The Vagabond Muse: Two Women of McLeod Ganj, India

The first time I saw Sunita she had a baby in a sling
, and a red and black checked blanket draped over her head. Her smile was wide and bright, despite black plaque on teeth. As her smile broke open, she broke through. I felt it erupt in me like summer earth, cracked, wanting.

Whenever I saw Sunita she would point at something I was carrying or wearing, implying that she wanted one for herself — skirt sewn of sari fabric, Kulu shawl, new chappals, clean shirt for infant, earrings, a mala. Like other beggar women I encountered she would repeatedly drawl out her desires, “rice, chapatti,” an undertone in the daily cacophony.

Her baby girl, always tucked into dirty rag sling, was usually sleeping or suckling at breast. As I watched her grow older she would sit upright in sling gazing out at McLeod Ganj with wide eyes, smiling big like her mother. She would grab at my mala or squeeze my pinky singing delightful syllables.

I always imagined that Sunita and her family lived in settlement of shanties along river. The structures were built out of recycled materials, rotting wood, large sunflower oil tins, tires, stones, plastic bags. Huts huddled up against each other, grubby, tattered, foreboding. I imagined her husband sitting around all day smoking beedies with the other men as they waited for their wives and children to return from begging in the tourist town. At night they would all gather and compare their stash, trading amongst one another while cooking small rations of rice and dal on open fires in blackened aluminum pans. Maybe if one of these beggar women didn’t come home with enough, her husband would beat her.

I never saw Sunita swat her children or speak to them tersely like the many other beggars did to their own. She often had hand gently palmed on small son’s head and until her baby girl began to walk she was tucked in sling, a beacon like her mother. Joined at her hip, Sunita’s children were like vines and she, a wild young tree.

One night I dreamt that I stood with circle of Western women who were sharing poems. Sunita stood a few strides away, watching and smiling. As evening wore on and poetry circle continued to interact, Sunita’s intoxicating smile began to set and gather mist. Her glowing face transformed; she became creased and wracked with sorrow.

Through the year I would hand Sunita clothes that my two-year-old daughter, Tashi, had grown out of. I gave her old toys, rupee coins, rose water. She would quickly tuck offerings in her bag and move on. Sometimes she would ask for more, thankless, persistent. When on the following day I would see her child in Tashi’s old t-shirt, I would feel a rush of relief that this stuff wasn’t going to some pimp or overlord.

I longed to follow Sunita home and see the truth of her life. But in the early evening she disappeared as gracefully as she had appeared at dawn.

Ani La
One evening Tashi and I were having dinner at Ashoka when an androgynous character in burgundy robes and yellow rectangular hat approached table and pointed at French fries. I invited elderly Tibetan to join us and dished out some fries. She pecked at them slowly, all the while winking and smiling at my daughter. I offered chicken but she vehemently refused and instead asked for a Coke. She departed with bow of gratitude, holding bottle and straw against grubby robes.

It turns out that this nun was a fixture in McLeod Ganj and we often ran into her. Each time she would press forehead lovingly against Tashi’s. She would pull hard candies out of her robes that looked as if they’d lived there for a decade, or unwrap hanky full of dried yak cheese.

She seemed a mendicant, not associated with particular nunnery, always alone except when occasionally walking beside some Westerners. She was certainly devout, often found at prayer wheels, on circumambulation path, or at public teachings. From what I could gather she had no worldly possessions but for her robes, rosary and hat. She was full of spark and laughter, and some of her teeth looked as if they’d been glued to her gums with rubber cement. She was argumentative, often bickering with storekeepers or other robed Buddhists. She had a thing for Coca-cola.

One day we joined her on circumambulation path. She held Tashi’s hand, pointing out various views of the Dalai Lama’s residence. She and my husband exchanged some words in Tibetan. When he asked where she lived, she answered, “India.” when he asked her name, she mumbled, “Ani,” the Tibetan word for nun.

Whenever we would run into Ani La she would fuss over Tashi and then check us out, asking questions in mixture of Tibetan and hand gestures. Why did we buy bottled water when mountain water was delicious? Why was I wearing bangles when malas were superior? Were we on our way to circumambulation path, and if not, why? Had we eaten? Would we buy her a Coke?

It was a mystery where Ani La slept at night; she always appeared healthy and relatively clean. Toward end of our year in India Ani La donned a new hat. It was a floppy knitted sun hat, burgundy like her robes.

One day, as was often the case, we ran into Ani La at colorful prayer wheels near bus stop at center of village. She checked us out, doted over Tashi and accompanied us at spinning the wheels. She pointed out various paintings of deities upon walls, instructing us to press foreheads to them. At some point she turned corner, and when we turned expecting to find her, there was no one present in shrine’s corridor but a massive cow.

We were certain that Ani La could shape shift and had chosen that moment to do so.

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