The destruction of the Murghi Gompa was a disaster. Besides the loss of monastery itself, the fire consumed dozens of thangka, religious scroll paintings, including the one Trager saw immolated in Ferndecker’s last refuge. The gompa library contained original Tibetan translations of Sanskrit sutras, all now lost. The Murghi Restricted Area was immediately closed to all foreigners, and the military demanded an investigation of the travel company whose associates had figured in the event.
At that point the newspapers, which played up the story, began to have trouble summarizing the situation.
Freya Martens India, the company in question, was unknown prior to the fire. Its majority Indian partner turned out to be a well-respected former military officer, and the inquiries from that side abruptly ceased. At that point the head of the Sonjal tehsil, or district, had already dispatched the regional forester (a condescending Delhi man whom he despised) to the upper valley to find out more about the incursion into Ladakh by the American trek leader. Chandra Lal was away with the shop owner assessing Doda as a site for a tourist tea stall. However, his mother was at home. She lectured the forester for half an hour, emphasizing her points with graceful movements of her hands and several suggestions to the Tehsildar that the forester chose not to convey. In the end, the papers decided that readership and access to information would be greater if this was presented as a story of sacrifice rather than intrigue.
Meanwhile, the six lamas, offered refuge in eastern Ladakh at the large gompas, refused. Despite being isolated in a largely Muslim district, they asked to stay where they were. With assistance from the Ladakh Buddhist Association, they were housed temporarily at the rest house in Darcha, while others decided their fates.
Which did not take long. Even Vasant Bagchee, waiting in a corridor of the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital in Srinagar, had to admit the cascade of consequences following the fire at Murghi Gompa challenged his conception of karma. He was considering how he might revise the lecture on the topic that he gave to westerners, when the two American officials emerged from the room and walked past him to stand at the edge of the stairwell. They lit cigarettes, which he thought extremely inappropriate, but he kept silent.
“Well, that was a waste of time,” one of the Americans said. He was dressed in a button-down shirt and tie, quite formal for Srinagar, but admirably crisp given the June heat.
“I don’t think he actually knows,” said the other, a shorter man in a khaki safari suit that Bagchee recognized as a uniform of U.S. embassy staff. “He’s just a kid.”
“My son is younger than he is, and he’s old enough to know his ass from a hole in the ground,” said button-down.
“Your son is an econ major at Stanford,” safari suit replied. “This guy’s a climbing bum. Like I said. Just a kid. Martens wouldn’t have told him squat about where Ferndecker’s money came from.”
“Even if she’s fucking him?”
“Even if. And Martens might not even know herself. Or care. She was just taking the old man for everything she could, no questions asked.”
“And that’s just it, isn’t it? .There won’t be any questions asked, at least not of Martens. Not for a long time.”
The two men smoked in silence for a moment, polluting the entire corridor. “Ferndecker doesn’t have any trouble talking,” safari suit said.
“No shit,” said button-down. “Not that it’s any help.”
“Not to him, but maybe to Martens. Hard to claim elder abuse when the victim says he was her boss, and when Martens and her boy toy are heroes for saving his ass.”
Button-down stubbed out his cigarette on the sole of his shoe, and let the butt fall on the floor. “Is it true you can’t get a drink in this town?” he asked.
“I know a place,” said safari suit, and they exited down the stairs, never once taking note of the middle-aged Indian on the bench in the hall.
Incredible, Bagchee thought as their footsteps faded. These people consider themselves the Leaders of the Free World. I could have been a bloody Soviet agent and they could have been discussing nuclear missiles. Whatever—all this was useful. And now it was his turn.
As it turned out, the interview did not go as smoothly as he had hoped. The first hint of trouble was the girl who intercepted him at the door to Trager’s room. She was small, dressed in a simple sari, but she had a commanding presence.
“Mr. Trager is not seeing any additional visitors today. He is quite fatigued and needs to prepare for travel.”
“And that is precisely why I must see him. I am Vasant Bagchee, his employer.”
“You are nothing of the kind. You are the one who dismissed him in New Delhi and would have stranded your own clients there last month.”
Bagchee was taken aback. “And who, may I ask, are you?”
“The person who ran Springtime in Kashmir,” Trager’s voice said from inside the room. “Let him in.”
The young woman glanced behind her, and Bagchee sensed that she might be as frustrated with Trager as she was with him. Nevertheless, she stepped back, and Bagchee was allowed to advance to Trager’s bedside. All considered, the climber did not look that bad. One leg was suspended in a cast, and his face was bruised and scarred with abrasions. But the young man was instantly recognizable. Good enough for Bagchee’s purposes. He had heard that Freya Martens was returned to Canada looking like a mummy.
“Ah! The hero of Ladakh . . . .” Bagchee began.
Trager cut him off. “Excuse me. This is Pratima Busco. Her father was the one who saved Springtime in Kashmir. I told you about her in Delhi.”
“Oh, yes,” Bagchee said. “So pleased to meet you.”
Not even Bagchee could pull it off. The fact was that forceful women from his own country intimidated him. With Freya Martens, he always had the upper hand. He could hold her foreignness against her. She could not possibly understand. She was too blond, too Canadian, too connected to the oppression of the British Empire. But this child knew more than Freya did. She had an Indian mother who had instilled in her truths that predated the Raj. The Vedic scholars had written that women should honor their men as gods. Wishful thinking on their part, Bagchee suspected. He was relieved when Pratima announced, “I am going to find a nurse,” and departed.
When she was gone, Bagchee said, “I have listened to your interview on All India Radio. This was very good. You told them exactly enough to please their audience, but not enough to incite further inquiries. And you have established yourself and Freya as the saviors of the Murghi Gompa.”
“Even though it’s our fault it burned down.”
“Not at all. The lamas in Darcha have said that the fire was due to a malfunctioning primus. The fact that it was being used to make tea for Mr. Ferndecker at the request of Freya Martens is sheer coincidence.”
“Still, the place is gone.”
“But it is not! The Ladakh Buddhist Association intends to rebuild Murghi Gompa. This time with a proper road and accommodations for tourists. And, I imagine, rather more safe cooking facilities. They are collecting funds already. The Dalai Lama has contributed. As have I. As will every travel organization that wants a chance at the Murghi Restricted Area once it is again open. You see, Freya’s dream is coming true.”
“Well, no, of course, not until she recovers."
"Without Freya. Her father tracked me down, and Sundown Busco managed to book a call to Canada."
"I see. Yes, that is unfortunate. But you are still here, and that is what we must talk about now.”
“Make it quick. I'm flying back to the States with Pratima’s family tomorrow. It’s going to take surgery to put this leg together, and your doctors don’t want to do it here. The recovery will take months.”
“But that is excellent,” said Bagchee. “Given your current fame, surely the government will extend your visa. And the doctors here are very good at repairing people. During the last war with Pakistan, they were doing it every day.”
“And what am I supposed to do here all this time?"
“Lead treks, of course! Well, obviously not on the ground. But as an adviser, your status as one of the heroes of the Murghi Gompa would make you invaluable as an addition to any trek prospectus. You could have tea with the clients on arrival, perhaps check in with them at base camp by radio.“
“No, I am quite serious. One could . . . .”
“And I’m serious. Get out. Of the room.”
“Just let me finish,” said Bagchee. "Achcha, you have had a rather extraordinary experience. You have sought to make a job of your holy pursuit of mountaineering, and found that this avocation is subject to economics as much as it is to gravity. This is hard-won learning. Why do you turn your back on it?"
"Just because something happened doesn't mean it should have happened. Are you talking karma again? My mother would be all over you. She'd say 'what's done is done,' and that would be it."
"Ah, but what is done is what is to be. There will be fresh cohorts of adventurers eager to sign up to see the Himalaya because you reminded them that it is there. There will be work for all.”
"For Lakpa Tsering, at least. He was here yesterday. It sounds like the Murghi II clients are yours and Max’s again.”
“Well, yes. They know nothing about our disagreements, only that they sent their fees to Holz Overseas Trekking. So it seemed prudent to resume operations. All we need is a leader. That, and a peak to climb.”
“Lakpa has the mountain. We talked about it. It’s in upper Sonjal.”
“I will speak to him about this presently. But there is still the matter of the leader.”
“Talk to Lakpa. He and Sonam are setting up their own business. I’m sure you can negotiate something.”
“These boys are a sirdar and a cook! They have no resources for establishing a business.”
“They’ve been saving. And they have my earnings from Springtime in Kashmir. I couldn’t take all those rupees out of India, so I gave it to them.”
“You did what? This is profligate! Irresponsible! You have totally ruined these boys! You are no leader at all!”
“Right,” said Trager. “I’m an investor.”
Bagchee went to the Srinagar airport to see Trager off. Lakpa came to push the wheelchair as far as the checkpoint. The Ladakh representative to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, showed up with a retinue of photographers. The three of them posed for pictures around Trager before Pratima, Sundown, and Kamala took him into security.
Once the travelers had passed through the gate, Bagchee took the opportunity to chat up the Lok Sabha representative. They conversed in English. The woman, wearing a traditional long robe and black apron, was gracious and friendly. Yet Bagchee knew that he was at a disadvantage, as would be Battarchaya, Viktor Axt, or anyone else from south of the Himalaya. Lakpa, standing silently to one side, was probably communicating more to his fellow Ladakhi in one glance than Bagchee could articulate in an hour.
Afterwards he strolled along the edge of a saffron field bordering the Srinagar airport. For Muslims it was the time of afternoon prayers, and he had given his Kashmiri driver a few minutes to prostrate himself toward Mecca on the airport lawn. The field was coming into bloom in hot orange colors, bright against the terraced hills and valley groves. A beautiful place, Kashmir, Vasant thought. The Moguls were right to move the capital here from Delhi every summer, but he would not want to have agented that trek. Modern Kashmir and its visitors were problem enough.
He hadn't counted on Trager entering the game so soon. It usually took longer with his type. In the event that the man actually healed, it would require some effort to bring him back in on Vasant's side. In the mean time, he had to deal with a Ladakhi who knew both the mountains and the Indian travel business. Bagchee would have preferred a leader with a little less insight. He began to walk back to his taxi, hoping the driver was not excessively devout. He picked up his pace as he saw a stranger bearing down on him from the direction of the terminal. Bagchee particularly did not want to deal with this hippie sort: a large man with a pack, outlandishly dressed in baggy pajamas, a Tibetan jacket, and a crudely-knit hillman's cap.
“Excuse me, Mr. Bagchee?"
Bagchee stopped in surprise. "Yes?"
"Found you! Fantastic! The hospital sent me to your houseboat, and the chowkidar sent me here. I'm looking for Ansel Trager."
"I am sorry, he has just now taken the plane to Delhi. Are you a friend?"
"I'm Harry Macintosh. I was on your company's trek last month."
Damn Trager. "I am so sorry, but this man has no connection with my company any more. If you have accounts to settle, you must see Trager himself."
"Then you know him. Great guy. Great trek leader, and I've been on a lot of treks. I just wanted to thank him for the last trip. Do you know where he was going?"
"I believe he is travelling to San Francisco with Mr. Busco and his daughter, also of your trek." He paused. "Your wife inquired at my office. She was keen to contact you. I understood there was some, well, unpleasantness on your trip."
"She was along, if that's what you mean. And I walked off with the ponies. I also have a bunch of equipment I need to give back.”
"Oh, that," Vasant laughed lightly. "I would be perfectly happy to take charge of the kit. I can give you a receipt."
"Well, maybe. Actually, I really want to see Trager. When I left I was just crazy because I thought he was fooling around with my wife. But you know what? It was the best thing that ever happened to me. By the time I got to Lunwali, I was enjoying myself. So I just kept going. Crazy, isn't it?"
"Oh, yes, most crazy," Bagchee agreed. "If we could just resolve this equipment matter . . . ."
"For the first time, I was just doing something at my own pace. And I had this feeling of, I don't know—freedom. Accomplishment. I saw what it must mean to you guys, always on your way, walking over mountains one after another, year after year. To be free like that—God, what a vision!"
Does no one understand his role in this world? Bagchee thought. I have listened to a destitute mountaineer talk about investments, and now I must suffer visions from a middle-aged adolescent. "I am most glad that your trip has come to a happy conclusion," said Bagchee. "I believe I can put you in touch with Mr. Trager at his mother’s home."
"That would be great. When I got to Manali, I realized I had to tell Trager what I understood. I thought, if this change my life, think of what it could do for others. I thought he might be interested in setting up some kind of business to work with people like me. People who really need to get away to straighten out their heads."
One could grow old trying to make sense of these people, Bagchee thought. This man is enslaved now as much by his enlightenment as he was by his silly wife. And that child Max, trapped in an adulthood he only pretended to enjoy. And poor Freya, so desperate to control a situation that would have surrendered to her of its own nature. They were perseverative to the point of valor. There was a certain heroic quality in this search to be other than they were. In any case, it was not his job to change them. Someone must do his duty.
"So you have walked afrom Upper Sonjal to Manali?" Bagchee asked. "The mountains must be spectacular."
"Oh, God, it's fantastic. I can show you. I found a lab in Manali that could develop my black and whites. Trager had me shoot a peak he wanted to climb, and I've got his prints. That's my dream now. To come back and climb that peak with him."
"Indeed? You have photographs of this?"
"Sure, let me show it to you. It's a beautiful, beautiful mountain."
Bagchee pretended to look at the photograph Harry Macintosh took out of his pack. What he really wanted to examine was the man. He noted the slack skin, evidence of fat recently lost. The mountaineering background was unknown. But there was stamina; that was proven.
"You must be quite fatigued," Bagchee said, concern in his voice. "There are people who have trekked the Himalaya for years who would not undertake such an expedition from Sonjal to Manali."
"Listen, I'd start again tomorrow if I had the chance."
Bagchee smiled, and tipped his head. "And your digestion, Mr. Macintosh? What of that?"