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Himalayan Beauty in Sikkim

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Photo: Christian Peltenberg-Brechneff

Above, in forests of bamboo, the monks are chanting their last prayer of the day. It is so peaceful now, but it is impossible not to reflect on the fact that life here is a complicated endeavor. As a doctor working in a clinic in the bazaar, my aunt has seen the darker side of life here, the worst effects of poverty and political upheaval.

I ponder, then, the particular form of tantric Buddhism that is nurtured in the Himalayan monasteries, their reflection of the complex human soul that seems related to this landscape, this history. I think of the monks housed in dark swampy rooms, living so remotely, so simply, so as to pour all they have into keeping this faith fervently burning, this form of Buddhism even more ancient than the one practiced in Tibet, close to Bon and the spirit worship of the Lepchas. I think of those phantasmagoric murals, the dragons that we have scoffed at, condemning ourselves to savor them only in meager ways, illustrations in a children’s book or a cartoon film. Here they are free and freeing, and something precious to the human spirit, lost elsewhere, is yet vibrant.

We sit as people do most evenings, in the wavering light of uneven voltage, grand moths with the wingspans of birds flying by. We eat mutton, stuffed momo dumplings with red-chili chutney on the side, and drink chang through bamboo straws in mugs, topping and retopping the fermented grains of millet with warm water from a big copper kettle. We wait for the evening’s usual episode of rain. When it arrives the storm blocks everything out but itself, drowns out all observations and meditations, ruins all conversations. The dragons the monk at Tashiding assured me were alive are writhing and gnashing. They are far too compelling to balance against any human consideration. In these hours, there is immense relief.

We sit and watch, lighting the lanterns when the electricity fails entirely.

Kiran Desai won the Man Booker Prize in 2006 for her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss. She lives in Brooklyn.

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