To you, Tandal

Artwork by Krishna Tashi Palmo

Dear Tandal,

I heard you will come to life today. I hope your mother Pir Panjal is not deceiving us yet again, with her zillionth labour pain. You were to arrive five years ago. Never mind. Now, in 2020 and a frugal bill worth 3200 crores, we are waiting for you, outside the operating theater. How can our arms tire out holding the Kalchhor (ceremonial libation) and Khatag (white scarf)We, Lahulis, thank you for teaching us the art of waiting.

Your mother had a painful journey. She bled profusely in these years but doctors said her pains and cries were mere geological surprises. If not for the masses, you need to come alive for the media that gloriously announces the same old saga of your birth every few months. I heard you were even given a new name after some closed door discussions. Atal Tunnel, Rohtang. Congratulations, this infrastructural feat of Bharat Mata is a Man. I do not wish to hurt you or question the choice of your name, but I must tell you that ever since you were conceived, I have only known you through the hesitant utterances of my Aama (mother) and Abi (grandmother): Tandal. I still get goosebumps recalling how softly and reluctantly my Abi first whispered your name to me, as if you didn’t belong to us. As if she didn’t want Meme (grandfather) to claim her eccentric pronunciation of your name. But each time Abi tries to unify you and Rohtang, she’s breathless. For us, you have overtaken Rohtang’s sacredness, for Abi, not as yet. How could you? Rohtang is her refuge. Rohtang is her sacred escape to the sky. Rohtang is her formless realm. You, in your enticing emptiness, are profoundly concrete, deeply earthly. Tandal, even today when she calls you out, you unsettle the warmth of our sun soaked tandoor room as you did back then. But my Aama and Abi too have cultivated faith in you. It shows in the dissolved color and coarseness of 108 rosary beads. They have obsessively chanted, prostrated and circumambulated on the doctor’s prescribed mantra day and night.

Om Mane Padme Hum

Tandal, an engineering miracle

Om Mane Padme Hum

Tandal, a new awakening

Om Mane Padme Hum

Tandal, mighty as our men

Om Mane Padme Hum

Tandal, tourist’s paradise

Abi has consistently been complaining though. In the stubborn and overprotective care of your mother Pir Panjal, we didn’t justify our ways of being, she says. “What is this show of tribal tourism?”, she shouts at me even if she’s nearly lost her voice. “Have we already put our values and beliefs on sale?” Tandal, I am truly confused. Your doctors authorise worth in packaging our history, our rivers and mountains as tourist itineraries. Only now that I am learning my language, each lesson is an encounter with depths of your contamination. Lahul isn’t Lahul anymore. It’s a tourist place. As you are opening us to the world, the dakinis (female Buddha) and dakas (male Buddha) are retreating into caves, remerging into rocks and stones. The wisdom inflows of Chandrabhaga are drying out. Will ego and individuality flow now on?

Abi’s rainbow body has shrunk visibly since the definitive announcement of your birth. She’s sleepless at night, unable to distinguish the ferocious mood of her guardian deity Palden Lhamo from those of men and machines churning inside you for the one last time. You know, your big mouth was once her fertile field where she sang and danced with the dakinis.

Aama is waiting outside the operating theatre luminous in her goshen (silk brocade) cholu (attire). By her side is an inconsolable Chandrabhaga. Your bright and shallow eyes have possessed us. I heard they are the longest in the world. But will you have the courage to look into my Aama’s eyes? I should let you know, in my dream last night, she revealed her desire to transform your wrath into blissful radiance of the Khatag. 

Letter by Kesang Thakur

This essay is first in the ‘Tandal’ series, a collaboration between Kesang and Krishna on infrastructure and gender in Lahul valley.

A shorter version of the essay was first published in The Tribune


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