24 July 2014

Dharamsala: an alternative meditation

A pigeon flies past, going somewhere fast in the hazy grey morning. Pigeons in flight always seem to be intent on a destination; even when they circle they seem to be building momentum for an eventual arrow-like flight to somewhere that must be reached as quickly as possible. Strangely, I've seen very few pigeons here, unlike most other built-up places where they're almost always abundant. Perhaps the kites keep their numbers low, or maybe the climate's not good for pigeons. The old controversy about the regulation of animal populations comes to mind, and I have to work hard to remember the names of the most famous protagonists: Nicholson I remember easily, but I struggle to eventually recall the names Andrewartha and Birch. My own dabbling in the field as part of my work all seems so long ago now and brings to mind my own career -- if it could be called that -- as a scientist. Almost nothing of that time now seems worthwhile from the point of view of a direct contribution to science; what little might be considered worthwhile was largely a result of supporting the work of colleagues. Was that time wasted? Maybe, but the past is irretrievable and inaccessible. Perhaps not irredeemable, though, and I wonder sometimes if what I do now is in some way an attempt to redeem time I might have spent better. The less time that remains, of course, the more urgent this becomes, which is why I wonder why I don't feel a greater sense of urgency -- in fact, any sense of urgency.

The Gakyi restaurant's already open at 7.30 a.m. and I'm the first customer. I order a bowl of porridge with banana and honey, and black tea, having drunk enough more than enough lemon honey ginger over the last several days. I think about how I might photograph Mrs Dickyi if she turns up before the restaurant starts to fill with customers -- and, of course, if she's agreeable. The light's low in here; even at ISO 400 and f2.8 the shutter speed's a mere 1/30s. As I write, though, the sunlight strengthens on the rough brick wall on the far side of the narrow road, and the light inside the restaurant brightens a little accordingly.

A few days ago the ghost of the Last Imperial Eunuch passed by, going down the road to the past; this morning the doppelganger of Pete Garrett strides past, going up the road and also into the past. He glances inside, catches my eye for an instant, then looks away and carries on.

Let me explain. On Thursday I looked up from my usual seat in the Gakyi to see a small, shrivelled monk with a woollen cap pass by. His resemblance to the subject of Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous photograph of the Last Imperial Eunuch was so striking I felt momentarily displaced, as if in a different country and a different time, but later I thought the sense of fleeting disconnection from the present to be at odds with the nature of life, which is mostly concerned with connections. I've long felt the linear metaphor of a life -- as, for example, a fuse burning inexorably to final destruction -- to be unsatisfactory. Life, it seems to me, is a process of enrichment, a process not of using up but of adding, and the more connections we make, the richer the life. When I saw the ghost of the Last Imperial Eunuch tripping down Jogiwara Road , swaying slightly as he went, my life became slightly richer not just because I'd accumulated another vivid memory but because that memory connected McLeod Ganj, the Gakyi restaurant, and a particular moment in my life with the art of Cartier-Bresson's photography. Yes, life imitates art at times and art enriches life -- it's almost a truism to make that claim -- but, perhaps less obviously, life can enrich art: I hope it's not too grand a claim to say Cartier-Bresson's photograph now has an additional connection.

Perhaps, too, this is a characteristic of great art -- that it can accept these connections without being overwhelmed by them.

The small, whiskery French man who comes here regularly arrives, this time accompanied by a woman who might be Tibetan or Chinese. She says hello then corrects herself and says 'Bonjour,' then laughs and explains how she's always mixing up her languages.. She speaks good English with a US accent. Mrs Dickyi arrives but leaves shortly afterwards with her handbag tucked under her arm and prayer beads in hand. She returns soon and I can't quite pluck up the courage to ask if I might photograph her. If there's a trick to this, I think it might be to relax and not think about it too much -- just switch off and ask, then concentrate on doing justice to the person.

I order another black tea, partly because I want to keep writing, partly because, well, I simply want the tea. The pen runs out of ink; I switch to the yellow Safari. Snippets of conversation between the French man and the multi-lingual woman (I heard her say she speaks nine languages) drift across. Much, it seems, concerns buddhism, and I feel an unreasonable, unwarranted sense of -- what? It's not quite cynicism -- I'd like to think I'm more respectful than that (although maybe I'm not) -- nor is it entirely a kind of disillusionment (which true buddhists might approve of, given their apparent belief that all is illusion). If anything, it might be a kind of shame at the way, back in New Zealand, I've referred to aspects of buddhism as if I knew something about it (and as I've just done), but here everyone seems either to have much greater knowledge or actually practises these beliefs. Here, ironically, I feel far more distant from these beliefs which seemed to make so much sense to me; here I am an outsider, the other, a simple observer. Perhaps I don't belong here, although I feel comfortable in Dharamsala. This might be akin to the feeling of the perpetual guest, made welcome, treated hospitably, but always apart. The simplest description might be that here, where most visitors seem to be seeking something -- some kind of instruction or enlightenment or a furthering of their understanding -- I doubt I'm seeking anything, at least not until I find it.

Another regular customer arrives -- the French woman with shoulder-length, wavy, dark blonde hair. She smiles, says hello, joins the other two, and I return to my writing. More customers arrive, and Mrs Dickyi calls to a Tibetan woman passing by. She's obviously a friend, and the two sit to have breakfast together. I'm still trying to muster the courage to ask for a photograph when I pay my bill, but she seems distracted and I wimp out. Besides, I've thanked her for the time I've spent here, explaining this is the last time, and I don't want her to think I'm just buttering her up to get her to agree to a photograph. This sounds like a rationalisation of my wimping out, and it is.


On the way to the Tibetan Mandala Cafe: a monk stands outside a shop, looking into the street; he seems weary, as if the burden of negotiating the world of samsara to make his way back to the refuge of his monastery is too great. He holds a tray of white eggs, tied with thin, orange, plastic twine, in his left hand.

Outside the cafe, the valley lies behind a blank wall of white mist and even the cedars as close as the far side of the road have turned almost to silhouettes. Rain might not be far off, which is why I've chosen to sit inside at one of the western-style (and very comfortable) booths rather than outside on the cooler patio. My Assam tea arrives -- a pot with a strainer but only one glass. I ask for another glass, which the waiter brings just in time for me to salvage the rest of the pot. The rain holds off, the mist draws back a little, and the little housefly on my table goes about its exploration, looking for something it can't find, oblivious to the changing weather outside, and unaware that here in this buddhist stronghold it might live in one of the world's safest places for houseflies.


On the evening of the last day in Dharamsala, mist comes and goes; from my table at the window of the Kunga's restaurant I see the cedars on the opposite hillside in silhouette, the tiered buildings with their colourful roofs below -- then the mist closes in. The valley vanished a long time ago. One of these views will be the last I'll see of McLeod Ganj; when I leave, the mists of memory will begin to roll in, and all that will remain will be parts of these scenes, fragments of these events, the ruins of the moment.

1. 'Dharamsala' most often refers to Mcleod Ganj, the upper part of the town and the seat of the Tibetan Government in exile.

1. Evening forest on the Dharamkot Road above McLeod Ganj.
2. The main chowk of McLeod Ganj in the evening. It gets much more chaotic than this.
3. One of the most disconcerting things I've seen in a long time -- the cadaver of a macaque.
4. A happier sight.
5. I photographed this common myna in Manali, but they're abundant in Dharamsala too. Actually, they're abundant everywhere I've been so far.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

Perhaps it's better not to be seeking, just allowing in. And, having seen a powerful religion close up, I think perhaps it's better to get the distilled version. Allows for personal interpretation and experience, rather than be overwhelmed with the skirts of dogma and culture.

Relatively Retiring said...

A meditation indeed. This looks and sounds like a surreal place where the irrational can happen at any moment.
I think Mrs Dickye may be remembered more vividly by not being photographed.
I was relieved to see the secret of the bones in your footnotes. They are dreadfully crucifix-like, but then you have the Madonna and Child reassuringly there too.
Oh dear.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, I often think the common obsession with analysing the meaning of everything is misguided. I thought a lot about my reasons for returning to India, and in the end decided it didn't matter.

RR, I agree entirely that some things -- and people -- are better left unphotographed. Among other reasos, sometimes the act of photographing interferes with appreciation of the moment or person.

vegetablej said...

This has the same effect as those wonderful films of India with characters appearing and disappearing, colouring the narrative but not really becoming it. The story is the experience and personal discovery. And in your words and photographs, that becomes a beautiful meditation. Again, thank you.

pohanginapete said...

VJ, thank you for the kind and encouraging words. More on the way, from Leh this time!