“What about me? And Lobsang?” Linpa asked Tenzin through tears.
He stared mutely at the handleless earthen teacup in his hand.
“How will I keep the stove burning, Tenzin? If I go to the forest alone to collect wood, and the Dorge men come chasing my skirts, who will protect me?” The anguish in Linpa’s voice and eyes chilled Tenzin’s heart and his dark bitter kahwa before he could take the first sip.
She was wiping their dinner plates with a cloth dipped in hot water in the dark corner, farthest from the stove, in their low-ceilinged hut in rural Ladakh. The space in the center of their limestone-walled hut was the warmest. The stove sat there, which was the largest thing they possessed. It had to be kept running all through the winter months, which made collecting twigs and wood a never-ending job. During the day Linpa cooked there or brewed countless cups of kahwa to keep warm. At night they spread a thick straw mat for their daughter on one side of the stove and a slightly bigger but much thinner one for themselves on the other side. A broad rudimentary chimney rose from just above the stove and ran up to and through the ceiling.
“There is just no work here.” Tenzin looked over the rim of his cup, sipping the tea as it quickly lost steam. “I can’t sit at home all winter to guard you. Don’t make me sound like a villain.”
He is certainly not a villain, thought Linpa as she finished cleaning up. All the men from their village, and from the neighbouring villages, who depended on agriculture or tourism for a livelihood, were rendered jobless in the harsh unforgiving cold months. But she couldn’t let him put his life in danger working as a loader in the Kashmir valley for the Indian army.
Linpa looked at their five-year-old daughter, asleep on her thick warm mat. That mat was a small fruit of Tenzin’s winter job of the previous year. But to Linpa it didn’t justify the risk her husband was going to take again. She had to find a way to stop him. “Can we not plan a brother for Lobsang?”
“And what will we feed him?”
“You know how much your mother taunts me for not having a son. She called me barren the other day. Like our daughter counts for nothing.”
“We need to start putting money aside for Lobsang’s wedding.” He handed her the empty cup and she kept it aside for washing in the morning, the water had gone cold now.
“If you are so worried about her, why are you going?”
“Linpa, don’t make it so hard. By Tapa’s blessings I will return with pockets filled with money,” Tenzin pleaded.
“Pockets filled with money, ha. I don’t care what you say. I am not letting you go to work like a mule on those treacherous mountains again.”
Tenzin opened his mouth to argue, but shook his head instead. It was pointless saying anything when she was so angry. His day trousers were hanging on a hook on the wall next to the door. He fumbled in the pocket and pulled out a packet of beedis. Time for his nightly smoke.
The unpaved street outside their hut was deserted. Sporadic barking of stray dogs tore through the silence. Tenzin huddled in his blanket as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Muted light crept out of the gaps from the closed doors and windows of the huts around. As Tenzin lit his beedi, he could make out the outline of the mountains around him. He couldn’t see the snow in the dark, but he knew that the gray-brown bodies were topped with a white, icy cap that had started growing in the last few weeks, signaling the arrival of winter. Ladakh is famed for its panoramic beauty. The untouched barren wilderness brimming with mesmerising sights that remain frozen in the eyes and hearts of those who witness them. To Tenzin it meant little more than a home that gave him livelihood as a tourist guide for six-seven months and left him jobless for the rest of the year. He smoked half the beedi. The rest would serve him the next day. As he stubbed it and slid it back into the packet, he heard the cries of a baby from the hut next door. Linpa’s mother and her younger sister Pema lived there. The baby was Pema’s infant son. Last winter, Pema’s husband Shinzu had gone to work with him. But when they were less than a day away from Kumar Post, the army base camp which was their first unloading destination, he had caught a bullet in enemy crossfire. Tenzin pushed away the memory of Pema’s distraught face when he had returned alone that March. He waited for a while, rubbing his palms together, looking at his in-laws’ hut. Did she need help with the baby? When the crying subsided in a few minutes, he opened the door to his own hut as little as he could to slide in. Glad to be out of the cold.
Linpa had stretched out on a straw mat. Tenzin lay down next to her but waited for her weary sobs to subside before relaunching his appeal. She was staring at the thin slice at the bottom of the hut’s door. The wind whistled a shrill tune as it escaped through the crack.
He understood her fears, shared them even. Carrying fifteen kilograms of rations on his back and walking more than two hundred and fifty kilometers over weeks to reach the Siachen glacier, the highest point for any army to have an active base, was a back-breaking and inhumane job. Then there was the risk of enemy gunfire. Siachen was ground Zero in the 1999 Kargil war that was fought between India and Pakistan and the border is an unsettled one. But Tenzin was thankful for getting work. This was the only employment he could get in the region in winter. Besides, it paid well. Thirty thousand rupees in four months. Much more than he made in the rest of the year. The only reason it was given to men like him was that even mules and horses couldn’t walk at eighteen-thousand-eight-hundred feet altitude in temperatures that fell to minus fifty degrees Celsius. They walked in the dark of the night, a steady human ant parade, only the bent back of the burdened man in front for a guide.
Linpa finally turned. “I still can’t look at Pema’s face. What is she going to do when the army compensation gets exhausted? A hundred thousand rupees will not last very long.”
“I told you I will find her some work at the travel office. Right now she has money and the baby needs her.”
“And the baby won’t need her then?”
“Linpa – “
“I don’t want to lose you to the spells of the white mountain-witch hiding in those passes.” Her face was a mess of tears and hair stuck to the wetness.
He put an arm around her and pulled her close, wiping her face and resting her head on his shoulder. “I will be fine, I promise,” he whispered as he kissed her still wet eyes.
“I can live on one meal a day. Like I did before the war, before these expeditions started.”
“Don’t be so negative. Think about the day I will come back. I will walk in through the door in the uniform from the army, with shoes and warm clothes.”
She clung to him but the sobbing had almost stopped now. He would let her fall asleep on his shoulder. It was only another week till the tempo from the army arrived to take him on his winter expedition. Let her sleep in the nest of his warmth till then. At least one of them was sleeping. He knew he couldn’t fight his own fears and get any rest. The dreaded whizzing sound of enemy bullets as they echoed through the valleys, the muted yells of the loader as he fell into the bottomless crevice from a slipped foot or weak foothold, the frostbite that plagued them all, swollen feet that made the new shoes lose their point. The night when Shinzu was killed, Tenzin hadn’t known who was hit till much later. There were a few men between them and the moonless sky gave no respite.
Perhaps he should borrow a guard dog from his brother. It would keep her safe from those Dorge rascals.
The triumphant Ladakhi loaders stood in a line to collect their pay. Thirty-thousand rupees. The reward they had dreamed about through the tough dark days. Tenzin limped to take his envelope, saluted to the army officer and tried his best to march off without putting too much weight on his left foot.
He swung himself into the tempo. The sun was peeping out that morning, from behind the hills and shooing away the fog, like a wind blower scatters away leaves. It was an auspicious sign. The weather gods were revelling with him in his homecoming.
“Sardarji, can you stop at the market in the next town for a little while?” Someone called out to the driver with a wink.
“You crazy rascals. Risked your life and back for months to earn some money. And now you can’t even wait till you get home to blow it up.” The driver laughed as he pulled off the highway to enter the town.
“We can take the weight on our backs, not in our pockets.” More laughter and back patting.
On the way to the army camp they had been a quiet group of twenty anxious men, cramped and edgy. Now on their way home they sat joking, legs stretched, backs resting against the sides. No one mentioned the extra space in the tempo made by their four fallen friends. The army contractor’s telegrams would have reached their homes with the news. Their families would have to be faced when they reached home. But till then nothing would take away the victorious feeling.
They got back on their way from the market only after the driver chased them back into the tempo three hours later. One young man was pulled out of the brothel, clothes still in hand. The band got livelier. Bags of goodies for families cramped them now. Tenzin smiled at his hoard. Clothes for Lobsang, bangles for Linpa, rice and spices and a big packet of rubbers. Three half-fed stomachs were better than four hungry ones.
When they got to the village square, the only street wide enough for vehicles to drive in, it was filled with curious villagers. As the tempo came to stop near the large Willow tree, the loaders jumped out to shouts of “Julley”. Families of the loaders were there to hopefully greet them, the others probably to take count of the returnees. Lobsang left her mother’s hand as soon as she spotted her father and raced into his arms. He lifted her and made a face in jest. How light she had gotten in the time that he was gone. Wasn’t her mother feeding her?
They walked to Linpa. She was waiting, head covered with her scarf, holding an end in her mouth, hiding her face. Tenzin smiled, she would have to wait until after they got home. With all the village elders watching, he wasn’t going to hug her there.
The loud wails of women broke through. It was Harip’s mother. And Vishwa’s wife. Linpa looked at Tenzin, questioning, searching, understanding. She rushed to comfort the crying women. The bereaved families would have received a telegram weeks ago, but as usual they hadn’t told anyone. Accepting and announcing the death would have taken away the faint hope that there had been some mistake and the telegram had been sent to the wrong family. Tenzin waited for a while, but he knew Linpa would go to the homes of the grieving women first. There would be rituals for the departed souls to get salvation. Without the bodies to pray over the Tapa couldn’t do much, but the chanting would go on for a couple of hours.
Lobsang talked non-stop as they slowly walked home through the narrow unpaved street. She was holding some of the bags and supporting her father as he limped beside her. “What happened to your leg? What have you brought for me?” There were stories about her friends, the snow games she had been playing. Tenzin nodded and ‘hmmed’ along. When she told him that her mother cried every night, he creased his brow. He would have to tell Linpa to not scare the child in his absence. It was one thing to miss him and another to cry every night.
They reached their hut and Tenzin stared at the fresh mound of mud a few feet from the door.
Lobsang followed his gaze.
“It’s Jumbo’s grave Papa. Uncle’s guard dog? Mama said he died because he was old. She had taken him with her when she went to get wood that day. I was at granny’s. I saw a lot of blood on his body when she brought him back.”
Tenzin walked inside, unsettled by what he had heard. As he hung his day trousers on the hook absently, the packet of condoms he had bought at the market slipped out from the pocket. He swiftly picked up the bright-red box with a seductive picture of an Indian actress. If Lobsang saw it she would ask a dozen questions. He would hide the box at the very back of the top shelf of the cupboard, behind the warm blankets and Linpa’s wedding clothes.
Tenzin kept the chatter on with his daughter as he fumbled to move things around to safely tuck his stash away. Something caught his eye, something that did not belong there, and he pulled it out. Linpa’s blue floral skirt fell out. It was stained red and brown and torn.
Prachi Topiwala-Agarwal is an Indian living in Singapore with her husband and two school-age daughters. She is completing a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing at the Lasalle College in Singapore.
Image credits: Rica Espiritu