When Lama Wangchuk shoved his huge feet into my new shoes, I knew they would never be the same again. Both his feet and my shoes. He lifted his maroon monk robe to admire them, turning his feet side to side, pivoting on his toes.
“Oh, these are beautiful,” he sighed from behind his fingers, his mouth still open. When his eyes fell on my bare feet, he quickly passed me his Adidas rubber sandals. “Here bhumo, wear my slippers for now.”
Sure, he’d called me bhumo, a girl, but in the younger monk circles, he was the bhumo. Karma had told me that he and his friends called him ani lama, a nun-monk. He said Lama Wangchuk’s reputation of slapping the younger monks playfully, exclaiming “āchiii!” and “chhyā!” like Kathmandu’s high school girls, was an everyday part of his role at the monastery. They reasoned that a deity lived inside him, pulling him by womanly strings.
I wriggled my toes in his large rubber sandals, still warm. It was already seven and I was late for my daily korā with Karma. Each morning, he and I made three large circles around the base of Swayambhu and then walked up all 362 steps to the main temple, where we drank tea while overlooking Kathmandu. It was his duty as a monk to perform korā twice a day, but I just tagged along because the two-foot distance that we maintained as we walked in public was the most intoxicating exercise for me. When my hand swung a little too far and touched his elbow, or when we passed other morning walkers down a narrow path and I moved closer to him, brushing the back of my hand against his robe, I felt giddy.
As Lama Wangchuk took his time admiring my shoes, I pictured Karma waiting for me under the dead pipal tree outside the monastery gates, the veins on his forearm shifting as he counted his prayer beads, the fingers on his left hand massaging the beads, one at a time.
“Lama Wangchuk, I’m late for korā,” I said, taking his sandals off and pointing at my yellow pleather shoes. “I should go.”
Blushing and scratching his tender shaved head, he pried his feet out of my shoes and handed them back to me. “Gonda, bhumo!” he apologized in Tibetan as he took his sandals from my hands and pressed them to his chest. Then, he walked into the prayer hall where his group of elderly monks were chanting morning mantras, asking the deity Tara to bless the Valley, to end hatred, to bring peace – all between bowls of butter tea.
My shoes felt loose and flapped against my soles as I ran out the gate. Karma was pacing around the tree, slapping his upper back with his prayer beads – once on the left, once on the right – as though reaching for an unattended itch. When he saw me, he frowned. “The sun’s halfway up! It’s going to get hot as we walk around Swayambhu. Tomorrow, I’m leaving at six with or without you,” he said. “I don’t get it. The gong is right outside your door! Dhondup rings it at 4:30 every morning. How can you not hear it?”
Karma’s anger only excited me. When he talked to me like that, I felt like he knew me. Like I existed more fully in his life. Like he was comfortable enough to lose his cool. Three weeks ago, he would’ve said something along the lines of: No, no – it’s ok if you’re late. You’re not used to waking up so early. No, I haven’t waited for too long.
“It was Lama Wangchuk,” I said. “He kept wanting to try on my shoes and then he asked me about my clothes, where I buy them, and for how much. I couldn’t get away from him. You know how he is – that big-time ani lama!” I exaggerated the encounter.
Karma laughed a little and started walking away from the tree. “Well, we better get going then. Before he sees us and wants to come along,” he said.
“We can go to my room afterwards, yah?” I said, trying to tug the end of his maroon shawl. “You can practice your English,” I added.
At that point, I’d been at Pema Ling for almost a month. My grandfather, Popo, had been a Rinpoche there. His body still sits in a golden chorten on the third floor of the main building. With their architect money, my parents regularly bought statues of gold to add to an existing pantheon at the gompa and each week, they folded and stuffed fresh banknotes into bowls full of rice and prayed for merit and a sunny afterlife. But that year, I wasn’t part of anything sunny in their lives. They were tired of me staying up late into the night visiting online chatrooms, hanging around Thamel with my howling “hooligan” friends, smelling of rum and cigarettes. So after my SLC exams, I was sent to the gompa to live a disciplined life before school started again. That year, the supply of dreadlocked, cotton pant-wearing tourists had dwindled in the unusually hot and muggy month of May. These visitors taught English to the little monks at the gompa in exchange for food and a place to stay. Āmā wanted me to take their place. “It’ll look good when you apply for universities abroad,” she said as she drove me to the monastery. “Learn from these men how to live a life of routine.” I was given a large square room outfitted with a bright orange-tiled bathroom, tucked away in a separate building designated for guests, away from the main gompa hall, the monks’ rooms and the TV room. “And remember that Popo is watching you from the third floor,” she said, pointing to the main building of the gompa with her eyes as she handed me my duffel bag.
On day three, the supervisor lama put me under Karma’s care. In his soft hands, I learned to incite trouble. He showed me the little monk quarters and took me to the hot tin-roofed room where I would be teaching them every afternoon. He was shy and never looked me in the eye. But at the end of the tour, he finally asked me a question. “Do you know computer? I want to e-mail,” he said in English.
So before the evening korā, Karma and I met under the pomelo tree in the courtyard and walked out through the gompa gates and down the road to “Y2K Internet” cafe. He was serious about writing e-mails; he told me that a German tourist had given him her e-mail address a year ago, but he didn’t know how to go about sending her a letter. The Y2K boys already teased him enough, so he didn’t want to ask them. But the e-mails were excruciating to edit and by day four, I told Karma that he needed to work on his English first.
So it began. Instead of meeting under the pomelo tree, Karma came to my room. We sat on the floor and placed his notebook on my bed, and the door was left wide open so that the supervisor lama could see us if he walked by. Each evening, as Karma wrote in his notebook, I watched the muscles on his right arm twitch, loosening and tightening the thread of celibacy he wore around his biceps. He was nineteen years old, soft-skinned, and carried with him the scent of incense. I was sixteen and had never spent this much time with a boy. It only took two weeks hanging out together for us to eventually just pretend to bend over his notebook, while under the bed, our hands were sweaty and free to hold.
We took our routine korā trip; we walked down the quiet brick-layered alley, past the stray dogs fighting with the monkeys, through the community well where women washed clothes first, then themselves. They tied their petticoats around their chests and lathered each other’s backs, giggling as Karma and I strode past them.
“You wait for those petticoats to slip right off, don’t you?” I teased Karma.
“You have the dirtiest mind, bhumo,” he said, hitting me gently with his prayer beads.
I always wondered if Karma told the other monks at the monastery about us, but he never said anything to me. Some Saturday nights, I joined them in the TV room to watch three hours of unmonitored anything. Almost without fail, they watched WWF, where men in tight underwear threw each other around a ring. In that room where the smell of sweaty feet and dank slept-on mattresses hung about like a rumour, I would spot the other monks looking at me as they adjusted the folds of their robes.
Karma and I stopped at Bikram-dāi’s store to pick up a bag full of samosas for our rounds. The korā trail around the big stupa was always packed with beggars and instead of giving them money a rich Bhutanese patron had commissioned the monastery to hand out food. When we hit the trail, I spotted Crazy Tara right away. She stood up and smiled, scratching her knotted hair, looking at her wrist to tell an invisible time. “Oho! Karma and bhumo, a little late today, huh?”
“But we have a samosa for you!” I said, reaching into the bag and holding out an oily lump.
“No! Tara won’t take anything past 7:30!” she announced. I’d forgotten that she kept strict begging hours, outside of which she accepted no loose change. After 7:30, as the trail of pilgrims, runners, army men and women, and morning walkers thinned, she cleaned the space around her makeshift tent and offered tea to any willing drinker. No one drank Crazy Tara’s tea because they feared she would poison them and steal their money but Karma said Lama Wangchuk regarded her as a dākini, a celestial deity in the body of a layperson. It was a way to understand that Crazy Tara operated in a different world, but of course Lama Wangchuk would say that, I’d said to Karma, because doesn’t he believe that he embodies the spirit of a female goddess?
“Oh Tara, you must take the samosa, it isn’t money,” Karma assured her, pushing my samosa arm towards her.
“If you two sit down here,” she said, dusting a discarded wedding party tarp on the ground, “I have something to ask you.” She took a bite of the samosa and wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her red blouse. “Does Lama Wangchuk have a twin brother?”
Karma looked at me as though I had told Crazy Tara something about Lama Wangchuk that I shouldn’t have. I stared back at him, shaking my head.
“I saw him last night in Thamel,” she said. “He looked just like Lama Wangchuk. But when I waved my broom at him, he didn’t recognize me.” She shrugged her shoulders. Then, finishing the samosa, she licked her cracked brown fingers and wiped them on her cotton sari.
“Harey – why would he be in a place like Thamel?” Dusting my pants, I stood up to go. “Tell me, Tara, who’s buying you Khukuri rum these days, huh?” I teased her.
She giggled, then put on a serious face. “No rum for Tara, bhumo. I only ask because it couldn’t have been Lama Wangchuk, I know. He would never wear a skirt, would he?”
“Dhat, Tara, of course not! You know it would be a sin for someone like Lama Wangchuk to take his maroon robes off beyond the gompa gates. And you talk of wearing a skirt? You must have seen someone else, it couldn’t be him,”
Karma said, wrapping the prayer beads around his left wrist, wiping the sweat off his forehead with his shawl.
“Well, he sure would make a handsome woman,” Crazy Tara muttered. For a second, I envied her. Her ability to see things, tell people she saw things, and to live her life dictated by a logic that needed no compromise.
By the time we got close to the monastery, the sun was strong. My armpits were sweaty, and I couldn’t let Karma see the patches that spread down the arms of my light blue shirt. In the back alley where the homeless defecated, Karma held my wrist and said, “I don’t think you should tell anyone about what Crazy Tara said, she’s a street woman. An elderly lama would never disrobe himself in public, and she saw him wear a skirt, re? Nonsense!”
His speech was unnecessary. In the past week, he had begun to sometimes treat me like a child. “Well, I’d believe her over my own mother,” I said, loosening my wrist and walking ahead of him. “He could have been out in Thamel looking for a cheap motel or going to those dance places, dressed like a woman. You said so yourself, remember? That he’d been in trouble for that before!”
“That’s just half the truth,” Karma said. But I didn’t stop to argue. I continued walking towards the monastery and felt him disappear behind me. Perhaps he stood there, unwrapping and wrapping the beads around his wrist. But I didn’t look back.
Later in the afternoon, I took a shower to get rid of the morning sweat. This was the lull in the day, before my time at the monastery, when I usually walked along Thamel’s streets to meet up with friends from school. We would walk up to the Turkish bar and sometimes talk to raggedy trekkers, eat that special flat bread with chanā paste they called hummus, speak in English, and lie on the old, sour stained cushions long enough for the sun to weaken, for the beers to come out, the special brownies to make their rounds.
That day, I began to miss Karma. I had gone on overnight trips from school, but I had never spent weeks with one person – eating with him, walking with him, sitting with him, reading with him, holding hands. Years later, I will sneak off to a cabin in the mountains with a friend’s man, and as I sit with him watching the sun disappear trailing red pale traces in the sky, my legs on his lap, his hands on my bare shins, I won’t miss Karma, but I will remember him. How goosebumps rose on my arms each time he got up to leave and how the mere act of swinging one end of his shawl over his left shoulder shook the air in the room.
I was going to apologize to Karma for the morning, so I ran out to the main monastery area and was on my way to Karma’s building, when Lama Wangchuk shouted out to me from his door, standing with straw mats rolled under his arm. His room was on the first floor and overlooked the courtyard. He dusted the round mats, placed them on the ground and gestured at me to sit.
“You want some coffee?” he asked, patting his head. “I have the Korean kind that comes in small packets with milk and sugar.”
This was the first time Lama Wangchuk had offered me anything. For the past month, we’d just exchanged smiles and talked about the heat, the power outages, how the dāl had too much salt that morning. Since I’d found out he was an ani lama and liked wearing my shoes and sometimes came to WWF nights to give head massages to the younger monks, I’d pegged him for one of those women in Thamel who came out at night, their voices hoarse, their arms slender. Before I could answer, he walked back inside his room to heat water.
When he came out, he had two cups of coffee in his hands.
“I’m sorry for wearing your shoes,” he said. Then, gesturing at me to drink the coffee, he added, “I wish they made men’s shoes more like women’s, you know. Open and comfortable.”
I smiled and set my coffee down, “A little too hot right now,” I said, pointing at the cup with my lips.
“So, how much longer are you here for, bhumo?” Lama Wangchuk asked, his eyes on me as he took another sip of the Korean coffee.
“Maybe a couple more weeks? ” I answered it like a question.
“Do you like teaching the little ones?”
“Yes,” I said, wanting to keep our conversation short.
“How about Karma?” he asked, scratching his birthmark on his left arm. It was shaped like a broken hat.
“What about him?” Had Lama Wangchuk seen us in my room?
“Is he picking up English?”
“Ahh…yah, he’s a quick learner,” I lied. I’d been stuck on pronouns with Karma for the past week. He, she or it?
“He’s from my village you know…in Gorkha,” he said, pointing his index finger to the west. Who would’ve thought? An ani lama from a district that lent its name to fearless Nepali soldiers who twirled khukuri knives in their hands? “I want him to lead the cham dance classes here. The younger monks are awful. If they danced at a funeral, the spirit would never pass away in peace,” he said, laughing at his own joke.
“You should tell him that,” I said. Last Thursday evening, Lama Wangchuk had been sprawled out on his straw mat, watching the younger monks dance the cham in the courtyard. Clicking his tongue at them, he pointed to Karma with his chin and instructed the others to wake up and follow him. He felt free to clap his hands and whistle whenever the monks executed perfect spins and jumps. He called out to the chubbier monks, telling them to “eat less already!” But he was mostly quiet, and sat patting his head when Karma did the cham. I caught Lama Wangchuk’s eyes fall first on Karma’s shoulders, then trail down towards his calves as he jumped and spun around in the air, the hem of his robe a fluid orbit.
“Maybe he’ll listen to you better,” he said, recrossing his legs. “When I was younger, oh did I dance!”
I looked at my watch and saw that it was almost two. If I was even five minutes late, those little robes gave me attitude. “Eh lau, I must go now,” I said, rocking myself up.
“Don’t forget your coffee,” Lama Wangchuk said. “Well, let me just come with you!” And just like that, he lifted himself off the straw mat, his two hands holding the coffee cups. With such agility, no one would think he was a sixty-five-year-old man.
The little monks lived in two tin-roofed houses behind the dining hall. They even had their own TV room and watched mostly cartoons or Hindi films on Saturdays, sprawled in their shorts and t-shirts. When I asked Karma why they lived away from the main monastery halls, he said it had to do with hierarchy, like a staircase. They would earn the privilege to join the other monks in the main hall when they learned the sutra by heart.
As I rattled open the chain gate leading to their quarters, I saw three little lamas run up the stairs. “You’re here! We thought you wouldn’t come, the clock downstairs already has its long hand on the 12 and the short hand on the 2,” said Manoj, who was new to the gompa and still waiting for his new Tibetan monk name. The other two, Pasang and Sangbo, held my left arm and nodded in agreement. Pasang always had a runny nose. Sometimes, when snot from his left nostril crept down to touch his upper lip, he’d pull it right back up with a sniff.
“Where’s the handkerchief, Pasang?” I asked him. Just a couple of days ago, I had pinned a cloth onto his robe so that he could blow his nose on it. But the cloth was long gone, its death marked by two safety-pin holes with a small rip between them. He shrugged his shoulders and used his shawl to wipe his nose; there were crusty trails of snot on it. Then, as though he had appeared out of nowhere, they noticed Lama Wangchuk standing halfway down the stairs behind me. They let go of my hands, loosened their shawls around their shoulders and bowed down their heads in respect.
“Doh, doh,” Lama Wangchuk said in Tibetan, motioning them down the stairs.
When we got to the classroom, most of my students were outside under the shade of a guava tree. “It’s so hot in there, miss,” six-year-old Tsering said as he sat fanning himself with his shawl. But when they noticed Lama Wangchuk, all of them scrambled to stand up. In my month at the gompa, I had always noticed the air in the room shift anytime Lama Wangchuk entered: in the TV room with Karma, the shift felt like a smirk disguised in silence; in the dining hall, it felt like pity cloaked in nonchalance; but here, it felt like respect. Just like the way Karma moved when he saw the head lama. I looked at Lama Wangchuk and straightened my spine. “Lama Wangchuk will join us today,” I announced to the children.
After dinner, it was Karma’s task to close all the gates, make sure that the gong on the terrace outside my room sounded every half an hour to indicate the late setting summer sun, and remind the elder monks of evening prayers. He sounded the gong three times, first soft, then loud, then louder. When he was done, he walked towards my room and leaned against the doorframe with the gong stick still in his hands. I hadn’t spoken to him since morning, when I’d left him in the alleyway on our way back.
“Lama Wangchuk joined us for class today,” I started.
“Let’s just let that subject go, bhumo,” Karma said, fiddling with the velvety end of the stick.
“I know, I know, I am letting go,” I said, reaching for his right forearm, sliding my hand to his elbow. “Can you come in and we’ll close the door? The mosquitoes are going to bother me all night.”
“I have to go and prepare the puja hall for today’s final prayers,” he said.
“Lama Wangchuk is going to join us for korā tomorrow,” I said, turning away from him.
Karma didn’t say anything. But I could feel his shoulders tightening. “Whatever you say,” he muttered and slid away into the evening.
The next morning, Karma wasn’t under the pipal tree. I remember feeling both sad and relieved. Lama Wangchuk and I took the same route: down the mossy brick alleyway, past the dogs fighting with the monkeys, past the women bathing and washing clothes. We stopped at Bikram-dāi’s store to get a bagful of samosas, but he told us that Karma had already swung by.
Lama Wangchuk made five rounds in the same time that it took Karma and me to go three times around the big hill.
“This lama business is hard work you know – you eat, sit, and read. Slows down the body,” he said.
When we came up to Crazy Tara’s tarp, Lama Wangchuk greeted her, “Oh dākini! Why the long face so early in the morning?”
“Bhumo, have you chosen this old lama and dumped the young one?” Crazy Tara asked.
I knew she was teasing, but it stung. What did she know about men, young or old? And did Karma say something to her this morning?
“The mind outlasts the body, I guess,” she added, just in time.
“The dākini speaks!” Lama Wangchuk celebrated.
“Your dākini speaks lies too!” I blurted. “She said she saw you in Thamel wearing a jeans skirt.” And just like that, I poured cold water over what could have been a warm moment. Tara spat on the ground.
Lama Wangchuk smiled at her, placed his palm on her brittle shoulder and said, “If I could, wouldn’t I? What I would give for some buttons and zippers on this robe!”
I realize now that betrayal tastes and smells the same in all languages and all systems of logic. So for the rest of the korā I went on during my time at the gompa, Crazy Tara never spoke to me again. I became an indistinguishable part of the background of morning walkers, dogs, cows, motorcycles and pilgrims.
I remember the days following our first korā together telescoping into one another. We had a set schedule and Lama Wangchuk came to my class every afternoon. Karma and I passed each other during mealtimes and some evenings, I’d imagine his silhouette under the pomelo tree. The little monks began to ease around Lama Wangchuk and in our little world where we played duck, duck, goose, we were nothing more than children who wanted to idle away the long afternoon hours, our minds wrapped up in games. I watched the distance thin between Lama Wangchuk and the tiny monks: soon they patted his head, climbed on him, held his hand, and hung off his arms like little monkeys.
One evening, sitting outside Lama Wangchuk’s room, I finally had the courage to bring up what Crazy Tara said she saw and ask about the rumour. Why ani lama? Surely, he’d heard the younger monks call him that. Later, I am able to look back at this moment and remember it as a time when one human became vulnerable to another. But on his porch that night, what I heard was confusing to me. Lama Wangchuk told me about his boyhood days when he wore his sister’s kurtās and danced in the rain like Bollywood actresses. During Dashain melās, he joined his sister’s dance troupe and performed at the shows that his village put up. He wore velvet cholos and cotton saris and skipped to the beat of a mādal. He was five or six, and his parents saw nothing wrong with this. Through dancing, he fully understood his sister and why she needed to dance. After hours of cutting grass for the goats, grazing the cows, making yoghurt, making rice wine and collecting firewood, dancing let his sister forget the chores. She found that she could control the way she twirled her fingers in the air, and what bringing her hand down sharply or slowing down her feet meant. But the dancing didn’t last long. When his parents found a teenage Lama Wangchuk dressed in his sister’s kurtā, twirling to a new Hindi song on the stereo, they decided to send him away to a monastery. Living with other boys would surely teach him to be a man in no time, they’d reasoned. When he arrived at the monastery, my Popo, who was the Rinpoche then, diagnosed him as a being who carried remnants of his previous life as a woman.
“So, is it true then? Did Crazy Tara see you in a skirt?” I asked.
“What do you think?”
“I’m asking you, Lama Wangchuk!”
“What a dākini sees is for her to keep. Besides, Thamel is too loud for an old man,” he said, winking at me.
On Saturday mornings, all the monks shave off their hair, bathe and wash their clothes. Then Saturday afternoons at the gompa are greeted by emptiness, a quiet. Besides the little monks, all the other lamas get to go out into the city, play football, swim, visit friends and family. On this Saturday afternoon, as all the little monks were in the TV room watching the 2pm Hindi movie, I went up to the terrace to dry my clothes. Heavy clouds were rolling in from the south of the valley, but they seemed to stop right under the monastery as if they knew it was washing day.
I swept the terrace and laid my wet clothes on the ground. Since it was windy, I made sure to hold down the edges of my clothes with bricks that sat in a discarded pile. Just as I was about to go back downstairs, I spotted a pair of legs behind a thicket of orange trees in the field beyond the guesthouse. A blue skirt gathered around the ankles, two feet stepped out of them and directly into some slippers, and like a veil a maroon robe dropped down. There was a moment of stillness and then some shuffling of the branches. The figure slid out of the trees. It came closer to the back gate of the guesthouse and became Lama Wangchuk. I ducked as he looked around.
I still have a hard time keeping secrets. It’s terrible, I know. But I had to tell someone and it had to be Karma. I ran as fast as I could to Karma’s room, but when I got there, it was locked. Thinking that he would be at Y2K, I flew past the main gates and down the hill to the cyber café and found Karma hunched over a computer in the back. Was he writing to that German woman, again? I got annoyed and walked up to him.
“I have to tell you something,” I said.
He jumped from his seat.
“I think Lama Wangchuk is sneaking around being a big old ani lama again,” I blurted out.
“I can’t believe you, bhumo. Aren’t you his friend now?” Karma asked. I had forgotten how soft his voice was. And in the cyber café, where each computer was occupied with neighbourhood teenagers playing games and chatting, each keyboard clicking away, Karma’s voice held me like a hug. Without thinking, I reached out to stroke his forehead, touching the small scar he said a branch of a tree in Gorkha gave him. But he grabbed my fingers and pushed them away swiftly. “Why are you spreading unnecessary rumours?” he asked.
“I saw him coming in from the back,” I said. “He leaves his change of girly clothes in the branches of that orange tree beyond the gompa compound.”
“You seem bored, bhumo. You have too much time.”
“Why don’t you come see me anymore? And are you writing to that German woman again? You have terrible English, what could you possibly be saying to her?” I let careless words run faster than my heartbeat.
That evening, Karma told Dhomdup that he would be sounding the gong for evening prayers. Then, he came to my room.
“In my village, they still talk about Lama Wangchuk,” he said. He was standing by the door, his hands across his chest. He slowly squatted to the ground and sat cross-legged half inside the room, half outside.
I walked over and sat down facing him.
“They ask me if he is doing better, if he’s become a man yet,” he continued. “He had an episode a couple of years ago, one of the lamas found him in woman’s clothing in the bathroom. If the head lama finds out about this afternoon, it won’t be good.”
“I didn’t see anything,” I lied. “ I just wanted a reason to talk to you again.”
“You’re crazy, bhumo.” He let out a deep sigh of relief.
I don’t know what made me do what I did next. But I have never regretted it. I leaned in to kiss Karma’s scar on his forehead, and then I directed his left hand to my thigh. His right hand, I locked with mine. He didn’t move. I kissed his left cheek, and then his right cheek, taking my time to tease out a lingering dimple, a remnant of a smile we shared what seemed like years ago. He smelled like the prayer hall, smoky incense, earth and metal. Then I kissed his lips. He opened his mouth to breathe. I held his face with both my hands, and he placed his palms on my back, pulling me closer to him.
“The puja is starting soon, Karma,” a voice spoke from a couple of feet away. It was Lama Wangchuk.
Karma got up, adjusted his robe and without looking at me, dashed past Lama Wangchuk and ran down the stairs.
“Lama Wangchuk, it wasn’t his fault,” I began. “We’ve never done this before. I was just…Lama Wangchuk, please don’t tell anyone,” I said. The words settled in my throat. I suddenly felt tired and I leaned against the doorframe, looking beyond Lama Wangchuk, waiting for Karma to return.
Lama Wangchuk stroked my hair, the way my mother used to when I was scared. “Yin da yin, of course,” Lama Wangchuk said. “The heart sees deeper than the eye, bhumo.”
The next afternoon, Lama Wangchuk didn’t join my class. While I was teaching the little monks how to draw faces and identify features – noses, eyes, mouths, ears – Karma knocked on the classroom door. Leaving the little monks to colouring and labelling, I stood outside the tin house, facing him. He looked much smaller and his eyes squinted in the sun. I tried to touch his cheeks, but he moved away.
“Not here,” he said, placing his shawl over his head to shade himself from the sun. “I told the head lama about Lama Wangchuk. I went out to the orange tree and found the bag of girly clothes you told me about. So you did see him yesterday.”
“What did the head lama say?” I asked, moving away from him.
“Lama Wangchuk was asked to leave this morning after prayers.”
“You made Lama Wangchuk leave?” I pushed him away from me.
“How can you forget that he saw us last night? He could have me kicked out instead!” Karma shrivelled up into a maroon prune as he squatted down in front of me.
I thought about Lama Wangchuk carrying his thermos, his things, where could he be? Somewhere in the city walking about in his Adidas slippers? “Aren’t you lamas supposed to put others before yourselves?” I asked, noticing for the first time the black dirt that collected under Karma’s toenails.
“I was trying to save my vow, bhumo,” he said standing up, tugging at the washed-out thread tied around his arm. I decided I had heard enough, so I walked back into the classroom and closed the door behind me.
“Miss, it’s so hot in here,” Manoj said, looking up from his drawing, pointing at the door with the end of his pencil.
Later, I sat under the pomelo tree, smelling jasmine in the summer air. I saw that Lama Wangchuk had left his straw mats out. I went out of the monastery gate to take a walk, but under the old pipal tree, I saw Karma. When I got closer to him, I realized he was crying. Years later, while visiting the gompa with my parents to celebrate Popo’s birthday, I’ll find out that Karma left a few months after Lama Wangchuk. The other monks will speculate that maybe Karma was never cut out for the discipline; he was too attracted to shiny things, like the Internet, phones, motorcycles. I don’t think Karma ever forgave himself for Lama Wangchuk. As for me, I was happy to slip out unscathed.
I left two days after Lama Wangchuk was dismissed from the gompa. When Āmā came to pick me up, she asked why I had wanted to leave so suddenly. Had something happened? “It wasn’t anything,” I said meeting her eyes in the rearview mirror. “I just missed being at home.” Although it was the most clichéd thing I could have concocted, Āmā’s eyes softened.
I didn’t think about Karma much. He was like a sunny shower that passed without leaving me wet. He texted a few times; nothing came of it. But the image of Lama Wangchuk – his bags under his arms, walking about in his Adidas sandals – never left my mind. Whenever my parents visited the gompa, I would ask if anyone had heard anything about Lama Wangchuk. “You mean that ani lama?” my mother confirmed. “Oh, I hear he’s around Thamel, who knows? Who cares!”
When I passed my SLC, my parents relaxed and let me frequent Thamel again. After school or sometimes during school, I would go to the Turkish place with friends and we would sit under psychedelic lights in our uniforms. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that every time I went to Thamel, I hoped to run into Lama Wangchuk, hear his name, or find his face behind a cosmetic smile. It was on one of these cloudy afternoons of beer, frankincense and sheesha that I finally encountered Lama Wangchuk.
It was late in the day. Right opposite the Turkish place, next to Sunset Money Exchange, I saw a bald-headed woman in a yellow kurtā walking out of a bar, saying bye to her girlfriends. Her baldness bopped up and down in the crowd, her earrings flapped against her cheeks and I hoped it would be Lama Wangchuk. I followed her, hoping she would turn around. When I was two metres behind her, I slowed down, lowered my sunglasses and kept my eyes on her head. Every time we passed a storefront with glass windows, I peered at the reflection of her profile to see if I could recognize her. I untucked my school shirt and loosened my tie.
She turned into an alleyway and continued down its narrowness until she made a left into a building with a blue signboard. I waited for a couple of minutes before I walked in. When I got closer to the sign, it read: SRI DEVI’S BHARATANATYAM, in bright yellow English letters. There was a poster of the Bollywood namesake next to the signboard, her palms joined together at her chest, smiling a “Welcome” in Nepali, scrawled right over the tips of her fingers.
I walked in through the entrance underneath the signboard and was greeted by a steep set of stairs. I placed my sunglasses on my head as my eyes adjusted to being indoors. Walking up the rickety wooden stairs, I could smell Nag Champa incense, wrapped around the sounds of classical tabla beats from upstairs. When I reached the first level, I ducked behind the door and peeped in with just my right eye.
Sun was filtering through large windows. There were cushions and spongy mattresses against the walls, where powdered women sat cross-legged, sharp manly jaws darkened with years of shaving. Their large jingly anklets raised their legs slightly above the ground. They were watching a woman in a white sequined kurtā spinning around, her feet tapping to the rhythm of a song that came out of a small black tape player.
In the corner, at the end of the row, sat Lama Wangchuk, his ankles adorned with heavy bells. He looked younger and had acquired a new mole on the right corner of his lip, which he’d painted pink. He ran his manicured hands through the stubble on his head, his shoulders slumped and relaxed. His face wore a thinly veiled smile. He was watching the woman in the middle of the room, studying her steps carefully, counting each time her heel hit the floor, tā thai thai takka, then each time the balls of her feet tapped, āh thai thai takka, mimicking the way she folded her hands, opening and closing them, twirling her wrists, bringing them inwards to her chest, then out again.
When she was done, the tape was rewound. And Lama Wangchuk was next.
He got up and swept his fingers along the floor to honour the ground where he would perform, and brought his palms together at his chest. With his eyes closed, his index fingers slowly touched the tips of his thumbs and he brought them together under his chin, his hands like two peacocks kissing. Heels touching, he bent his legs and lowered his upper body to the ground, and when the tablas started their beat and the woman in the white kurtā sang, he opened his eyes and transformed into a river fairy. He danced the story of how a young man found a fairy one day by the banks of the Ganga and fell in love with her. With his right hand, Lama Wangchuk held his left wrist and turned his face as far away from his hands as he could, smiling as the river fairy, shying away from the imaginary man’s tug. The fairy tried to dissuade the young man from love, asked him to leave, told him that she was going to disappear as soon as she fell for him, but he was persistent and whistled lonesome tunes by the banks each day.
Lama Wangchuk switched between being the fairy and the man; he batted his eyes and softened his face to gentle smiles when he played the fairy, and widened his eyes, sharpening his looks when he became the man. In the end, the fairy fell in love and as promised, she disappeared, leaving the man to drown in the river.
Lama Wangchuk twirled faster than the ceiling fan for the last tabla beats and threw himself on the ground when the music stopped; he was breathing heavily, as though sobbing for the lovers.
Forgetting that I was hiding behind the door, I clapped.
Lama Wangchuk got up and squinted towards the door to see into the dark stairway where I stood, as the rest of the room started talking to each other, to me, to the teacher: Who is it? That was fantastic. How sad. Who’s there? Ma’am, how did he do the last twirl. Come in if you want to sign up for a class.
Lama Wangchuk loosened the shawl around his waist and wiped his face. Then he walked up to the door. I wanted to get up and leave, but was transfixed by the sound of Lama Wangchuk’s ankle bells, ringing louder and louder like a warning as he came closer to me. He pushed the door open to let light into the darkness where I sat. He found me with my hands over my mouth and my fingertips trembling against my cheeks, wet with tears.
He smiled, as though he had been waiting to see me, and said, “Bhumo –”
From La.Lit Volume 4. Illustration by Tuan Dinh