A Journey with Elsa Cloud

Leila Hadley

We follow Geshe-Ia toward an archway with trees and lawns beyond. Through the trees there is a glimpse of a building with a peaked and gabled portico. Two monks are walking along a path leading from the building to the archway. Their saffron undergarments look bright in the sunlight. Their right arms are bare. They walk toward us with the slow, sure, steady pace all monks seem to have here in Dharamsala, a measured way of walking so certain, so smooth that they and we are facing each other through the gate before I realize that the taller of the two monks is looking directly at us, that Geshe-Ia and he are smiling, steepling their hands, bowing their heads in greeting. The taller one passes through the gate to meet us. He has a lovely face, a sweet smile and his eyes are twinkling behind his squarish glasses. Geshe-Ia turns to me and introduces me to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. My eyes meet his.

Geshe-Ia translates: all religions can learn from each other; the ultimate goal of all religion is to produce better human beings. Better human beings would be more tolerant, more compassionate, less selfish. Love and compassion are the essence of all religions.

"Kindness," His Holiness says, speaking now in English. "This is something useful in our daily life whether you believe in God or Buddha." He rests his dark eyes on Veronica and me, and laughs with pleasure, like a child, a wonderful laugh like a billow, like a pillow, joyful, soft, enfolding. He presses his hands together and nods and smiles to Veronica. He holds out his right hand to me and I clasp it with my right hand. "Compassion and love are precious things in life," he says. "Simple, but difficult to practice." And then he is gone. I feel free and light, disencumbered. Worry, anxiety, depression have been stripped away to reveal another self—not an entirely new, fresh self, but one that is better, more comfortable. Veronica puts her arm around my shoulder and leans her head toward mine, her ear cupped to my own like a whispering shell.

I DID NOT IMAGINE the church I saw on the road to His Holiness' residence in McLeod Ganj. Its name is St. John in the Wilderness, and it has been closed for "a long time." A chaukidar (watchman) who lives across from it has the key. When we arrive at the church, I hoist the stirrup-shaped latch over and back from the gate post, shoulder open the iron gate. Its hinges plaintively mew resistance to trespassers. It is a Presbyterian church. Like the medieval traveler who made a complete circuit of the world without knowing it, I feel I have come back to the place I started from, I have come full-circle. "The wheel had come full-circle. I am here."

"But how do you know it's Presbyterian?" Veronica asks.

How could I not know? I grew up seeing small, country churches like these. I spent Sunday mornings in Scotland with my grandmother in a village kirk so much like this one before me that in the quietness, the solitude, my grandmother is here, breathing next to me. The sun dapples the churchyard through the branches of deodars, weaving patterns of sunlight on the grass. I want to embrace this church dedicated to St. John, have the sunlight amber it forever in my mind, this church with its blunt Gothic tower, its dark gray stone durable and grave as the Scottish hills and the Scottish character, which subscribes to illusions of permanence and a stony, exacting morality.

Stained glass in the windows has fallen away from its moldings, been broken, shattered, and only two windows on the lee side of the church remain. In one, two figures, one male, one female, identified with scrolls as Justice and Sacrifice. In the two panels of the other, Jesus and St. John, St. John and a kneeling figure. Their finely etched faces remind me of the paintings of Frederic Leighton, of his Persephone poised before Demeter, who stands in a cave with her arms outstretched. Yes, very Pre-Raphaelite, Veronica says, like Edward Burne-Jones.

The silence is broken by the arrival of the chaukidar and his agitated shrilling. This is a Scottish temple, a Scottish temple, a Scottish temple. We must not go inside unless we take our shoes off. We cannot go inside because he has the key. We cannot go inside because the key he has is broken and is being repaired. Oh woe. In all these years there have been no visitors and now that we are here the key to the door is broken. His wail rises to a high jagged pitch, then lowers slightly as I reach for my purse. An exceptionally large tip produces a pleasing tone, a smile to show that he has put in his false teeth for our benefit. They hurt him and fall out when he eats. Now that he has money, he can buy glue for them, and chappatis and vegetables he can chew. Mayall the gods and the Lord bless us! Ram, Ram!

I listen to his dentured lisp mourning the key, until I can bear it no longer. See? I say. If we just walk to the other side of the church where the windows have lost their glass—shaken loose and broken during earthquakes past—and we pile up these stones, and he is careful not to let them slip, and I am careful to hold tightly to the sill, I can see inside. We won't need the chabhi, the kungii. All is well. And so it is. Sun through the stained glass panel ofJesus and St. John casts dancing pools of blue and red and gold on the stone floor. Light filtering through holes in the roof illuminates brass oil lamps fixed to stone walls and a bronze eagle gleaming on the lectern. The pews are gone, probably chopped up for firewood long ago, but the bare interior of the church is lovely as it is, with the oil lamps and the bronze eagle of the lectern and a baptismal font its only adornments. The font has an octagonal basin. "Do you remember the little octagonal metal bolt with a brass keyhole glued on top of it that you gave me when you were a little girl?" I ask Veronica. "I loved it so," I say. When you looked through the keyhole, you could see a scrap of paper on which she had printed "I love you."

Veronica smiles and nods, and smiling, the chaukidar performs a final mudra. I see him slipping his teeth into his pocket as he goes out the gate. In the back of the church, there is a memorial, and the graveyard to see. The memorial, of gray stone, is all little turreted towers and spires, fenced about with wrought iron and small turreted bollards, a fanciful mix of fortress, cathedral, and castle in miniature. I begin to read the inscription aloud and then stop, and start again, "James Bruce, Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, Viceroy and Governor General of India, Governor of Jamaica, Governor General of Canada, High Commissioner and Ambassador to China, Died at Dharamsala in the Discharge of His Duties on the twentieth of November, 1863. Aged 52 years, four months."

I recall a drawing ofJames Bruce, eighth Earl of Elgin and the twelfth Earl of Kincardine, which my grandmother had shown me. ("Granny, how could he be two kinds of earls at the same time?" "Because he was, darling. Just look at this superb, almost saintly face.") Educated at Eton and at Christ Church, Oxford, a contemporary of William Gladstone, he was an intellectual and, according to his biographer, a man of great physical bravery who sat calmly on the deck of a sinking ship during a terrible storm in order to prevent panic among the passengers and crew. "A very brave man, my precious," Granny said. Granny told me that his mind and faith were ecclesiology, that he was a true Christian, a true man of God, that he had even thought once of entering a monastery. Removing it from a felt bag, unwrapping it from tissue paper, she showed me a silver-backed mirror that had belonged to Veronica, the Countess of Kincardine, his and Boswell's grandmother. From Boswell, it had passed to his granddaughter who married my great-grandfather who willed it to her. ("Not a mirror, precious, Lady Kincardine's looking-glass.")

I reached out my hand to clasp Veronica's, and with my other hand I touch the name of Elgin on the memorial, my eye's delight in reading what it knows coupling with the pleasure of a name and the singularity of a life that would endure, as when the name of a place you know is suddenly found on a map or in a book where you would least expect to find it.

Veronica and I walk among dozens of gravestones, some standing, some fallen and moss-covered. "A father deeply and universally regretted," "a beautiful and beloved child," "a gentle and beloved wife." As we rest, standing together in the shadow of the church, Veronica speaks. "Without Buddhism, my life would have no meaning," she says in a voice as soft and radiant as the gentians and blue poppies growing along the gray stones of the back wall of the church. Then she quotes the Dalai Lama: "Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn't anyone who doesn't appreciate compassion, mercy. . . ." Gentle, generous Buddhism. I look at Veronica's dark-lashed eyes. I look at the glistening Dhauladar above. I look at the Elgin Memorial and the graveyard beyond it. Veronica and I walk together to the edge of the spur. Far below, fields stretch toward the mountains of the horizon. There is the road like a winding lane leading up to Dharamsala and its patchwork of rust-red roofs, roofs the color of plums, the flesh of pomegranates. Dharamsala, a resting place.

 

Leila Hadley is a writer living in New York. A Journey With Elsa Cloud, based on a trip taken in 1978, is an excerpt from a work in progress.

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