Once on Thamel, though, I realize I simply cannot resist a visit to Bodnath, even though I’ve not been able to contact him.
It’s almost dark by the time I arrive, with just the faintest glow in the west, when I begin my ritual journey around the giant stupa. Its brilliant white breast disappears with the last of the sun, but the two great eyes benefit from spotlights. There are not so many pilgrims and tourists spinning the brass prayer wheels at this time of day, and the eyes have an intimidating aspect to them. Without the certainty of clear daylight, it’s easy to imagine the mind behind them as master of the night.
The journey all the way around the stupa takes much longer than during the day. Strange thoughts assail me; my mind changes. It occurs to me that a stupa was originally a means of contacting the dead, that it is a Neolithic burial mound that I’ve come to pay my respects to. It occurs to me that the Far Shore is never all that far away, had we not been programmed to pretend it doesn’t exist. It occurs to me that our ancestors, long before the Gautama Buddha arrived with his clarifications, knew more about death than we know about the motions of the stars. With their short, hard lives they must have faced the mysterious disappearance of loved ones every year; it must have seemed as if the whole stream of human life led straight back to the stupa-the sepulcher, you might say-and the more enduring world of the dead. And it occurs to me that nothing has changed, except that the extra twenty or thirty years we can expect to spend on the planet these days seem to have blinded us to a truth that for our ancestors was brutally obvious.
This meditation takes me one complete circumnavigation. I deliberately began in the west so after three and a half turns I will end in the east. When I start the next round, I am thinking, I know he is watching. He knows I am here. Nevertheless, the second round with the brass I spend in a kind of trance state in which thought, though it still exists, is relegated to a secondary function while some kind of emptiness, a beautiful, indescribable absence, takes its place. So it’s not until the last leg, the half turn from west to east that will finish my tour, that I remember what the stupa looks like when I see it through Tietsin’s eyes. And suddenly there it is: black under a bloated full moon, quite still, no people anywhere, only me dwarfed by this great dark mountain of death from which a lurid lightning bolt seems to split the sky.
But this time the vision doesn’t fade. It stays with me in the cab on the way back to the guesthouse, and when I lie down to close my eyes it becomes obvious that this is where Tietsin’s blade wheel has been leading. That all the great fuss I’ve made about my state of mind is as nothing compared to what comes next. And it’s not Tietsin whose name I call just before nodding off. I hear myself whispering, Pichai, my brother, my self. Pichai, tell me, what happens after you die, really?
Well, what happened to me at that crucial moment in my spiritual development was that I fell asleep. Now it’s some awful predawn nightmare that has awakened me; no, wait, that really was “All Along the Watchtower” I was hearing in my sleep. I find I’ve not corrected the clock on my cell phone, so I can tell at a glance it is six a.m. in Bangkok.
“This is your katoey secretarial service. I hope you took plenty of clothes, I hear it’s freezing up there. I got a short list. Actually, there are only three agencies worth considering, only two of those do high-altitude locations-I’m assuming that’s what we’re talking about here-and only one really looks like the kind of outfit Charles would have used, I mean with fluent English speakers, contacts in LA, et cetera.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The agencies-the people who assist foreign film crews, especially Americans, to make a movie in a foreign location. Sorry, I am speaking to Detective Sonchai ‘Never Left a Case Unsolved’ Jitpleecheep of Bangkok and Kathmandu?”
I blink. Sarcasm and work are two different modes of consciousness, and I can only cope with one at a time right now.
“There’s only one agency?” I say with considerable relief. I was not looking forward to spending the day talking to wannabe Asian Hollywood producers in dark glasses and black T-shirts. “So, what are the details?”
“I’ve sent them by e-mail. I don’t trust you to get the details right this early in the morning. Have you been smoking?”
“No. I forgot to score. Too busy. I’ll try today, thank you for reminding me.”
“Is there really no such thing as love?”
For a moment I’m tempted to spill bitterness all over the cell phone. Then I see the inherent irony in the question. You could say Lek has been chasing love all his life in his own way, lifting the rock every morning, watching it roll back down the hill every night, just so he can endure the full day. His martyrdom is immeasurably vaster than mine.
“Not for me, Lek, I don’t have your strength. I’ve retired permanently. They amputated my heart-nothing I can do.”
There’s a click as he closes his phone. When the guesthouse finally opens its business center at eight o’clock Kathmandu time, I have them print out the e-mail from Lek. It contains the address of the agency, which occupies a first-floor office over the commercial area leading to the Yak & Yeti Hotel. It seems I must find someone called Atman.
I eat breakfast in the garden of the guesthouse. It’s basic backpacker stuff: bacon and eggs, toast, fried tomatoes, as much yogurt and granola as you can put down, cheese by Firestone. The clientele here is frequently serious about mountains and trekking, but this is not the time of year to lay siege to Everest, for it is spring in the Himalayas: all over the country snows are melting and rhododendron blooming. I know from the guidebook what to do and where to go, so when I feel strong enough for the Thamel onslaught I walk to the taxi rank and take the first in line. As usual it has no handles for the windows in back so they are permanently open, enabling one to feel like a genuine participant in the honking, the jams, and the pollution. But it takes less than thirty minutes to reach a large tree shrine to Ganesh, the elephant god, in a forest next to a river. The rhododendron here are the forest. It’s like being in an oil painting that is all about abundance: a million mauve, crimson, and white blossoms, like bursts of awareness in a dark age.
That’s all I needed, ten minutes of sanity; or maybe it’s the most I can cope with? After I pay my respects to Ganesh with a bunch of marigolds, for which the shrine keeper charges like a wounded elephant, we drive back to town and the Yak & Yeti. When I get there they tell me that Atman is on location. The good news is that the location is Bhaktapur, which is no more than half an hour away. I sigh, find my second cab of the morning, and negotiate a day price.
Bhaktapur: I have been directed to Durbar Square, which is bigger than Kathmandu ’s, with a charming Grecian atmosphere of deserted plinths on which black goats hang out to be fed and photographed by tourists. Not today, though; the whole square has been cordoned off with yellow plastic tape for the benefit of a film crew, and the goats have been moved on.
“It’s a murder mystery set in the fifteenth-century,” Atman explains. He nods at a group of actors who are standing in the firing line of cameras, up on top of the main dais in the square, which has been brilliantly renovated by a few tricks of the silver screen. The actors are all done up in costumes not dissimilar to Shakespearean players, with the women in traditional long dresses, aprons, and bonnets, the men in tapered pants with swords and knives at the ready: the father, the mother, the lover, the evil cousin, the girl, and the witch.
“We’ve even got a decent budget-some seed money from a venture-capital fund in the United States. Not much, but enough to give it a good college try,” Atman explains. It seems he has been told to expect my visit, and has made assumptions as to who I am.
His English is perfect, but not Western. I think he learned it in India. I’m afraid he is wearing a black leather jacket over a black T-shirt, but there are no dark glasses. Atman explains that as far as plot is concerned, he has little control over its basic themes: fatal sexual jealousy followed by clan wars, followed by sudden enlightenment, followed by a dance routine which expresses inconsolable grief, followed by miraculous forgiveness. These are all cultural givens with which he must work, and Atman needs the locals on his side because of an additional grant he got from some NGO with connections to the UN which tries to cultivate indigenous talent. Therefore Atman is trying to finesse his themes into a style that might attract the Best Foreign Film subcommittee of the Oscar nominations. He has cunningly decided to so construct his oeuvre that he can easily take out the dance routines for the American market without damaging the plot.
“I’m walking a tightrope,” he explains, then looks at me. “You are from the producers, right?”
“No. I’m a cop from Bangkok. I’m investigating a death.”
He nods, as if this somewhat radical reprogramming were merely a question of the right number of head movements. “Oh! Frank Charles? It was on CNN for about ten seconds. They only said he was dead in Bangkok. They didn’t specify how.”
“His death is all we have given out until now. I’m telling you because we’ll have to go back to the media in a day or two. It was murder.”
More nods. “Right. That’s a shame. He was a good guy.”
“Sure. Very sensitive. Very generous. So they say, anyway. I mean, that’s what everyone says who worked with him. I only met him once. I didn’t work for this outfit then.”
“Is there someone here who did?”
I fancy the nods are somewhat more considered this time. “Yes. Tara. She worked with him on his film. She’s Tibetan.” He jerks his chin toward the witch on the dais. She is about a hundred years old, and even though she has removed her black pointed hat, her awful jowls, long nose, bent back, and shriveled flesh are enough to make you fear the hex.
I notice that Atman does not call her, but instead mounts the dais to say a few words, which causes her to look my way. She nods and comes down to greet me. When we are face-to-face she giggles and pulls off the mask.
The French call it coup de foudre, meaning “lightning bolt.” I am thinking, quite objectively, This is the last thing I need right now. It is as if I can see my own heart etherized upon a table and I am reluctant as hell to undergo an operation that will mean more life.