Author Lhundup Gyalpo has started mining a rich vein, which
promises much more in the future. The six stories cover a wide range
of human interactions in different parts of Ladakh
Visiting Ladakh recently, I came across ‘Betty’s Butter Tea,’ a book of short stories, released in 2019, just before the Covid interregnum overpowered our lives.
The stories in this compilation are all based on cross-cultural interactions between Ladakhis and people from outside Ladakh, mostly Westerners (‘chhirgyalpas’), and in one case, Indians (‘gygarpas’). The author, Lhundup Gyalpo, has started mining a rich vein, which promises much more in the future.
For, Ladakh remains a ‘Crossroads of High Asia,’ as once described by the veteran Janet Rizvi. The inevitable resumption of tourism post-Covid will churn up multiple interactions between people of different cultures. Travellers are prompted by some notion of self-discovery. Ladakh makes a suitable mirror for this exploration.
We do not have to be William Moorcroft, Csoma de Koros, Rupert Wilmot, Adolf Schlagintweit, or Otto Honigmann, to participate in this cultural feast. Ordinary Ladakhis are adepts at cultural exchange, as a result of a complex history of conflict, co-operation, and overlordship by Tibetan, Mughal, Kashmiri, Balti, and Dogra rulers.
While this is not the forum to discuss the six stories in this collection individually, they do cover a wide range of human interactions in different parts of Ladakh. Suffice it to say, the Ladakhi side is well-portrayed by a cast of entirely idiomatic and articulate local characters, even supported by Angmo the cow and Tundup the donkey. The outsiders, in contrast, have fantastic ambitions, are mostly dysfunctional (except for Betty who does learn to make Butter Tea), and are spectacular misfits in the Ladakhi landscape.
Such exotic Westerners make for huge cultural contrasts, much like the ‘Three Idiots’ breed of Indian tourists who are rampaging up and down Ladakh visiting the world’s highest motorable pass, looking for double-humped camels (a dying breed), and the picturesque rump of the ever-obliging, beyond-turquoise, endorheic Pangong lake.
I would venture to say these contrasts shock sufficiently for story-telling, but to paraphrase Macbeth, they are ‘tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ Nothing of value is produced by this disjointed, jarring cultural shock.
On the other hand, there are travellers (not tourists), who search for purpose in their journeys, bring something with themselves, and leave behind enduring changes in the landscape. Stories of life-changing experiences for Ladakhis and outsiders alike, stories of universal interest. Some of this kind of literature has been captured by travel writers like Raynor Winn (‘The Salt Path’), Mark Boyle (‘The Way Home’), Neil Ansell (‘Deep Country’), Guy Stagg (‘The Crossway’), and David Haskell (‘The Forest Unseen’). Living in the country, walking in the woods and along the seashore, observing nature in a mandala, and undertaking fantastic pilgrimages (in the genre of Camino de Santiago)…all different ways of examining the external world and eventually turning the spotlight inward.
I am thinking of a conservation group from the South which is helping insure livestock against snow leopard kills, another one working to convert ‘shandongs,’ or wolf traps, into stupas, of the pioneering linguist from Sweden, who created a local institution developing projects arising from deep ecological thinking, of the French film-maker who helped produce ‘The Shepherdess of the Glaciers’ with her Ladakhi partner, of another Frenchwoman (Ladakh has a ‘French connection’) who helped restore the thangkas of Matho Gompa, of the American woman spending the winter in Ladakh setting up an ice hockey program for girls…
Prof. Robert Vitali writes, ‘The highlands are ideal for detachment and harmony despite their harshness, a challenge for the few. Ways of life on the Tibetan Plateau select people to living conditions – various lifestyles – reserved for the chosen ones.’
A richer exchange, where both sides grow, using the trope of more discriminating travellers, could be the next generation of cross-cultural contact for the author to explore and narrate. Based in Leh, writing in English, and with pioneering ‘Betty’s Butter Tea’ under his belt, the author is perfectly poised to do so. With over 300,000 ‘gyagarpas’ visiting Ladakh this year, and Westerners set to return in 2022, watch this space for meaningful cultural interactions among the chosen ones.