The Monsoon
 


Linda Leaming Thimphu
   

Photo of Linda and Namjay

Copyright 2003 by Linda Leaming Thimphu  
 


Photo of Linda and Namgay.

     What is there to say? I am an American woman married to a Bhutanese man. We have an unlikely marriage but a
good one and live beside the Thimphu Tsangchu, which means  'clean river'. But these days of the monsoon the river
is not clean; its more a cleansing river, washing everything out of these mountains along with whatever sat on its
banks all winter and spring-- garbage: furniture, tree limbs, various debris from Thimphu and beyond-- flotsam and
jetsam. There’s lots of plastic. Clothes. Dead things.

     The river is our lifeline in Bhutan, fusing mundane with spiritual. Practically speaking, it floods the rice paddies and
feeds us; it gives us water to drink and bathe in: it is life giving and it takes our lives away. It is the mise-en-scene for
otherworldly things, imbued with power and spirits.

     But in Bhutan this spirituality, this otherworldliness is inexorably bound to everything. It's in the rocks and trees and
the river, even the debris. The weather is a part, and Bhutanese religion is tied to superstition, and the wind and rain
because before Buddhism there was Bon, an ancient nature-worshipping cult.

    So here in Bhutan the monsoons are upon us. This August rain was slow to start but now it comes relentless,
steady, and intense. It creates landslides and washes away the road to Phuntsholing in the south, sometimes for a
month or more. The rain can destroy the road in minutes, tearing away the earth and leaving big, black, yawning holes
or gushing waterfalls. Soldiers erect Bailey bridges in the big open spaces where roads used to wind around the sides
of cliffs. There are only three roads into the country, and when the roads are washed away for several kilometers by
the monsoon rains then Bhutan is land-locked up tight. Sometimes we have shortages during the rainy season. Four
years ago Thimphu ran out of food—oil, milk, eggs, and we were short on rice—during a particularly rainy August.

     Monsoon is 'season' in Arabic and refers to wind that changes direction. In our part of the world, the area around the
Indian Ocean, the summer monsoons bring heavy rains that dominate our lives for about three months. Geologists
believe 20 million years ago this ancient weather pattern helped steer the Indian Subcontinent into the rest of Asia,
creating the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. And India is still pushing; it makes the mountains an inch taller every
year.

     During monsoons, gray clouds curl violently over the mountains, crashing into tips, pouring into valleys, spilling
tanker-sized loads of rain. From about mid-June to mid-September it’s impossible to get completely dry. The wetness
is only surpassed by remoteness.

     Druk Air, the national airlines, is the only airplane that flies into Bhutan. There is one plane at this writing—a 60 seat
British Air 146, that can’t fly in cloudy weather and can’t fly in the dark, and must make one of the most harrowing take
offs and landings in the world, into a short, high, narrow valley. The only other airport that’s higher than Paro Airport is
the airport at La Paz, Bolivia. But it’s on a big plateau and you can fly a wide-bodied jet into it. You can’t get much on a
60-seat airplane like the kind that flies into Paro. In fact, if it’s hot or the weather is inclement and the plane needs more
speed, the crew will dump some or all of the baggage in Calcutta. So you might get to Paro on the plane but your bags
will stay back in India or Thailand.

     When I think of Bhutan, I think of the impossibility of the place, and the extremes. It’s amazing that it even exists in
the world. In some ways it is not even. Very little encroaches here, and we live at their own pace and at their own time.

     Portuguese missionaries came here in the 17th century and by all accounts they enjoyed their stay but couldn’t
convert anybody. The Bhutanese strain of Tantric Buddhism fits the place, intense and daunting.

     Luxuries here are things I used to take for granted in the U.S.-- like clothes dryers, hot water and ice cubes. In six
years and have only once seen a drink with ice cubes in it, at a fancy hotel, being served to a tourist.

     The Bhutanese make do with the things they have and are extremely adaptable. Being good Buddhists, when
people die they are cremated here. In summertime, the time between the death of an individual and his or her
cremation is very, very short, because of hot weather and no ice. Some Bhutanese have been known to use salt and
do a makeshift embalming if the body can’t be cremated for a while, but mostly the Bhutanese are concerned with not
so much the dead body, as the spirit of their loved ones who die. Cremation and the ceremony for a dead person are
to help the spirit find its way to its next reincarnation. Some high holy men supposedly don’t smell at all when they die
and are buried only after 21 days of ceremony or puja. Sometimes they give off a nice perfume.

     A Bhutanese friend of mine with a tour company had a trekking client who had a heart attack and died high up in the
mountains. The tourist was a British man with no family who came in February, when there is still plenty of snow. And
he didn’t even bring a coat. His guide and the other staff on the trek tried to dissuade him from going, but he wouldn’t
listen.

     Some people come to Bhutan to die, because they think it is an auspicious place and they’ll have their next
reincarnation here. Anyway, this strange, lonely tourist was successful, and he died in his sleep in a tent half way to
Jumolarhi, the sacred mountain. They had to hire soldiers to bring the body down from the mountains. It was a
four-day walk. They put the corpse in a bus and parked it outside Paro and waited. Although it was February, the sun
was very hot. The smell became unbearable. No ice at the hospital—or anywhere. Certainly there was no morgue. A
pack of dogs came up. They intermittently ran in a mad circle around the bus then stopped still and wailed. They did
this for almost two days until my friend got permission from someone in Wales to cremate the body. On the telephone
to some official in England I heard her pleading, “The lamas are saying tomorrow is a very auspicious day. If we could
cremate him then it would be good.” The day was auspicious, probably, but it was also high time.

     Until a few years ago the Bhutanese used the Tibetan practice of sky burial for their dead children. They took the
bodies to a high, holy place, hacked them into pieces and fed them to vultures. It is a last, selfless act to feed other
sentient beings, and can help one have a better reincarnation. But now the government has outlawed sky burial and so
children are cremated or if the family is poor, the children are simply placed into a river or a cave.

                                         * * *

     Open your mind, change your mind—here, these phrases have completely different meaning than they do in the
west. I’ll try to explain in the context of my own experience and our life beside the river.

     My husband and I met at the national art school in Bhutan where I taught English and he taught painting. I had lived
here for almost two years. The first time I saw Namgay I knew I would marry him. Some things you know instinctively.
Some things you’ll never know. Our courtship was uneventful, sort of Victorian. Mostly I waited for him, because he
was shy. We spent a lot of time drinking tea and chatting. But I could tell he liked me because he kept coming back.

     He had never married, nor had I. We were both in our late thirties, and had no plans to marry, that is, until we met
each other. He was a tangkha painter and a man of few words, like most devout Buddhists. He has high cheekbones
that make his eyes disappear when he laughs, and an innate elegance. He is still shy, but no longer shy with me. His
work is slow, meticulous and deliberate and it can take months to complete one of his intricate tangkhas.

     He paints with ancient Bhutanese methods starting with simple cotton cloth that he stretches and sews with twine
onto a wooden frame to make a canvas. He covers the cloth with successive layers of gum and white pigment then
rubs it hard, first on one side, then the other with a river rock to make it smooth. This process, painting then polishing
the canvas, he repeats three or four times until it is perfect and will absorb the paint evenly without cracking. Tangkhas
are rolled and unrolled for hundreds of years, so it is important to make the canvas smooth, even and thin.

     After the canvas is finished he draws an elaborate figure, a god or goddess, in the Bhutanese style, with sky and
earth in the background, and then begins to paint it with pigments he has made from crushed stones—lapis,
malachite, vermilion— mixed with gum and water. Every tangkha is painted in the same sequence: he paints the sky
and earth, then the clouds, then the body of the deity, then finally the face. He'll only paint the face first thing in the
morning because then his hand very is steady. His tangkha are known for precision and for beautiful, serene faces.

     He makes his own brushes from the summer hair inside of cow’s ears.  This is particularly fine hair for the intricate
designs and tiny, almost invisible lines: hair of the gods, tiny perfect pink lotus hands, lines that capture breath and
prayers.

     The figures he paints are prescribed by a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. My favorites are the five
kendum, ornamentally perched above a deity in clouds, poring oil and holy water down out of the sky. I also have a
special feeling for Dorji Drole, the wrathful manifestation of Padmasambavha. He’s on fire, bright red, with three
demonic looking eyes and big teeth. He’s smoting something and riding on the back of a flying tiger, his consort,
altered for his conveyance.

     Namgay studied for many years so can draw the statues perfectly, just the right proportions. He learned the
thousands of different positions of the Buddha, Green Tara, the God of Compassion, White Tara, Dorje Sempa, there
are so many of these deities in Buddhism.

     The final step of a tangkha is to highlight the flowers and leaves, and brocade and jewels of the statues with pure
gold dust mixed, again, with gum and water, which is polished with a special stone, a long thin agate, to make it shine.
I love to watch this. The gold shimmers as Namgay’s patient hand with stone makes infinitesimal, deft strokes. The
painting is a living jewel, every detail perfect. Rub too soft and the gold won’t polish; rub too hard and the canvas will
crease or tear. If he doesn’t make the tangkha perfect, he says, then the person who has commissioned the painting,
and he, won’t have a good reincarnation. So it is an act of piety, and while he paints he chants soft prayers to the deity
whose image he’s making. He says this helps him paint better and it gives the tangkha power.

     I’ve always talked a lot. I’m not particularly gifted at any one thing although I like to teach. I especially like to teach
English to Bhutanese.  I grew up in a small town far from any thing or anybody Buddhist. Nevertheless, Namgay
adores me. Now I understand that people come together sometimes for unexplainable reasons. Acceptance is so
much a part of being in love, and love can make a person exceptional.

     He believes our karma brought us together as it has before in other samsaras and it will countless times again as
we are born and reborn. Maybe in the next life I’ll be his mother; after that he’ll be my dog. It doesn’t matter to him.
What matters is we’ll be together. This he doesn’t doubt. His conviction is convincing and now I’m inclined to agree.

     Our small house is just outside of Thimphu, a town of about 40,000 people and capital of this last Buddhist
monarchy. This tiny country, 200 miles wide and 100 miles long, so precious and precarious, makes a dot on the
boarder between China and India. These two unruly, unattractive giants could be worlds away it is so quiet and
peaceful here, one if the most remote places on earth.

     My husband paints his tangkhas and practices his meditation and I work in the garden, and daydream, something
I’ve always been good at. In Bhutan, I’ve discovered, it can be a way of life. But I grew up watching the evening news
and so I know how things can go awry.  I think about our life here and sometimes worry that something will swoop
down and destroy our peace. But Namgay goes by a different gauge. He says Guru Rimpoche, or Padmasambavha,
who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century, has already prophesied the history of Bhutan. “He didn’t mention
Bhutan being swallowed up by China or India or earthquakes, or any disaster,” he says. “Guru Rimpoche didn’t predict
anything bad for this century or the next.”

     “What did he predict?” I ask.

     “He said there would be a war with Tibet. He said Bhutan would win. And we did.”

     “That was two centuries ago. What does it say about this century?”

     “Nothing much happens in this century,” he says.

     And so it goes; the Bhutanese sense of time is different. When I first met Namgay I noticed when I’d ask him the
time he’d say, “It’s six.” If I happened to see a clock then I’d often note it was 6:30 or 6:45. I thought maybe he didn’t
know how to tell time; but no, he did know. He just didn’t bother with the minutes. If he said it was six, then it could be
any time between six and seven. I think time moves slower here and is not exact like we in the west think of it. And if
you make an appointment to meet someone, say, at twelve o’clock, then they might show up any time between eleven
and two. It’s perfectly okay.

     Time is linked to the seasons, and the people are agrarian, so still tied to the land. Bhutanese tend to wake up when
it’s light and go to bed when it’s dark. In some ways my husband can be extremely punctual. He can predict the rain
and pinpoint almost to the minute when it will come. He’ll walk outside and say something like, ‘it should rain by two
o’clock today’. And he’s mostly right. In the west, we’ve lost our intuition about things like weather, because we’re
detached from it.  Our sense of time is linear, yesterday, today, tomorrow. The Bhutanese sense of time is cyclical,
because they are still tied to the seasons and because they believe in reincarnation. If they don’t make the appointment
in this life, well then, maybe in will come around again in the next.

     The Bhutanese brand of Buddhism, mostly Tantric Mahayana, also has its own rhythms and sense of time. Border
disputes, government agendas, and the political things of this world do not bother my Buddhist husband. He was born
in a village in Tongsa, in the very middle of Bhutan, about 40 years ago. It could have been 400 years ago as nothing
much has changed for about that long. There is still no electricity. His family farmed rice and kept yak for milk and
cheese about 40 kilometers from Tongsa town. His father was an astrologer, and they were a religious family so there
are many monks and lamas.

     Namgay was identified at about age seven as being potential monk material and was sent to study with a high
Buddhist lama. He lived with the lama for three years in the village. Then he went to Kuertoe, in Lhuntse in far eastern
Bhutan, with another lama-- his uncle-- where Namgay endured a Dickens-like existence caring for the holy man,
making his food, washing his clothes, going walking about the country assisting in religious ceremonies, learning to
read and interpret religious texts and planting and growing vegetables. Namgay lived in Kuertoe with his uncle for 3
years. He had no shoes. He missed his family. It was a difficult time for him, although he was fond of his uncle who, all
things considered, treated him pretty well.

     Uncle Lama was a Tantric master and a high lama. He comes to our house sometimes when he’s in Thimphu.
Now he’s very old and nothing but bones and he hardly speaks. Namgay remembers that when they left Tongsa to live
in Kuertoe his uncle was middle-aged and plump.

     When Namgay’s uncle was very young he was working in the Dzong in Wangdi as an assistant to the Thrimpon, or
judge, at the high court. He had a baby daughter and a wife who lived in the town. One day the uncle disappeared.
Vanished. Namgay's mother and his grandmother came to Thimphu to report the disappearance to the police, to no
avail. Twenty-three years passed, and one day Namgay’s father was in Tongsa market with a cow he wanted to sell. A
Kuertop, a man from the area around Kuertoe, came by and bought the cow. After the sale, with a celebratory glass of
ara, or local wine, they started talking, as people do, about their families, and where they live.

     The Kuertop asked Namgay’s father about his relatives  “How many brothers do you have?”  “Three,” said
Namgay’s father. “One is a farmer, one is a monk, and one disappeared.”  How they figured it out Namgay isn’t sure,
but the Kuertop said he knew Namgay’s uncle, the one who had disappeared. He’d been living in Kuertoe for over 20
years. He was a lama. So Namgay’s father and his uncle the farmer went to Kuertoe and found the runaway brother,
now a high holy man. He’d spent the last 23 years in meditation in India and Sikkim and Bhutan. That’s how Namgay
came to live for a time with his uncle.

     This man, this master will have no problem when he dies according to Namgay. When people die if they haven’t
meditated then they often get confused. Some of them don’t know they’re dead. They sit with the family at meals and
get mad because they’re snubbed and not offered food. But if they know meditation then they know which road to take
when they die. They don’t hang around at the family dinner table but go straight on to their next rebirth, or if they’re
lucky they go to Nirvana.

     “My uncle can control the flow of his blood when he meditates,” Namgay says. He can also control his taku.” Taku
means either ‘semen’ or ‘walnut’ in Dzongkha. I couldn’t remember which, but feared the worst. I wasn’t sure where to
go with the conversation, but then Namgay said the Tantric masters can draw the semen back into their bodies at the
point of ejaculation. I have heard of the talents of these masters and that some, if they were really advanced, could turn
themselves into birds or other animals.

     We were taking a walk one afternoon to a temple above our house and I was trying to absorb this idea, trying to take
it all in and then Namgay added, as if it were an afterthought, “He can fly.”

     “How does he fly?” I ask, surprised.

     “He takes off his clothes and then sits on a pillow made of cow’s hide. He only wears a sash. And then he flies.”

     “Like a bird? Does he flap his arms?”

     “No. Not like that,” Namgay said, dismissively.

     We got to the temple and the caretaker came out and he and Namgay started to talk in Tongsap, their local
language, so I dropped the conversation. But later that evening when we got home he was in the kitchen chopping
onions for dinner. I went in and started cooking the rice.

     “Your uncle, the lama,” I say. “How does he do it? Flying, I mean.”

     “Not like a bird,” he says slicing an onion. “More like a helicopter.”

     “Did you ever see him fly?”  I asked.

     “No,” he said, gravely. “That would be bad.”

     “Why bad?”

     He lowered his eyes. “It’s not for me to see that he flies.”

     This somewhat cryptic answer to my straightforward question ended the conversation. What could I say? I’d
learned that there was much I would never understand. I had learned that asking questions, trying to get to the bottom
of things was often futile. Of course I routinely pursued the unpursuable and drove my husband crazy asking why. But
slowly I was learning if you stop and observe and if you’re quiet and don’t ask the question, then the answer
occasionally comes. Maybe you have to wait. Maybe it’s not the answer you anticipate.  You have to be ready for
whatever comes.

     This is a hard lesson for Westerners. I think Western logic has locked us into a very narrow way of thinking.
Cartesian dualism. ‘I think therefore I am.’ Maybe. Maybe not. So much of the time I feel I am deep into untraversed
territory, almost over my head. But there is something in my life, my upbringing, even possibly my genes that makes
me comfortable being an outsider, an observer, and perpetual student. Wondering is my natural state. It is the
circumstances of my birth, or so says Namgay. And because I am predisposed, I agree.

    Our life together is, on the surface, quite simple. We teach at the school. We cook meals, tend to the house and
garden; we take walks, shop, and dream about the future and laugh. We focus on the daily things we have in common,
and sometimes we talk about how we were brought up. He is amazed by American affluence and likes our
straightforward way of talking. He thinks all Americans are remarkable, admirable people.

     Of course I am western educated which gives a certain a status here. But the status is misleading as my education
has in no way prepared me to live in this culture and I am forever falling short of Bhutanese expectations. For example,
I don’t know how to program our VCR. “But you have such a fine education,” Namgay wails, exasperated.

     My western education can sometimes be a deterrent.

     Namgay’s education was quite different. When he lived with his Uncle Lama, paper and pencils were hard to come
by so he drew in the dirt with a stick. He liked to draw things. Because Namgay exhibited some early promise as an
artist, instead of becoming a monk, he was sent to the national art school in Thimphu to study tangkha painting. After
eight years at the school then about 15 years apprenticing, painting temples all over Bhutan, he went to work at the
school, teaching students to paint tangkhas.

      The river runs through Thimphu before it gets to our house. It starts from some ancient glacier that melts in the
high Himalayas and makes its way through the river valleys of Laya and Gasa. The Thimphu valley is narrow, with
houses and buildings all in the traditional Bhutanese architecture, white with polychromatic Buddhist symbols painted
all over them. There are horse trails and orchards and vast forests covering much of the high mountains above the
town. Many ancient monasteries and temples sit aloof above it all. They take many hours to reach; some take days
and are perched, impossibly, on cliffs.

     This is where the real action is in Bhutan. There, among the prayer flags and clouds and chortens, and steaming
hot springs, Buddhist monks pray and perform rituals to sway the world to peace and enlightenment, performing
Tantric rituals no one could ever see or imagine. There’s real magic in the mountains up close to the spirits. I often
think they are controlling our lives down below, making things happen or not happen. The Bhutanese believe that the
spirits, gods and goddesses inhabit the uninhabited places, where it is quiet and there are no people. If that’s the case,
then Bhutan is truly filled with them, and magic is afoot. Bhutan is so remote and the steep terrain makes most of the
country uninhabitable.

     The Bhutanese also believe the rocks and rivers are inhabited by spirits, most notably nagas, who come in the form
of snakes, and can be trouble. They are best avoided or appeased with prayers or pujas.

     Every morning during the monsoons Namgay and I go out and have a look at the river beside our house and drink
coffee. We spend a lot of time just standing or sitting in the yard, or leaning on the wall looking at the river, especially
near sunset. I love to daydream by the river. Namgay, eagle-eyed, can spot Coke bottles and all manner of flotsam as
it hurries by. One afternoon he called my attention to what looked like a bunch of clothes caught on a rock. But it wasn’t
just a bunch of clothes. There was a tiny body, a baby just under the surface that seemed to be lashed by its clothing
to a rock in the middle of the river. It was mostly under the water, just below the surface, but if you studied it you could
see little hands here, a nose there as the corpse swirled and they pierced the surface just for a second. I couldn't stop
staring at it. I was stunned. Speechless. It really was a baby. And it was certainly dead. My immediate, spontaneous
thought was that if the child were alive he or she would certainly enjoy swirling and twirling in the river like that, maybe
even be laughing.

     “My God,” I cried. “It’s a dead baby,” as if saying it would help me believe it.

     “Sometimes when the babies die then people put them in the river,” he said calmly.

     “But who? Why? Why don’t they cremate them?” I was trying to absorb it, standing there. I couldn’t stop looking at
the baby in the river.

     “They don’t cremate the babies if they’re poor people,” he said.

     It is true that cremation, for anybody in Bhutan is expensive. There are all kinds of ritual involved, and ritual means
you have to feed a lot of people. And the ritual can go on for days, weeks, months. In fact, Namgay said that it’s illegal
to put babies in the river and there is a stiff fine. But people do it anyway.

     I stood there beside the river for what seemed like an hour; until it got so dark I couldn't see it any more. Is it really a
baby? Yes, the black hair and occasional glimpse of an arm as the corpse swirled perversely in the water were
unmistakable. No doubt it was a baby. It was horrible.

     Namgay had long since gone inside and was in the kitchen when I came in.

     “What are we going to do?” I asked.

     “It will rain tonight and the river will carry it away,” he said.

     “Should we call the police?”

     “No. Then so many problems.”

     “What problems?”

     “The family will get in trouble.”

     “But maybe the baby wasn’t sick. Maybe they killed it then dumped it in the river.”

     "No,” he said. “Bhutanese people don’t do like this.”

     I had to agree. The Bhutanese, generally speaking, adored their children and took very good care of them. They
were Buddhist people, after all, not given to child abuse, reckless endangerment, all that nasty business. It wasn’t likely
there had been any foul play. It was just a poor family. The baby got sick and died. And they put it in the river.

     Namgay was at the sink with a green plastic tub and he was washing rice for dinner. Just at that moment I
happened to notice a burlap bag of rice sitting next to the sink. The rice was from India and on the label it said:
‘Basmati Rice—Nurtured by Himalayan Waters.’

     I let out a loud guffaw and pointed to the bag of rice. “It looks like that baby will be helping the rice grow,” I said.

    It was a macabre vision, the baby decaying, making rice grow. Namgay quit making the rice and told me to sit down.
Then he brought me some tea.

     I was spooked all night and couldn’t sleep. I couldn't stop thinking about the dead baby next to us asleep in the river,
and worst of all I could hear the river. Every night we were lulled to sleep by its sweet sound, but now, this night, the
noise was taunting me. I felt tired but jittery. My mind was racing. How did it die? Why did it attach itself to the rock, our
rock, in the river right next to the house? Would it be there in the morning?  I got out of bed the next morning at daylight
and ran outside and looked and yes, it was still there. I also noticed my neighbor’s bull was grazing with a cow and a
calf across the river, oblivious to the dead baby, oblivious to everything, really, except stuffing himself with grass. I felt
envy.

    Namgay said a good rain would swell the river and the corpse would pass-- perhaps go all the way down to India
and join the Brahmaputra as it makes its way to Bangladesh and meets the Ganges. It could go all the way to
Varanasi. “All Indian rivers originate in Bhutan,” he said.

      Well, I couldn’t wait for that. I suggested to him that we get one of the Indian workers who were building a house
across the river to go and cut it loose. Every day for lunch the workers went down to the river and stripped down to
their loincloth rags and washed and relaxed and played and lounged around. Maybe they’d even noticed the baby.
"Okay, but we'll have to give them some money,” Namgay said.

     As far as I was concerned it was a done deal. “We’ll give them all the money we have,” I said.

     He laughed. “We only need to give them 50 Rupees.”

     I was fascinated by my own reaction and my husband's non-reaction. This was an Asian thing, specifically a
Buddhist thing, to have such ease with death and aging that we don't have in the west. I worry about decay, my own
and the baby's and that is -- I guess-- the main reason I wanted it gone. I didn't want to know it was there and see it
transmogrify. In less than a day it had taken over my life. It had become a strange, troubling entity.

     I tried to get Namgay to react a little bit, show some concern. The night before, in bed we were talking and I said,
"Maybe it's bad karma to have the baby there in the river next to the house. Maybe our luck will go down." This is a
phrase he uses all the time.

     "No bad karma," he said and turned over in the bed.

     "Well what about the ghost?" I persisted. "It's probably still around." He usually worries about ghosts, especially if
he's gone to the cremation ground. He always has a little ceremony, a purging of ghosts, with incense and chanting on
the doorstep before he'll enter the house after he's gone to a cremation. I automatically bring him the incense. But he
wouldn't be persuaded.

     "The ghost is nowhere near here," he said definitively.

     “What about the nagas,” I persisted. Maybe they won’t like it.”

     “The nagas don’t care,” he said. Then gently: “Try to sleep.”

     But I couldn’t. My fretting and worry over something not alive equally fascinated him. The baby’s soul was long out
of this life by his reckoning, and well on its way to the next.

     The next morning I woke and went outside before I’d made coffee to check and see if the baby was still there. It
was.

     The third day, I was on the riverbank by eight o’clock, watching the corpse riding in the water and Namgay came up
beside me.

          “It has to go,” I said. “How can we?”

          He stood there for a long time thinking, looking up at the mountains. It was Saturday and I was on my way to the
weekend market in Thimphu to get vegetables. I felt drained and weak from lack of sleep and didn’t want to buy
vegetables and haul them around the market.

     He didn’t say anything, but then he turned and started walking slowly off down the road that parallels the river. About
half a mile from our house there’s a little bridge that crosses the river. I spotted him again just after he’d crossed it. He
was headed to the building site that was on the other side of the river, but he had to double back beside the river
toward our house. Indian laborers—10 or 12 of them-- were chatting and singing as they worked. They were thin as
skeletons, but strong and energetic with leathery brown skin from working outside every day. They had no electricity,
thus, no power tools. These workers hand-hewed even the massive wooden beams that supported the house. They
mixed concrete, bent rebar—everything, by their own muscle.

     I watched as Namgay walked up to one of them and I could see he was talking, probably in Nepali, as he didn’t
know much Hindi. I could see the familiar way he stood. No matter to whom he was talking his gestures and body
language always conveyed an egalitarian respect. To the Indian workers he was an important man. I could see that the
man he was talking to listened with his head down, eyes probably off to the side, not looking straight at Namgay, in that
Indian way to show respect. Namgay gestured toward the river and then made a swirling motion with his arm. Now
several of the workers had gathered and were standing around listening to him talk.

     As I watched, a little amused, I thought that it seemed like it always took longer for things to get said in this part of
the world.  Namgay often repeats things—or says the same thing in different ways when talking with other Bhutanese. I
think it’s a way to be polite, a conversational dance, and sometimes if people are talking with each other and they really
like each other, or they like what's being said, I think it is a way to savor the moment.  It seemed like forever that he and
the Indian workers stood there. One of then, not the first worker, but another one, was also talking. He must have been
chewing tobacco, because he’d turn his head and spit frequently. I wasn’t sure what Namgay was saying, but the
conversation didn’t seem to be going his way. Five minutes, then ten minutes went by. They were still talking.

     Then, without warning the entire group, Namgay and the ten Indian laborers—by now I had counted them-- began to
move in my direction. They all moved at once, quickly, like a small army. They had quit talking. They got perpendicular
to the house, on the other side of the river. 'Good man’, I thought. He had obviously convinced them to untangle the still
swirling baby from the rocks. But monsoons had swollen the normally calm river to over eight feet and it was fast as it
churned and eddied over the many rocks just below the surface, and it spilled and agitated far up on the bank. The
group stood there talking and gesturing for some time. A couple of them defected and went back to the building site.
The others seemed not to notice and kept talking. Sometimes their words and gestures seemed heated, especially
Namgay’s.

     But after a while I realized the two workers who had gone back to the building site didn’t defect. They came back
with rope. Then a remarkable, circus-like feat: they, all of them, began to disperse and take up some predetermined
tasks. Two of them walked about thirty feet up stream to where a large tree bent toward the river on the bank. I
watched in amazement as one of the workers wrapped one end of the rope around his co-worker and then lashed the
other end to the tree. Then another worker came up, then another. They were spaced maybe a man’s length apart.
They were making a human chain. Three of them were tied to the rope.

     Slowly the first man eased himself into the river. But the water was fast and he slipped. The other two, also tied to
the rope, held it fast so he kept his head above water. Slowly they eased him further into the murky water. Then the
next worker took what seemed a giant leap, and he was in the water, splashing and flailing against the current with his
spindly legs. But he held tight to the rope and kept his head bobbing above water. On the other side of the river, my
heart raced. This was dangerous as the river was moving fast over hidden rocks and debris on the surface, mostly
sticks and a few logs, came fast without warning. It could wound or even kill the Indians. Was this a good idea?

     The other Indians and Namgay stood on the bank. All of them were yelling and gesturing at the two Indians in the
water. Then, the first Indian got close to the baby. He made a few futile swipes with his arm to try to untangle the
clothes. It wasn’t working. I was worried that the rope would break, or the two men would drown. The others on the
bank, including the other Indian who was tied to the rope, must have had the same thought, because at that moment
two of them ran over and helped the third man reel the men in the river back to the bank. The two Indians looked like
drowned rats as they climbed out of the water. Then they sat on the bank catching their breath, coughing and rubbing
their heads and faces, exhausted.

     I watched as the two Indians untied the rope from their waists. Oh well, I thought, so much for that. But no. With
lightening precision, like they had been doing this sort of thing their entire lives, two more Indians stepped up and
quickly almost merrily, tied the rope around their thin waists. They were going to have a go at it. The second team was
successful. The first Indian from the second team bobbed straight to the rock where the baby’s clothes were attached.
A couple of hard yanks and the clothes were free. The corpse floated quickly down the river, unimpeded, and was
gone around a bend.

     Everyone watched for those few seconds and then I heard an enormous collective cry from the crowd of Indians on
the bank. I yelled too and clapped my hands above my head. Then they pulled their friends from the river. There was a
lot of yelling and laughing and backslapping. Namgay waved to me across the river. I loved him more than I could
imagine.

     But then, later, a really strange thing happened. I went inside and made myself a cup of tea and one for Namgay,
who must have been on his way back home, But I felt overcome by exhaustion and so instead of drinking the tea and
going to the vegetable market, I staggered upstairs and fell into bed. I had the most beautiful dream that a small child
was giving me red roses. I could hardly see the child there were so many roses. I woke up after a few hours and went
outside in the garden. A raven sat in the tree calling. Who? I felt groggy, a somnambulist. The raven, loud, kept trying to
get my attention. Or so it seemed.  Ravens are, for the Bhutanese, auspicious birds, old souls. And, like all other
animals in Bhutan they are protected. You get life in prison if you kill a raven in Bhutan. The Bhutanese also say that if
one comes and sits in a tree near your house then you’ll have a visitor. If a raven is talking in a tree it symbolizes
prophesy.

     Then, in my dreamlike stupor I had a silly thought: perhaps the raven was really Namgay’s Uncle Lama paying us a
visit. I watched the black bird hopping from tree limb to tree limb; calling in his loud raven voice and then I heard our car
pull up in the driveway. I walked up as Namgay was getting out. “Oh, you’re too good!” I cried. “What about those
Indians! Now the baby’s gone!”

     “You were sleeping so much,” he said. “I went to the market.”

     I cooked a nice lunch of Tibetan tukpa, or soup, Namgay’s favorite. As we ate we talked and talked about the
Indians and their phenomenal feat of untying the baby from the rock. Namgay told his side of it, how he went down and
convinced them. What it looked like from his side of the river. I told him how I watched him go, and what it looked like
from my side of the river. He paid the Indian who untied the baby 200 rupees, about $5, or in local terms, about two
days wages. He gave the ones who went in the river 100 rupees each and the other Indians got 40 rupees each. Was
it too much? Was it too little? We debated endlessly.

     Later that evening we sat beside the river, silent. We were all talked out and just listened to the sound of the river
and watched it flow past. The river felt like an old friend who had come back, familiar and comfortable. But then I had
an image of a huge tidal wave, the river bursting its banks and us and our house tearing down towards India. Beating
drums and loud horns commandeered me back to reality. Someone across the river was having a puja, a religious
ceremony. I was summoned from my daydream by dreamlike music. Looking back it is hard to know what was
delusion and what was real. I realized I was, again, exhausted.

     Namgay was painting and I could hear his soft chanting when I went to bed early and slept without dreaming until
the middle of the night. I woke with a start. It was the raven again, calling from the same tree beside the house. He
woke me up. Was that it? I looked over and Namgay wasn’t beside me in the bed. I got up and went to the bathroom.
I stumbled downstairs. Namgay wasn’t in the kitchen, in the sitting room, anywhere. Strange. I opened the door and
went outside. The raven was still calling ‘caw, caw, caw’.

     I walked down beside the river next to the house. It wasn’t raining, but there had been a heavy rain so everything
was wet and water dripped from the eaves of the house and the trees. The sky was full of broken clouds and a full
moon peeked through, making everything bright and luminous, but with strange shadows. My own arms and legs,
sticking out of my nightgown, seemed to glow.

     I could hear the endless loop of white noise of the river and could make out the movement of the water as it flowed
past the house and me. Then I felt a strange sensation I wasn’t alone. The hairs on my neck stood up. Then I saw. In
the white mist up over the river, just above the rock where the baby swirled for three days, was Namgay, his eyes
closed and legs crossed in full lotus position, naked, except for a red and gold sash around his waist that I’d never
seen before, hovering like a helicopter above the water. His mouth forming the sounds of some mantra I couldn't hear
over the noise of the water.

     Was I dreaming? Who can tell-- in this place, in this time? Believe me, stranger things have happened. There are
so many things I don’t know, or don’t understand. I know this.

     But I’m not a stupid woman. And I’m sure I won’t mention it.

     It is the way of the world: and there are innumerable things that people considered exceptional  that we will never
understand.
 

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