Maya, a young Tibetan lady, was a frequent visitor to our house. We children would stare at her almost-white skin, dove eyes, little flat nose and two long plaits, in awe. Over time, she became my knitting teacher and a good friend. Her visits meant story sessions, knitting and learning about her life in Tibet. For us, Tibet was a foreign land and Maya would describe her country with great affection.
Sometimes she would narrate stories of how Buddhism started in Tibet. ‘‘Once upon a time, a King in Tibet was kidnapped. As ransom, his enemies asked for gold equivalent to his weight. But the King sent word to the Prince not to waste gold on getting him back. Instead, spend the money to get Buddhist scholars from the holy and compassionate land of India. Open schools and monasteries for the people so that they can live in peace and knowledge...’’
My acquaintance with Maya was short, but it sowed a deep interest in Tibet. Recently, I visited Tibet and was surprised to see it dominated by Chinese rather than Tibetans. One of the places I visited was a Buddhist Temple in the famous Yerlong Valley — the Cradle of Tibetan Civilisation.
Though the afternoon sun was bright, the cool wind was making us shiver. The river Brahmaputra flowed by timidly in contrast to its rapid gush in Assam. I felt the snow-clad mountains gazing at me in absolute silence. It was as if time had stood still. Though it was supposed to be a famous pilgrimage, I could hardly see a handful of people. After looking around, I sat on the steps of the monastery, that’s when I spotted an old lady, in her 90’s. She was going around with a stick, her only support. Neither the cold wind nor her age seemed to bother her. After finishing her round, she came and sat next to a young boy on the steps opposite me. Then she pointed at me and said something in Tibetan to the boy. It became embarrassing, as I could make out they were talking about me.
A little later, she walked up to me, taking both my hands and pressing them gently against her eyes, she said something in her language. While I was still wondering what was happening, she kissed them and walked away. I could see the happiness on her face, while my fingers felt moist. The young boy reluctantly came up to me and apologised: ‘‘Madam, please pardon my grandmother. She is a villager and has hardly come out. I know you must have felt awkward about what she did to you. I’m sorry, she was just thanking you.’’
I was surprised at the Indian English he spoke. He said he had lived and studied in a college in Chennai for five years. ‘‘But why did your grandmother thank me? I have done nothing for her!’’ I said. ‘‘Yes Madam. India has been a great help for us. It has sheltered and honoured Dalai Lama, our living God. We all respect him but cannot express that in public due to political reasons. You must have seen there isn’t a single photo of Dalai Lama in any public place in Lhasa. My grandmother was telling you, ‘I’m an old lady and I don’t know how long I’ll live. If I don’t thank an Indian and die, I will never attain peace after death. I’m not bothered even if somebody punishes me for that. Neither can I go to India at this age nor can I wait to meet many Indians in this land. It’s a gift that today I was able to see an Indian and I must thank her and her country. If India had not sheltered our Dalai Lama, his life would have been difficult. India — the holy land, India — the compassionate land...’’
I understood why my fingers felt moist. Maya sprang up from the chest of memories after decades. The writer is chairperson, Infosys Foundation