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A Hundred Gourds 5:3 June 2016

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page 5  

Sonam Chhoki – Bhutan


Footsteps in the Fog


There’s an old monastery in Darjeeling, where my father spent some years as a young monk. On the tenth anniversary of his death I make a pilgrimage.

The taxi, an elongated version of a Willys Jeep, speeds across the Brahmaputra Plains on the Indo-Bhutan border but struggles up the incline of the Himalayan road built by the British in 1840. Called the Tenzin Norgay Highway it snakes like an unending cobra, whose hood is hidden in the low-lying clouds clinging to the terraced tea gardens and the meandering tracks of the Toy Train*. All along this 80 kilometres highway wooden houses with corrugated roofs sit cheek by jowl with tin shacks of teashops, food and vegetable stalls. Every now and then, cell phone masts rise out of the wooded hills like phantom towers.

road side billboard –
a bottle of Jameson dwarfs
Kang-chen-jun-ga**

Two students on holiday, fleeing the heat of the plains, flirt with the driver with boisterous rendering of the latest Bollywood numbers. The taxi groans along the zigzag of the highway. Soon the girls huddle together and doze. There are four other passengers including myself. We murmur about a viewpoint stop. The driver remonstrates he has another trip after ours. He negotiates each hairpin bend with an enthusiastic blaring of horn. Our protests peter out in silence.

as if releasing
its secret, the mountain breeze
wafts pine resin

I look out the taxi window. My sisters and I went to school in Darjeeling. I can almost see father driving us home or bringing us back after a vacation. The municipality garden carved into the verdant hill comes into view. Here, amongst the rhododendrons and magnolias father invariably stopped for a picnic of cheese dumplings with coriander sauce and the tea still hot in a tall thermos flask. Mother insisted we wash our hands with water from a plastic jerry can carried in the booth of the car; father tried to capture our ecstatic or homesick faces with his Canon SLR.

spreading mist
like innumerable fingers
poke memories

I take incense, fruits and milk to the monastery on the hilltop. The old caretaker monk asks kindly what kind of offering do I want to make. I tell him it’s father’s death anniversary. In the cavernous temple hall, where, each dawn my father must have sat on the rug-covered flagstone floor or perhaps dozed between learning the scriptures by rote, I light butter lamps – 108 each for mother and father. Prostrating before Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion, *** I pray they have crossed the bardo to higher consciousness.

breaking through leaf litter
white primula pendants
light the old footpath


Notes:

*Toy Train: Also known as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is a 2 feet (610 mm) narrow gauge railway built by the British between 1879 and 1881. It runs along the 80 kilometers route between Darjeeling (2,200 meters) and New Jalpaiguri (100 meters).

**Kang-chen-junga (‘Great Mother Glacier’): Dominant mountain range in Darjeeling.

***Chenrezig (Pron. Chen-Ray-Zee, Sanskrit. Avalokiteśvara) took a vow to postpone his own Buddhahood to help all sentient beings attain enlightenment.



Fool Moon

Now, our young cobra has not read Whitman's Leaves of Grass or visited the Savannah, the cradle of civilization. He is five summers old with a gleaming un-blemished hood, king of the grassland which he surveys in the monsoon sun.

His father, Old Hood is unkempt of crown and peeling scales. He mutters, ‘those monsters that rumble beyond the long grass are our nemesis.’

‘Pah’, scoffs our young king, 'with our venom we hold sway. Who will dare face our glorious heads or provoke our blistering spit?'

Old Hood crouches in the warm split-lip of a rock. He turns his face away at every sound of wheels, buries his fangs and waits in dread.

One full moon night the young king filled with pheromone for a queen and a determination to exorcise Old Hood's fears, ripples down the highway.

His hood glints briefly in the headlights of a truck.

village pond
guava blossoms drift
as foam


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