The Novice

At six o’clock in the morning, I seated myself at the back of the ramshackle bus in the Indian border town of Darranga near Samdrup Jongkhar, Bhutan. I was travelling to Phuentsholing. The morning was pleasant with plenty of sunshine. Summer was on and the mango trees were laden with lush fruits.  A thin young man with a freckled face and a shaven head sat beside me. He had blade-cuts all over the irregular bumps of his head. He wore a dull red shirt and a faded jean that was tied with an olive green cloth-belt, its flap hanging loose on one end. The peasant boy was probably four or five years younger than me, somewhere not far from twenty five. 

Next to us sat an elderly Gomchen, a lay Buddhist monk who wore a grubby, ankle-length garb, which was half-robe and half-gho that is typical of a dress worn by a village priest in eastern Bhutan. The man murmured a prayer distractedly. His gaze was fixed on my seatmate who was turning and twisting in his seat, his eyes restlessly staring about in the luggage rack. Something was bothering him. He looked uneasy as if suffering from a morning anxiety syndrome. I saw something in the direction he was staring at.

“Excuse me, isn’t that cheese above our head?” I asked my seatmate, seeing a green lump wrapped in banana leaves placed right above our head inside the steel rack.

 “No, sir,” the boy said. “It’s butter.”

“Are you sure you want to keep it there?” I said, picturing slimy drops of butter falling on our heads in the heat of the plains of India. The boy remained silent for a while and said “Move aside. I will take it out.”

Crazy people, I thought, and squeezed myself towards the window to allow him to take out his bag, behind which lay the butter. The dimwit struggled hard to pull out his bag, which was stuck in the metal frame.

The bus driver started the engine and pressed the horn; calling the passengers to board the old metal contraption. It would transport us across the Indian border to Bhutan on a journey of more than two hundred miles. The Indian Army would escort us up to a place called Rangia, 50 kilometers away from Samdrup Jongkhar (the escort service was introduced after terrorist groups in Assam carried out gun attacks on several Bhutanese vehicles and killed many innocent Bhutanese in the year 2000).

My seatmate was still struggling to pull his bag out. I tried to push open a fractured cardboard piece that was fixed in place of a broken window pane. It wouldn’t budge either, so I gave up. Finally the boy gave up too. He stood indecisely for a moment, then bent over me and said in a low voice, “Sir, could please help me take out the bag? I do not have a hand.” He rolled up his sleeve and showed me an amputated arm.  I immediately stood up out of a reflex action and helped the boy pull out his bag. I took out a plastic bag from the side of my bag, tied the butter in it and pushed it back into the rack.

Meanwhile the bus pulled over, gliding sideways through potholes and ditches. It dawdled past cows, auto rickshaws, pigs and ox carts and continued through the teak forested road. Staid faced Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers in their camouflaged uniform and rifles stood on either side of the road.

The bus sped past straw-thatched huts with bamboo groves, beetle nut trees and fishery ponds around them. These were the homes of the Bodo tribes of Assam.  A slogan with a spade and a sickle drawn on the brick wall of an abandoned school building said: We Want Bodoland.

My seatmate was in a deep thought. He looked sad and lonely. I could see that from his sour face. Something was bothering him. I thought about his hand and felt sorry for him.

“What is your name?” I asked him.

“Chompai,” the boy said, without looking at me.

“Are you going up to Phuentsholing only?”

“No,” he said, “I am going to Sikkim, to enroll as a monk. I am taking that butter as a gift for my Lama.”

The mention of Sikkim aroused a deep interest in me. I had always wanted to visit Sikkim one day to pay my respect to the great Buddhist master, His Holiness Dodrupchen Rinpoche.

“Where in Sikkim are you going?” I asked Chompai. “Which Monastery?”

“I don’t know,” Chompai said, now slowly turning his long face toward me and fishing out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket.

“Are you travelling there for the first time?” I asked him.

“No, I’ve been there once,” Chompai said. “But that was years ago.”

Chompai showed me the address written in a slouchy handwritten Dzongkha letter which said, Guru Lhakhang, Gangtok.        

“You’re a lucky man,” I said. “I wish I could get an opportunity like you, to practice the Buddha Dharma.”

I was interested in Buddhism and was looking for a master who could guide me to practice the Dharma seriously. But my attempt to find a master and establish a direct guru-disciple relationship had failed repeatedly.

The bus zoomed past jute fields and lush meadows of the great plains of India. Cattle with crows sitting on their back, wagged their tails and grazed peacefully. Far away, a cargo train was crossing an aluminum painted bridge built over a large river.

“Will the monastery accept me?” Chompai said. 

“Of course they will,” I said. “Why not?”

“My hand,” Chompai said, pointing at his amputated arm.

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” I said. “There are monks with greater disabilities than this. But how did you lose your hand?” 

“It was an accident,” Chompai said, “I was in the Army before.”

“Where?” I asked, quite unable to believe him.

“At the Royal Palace in Punakha,” he said. “My job was to grind maize corn for the palace. I had an uncle in the Army, a Captain. He found me a job there, but one day my hand got stuck in the mill and the machine crushed it. The next thing I knew, I found myself in a hospital bed in Calcutta. After that I retired from the service.”  

The Gomchen sitting next to me had been eavesdropping our conversation all these while. He turned in our direction and asked Chompai if he received any compensation from the government.

“Yes” Chompai said, “I get one thousand five hundred Ngultrum every month. The Soelra comes from the King.”

“Which King?” the Gomchen asked. “Fourth or the Fifth King?”

“Fourth King,” Chompai said. “The incident took place some years ago.”

My chest welled up with a profound sense of respect for our great Kings.

“Aie…that’s okay then,” the Gomchen said. “You can use the money for your Dharma practice.”

The bus moved on and the morning sun poured its rays on my face.

“I live alone in a small hermitage in the mountains,” the Gomchen said. “You can come and stay with me if you like, or you can follow me to the place I am going now, to Rangapara. There is a good monastery over there. I am sure the monastery will accept you.”

Chompai thought deeply over the offer and scratched his head indecisively.

I had read about the monastery on its website and seen the picture of the old Tibetan Buddhist master, the great treasure revealer Kunzang Dechen Lingpa who founded the monastery had lived there until he passed away in 2006 amidst many auspicious signs of lightning, drizzles and rainbows.

“Is there any special event happening in the monastery?” I asked the Gomchen.

“No,” he said, “I have a son there. He is a painter. I am going there to meet him.”

The Gomchen looked at Chompai and said, “Would you like to come with me to Rangapara? My son knows the head abbot well.”

Chompai bit his nails and thought for a while. Then he said, “Okay. I will go with you.” Then he asked me, “What do you say, sir?”

“I don’t know,” I said, almost laughing. “It’s up to you. You decide.”

Then he turned towards the Gomchen.

“Are you sure the monastery will accept me?” he said.

“Yes, they will,” the Gomchen said. “My son knows the head abbot very well.”

Chompai’s confidence was restored, but the joy on his face did not last long. It soon changed into a mournful expression. Something was bothering him again, something serious which he kept to himself.

Meanwhile the road sign showed that we were 20 kilometers away from Rangia.

The bus rattled on.

“I want to kill her,” Chompai said abruptly.

“What? Kill who?” I was finding this guy very funny now.

“My wife,” Chompai said. “My ex-wife. She is entirely responsible for my leaving home.”

“Why? What happened?”

“After I lost my hand, I worked as a night guard in a construction company,” Chompai said. “One day a young woman came into my life.  She had a child with her, a baby girl who was just about fifteen days old. The woman told me that she came from a dysfunctional family, that she was divorced by her husband and asked me if she could live with me. She was beautiful. I couldn’t tell her to go away. I also needed someone to help me, so I agreed and we stayed together. I gave her all my love and care but, in return, she ran away with my entire life’s saving – forty seven thousand Ngultrum.” Chompai became tearful and his voice strained. “I had saved that money, every single Ngultrum of it, working with one hand, thinking that I would open a small shop one day and settle down.”

I felt sorry for the poor lad. Meanwhile, we were approaching Rangia. The destination sign by the roadside said:  Rangia 10 Km.

“I wish I had never met her,” Chompai said, “I still can’t believe what she has done to me. I want to forget her, but her face keeps on coming to my mind.”

The Gomchen shook his head empathetically and said, “Aiii…Wai….Didn’t you find her then?”  

“Yes, I did,” Chompai said. “The police caught her in Thimphu, but it was too late.  She had squandered all my money. She wouldn’t agree to come home also. I discovered later that she had been divorced twice or thrice before.”

Chompai fought to hold back his tears. He was sad and angry at the same time.

“Don’t be sad,” I said, “Look at what has happened to you in another way. You are a lucky man. You have obtained this wonderful opportunity to become a monk after meeting her. Few people have this good fortune. For example, look at me. Although I aspire to practice Dharma, I am bound by countless worldly preoccupations. It has become impossible for me to break away from these chains of Samsara. Do you see that?”

Chompai nodded and remained silent.

“She will suffer for her sin, won’t she?” Chompai said in a childish tone.

“Of course, she will,” I said, “No one escapes the law of karma.”

“My brothers have filed a case against her in the court,” Chompai said. “Both of them are policemen. They advised me to go to Sikkim to become a monk. They bought me a monk’s dress also. It’s in there,” he said, pointing to his bag. Then he surveyed the people around him, lifted his shirt, and revealed a white piece of cloth wrapped around his waist.

“Here,” he said, pointing at the bundle tied to his belly, “My brothers have given me enough money. Eight thousand Ngultrum. I hope the robbers won’t rob me on the way.”

“No, they won’t,” I said, almost laughing, “Unless you go on showing your money to everyone.”

“Do you think the Indian Sadhus can kill people with their black magic?” he asked, staring sharply at me.

“I don’t know.” I said, quite taken aback.

I remembered meeting a terrifying Sadhu a few months ago in Jaigaon. The heretic was half-naked, his skin bathed in ashes and his long hair rolled up in thick locks. He wore a red loincloth around his waist and had a garland of skulls and bones hanging from his neck. I asked him some questions like who his Guru was and so on when suddenly he felt ridiculed. His face turned red, he rolled his eyes and warned me that he could strike me dead with a lightning bolt, then and there if I made a mock of him again. The world around me turned gray, I froze, and I quickly scampered out of his sight towards the Bhutan Gate.  

 Meanwhile, the bus crossed a railway crossing gate.

“Hmm…we are approaching Rongya,” the Gomchen said.

Minutes later, the bus slowed down and stopped near a roadside restaurant where a thin old man, as thin as the chapatti he was clapping between his frail fingers, was burning the bread inside a big mud oven. At the counter sat a dark burly man with a grim face. He was watching a cricket match on the black and white television that was mounted in a corner. He looked like one of those mob gangsters we see in Hindi movies.

The handy boy banged the bus door with his hand and shouted “Breakfast! Breakfast!” and the passengers began to clamber off the bus.

“I go to Rangapara from here,” the Gomchen said, looking at Chompai. “Are you coming with me or not?”

“No,” Chompai said. “My brothers will kill me if they come to know about it. I will go to Sikkim.”

“Alright boy, I wish you good luck,” the Gomchen said and walked away. The other passengers, who were mostly peasants, ambled into the restaurant and occupied the suntanned plastic chairs and tables.

After the breakfast, the bus pulled onto the main highway. It now moved with menacing speed sending the – I am going too fast to stop, so unless you slow down, we will both die – message with long blasts of its horn.

Chompai went into a deep sleep, but he occasionally woke up with a fitful jerk at intervals. The journey continued with Chompai’s head occasionally colliding against mine, and the bus pacing at an unbelievable speed; clearing dogs, rickshaws, cows, trucks, buses, cars, oxcarts, and pedestrians from the road. The bus sped past several districts and roadside towns of Assam – Nalbari,  Kokrajhal, Barpeta, Howli, Bongaigaon, Samtabari, Barobisa. I imagined terrorists hiding behind the bushes, ready to open fire. What if they carry out an ambush like they did before? I wished that we had a safer route connecting the eastern and southern districts of our country.

Towards the evening, our vehicle entered the dark shades of the forested road of West Bengal. We drove through the Old and New Hashimara towns and continued past the Toorsa tea gardens. A truck had toppled over at a sharp bend. Half an hour later, the bus entered the bustling streets of Jaigaon, and we finally reached the Indo-Bhutan Gate.

Passengers got up from their seats and stepped out of the bus. By this time, I was completely exhausted and my bottom was sore. I rose from my seat, took out my bag, and followed behind Chompai.

Once outside, I told Chompai to wait for me for a minute. I rushed to a nearby bookshop, bought an envelope and slid in two hundred Ngultrum notes into it. Then I wrote down the address, placed the envelope on my forehead and told Chompai to give it to HH Dodrupchen Rinpoche’s monastery. Chompai nodded impassively and made his way through the crowd. I saw him pass the makeshift taxi counters, cross the road to the opposite side and bend down to talk to the terrifying Sadhu I had met before.

This story appeared in the Indian Review in 2017

11 thoughts on “The Novice

  1. A well-told tale of what it means to be human, no matter where we are in the world. I followed this story with such interest, since it’s a setting I don’t know, but I cared deeply about the characters within it.
    Thanks for following me at Roughwighting!

    Liked by 2 people

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