Dear Dolma

Dear Dolma

I never told you the day I arrived at your house was the day I turned 23. That morning after a lazy breakfast at my homestay in Leh I went and bought a ticket for Hemis Shukpachan. The bus was bustling with local music blaring amidst Julley greetings by ecstatic Ladakhis who were returning back after attending His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Leh.

Watching the flat round faces of the villagers with short thick noses, wide cheekbones and a language akin more to Tibet than of India. I felt lost in translation in my own country. Being the only clueless traveller in the bus who kept wheezing due to the high altitude. I felt a strange sense of exhilaration when the bus dropped me off at a quaint little hamlet. As I searched for a homestay little did I know that they called your village a close contender to the mythical Shangri-La! Defying its surrounding with its green carpet in a valley of brown boulders and rugged mountains in Western Ladakh, India. 

I stood there watching gas cylinders rolling down the road as the people it belonged to slowly started dispersing towards their homes. Which is when I met your daughter who was kind enough to invite me over to stay with you and her. On our way to your house I met you for a brief second while you were sitting with your other female friends near the prayer bell in the lower part of your village.

Never having been inside an old-style Ladakhi house before I couldn’t help but be fascinated with the insides of your kitchen while sipping on my butter tea. Starting with the entire wall behind the stove that gleamed with cookware, burnished and stacked on shelves. Nothing remained hidden away in drawers or cupboards. The hand-painted wooden flour canister, jars of spices, enormous hand-hewn pots and pans, flanked by towers of porcelain cups and not to forget the brightly coloured thermoses lined up in order of height in the lowest shelf next to the eating area. The aesthetics of a traditional Ladakhi life was evident in the way you had arranged it all.

She lives here alone with her four cats while my father and I work in the city.” said your daughter who spoke little English.

What are the cats’ names?” I asked.

Your daughter smiled and replied,
They have no names. But respond only to sounds made by my mother.

At first, I found it strange but when I saw you with them I understood how language becomes obsolete when we step in the realm of love. You were the kind old cat lady.

Your deep pensive eyes spoke more than your daughter’s translated words. They told me you were not satisfied with our small talk. Craving to hear more than just sounds of cat mews in your house. But all you could manage was saying,

Ya ya ya!

Which I’m assuming you picked up from an American who stayed here in the past.

At night when I found an old photo album in my room, I knew it was my turn for craving more. Hoping those moments frozen in time would tell me your story that you couldn’t yourself. That night I time travelled through your photographs. You were once a beautiful young lady who loved getting her pictures taken. Over the years not much has changed. Neither the kitchen nor you or the cats. Photos of family gatherings, village weddings and women spinning yak wool in meadows showed me the age-old-way of life of the Ladakhi culture in this remote corner of the Indian trans-Himalayas that is now slowly fading due to the explosion of modern day tourism.

Next morning when I returned after exploring your village and found you sitting outside your house doing your daily chores. I decided to help you since your daughter wasn’t around. While we sat silently stemming spinach in your courtyard my mind kept going back to that photo album. I wanted to tell you that you were and still are a very brave and strong woman. You managed to live alone in the house for years with no one to talk. No wonder you live with four cats. I’m sure you must be anxiously waiting for the evenings when all other women in the village would gather around the prayer bell. I understood now why you seemed so eager to know how long I was staying and whether I liked the traditional skyu you cooked for me. I know this because your photos showed me how you loved hosting and meeting new people despite the language barrier. 

I wish I could have stayed longer. I wish I could tell you how fortunate I was for spending my birthday at your home. I distinctly remember how those brown solemn eyes would light up meeting your weatherworn cheekbones whilst you smiled and I knew you needed no translation as I took out my camera. You touched your face and the lines on it suggesting that you have turned old now and aren’t really beautiful in pictures. I refused to believe it because your beauty lies in the fact that you live happily all by yourself in a house full of cats year after year. I wish I could tell you how much I admire you and the life that you have lived. I wish I could tell you that I will come back again soon just to spend more time with you and your cats. But all I did instead was smile at you as I adjusted my camera while your photographs from last night flashed in front of my eyes and then finally the moment arrived when I got to click a photograph of you to remember you by.

Dolma, July 2017.

Our silent connection showed me how that which cannot be put into words can only be grasped through silence sometimes. Or as Ansel Adam rightly said,

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”

On 1st of August 2017 I turned 23 while backpacking across Ladakh. Wanting to experience something new I decided not to tell anyone that it was my birthday. I woke up and saw a German girl, who was staying in the same homestay, celebrating her 6th birthday with her family. I smiled to myself thinking what were the odds for that happening. During breakfast I was talking to few people and I remember screaming inside my head, “Do you know It’s my birthday today!!” over and over again. But I kept quiet. After breakfast I started walking towards the bus stand and bought a ticket for Hemis Shukpachan, a remote village in Western Ladakh. 

At night after dinner I remember sitting on my bed and watching the full moon against the silhouette of the mountains, the swaying poplar trees and the sound of the strong winds blowing outside. I knew a storm was coming and it would get really cold at night but I sat there replaying the events of the day feeling older, wiser and calmer. It was while watching that dreamy midnight view that I smiled and finally wished myself Happy Birthday!

If I learnt one thing with this experience was the realisation of how words and conversations have been so badly misused and diluted by everyone around us that we have started to run away from having real talk and conversations with people in our lives. There are times when I crave a genuine conversation with someone but then I choose to stay comfortable in our silence. It feels just like I am back at Dolma’s house and helping her with the chores while playing with the cats without feeling the need of a conversation to make us feel comfortable or closer to each other. Dolma and I didn’t get to exchange many words. But I have to say our time spent together in silence is what I miss the most and sometimes it is all I wish to relive on days when I’m surrounded by people and their never ending words.

7 Replies to “Dear Dolma”

    1. Thanks Vasu. I am happy to see your comment. And I am sure you will love Dolma and her village. Ladakh jaana hua kabhi toh will share the details with you. 🙂

  1. wow… i really like these blog of yours… wish to visit Dolma soon… Keep writing such beautiful things yaa…

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