Last year, on May 20, was my father’s sixth death anniversary. On May 29 was my mother’s second death anniversary. Ever since Papa’s death, I had been involved with mother’s health and had never managed to mourn him thoroughly. This time, since I had already mourned my mother’s death and I did not have to think it was Papa’s fifth and mother’s first, I chose to break down. But how could I break down? I had learnt to manage my fragmented self in the larger world. I had learnt to focus on my inherent denial mechanism. I had perfected the art of not feeling. I had trained myself to be stony.
I chose to go away somewhere. My office shut down for a week and I remembered my childhood dream – Ladakh. There was another reason, I had heard in high altitude one loses one’s mind, maybe for a while. Some can, of course, die. I reached Ladakh by a morning flight and went to the hotel I had already booked. The owner Tsering told me that in a few hours the oxygen depletion will catch up with me and my body will crave for air. I will feel dizzy; I will throw up and will be immobile for a day and a half. I was told to not stand for too long, keep lying and keep a bucket next to the bed. ‘Better take your four large jugs of warm water and go to your room. Keep sipping water, even if you did not feel the need. One jug every three hours and do come down to the kitchen for dinner.’
I had a small breakfast of Ladakhi bread, eggs and butter tea and retired to my room on the first floor. From my large windows I could see the beautiful Himalyan range spreading out in front of me. The sunlight was harsh; I drew most of the curtains but kept a small opening to admire the space outside. Thus started my wait. I carried on for a few hours, sipping and throwing up and sleeping. My mind went to my father’s corpse, his funeral, his days before, his days in my childhood. I must have cried. I must have spoken aloud. I did go dizzy, even blanked out from time to time. Added to the oxygen depletion was my chronic smoking. Though someone had assured me that smoking does not affect one in these regions. A wholly underutilised part of our lungs come into play. Whatever it was, I lost it. If this was going to be death, I had a bit of Himalaya with me, I thought.
At night Tsering came up. I do not know how long he banged the door. He woke me up and asked me to come for food. I forced myself down the steps, and then forced myself to eat. After that I do not know when I climbed the steps and came and lay down in my bed. Again weeping, going places in my mind, out of it … until it became very dark. In the black room I got up to look out from the window. A few lights of Leh town. I wanted to jump, just disappear in the dark.
I came back and was moving my quilt when I sensed something under it. I backed away. What was it? It moved. I lumbered to the switch and put it on. Then wondered if I should wake Tsering but decided not to disturb him and other guests. I dared to fling the quilt from the bed. A small, dark grey, furry cat raised it head, looked at me as if it did not care, and went back to sleep again. Flames in my head, fire in my body, vomit in the bucket, and a delicate cat on my bed. It could not have been weirder. I come to Ladakh, to bear the extremity of weather and health, go nuts through the day and night, and finally find what? A cat!
After that it became a struggle. The cat wanted to sleep under my legs. Anywhere else I may put it, it would come there. It woke me up, I had been asleep for many hours so I lay awake. Since I did not want the light in the room I could not read. My legs were weak so I could not get up and go anywhere. It was the cat’s night. Papa, where did you go? Your son had come to mourn you … all he had done was to ensure that a cat slept well. Morning came, the cat got up and went away. The sadness would go over the next few days, I would leave it on the long roads and deserted valleys of Ladakh. That evening Tsering asked me to go for a walk.
As I was leaving he said, ‘I have seldom seen anyone breakdown as you did. Brought a lot of baggage here?’ The hill people understand things and state them simply.
I said, ‘Yes. My father.’
‘Leave him here. You were very bad last night. I mixed a lot of garlic in your Thunkpa. Have you had Diamox?’
‘Yes, but Smokey saved me,’ I said.
It was really the cat who saved me from plunging deeper. Who knows how the night would have gone, what I might have or not done. I was not in my senses. But the cat awakened in me what I needed: care for herself, and through her for me. A warm touch. I so much needed it. It was that touch of my father that I missed.
Thanks Smokey. She came one more night to my room. The night before I was to leave Ladakh. How did she know?
Tags: death, father, Ladakh, mourning