Perspectives from the Himalaya

O’dark Hundred Hours

We have been rooted to the earth in a way in which that hour between dusk and dawn awaits for quiet, for rest and recuperation. Time seems to stop. But at the darkest hour, the throbbing that hums beneath our feet surfaces above the tranquillity. For the nocturnal, it is an opening of portals to mischief and play, an opportunity to listen to the shadows that stalk the twilight, the hooting of the camouflaged owl and the snuffling of hungry hedgehogs. When the sound of silence plays its first notes, a chord of dark grips the hour with a kind of unsung lullaby that rocks the baby to sleep, akin to the rolling of waves being washed ashore in sequences, some of a longer melodic passage at a higher pitch and the next a lower pitch, but always with regular and constant effect that never ceases, and never the same. It just pulsates with the earth’s cycle, a quiet rhythm of assuming everything.

It is a gorgeous hour. And numbing and humbling all at once.

When dawn hits the soft white peaks and paints the Annapurna into a palette of mandarin and tangerine, the luminosity of the winter glow shades an ancient phenomenon that is older than time. An icy wind rises and fades away. A single leaf blowing across the terrace comes to rest on the grey tiles of the verandah. And there is something in the silence. Perhaps an absence of the last flutter of tired wings of phototactic moths lying beneath the light bulbs with their life force stripped away as the dark fades into light.

The murmur of morning stirs from slumber. A fluffed-up bird with a forked tail calls out to another. A solitary grasshopper pokes into a shoe. A fuzzy caterpillar huddles closer into the warmth of an underside curled leaf. A cluster of buds punctuates through the leaf axils of wild aiselu shrubs, promising wild Himalayan golden berries in the coming spring.

The boys awake with wafts from the kitchen that is not routinely recognisable. Little A was the first to poke his head in to see rings of chunky doughnuts that are about to slip into a wok of hot oil. Baby A sat himself on the breakfast table adamant to have the first bite. Big A was the last to arrive with a big grin spreading across his face. Mama I was not the kind who would meddle with recipes that called for deep frying but after two years of surviving on dahl baht, anything tastefully different sounds fine. More importantly, on seeing how much excitement doughnuts could bring to the table and how bright the boys’ eyes could light up, she vows that she will be making them again. Aunt S fried them up perfectly and Mama I could not believe that she was stirring up white confectioners sugar and cinnamon to dress the doughnuts.

Three contented boys wolfed down their breakfast. The crust was crisp and the soft texture inside was a lovely contrast. It is a recipe for keeps. Doughnuts without yeast and without the hassle of waiting for the dough to rise in winter is a quick fix for peckish o’clock.

Since the move into our home with Uncle R, Aunt S and Baby A and with a generous amount of kitchen space in comparison to our previous make-shift kitchen, meals have been a tad more varied. We have had momos with Szechuan dip, falafel and hummus, aloo herb paratha, pakoda with spicy hemp tomato chutney, luxuriously creamy spaghetti and a cake cooked in a pressure cooker topped with thick unadulterated cream, fresh from the udder of our neighbour’s buffalo. Something should be commended about pressure cooker cakes. Overshadowed by the bake versions, the steam ones are pressured into retaining moisture stunningly and the texture is madly soft. Often limited to ingredients and kitchenware, we make do with what we can find and with a little tinkering here and there, something happens. Not always composed but a welcome to the taste buds.

Big A celebrates his 11th birthday with chocolate pomegranate cake and a solid stack of new books from Kathmandu. He was over the moon when Pilgrim Book House had all the books he called for since he is often disappointed with what is available where we are. He is growing up fast, having to adapt to a foreign, rural and more basic environment, and having to be a big brother to two younger ones. Baby A has an attachment to Big A and that being so, Big A quickly picks up a wider dimension of responsibility keeping an eye on the little energetic mischief. He offers washing up the dishes, tends to the vegetable plots and helps maintain the kitchen compost. Things are beginning to shape up for the pre-teen.

Rooting into hibernation, there is also a sense of rootlessness camouflaging in o’dark hundred hours, sneaking to discover the world through the pages of tree dust and pulp, waiting for the instant when all light slips out and twilight comes save for that spotlight from the box lamp, making still a little light in the dark. Now, and just for now, there remains yet another kind of life. A life drawn back in time, a decade and a half ago, back to the drawing board, keyboard screen and the clicky plastic rodent that left me with a jaded dose of RSI, a dose large enough to pack it all up thinking that, that was the closing of a chapter. But life has its ways of circling back to find one in unexpected ways. To nip you in the butt just when comfort is settling in. I stare at the familiar black screen on the latest v.2022 CAD-ing up lines that would soon metamorphose in the physical, a throw away from the bedroom window with the Jumla boys muscling their way through the foundations. Although with much hesitation and anxiety at the beginning and after a couple of hours swooning on a much improved version, muscle memory kicks in and it feels like I am once again a seated figure in an office amidst a swarm of other seated figures, up close and personal with the screen and clicking away on a ticking schedule fusing day and night and night and day. Only this instant, catching up with lost time, we are working for ourselves with a very tight budget and against the clock knowing that the days are numbered before I transpire into Mama I again, detached from the environment that was once upon a time, my bread and butter.

For the third winter in Astam, we are grateful that the Jumla boys are with us again to get us through the completion of The Project. Through thick and thin, through the play of Covid, through the cold winters and buzzing springs, through countless shovelling and sieving of sand, pickaxing and clearing of the grounds, through the manual act of bending tonnes of reinforcement steel bars by hand, through wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of loading and unloading rocks, gravel, sand, clay, cement and cheeky little boys, ramming and jamming aggregate into monolithic stone walls, and through rounds of footballs and volleyballs that have been kicked into the forest and never retrieved, they never seem to expire in strength. Without them, we cannot conceive how The Project could have moulded itself the way it has.

When the ray of dusk falls on the soft white peaks and transforms it into a spectrum of pink and lilac, the luminosity of the winter glow shades an ancient phenomenon once again, that is older than time.

Day falls into slumber.

And the shadow of the dark hour awakens.

As life gradually retreats, an unexpected crash of thunder from the ground rolls in. The awakened motor of the concrete mixer pierces through the air, restraining quiet from setting in. The rotating drum groans as cement, water, sand and gravel tumble into the seeming void. The agitated mixture brings on a rhythmic rumbling and as the spiral blade slices through the aggregate, an insipid ashen amalgam begins to form. More water is added and the rumbling becomes a tumbling. The hour ticks hurriedly as the mixture binds with compliance, whipped by the blade until a thick consistent texture materialises. The lever is manoeuvred with deft hands and the amalgam is poured into waiting wheelbarrows in queue. Legs shuffle on toward the excavated trenches to tip the thick concrete into 6 feet footings, rooting the reinforcement bars and stones into an embedded and petrified foot resembling that of a mammoth’s. The dark hour gives no mercy and vision blackens into a thick night. The Jumla boys tidy up quickly and withdraw into their accommodation for a hot meal.

A figuration surface and prods onto the disturbed landscape. Deep roots from the past become uprooted and in place, a mammoth’s foot takes over. Looking at the unknown in the face, a little angst creeps from the coccyx and ominously snakes its way through the curve of the lumbar, spreading its cold through the thoracic and a shudder through the ribs.

A sigh transpires.

Then a pause.

It is the hour to recoil to the hearth of the earth.

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