Elevated by Lucinda Nelson Dhavan

'How did you end up in such a god-forsaken place,' the older trekker asked.


Had these two hikers come this deep into the Himalayas without knowing what his saffron clothes meant? Clothes, beard, hair, the marks on his forehead—all screamed 'sadhu'. And sadhus went into the mountains to meditate in solitude, it was what they did. They didn't 'end up' in odd places like so much wind-blown trash.


But sadhus also control their passions, and so Shivanand took a long breath, diluting anger, and admitted he'd been asking the same question of himself as autumn came on: Why here? Of all the lonely valleys in the world, why this one? It seemed almost arbitrary.


But these doubts had nothing to do with the men before him, to whom he gave the short answer, 'Doctor Baba sent me here.'


'"Doctor Baba"?' the younger said, his full lips twisting in a smirk.


'That is what people call him,' Shivanand told them. 'He is a well-known teacher, with many disciples, both Indian and foreign.'


As the hikers shared an irreverent glance, Shivanand realised that the 'many disciples' and 'famous' and 'foreign' were risible. He knew that 'Doctor Baba', qua name, reeked of awe-struck peasants. It lacked gravitas. He'd wondered, at times, about any teacher who could allow himself to be called that, though he appreciated the piquant contrast in the title—an M.D. who'd left the profession desired by every mother's son, to become a spiritual guide. What kind of leap of faith was that?


And it was not Babaji's fault that his followers had begun to call him that, or that people talked about his foreign disciples as though such exotic company proved his worth. It was not Babaji's fault if some Americans gave him a Mercedes, or an ardent Korean disciple had once decided to bury herself alive for three days, having press notes issued each day, to prove the power of what she had learned from him.


Babaji had never told Shivanand to do such things. He'd never asked for money or blind faith or loyal servitude, never told Shivanand to greet guests at the ashram or decorate halls for vast meetings or peddle CDs of his discourses. He'd sat with Shivanand in silence, often, and advised him to go into the mountains, deeper and deeper.


'But why this place?' the older hiker persisted. 'Almost no one lives here anymore. Who comes to your temple?'


'You are here.'


The strangers' faces twitched.


Shivanand looked out over their shoulders, down the slope. Crumbling empty houses spread below the squat, whitewashed shrine. The low remnants of walls ran out into a patchy field of medicinal herbs. The old village headman had persuaded the government to give him a grant for the scraggly plantation, but no one else had been hopeful enough to join in this 'income-generating activity'.


After the field came the river, foaming around rocks and white as milk with dissolved minerals from the glacier up above. And then came the snow-topped mountains in front, to the left and right, staggered behind. Against the hard blue sky they looked excessively pure, wind-scoured, sun-lit.


Was that what he'd been sent here to do? To become purified, all low impulses burned away? He scarcely had low impulses.


'Why have you come here,' Shivanand asked, turning the question back to the men.


The elder had sat on a rock and unzipped his jacket, leaning back like a lizard soaking sun. It was the younger who replied, 'We've decided to see every major glacier in the world. We trekked up to Gomukh last year, but there were so many pilgrims, it sort of messed up the experience.'


'It's not a religious thing with us,' the other one opened an eye to add, 'we're just seeing the glaciers before they disappear.'


His face was smooth with confidence. He looked prosperous, well-tended. Shivanand felt a second's gloating when the man took off his cap and rubbed a bald crown. His own hair had lifted and turned in energetic waves when he stopped cutting it, surprising even him.


'This valley's better. Not so many people,' the young one said. 'But it's impossible to get any privacy. We should have carried a tent,' he shot an accusing glance at his companion. 'There were shepherds and porters hanging around everyplace we stopped. And fleas and goats in that farmhouse on the way, and last night the Israelis were partying at the guest house and wouldn't let us sleep.'


'It's the end of the season,' Shivanand shrugged. 'By next week they'll all be gone.'


'Of course the Indo-Tibet Border Patrol men will still be here,' the older one said. 'Their officer joined us for a drink last night. Nice young man.'


'Some of them visit the temple, when they're homesick.'


'They said they'd probably have to look after you, if you really do spend the winter up here.'


Shivanand did not respond. The coldness in his belly was a private matter. He had never spent a winter up this high, and thought with something like longing of the hut he had last year, in another, lower valley. He thought of the solar-powered light, the even walls.


By midwinter he might even be hungry enough to eat the cans of okra, mustard greens and chickpeas that the I.T.B.P. men had offered up in the temple, or cold enough to drink their bottle of rum. There wasn't much else he could expect from them. They would be as marooned as he was, once the snow fell. All around would be an indistinguishable carpet of cold, hiding paths and drifting over nothingness.

Perhaps he'd been sent to learn to live with nothingness, to face a world reduced to simple, frozen white.


'What will you do all winter,' the young one asked. 'I'd go crazy.'


'I'll do what I do now: meditate, sweep the temple.'


'And where will you live,' the elder looked around the barren slope.


'In there.'


'In a temple,' he asked.


'The Goddess doesn't mind,' Shivanand said, and with a gesture, invited them in.


Trekkers often visited. A few did so in reverence, but for most it was just another sight to see. Like so many of them, these two had trouble taking off their complex boots at the threshold, and forgot to duck through the doorway.


'Shit,' the younger said when he banged his head.


'The lower ceilings and small doors conserve heat well,' Shivanand pointed out, 'and are a reminder to be humble.'


He lifted his hair to show the scar of a long cut on his forehead. When he'd first come to the mountains, he'd had trouble bowing his way through the doorframes. He'd been suffering from a pinched cervical nerve and carpal tunnel syndrome. He'd not been sure he could live without his computer. His blood sugar had been high, and he'd had cholesterol problems, blood pressure.


He pointed out the room's simple features. 'This pit is for the fire, though I only need it after noon, when the wind comes.'


'The wind's vicious,' the young one said, 'cut through every layer I put on yesterday.'


'I sleep in that corner,' Shivanand told them, and only at that moment noticed that his cot and its cocoon of quilts were haloed with a sour smell. The heavy-lidded blue eyes of the younger man ran over the smoke-stained walls of the inner sanctum, over the rough rock that represented the Goddess and the crude metal stand beside Her that held small bowls, still sticky with oil. The eyes seemed to be cataloguing things to do: tidy this, dust that, wash.


'No statue?' the elder asked.


'No. She has not been given human form.'


Bottles of oil and water, cotton, incense, matches were jumbled to one side of the Goddess. Perhaps he should take more thought to housekeeping, and less to the practicality of leaving everything near where it would be used. He never had been one to care about the way things looked. The day his wife died she'd told him from her sickbed to change his cardigan so that he would look respectable for the visitors who came daily in those last weeks. Barely able to speak, she'd told him with feeble gestures to straighten the room before the nurse came.


The younger one had an expression very like his wife's.


Brief tour over, the men went out to start the elaborate ritual of re-booting themselves, and Shivanand saw the elder tuck a fifty-rupee note beneath the Goddess's red drape. Visitors often felt the impulse to give something. A Bengali girl, hiking with an arrogant young man, had been desperate enough to leave a five-hundred-rupee note just a week ago, but the season was so advanced then that the nearest shop, a half-day's walk away, had run out of oil and incense. They no longer had anything needed for worship, and he already had enough rice and lentils, sugar and dried herbs for himself. His vitamins. What could he buy?


He stuffed the note into a chink in the wall, along with the other cold and crumpled cash.


'How far is it to the glacier,' the elder man asked, as he tugged at his laces.


'They say it's about five kilometres.'


'How's the path? Easy going?'


'I don't know.'


'What,' the younger cut in, 'Haven't you been up there?'




'You live here, and you haven't seen the glacier?'




'Don't you want to?'


Shivanand had thought of going up. But he'd arrived at the height of the season and the path had been loud with hikers. That hadn't felt right. Besides, people had come to sit with him—solitary walkers, novices nursing blisters, a few villagers, the I.T.B.P. boys. They'd all wanted to talk about their lives, have a cup of tea, pass the time.


He'd thought at first that was why he'd been sent here—to ease the way of those who paused at the temple, who'd climbed this far. Possibly it was to be a lesson in humility, quelling the intellect, listening meekly to all and sundry babbling on about loving the peace up here; wondering why life could not be so simple down below.


'Why don't you come along with us,' the elder suggested. 'We'll just shoot up there and straight back, won't take long. We need to make it down to Martoli before dark.'


Shivanand looked around at the shimmering peaks, the intense sky, and could find no reason not to go. He went to get his staff and shoes.


When he came back, the two hikers had moved away a few steps and were arguing. The younger's hand lay on the elder's chest, half caressing through the open jacket, half pushing with tight-wound frustration. His pained voice said: You never listen.


Shivanand paused; they saw him and the conversation stopped. The elder turned toward him with a practiced civility.


'Ready then?' He asked as he put on his hat and dusted his clothes. Then he saw Shivanand's feet and said, 'You can't walk in those shoes. They're torn!'


'Just a rip in the cloth. The sole is intact.'


'But they're so flimsy,' the man insisted. 'I hope you have something more substantial to wear when it snows.'


Shivanand nodded. He had several stout plastic carry-bags set aside for that. Tied over extra padding they'd kept his feet dry enough last winter at Pindari. He didn't have to go prancing in the snow, after all.


'People are so careless about their feet around here,' the hiker said. 'Some of the porters wear nothing but rubber flip-flops—can you imagine? What an incredible risk with all the sharp stones, the animal waste on the paths. Someone should see that they get the proper gear.'


'A worthy cause indeed,' Shivanand said. He'd noticed the coolies, running up in their rubber flip-flops, soaked through by the rain below, pulling on their cheap Nepali cigarettes for warmth. During the slow time they'd dragged themselves up on ropes and slogged through the mud because a bunch of Japanese climbers had buried their garbage in incredibly light, compact bins. The men came back to empty the garbage on the wet hillsides and take the containers home to store grain.


'Poverty, though,' Shivanand said, 'is a complicated problem.'


Then he paused, because the younger man had not moved, while they'd come down the crook-leg path as they talked, and left him far behind.


'Don't worry about him,' the man said, forging ahead, 'he's in a mood this morning.'


They walked down the slope where the Headman had sat and directed while the words 'Nanda Devi' were spelled out in rocks and whitewashed by the guesthouse servants, along with an arrow pointing to the temple. The Headman had thought it smartened up the place and would convince trekkers that there were other things to see, not just the glacier; that they should spend more than one night in the village, and more money.


Shivanand thought this project looked as tacky as the 'Hollywood' he'd so often seen spelled out against a hillside in films, in that other life. Odd, how that life did not disappear. He'd expected that it would fall away, like a cloak dropped behind as one walked into the sun. Instead, it seemed to flutter like a scarf on his shoulders—weightless, but often catching his eye.


'It's tragic to see these ruined houses,' the man said as they walked on, 'all of the villages up here are like ghost towns.'


'When the passes were closed during the '62 war, the trade with Tibet ended. There was no reason to make the trip up here anymore.'


'But can't they do other things? Agriculture?'


They were skirting a clump of bright wild flowers at that moment; it seemed ridiculous to say that nothing useful could grow in these dry heights but the tufts of chives that had been planted in neat rows inside the roofless homes.


'Only half a dozen local people come up now. Some rent out rooms to visitors like you. The very poor just come once to plant potatoes or herbs, and then again to harvest.'


'But all this exquisite carved wood work—just look at that doorframe! The fluting, the leaves, the workmanship!'


'They lived well in the old days.'


'How could anyone bear to abandon such a place? It's unique!'


Shivanand understood the sentiment. Whenever he walked among the topless rooms, the weathered gods and vines and parrots in the wood, he felt the loss. Old men had told him how they used to come up every spring. They'd left their wives and children in this busy village as they took sugar and toys and shoes to sell in Tibet. They'd sewn pearls and coral bought in far-away Calcutta into their clothes. They'd traded all for salt and borax, stitched gold dust in their clothes where gems had been, and come back here to feast and worship. Then they'd trouped down to buy, then up to sell, come spring, and down again, their orbit fixed.


'Wait—the Chinese invaded Tibet in the '50s didn't they?' the man said, 'they must have stopped trading then.'


'No, no,' Shivanand insisted. 'People still wanted things. One old man told me he'd taken a motorcycle over on the backs of sheep, broken down in parts. For a Commissar.'


'But then why not do it now?'


'Trek over three passes in a single day, or be frozen to the rock— all to sell plastic toys in China?


The man laughed.


The children of the traders were now bank clerks, soldiers, teachers down below, Shivanand thought, fixed in their places.


Sic transit gloria mundi, was that the lesson he'd been sent up here to learn? The transitory nature of human endeavour? How whole ways of life could vanish?


The trekker had gone on to the topic of how the most artistic doorframes should be preserved, a museum made. He went from carving to carving, full of questions about motifs. He spoke of satellite phones and the possibility of windmills.


His younger companion trailed behind, still kicking pebbles from the path and raising dust with dragged feet, and Shivanand felt he had to say, 'Wouldn't you like to wait for him? He seems upset.'


The man made a moue. 'He just needs time to get over himself.'


The man also kicked at a few pebbles from the path before he put on his social mask again and asked, 'Where did you learn to speak such good English?'


'I was a teacher.'


'Before you renounced the world, you mean?'


Shivanand shrugged.


'When was that? Where? Did you have a family? Children?'


'No, no children,' he said. He didn't mention the wife or her mid-life death. He didn't mention the brother, overjoyed to get the family house, the sister who had hugged his collection of sacred literature to her bosom with tearful eyes and all but kissed his feet, overwhelmed with pride and envy at his chosen course. Nor was there any point in describing how his colleagues in the Physics Department had been unable to conceal their delight as they stuffed his mouth with farewell sweets, over the new avenues to promotion now opened for them.


Renunciation should have a sharper edge.


'And you,' he asked, in polite reply, 'do you have a family waiting for you to come back from your travels?'


The man snorted, 'I had a wife and family. Let's leave it at that.'


But he didn't leave it, he marched a while and then added, 'They are disillusioned with me, let's say. But such is life. One must be true to oneself….'


Shivanand hardly heard the words the man was saying as he began to feel stones rolling beneath his feet, round tops tickling through his thin soles. He had to grasp slightly, with his toes, for balance. How unexpected!


The man beside him moved more slowly, too, and kept looking back. Then he stopped and took two ingenious-looking sticks out of his rucksack and extended them, 'Don't usually need these…. .' He paused but the younger man did not catch up.


They were still far from the ice. Surely the old men exaggerated when they said the glacier had been just beyond the village in their fathers' days. It was so far.


The sound of stones grinding together gave away the young man's approach from behind.


'I've heard about your temple,' he shouted toward them, into the wind, 'from the guys at the guest house. You're going to have a festival there this month and slaughter five hundred goats and pour the blood over your rock, they said.'


'You must have misunderstood,' Shivanand answered. 'The other Devi temple, down farther, follows that tradition, but my Guru is progressive. His instructions are that only sweet halva and fried bread should be offered.'


Shivanand could not resist the temptation to expatiate, 'Such rites began in the distant past. It's possible even men were sacrificed then. But we evolve, practices change. They say that the architect of the Gods made a parallel universe in which the coconut was the equivalent of the human skull, and so coconuts should be broken as a sacrifice instead—'


'Interesting,' the older man commented, but the younger hunched his shoulders and strode ahead.


'Is your… companion vegetarian?' Shivanand asked, at first inclined to say 'your son'. He knew he could be naïve about these things; once he'd complimented a visiting lecturer on his daughter's fine mind, only to learn later that the bright girl was the professor's 'friend'.


'Him? Given the chance, he'll stuff his face with steak. I'm a vegetarian—with a little fish occasionally, for the protein.'


'Ah, yes, but he is young. The young have appetites. It is easier to give up things of which you might have had enough.'


Again they trudged in silence until the man thought to add, 'The way animals are kept and slaughtered is enough to turn any sensitive person vegetarian.'


'Some prefer not to think of it.'


'That's just denial!'


And as the man went on with an interesting explanation of the environmental advantages of vegetarianism, a new question shot into Shivanand's mind: could he have been sent here merely to maintain the new dispensation in the temple and save a few goats from ritual death? Was the oneness of all life such an important lesson?


Little life remained around them. The field of stones was wide and empty. The man beside him was becoming breathless. Shivanand inhaled deeply and enjoyed the floating sensation of air moving through his lungs, buoying him. Altitude played that odd trick, making space perceptible, giving a feeling of life streaming between molecules, as if one were nothing but a net of cells, hung in space.


'Are we at about thirteen thousand feet here?' the man asked, as though the gap between their minds were just such a permeable membrane.


'A bit more.'


'I don't know how anyone could live at this height. I couldn't sleep at all last night. I just could not switch off.'


'If you let the thoughts flow,' Shivanand said, 'it's not unpleasant.'


'But the sleep deprivation would be devastating,' the man said, 'to say nothing of what the lack of oxygen does to your brain.'


'One feels elated.'


'Elated?' the man snorted. 'High, you mean! Maybe that's what all those ancient sages were doing in the Himalayas, getting high on altitude!'


He held his broad smile for minutes, turning this way and that to share it with the bare rocks and circling peaks, and with the young man's back, for the longest time, as though willing him to turn around.


The man's humour faded, but Shivanand's exaltation grew. The ground moved underfoot, rocks shifting and settling as he walked.


The glacier loomed, a vast presence. The closer they came, the higher it towered, the louder the river's rushing.


Up ahead, the young man stopped. Jacket flattened against him, he hugged himself as he leaned into the strengthening wind.


How austere this place was—nothing to see but stones and the gravel-browned mass of ice, a sky that had turned silver. Nothing to hear but rushing water, streaming wind and the ping-ping-ping-pong of small rocks falling from the top.


Shivanand stopped beside a mountainous boulder, to take in the profound barrenness before him. The older man walked on, his feet loud on the stones. He made his way to his shivering companion, who turned and looked at him. Their arms slid around each other, they leaned close, cheek pressed to cheek.


Shivanand felt a weight lift. As long as people were alone, he felt compelled not to leave them. But when they had one another….


He kicked off his tattered canvas shoes and clambered up the boulder. The stone was cold and smooth against his feet. He called out, first, 'Auuuuumm!'


The sound came back shredded by the wind.


He circled and dusted off the rounded top of the rock. He sat and let cold breath move through him and chanted in a whisper, until he felt the sound ride the vibrations of wind and water, like a song above a droning string. He fixed his eyes on the glacier; he felt the frozen river shrinking up this broad valley, away from mankind, he felt it.


He didn't even notice when the others turned and went back down. He no longer thought or remembered, or wondered. He knew: he was here to be here, to be this.



Lucinda Nelson Dhavan first came to India on a Fulbright grant, then returned to live here permanently. Her short fiction has appeared in print and on line in Gargoyle, and Carve, among others.