from Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity and Survival on the Roof of the World


When Urgain Dorjay was a young man, he sometimes traveled down the chadar “ice way” to procure two essential items for his family from the bazaars of Leh: tools for carding wool and matches.

This was before the road, when manufactured goods from chigyal (outside the kingdom) were scarce. Carding and spinning wool was a form of productive entertainment during those long dark winter nights and it also led to the practical outcome of being clothed. And matches kept the hearth fires going. Back at home, Urgain and his family ate in the dark or by moonlight. They could get by without much light, but a source of heat was essential when temperatures plunged to 30 or 40 below zero.

Before they went to sleep, his mother piled ashes over the coals in the stove to keep them warm. But sometimes they would wake up to find the embers had died out. There was no electricity, and kerosene fuel was a rare commodity. If their fire went out there was just one thing to do.

“At that time many people are not having matches,” Urgain says. “If matches are finished, they must go to neighbors. I went to the neighbor’s house with a metal plate. People would keep their dung in bokhari [metal heating stoves] always burning.”

The neighbor would extract some glowing embers from her own hearth and deposit them on the plate. Urgain would hurry home in the bitter cold to deliver this precious gift to his mother. She took the coals, placed them carefully in the stove, and added kindling. Then she would blow to bring the fire back to life, adding pieces of yak and sheep dung as the flames caught. She would put a pot of tea to boil on the stove, and the family would cluster around it for warmth. Crisis averted.

And should their neighbors’ fire die out one cold morning, Urgain’s family would share their embers in turn, paying it forever forward, a kind of eternal flame. In the Zanskar of old, Prometheus lived right next door.

This reciprocity, this clear-eyed recognition of how their fates interlock, is perhaps the core answer to the question the geographer James Crowden, one of the first Europeans to spend a winter in Zanskar since Csoma de Koros, asked as he traveled about in 1976, marveling at the juxtaposition of all this apparent scarcity and Zanskaris’ vigor, cheer, and sense of abundance: “How on earth do these people survive?”

With fire, with water, and with each other.


(cont'd) …

The flip side of the same truth is enshrined, somewhat darkly, in another old Ladakhi saying: Chu len me len chaden. This means “The water connection and the fire connection are cut.”

This was a kind of nuclear option, an extreme measure only resorted to in the event of severe transgressions of communal norms. If one individual or family failed to do their fair share to keep the lifeboat afloat and moving forward, or upset the delicate equilibrium of communal use of finite resources, it threatened the entire community’s survival. If someone habitually started fights and feuds, or failed to contribute materially to the maintenance of the village infrastructure (canal repair, temple upkeep), or refused to take his or her turn performing the duties expected of every house hold (like the lorapa who keeps cattle out of the crops), the village would threaten them with Chu len me len chaden.

Effectively, this amounted to a social boycott. Should the offending house hold’s fire die out, no one would carry embers to relight the family’s hearth. Water would not be permitted to flow to that family’s fields. No one would visit their hearth, or even speak with them.

The severing of these two connections amounted to a kind of death-in-life. As one anthropologist observed, “It is the ultimate sanction that can be applied since in a village it would be impossible to continue to live under such conditions.” For who can live without fire and water? And how many of us would want to live without that other kind of warmth and sustenance, to be found in a neighbor’s greeting?

(cont'd) ...

Black carbon trains our gaze onto what we’ve been missing all along: the enormous overlooked health epidemic caused by breathing in soot and smoke; the impacts of the dark haze we re-create every day on particular, vulnerable, and hugely important “secret Cabinets” of the planet, like the Arctic and the Himalaya and the few blocks around the George Washington Bridge bus station on 178th Street in Washington Heights, New York.

This approach to understanding the urgent set of intertwined risks facing us in the twenty-first century—climate, health, poverty, water, and fire all bleeding into the political—aligns uncannily with the traditional risk management framework employed by Zanskaris and Ladakhis, embodied in the concept of chu len me len, the water connection and fire connection. The imperative at the heart of it was the prevention of social chaos that would imperil the efficient and equitable and reciprocal use of scarce resources like water and draft power and even hot embers, and thereby threaten everybody’s survival. The other, deeper insight at the heart of it is simply that, when we are cut off from our neighbors, life becomes a little less worth living. No water and a cold hearth are daunting problems, but not nearly as scary if your neighbors have your back.

(cont'd) ...

So I would propose taking a page from the Zanskari playbook and approaching the scourge of black carbon and incomplete combustion (and the related challenge of global climate change) as a community game. We have a hard time imagining the risks until they happen, hitting us in the face. And we have a hard time imagining the possibilities, too.

Remember what killed the character in Jack London’s story “To Light a Fire”? It wasn’t bad luck or nasty weather or spiteful nature gods. It was a failure of imagination. The sooty markings on the walls of the cave, that night after my unexpected fall into the icy Zanskar River, made it clear. What can kill us—what is killing us, almost 7 million of us, every year— is that sooty stew streaming out of a billion fires.

What could save us? Each other: Thinles pulling me from the river, Urgain making the fire that restored my circulation. People carrying embers from hearth to hearth.

Serious-minded people who think about climate change policy and energy futures for a living often say, “There’s no silver bullet. Only silver buckshot.” It’s become a ubiquitous cliche, but like most ubiquitous cliches it happens to be true. In terms of technology, we’ve got to throw everything and the kitchen sink at this one. I just would offer one amendment: the closest thing we have to a silver bullet is captured in that phrase—yato meta? (“Where are your friends??”)—and its dark twin—chu len me len chaden.

It’s the only silver bullet there is: the Prometheus next door. The fire brigade, if you like. The idea behind the fire connection in the old days in Ladakh and Zanskar is pretty much the same idea animating new institutions like the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. Carry embers to cookstove entrepreneurs like The Boss and the young upstarts behind BioLite, and they will carry them back to you with their clever, clean-burning devices. With its energy leapfrogging, should it choose to pursue that brighter path, India could carry embers of a different sort to the world, by showing the rest of the world that a newer, cleaner, smarter, more equitable path of low-carbon “development” (in terms of both lower emissions of black carbon, and of carbon dioxide)— one that skips the dark, airborne excesses of the original Industrial Revolution— is still possible.

And the small, waterless village of Kumik, Zanskar, India, can do the same, providing the rest of us with an object lesson in how to both mitigate and adapt. How to take responsibility, and then, how to take focused, patient, strategic action. An ember of hope in a time of dark and imminent danger.