Taking Notice of a Walking Man

I MEET him on the road every morning, on my walk up to the Landour post office. He's a lean, old man in a long maroon robe, a Tibetan monk of uncertain age. I'm told he's about 85. But age is really immaterial in the mountains. Some grow old at their mother's breasts, and there are others who do not age at all.

If you are like this old lama, you go on forever. For he is a walking man, and there is no way you can stop him from walking.

The lama in Ruyard Kipling's "Kim," rejuvenated by the mountain air, strode along with "steady, driving strokes," leaving his disciple far behind. My lama, older and feebler than Kim's, walks very slowly, with the aid of an old walnut walking stick. The ferrule keeps coming off the end of the stick, but he puts it back with coal tar left behind by the road repairers.

He plods and shuffles along. In fact, he's very like the tortoise in the story of the hare and the tortoise. I see him walking past my window, and five minutes later when I start out on the same road, I feel sure of overtaking him halfway up the hill. But invariably I find him standing near the post office when I get there.

He smiles when he sees me. We are always smiling at each other. His English is limited, and I speak absolutely no Tibetan. He has a few words of Hindi, enough to make his needs known, but that's about all. He is quite happy to converse silently with all the creatures and people who take notice of him on the road.

It's the same walk he takes every morning. At 9 o'clock, if I look out of my window, I can see a line of Tibetan prayer flags fluttering over an old building in the cantonment. He emerges from beneath the flags and starts up the steep road. Ten minutes later he is below my window, and sometimes he stops to sit and rest on my steps, or on a parapet farther along the road. Sooner or later, coming or going, I shall pass him on the road or up near the post office. His eyes will twinkle behind thick-lensed gl asses, and he will raise his walking stick slightly in salutation. If I say something to him, he just smiles and nods vigorously in agreement.

An agreeable man.

He was one of those who came to India in 1959, fleeing the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The Dalai Lama found sanctuary in India, and lived here in Mussoorie for a couple of years; many of his followers settled here. A new generation of Tibetans has grown up in the hill-station, and those under 30 years have never seen their homeland.

But for almost all of them, and there are several thousand in this district alone, Tibet is their country, their real home, and they are quick to express their determination to go back when their land is free again.

Even a 20-year-old girl like Tseten, who has grown up knowing English and Hindi, speaks of the day when she will return to Tibet with her parents. She has given me a painting of Milarepa, the Buddhist monk-philosopher, meditating beneath a fruit-laden peach tree, the eternal snows in the background. This is, perhaps, her vision of the Tibet she would like to see, some day. Meanwhile, she works as a typist in the office of the Tibetan Homes Foundation.

My old lama will, I am sure, be among the first to return, even if he has to walk all the way over the mountain passes. Maybe that's why he plods up and around this hill every day. He is practicing for the long walk back to Tibet.

Here he is again, pausing at the foot of my steps. It's a cool, breezy morning, and he does not feel the need to sit down.

"Tashi-tilay! Good day!" I greet him, in the only Tibetan I know.

"Tashi-tilay!" he responds, beaming with delight.

"Will you go back to Tibet one day?" I ask him for the first time.

In spite of his limited Hindi, he understands me immediately, and nods vigorously.

"Soon, soon!" he exclaims, and raises his walking stick to emphasize his words.

Yes, if the Tibetans are able to return to their country, he will be among the first to go back. His heart is still on that high plateau. And like the tortoise, he'll be there waiting for the young hares to catch up with him.

If he goes, I shall certainly miss him on my walks.

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