TA Loeffler, Elizabeth Enslin, and Dharmendar Kanwar
Canada, USA, India
Illustrated by Gaurav Ogale
The curtains flowed rhythmically in and out with the wail of the siren. Different from the wide-open view of the rescue helicopter, the ambulance felt closed in, shuttered. Shuttered like it might haul me off to where I’d never be heard from again. Swaying back and forth, my bladder micro bursts with each road bump and I launch urine onto the stretcher. The ambulance attendant, a talkative soul, can’t seem to get the oxygen flowing so we put the prongs up my nose and pretend. He wants to ask many questions but Ngima Sherpa, my Nepali guardian angel, begs him to be quiet, suggesting we just get there. I grasp the side rails of the stretcher and pray that I can get back to Everest.
We arrive at the hospital and I am transferred to a small cubicle bounded by more curtains and concrete pillars. A soft and hard world so different from the one I just came from. There is a heart monitor beeping to my right and a young man with a broken arm writhing to my left. We are all joined in the circumstances that brought us together this Saturday morning. Just two hours previously, I was an Everest climber rather than emergency room patient.
I sat glumly on someone’s pack. Altitude medication ordered by unseen doctors below and administered by teammates. Oxygen mask strapped to my face. I’m sinking deeply into myself but secretly hoping the clouds will thicken instead of dissipate. I didn’t want to go to Kathmandu. Only over the Khumbu icefall. My safety was being lorded over me like a battle axe forcing me to yield into agreeing. I was to be flown off Everest. A first for me. To be evacuated. From anywhere. My dream crashing to the ground like shards of ice launched regularly by the icefall below. The dreaded icefall. It is what stopped my pedestrian descent out of concern for my teammates.
Down was OK. Up was not. After reaching the expedition high spot of 7,200 metres, I knew it was time to go down. I felt unwell. Like someone had taken my stuffing. Like a well-loved and chewed dog toy, devoid of its middle. Energy gone. Thank goodness for gravity as I teetered down the Western Cwm, feeling drunk but hoping to pass as sober. I gave up my backpack to Ngima. First time ever to give up my pack and not carry my own weight.
When you turn your back on Everest, the universe yaws at your feet and you know you are a speck. A small speck on the hair of the dog that stole your stuffing. The dog days of altitude where you starve for air and nourishment but climb anyway because Chomolungma calls and you can’t help but answer.
Down was going. I was making it. Under my own power. Until the crevasses above Camp One. Deep white canyons marking the line between me and basecamp. Down one side. Up. Sort of. The Other. Slow to almost not moving. I apologise to those behind me and try to find strength to climb the next. If these relatively small cracks are all but stopping me, how will I manage the technical and sharp, icy terrain just below? In the icefall, the place where most people have died on this mountain. A place we were ordered to traverse alone in order that our Sherpas don’t have to go slow with us. But I can’t go alone just now. Altitude has robbed me of my ability to go any direction but down.
We confer. We call to those below. Suddenly, things accelerate out of my control. Out of our control. Those at base camp are now making the decisions. They pretend to consult but in the guise of definitive care, they’ve called a bird. A mechanical bird. Advances in bird technology make it possible for them to reach me and pluck me from my mountain nest. I pray for clouds. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to leave. I want to hitch hike down on the helicopter, get some medication, heal, and go back up. Instead, the door of the helicopter is slammed on my dreams and I sit, slumped in the back, not even a seat belt to keep me in place. I dream of reaching over and opening the door and plunging into the depths of the icy waves below.
The bird has glass, even down where I am slouched. Around my oxygen mask, I look and see us rising above Everest. My mind shatters into two, one part holding onto the sadness and grief of what is unfolding and part dancing with the goraks that fly beside us. The ubiquitous black birds that we see everywhere in both basecamp and over the summit are flying beside the helicopter in formation. They rise and fall on unseen currents and direct my attention to the wonder of flight, even if that flight is taking me down, down further than I want to go, away from the mountain I love. Weeks to climb up and moments to descend this way. I am safely insulated from the towers of ice below. We skim down over them. I beg the universe to put me down, to let me walk, but instead we plunge over the terrifying icy terrain.
The icefall is ten thousand icebergs piled on top of each other, forming a river of ice. The most dreaded obstacle in mountaineering. If it were anywhere else than Everest, no one would climb through it. The only way is through. Ideally moving fast. Don’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But how would you know when and where that is?
It’s climbing up in the dark and down in the light. Except by me because I am flying over it with eight Discovery Channel cameras pointed at me capturing my crushed spirit, my sadness, and emerging small inklings of fascination at being above, of looking down at Everest with wonder, of marvelling at the cacophony of ice from the relative safely of the gorak’s view. Above. Soaring. With grace even as my world is tumbling faster than Khumbu ice. I should be scared. Helicopters aren’t meant to fly really. It’s magic. Much like this view of this mountain I’ve come down so many times, just not like this.
It’s too fast. My umbilical connection with Sagarmatha is stretched and then sliced by the speed. I’m ruptured by the quick descent and change from thin to thick air, mountain to city, ice to heat. I’m on a tight wire of flight between known and unknown, duality and dichotomy, safety and danger. I’m all of these and none. Climbing Everest is slow. The thin air demands it. Each step up requires concentration and breath in sync with step. For days, we climb, one breath, one step, one mantra. The natural order is broken by this bird’s speed. I’m down before I’m ready. I’m reeling in the beauty of what I am seeing as the mountain skirts by, or more aptly, as I skirt by the mountain.
Through my stupor, I tell my mind to record. The brilliant shine of the white. The blue. The blue. The blue of sky that radiates through everything on Everest. The deep black rocks. The tiny dots of climbers making way, the usual way, by foot, slow, step by step. Not flung from heights by the power of doctors and machinery. The Sherpa we pick up at basecamp smiles reassuringly and holds my oxygen tank. I choke back my tears at his kindness. I don’t want to break down and miss anything as I ride this rollercoaster between the end of my decade’s dream and the almost seismic waved glacier below. I’m flying the Khumbu. “I’m flying the Khumbu,” my mind screams in joy when unfettered by grief. I’ve walked this valley up and down and up and down, never dreaming I would see it like this.
Rivulets beget rivers beget waterfalls and valleys drop away beneath us. An eight-day walk is reduced to a 30-minute flight. Memories condensed. Like morning dew wiped away so you can sit and not get your bottom wet at the picnic table. I too, am swept away-leaving others to deal with me, further away and down. I’m left with a gaping hole in my heart where the cord pulled away. Usually the cord is gently stretched as I walk downhill for days allowing me to ease out. This time though, for the first time, it’s ripped from me rapidly and I’m left alone in the chaotic city trying to sew my heart back together with thin strands of memories past.
Like climbing Mt. Everest
Rising like Himalayan peaks, four bamboo poles square the altar and pierce the fog. Between swings a canopy, a red ruffled valley cradling gifts for the deities. Underneath, on earth sanctified with cow dung plaster, Brahman priests have diagrammed the cosmos in pink and yellow powders. They dole out offerings: marigolds, coins, cooked rice. In a pit in the middle, the sacred fire of Agni crackles, spits and flares.
Bundled in coats and scarves, dozens of guests crowd the courtyard. A few talk on mobile phones. Many cluster in small groups to catch up on neighbourhood news: ailing elders, marriage arrangements, sons and daughters working in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia. Others discuss the burning national questions of early 2007 in Nepal: How many protestors died in Birganj? Will the Maoists take up arms again? Will King Gyanendra stay or go? How long will the transportation strike last?
I retreat into the house to get ready. My nieces help me remember how to wrap a sari. They approve my earring and bangle choices and smudge my eyelids with kohl. I draw the line at lipstick.
Back outside, the journey is about to begin. Guests end their conversations, pocket their mobile phones, and girdle the altar.
Waiting for further instructions, I prepare for a role that many here in the village tell me I’ve been destined to play for nineteen years: witnessing my son’s rebirth into manhood.
An American who fell in love with a Nepali educator in graduate school, I gave my son his first birth here nineteen years earlier. Friends and acquaintances in the US have often asked what that was like. I find it hard to give a short answer for my naive attempt at home birth among high caste Hindus in a loft over a buffalo shed: the cultural confusion, forty hours of painful but inefficient contractions, forty-five minutes in a motor rickshaw to the nearest hospital, more hours on a Pitocin drip, delirium, shaking so intense after delivery that I couldn’t hold my newborn for some time.
For years I’ve said: “Like climbing Mt. Everest, but harder.”
Yet I have no idea what it is like to climb Mt. Everest. I’ve spent most of my time in Nepal in the plains, not the mountains, and have only glimpsed Everest while flying in and out of Kathmandu.
Back in the plains again, my latest role in this country famed for adventure travel, requires me to wear a sari and stand still in the kitchen doorway.
Relatives swaddle my son in a yellow loincloth and tie a yellow bandana over his cropped black hair. They hitch yellow pouches off the end of a long pole balanced over Amalesh’s shoulder. The yellow, I’ve read, echoes the mother’s placenta. But this man-made one is so much tidier than the first.
Leaving aside some envy for mountain travellers, I could pile on reasons why I’ve compared my son’s first birth to a Mt. Everest ascent: to subvert the man versus mountain narrative, focus on women’s stories, highlight demographic changes shifting the majority of Nepal’s population out of the mountains and onto the plains. I could toss on statistical comparisons of those killed on Everest against those who die in childbirth. Risking an avalanche of the absurd, I might round up lists of what Google tells me people compare to climbing Mt. Everest (building a career, quitting cigarettes, stepping up into your truck) or giving birth (finishing a marathon, writing a book, getting a tattoo). Birth and Everest might share the most as free-falling cliches.
Feet bare and staff in hand, Amalesh now looks the part of a wayfarer provisioned long before our era of boots, backpacks, and freeze-dried foods. He is a ritual stand-in for all the high caste boys over the centuries who had to beg for alms so they could afford meals, lodging and guru fees in Varanasi or some other distant learning centre.
Months earlier, as I debated whether to make the 7,000-mile journey to Nepal from my home in Oregon, USA, relatives reminded me that the mother is more necessary than the father at a sacred thread initiation. This ritualised alms-begging is one of the reasons why.
Beside me at the threshold stands Amalesh’s grandmother. She wears a green and white widow’s sari and a shawl curled around her head. On the first of three rounds of the altar, Amalesh stops before us. We wait for him to say the words.
“Bhiksam bhavati dehi,” a cousin whispers in his ear. Whichever honourable person is present, please give alms.
“Biksa bava.…what?” Amalesh looks around for help. His grandmother coaches him on the Sanskrit pronunciation. With his tongue trained in American English, he struggles with the aspirated “bh” in two consecutive words. After several tries, he manages it. Satisfied, Parvati nods to me. We each put bananas, tangerines and one measure of polished rice into the yellow pouches.
My son continues on, rounding the altar clockwise to receive fruit and rupees from others cheering him forward.
For more than two thousand years, the footsteps of pilgrims have mapped spiritual practices and stories onto South Asian geography. A pradakshina (circumambulation) might circuit the subcontinent (these days, by air-conditioned video coach) or it could be a domestic altar. But by circling some cosmic axis, anyone can tap into the divinity of continuous flow and constant change.
A trip around Shiva’s abode, Mt. Kailash, would be the pradakshina of a lifetime for my son’s Shaivite-leaning relatives. Of course, costs, rugged landscapes, and Chinese travel restrictions mean that few do it. Kailash may be the closest earthly reflection of the cosmic Mt. Meru. Believed to be eighty-five times greater than the earth’s diameter, Meru is so vastly imagined that even those who prefer ascending rather than circling peaks might as well put away crampons, pickaxes, and oxygen tanks and turn inward.
In the alms-begging, each orbit re-enacts grander sacred journeys and also unhitches another point on the cord binding son to mother.
Polishing his pronunciation, Amalesh walks and chants until the words run together: Bhikshambhavatidehibhikshambhavatidehibhikshambhavati…. He stops often so relatives and neighbours can give more gifts.
Three times Amalesh stops at the kitchen door and begs. His grandmother pauses each time and stays my hand as well. She has to judge whether his request is sincere. She nods then doles out another measure of rice. I do the same.
After the alms-begging, Amalesh joins priests as well as uncles and cousins at the altar again. Neither Brahman nor married to Amalesh’s father anymore, I sit on a bench nearby. I love how this ritual weaves my son into his Nepali family and heritage even as I cringe at how it reinforces caste and gender inequalities.
Mobile phones come back out. Conversations grow louder. Many worry now about those who have not yet arrived. Because of the transportation strike, no one will make it through by bus today.
Soon, Amalesh will put on his sacred thread and join the “twice-born” castes. Then he’ll trade his unstitched clothing for travelling gear: a kurta and salwar and umbrella. I’ll tidy my sari and stand still again, calling my son back from another ritual journey––this time to the gazebo, our home’s stand-in for Varanasi.
Throughout this second birth, my role feels less like climbing a mountain and more like anchoring the belay line, holding the still point from which the son can break away. Throughout the day, priests set new routes to male ancestors, male descendants yet to come, and The Vedas.
Agni, the hearth centre of the household, burns on, his smoke curling up around the altar peaks and mingling with the fog.
Nepal: A flashback
All those who remember Nepal in the late 80s, early 90s will remember it as an untouched, pristine, fairy tale land – an unspoiled kingdom with very limited tourism – visited mainly by mountaineers and trekkers heading towards Mount Everest. A destination that seemed to have held its own against fast galloping modernity that could be seen all around. It was a country that had the most amazing natural habitat and interesting buildings and all without the accompanying commercialisation that seemed part and parcel of all popular tourist destinations even back then.
The temples, city squares, bazaars, natural landscapes and the friendly people…..are etched in my mind and I still carry wonderful memories of the unspoiled and relatively clean city and its surroundings from my first visit to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal some 20 years ago. It was a week-long tour without a fixed agenda other than to get a feel of the place and explore whatever could be done comfortably with minimum expenditure. We used public transport and often hired bicycles, not just because we wanted to experience the city from up close but because we were almost on a shoestring budget and needed to save our money for more important things. Looking back now I realise that was one of our best decisions as we happily cycled around and interacted with local people as and when we wanted to and stopped only at beautiful spots to take in the stunning landscape. There were no tourist guides asking us to hurry up so that we could move to the next destination on the itinerary.
Despite having heard and read about the impressive historical and architectural heritage of Nepal, for some reason, it was the breath-taking natural beauty, the undulating landscapes, the mountains and valleys that appealed to me more than anything else. And can you blame me?! Coming from Rajasthan, the land of forts and palaces and sand dunes, seeing so much greenery and wooden structures gave me a feeling of being in a totally different world all together. And it was a different world, undoubtedly, because in Rajasthan stone has always been the primary construction material and the use of wood was negligible. However, in order not to miss the touristy places we checked them out as well and we were helped in this by so many wonderful local people who went out of their way to guide and give us the required information. We were able to get hold of a very basic map but didn’t feel the need for anything else – there weren’t too many brochures (or Apps like we have now) to help us with our tour. The sheer simplicity and ease of moving around is another memory that has stayed with me – even though tourists in Nepal were a bit of a rarity, local people went all out to ensure that “guests” in their country were not inconvenienced in any way and happily guided us to the important, not-to-be-missed, sites.
Some of the sites that we were able to see included the temple of Lord Pashupatinath – the most revered deity in Nepal. A visit to this amazing temple was definitely on our to-do list. Situated in Makhan Tole of Kathmandu, Pashupatinath houses a five-faced Shiva-lingam. A legend connected to the temple records that a certain Malla king used to go to the original Pashupatinath temple for darshan every day but was unable to go there on one occasion due to floods. He waited at the river bank to see if he could find a way to go for darshan but he fell asleep and dreamt of Lord Pashupatinath who asked him to establish a temple at his palace. That is how this temple was set up. Other than Pashupatinath, a few other important places that one had set out to experience were Bhaktapur Durbar Square, Kasthamandap and, if possible, a closer glimpse of the Living Goddess Kumari.
Bhaktapur Durbar Square with its fancy gates and the palace of fifty-five windows was considered to be a unique masterpiece of woodcarving; Kasthamandap at Maru Tole was always recognised as the core of Kathmandu’s cultural identity, and a crucial component of its living heritage. The word, ‘Kasthamandap,’ literally means a wooden shelter, or pavilion. Interestingly, the core wooden structure is believed to have been made from the bark of a single tree. It was the oldest standing public building in Kathmandu with elements of its structure dating back to at least 1143 CE, and possibly to 1090 CE. Originally, Kasthamandap was constructed as a public rest house, and housed shrines to multiple deities. It also marked the central point of Kathmandu, and interestingly, the city gets its name from this monument. Kasthamandap has had a special bond with generations of Nepali citizens and local residents and travellers used Darbar Square as a space to rest, and even we, as tourists, felt a sense of peace and quiet as we spent several hours here just sitting on the steps and watching people go about their daily chores. There were no touts to disturb the peace and nobody even looked twice at us as people stopped by to rest on the red steps. There were several roadside flower, vegetable and fruit sellers, and pretty ladies with their wares displayed neatly on plastic sheets spread on the ground, who happily spent more time chatting than selling! The giant courtyard was made for people to connect and that is exactly what most of them did.
Getting to the courtyard of Kumari Bahal, home of the living goddess, on the south side of Durbar Square was through narrow lanes and there was nothing to set the Kumari’s abode apart from the other houses there. The cult of the Kumari, the virgin goddess, is deep-rooted among Kathmandu Hindu and Buddhist people and obviously the tradition goes back several generations, although no one has been able to ascertain when the Kumari Puja custom actually started. We hung around the area for a bit hoping to catch a glimpse of the Kumari and were lucky, as we managed to do so without too much trouble. I remember the fair and pretty young girl with large eyes as she looked on at the dozen odd people who had gathered there to take a closer look.
Another interesting site we explored was the Patan Golden Temple with its distinctive pagoda architecture and the gilded roofs. Situated on a busy crossroad in Patan, it was built around the 12th Century AD after being commissioned by one King Bhaskar Verma. It is one among many Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and stands out also for its impressive entrance that is guarded by two intricately carved stone lion figures. This temple is a landmark and recognised for its structure as well as its centuries old traditions and heritage.