The Salt Mosquito’s Bite: That Morning
There was the faintest brushing against skin: the Salt Mosquito wheeling itself into position. And then Dawa felt its bite.
He opened his eyes, held up his hand, and saw the tiniest spot of blood in the fleshy fold between thumb and forefinger. Beyond his hand, the village stream slogged silently westward, as if exhausted by its steep mountainside descent. The stream had to be rife with Salt Mosquito larvae. Why hadn’t he remembered that before coming here to meditate?
He examined the bite again. Dawa stood, iciness gripping his insides. If he had heard the older novices correctly, then only a day remained before he’d suffer a horrible death.
He was wasting time. No one out here could help him. Dawa hitched up his saffron robe, and dashed toward the mountain path and the gompa.
The Medicine Buddha: Half an Hour Later
Bhuti Drupon Kunchen opened his eyes at the same moment his favourite novice burst into the cell, making the yak butter lamps sputter and smoke.
‘What is it, Dawa?’
‘I’m going to die, Master.’
Kunchen nodded. ’We’re all going to die, Dawa. That is the nature of things.’
‘No, you don’t understand,’ said the novice, thrusting his hand under Kunchen’s nose. ‘Look. I’ve been bitten by a Salt Mosquito.’
Indeed, the lad had been bitten. He examined the small round weal on the novice’s hand. ‘A Salt Mosquito you say?’ It took all his years of training not to smile when he saw Dawa’s head bob. ‘And because of this bite, you’re going to die?’ Again the earnest head bobbing.
Six years ago, Dawa had been brought to the gompa by his mother. She had thought her eighteen-month-old a reborn lama, because instead of talking he recited prayers. After spending two days with the boy, Kunchen found that indeed little Dawa knew some prayers, but he also knew his mother’s recipe for gong’a momo and that she often called out to her dead husband, cursing him for leaving her all alone with a young child.
‘Do you talk in your sleep?’ he’d asked the mother.
‘Yes,’ the woman had said, wide-eyed. ‘My late husband often complained about it.’
‘Madam, your son is no reborn lama,’ Kunchen told her, ‘but he is indeed blessed with a sharp mind, perhaps with the mind of a future lama. If you agree, I would be glad to admit him and, when he’s old enough, make him a novice.’
Kunchen looked up at Dawa. He had been right about the boy. His mind was sharp and inquisitive, his memory phenomenal. But he was also prone to flights of fantasy, his youthful mind often making connections that weren’t there. He knew from his time teaching the other novices that as Dawa grew older and could better distinguish between right and wrong, these misconnections would diminish. Until then, and to avoid dissuading the boy from practising a skill that would soon benefit him—and the monastery—Kunchen was not prepared to tell Dawa that there was no such thing as a Salt Mosquito.
‘Sit down,’ said Kunchen. ‘Catch your breath and focus your full attention on your breathing.’ He got up and, with his back to Dawa, grinned.
With just four steps, Kunchen reached the far end of his cell and the columns of paper that he jokingly called his library. He lifted the upper third of the fifth column and grunted his satisfaction after locating the strip of scripture he was searching for.
About to tell Dawa to join him, Kunchen stopped himself.
The cell was still. The anxiety that had followed Dawa and made the air vibrate frenetically was gone. Kunchen shivered. Perhaps the boy’s mother was right.
Seated opposite him, Kunchen whispered the boy’s name. ‘Here,’ he said, passing the strip of stiff, creased paper with its blue script to Dawa. ‘Memorise the mantra, then repeat it one-hundred-and-eight times so that the Medicine Buddha’s energy will fill you. After the hundred-and-eighth recitation, you’ll be cured.’
He returned the novice’s bow and watched him shuffle away, Dawa’s attention already focused on the script. Just as he was closing the cell door, Kunchen called out, ‘Walk the pilgrim passageways during your recitation. And when you’re cured, bring back my scripture.’
Dusk: Ninety-Seven Recitations Later
‘What are you doing here?’ Namdon Rinzen asked, when he saw the novice standing on tiptoes to spin a prayer wheel. ‘Didn’t you hear the bell for evening prayers?’ Before the boy could answer, he snatched the strip of scripture from his hand. ‘What’s this?’
‘It’s a mantra that will fill me with the Medicine Buddha’s energy,’ replied the boy, seven years his junior. ‘I have to repeat it one-hundred-and-eight times before I can be cured.’
‘Cured of what?’ said Rinzen, unsure about standing so close to the novice. A look of guilt crossed the boy’s face. ‘Well? I’m waiting.’
‘I was bitten.’
‘A Salt Mosquito.’
Rinzen’s first instinct was to accuse the boy of eavesdropping. Some of the older ones often complained about the tiny novice standing just beyond the perimeter of their huddle, listening intently to their conversations.
Rinzen had first heard the story about the Salt Mosquito from his father. It told of how a terrorised village had prayed to Lord Buddha and asked him to rid them of a local bandit. Their prayer was answered when the bandit was bitten by a Salt Mosquito, and was found the next day transformed into a statue of salt. Overjoyed, the villagers tossed the statue into the river, and then danced on the riverbank as it dissolved.
There was only one thing for which Rinzen was grateful to his drunk of a father and that was his stories. Retelling them had made him popular with the other novices. Rinzen stared down at the boy whose face was far too serious for someone so young.
Perhaps this was the perfect opportunity for him to develop a story that was of his own making.
‘What’s your name?’ asked Rinzen.
‘Dawa, have you felt the Medicine Buddha’s energy yet?’
Dawa shook his head. ‘I still need to recite the mantra another eleven times.’
‘No, no, no. That’s far too late!’
Thin lines creased the boy’s forehead. ‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s evening, dusk, Dawa. Your last recitation should’ve been before dusk. The Medicine Buddha can’t help you now.’
Dawa’s lower lip quivered. ‘Really?’
‘I’m sorry, but yes.’ He caught Dawa by the shoulder as the younger novice began to turn. ‘Where are you going?’
‘To see Master Bhuti. I have to tell him what’s happened.’
‘No,’ said Rinzen. ‘No you don’t want to do that. There isn’t enough time.’ He pulled Dawa to his side and patted his shoulder reassuringly. ‘There’s little time, Dawa. If we’re to cure you, we have to leave now.’
The Goddess’ Most Devoted Disciple: An Hour Later
Reshma was furious. The three of them had come all the way from India, carried their dead sister back home for her sky burial, and this was all the thanks they got: a few scraps of bread, a little rice, and a whole lot of abuse.
‘They’ll get their comeuppance at their next rebirth,’ she muttered to herself, following the path down to the village that squatted beneath the gompa. She touched the silver brooch that fastened the free end of her sari to the left shoulder of her choli. ‘Bahuchara Mata,’ she prayed, ‘please make sure those bastards come back as dung beetles for being so disrespectful to one of your most devoted disciples.’
She sighed as she plodded on, her hand moving from the brooch to her chest, the tightening beneath it making her wince.
‘You’re right, Bahuchara Mata,’ she said.
She stopped for a moment and waited for the pain to subside. Closing her eyes, she let the cool air and the night’s insect chorus surround her. There was no point in losing her temper—it only sharpened the persistent ache.
When Reshma opened her eyes, she saw to her right the strangest thing. Away from the path, down the grassy slope, stood a small boy dressed in saffron robes. He stood behind a tethered beast that resembled a cross between a cow and a yak, his arm held out as if ready to catch one of its turds.
‘Hey,’ she called out. ‘Come away from that animal. You’ll get hurt.’ According to Roshan, her Tibetan was pretty good. But she wasn’t so sure when the boy didn’t budge. She let her bag slip from her shoulder and drop onto the grass. With both arms free, she left the path and sidled her way down the slope toward the idiot boy.
‘Just what do you think you’re doing?’ she asked when she reached him. ‘Didn’t you hear me calling to you?’
He couldn’t have been more than eight years old. Even in the flickering light of the village fires, she saw that he’d been crying. In his outstretched right hand, which was being supported by his left, was a clay bowl.
‘I need her pee,’ said the boy. ‘Otherwise I’ll die.’
Reshma and her sisters had been on the receiving end of numerous pranks. But there was something about this boy, a something that over the years she’d lost. It made her think twice about telling him that he’d been duped.
‘Here,’ she said, holding out her hand and waving. ‘Give me the bowl. I’ll hold it while you explain what’s going on.’
‘Thank you,’ said the boy, and handed her the bowl.
‘Now, Little Monk,’ Reshma said, her heart twisting at how pathetic he sounded, ‘go and sit down over there and tell me what’s happened.’
What she heard confirmed her doubts about the gompa. That an older novice could behave so wickedly toward such a sweet little boy didn’t surprise her after the reception she’d received.
So what was she going to do now? She didn’t really want to go back up there, and besides, the others were waiting for her, most likely fraught with worry.
‘I think you’d better come with me,’ Reshma said.
‘But what about the cow’s pee?’
What is it they teach those boys? she wondered. Beckoning him over with her free hand, she said, ‘Come here so I can show you something.’
The little monk did as he was told.
‘You shouldn’t believe everything that Rinzen boy tells you.’
The little monk looked up at her, his eyes black orbs in the firelight, the gap between his eyebrows creased. ‘Why?’
She led him around to the side of the beast, which cast them a lazy glance.
‘That,’ Reshma said, pointing, ‘is a pizzle. Cows don’t have pizzles, they have udders between their legs. Your friend Rinzen can’t tell a cow from a bull.’
The little monk regarded the bull for the longest time, making Reshma twitchy to get back to the others. Again he looked up at her with those mournful eyes.
‘Does that mean I’m going to die?’
Reshma knelt and even then had to lean forward so that her eyes were level with his. ‘No, Little Monk, not yet. Not for the longest time.’
‘But what about the Salt Mosquito’s bite?’
To Reshma, this poor little boy sounded as if he’d been cursed. She and her sisters knew a thing or two about a curse’s power. Since it was believed that the presence of her kind at weddings and births brought good luck, so it followed that a Hijra’s curse brought calamity. It was all that prevented others’ insults from escalating into violence.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked.
‘Dawa, I’m Reshma.’ She stroked the top of his stubbled head. ‘Come with me. I know a way that will rid you of that terrible bite.’
The Jealous But Devoted Disciple: An Hour Later
‘What were you thinking?’ whispered Chaman. ‘You said you were going to get some food and you come back with another mouth to feed. There’s hardly enough here to feed the four of us, let alone that boy.’
‘His name’s Dawa.’
‘I don’t care if he’s the Dalai Lama, Reshma. You shouldn’t have brought him here.’
‘But he’s scared and he needs our help.’
Chaman sighed. Coming here had been a mistake. The cost of the boat that took them along the Indus and west into Tibet had been exorbitant. And now they were down to their last paisa, and Reshma had gone and shoved them deeper into the mire.
No one had loved Roshan more than Chaman, but she would never have made such an unrealistic promise as a sky burial in Tibet. A cremation ghat in Dheli would have sufficed.
But then she wasn’t their guru.
‘Look, Chaman,’ Reshma said, ‘it’s just for tonight. By now they’ll have noticed he’s missing, so we’ll have to take him back first thing in the morning. Anyway, he’s a novice. Roshan once told me that monks don’t eat after midday.’
‘And that makes it all right for you to bring him here?’
‘I told you, Chaman, he needs our help.’
After Reshma had described the boy’s predicament, Chaman said, ‘And how exactly are we supposed to cure him of this delusion?’
‘How many bhang gholis do we have left?’
‘Are you mad?’ exclaimed Chaman. She glanced toward the far end of the cave. Rangui and Mina, who’d been fussing over the boy, stared at her. ‘Are you suggesting we drug him?’ she whispered to Reshma. ‘Have you lost your mind?’
Reshma shook her head. ‘Of course not. We give him no more than a quarter of a pill, enough to make him believe his bite has been cured.’
The idea didn’t sit well with Chaman. She had seen Reshma crush three, sometimes four, of the potent pills and then add the powder to her drink before they danced. And since it was almost a year to the day that Reshma had suffered her first heart attack, Chaman had learned to recognise the disappointment in her guru’s eyes.
Reshma no longer saw Bahuchara Mata when she danced.
‘There’s something about this boy,’ Reshma said. ‘I don’t know what it is, but I do know he needs our help.’ She reached out and firmly squeezed Chaman’s hand. ‘He truly believes he’s going to die. We have to convince him otherwise. Roshan’s death was my fault. I don’t want another on my hands.’
‘Reshma, you chutiya.’ She placed her other hand on top of Reshma’s. ‘Roshan died of malaria. There was nothing you could do to prevent it. It wasn’t your fault.’ She patted Reshma’s hand. ‘How long have you and I been friends?’
‘Fifteen, sixteen years.’
‘Seventeen, Reshma. Seventeen. And you’ve been my guru for twelve of them. Sometimes, to be honest, I think you’re an idiot. But I’ve never doubted you, never doubted that I should be the one to follow and you the one to lead us. I’ve always been jealous of you, Sister, of how easy you make it seem to care for us and protect us. Believe me, Reshma, please believe me, my guru, when I tell you that it wasn’t your fault.’
Reshma smiled as she swallowed and blinked. She coughed before saying, ‘Then you’ll help me?’
‘Of course I will, you, you double chutiya.’
Bahuchara Mata: Midnight
Dawa sat beside Rangui and watched how the lantern light caused shadows to dart and jump across the ceiling of the cave. It wasn’t difficult to like her. She was pretty, like her green sari with its gold oleanders, and her smile was infectious, unlike the square-jawed Chaman, who seemed very unhappy and angry with Reshma. How was it possible to be so angry with someone who looked so sad?
Dawa wasn’t sure he liked Chaman, a woman with the hairiest shoulders he’d ever seen.
The woman dressed in a turquoise sari, Mina, said something terse to Rangui.
‘Oh,’ said Rangui. ‘Most sorry, Reverend Sir. Mina tell, stop touching head. You get pain in head.’
He looked up at Rangui and gave her his best smile. ‘I don’t mind,’ he said.
‘Aiyee,’ said Mina, followed by something he couldn’t understand. She reached out with her great slab of a hand and pinched his cheek, all the while grinning and waggling her head. ‘Māmūlī ādamī, māmūlī ādamī,’ she kept repeating in a voice-breaking pitch that made Rangui giggle.
Dawa looked past Mina to see Reshma and Chaman approaching. To his relief, Chaman no longer looked angry, but Reshma still looked sad.
‘Little Monk,’ said Reshma, kneeling before him. ‘My sisters and I are going to dance so that we can summon the goddess Bahuchara Mata to help you.’
‘A goddess?’ Dawa said.
Reshma nodded. A thin, sad smile tugged the corners of her lips. She took off the brooch she wore and handed it to him.
It was a thin piece of silver, skilfully crafted, showing in relief a woman sitting sidesaddle upon a large rooster.
‘Bahuchara Mata,’ said Chaman, and tapped the silver woman.
‘The rooster is her vehicle,’ said Reshma. ‘It symbolises innocence.’
Dawa ran his finger around the outline of the brooch, unsure of how a rooster might represent such a quality.
‘It’s very beautiful,’ said Reshma.
Dawa nodded. ‘Why are you sad, Reshma?’
Reshma patted the side of his face, a thin waft of rosewater reaching Dawa’s nose.
‘Roshan, our sister who died recently, made that. She lived here in Tibet and worked for her father as a silversmith, until Chaman found her and helped her to become one of us. She made that for me . . . for her guru.’
‘Is that why you’re sad, because Roshan died?’
‘A little,’ Reshma said.
Chaman leaned forward and held out a steel cup. ‘Pēya,’ she said, offering Dawa the cup.
‘She wants you to drink, Dawa. Summoning the goddess will be thirsty work.’
He exchanged the brooch for the cup, and then drank the sickly-sweet liquid.
‘Very good, Little Monk,’ said Reshma, taking the cup from him. ‘While Rangui and Chaman play, Mina and I will dance. And while we dance, you must recite the goddess’ name. Can you do that?’
‘Bahuchara Mata,’ Dawa said, making sure to match Chaman’s pronunciation. He said it again when he saw how Reshma smiled.
He watched while Mina and Reshma prepared themselves. First they took a drink from their own steel cups, and then they adjusted their hair and saris, while brushing the cave floor with their bare feet. Meanwhile, Chaman, who’d disappeared behind Dawa, returned carrying two drums, one of which she handed to Rangui.
As he turned his head, Dawa felt a delightful giddiness.
‘Ready, Reverend Sir?’ said Rangui.
Dawa nodded, the pleasant whirling making him grin.
It was Chaman who started the chanting as she slowly drummed. Rangui then joined her, a drumbeat behind Chaman’s. Both drummers nodded their approval when Dawa joined them.
‘Bahuchara Mata,’ the three of them sang, as Mina and Reshma began to twirl to the rhythm of their drums, Mina in time with Rangui’s drumming, Reshma with Chaman’s.
As he sang the goddess’ name, Dawa felt his body rock forward and back in time with the accelerating drumbeats, just as Reshma and Mina spun around and around, their wrists twisting from side to side, fingers opening and closing, closing and opening. Soon, their movements blurred and then coalesced until their outlines were each replaced by a colour: Mina’s turquoise and Reshma’s sunflower yellow.
Dawa continued to chant until, like the pulsing colours before him, it became a continuous drone of ‘Bhaamaaabhaamaabhaamaa.’ The giddiness he’d initially felt had changed. Now it was as if his insides were a whirlpool, just like the ones he saw when he plunged a foot into the river before bathing.
Though they both shared the same axis, it took him a moment to decide whether it was he or the world that revolved so swiftly.
In that exact moment Dawa made his decision, a brightness flooded his mind and a sublime stillness swaddled him.
. . .
‘Dawa. Open your eyes.’
. . .
‘Your eyes, Dawa, open them.’
‘Yes. Now open your eyes.’
‘Bahuchara Mata, Bahuchara Mata.’
‘Bahuchara Mata, Bahuchara Mata, Bahuchara Mata.’
‘Open your eyes. Please, Dawa.’
‘Bahuchara Mata, Bahuchara Mata, OW!’
Dawa opened his eyes, raised his hand and saw a red bead swelling in the space between thumb and forefinger. Beyond his hand he saw a woman. He reached out, hoping to touch the haloed face before him. She smiled beatifically, her eyes shining as brightly as the holy light emanating from her head. She smelled faintly of rosewater.
‘Dawa,’ she said, leaning forward so that his fingers brushed her face. ‘Look at me, Dawa.’
‘Did you take out the poison?’ asked Dawa, a thick drowsiness making his hand feel heavy. ‘Is that why I’m bleeding?’
‘Yes,’ said the woman. She smiled and nodded once.
‘Thank you, Bahuchara Mata.’
Dawa yawned and closed his eyes.
The Goddess’ Sting: Nineteen Years Later
Dawa rubbed his stubbled chin. At the same time, the dog settled onto its haunches and stared up at him, its ribbony tongue lolling over one side of its open mouth. It was the same mangy dog as the one that wandered the gompa’s yard and waited outside the kitchen for scraps. What was it doing down here in the village?
He felt something tumble against the side of his almsbowl.
‘Thank you,’ said Dawa and looked up.
She was not a villager, and unlike them, she smiled at him. He thought he recognised that smile, the pretty face, but could place neither.
‘For you, Sayadaw,’ she said, smiling mischievously before turning.
‘Wait,’ he called, but she had disappeared among a group of pilgrims that hurried through the village, all eager to start their long journey home.
Dawa reached into his bowl and pulled out a square package wrapped in green silk. Turning the package over in his hand, he saw that the gold embroidered pattern was an oleander.
The woman had called him sayadaw, the title used for a senior monk. Though he’d been ordained earlier than most, he was still too young for such an august title, which probably explained her smile. He pocketed the package and then focused on his breath. It wouldn’t do to return to the gompa just yet. There were more blessings to give and alms to collect.
With his almsbowl half full, Dawa allowed himself a wider stride as he trod the path back up to the gompa, the mangy dog trotting close behind. When he was sure that he and the dog were alone on the chalky path, he whispered, ‘Rangui,’ and then smiled. Slipping his hand into the pocket of his robe, he gave the box a single squeeze.
They parted company after Dawa reached the kitchen and delivered the day’s alms. The dog, seated beside the doorway, its tail sweeping the ground with anticipation, didn’t give him a backward glance.
Sitting in his cell, before two yak butter lamps, Dawa unwrapped the box made of fragrant sandalwood. As soon as he opened it, he recognised the brooch. Though the silver seemed thinner, its edges smoother than when he’d first held it, he recognised the goddess and her rooster. Pressed into and against the lid of the box was a square of paper, which he retrieved and unfolded. Written with a neat Devanagari script, its message read:
Our sister, your friend, Reshma, has passed on. Though it was her wish that I keep her brooch of our beloved Bahuchara Mata, I want you to have it.
Reshma often talked about her Little Monk. There are twelve of us now, and each new sister knows the story of how the Little Monk helped her to find her way back to the goddess. She would hand them the brooch, The Goddess’ Sting Reshma named it, before describing how she used it to waken you, and then how, after you finally opened your eyes and looked into hers, you saw Bahuchara Mata.
Please understand, Dawa, that a Hijra’s life is a hard one. Misunderstood often and despised by the majority, our only protection is our faith in one another and our goddess. In helping Reshma return to Bahuchara Mata, you returned my sister to me, and you strengthened her weakening heart in more ways than you can know.
That is why I want you to have The Goddess’ Sting.
I hope that we meet again, if not in this life, then perhaps in the next.
Your friend always,
Dawa held up the brooch and examined its underside. He pressed a fingertip against the pin’s ever-so-slightly bent point, which protruded just beyond the hooked clasp.
He placed The Goddess’ Sting back in its box, together with the letter, and then, using the fabric that once belonged to Rangui’s green and gold oleander sari, he rewrapped the sandalwood box.
Dawa bowed, silently mouthed a prayer for Reshma and then got up to leave his cell.
He must have been smiling throughout the five minutes it took to walk from his cell to the steward’s office, because he found that his cheeks ached when he tapped on the door.
‘Come in,’ said a voice on the other side of it.
Dawa entered to see a monk hunched over a low table, entering numbers onto a sheet of paper divided into columns.
‘Can I help you?’ said the monk, without looking up.
‘I received a gift that I may not keep,’ said Dawa. He held out the package. ‘It is now the monastery’s property.’
The monk looked up. ‘Dawa? Good morning.’
‘Good morning, Rinzen.’
The monks shared a smile.
‘So what’s that you’ve got there?’
‘I think you’ll find this of particular interest,’ said Dawa. ‘And there’s quite a story to it.’
‘Really?’ said Rinzen. He put down his stylus. ‘Please, Dawa, sit.’
Dawa watched as Rinzen unwrapped the box, opened it and took out the brooch. The monastery’s steward examined it and then regarded Dawa, an eyebrow cocked. ‘What is it?’
‘It’s called The Goddess’ Sting,’ said Dawa, grinning. ‘And it’s the only known cure for the Salt Mosquito’s bite.’