Café Terrace

The sun had just set as I walked through the narrow street in the crowded Mall Road towards Café Terrace. Couples walking hand in hand, oblivious to the rain and blaring honks of the passing cars, families shopping for things they might have no use for, children running around excited with their mothers screaming at them to be careful, and amongst these tourists were the Buddhist monks and nuns in maroon robes shopping for groceries. The way the two worlds blended was beautiful to watch.

As I reached the café, I closed my blue umbrella and walked in. The familiar warmth and the concoction of smells in the air greeted me. It had become my go-to place. I would go there every evening after school where I was volunteering as a teacher for the Tibetan refugees. I would drink their butter tea, eat thukpa, read books and chat with the old Tibetan couple who ran it, till they closed shop.

Oddly, though it was named thus, the café was on a sidewalk that ran beside the Mall Road. It was a quaint little place. The abstract murals on its walls were so old and faded that it was hard to make out what they were in the first place, but gave it a bohemian look. The café and the old couple were my refuge.

I had been living in a dilapidated 8×8 room with spiders for roommates. It was a dingy old building which housed backpackers living on a budget from all over the world. I had to climb over a hundred steps every time I had to step out, even to buy a bottle of water. It was so exhausting that I hated going back to my room, but I had no other choice. The café was all I had once I was done with my work at the school.

They made quite an odd couple. The woman, Aunty as I called her, was short, pudgy and very shrewd. She always had an apron tied over her traditional Tibetan dress. I had never seen her without it. Her neatly combed hair had turned white. She always had her eyes on everything that was going around in the café, even while talking to people. She would scream “Norbu!” in the middle of a sentence, if she found him idling around. Norbu was their waiter and help with a perennial smile plastered over his face showing his protruding beedi stained teeth. They had found him when he was just a small boy on the street one day. He had been lying there for days without food, emaciated and dirty, with flies swarming over him. They just couldn’t leave him like that and had brought him home. He had been with them ever since. She would then explain, apologetic, “He always goes god knows where to smoke that beedi of his, leaving all the work behind”.

The old man, the uncle, was twice as tall as her, if not more. He was as thin and bony as she was pudgy. There was something atypical about him. I don’t know whether to call it awareness or a sensibility or a force. He seemed detached from his surroundings, yet very much a part of them. He would look at you in the eye with a pleasant, often whimsical expression in his dark piercing eyes.

Sometimes, they would narrate stories they had of their glorious land, the horrific atrocities they had seen and suffered as children, and their harrowing escape from Tibet through the heart of the Himalayas, carrying each other on their backs when their feet were too frostbitten to walk. The old uncle would start talking about something like, “We would stay in caves at night at times” and his wife would interrupt, “Do you remember that day, when we climbed a mountain, and it got dark before we could reach the pass, so we had to turn around?” and so it would go on. Every so often, the old uncle would roll one big joint with his weather-beaten hands and sit there smoking up and talking about peace, world, life, and all things forming the basis of our lives. His words would blur out the rest of the humanity that might or might not have surrounded us. I think they loved having me there. If I said anything like, “I guess, I should leave”, they would dismiss it outright.

I had first laid eyes on this old man in my class one day. It was during the early days of my tenure. I was teaching the “English Conversation Class” along with many other volunteers across the world. By then I had formulated my own style of teaching. I would divide my class in half and give them a topic to argue on, each half picking either for or against the topic. That day, it so happened that the topic I chose for the debate was religion.

I confess my choice in the topic wasn’t random. Choosing topics involve a complicated process since students have no predefined background or age group. The topic has to be relevant and students should be able to discuss. I would start the debate and observe each student to note the proficiency each student had over the language and assist them accordingly. I would correct their grammar and vocabulary whenever someone would mispronounce a word or use incorrect word order. I remember the debate that ensued. He hadn’t uttered a word.  I usually try to engage the silent ones by giving points to debate about but I could not draw him out. After a couple of tries, I left him alone. I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable and stop coming to the classes. He sat cross-legged in a corner with his head resting on the wall next to him while the class went on. I remember finding it inspiring that a man of his age would be interested in learning a new language. When the class got over, he walked up to me and invited me over to his café.

I already had over a dozen dinner invitations from my students. I was briefed about this custom by my volunteer coordinator Rabsel, a kindred spirit with an affable nature and a dimpled smile. He told me that it was customary for Tibetan students to invite their teachers and I shouldn’t refuse them outright and that I could make a plausible excuse if I wanted to refuse. I didn’t take much notice of his invitation and I noncommittally agreed to go with him. But as I walked out of my class, I saw him waiting for me outside. Now I felt I had no choice. I had to go with him. I thought a quick visit couldn’t hurt and would settle the matter for good. Moreover, the teacher in me wanted to draw him out and help him.

We were walking through the narrow streets when, unable to contain my curiosity any longer, I asked him “Why didn’t you speak in the class?”

He didn’t speak. He shrugged. But I persisted, “Is it because of the topic I chose? I wanted to learn about Buddhism, that’s why I chose this topic. I am sorry if I hurt your sentiments.”

“No madam”

“Please. Call me Aditi. So are you a Buddhist? What do you really think about Buddhism?” I nudged.

At first he didn’t reply but after a long pause, he spoke, without haste, choosing his words carefully, without gesticulation of any kind “Buddhism is a scientific religion which focuses on attaining enlightenment.”

“What do you mean?”           

“Well, according to Buddha, there is no creator and no beginning to the existence of things. Worlds and beings come and go according to the natural law of cause and effect.”

“Okay. So what is this enlightenment?”

He hesitated a little and smiled.  “Do you know what bodhisattva is?”

Seeing me shake my head, he continued, “A being striving to attain enlightenment is called a bodhisattva. His motivation should and would only be to free all beings from suffering.”

“So are you a bodhisattva?”

A long pause ensued.

“I think I am troubling you too much. I am sorry.” I thought I was being too intrusive. The teacher in me also wondered why he was sitting in my English class when his language was clearly very good.

“You didn’t trouble me,” he said placidly and it occurred to me that he had a sense of great tranquillity. His was a smile that lit his whole being as with an inner light.

“So what is Sutra and Tantra that monk was talking about in class?”

“They are two tenets to attain enlightenment.”

“So to attain enlightenment, one can either choose the path of Sutra or Tantra. Am I right?”

“No! Sutra and Tantra are always confused, especially these days. They are thought to be completely separate Buddhist paths with Sutra being philosophical and Tantra, what is that word for it? Ah yes! Mystical! But, in fact, Tantra follows logically from Sutra.”

“That monk was talking about some particular Tantra. What is that?” I egged him.

He smiled, but not at me. He was smiling at something past me, something that only he could see. “That is the Kalachakra Tantra. That is one of the most complex teachings involving the concept of parallel time cycles. One who understands it is halfway through to enlightenment.”

He stopped walking suddenly “See the intention is to become aware of the clear emptiness, the formless mind at the centre of the individual’s existence. This realization leads to liberation from the round of rebirth and suffering, and is the basis for embarking on the Tantric path and ultimately enlightenment.”

Neither of us spoke after this for the rest of the way; we just walked on.  I was too fascinated by everything he had said and by him to attempt making further conversation. We were walking on a narrow path with buildings built so near each other that it looked like one huge structure. Life was going on all around us; kids playing cricket on the street, women drying clothes in their balconies and here were we. The contrast was striking.

The hoarding outside the café was so new and bright that it was hard to miss it. Yet, I hadn’t seen it the previous day when I had walked through that road. By the time I left for my room that day, it was already dark. I knew by then I would come back the next day and soon one day became the next three months.

On the last day of my tenure, I went to the cafe to say my goodbyes, my heavy green rucksack on my shoulders. I had to catch a Volvo back to Delhi that night.

Uncle was sitting at the counter. “So, you’re leaving us” he exclaimed.

I just looked at him and asked for Aunty instead of answering him.

“She’s inside. Praying” He pointed at the inner door that lead to the kitchen.

I sat on one of the chairs heavily and muttered, “I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. “

He smiled “Ah! Kalachakra. You know time is just an illusion. Reversing time is like reversing change, reversing causality. Do you really want to reverse change?”

“I want to be what I am now but in the past, anywhere in the last three months. I don’t want to reverse the change in me. I don’t want to lose what I got from here… from you. I just want to reverse time.” I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat and stopped talking.

He didn’t answer. He had already sunk into his characteristic silence.

“You know I really don’t know what made me come here.” I confessed after a long pause. “When people ask me I just tell them I wanted to do social work but that wasn’t what got me here. I mean I am not against social work, in fact, I love it but it just wasn’t the push.” I took a sip of the butter tea he served me. It was saltier than Aunty’s but I took no notice of it.

“Sometimes we just do things and then find reasons to justify them.”
It took a while for it to sink in.   

“You know, my life in Delhi isn’t so bad. I am an only child. My folks are pretty chilled out. I have wonderful friends. My job wasn’t bad either. I mean it paid me well. There’s nothing to complain really. I just left everything on a whim.”

“I know.”

“How do you know? I never spoke about my life before.”

“You must have. How else will I know?”

I was sure I hadn’t. I had never come forward with any information about my background and they never tried to ask me before this. I let it pass and sipped on my salty butter tea. “I don’t want to go back,” I wailed but he didn’t respond. The time was approaching for me to leave.

“If you are really given a choice, can you give up on your current life knowing that you will never see your family or friends again?” He looked straight at me as if searching for something but I didn’t know what. Aunty came back from her prayers then and I rushed out wishing them luck.

I got back to my old routine pretty quickly when I returned home. Now, I was back at my job in a swanky multinational software firm, which demanded long hours. The lunch breaks and the conversations at work that I used to love and participate in, now felt contrived. Before long, a year had gone by and I was yearning to go back to McLeod Ganj once more. I had promised Rabsel that I would come again the next year but there was no way I could get away from work, so I decided to visit over the weekend, as a tourist this time. I wanted to stopover at the school and my beloved café.

It was freezing cold when I got off the bus. It had rained the previous night and the streets were still wet. The suburb was just rising up and the shopkeepers had just opened up their shutters, preparing for the day. The air still smelt pure; everything was as I had left it. Dropping my bag at the hotel I was staying, I went to visit the school.

Rabsel was at his desk, engrossed in work. I knew that his life as a coordinator, and serving as an interface between the students, management, and the volunteers, facilitating everything was not easy. It had been only a year since I had last seen him, but his hairline had receded further. His dimpled smile, however, was still very much there. It was wonderful to see that he still remembered me, considering the fact that he meets so many people every day as part of his job. “Aditi!” he greeted me with warmth and ordered some tea for me. I spoke to him about my eagerness to meet Uncle and laughed at how he attended my sessions when he didn’t need them at all. Rabsel looked at me wide-eyed. He finally smiled without saying anything. I said my byes and set off.

The long walk to the café from the school seemed longer than it had before. I walked as fast as I could but the road seemed never ending. The street had come alive as the sun had just started to set, reminding me of my last day here. I don’t think I noticed anyone on the road now though as I reached there.

It took me a while to register that there was something wrong with the view I was seeing. There was a grocery shop in front of me. It was more of a supermarket at odds with what one would expect in a place like this. It had a glass door through which one could see the goings-on inside. There were rows of skilfully stacked food and other domestic items with people pushing shopping trolleys like any other supermarket one would see in a big city like Delhi.

“How could I have forgotten where the café was?” I kept muttering in shock as I struggled my way through the frenzied shoppers to speak to the man at the billing counter. He was a typical Himachali man in his late forties – tall, broad-shouldered and intimidating. He was busy attending to customers and was irritated at being disturbed and tried to ignore me. Even people in the queue had started giving me angry glances as I was wasting their precious time. Realizing I wasn’t going to leave without an answer, he looked at me wryly, “I have been living here for the last twenty years and I haven’t seen or heard of a café by that name here or anywhere in McLeodGanj” and went back to his work.