A Journey with Elsa Cloud

Leila Hadley

MY DAUGHTER HAS BEEN LOST TO ME in a world I don't understand. I have been lost to her in a world she came to scorn. In more than two years, I haven't spoken with her. Now, woken up by the telephone's beeping, I hear Veronica's voice, sure, cool, coming through the receiver from a great distance.

"And don't worry about your Hindi, Mummy. It's easier than Spanish. I'll meet you twenty days from now in New Delhi. At the airport."

I watch the ceiling's shifting ladders of reflected light cast from the night traffic moving south on Fifth Avenue, their verticals scored with flickering ribbons the color of ripe pomegranate juice and the bottled grenadine syrup Veronica liked to sip for its color suggestive both of myth and mercurochrome. My heart beats like a drum.

"Where are you?"

"I'm in a toasty hot telephone booth in Janpath. If I call collect, I don't have to wait long. What time is it in New York?"

"Almost four in the morning. Tuesday."

I hear the echo of my voice saying, "To you's day."

Her childlike laughter is an unexpected gift. "It's afternoon here. A month from now I've arranged an audience for you in Dharamsala with His Holiness."

"The Dalai Lama?"

"Yes. I thought you'd like to write about him. I gave him some of the flea medallions you sent for his Lhasa apso."

"But what should I say? What should I ask him?" I reach for my notebook and blue felt-tipped pen.

"You can ask His Holiness anything. He's very wise about everything, Mummy."

"Well, I'm not."

Coils of inadequacy spiral around me and squeeze all relevant intelligence from my mind. I remember, years ago, hugging Veronica when she had a garter snake hidden and snuggled beneath her T-shirt. The snake wriggled. I shrieked, jumped back. Veronica laughed and crowed, "Silly Mummy. Frightened Mummy. You're such fun to scare!"

The mind's time is faster than ordinary time. Now she says, "Sorry. I thought you'd be pleased if I fixed it all up for you." From fourteen thousand miles away, I hear Veronica sigh. Impatience. Disappointment. Reproach.

"It isn't important whether you believe His Holiness to be an embodiment of compassion, Mummy," Veronica goes on. "At least you could appreciate the purity of his friendliness, his benevolence and tensionlessness. It could benefit your mind. The Indians call it 'darshan.'"

"Darshan?"

"Yes, darshan. It's what happens to you when you visit enlightened people and you receive from them a sort of psychic transmission that the English word 'blessing' doesn't really convey, although it could, if you wanted it to."

"Darshan," I hear my overly eager need-to-please voice chirping, "Oh, yes, yes! You wrote me about that!"

For a moment, my daughter and I are silent. Then, dispensing with that part of me which ought to be up to her intelligence and isn't, Veronica gentles her voice to the persuasive and assured sweetness of one asking for a favor certain to be granted. "Could you possibly bring a few things with you when you come? Sweaters, a dress, things like that? And those yummy dried soups and the very dark kind of Swiss chocolate? And some Mediterranean herbs? You don't have to bring them in jars or tins. You can empty them into those plastic things. You know, Baggies."

"Baggies. Yes."

No darshan about plastic. In my mind I am haring about decanting thyme, basil, oregano, and tarragon into little sacks, firmly securing their fragrance with elastic bands. Staples might tear and make holes.

"There's no way to make a bouquet garni around Dharamsala," Veronica says silkily. "My thumb and index finger have taken on an almost permanently green tinge from pinching leaves and holding them to my nose. There's wild basil in Manali but not in Dharamsala....And I need some of those fine accountant pens to draw with," Veronica persists. "And cognac. Remy Martin? Even in Bombay and Delhi, you can't get decent cognac." I feel suddenly lifted with the sense of being needed.

"Of course, my darling Elsa Cloud. Is there anything else I can bring?"

When Veronica was sixteen, she said, "I'd like to be the sea, the jungle, or else a cloud." The last three words, transformed homonymically to Elsa Cloud, became my endearment for her. Darling Elsa Cloud. When I was twenty-five—the same age Veronica is now—I traveled to India to discover India for myself and, by writing about it, to make it my own. I saw Bombay and Delhi with Kipling's Kim, an all-knowing interlocutor at my side. I went to Nagpur and ate its sweet oranges while I watched the dances of an aboriginal tribe that lives in its province. I saw Ellora and Ajanta, the Elephanta Caves and country villages in the company of Mulk Raj Anand, a distinguished Indian novelist and art scholar who always wore something red, which was for him the color of life. He described and regaled me with stories of the great blue, fluteplaying god Krishna and his bevy of amorous gopis (cowherd maidens). I saw India through what felt like a rape of all my senses in a tumultuous assault of sight and sound and smell and taste and resonating color.

Veronica is experiencing India with a Tibetan lama named Geshe-la, meditating, practicing Buddhism, studying Tibetan grammar in a lamas' college in Dehra Dun, living "at the end of a goat path in the Himalayas" in a three-storied house she rents for an infinitesimal monthly sum. Cows are stabled on the ground floor. Corn and hay are stored on the top floor. Her bed is in arm's reach of a cylindrical woodburning stove or tandoor, "warm and cozy," which in her drawing of it has the look of a pure, clean sculpture, with two removable lids on top where she can put pots for cooking and for heating the water that she fetches in a bucket from a nearby stream. She writes that Buddha's answer to life's riddles is the Four Noble Truths. Suffering exists. Suffering is caused by desire. Suffering can be overcome by elimination of desire. Desire can be eliminated by following the Noble Eightfold Path of moderation and clear thought. She writes that the Buddhist doctrine teaches nonattachment, the sublimation of the ego, that even though there is chaos all around you, you can still maintain detachment and an all-calm inner self, not only freed from worldly attachments to people and things, but also in a state where you really know yourself and are in total contact with yourself. You can achieve this state best, she writes, by the mind-emptying process of meditation so that your mind can open outward to let in life the way a lotus opens to the sun. I don't understand these commentaries about Buddhism.

My mind feels as scattered as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, odd little bits of memory and association waiting to be reassembled within the edges of sky and earth. Lately, I've had the recurring fantasy that I am Demeter and Veronica is Persephone. Demeter knew her daughter was lost, and she wandered over the earth searching for her. At first, she simply abandoned herself to her sorrow. Then she consciously entered into it, as though entering a temple, contained in her grief, not only for the loss of her daughter, but also for the loss of the young and carefree part of herself.

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