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Breathing and thoughts have an intimate connection: Hemis book excerpt

Madhu Tandan | Updated on: 22 May 2018, 17:52 IST
(Harper Collins)

Madhu Tandan’s latest novel is set in Ladakh. It’s her third book after Faith & Fire: A Way Within and Dreams & Beyond: Finding Your Way in the Dark.

Book description: Swati believes Akanksha, Ajay's colleague, hovers as a 'third' between them. Ajay is certain his faithfulness is beyond question, yet it has upended his relationship with Swati. With his marriage at risk, Ajay decides to go for a trek in Ladakh, only to be stranded, as the region experiences the worst floods ever to consume it. Forced to seek shelter in a remote monastery in the Hemis Sanctuary, he meets its charismatic abbot, a man unlike any other, and Anna, a young scholar, who is in search of a lost manuscript on the 'missing' years of Jesus


Title: Hemis: A Novel 

Author: Madhu Tandan

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 304 pages



4 August: Morning

Lassitude suddenly struck his body, and his face creased with tension. He shifted restlessly in his seat, cramped for space. Each thought hurt, like a slap. Damn her.

Looking out of the window, Ajay took a deep breath and slowly expelled it. ‘Breathing and thoughts have an intimate connection,’ his yoga instructor had said. ‘Slow down your breathing and your thoughts will become calm.’

They were flying high above the snow-covered peaks of the great Himalayas. The Zanskar range was directly below them, with its spectacular spread of jagged crests and ridges of hard blue granite paradoxically capped with the softest gossamer folds of snow. The rigid and the yielding had no difficulty in coexisting in the same space. So much beauty and desolation in the view, an impersonal grandeur that held up a mirror to his own insignificance. He leaned back and sighed.

Their last fight had been the epicentre. He couldn’t stem the tremor in his thoughts, no matter how slowly he breathed. An inconsequential question; his feigned ignorance; shards of words flying between them. His knee-jerk reaction; her tearful eyes, pools of despair and bewilderment. The argument had a blind impetus to it, predictable and banal in its irresolution. Why is everything in the world about sex or, rather, the lack of it? A man is only as faithful as his options.

The landing announcement was a relief. A double range of mountains, brown, stark and shaped like a horseshoe, sprang into view as the plane descended towards Leh. Their two ends gradually sloped, seeking confluence with the river that had cut a wide bed for itself. The otherwise rocky landscape merged with green and golden fields. Strangely uplifted, he gathered his things together, preparing to disembark. Enough is enough. I am going to enjoy Ladakh and the trek, he told himself.

An hour later, Ajay walked into Omarshila, a charming little hotel, its garden lined with petunias, geraniums and hollyhocks. A tree, bent with the weight of green apples, the first blush of pink on them, stood sentinel at the edge. Willows watched their reflection in the small stream that meandered past, whispering over white stones and rocks as it made its way to the fields beyond. It was an oasis of green, crowned by snow-clad mountains. He had read somewhere that the melting snows were the only form of water that sustained the valley’s pockets of green.

He knew he would have to stay indoors for the rest of the day to acclimatise before he ventured out again. But how was he to rest? The same bloody thoughts. He shook his head. No, sex was not the answer; sex was the question.



5 August

The air had a piercing quality to it. Breathing raucously, Ajay climbed to the highest terrace on the southern side of the Spituk monastery, which was located on the outskirts of Leh. He stood atop a precipitous crag, looking at the lazily meandering Indus shining under the cloudless gaze of an azure sky.

The thin, pure mountain air carried a feminine voicewith a distinct American accent. Realizing he was not alone, he turned around. A woman in her thirties, with blue eyes and hair the colour of ripened wheat, stood next to a monk, who was waving what looked like a drumstick in the air. The woman’s face was impassive but her eyes were

alert. The monk waved the drumstick again. ‘Do you know what this is?’

Ajay moved closer. It didn’t look like a regular drumstick. The monk said with a smile, ‘It’s a human thigh bone!’ Oh my god, it was! What was he doing with it? Ajay

thought, aghast.

The monk flung his hands heavenwards and declared, ‘It has great power. It belonged to my teacher. Last night he came to me in a dream.’ He broke into a near chant:

‘That which quenches but also drowns,

That which yields but also devours,

That which flows but also floods,

Is coming your way.’

This was bizarre. Ajay shrugged his shoulders dismissively. The woman’s eyes showed interest as she enquired about the meaning of the dream. ‘Water…something to do with water? It has been so dry. Even the usual two inches of rain has not fallen this year. Perhaps your dream foretells rain.’

She had fallen for the mumbo-jumbo, Ajay thought. The monk paused before replying. ‘Water cleans…gives life… If so, what is the dream telling me? Water also changes course to create new directions. Could it be warning us of big changes ahead?’

This is what happens, Ajay thought, when you lock up hundreds of able-bodied young men in a monastery instead of utilizing them to develop the resources of the land. They end up meditating on bones. But the woman surprised him. She displayed no signs of the usual credulous enthusiasm of foreigners in search of the spiritual elixir of the East. Yet she had an innate respect for the monk’s ways. Something about her reminded him of Akanksha, the pensive look and her attentive way of listening, the same tilt of the head, with eyes and ears focused on the speaker.

The drive back to Leh was picturesque and lifted his mood. The road wriggled through the periphery of the town, round a last spur and up a steep ascent. The view of Leh then, dominated by the massive bulk of the nine-storeyed palace atop the hill, was stunning. A collection of flat-roofed houses with whitewashed walls and red-painted windows winked among the trees.

The main bazaar was broad, open and airy, shaded by a splendid avenue of golden autumnal poplars. Shops selling semi-precious stones, prayer wheels, wooden bowls, traditional Tibetan carpets and local herbs lined both sides of the road and spilled into the side streets. A man sat quietly turning the beads of his rosary. A lama passed by a Kashmiri squatting outside his shop, and they exchanged friendly greetings. An old bearded man in a loose pheran and a skullcap sat under a tree, smoking a hookah and staring at the water running in ragged stone channels near his feet.

People here seemed peaceful and content, far away from the terrors and strife of the competitive world. It was a life diametrically opposite to his own in Delhi. His success as a manufacturing specialist stemmed from the fact that he was never content. Ne jamais être content was what he advocated to all his juniors in the factories he had headed. If they were content with their product quality today, how would they improve it tomorrow? What he believed in was this: Let’s do it now. Fix it, improve it. Don’t go to sleep without a plan.

Ajay stopped and turned around as he heard a voice behind him say, ‘Julley.’ A Ladakhi woman looked at him with friendly eyes. He looked at his taxi driver enquiringly.

‘She is saying hello. Welcome. God be with you.’

Ajay broke into a smile and returned the greeting. They stood in the centre of the marketplace, nodding and smiling  at each other, while the stream glittering with snow-water splashed past them. It seemed to him that it was singing, ‘Julley, Julley.’

His thirty-year-old guide Abdul chattered incessantly. ‘Must go to Tibetan restaurant for lunch. Down the street. Everyone go there.’

The restaurant was a modest room with posters of Manjushri competing with a torn one of Michael Jackson and, in between them, a man on a motorcycle trying to bridge the irreconcilable chasm. The windows overlooked a street that had a small stream flowing past it. Leh was full of these streams of murmuring water.

Mama, the round-faced Tibetan owner, presided over the restaurant with a smile that crinkled around her eyes. She was abundant in presence and information as she told Ajay,

‘You can have roasted barley tsampas like that Italian, the one strumming the guitar in the corner. Or you can have Lhasa chow mein like my German friend,’ and she pointed to a blond, muscular man industriously writing in his notebook. ‘Soup, you want soup, a hot bowl of spicy thukpa, like that man,’ and her eyes pointed to a Ladakhi who had just been served the spiked dish and was noisily spooning it into his mouth. Perhaps the locals were familiar with this mix of people and nationalities. After all, traders on the Old Silk Route had plied their wares here for centuries. Trading then, tourism and trekking now. But Ladakh still remained Ladakh.

After seating Ajay at a table near the entrance, Mama appeared like a genie with a large copper kettle and asked him, ‘Want tea?’

Ajay knew this was no ordinary tea and her question was a test. He nodded and took a sip. It was a strange brew of  tea, butter and salt. Keeping his face impassive, he delayed looking up as Mama stood watching. Finally, he said, ‘Different, but nice. In fact, very nice.’ Oddly, he liked its strong, unusual flavour—butter instead of milk, salt instead of sugar. My world view is changing, he thought wryly. 

‘Good. If you not like our tea, you not like our land!’ Mama said beaming.

After lunch Abdul was by his side again. ‘They are simple people. Always drinking tea and turning their rosary. If not rosary, then prayer wheel. Not interested only in money. Ladakhis not like that. Have many gods. Maybe that is why not greedy.’

Ajay smiled, his mind gently drifting away. Suddenly he realized he had not heard Abdul’s question.

‘What?’ Ajay asked.

‘What you believe in?’

‘Not in gods, only in work.’

He had told his factory supervisors and managers, ‘You cannot change the dollar parity, a dysfunctional parliament or a stagnant market. That’s not in our hands. But we can change what is in our hands.’ And changed they had, altering the entire manufacturing process, allowing their exports to be ramped up by low costs and world-class quality.

‘Why you not believe in anything?’ Abdul’s horrified voice cut into his thoughts. Then he shook his head and said, ‘Perhaps, here you find answer.’

First published: 22 May 2018, 17:52 IST