“They are beautiful, but she doesn’t touch them. She does not know if this is allowed.”
The Austrian tourist makes the four-hour climb from Parvati Valley to the slope of mud that is the makeshift village of Khirganga. She is a student of religion at the University of Vienna, on vacation, soul searching, whatever a young woman today may choose to call it. She enjoys the ambiguity of Hinduism, the infinity of it. The porter she hires to escort her up the mountain is called Amar.
“This is Hindi for ‘immortal’,” he explains his name to her, his dark legs working relentlessly up the rocks.
She strives to keep up with him, but the dogs push against her legs and swirl around her, confusing her center of gravity. At first she thinks the dogs belong to people in the valley, and is worried about them wandering so far away from home. Later she realizes they walk with the porters up and down the mountain, serving as guards and messengers, should any evil befall the men. Do they belong to these men? No. They do not sleep in their houses; they do not rely on them for food. They are owned by no one. Citizens of the world.
It begins raining as they approach the peak, and Amar slips on a smooth rock and steadies himself only moments from plummeting down the abyss. A little later he stops on the side of the trail and throws up.
“Too much drinking last night.” He smiles.
“Do you want to take a rest?” she asks. “This seems dangerous.”
“It’s okay. Don’t worry. Sab Kuch Milega.”
They reach the village as the sky trickles down on them. The leaves become darker and the cold becomes colder. She is disheartened when she realizes that even within their destination there is no end to the climb. The whole place is built diagonally, and every movement requires intense muscle action. She gets a room somewhere in the middle of the slope, an equal distance from the restaurants at the bottom and the hot springs at the top. Outside her cabin, in the small meadow, is a pack of brown, light-eyed puppies. All brothers and sisters, they are the offspring of one of the mountain bitches that escort porters. They are beautiful, but she doesn’t touch them. She does not know if this is allowed.
Instead she heads up to the hot springs, which are divided into men’s and women’s areas. The men’s area is outside, facing the spectacular view of snowy peaks of ragged mountains and dark, foggy woods. The men sit on the edge of the water, their feet dangling in it, their torsos bare, passing around joints and laughing at the sky. The women’s area is closed off in a squat concrete edifice, and reminds her of the Jewish Mikveh she’d read about for one of her classes. A place in which to become pure. The women have no views from their quarantine, but are compensated with absolute privacy. They swim nude in the hot water like third world mermaids. It is allowed to use shampoo and soap only directly above the small opening where the water leaves the springs, and it is a physically awkward task to perform, so one of the other women offers to wash the Austrian tourist’s hair. The Austrian sits on a concrete step, immersed in water, her blond hair hanging behind her, as the woman cleanses her with meticulous care. This is her first shower in four days, having spent the previous days in village after village with no running water or electricity. The grime leaves her quickly but the woman continues to wring and soak her hair, silently understanding what is needed.
When it gets dark they leave the hot springs and step carefully on the wet stones that lead them back to the path, where their newly washed feet are once again caked with mud. She notices that all the women who bathed with her are tourists. She has not seen a local woman since arriving here. On the walk down the mountain she meets Amar again.
“Where are all the women?” she asks him.
“They are at home,” Amar says.
“Where is home? Do you live here?”
“No, Nobody lives here, only work here. It is getting cold. In three weeks the season is over and we all leave and go home to the villages. Down there,” he points towards the unseen valley far below.
She looks around at the wooden cabins, at the dogs sleeping in the cold, against the exterior walls, at the smoke rising upwards from the restaurants’ chimneys. Not a village. More like a camp. A sanctuary of sorts, soon to be packed up and carried away. A spot for transient cleansing. This is not a real place, she thinks. She finds this oddly disconcerting and, not wanting to look anymore at these hollow facilities, these temporary truths, she chooses instead to float in the water of the springs which always remain, bathing and being bathed, cut off from Khirganga by cement and steam, emerging only at dusk.
While she spends her time in purification, the puppies play and hunt. They live wild, these dogs. They have no dreams, no high hopes. They expect hard times. And so it is no big shock when, one evening, one of them loses an eye in a fight. He whimpers for a few seconds on account of the pain, but shows no signs of surprise or rage towards his brother, his deformer. For a moment all is still. The mighty Himalayas close off the dogs’ world, and the streams of melted snow trickle around the wooden cabins.
The Austrian tourist, who is walking down the slope, back from the hot springs, sees the eyeball dangling from its abandoned socket and cries out in grief. She runs to the pup, her wet blond hair clinging to her neck and forehead, and holds him down as she grabs the eye and replaces it in the dark hole, heartbroken, illogical, like Jackie Kennedy setting her husband’s scalp back on his head, as if it were a wayward toupee.
The other dogs look at her. Naïve westerner, thinking she can play doctor, or mother, or whatever it is that’s missing from her life, for these wild dogs. She knows nothing of this world, and what’s more, she puts the eye in upside down. It will never heal.
The Austrian tourist leaves Khirganga the next morning, distraught. She finds Amar at one of the restaurants, a faint cloud of alcohol lining his breath, and they head down the mountain. She spends the rest of her time in India in the valley. The one-eyed puppy goes back to business as usual. His life consists of food, play, and the mountain. The pink, useless bulge of blood vessels poking where his left eye once was does nothing to lessen his experience. The village and its dwellers go on, unmoved. The Austrian tourist sits on the banks of the river Ganges and weeps.
Art by Yvonne Martinez.