Excerpt from FIRE AND ICE


If you were making a movie about life in the Himalaya, seeking a setting that shouts pastoral harmony, at first glance you might be inclined to film it in Kumik. On the surface, at least, Kumik is a little Himalayan Arcadia, a comely oasis in the sparsely populated, arid mountain reaches of northwest India.

Its thirty-nine whitewashed mud homes cascade down a southwest-facing hillside that overlooks sun-kissed terrace fields of barley laced with intricate irrigation canals and interspersed with groves of swaying poplars and willows, which the Kumikpas coppice for saplings and ceiling materials. Several ranthaks, elegant water-powered grain mills, turn roasted barley into flour, the centerpiece of the Zanskari diet. A hanging glacier caps Sultan Largo, which towers above the phu, the high pastures where animals graze in the summer. Laughing children race up and down the narrow footpaths, past amiable grandfathers spinning prayer wheels and grandmothers doing clockwise skoras around the small lhakhang temple. Even the acrid smoke that wafts down the alleys has a cheering tang, conjuring the hidden warmth of dung-fired hearths. And if you crouch down on a summer evening among the ripening barley up on the ridge above the lhakhang, as the children skip and shout to greet the return of the rarzepa, the shepherd of the day, with every house hold’s sheep and goats, and you listen to the stalks rustle and rub against each other, with a sound like spreading rumors — a shimmery whisper of snowmelt transmuted into life — well, all talk of crisis and catastrophe seems ridiculous. Crazy Chicken Little stuff. After all, Kumik is thought to be the oldest village in Zanskar, one of the highest, most remote, permanently inhabited places on the planet. The Kumikpas seem to have life in the rain shadow pretty well figured out.

Yet the Kumikpas are busily preparing to abandon it all.

Four years earlier and just a stone’s throw from the scene of the argument, I had stood next to Tashi Stobdan outside of his stately, squat mud brick home, as the symmetry of these two facts struck him with full force:

“Kumik was the first village in Zanskar— and now it is the first to be destroyed!”