Tashi delek, old man!

I jumped into a bus in Dehra Dun. The rickety vehicle pulled out of the crowded market along Rajpur Road, past the leafy residential buildings and the Sakya Monastery, before zigzagging upwards towards Mussoorie. It was an easy ride, and I got there within 45 minutes. Upon arrival, I decided to share a cab with a group of people heading further up the mountain, towards Happy Valley. Today, most of Mussoorie's roughly 5000-strong Tibetan community lives in Happy Valley. In April of 1959, the Dalai Lama established the first Tibetan government-in-exile here, before it was shifted westward to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh. In Happy Valley was also located the Tibetan School which I had attended for two years. I was returning after having been gone for two decades.

"I watched the movie English, August last night," said the driver, who bore a moustache so auburn-coloured that I almost mistook him for a European. "A good movie about English-obsessed IAS officers. I move a lot of them to the academy every day," he said, referring to the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy for Administration, which produces the men and women of the Indian Administrative Service. We all lumbered on towards Happy Valley. The driver said he did this trip at least ten times a day, and that he knew almost everyone who showed up on the road. Just a few minutes later, he screeched to a halt and waved to a guy in a thick jacket who was walking along. "Arre, Jai Singh, come yaar, there is always a seat in my taxi. Five rupees, only."

That we were already four people in the front and six in the back did not seem to deter our voluble man at the wheel. "Arre, no problem yaar. Sit upon him," he said, pointing towards me, by the door. "Don't forget, the luggage hold is still empty!" The guy in the jacket was quite big, and he proceeded to sit right on my lap. I tried to squeeze my neighbours to make space for this intruder, but met with little success. They looked passively ahead but refused to give a centimetre. I was relieved when we finally reached Happy Valley. I got unsteadily off, paid the driver, and continued on foot. I walked past the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy, and then on towards the Tibetan School.

The Academy itself did not appear to have changed much since I was here last. Its grounds looked well taken care of – the shooting range, the equestrian grounds, the gym and the tennis courts gleamed in the afternoon sun. But new buildings seemed to have cropped up all over the valley, which now struck me as more congested, narrower somehow. I walked past the Birla House and towards the Tibetan School.

I ambled along the road by the deserted-looking football ground, and arrived behind the main school building. An abscessed dog was scrounging for his lunch at a garbage bin near the school gate. Some Tibetans were walking aimlessly about. A couple of old colonial-era houses stood below the road, looking quite untended. Abandoned shoes and plastic bags littered their slanting red roofs.

Apple cheeks
Recognising an old haunt, I stopped by a tea shack nearby. The owner, who I had last seen during the 1980s, had aged significantly – only his smile (now toothless) remained intact behind the jars of sweets on the counter. But he was somehow withdrawn, and when I came in he shied away into the kitchen. A woman came to take my order and I asked for a cup of tea. She replied to my efforts at conversation, "The school has not changed much at all. But most of the older teachers have either retired or immigrated.

A black-and-white framed picture of the Dalai Lama (almost teenage-looking) hung above the table. Two students were eating noodle soup, shy and reticent with their faces almost touching their bowls. Outside, a couple more students were eating, equally wordless. I wanted to talk to them, to see how their experiences at the school compared to my own, but they would not be drawn in. An odd air of despondency hung inside and outside that little shop. "Go visit the monastery, it has not changed a bit in 40 years," the lady suggested.

I paid for my tea and left. Two tiny, apple-cheeked boys in immaculately clean uniforms emerged from the gate, greeting me with heart-warming reverence. After reciprocating happily, I proceeded into the playground, where some kids were playing on a small grassy lawn on the forecourt. Some teachers were standing and talking on the side.

I walked into the huge, rambling building that had housed the boy's dormitory, another leftover from the colonial past. As I reached the portico at the top of the steps, hundreds of uniformed boys swarmed out of the dining room, having just finished lunch. They came out singing songs and chatting loudly along the high-ceilinged, nearly pitch-black corridor. I remember there used to be lights.

The girl students, I noticed, were already out of the dining room. Outside, they lay scattered about in the warm afternoon sun, all of them holding books under their arms. I was gratified to note that nearly all looked happy and healthy. Above the football grounds, a couple of teachers and some kids were drinking tea and relaxing. Nearby, students were shopping at a store that also housed an antique flour mill – established, a sign proudly declared, in 1905. It remained busily in operation, steadily releasing a pungent mustard smell out into the roadway.

As I sat there in the sun, prayer flags fluttered in front of one of the school's dormitories. A couple of labourers were busily pouring the concrete of a new construction. Tall banshee trees were silhouetted against the sky, and flakes of white clouds gathered above.

Pala and Bond
My solitary homecoming almost over, I began walking back down towards Mussoorie town. Upon reaching the main thoroughfare, I went to the bookshop situated along the road that led to the picnic spot known as Company Garden. For some reason, the bookstore was busy with immaculately dressed men purchasing thick works by Salman Rushdie. I decided to continue a bit in the direction of Company Garden, and came upon a Tibetan elder leaning against the roadside railing, trembling faintly with infirmity. He also took the support of a walking cane, and was vigorously reciting mantras. I greeted him and asked his age. He said he was 77 years old.

He wore a cowboy hat, the kind preferred by Tibetans for ceremonial occasions, and had on brown trousers and several grey sweaters, one on top of another. He said he lived in the old people's home just below the road, where he had arrived in 1996. One of his eyes stayed perpetually closed, and the other eye was evidently not providing him much vision. But his mind remained sharp, and he spoke to me with some warmth. He used to work in a monastery in northern Tibet, but that was long, long ago. He described to me in detail how he had escaped into India from Tibet. A young Tibetan student walked past, greeting the old man, "Pala, tashi delek" (Pala means 'old man'). After a while, I bade goodbye to the old man, although my thoughts remained with him for quite a while afterwards.

From there, I walked until I arrived at the Cambridge Bookshop, on Mall Road. Outside the shop was a large announcement, Mr Ruskin Bond will be here at 4 PM. Books by the famous local author – he lives in nearby Landour – were piled high in the shopfront windows, competing with those of Zadie Smith's. I hung about the neighbourhood for ten minutes or so, and when I went back in Mr Bond had already arrived. "So are you the famous Bond?" I asked. "Not James Bond," he responded. We talked for a few minutes. He said he was feeling a little tired that day. For someone like myself, who had enjoyed his writings in the past, the meeting was a happy coincidence. I took some pictures and left.

Down at the Mussoorie bus stand, the five o'clock bus had already left, so I decided to share another cab. This time, there were only five of us. I struck up a conversation with an amazingly handsome man with an immaculately trimmed moustache, who was sitting next to me. He told me he made ice cream in Lucknow, and had just decided to come over for a day trip to Dehra Dun and Mussoorie.

A cheerful couple from Bihar sat in the front. They were in a very exuberant mood, particularly the woman; a holiday seemed to give everyone a new bout of energy. The husband was at times somewhat taciturn, but the lady sent us into fits of giggles every time she started to talk. "Do come to visit us when you come down to Bihar. You look like you go to Bodhgaya a lot," she said, as if Bihar owned the Buddha.

I asked the ice-cream executive what kind of ice cream he specialised in – Vanilla? Strawberry? Chocolate? He had no idea what I was talking about. "I sell only one type of ice cream," he said. "What kind?" I enquired again. "Just one kind, but quite well-known," he responded, mysteriously. All of this in Hindi. He said it was too warm inside, and wrestled his jacket off.

As we arrived in Dehra Dun, the Lucknow ice-cream manufacturer said he wanted to alight at Rajpur Road. As he jumped out of the car, he remembered to compliment the driver, "A beautiful taxi, by the way!" He handed me his card. "Do give me a ring if you happen to come to Lucknow," he said as he turned away. The card said Managing Director, Merry Ice Creams.

Tsering Namgyal is currently based in Taiwan. His collection of essays Little Lhasa: Reflections on Exiled Tibet was published this winter.

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