A Journey with Elsa Cloud

Leila Hadley

WE HAVE FOUND each other quickly, Veronica and I, as if we were the only ones in the airport, embraced each other, kissed, hugged.

Now we sit on the lid of one of my fiberboard cases playing backgammon while we wait for the customs official to finish his examination of my luggage. Veronica is wearing a clean but shabby loose-sleeved, ankle-length white cotton dress and pink plastic Punjabi slippers with toes curled up like handles. She looks transcendently beautiful. A high, straight forehead, glinting cheekbones, straight nose, and a grave, full mouth are a setting for her eyes, which are dark-lashed and forget-me-not blue. Her hair, parted in the center, falls smooth and honey-colored in a long fringed cape around her shoulders. Her fingernails, cut short as they had been when she was a child, have the shimmer of butterfly shells wet from the sea. She is calm, more serene than I remember her.

A few days later, in the morning, outside of Mercara, with the mist rising from the valley and the air chill and foggy, I walk for a while along the road beyond the inn where we are staying, listening to the brook's rushing susurrus, the burbling of tree frogs giving way to the early morning chorus of birdsong, the fanfaronade of roosters for miles around, and the chime of church bells. I am at once myself in India, and an eight-year-old child walking in Scotland, wondering why the sheep are silent. After our breakfast tea, brought with a pitcher of hot milk topped with a wrinkled skin and a bowl of coarse-grained grayish sugar crystals with a wasp making the rounds of its rim, we set off again in the car, on our way now to Mysore.

Then two Buddhist monks appear, walking ahead of us.

"Tashidelek, tashidelek," Veronica calls out excitedly, and tells our driver to stop the car.

The monks turn grave, incurious faces toward us. Veronica, with a clear and lilting voice, speaks to them in Tibetan which, as she speaks it, sounds in rhythm and intonation somewhat like Japanese. I hear the word Byllakuppe and Veronica turns to tell me that the monks are on their way there. She asks if we can give them a ride. Of course. Veronica goes on talking with them.

I recall Veronica saying that Tibetans can be too polite. That some kinds of politeness are definitely intended to keep a distance. That sometimes distance is friendly so that a more subtle and low-key communication can take place. That sometimes the distance is intended to alienate because of suspicion, or to start testing. That Tibetans aren't obsessed by the necessity of keeping up a conversation. That speech should pass through the time-honored Buddhist requirements—is it true? Is it necessary? Will it not be the cause of harm? That being with Tibetans can be quite refreshing, not simply because they're not hysterical, but because they're not speedy. That being speedy is a form of aggression. Tibetans aren't speedy. "That's what I find anyway," I hear her say in some past conversation with me, using the same tone she is now using with the monks.

They respond to her in low, resonating voices. Smiles, sweet as a child's, light up their faces as they move slowly toward the car, wrapped in their voluminous maroon robes. On my mind's screen, there flashes an image of monks in Bangkok. They are enfolded in robes of tangerine cotton. Frail, wispy creatures, their faces sere, scholarly. These Tibetan monks, like European monks, have a more substantial look. They are large men, so bulky in their robes that I wonder if there is enough room in the back seat of the car for them.

Veronica gets out of the car, opening first one rear door, and then moving to the other side of the car to open the other door so that the monks can each sit beside me if I edge forward on the seat to make room for them. As she presents me to the monks and introduces them to me in such a way as w make it sound as though she were giving them and me a delicious treat. I feel a surge of feeling, a precipitation toward her.

Oh, Elsa Cloud, my darling daughter, my dear, darling angel, Elsa Cloud!

I cross my legs, balancing my ankle on my knee. Veronica immediately hisses at me. "Don't point your feet at them. Don't show the soles of your sneakers. They won't like it." I quickly place my feet on either side of the drive-shaft ridge.

THE ABBOT of Sera in Byllakupe is interested in what Veronica tells him of her studies in Dharamsala. He would like, he says, to examine her concerning what she has learned about tolerance and compassion. Since they will carry on their dialogue in Tibetan, Veronica and the elderly abbot closet themselves in the reception room, while I wander off in the company of a group of monks of different ages.

Some of them, I am told, are no older than six or seven years of age. For a moment, their maroon robes, their shaved heads, and their solemn mien distort their reality, giving them the look of homunculi, of dwarfs. But no, the moment their teacher's back is turned, they stare at me with mischievous dark eyes, smiling, giggling and free-spirited, irresistibly lovable because they appear so ready to love, to have fun, to play. One of them runs across the dusty path and up the steps to give me a hug strong enough to last a lifetime, and, embarrassed, runs away again.

A monk in his late twenties, identifying himself as Jhamchoe, tells me by way of explanation for this impulsive show of affection that the child, like himself, had lost both his mother and his sisters, that all of his family had been killed, and that, unlike the other baby monks born in Byllakupe, this was a child who had been chosen to be sent to Byllakupe rather than to one of the Tibetan children's villages because he was considered to have a special inclination for the spiritual and scholarly life. Smiling a bodhisattva smile that shines impartially on me, he shows me a photograph of one of his uncles wearing the eponymous yellow hat of the Gelugpa order. He tells me that each of the thousand and eighteen woolen threads with which these priestly hats are woven represents a reincarnation of buddhas yet to be born. Some day, he says, he hopes he will pass all the examinations necessary for him to be able to wear such a hat, which symbolizes the full development of wisdom, compassion, and power and the attainment of buddhahood.

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