I am lying in a hospital bed, bleeding. In a room somewhere down the hall I hear monks chanting verses from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It is mid-day and outside the weather is gloomy.
The fact that the monks are chanting means someone has died here recently, meaning that whatever hospital room the monks are chanting in will be unusable for a few days, as Tibetan Buddhists don’t move the bodies of the dead until a week after the heart stops beating. Before I encountered Tibetan Buddhism I had always assumed that the cessation of the heartbeat signified the death of the person. For them, the cessation of the heartbeat is only the inaugural step towards the moment when the consciousness exits the body to seek its next reincarnation. The monks chant over the dead body to help the consciousness find its way.
I lean up and discover I’ve been bleeding all over the bed. M— is nearby, keeping me company, holding the bandage on my head, making me smile, pretending that the wound isn’t so bad. M—, I realize as I lie here, is really the only person in India I can call for help.
On top of my head is a four-centimeter gash, a gash opened up by the sharp edge of my metal clothing cupboard, which I accidentally stood up into after tying my shoe. A quick lift of the head and my whole world changed. Suddenly India, which after a month was beginning to withdraw into the background of my life, reasserted itself.
The doctor places a rag over my eyes. The monks are still chanting — over and over again — words I don’t understand. The doctor shoots antiseptic into my scalp, waits, then starts to stitch. I can feel the needle and thread poking numbly through the skin, tugging it, tightening it. The snip of the tiny scissors.
The doctor is a British lady in her mid-thirties who seems somewhat new to the area. As she sews me up she asks: “Have you ever taken a plane out of Dharamsala?”
“I always take the bus,” I say.
“Supposedly there are flights, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s been on one. And I never see any planes come or go.”
The skin of my scalp tugs and tightens, tugs and tightens.
“The monks’ chanting really gives an atmosphere to this place,” I say after a few minutes of quiet.
“This is a very unusual hospital,” she says. “They will be in there chanting until the body begins to decompose.”
So much can change depending on a mood. India is a place that can very quickly transform from idyllic and friendly to something dark and hostile.
The other day when I was walking up the hill to M—’s place I looked at a monkey and it shrieked and scrambled towards me with its teeth bared. I had never had this happen before. I sort-of intuitively jumped back and lifted my forearms and grunted, and the monkey screamed and ran off, but the incident left me rattled for a few minutes.
A number of things here cause such unease. The threat of earthquakes, for instance, and the cracks in my walls and ceiling. The occasional electrocution. The wild dogs that growl at me on the dark roads when walking home late at night. So many things have the power to make me feel suddenly alien, to remind me that I know few things about this country and even fewer people. All of a sudden something happens — I smash open my head or monkey comes after me — and I am alone in the universe about to suffer without the power to stop it, with no one there to help me.
Most days, though, are as ordinary as anywhere else. Each morning I wake to my phone alarm around 9am. If I am alone I hit the snooze button, repeatedly, every five minutes, over and over again at least four times before crawling out of bed. If I am with M—, we wake up around 10 and one of us cooks breakfast on the portable gas stove in the corner of the room. M—’s meals taste much better then mine. She’s familiar with the local produce and how to cook with this equipment. I know very little about cooking over a fire with raw ingredients. Sometimes we don’t eat breakfast at all, we just lay there with the window open, watching hawks soar around in the clearing beyond the balcony. Some fly by so close you can see their beady little eyes. Sometimes we lie there long enough to see the butterflies, which start to appear each day around 11am. As the afternoon rises thousands more appear by the hour, all hurrying unidirectionally up the mountain — little white and yellow asterisks oscillating through the air.
After that M— leaves for work and I sit down to write. Every few hours I take a break and wander through the villages, trudging up and down the steep mountain roads, past Tibetan vendors selling thangkas and textiles and Buddhist and Hindu religious paraphernalia, past metal shacks where Indian families of five-to-ten people live with their goats and cows.
Other days I do nothing all day but wander through the silent woodlands up the hill, alone with pen and notebook.