It was the winter I stayed at Patlikuhl, my Tibetan boarding school in rural north India, a small, isolated school tucked in a narrow valley between the hills of Nagar. The nearby town had only one nameless road going through it. I say “stayed” but what I mean is I was left behind. My parents couldn’t come to get me because winter was their busiest season but they had entrusted a man who was coming to get his own children with the task of bringing me as well. Unfortunately there were two Tenzin Lhamos in Class Five. The man ended up taking the wrong girl home. My parents felt bad sending her back, so they kept her for the winter. It sounds crazy now but that sort of thing happened more often than you might think. So I stayed at school for the winter with all the orphans and other children whose parents were either in Tibet or were too poor to fetch their kids for the winter holidays.
It felt like the freest time of my life: no parents, no teachers, no prefects. We still had dorm mothers but we could ignore them. The old peon still rang the school bell but it had lost all its old tyranny. Breakfast, lunch, teatime, dinner was all the bell meant now. It became almost comforting. During term time, we woke up at 5:30 a.m., put on our uniforms, and made our beds quickly, making all four corners of the bed sharp with military precision. After breakfast, we cleaned the dorm, dusting and sweeping until it was time for our one-hour study period. After that we had morning assembly and then classes finally began for the day. But there was none of that in the winter. We woke up at a later hour, only cleaned the dorm once a week, and best of all, we turned on the TV whenever we wanted. Our dorm mother let us have the run of the place. That was the winter her oldest son was back home, released from the hospital because there was nothing more they could do for him. He wore a Kullu shawl over his kurta, like an Indian, and walked up and down the corridor, a silent specter of a man, getting gaunter and gaunter each week. He had the same vacant expression on his face every day. At night, we fell asleep to the sound of his coughing.
So we had all this free time, my friend Sherab and I. Sherab was in my class but it wasn’t at all inevitable that we would be best friends. After all, boys and girls weren’t really friends back then, but we were. We spent all our time with each other. We were only 11, we hadn’t hit puberty yet, and so it wasn’t weird then like it became later.
He was carefree and reckless, the kind of boy who always looked for a rule to break. He had an untamable cowlick on his forehead, which everyone said meant that he was going to grow up to be a troublemaker. The thing about Sherab was that he was very easygoing and eager to please once you were his friend. He had a natural kindness, and boarding school, which hardened many a softer person, never really stamped it out of him. For all his roughness, he could be surprisingly sensitive, which is why it was odd that he didn’t hold back that day when we went to Momo Pasang’s room.
I still remember the day clearly. We snuck out of the school to the bazaar. We made our way to the movie theater. Neither of us had any money, of course, but the theater in Patlikuhl had a strange custom where you could watch the trailers for free. In fact the trailers weren’t really trailers of new movies but extended clips of older movies, movies that had been out for a year or longer, that the theater showed to entertain the audience till showtime. Usually, they showed either the first half or the last half of a movie. There was one boy at school who had seen the first half of Mr. India 14 times without ever seeing the second half. Sherab preferred seeing the second half of films. He liked the last fights where the hero usually wears a leather jacket and rides a motorcycle and then dispatches any number of villains in gravity-defying maneuvers. I liked the first halves, though. I didn’t need to know the ending, because I could always imagine it. But I needed to see the beginning to understand how it all happened. Beginnings, I thought, were most important. You couldn’t begin to understand the end without knowing the beginning.
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