The following is the thirty-eighth of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is now in paperback, and available for *free* in various ebook formats including Kindle. The audiobook can be found at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog! The author also welcomes your comments.
On what was going to be Adam’s last Sunday in Banaras, he heard a knock on his door and rose to answer it. The receptionist told him a young woman wished to see him. Adam knew only one woman in Banaras and so was not surprised to find Malika waiting for him in the lobby.
“What’s the matter?” Adam asked.
Malika led him to a divan out of earshot of the reception area before speaking.
“Professor Lahiri died last night.”
Adam reached for Malika’s hand and took it between his palms. Words were superfluous. Time stopped. They were together with Lahiri.
Finally, Adam said, “What kind of service will be held?”
“Cremation along the Ganges. It’s being planned for tomorrow night. His students are coming from all over the country.”
”The Ganges? What about his ashes? Where will they …”
“He has no relatives, so the funeral is being organized by his students. They all know that he worked to clean up the Ganges. He asked several of us to make sure that his ashes do not add to the contamination.” Adam guessed what she had in mind.
“Kanchenjunga,” he said. “If it’s not inappropriate, I would like for us to go together.”
“That should be fine, if my mother goes along.”
“How do we take possession of the ashes?”
“I’ll put it to the student who’s in charge of funeral arrangements. His name is Narinder. All Lahiri’s students know what Kanchenjunga meant to him. I won’t be surprised if Narinder wants to come with us. What you can do is get an urn and a carrying case for the trip.”
The cremation was held the next evening at Manikarnika Ghat near the place on the Ganges where Hindus believe that Vishnu sat for fifty thousand years creating the world. Lahiri’s corpse was wrapped in a white shroud, with logs of aromatic sandalwood stacked around his reclining form. Because Lahiri had no sons, the pyre was lit by Narinder. It burned fiercely, casting its light on a throng of hundreds. When the fire began to subside, Narinder punctured the skull with a stick, and a rushing sound sent a gasp through the crowd. According to traditional Hindu beliefs, this was the moment when Lahiri’s enlightened soul was liberated from the cycle of rebirth, and took up eternal residence in nirvana.
Darjeeling lies about four hundred miles northeast of Banaras, and a mile and a half higher in elevation. The trip up the southern foothills of the Himalayan Range from the Ganges River Valley to Darjeeling is one of the world’s most awe-inspiring train journeys.
The final leg of the trip on the Himalayan Railway is via a nineteenth-century, narrow-gauge track that snakes upward through the foothills into the clouds to reveal a panoramic view of the surrounding snow-capped peaks.
All around Darjeeling lay the plantations whose tea made the mountain town known to the world. The air is a smoky blend of burning dung, yak butter, and fermenting tea leaves.
Across a steep valley nestled in the mountain kingdom of Sikkim, Mount Kanchenjunga towers over Darjeeling, a glittering white peak of perpetual snow that pierces the sky. Its vastness provides a lesson in humility. It was obvious why Lahiri regarded Kanchenjunga as a special mountain. As the sun set, Adam thought he heard the mountain whispering to him in a language he did not know. In the moonlight, Kanchenjunga seemed to stand sentinel over all that stood in its shadows.
Narinder had indeed decided to come, as had Malika’s mother. Adam had called ahead to book two rooms, one for the ladies and one for the men. Each room was equipped with a little coal-burning stove. After supper in the inn, they asked the hotel manager for advice on the best way to accomplish their mission. He offered to rent them a car and hire a driver who would take them into the nearby kingdom of Sikkim and part way up the mountain on special day-passes.
Early the next morning, with the urn on the backseat between Malika and her mother, the foursome set out. They had told the driver what they were looking for and he took them to the outskirts of a sunny mountain village at about twelve thousand feet with a view of the summit.
As they stood wondering what to do with the ashes, the wind rippled Malika’s sari and lofted the ends of her scarf toward the snowy peak. She took it as a sign and, with a scoop, released a portion of Lahiri’s ashes to the wind. By turns, they each scooped ashes into the updraft and watched as they were carried aloft toward the icy summit.
With Lahiri’s ashes falling like snowflakes on the upper slopes of Mount Kanchenjunga, Adam felt at peace. The railway that took them to the passenger trains bound for Banaras reminded him of the Dinky, which had so often carried him from idyllic Princeton into the real world. He smiled inwardly at the thought of Charlie, and wondered what Princeton’s “Siddartha” would make of his Himalayan adventure.
On the journey back, he wrote a newsy letter to his mother and Rowan. He knew Easter would be skeptical, but he told her he’d met a man in India from whom he’d learned more in a month than he had in the two years he’d spent in college.
When the train reached Banaras, Adam’s time with Malika would end. The following morning he was to leave for Pakistan. He had shared the most precious learning of his life with this young woman, and as their taxi drew up to her residence, his heart was full. They got out and faced each other to say goodbye. He took her hand in his.
“I don’t know if we’ll meet again,” Adam said, ‘but I do know I will never forget you.”
“I think it is our destiny to meet again,” she said. “You have my address. Please let me know where your quest takes you and what you learn from it. I wish you the very best, Adam.”