It was the winter I stayed at Patlikuhl, in my Tibetan boarding school in rural north India, a small, isolated school tucked in a narrow valley between the hills of Nagar. The nearby town had only one nameless road going through it. I say ‘stayed’ but what I mean is I was left behind. My parents couldn’t come to get me because winter was their busiest season but they had entrusted a man who was coming to get his own children with the task of bringing me as well. Unfortunately there were two Tenzin Lhamos in class five. The man ended up taking the wrong girl home. My parents felt bad sending her back, so they kept her for the winter. It sounds crazy now but that sort of thing happened more often than you might think. So I stayed at school for the winter with all the orphans and other children whose parents were either in Tibet or were too poor to fetch their kids for the winter holidays.
It felt like the freest time of my life: no parents, no teachers, no prefects. We still had dorm mothers but we could ignore them. The old peon still rang the school bell but it lost all its customary tyranny. Breakfast, lunch, tea-time, dinner was what the bell now signalled. It became almost comforting. During term time, we woke up at 5:30 am, put on our uniforms and made our beds quickly, all four corners of the bed tucked in with military precision. After breakfast, we cleaned the dorm, dusting and sweeping until it was time for our one-hour study period. We then had morning assembly and then classes finally began for the day. There was none of that in the winter. We woke up at a later hour, only cleaned the dorm once a week and best of all, turned on the TV whenever we wanted. Our dorm mother let us have the run of the place. That was the winter her oldest son was back home, released from the hospital because there was nothing more they could do for him. He wore a kullu shawl over his kurta, like an Indian, and walked up and down the corridor, a silent spectre of a man, getting gaunter and gaunter each week. He had the same vacant expression on his face every day and at night.We fell asleep to the sound of his coughing.
So we had all this free time, my friend Sherab and I. Sherab was in my class but it wasn’t at all inevitable that we would be best friends. After all, boys and girls weren’t really friends back then, but we were. We spent all our time with each other. We were only eleven, hadn’t hit puberty yet and it wasn’t weird then like it became later.
Sherab was carefree and reckless, the kind of boy who always looked for a rule to break. He had an untameable cowlick on his forehead, which everyone said meant that he was going to grow up to be a troublemaker. The thing about Sherab was that he was very easygoing and eager to please once you were his friend. He had a natural kindness that boarding school, which hardened many a softer person, never really stamped out of him. For all his roughness, he could be surprisingly sensitive, which is why it was peculiar that he didn’t hold back that day when we went to Momo Pasang’s room.
I still remember the day clearly. We snuck out of the school to the bazaar. We made our way to the movie theatre. Neither of us had any money, of course, but the theatre in Patlikuhl had a strange custom where you could watch the trailers for free. In fact the trailers weren’t really trailers of new movies but extended clips of older movies, movies that had been out a year or longer, that the theatre showed to entertain the audience till show time. Usually, they showed either the first half or the last half of a movie. There was one boy at school who had seen the first half of Mr India fourteen times without ever seeing the second half. Sherab preferred seeing the second half of films. He liked the last round of fights where the hero usually wears a leather jacket and rides a motorcycle and then takes on any number of villains in gravity-defying manoeuvres. I liked the first halves, though. I didn’t need to know the ending; I could always imagine it. But I needed to see the beginning to understand how it all happened. Beginnings, I thought, were most important. You couldn’t begin to understand the end without knowing the beginning.
A beam of light moved up and down the aisle. The ticket man was signalling that the trailer was ending and the theatre was getting ready for the feature film.
“Sherab,” I said. “Show’s ending. Time to go.”
“Wait, wait,” he said, eyes fixed to the screen. “Wait for her to die.”
On screen, the hero wept as his widowed mother lay dying in his arms. She gasped out some last words. The heroine, also weeping off to the side, wore the hero’s leather jacket hanging off her shoulders.
“What do you think she’s telling him?” I said. “Farewell, my son, the movie is ending and I gotta go?”
“Farewell, my son, maybe I’ll see you in my next life?”
“Maybe I’ll be reborn as your child, so get on it and make some babies! But don’t forget to get your leather jacket back from that girl. Looks much better on you!”
Sherab snorted, “Lhamo, you are ruining the end.”
“I am saving the end,” I said and stood up.
The three Indian men next to us shifted their legs but didn’t get up, forcing us to squeeze past them, bumping their knees as we did so. We followed the few other trailer-watchers out. The moment that you came out of the dark theatre and stood blinking in the sudden harsh sunlight was always the most vulnerable moment. That was when you were most likely to be caught by a teacher. I put my hands over my eyes, trying to blink into the light. My vision cleared. A bus idled on the other side of the street, but even as I watched, it rumbled and rolled crankily onto the road and took off. Now I could see an old Tibetan woman with her hand outstretched. My body reacted before my mind did, going hot with panic.
“Is that Momo Pasang?” I hissed to Sherab. When you were a child, you learned very quickly that sudden encounters with adults could be fraught with danger. Then I remembered that Momo was practically blind – there was no way she could see us from across the distance. She looked so incongruous, an old Tibetan woman in a dirty raggedy chupa, the color of a dishrag.
No one knew how old MomoPasang was or how she had come to be at Patlikuhl. Some of the older boys said that she was old already when Patlikuhl was founded. The other elders were former cooks and dorm mothers and tailors and seamstresses, staff at Patlikuhl or in one of the Tibetan schools. But what was Momo? She seemed to have always been an old woman. The other elders lived in the Old People’s Home by the classroom buildings. Momo, the oldest of them all, lived by herself in a room below the school hall. The other elders were usually fond of students – they sat in the sun, sunning their backs, saying their prayers and chatting and they often had a smile or a sweet for you when they saw you. Momo never spent any time with the other elders. Whenever you ran into her walking around the school or on her way to the kitchen to pick up her food, she was always alone, muttering what seemed to be curses under her breath.
“What’s she doing?” Sherab said.
She had her cane in one hand, and her other hand, with a small bucket dangling from the wrist, was held out for coins. It took us a moment to understand what we were seeing. She was begging. If we had seen her hitch the skirt of her chupa up and start urinating there in the street, we could not have been more shocked.
Certainly I had seen beggars before: in Delhi, in Bangalore. Scores and scores of beggars, men, women, children, despairing and dying before one’s eyes in the indifferent daylight. My parents, struggling as they were, gave when they could. My father gave to beggars missing a body part, an arm or a leg. My mother gave to women carrying babies. But Patlikuhl was a very small town. There were only the local townspeople and no one was very well off, neither the Indians nor the Tibetans. But no one needed to beg either. And the thing was, I had never seen a Tibetan begging before. Later I would realise that there were many other things I had never seen a Tibetan do. I had never seen a Tibetan bus driver, or a honey-seller, or a milkman. Nor a Tibetan artist, a Tibetan actor, a Tibetan scientist. Tibetans become only certain things in this exile of ours. We didn’t stay to watch MomoPasang. We fled and got back to school just in time for lunch.
After lunch, we were playing marbles behind the classroom buildings when the kulfi man came by. The teachers said the kulfiman made his kulfi with dirty water from the river but we didn’t care about that. He kept it in a cane basket wrapped tightly with sackcloth. He carried the basket on his head resting atop a long rope of cloth that he fashioned into a sort of turban. Even in winter he came to the school to sell his kulfialthough most of the children who remained for the holidays had no money.
“Kulfi! Kulfi!” said a voice above our heads.
An older boy was out on the ledge. He dropped down with an easy swing and held out a tattered one rupee note to the Indian. The kulfiman sat his box on the ground and squatted. With one hand, he began unwinding the turban cloth from his head. He looked even sadder and thinner without it. He cut a large slice of the kulfi with his flat steel spatula, wrapped it in a newspaper page which had a picture of HemaMalini, and passed it into the boy’s hands.
We watched the boy break the chunk of kulfi in two like a piece of burfi. He popped a piece into his mouth and ate it hastily, as if it were too hot and burning his mouth. Then carefully, making sure we were watching, he licked his fingers. He waited for us to say something.
“If you don’t eat the rest quickly,” Sherab said, “the ink will stain the kulfi.”
“Oh, really? You know, maybe I got too much kulfi. I wouldn’t want it to stain. Maybe I should share… Hmm maybe not, maybe I’ll just eat it after all.” He grinned as if he had made a clever joke and we laughed. When an older boy thought he was being funny, you laughed along. He folded the newspaper sheet, held it between his teeth and climbed onto the windowsill of the first floor classroom. Rising carefully onto the balls of his feet, he grabbed the ledge and pulled himself up smoothly onto the second floor. He stood up gingerly, dusted his pants, popped the second piece of kulfiinto his mouth and dropped the newspaper. A strip of red paper also fell along with it. We watched the boy climb back inside the classroom. The sheet drifted slowly to the ground and landed, Hema Malini’s beautiful face ruined. Sherab picked up the papers and stuffed them into his pant pocket.
After the boy went back inside the classroom, the kulfiman sat and waited for other students but there were no more buyers. Sherab and I played marbles, watching him out of the corner of our eyes. Finally the kulfiman tapped his wrist: the signal we had been waiting for. We went over, folded up our sleeves and held our wrists out to him. He cut two small slices of kulfiand placed one on Sherab’s wrist, the other on mine.
“Rukho,” he said. It was a word we knew. Wait.
Sherab and I began counting out loud: One, Two, Three… The slice of kulfilay like a wedge of orange on the transparent skin of my inner wrist where thin blue lines crossed like railway tracks. Eight, Nine, Ten… At first, the kulfi felt like a sliver of ice on my skin, then of fire. Although the slice weighed nothing, it seemed to grow heavier against my wrist and I felt a dull pain. The outer edges of the kulfi began to sludge.
Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen… Sherab’s face looked pinched. The kulfiman watched first Sherab, then me. A creamy drop rolled off my wrist. At Twenty-One, Sherab broke. “I’m done! I’m done!” he said and quickly gulped his kulfi down. I huffed, relieved. Sherab had lasted longer than usual. Angling my face, I brought my wrist carefully up to my mouth and swallowed the kulfi, feeling the sweet milky taste spread across my tongue. The kulfiman’s face didn’t change but I thought he was satisfied. He began to pack up. We watched him tie the rope-like cloth around his head like a Punjabi’s pukri, then place the basket on top. I held my wrist out to the sun. Although we knew the word “shukriya”, we never said it. There was no need to thank the kulfiman. Whatever impulse it was that motivated his action, we knew it was not kindness.
Sherab put his hand in his pocket and brought it out. Beside the crumpled newspaper lay a red strip of pataka. That was what the older boy had dropped. Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, was around the corner and the stores in the bazaar sold all kinds of firecrackers.
“What should we do with it, Lhamo?” Sherab said.
I felt the pataka, the rough rounded nibs of the gunpowder which felt like pellets of sandpaper on my fingers. I remembered that Momo Pasang made a fire in the winter evenings. I had never gone to her room but some of the older boys in our dorm liked to go and sit by her fire. They said she was touched in the head and she never knew who they were, but she let them stay.
“I know,” I said.
Sherab and I walked across the basketball court feeling as if everyone were looking at us. We tried to be nonchalant, as if we were just strolling with no particular destination in mind. It felt as if everyone must know that we were headed to Momo’s place and they would stop to ask us why. Momo’s room was at the south end of campus, below the school hall and facing the outer perimeter of the school. There were a series of storerooms where knick-knacks such as the school’s dance costumes and instruments and old desks and chairs were kept. Momo lived in one of these storerooms.
Momo’s door was unlocked. We knocked and then pushed the door open. She sat on her bed, hunched over, with dirty, straggly hair in a halo around her head.
“Who is it?” she said. Sherab and I looked at each other.
“Who is it?” she called out again. She peered at us and said, “Momo doesn’t have eyes anymore.”
“We are dorm kids. We just came to sit by the fire, Momo,” I said to her.
“What?” she said. “Momo doesn’t have ears anymore.”
“We came to sit by the fire!” I said in a louder voice, which she finally heard. She nodded and waved for us to come in. A low cast iron barrel sat in the centre of the room, inside which a scattering of orange coals glowed weakly under a film of ash. In place of chairs, there were upturned buckets. We went and sat by the fire.
Momo’s room still held storage items. Great leaves of dusty blue tarp draped over large, geometric shapes took up one half of the room. The shapes were strange, as if some misshapen furniture had frozen under them. She lived in the other half of the room, which held her bed and a large aluminum trunk with a cloth over it. On the trunk, she had fixed a small altar. There was a picture of the Dalai Lama, the one with the Potala on a moonlit night and His Holiness’s image in a sun on the left side of the picture. In the picture, the water in the pool in front of the Potala sat so still that a second Potala, falling where the other rose, hung perfectly upside down. Momo had placed a brass offering bowl in front of the picture. There was just the one instead of the usual seven and it was only half-filled with water. The white khata placed over the picture had yellowed and blackened. The single light bulb, strung along a string, cast a hazy yellow glow over the room. Momo and Sherab both looked jaundiced in its light. Grime had settled over everything, the sort of grime that’s had years to settle on all surfaces and seep into all crevices.
Momo rose creakily from her bed. From the pile of twigs on the floor by her bed, she chose two skeletal twigs and placed them into the fire, then poured some coals over them. The twigs hissed and spit, crackling into bright life that held steady for a blaze before weakening and dimming even as we watched.
“The fire needs some wood, some small logs,” Sherab said. “The twigs burn up and out like that.” He snapped his fingers. Momo ignored him. Maybe she didn’t hear him. We waited. Sherab made a face at me and said, “I’ll go and get some proper wood.” He left with a pointed look at Momo’s pile of twigs on the floor.
Momo and I sat there in silence by the dimming fire. In the reddish light of the fire, she looked huddled in a malevolent heap. Some of the older girls told stories of witches, of this coven of women who seemed harmless and ordinary enough in the daytime but turned into flesh-eating demonesses at night. Silly stories, yes, but sometimes even the most fantastical stories can leave a mark on the listener. In all these stories, if someone said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing, the witch got them. You didn’t want to give a witch any excuse. I wanted to break the silence, and abruptly, without quite intending to, the question that came out of my mouth was, “Momo, why were you begging in the bazaar today?
“What?” Momo said in a quavering voice, “What did you say?”
“Momo, why were you begging in the bazaar? I saw you today,” I said.
“What? I can’t hear you,” Momo said, and all of a sudden I felt absolutely certain that she could hear me just fine.
“Momo,” I said again, loudly, insistent, “Why were you begging?”
Momo shook her head and said, “Momo doesn’t have ears anymore.”
Suddenly shivering, I pulled the bucket I was sitting on closer to the fire and held out my hands. A twig had fallen on the floor next to my foot. I threw it on the brazier. The brief, sudden blaze made my thin fingers look red, as if half my hands were on fire. How long was Sherab going to take?
Momo shook her head again and said, “Momo is old. Momo has no eyes, Momo has no ears. Momo has no work, Momo has no money. Momo is very very old. Momo is just waiting to die. There’s nothing else to do now.”
Momo had no one, no family, I knew that. As far as people inPatlikuhl knew, Momo had always been alone. It’s only now that I realise she had already lived a life in Tibet. She had lived her youth in the old country, and who knows what she had then, a home, a hearth. Perhaps a husband and children, parents and siblings. She was older than anyone else at Patlikuhl and if she had had family before, all she had now were memories. Even then I could see that what she wanted more than anything at that moment was pity, and I mean pity, not sympathy. I could sense that she was bitter not about her enduring life, but her impending death, and that frightened me. But I had the pitiless conviction of the very young that death was only the natural end to life – I had no sense of its loss, of why even an old woman with nothing to live for might yet want to live.
I might have asked her a question then. I might have said anything. How do you spend your days? Is this winter colder than the last? Come closer to the fire, are you warm over there? I held my tongue and said nothing. I watched her and thought this is what adults become.
I was relieved when Sherab came back. He held a small bundle of branches in his arms. He dropped them by the twigs and then gave a vigorous shiver. “It’s so cold outside, Momo,” he rubbed his hands. He gave me a look and said, “I think we need a bigger fire.” I wanted to say “no, no we don’t” but Sherab started placing branches on the fire. He laid three in a triangle on the scattering of coals and then dropped some twigs over them. The twigs immediately caught fire but the branches sat dry at first. As we watched and waited though, the wood slowly began to glow red. Momo had closed her eyes and was fingering her rosary. The clicking of the rosary and Momo’s soft mumble were the only sounds in the room.
Sherab quietly tore the strip of the pataka in two and held one half out to me. The room was getting warmer; the branches were now haloed in flame and the fire burned steadily. Sherab called out to me in a whisper, “Lhamo!” I shook my head and gestured for him to keep both halves. But he continued to hold his hand out, insistent on sharing the patakawith me. We stared at each other. In the reflected firelight, the thin, coiled strip of brick-red paper gleamed like a living thing. When I reached out and took the pataka, it felt like a paper snake, with eyes dotted along its long, mean body. I felt a prickling in my neck and the skin of my back. In sync and in silence, Sherab and I held our halves of the firecracker strip over the fire and then dropped them. For a moment nothing happened.
Then the small rounds of gunpowder set off a series of small explosions in the barrel. PAK- PAK- PAK… PAK-PAK-PAK-PAK…PAK-PAK-PAK….
Sparks flew out of the fire. It went on for what felt like a long time although in reality it was probably no more than ten seconds. I was startled at how loud the explosions sounded in the small room.
The effect on Momo was almost miraculous. She shot up from her seat. The rosary flew out of her hands and landed with a rattle by my feet. Then Momo started screaming. “The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming!” she screamed at the top of her voice.
Her eyes were unseeing under a film of white. With both hands grabbing the skirt of her chupa, she raised its hem, as if she were standing in ankle length water and she didn’t want it to get wet. She looked so ridiculous, this old woman in a discolored and tattered chupa losing her mind over a firecracker.
Sherab and I dashed out of there and stood gasping and laughing outside her door. We were laughing so hard, holding our stomachs and doubling over. We clutched each other and said in unison, “The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming!” cackling all the while.
“Wicked kids, wicked wicked kids!” said Momo, raging. She raised her fist at us and started coming toward us. “Wait till I tell the headmaster! Wait till I tell on you!”
Sherab and I ran all the way back to my dorm. We told our success to the other students, stumbling over our words in haste, and everyone laughed and clapped as we got to the end. All that winter long, long after Diwali was over, until the shops in the bazaar finally sold out their supply of firecrackers, kids dropped patakas into Momo Pasang’s fire and every single time, before she came to her senses and realised that it was just a bunch of children, Momo gave her eerie, ridiculous cry