Tashi woke up freezing on Sunday morning at five o’clock. He was supposed to be sleeping today till seven. It was a holiday in the Padum gompa. His home for the last seven years. He watched the sun rise over the Zanskar range and the mountains turn golden with the first rays of the sun. He had witnessed it almost every day. But he was supposed to be in his bed today, a small mattress laid on the hard cold rock floor. He saw his colleagues, all monk apprentices, lying beside him in their small dormitory of ten.
What was he doing here? He wondered. It was a Ladakhi tradition to gift the eldest son in the family to the service of God. He was barely six when he was left at the gompa by his parents to train as a monk. He was an offering from his family to the holy God, the Religion. He vividly remembered his mother watching him teary-eyed as she sobbed uncontrollably. She wanted him, Tashi, to be with her. She tried persuading his father to not follow the tradition. But he was devout and could not commit such sacrilege. He persisted and Tashi was his gift to the Gompa. He was to be trained and molded into a monk. Tashi did not even understand what had happened to him!
He nudged Tshering to wake up. He was his best friend. But he was sleeping comfortably and mumbled to Tashi, “Don’t wake me up Tashi, not today at least. Let me sleep, and you also sleep.” Saying this he dozed off. But Tashi was not at peace with himself. He was restless. He was fighting himself. He was desperately seeking answers and he had only Tshering for his company. He had to share his feelings and thoughts with him. He couldn’t wait anymore.
It was exactly six months back that he had met Chloe. She was ten years old and was visiting the Gompa along with her mother. They had camped in Padum, the district headquarters of Zanskar. This valley in Ladakh gets cut off from the world due to heavy snow in winters. The Zanskar river freezes and people have to undertake the perilous journey to Kargil by trekking on the frozen river. Chloe’s mother Zara, had come to make a documentary on the life of monks all the way from Britain. She was staying with her crew in Padum. She had interviewed the Masters in their Gompa and talked extensively about their lives and how they trained. She had met Tashi when she was given permission to interact with the young interns.
“Hello, What’s your name? I am Zara. I have come from Britain, and I will be making a film on your life here in Zanskar Gompa.” She had introduced herself.
“I am Tashi. Is it far off? Britain? How did you come?” He asked her very timidly.
“Well, You have to take a flight and travel by road.” She said.
“Flight? You mean an airplane? A real plane? I have read about it in our books.”
“You are a very smart boy Tashi.” She praised him.
Tashi gave a smile and felt overawed by what he had heard. He thought these things existed only in books. Now he had met someone real who had actually traveled in an airplane. His curiosity was aroused. He wanted to ask so many things to her but hesitated. The maximum world he knew extended to the town of Padum. They used to be taken to the town once a month, wherein they could spend some time in the town and buy some groceries for themselves from the local shops with the money their parents had sent. It was the best time of the month. Getting freedom from the confines of the gompa. Getting to see the world, the other kids playing in the fields, skating on the ice, riding ponies, enjoying cricket. They all looked forward to that monthly break. But alas, it lasted only for a few hours in a month. They were revered in the town as they passed and people used to bow to them, wish them with folded hands. Tashi found it amusing but nevertheless got accustomed to it.
Life was different in the gompa. Every day he had to get up at five, get ready and assemble in the prayer hall for the recitation of prayers for about two hours. After eight they were given some time for breakfast. It did not have much variation and usually consisted of fruits and some porridge or thukpa. Then they again assembled in the school where they were taught the religious aspects from the holy scriptures. They were made to cram most of the things and they used to recite it thousands of times, before it became part of their being, their DNA. It used to stop only after lunch time. After which they were allowed to rest a little before the evening lectures began. They were the ones that Tashi enjoyed the most. They were about Science, Mathematics and Social sciences. They were taught about computers, mobiles and all the modern things that existed in the real world. But Tashi found it difficult to assimilate, although he was amazed and used to absorb every single bit of information. He enjoyed this part of his education the most. He dreamed of visiting and seeing the places described in his geography textbook. Sometimes, he felt whether they actually existed or they were just created to keep them amused. But now he could relate to them in a much better way, more so after he had met Zara and Chloe.
Chloe had shown him an iPad when she had visited him for the first time. They had instantly bonded with each other as she had breakfast with the interns. Although she was a shy girl she had somehow struck a chord with Tashi. She told him about the various things she would do during her term breaks, like going to camps, trekking, learning piano. Tashi looked at her in amazement. Most of the things she talked about, he had never heard about them or he knew them only from his books. She was his window to the real world. A reminder that there was a bigger, better and wonderful world waiting to be explored. How he wanted to see and experience it! Could he ever do it? Did he have a choice? He was there in the Zanskar gompa for the last seven years or as long as he could remember. He would stay here for another five to seven years before he would be sent to a higher center of learning either in Tawang or Dharamshala. But his life had been cast for him, with or without his permission. He started thinking, more so after he had met Chloe and Zara. Could he ever get to see the fascinating things he dreamt off or read in the books? He wanted answers. He wanted to talk to someone. He was thirteen now, and he had only one friend in the gompa – Tshering.
He once again tried waking Tshering up. It was more than an hour now. It was six. “Wake up bother, it’s six. How much are you going to sleep?”
“Let me sleep. Why are you disturbing me? It’s only after nine that we have to go to Padum.”
“I want to speak to you. I have not slept the whole night. Wake up, you lazy fellow.” He almost was screaming now.
Tshering now was awake. He was worried. What was wrong with his friend? He asked him getting up from his bed. “Ok. Tell me what is the matter with you. Are you not well?”
“I am okay. But something is bothering me and nagging me Tshering.”
“What is it Tashi? Please tell me.”
“Tshering, I want to see the world. I want to get away from this place. I can’t stay here forever like this. It is suffocating me.”
“What are you saying? We are monks. We have to be here for the rest of our lives. Our parents have gifted us for the Holy cause.”
“I know, but I can’t stay forever like this. I was never asked by anyone if I wanted this. And I am not against any of it. I do like learning from holy books. But I want more. I want to see life. I want to go to Britain, see Paris, Venice. Go to America. Travel in a plane.”
“Tashi we are supposed to be away from all the material things of life. That’s the only way to salvation and peace.” Pleaded Tshering.
“But, I have never seen or felt anything to renounce it. I don’t know anything about the world. How can I renounce it?”
“You are out of your mind, Tashi. I will tell the Master, and he will ask your parents to speak to you. Maybe you need some holidays. You need to go home.”
“Tshering, You will not say anything to Master, please. Promise me. My father will be angry. He will not forgive me.”
“So what is it that you want me to do?”
“Come with me. We will run away from gompa and go to Leh. We will start a new life.”
Tshering was aghast. He was terrified. He had never imagined his life outside the secure confines of gompa. And he had made peace with it. No matter how much he loved and adored Tashi, he was not prepared for what he was being asked to do!
It was exactly a week after that early morning discussion in the dormitory of Zanskar gompa. Tashi and Tshering were on the bus which was headed to Padum, on their weekly break. It was in the town center that they were let off by the bus. They went to their favorite cafe. They ordered their favorite meal. Momos and GudGud Chai (Butter tea). They had it with great difficulty, unlike every Sunday when they cherished it. Today it was different. It was time! Tshering saw the bus approaching. He hugged Tashi, tears rolling down his eyes. They walked towards the bus. He carried Tashi’s little belongings to the bus. He handed over the bag as Tashi boarded the bus.
“Tell my father that I am sorry, I couldn’t take it anymore. I will get in touch with them in due course of time. Assure them that. Tell my mother not to worry. I will take care of myself.”
Tshering was now violently sobbing. He could barely utter any words. He just listened.
“And you take care of yourself. I will come and meet you often. If you need anything, let me know. I will come and take you away anytime you wish.”
He waved his final goodbye to Tshering as his bus moved away from Padum bus stand and he relinquished his monk-hood forever.
This is an entry for the event #BreakFree, ArtoonsInn’s signature Short Story Writing event, #ArTales-16.
Check out event guidelines here: https://artoonsinn.com/break-free-artales-16-open-event/
Check out Manoj’s space here: https://artoonsinn.com/author/manojpaprikar/
Photo by Alexander