EXCERPT: THE LAUGH

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

 

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!”

A look of wry wonder lit up his face, and he laughed heartily. Somewhere in the whole mess — the juxtaposition of his village’s millennium-plus tenure on this rocky patch of north India, and its recently revealed fragility; the impending, drought-induced abandonment of the only home he has ever known — he discerned a pretty good joke. He turned to me, expectantly, with eyes that asked if I agreed: Pretty funny, right?

It didn’t strike me as all that funny. Ironic, okay, sure. Freshly arrived in his village, and now thoroughly puzzled, I was just beginning to absorb the magnitude of Kumik’s slow-motion disaster, which Stobdan and his wife, Tsewang Zangmo, and several neighbors had spent
the afternoon explaining to me over bottomless cups of salty butter tea.

So I just offered him a quizzical smile in response. We were standing next to the hand- lettered metal sign that Stobdan had mounted by the gate to his musty sheep pen, a sort of cri de coeur made to inform the odd foreign trekker who might be inclined to help out, though tourists almost never come through Kumik. I read through it again:

Due to failure of snowfall in the last 2 years the people couldn’t
harvest even a blade of grass & consequently had to sell their
yak, cows, etc. at very nominal prize . . . the people of this village
are now constructing a irrigation cannal fed by the LUNGNAK
river to bring the virgin land of MARTHANG under
cultivation.

I looked up from the sign. Stobdan was still laughing. It was not a rueful chuckle, not the sort of glum nod in the direction of fickle cosmic forces that you might expect. And not one of those “If you didn’t laugh you’d have to cry” cathartic sort of exclamations, either. I studied him. An expression of defiance? Simple gallows humor?

 

. . . (cont'd) . . .

 

As I walked off into the cool Himalayan night, past the giant prayer wheel that straddles the trickle of meltwater that runs through the tapestry of fields like a fraying thread, bewildered but strangely buoyed, I became fixated on this question: Why would a man laugh at the prospect of his age-old home, his birthright, crumbling into the dust, and at the thought of rebuilding his life, stone by stone, seed by seed, in an unfamiliar and unforgiving landscape?

The stars started to wink on one by one, and the village’s tight cluster of mud brick houses, ridge- top temple, ovals of rustling barley, burbling canals, all together created the impression of a well- built lifeboat tossed on a dark sea of mountains and sky. I reached the lhato, a rectangular shrine of whitewashed stones topped with juniper boughs and ibex skulls, which marks the boundary between the green order of the human realm — Kumik proper — and the red, parched chaos beyond: Marthang. The lhato, in a sense, commemorates and embodies the founding of the community, when the spirits of the valley were bound in a reciprocal relationship with its human inhabitants. The people’s acts of propitiation and respect for the land would renew in perpetuity the ancient compact with the lha, who would respond in kind by blessing their efforts with prosperity, fertility, abundant snow, and strong sunshine to melt it. A cycle much like the one celebrated in the awe-filled paeans of the Rig-Veda.

Now that contract had been abrogated.

As I walked past the lhato, I sensed, or imagined, an air of reproach. I felt like someone who had stumbled onto a crime scene on a bright day in the park. I walked out onto the hard plain below, reaching the main road, and waited to hitch a ride from a passing truck. The questions welled up like springwater.

How on earth would these people build new homes, dig new canals, sow new fields — the civilization-making work of dozens and dozens of generations squeezed into one — on that wind- blasted desert, with little outside help?

Then there was Stobdan’s choice of words: Kumik was being “destroyed.” It suggested a malevolent agent, an unseen hand at work. So what force, then, was capable of destroying the oldest, most resilient community in one of the world’s most demanding environments?

And, seriously, why the hell was this guy laughing about it all?