The wheels of the trolley bag squealed in resistance to the gravel path, which lurched upwards without warning or respite. Pia dragged it up the crude mountain road, aware that her arrival in McLeod Ganj had startled the early risers (or were they party-eyed insomniacs?) of this hill station. Here, the cosmopolite, the world weary, moon walkers, sleep talkers, saffron-robed jail breakers and keepers of cosmic secrets congregated, squandering the night away in a haze of bliss, rolled to perfection and inhaled collectively to strengthen karmic bonds. A pair of loose cotton dhoti-pants was the only visa one needed to enter this bohemian republic. Here, one could make one’s own didgeridoo, and play it by moonlight to one’s hallucinations.
No one came to McLeod Ganj with trolley bags meant for smooth airport floors. Those with worldly possessions had rucksacks flung across their shoulders; only the paranoid brought their own toothbrush and clean underwear. Pia scolded herself for stuffing her bag with bandages, antibiotics, sweet and savoury snacks, lemons, rock salt (for a quick citrus drink, in case she felt dehydrated), like a refugee crossing hostile borders.
She, a clanging heap of overstuffed luggage and digital camera, had disturbed the slumbering Kangra morning with her bourgeois sounds. Also, she was alone. No gaggle of friends to slow her down by taking selfies against the valley. No lover to offer her a piggy-back ride as she trudged up an incline chiselled on the face of the Dhauladhar mountains. She was alone, she was on assignment, all alone. It was a state both protective and vulnerable, like her windbreaker jacket, which shielded her from the elements but did nothing to ward off the prying eyes of strangers.
Buddha Hall stood a little apart from the jumble of motels, restaurants and shops that sold silver jewellery, leather bags and enlightenment for the price of a Reiki session. She was relieved that she didn’t have to ask one of the semi-naked denizens of the motels that stood along the path, for directions. Uniformly clad in neon-coloured knickers, the men (she had not seen a single woman) leaned out of the balconies of their rooms – the dark hair on their bare chests and arms rising to acknowledge the cold, cigarette ash forming a light drizzle as it fell from the stubs between their fingers – and leered. Thank you Bodhisattva Manjushri, she thought, or whichever Buddhist deity presided over her travels, for not allowing the neon-groined men to hoot as she made her way up to Buddha Hall. There were deities swirling around the Dhauladhar mountains, she knew that. She could sense them reclining on spirals of fog drifting through the valley. She could feel their fragrant breath whenever a wind, heavy with Himalayan clove and rhododendron, touched her through the layers of Nivea cream and sunscreen (SPF 30) on her face. It was the deities who were guiding her to Buddha Hall; it was they who had whispered to the men with porn-star bodies to leave her alone, to spare her the catcalls that blazed in their eyes.
There was nothing strikingly Buddhist about Buddha Hall. Pia’s breath formed tiny clouds of irritation as she walked into the motel. Dusty mandalas of Bodhisattva Manjushri, Bodhisattva Maitreya and Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara hung from rusty nails poking out of a hastily-painted wall. Crystal of varied hues and healing potencies stood on a table. A bookshelf, with orderly rows of self-help books, ran across the wall, carrying multiple promises of a newer, calmer and younger you, attuned to the subtle workings of the universe, luminous with spiritual know-how, in a state of ecstatic oneness with mysterious primeval forces.
This was not the ‘spiritual resort’ that had popped up, when she had typed ‘places to stay in McLeod Ganj’ on her laptop. Those images, with their soft filters, had led her here, to a cold-cramped reception area, waiting for staff to appear from a haze of incense and lead her to a hot shower and some breakfast.
She sank into a faded velvet, high-back chair, stretched her limbs, and contemplated dozing. She felt the contours of something warm and alive under the reception desk. Her legs folded up in shock and she leapt to her feet, ready to run downhill and into the bronzed arms of a motel dweller. But the sound of a languorous yawn transfixed her to the uneven floor of the reception area.
A man lay curled under the desk. He had stirred when Pia’s feet had brushed against his chest, and now crawled out to stretch his arms heavenwards, displaying luxuriant tufts of hair on exposed armpits.
Clutching her trolley bag and feeling for the door knob, she said, ‘Are you a guest here?’
He was alert enough to reply, ‘Naawh, man!’ She grabbed him by the flimsy Lycra of his vest before he could sink back into the recesses of the desk.
‘Are you the maître ď?’ she asked, hope thawing her irritation.
He laughed, the vestiges of sleep disappearing from his voice. ‘Naaaawh! I no Matri Devi, man. I Tenzin Dorjee. You want room, man?’
The path to enlightenment is littered with sentences that breathe their last before finishing their purpose. She nodded vigorously. He gave her the keys to a room whose prettiness took her by surprise.
The Prime Minister-in-exile went over his speech. He wrote all his speeches with a neat handwriting that conformed to the classic style prescribed by primary-school cursive writing textbooks. His education had been a rare act of benevolence by an otherwise tight-fisted fate. And he had adhered to the comforting precision of textbooks in all things, including matters of state.
The speech was meant to rouse his cabinet-in-exile from the stupor induced by deodar-scented McLeod Ganj, where his government and its tiny citizenry had found refuge. They were the descendants of the Tibetans who had arrived here more than sixty years ago, when Tibet had been taken over by a mighty republic of the people. Their spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, had escaped along with a loyal retinue, through stony-faced mountains, to reach a friendlier part of the Himalayas. The speech was to be a reminder of a tumultuous history that had landed them in this tourist town.
To be free and enfranchised – that was the grand purpose. And over the years, the definition of free had varied, reflecting optimism or a cynical resignation, depending on which way the pendulum swung. Today, it meant genuine autonomy – a cautious bid for freedom rather than flamboyant revolution.
The Prime Minister-in-exile hoped he hadn’t written a didactic piece. He was supposed to read it out on the sixty-third anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising Day, and while he wanted to convey the urgency of his intent, he wanted to do it gently. After all, the tiny refugee community hadn’t settled here to sip rhododendron tea in the dappled sunlight; it was here to prepare for the revolution. To use what His Holiness called the Middle Way Approach, a reasonable and enduring method to negotiate with the communist republic. There was news from Tibet about patriots who had set themselves on fire. Nomads, farmers, students who thought it better to cry freedom by dousing themselves in petrol and putting a matchstick to their lithe bodies. Over there, in the incarcerated nation, the Middle Way Approach would sound like empty rhetoric. And his speech, if it reached the freedom fighters, would be treated with the patronising indulgence reserved for a schoolboy’s fancy wordplay at an elocution contest.
This was upsetting, and the Prime Minister-in-exile suddenly felt tired. He couldn’t write anything that would sound sincere. Maybe he wasn’t sincere, he thought, maybe he should resign. He wanted his teaching position back – the one he had given up, at an Ivy League university, to join the movement for a homeland. A homeland with genuine autonomy.
He pushed back his leather swivel chair and got up, allowing the pages on his lap to fall on the teakwood floor. He stood in front of the flag of a nation that didn’t exist – a vibrant flag, with a snow-clad mountain at its centre – waiting to be unfurled without fear or shame, at school assemblies, football matches, cabinet meetings. He was supposed to talk about this elusive nation, this idea of home and homeland, to a journalist who had arrived in McLeod Ganj yesterday. She should have been in his office by now… wasn’t her appointment for ten-thirty this morning? He glanced at his smartwatch. It was almost eleven. Should he call his secretary to find out if she was waiting in the reception area? What an absurd thought. Do prime ministers of real nation-states call their staff to inquire about delayed journalists? Would a journalist keep a real head of state waiting for an interview? He paced up and down his wood-panelled office. His Holiness gazed at him from a black-and-white photograph on the wall, smiling his bemused smile. His face was an undulating meadow; the Prime Minister-in-exile felt its pulsing serenity. It was a storybook for children, that face, a storybook with babbling brooks and a happy ending. Live creatures darted across its creases and folds. Shy deer, fat ducks swimming with their brood, tiny birds that chirruped hymns and verses about human suffering and how to end it.
A teardrop stung him with its unexpected arrival. The Prime Minister-in-exile moved away from the portrait on the wall. It had started to rain. He put on his Burberry mackintosh and his Ray Ban wayfarers. He looked every bit the foreign tourist, wanting a taste of local weather without having to get his clothes soiled with mountain slush.
He walked out of his office, towards the gleaming SUV that waited for him in the compound. The driver jumped to attention; the Prime Minister-in-exile ignored him.
He would ditch the official car, he decided. He would allow himself the genuine autonomy of a walk in the rain.
Pia handed the keys to her room to Tenzin Dorjee, who was squinting at the register on the reception desk. He looked up and accepted her offering – a confounded bodhisattva who stared at the keys before recognising their form and function. He hung them on a wooden board, then raised an arm to wave at her, his armpit hair glistening as though it was freshly shampooed.
She waved back and stepped out of Buddha Hall. She had decided to walk down the slope that led to the market square, and then farther down, to the offices of the Central Tibetan Administration. She had an appointment with the Prime Minister-in-exile, the Sikyong, they called him. A nationless leader, an administrative chief with no geographies to administer. This was an important assignment. The Sikyong was the first prime minister she would be interviewing for her newspaper. She had fought with her editor for the assignment. He of the bald pate and clogged arteries had wanted to send someone else to McLeod Ganj, a journalist more experienced and reliable, and definitely someone whose stories were informed and informative. Those were his favourite adjectives. ‘Don’t write stories that feel too much but tell too little,’ he had said to her one Monday evening, just before an editorial meeting. ‘Curtail that unnecessary flow of words,’ he had admonished her, in front of an entire hive of reporters, subeditors and their friends from other departments, sharing cigarettes and eloquent silence. ‘Write something newsworthy… isn’t there a sensational incident of some sort you could use… a starlet’s affair with a cricketer, or corporate gossip… a paunchy chief executive officer snorting lines of cocaine off the smooth thighs of an intern, caught on YouTube… ’
Her words were unnecessary, so was she. Her stories were idealistic and lacked scandal.
Pia walked on, allowing the downhill momentum to speed her progress. It was drizzling; the valley glittered with sunlight trapped in droplets of rain. She lifted the hood of her windbreaker to cover her head. Her editor had managed to infiltrate this bodhisattva-blessed hill station. He had ripped apart its gauzy mist with his words; he had wilted the delicate flora of the lower Himalayas with his breath. His psychopathic syllables echoed everywhere: ‘Write something newsworthy… write something newsworthy… newswor…thy… new…s…worth…y…’ He had wanted her to cover a local story. A politician had erected a statue of herself in a public park in Delhi – she was notorious for building plump bronze images of herself in places of beauty and relaxation, disfiguring them for posterity. This particular statue was sixteen feet tall and carefully replicated her abdominal flab and double chin. It had, by some miscalculation, been erected right in the middle of a jogging lane. The joggers had formed a union and staged a protest outside the politician’s home.
Other newspapers had already sent reporters to talk to the joggers, the local authorities, even the politician. Pia’s editor had ordered her to get to the park immediately with a press photographer and to cover the story from every possible angle: statue as health and safety hazard, political misadventures cast in bronze, the benefits of jogging. She had looked up from her notepad, into which she had been scribbling his instructions, and had said, ‘This is all very well, sir, but what about other news… um… meaningful stories… um… a piece on the sixty-third Tibetan Uprising Day, for instance… I did some research on the Tibetan struggle for independence… or… um… autonomy… and I could interview the Prime Minister… the Prime Minister-in-exile… speak with him abo–’
‘Meaningful stories? Meaningful stories?’ Her editor had looked like a helium balloon that was about to pop. ‘This city… your city… my city… the city of all these people here…’ His arms had whirred in the direction of the newsroom, with its rows upon rows of cubicles, within which reporters tap-tapped on their keyboards. ‘This city… the city of Ghalib, of Zafar, of Zauk – have you heard of Zauk, you, who needs to write meaningful stories – this city is being taken over by megalomaniac politicians – any minute now, that grunting piggy who thinks she looks better in bronze, will walk into this office with her minions… any minute now, they will carve her face on these chairs, and these tables…’ His fist had clamped down on a desk, upsetting a conical glass of tea, which trickled down a mountain of photocopies. ‘Any minute now, we will all have to sit on her carved face… this is a story with a scoop, and all you, Pia Ghosh… all you do on a working day is dig into the past… like a… like a sewer rat…’
He had ranted on; she had let him. But a few days later he had sent her a text message, allowing her to go to McLeod Ganj. Nobody else at the office was keen to interview the prime minister of an imaginary nation. Last chance to do something meaningful. Don’t botch it up, okay? he had texted.
Pia wasn’t sure if she would reach the offices of the Central Tibetan Administration in time for the interview. The road slithered past cafés eager to lure tourists floating through McLeod Ganj as though they were watching their dreams, left unfinished by interrupted sleep. Cardboard notices fluttered everywhere, offering quick salvation at discounted rates. Make Your Own Didgeridoo! suggested one. Tantric Yoga. Those Interested, Collect Here At 6 AM Sharp. She wondered if Tantric Yoga was what they called it now, cavorting in the shrubbery.
She was alone. The feeling clung to her with the stickiness of a monsoon that weeps incessantly.
As she approached the town, she smelt diesel in the coniferous air. Buses, minivans and SUVs, swollen with tourists, honked for the right of way, unthreatened by the narrow road fringed by a sheer fall into the valley.
The market was crowded. Makeshift shops encroached upon one another, like adjacent countries redrawing boundaries at will. They spilled onto the mountain their hand-knitted woollens, silk mandalas, prayer beads and porcelain tea cups with lids that were delicately painted with Buddhist symbols of prosperity and luck.
A newlywed couple posed for photographs amidst rows of prayers wheels at a roadside shrine. The young wife pressed her forearms, bulging with red bangles, against her husband’s chest, snuggling up to him. The husband handed his smartphone to a sightseeing foreigner who had shorn his hair in temporary conformity to the ways of student monks. The bald stranger indulged the couple; he clicked away as the newlyweds swiftly changed poses, from cuddling to looking into each other’s eyes to standing cheek-to-cheek in the twinkling light of butter lamps.
Original McLeod Cake Here, claimed a café bordered by purple rhododendrons in plastic buckets. She was in the mood for cake; what was this McLeod Cake anyway? Was there time for a quick snack before her interview with the Prime Minister-in-exile? She didn’t know. Time was an amoeboid cluster of moments here, which reconfigured to form whichever hour one wanted it to be. Surely the Prime Minister-in-exile wouldn’t mind waiting. There weren’t many reporters who traversed the Dhauladhar mountains for an interview with a prime minister without a country.
There were hardly any customers in the café. A group of teenage girls dressed in chubas gorged on dumplings. Chicken or pork, she wondered, making her way to a table by an open window. The place smelt of steamed meat and pine cones. Someone sat at a table facing hers. Someone in a fancy mackintosh. How odd that he had kept his sunglasses on. He brought a tea cup to his lips, and sipped carefully. Pia glanced at him, then looked away. She felt as though he was glaring at her through his sunglasses. His forehead was rumpled in… agitation? Agitated Bodhisattva in Café – what if she filed this story, instead of the one she was here for?
Pia studied the handwritten menu on the table. She would quickly order Original McLeod Cake and resume her walk down the incline. She didn’t want to keep the Prime Minister-in-exile waiting… not for too long, anyway.
Radhika Oberoi is a writer based in New Delhi, India. Her debut novel, Stillborn Season was published in 2018 (Speaking Tiger Books). It chronicles the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 through multiple interconnected narratives. Her new novel Of Mothers and Other Perishables will be published in 2024 (Simon and Schuster India). She also writes book reviews and essays, and has an MA in Creative Writing, Prose Fiction, from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.