Darjeeling is the most beautiful place on the face of the earth when complemented by some generosty from the Sun. However, the weather today is abysmal and uninspiring at best. In the game of hide and seek with low laying clouds, the Sun is doing more of hiding than otherwise. A flock of haze has overwhelmed Kunchenjunga* adding to the murkiness of the town. Everything is gloomy and obscure, and it doesn't seem long before the clouds burst in to a gush of downpours.On a typical Darjeeling morning like this, many locals would prefer dreaming in their cosy beds than venturing outside, but 74-years-old Ama Yangchen is an exception. Nothing deters her from tracing the trail leading to the cliff every Wednesday morning. In the duel between her devotion and the forces on the land of the living, more often than not the former has had the upper hand and today is no different. One could unfailingly spot her vague figure trudging through the deserted Chor-Rasta* almost every third dawn of the week. Today she is accompanied by her eight-year-old, and the youngest of all grandsons, Sonam.
Ama Yangchen is five feet nothing, and her chubby criss-crossed face is rapturous with life and stimulates affection. Her seventy-four years are evident in her slouching back, myopic eyes and plaited hair of no distinct colour. She has the traditional bag for incense, juniper twigs and other substances of ritualistic interest hanging loosely down her right shoulder. Her left hand harbours her trademark brown rosary, which is seldom kept idle. In her right, she clutches a long black umbrella belonging to her late husband, which also comes in handy as a cane. This old woman from Tenkey Dzong, Tsang is the only one in her family who could tell stories about Tibet to the young ones with a certain degree of precision. She is the only mortal link between the old home and the new.
“Momola, I'm tired,” Sonam complaints. The prospect of seeing monkeys swinging from one tree to another at the hilltop might have appeared fascinating minutes ago, but the poor child doesn’t appear to be enjoying the long ascending trek. “We’re almost there, Sonam.” She assures stroking Sonam's hair in encouragement. “You know, when your Pala was of your age he used to look after Yaks and Dris we had back in Tibet on his own, he needed no help and he never felt tired. He was only eight back then. I thought you were like your Pala, not the one to get tired easily, but I suppose I was wrong.” Sonam promptly interrupts, “I AM like my Pala.”
Bonny little lads like him have an extraordinary desire to grow up quickly, and being addressed as an equivalent of one’s father is a rare honour to them. As for Ama Yangchen, she surely knows how to keep children enthusiastic- for she has raised an equivalent of a football team by herself.
Steep slopes and narrow bends are not at all new to this old lady. Approximately forty years ago at the height of the Cultural Revolution she and her husband braved some of the world's highest mountain passeswith three young boys and an infant girl. It was one long, tiring journey from the barley fields of Tenkey to the terraced tea gardens of Darjeeling . After nearly four decades, she looks back to that colossal trip with an assorted feeling of agony and achievement. She has never undertaken an odyssey of such magnitude since then, but that one trek does make her weekly visit to the hill somewhat insignificant and trivial.
“Do we have monkeys in Tibet, Momola?” Sonam questions with a childlike innocence. “Yes, we do. We have monkeys, antelopes, wolves, bears and a bunch of other wild creatures. But they are not as aggressive as the monkeys you see at the hill. We have an understanding- they don't harm us and we don't make life difficult for them.” Ama Yangchen elaborates, occasionally gasping for breath. She is full of fond memories and sweet nostalgia, and is happy to see that her grandson is taking interest in the country of his origin.
After negotiating an uphill path, they finally reach the summit. Prayer flags hanging in thousands from the trees, the aroma of juniper and cedar from the ovens, and the serenity of the location provide a divine look to it. Sonam instantly mingles with the surroundings and Ama Yangchen allows him to play a spectator to the monkeys and their hullabaloos as she busies herself praying.
“With a wish to free all beings
I shall always go for refuge
To the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
Until I reach full enlightenment”
She murmurs the verse as she lofts grains of rice in air. She lights incense, adds some dry juniper twigs in the ovens and makes offerings of butter and tsampa. The amount of time she spends reciting verses, prostrating and doing the holy Kora* is utterly incredible. Religion is the very essence of her survival and occupies a major part of her day. She hardly says a word without reference to Kunchok* and her faith in the infallibility of karma is as unflinching as a physicist's conviction in the three laws of motion.
Prayers said and rituals conducted, she sits down on a rickety wooden bench for a breather. Her eyes search for Sonam and soon discover him following the notorious apes. Apart from his sporadic misdemeanour, he is a well-mannered lad- thanks to Ama Yangchen. He is good at studies and even better at singing. His vocal talent doesn't fail to make his grandma proud. She vividly remembers how profusely she cried when Sonam sang his rendition of the sixth Dalai Lama’s prophetic verses on the 6th of July last year.
“White crane, my dear
Lend me your tender wings
I shall not fly far
And thence I shall return.”
It was hailed as a masterpiece and aptly captured the sentiments of Tibetans longing for their homeland. Apparently, very few could hide their silver tears that day. For Sonam and his older siblings, Ama Yangchen has always been an inspiration. She might not have seen the portals of school during her childhood but she is as intuitive as any learned individual in the town, and the amazing thing about her is that most of her intellect is inborn and instinctive. She is, of course, not familiar with alphabets and vowels taught in schools but she surely knows a thing or two about life, and endeavours to impart lessons life has taught her to her grandchildren. The aphorism- ‘If mother's son has the determination, the Ganden's throne is not a far cry' - is the one she uses time and again to enkindle in her grandchildren a craving to make their lives worthwhile.
It can be said of any elderly Tibetan that if religion ranks first in their priority list then music finishes a close second. It is true in Ama Yangchen’s case too. Every afternoon she tunes into the Tibetan language broadcast of the All India Radio, Kurseong*. News don't mean much to her but she surely enjoys indigenous Tibetan music aired by them. Traditional songs and dances take her back in time and back to her country. Every now and then she reminisces the jovial ditties sung by people in her village while harvesting the season's first barley produce. When in high spirit, one could discover her humming:
“In the world of ours,
No worries we have.
No worries of gold and silver,
No worries of gold and silver.”
It appears that ordinary Tibetans of her contemporary chose not to worry despite harsh living conditions on the roof of the world. They were full of life and merriment, and bizarrely happy in their small isolated existence devoid of anything resembling comfort. It is not that she is entirely discontented in exile; she still finds happiness in her day-to-day life but a sense of belongingness is missing and that makes her happiness, often momentary and incomplete. The romantic world to which she belonged has ceased to exist and now the reality stares hard at her.
The wind howls violently, signalling the mood of the heavens. This brings Ama Yangchen back to life from her melancholy deliberations. On her skin, she feels the first drop of rain and then the second.
“It’s time we left!” Ama Yangchen shouts to her grandson. She collects her belongings, Sonam bids farewell to the monkeys and the pair start their descent in a harum-scarum. She would embark upon a similar trip to the hilltop next week. She will again pray for the long life of her saviour, for the well-being of all sentient beings and for a speedy return to the homeland. Considering her age, she calculates a very slim chance of seeing her last prayer being answered. But she is hopeful against hope. She very often quotes- “Tibetan persistence is the persistence of the simpleton.” The so-called realists may suggest her to stop dreaming but her Tibetan heart still expects a miracle.
*Kunchenjunga- The third highest Himalayan peak (Tibetan- Khangchen-jong-nga).
* Chor-Rasta- Darjeeling's equivalent of mall road in Shimla.
*Kora- The Buddhist practice of taking rounds of a holy place in a clockwise direction.
*Kunchok-The three refuges i.e. Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
*Kurseong- A small town, 32 km from Darjeeling .