Memoirs from the foothills of Nepal to the streets of America.
Trade Secrets by J.P. Tamang
No Rest for the Wicked
The morning Doctor Pingleton arrived at the monastery, the monks were talking about the caterpillar infestation in the next town over. I was 12 at the time, living in a cold, stone room beneath the courtyard. Through the wrought iron bars in my window, beyond the thicket, there was a view of the lake valley, and beyond that the opposite hillside. The town was wedged in a forested part of northern India between Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan. That morning the disciplinarian gave me an old book, a smack on the ass, and instructions to memorize the first chapter in solitude. “Whatever you do,” he cautioned, “Don’t lose this book. If you do, you’ll get a beating. When you’re done, you can rejoin the group.”
The old metal latch on my door rustled at the top of my staircase. I heard two sets of feet coming down the stairs. I rushed to my table in the kitchen and looked down at the pages of the dusty book, muttering incoherently as if in recitation. The disciplinarian pushed aside the curtain hanging in the doorway to reveal his stout body and high, bulbous cheekbones. “Sit up,” he said. Behind him, standing in the threshold, was a tall, waifish, white man wearing a powder blue tunic. He examined my accommodations with a jolly smirk, twiddling his thumbs. “This is your guest,” the disciplinarian said, “He’s a scientist from the USA.”
“Anthropologist.” Doctor Pingleton corrected. He wore round, coke bottle glasses that sat on top of his angular nose. His hair was a fawn mop, unkempt though freshly washed.
“If he’s from the USA, then why is he wearing a kurta shalwar?” I asked. The disciplinarian smacked me on the back of my head. He explained that I had to walk the doctor to a tea merchant in the bazaar at the bottom of the hill, that I’d been chosen for this task by the abbot (because I spoke English), and that I should be polite. I wondered if the doctor had made a large donation to the monastery in order to garner a personal escort. Once I was finished, the disciplinarian explained, I would be able to rejoin the other monks in calligraphy class. I wondered if he knew how much I enjoyed calligraphy class, or how much I despised memorizing nonsense in a basement.
Once the disciplinarian left I asked the doctor why he was here. He told me he worked at Columbia as a Sanskrit scholar, and that he was attempting to specialize in Tibetan-Sanskrit proto-dialects. He was a visiting monasteries around the region, collecting artifacts and taking photographs. I prepared some tea and brought it to the table. “What are you reading there,” the doctor asked, picking up the book I was supposed to be studying.
“It’s a manual,” I explained, “For making ritual sculptures called tormas.”
“It’s beautiful,” he said. I hadn’t thought about it until he said so, but the doctor was right. The diagrams were hand-drawn with ink pens on rice paper sheets bound with twine. He ran his eyes over the pages, touching them delicately, as if they might disintegrate at any moment. “Guessing by the size, I’d say it’s comprehensive.”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I’m only learning to the read the script. I can’t translate yet. But I know there’s a torma for every deity and that some deities have more than one. Some are secret too, but I’m only supposed to study the first chapter.”
Eager to leave the grounds I tapped my foot on the floor, waiting for the doctor to finish his tea. When he did I put on my street robes and dashed out of my room without locking the door. We took the hillside road down to the bazaar. The doctor, following behind me, stared at the stalls and people, smiling at them as we passed. We stopped on a footbridge to watch children feeding rice to the lake carp. The doctor looked like a heron watching gulls in the distance. When we reached the tea merchant I let him fumble through the transaction, scampering off to look at flip-flops in the shop next door. Eventually he ended up overpaying for a pound of generic Darjeeling.
The doctor was leaving that day, catching a car to a city with an airport. When we got back to the monastery he told me he intended to walk the gardens until his car arrived. I told him I was late for a calligraphy class and left him, waving goodbye. When I entered the classroom it was quiet. The children with their pens were hunched over slant boards on the floor, squinting. The disciplinarian, slumped in a chair in the corner of the room, was saying mantras with his eyes shut, thumbing a rosary. I quietly tip-toed to my seat, but before I could settle in I heard his deep voice call me. I got up and went to stand before him.
“Where is the book I gave you?” he asked.
“In my room,” I said.
I ran out of the hall and up the stairs into the courtyard. Passing the gardens I noticed Doctor Pingleton had already left. When I reached my room the rusted latch was unhinged with the door to my steps ajar. I went down the stairs into the kitchen and approached the table where the old book had been, but nothing was there, except a single cup of half-drunk, cold tea. I sprinted back to the classroom and told the disciplinarian what had happened. “Go back to your room,” he said, “And wait for me there.”
As I waited I sat at my window, staring out through the bars and past the thicket. On the other side of the valley, in the hot late-morning sun, I saw what looked like a black curtain draped over the green hillside. For a moment, it looked as though a mass of paint had been spilled over it and was slowly dripping down. Was it a shadow? I barely heard the latch at the top of my steps, barely heard the rattle of the keys locking the door or the footsteps on the staircase. I did not even see the disciplinarian standing in the doorway, brandishing a piece of PVC pipe when I realized the hillside was not covered in paint or in shadow, but an army of black caterpillars slowly descending on the lake town below.