they began hanging around all day – chanting, praying, meditating, feasting together, strolling around with aloof otherworldliness as the thin Indians labored and went hungry all about them – and soon word spread that the building was now destined to become a monastery.

This was about two months ago. Nowadays, new saffron robes appear all the time. They’re a mysterious bunch, keeping pretty much to themselves, detached from the transitory world whirling around them.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the same one twice.

I’ll be walking along and suddenly a saffron robe will appear from behind a tree, or I’ll look up and see one smiling down at me from the top of a hill, and then I’ll look again and he’ll be gone. I feel that if I were to part the leaves of my garden I’d find a monk down there in the coriander.

Such a building, carried down on the heads of women, chipped into being by thin men with hammers, colonized by ethereal monks, is not at all out-of-place around here… so much so that I begin to wonder what this place looked like when I first laid eyes on it two years ago, or what it may look like to the newly-arrived refugees from Tibet, or the weekending Punjabis, or the foreign tourists who pass through so effervescently.

They see the monks, but do they see the monks playing basketball and texting on iphones? And what do they think of someone like me, so alien, so seemingly useless, climbing the steep roads on my motorcycle, honking through town like an Indian, spending all day on the balconies overlooking the streets just above their heads, watching them, observing them, thinking about what it is they may be seeing?

From the mood of this letter it seems I’ve been marooned in one place too long again.

Perhaps it’s the butter candles and the chiaroscuro mood they throw upon these mud walls, or the longing my neglected motorcycle whispers to me from the darkness up the hill.

Maybe being rooted in one place for months has settled my vision enough to see time in the act of constructing its tombstone around my restless body.

Whatever it is, it’s time to hit the road again. Tomorrow I leave for Kashmir.

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