A Baby in  a Backpack to Bhutan

An Australian family in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

 

 

 

Bunty Avieson

Bunty Avieson worked for twenty years as a journalist on newspapers and magazines in Australia and Britain. She was Editor of Woman’s Day and Editorial Director of New Idea, winning three Magazine Publishers Association Awards. She is also a Williamson Fellow (1999).

 

In 2000 Bunty took up fiction writing full time. Her first novel, Apartment 255, won two Ned Kelly Crime Writing Awards and has been translated into German and Japanese. She has written two other novels, The Affair and The Wrong Door.

 

Bunty lives with her partner and daughter, dividing her time between Sydney and India.

 

buntyavieson@bigpond.com

 

Also by Bunty Avieson

 

Apartment 255

The Affair

The Wrong Door

 

 

 

First published 2004 in Macmillan by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Limited

St Martins Tower, 31 Market Street, Sydney

 

Copyright © Bunty Avieson 2004

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in

any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,

recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior

permission in writing from the publisher.

 

National Library of Australia

Cataloguing-in-Publication data:

 

Avieson, Bunty.

A baby in a backpack to Bhutan: An Australian family

in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

 

ISBN 1 40503582 X.

 

1. Avieson, Bunty - Journeys - Bhutan. 2. Australians Bhutan - Biography. 3. Bhutan - Description and travel. 4. Bhutan - Social life and customs. I. Title.

915.498

Papers used by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd are natural, recyclable

products made from wood grown in sustainable forests. The manufacturing

processes conform to the environmental regulations of the country of origin.

 

Typeset in 13 pt Granjon by Midland Typesetters

Map by Laurie Whiddon

Printed in Australia by McPherson’s Printing Group

 

 

This is dedicated with much love and affection to those luminous women of Taba – Karma Yangki, Phuntsho Wangmo, Karma Chokyi and Wesel Wangmo.

 

And to Kathryn Rose – you make everything so much fun.

 

Contents

 

Acknowledgements

Map of Bhutan

Prologue

 

1: A New Life

2: Two Becomes Three

3 :The Muncles

4: Men of Magic

5 :The House of Many Mothers

6: Oh Glorious Luminosity

7: The Beast and the Oracle

8: Lady Muck

9: Yak, Yak, Yak

10: The Talk of Thimphu

11: Twelve Eminent Men

12: The Wrap Party

13: Leather Stew

14: A Very Special Lady

15: Back for More Yak

16: Farewell

 

Further reading

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

With heartfelt thanks to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and all his monks at Bir, Pema Wangchuk and the Siddhartha’s Intent household in Delhi, Sogyal Rinpoche, Mani Dorji and Tenzin Wangdi in Thimphu, Douglas Mills for his Tibetan translations, Linda Smith, Sandra Lee, Tom Gilliatt, Karen Penning, Sharon Metzl, Selwa Anthony and the very gorgeous Mal Watson.

 

 

 

Map of Bhutan

 

 

Prologue

 

THIMPHU, BHUTAN

2 AUGUST 2003

 

It’s 5 pm on a Saturday afternoon. Monsoon rains are hammering on the roof of the marquee, the air is steamy and I’m quietly drowning in sweat inside my kira, a thick, heavy piece of woven cloth that is so tightly wrapped around me I can hardly breathe. In front of me sit the Queens of Bhutan, four elegant and beautiful sisters who are all married to the country’s ruler, the Dragon King.

Beside me, my partner Mal is exhausted and relieved. The movie he produced has just had its world premiere, here in Thimphu, Bhutan’s tiny capital. Travellers & Magicians has been given the royal nod and at this genteel post-premiere reception he can finally relax.

Cavorting happily in the rain in front of the royal entourage is our eighteen-month-old daughter Kathryn, stumbling about on the grass in her miniature kira. It is the country’s national costume, which by law the Bhutanese women must wear, and out of respect, we do also. While she looks cute, I look like a round multicoloured keg.

One of the Queens turns her head and exchanges pleasantries with Mal and me. It is one of the few occasions that we can look Her Majesty in the eye without being considered rude.

In this unique little kingdom nestled in the Himalayas, royal protocol normally forbids such intimacy. I have heard many funny stories of drivers who, spotting a royal car on the road ahead, have driven into fields and rice paddies as they dutifully lowered their gaze. The reverence the people feel for their first family is extraordinary. The Royals are considered a national treasure.

The King has decreed that Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product. And that’s how his people live. For many, life is a struggle, yet they remain remarkably content and happy. It is a little pocket of sanity in a world gone mad.

It seems like just a minute ago that I was Editorial Director of an Australian weekly women’s magazine. It was a crazy, hyper world of celebrity gossip and glamour, big money and even bigger egos. And I loved every mad minute of it.

Interrupting my thoughts, a handsome waiter with feline eyes and angular cheekbones (and wearing what looks suspiciously like an orange tartan dressing gown) offers me another yak hors d’oeuvre. The Queen engages me in polite conversation, saying kind things about my daughter as she frolicks in front of us, wet but happy.

This is about as far away from that Sydney magazine office

– and all the corporate brouhaha that went with it – as I could possibly get without actually leaving the planet. By some fortunate set of circumstances that I never saw coming and wouldn’t have dared even imagine, I have arrived here, at this enchanting moment, in Shangri-la.

 

 

1

 

A New Life

 

 

MAY 2000

 

I meet Malcolm Watson at an inner-city cafe in Sydney on a blind date. Sort of. Mal lives mostly in India but is currently home visiting his family. He works as an architect on projects for an international charitable organisation and was coproducer of the delightful multi-award-winning movie The Cup – about soccer-mad monks in a Tibetan monastery in India. A friend, aware of my growing interest in Buddhism, thinks I might find him helpful and so she organises dinner at her place. Half an hour before we are due, she phones to say she’s ill and will have to postpone. I suggest she gives Mal my number and that the two of us can go out somewhere for dinner. She phones back to say he’s shy and would rather we rescheduled. Used to running my personal life like my professional life, I take down his number and phone him.

‘I know you’re free for dinner, well so am I. How about it?’

He has the grace to say yes.

I choose an inexpensive Nepalese restaurant in the inner city, figuring it’s probably the sort of place he will like. I arrive on time and wait, the only person in the room, watching the door for someone with a beard and sandals, maybe beads, and possibly smelling of incense.

Mal is nothing like the hippy I am expecting. He is clean shaven, conservatively dressed in jeans and an open-neck shirt, and wears leather shoes with laces. Arriving at my table, he takes one look around the deserted restaurant and says he knows a much better place – a groovy Italian bistro in Darlinghurst.

We decamp there and I trot out all my questions about Buddhism – karma, reincarnate lamas, personal gurus and so on – all the things I just can’t get my Anglican-educated head around. He doesn’t directly answer a single one. I come at him from five different ways which, as a journalist, I’m used to doing. He sidesteps them all so neatly that I don’t even realise until we are two steps past.

Dinner is pleasant enough anyway and we agree to meet for lunch the following Saturday. This time I avoid all the vegetarian haunts of inner Sydney and suggest a little spot overlooking a park. We move from the restaurant to my apartment and talk non-stop for sixteen hours, about anything and everything. He leaves at 5 am just as the sun is rising, and we shake hands, rather formally, at my front door. It’s only as I watch him walk up the driveway that I realise he still hasn’t answered any of my questions about his personal Buddhist path.

I think he’s funny, pretty laidback, and probably the most fascinating man I’ve ever met. Even after so much talk, I feel like we haven’t finished our conversation. He feels the same and delays his return to India. We see each other every evening for the next ten days.

I’d been planning a two-week holiday in America with friends. Mal says, ‘Cancel that, come to India. I’ll show you around.’ May is such a lovely time of year to see the country, he tells me.

Of course! Why not? I’ve known you for a nanosecond.

I’m astounded that I say yes. But three weeks after meeting Mal, I’m in the doctor’s office getting vaccinations.

‘Where are you going?’ asks the Indian cabbie who drives me to Sydney Airport.

‘Delhi.’

‘You’re crazy! No-one goes to Delhi in May – it’s the hottest time of the year. People leave Delhi. I’m from Delhi and tomorrow I’m coming back to the airport to pick up my mother. Every year at this time she comes to Sydney to get away from the heat . . .’

I decide this is further proof that all men lie during courtship.

 

When I get off the plane amid the chaos of Delhi Airport, my courage deserts me – what the hell am I doing here, meeting a man I hardly know? I stand in limbo at the customs gate. Outside is a sea of faces and colour and noise. I can’t go back and my feet just won’t propel me forward. I’m suddenly very embarrassed and shy. What if he isn’t out there ... worse still, what if he is? Will I even recognise him?

People push past me, eager to get to their families, and are absorbed into the crush of bodies ringing the customs exit. My high-pressure world of magazine publishing suddenly seems very sane. I would rather be facing manic deadlines and hysterical publicists than get sucked into this frightening vortex.

With great reluctance I push my trolley through the gates and stop, mesmerised by all the faces. It appears as if the whole population of Delhi is crowded into the arrivals hall. But I’m lucky. At just under two metres, Mal stands head and shoulders above the rest. He’s also blond, which is enormously helpful. I make my way to him and he wraps me in a bear hug. I think it just might be okay.

Delhi is even worse than the driver had predicted. I feel like I’m standing at the door of an open pizza oven. By day the temperature reaches an unbearable 47 degrees Celsius; at night it drops down to a still unbearable 30 degrees. I can’t breathe. I have no energy. The moment I walk outside the air-conditioned hotel I’m drenched with rivulets of sweat on my back, my arms and in my eyes.

The people of the city limp through May and June in a kind of mindless stupor. Rickshaw drivers don’t work in the middle of the day but instead take a nap by the side of the road at the street intersections. Anyone who can afford to flees the city, mostly heading for the hills. Mal suggests we do the same.

 

We catch an overnight train to Bir, a Tibetan refugee settlement of about 3000 people nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, north of Delhi. This is where Mal spends most of his time while in India.

Though born in Sydney, Mal has worked for Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and his charitable organisation Siddhartha’s Intent for more than a decade, overseeing the building of retreat centres and monasteries in Canada, India and Bhutan as well as co-producing Rinpoche’s 1999 film The Cup. The movie was made here in Bir, and Mal continues to be involved in an ongoing project designing various monastery buildings for Rinpoche.

Bir is truly the most magical place, although it shares the frustrations of any city in India – intermittent electricity, garbage and plastic bags strangling the waterways, inadequate sanitation, stray diseased dogs that fight and bark all night, poor telecommunications, corrupt Indian officials, desperate poverty, heat and disease.

But despite all the chaos, Bir exists as a unique little oasis of beauty and harmony.

We stay at Rinpoche’s house, the Khyentse labrang. Mal’s ‘boss’, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, is a Buddhist lama who travels the world teaching and in his spare time wrote and directed The Cup. In Bir he has a much-respected institute for 350 monks and tucked behind it is Khyentse labrang, which is his home and personal headquarters when he is here.

Bir is one of the parcels of land the Indian Government has leased to Tibet’s government-in-exile for a period of ninety-nine years. While much of the western world argues about refugees and houses immigrants in detention camps, India, despite its own staggering poverty, has made welcome the Tibetans fleeing Chinese occupation, many of whom walked over harsh snow-covered terrain, sometimes for three months or more, to get here. More than 120 000 Tibetans have made it safely to India, Nepal and Bhutan since 1959. That was the year that their spiritual and political leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama moved out, arriving half-dead at the Indian border. Each year more Tibetans attempt the same hazardous journey. They are sent to refugee camps, where they receive health care, before being relocated to Tibetan townships such as Bir.

There are two different townships, known locally as Indian Bir (up the hill), which has a few Indian-run shops, and a few kilometres away is the Tibetan settlement known simply as Bir. The community is made up of monks and families as well as some Indians running their businesses side by side with the Tibetans. In the main street of Bir an Indian man has a shed-shop, made from corrugated iron. He sells mostly the same grocery items as the Tibetan man opposite, and while the two business rivals wait for customers, they happily play cards together on the ground.

There are two telephone shops at either end of the main street, one run by some young Tibetans, the other by a deafmute Indian, whose shop is always full of monks calling family around the country or in Tibet and Bhutan. When we need to call home, this is where we come. We take our place in the queue and when it’s our turn, we write the phone number on a piece of paper and pass it across the counter to the proprietor. Then we wait in a small booth for the phone to ring. It seems incongruous that someone who can neither hear nor speak is running a telephone shop. It seems even stranger when I discover that the Indian Government, as part of a program to help the disabled, assisted with finance to set up his business.

He is cheerful and efficient, and also runs a lucrative sideline in photocopying. In this he has no competition. Such is his attention to detail that all the monks bring him their pecha (horizontal Tibetan books) to copy. These are prayer books and esoteric Buddhist texts, about thirty-by-ten centimetres in size, and made up of between 100 and 500 loose-leaf pages. While he doesn’t understand a word of the ornate Tibetan script, he is precise and methodical, perfectly reproducing entire books in a matter of hours.

 

Each evening at dusk we join the local community on ‘the walk’. It is a stretch of road that leads out of the main township, winding through tea plantations, past traditional Himachali mudbrick homes, to the river. In the north-east the land creeps slowly higher then rises dramatically to the mountains, and above that the snow-capped Himalayas. Many adventurous westerners come here to hang-glide, taking off from those mountaintops and soaring above the valley alongside the kites, massive eagle-like birds native to this area.

To the west the land slopes gently down the Kangra Valley. As the sun sets, the dust turns it a brilliant red and you are able to look directly at it with the naked eye. There is so much sky and space that the sun seems to take ages to sink down to the horizon, only to suddenly and dramatically drop out of view. It is an awesome sight that always draws a crowd, particularly on Sundays.

Bir has four monasteries, representing different lineages or schools of Tibetan Buddhism. For six days a week the monks’ intense study schedule starts around 4 am and can finish at 8 pm or later, so Sunday nights are one of the few opportunities for them to relax and be sociable.

We see them everywhere along the road, their maroon robes draped around their waist and slung over one shoulder. Most are dapper and carry themselves with great pride, looking learned and dignified like Roman senators, only in dark red, not white. Some look scruffy, as if they slept in their clothes. Others, particularly the young ones, are mischievous as they run around teasing and chasing each other or kicking a soccer ball. Some hold hands as they walk together. It has no romantic connotations, Mal assures me after one monk, an old friend, grabs his hand and walks with us for a few hundred metres.

As well as the monks, the road is always abuzz with people strolling, chatting, admiring the sunset, looking for a good vantage point for the final act or heading for their favourite spot. Tibetan women, demure in their chubas, their pinafore-style national dress, knit and gossip as they walk, children running around their legs. The occasional cow meanders past, used to having right of way on every road in India. Everyone, it seems, comes out to watch the sunset, enjoy the waning day and socialise.

It is here that Mal brings me to continue our conversation and courtship. The man’s got class. It is a divine idyll of unsurpassed beauty and simplicity. He buys two bottles of Coke from a shop along the way and points out a grassy patch, where we sit down to enjoy the passing parade.

For the Indian women in the fields, this is the busiest part of their day and they are bent double carrying huge cane baskets on their back as they pick the young tea shoots, the best part of the bush. Dressed in their colourful saris they smile and chat as they work, sometimes stopping to stare at Mal and me, curious but friendly. In another field a young man manoeuvres a bull and wooden plough over the dirt, which is full of hard clumps of clay. It looks exhausting.

When darkness falls everyone makes their way back to their homes for dinner. As Mal and I walk back to the labrang, alongside the high brick walls of Dzongsar Institute, the air erupts with the ferocious noise of hundreds of men yelling and screaming. It sounds to me like all 350 monks are involved in the most aggressive and bloody of footy matches. Mal finds that idea highly amusing. He takes my hand and leads me through the dark to an unlocked back gate. I’m a little shocked that we’re going in there – inside the monastery. Mal obviously knows his way around, which I find only partly reassuring.

‘Is this okay?’ I ask. ‘Me being a woman, I mean?’

He finds this even funnier and assures me the monks won’t all go gaga at the sight of my unbridled womanliness.

We walk down some stairs, up a path, around a bend and out onto a grassed courtyard overlooking a huge floodlit quadrangle. The sight almost beggars belief and it takes me ages to make sense of what I’m seeing. The area is crowded with hundreds of monks yelling and berating each other, their faces fierce and animated, hands waving about wildly, even threateningly, while others stand by listening, frowning or sometimes laughing and cheering. It is bedlam, a cacophony of noise. I’m stupefied. What on earth is going on?

Conversation is impossible in the midst of so much sound, but gradually I realise there is some sort of order to what is happening. The monks are sitting or crouching in circles of up to ten men, with occasional pairs. In the centre of each circle are two men, one standing and yelling at the other, clapping his hands as he stands over his crouching opponent. The clapping isn’t applause. It’s aggressive and intimidatory as the monk slaps one hand over the other, making the palms connect loudly. In some of the circles the opponent is physically cowering. It’s an arresting sight that reminds me of gladiator movies where groups of bare-chested men stand around cheering and egging the fighters on as they wrestle each other to the ground.

I find out later that the monks were debating, testing themselves against each other and honing their skills of philosophical thought and analysis. This institute is renowned throughout the subcontinent for the erudition and sharp intellect of its students. With its nine-year degree course for a masters of philosophy, Dzongsar produces some of the most skilled debaters of Buddhist philosophy.

The debates are conducted with one monk expounding his theory. Every time he makes a point, he swipes his hand across his palm, the physical equivalent of ‘so be it’. The opponent listens respectfully, then when it’s his turn, he leaps to his feet and pursues those lines of thought, while onlookers indicate their approval or disapproval. The monks love this form of word play and dance of ideas. Even Tibetan laypeople, while speaking the language, cannot necessarily follow the abstract issues being discussed.

Debating competitions are held throughout the year at various monasteries across India where the very best pit their wits against each other. Noise and energy are features of Tibetan education at all levels. In the schools the children learn by memorisation and recitation – the more voice they give, the more they please their teacher.

Walking past monasteries we hear the young boys, some whose voices have not yet broken, yelling the Tibetan prayers, playfully competing with each other to be loudest. We don’t understand a word but their enthusiasm is evident and I find myself smiling along.

 

The next morning Mal takes me into the kitchen of Dzongsar Institute where meals are prepared for the 350 monks. It is about the size of my own small kitchen back in Sydney, and not nearly as well equipped.

Mal is designing a new kitchen for the institute and updates the monk, who is the head chef and speaks good English, on when the fittings will arrive and what to expect. The monk can hardly believe his ears. What Mal describes is utter luxury.

He has ordered six enormous 250-litre steel pots that will be connected to a huge steam generator in the basement. Each pot has a side lever so that one monk can effortlessly pour the contents – rice, dhal, tea and whatever meat or vegetable dish is being prepared that day – into smaller steel pots, which come with a trolley to deliver them to the table. The trolleys will perfectly match the height of three gas burners.

The monk’s eyes grow larger and larger.

To top it all off there’ll be an oven big enough to steam hundreds of momos at a time. These are the traditional dough dumplings filled with meat or vegetables, a bit like dim sims only much tastier.

All of this is being made by a company in Bangalore, south India, a five-day drive away by truck. When it is finished the monk and his four helpers will move from a gas ring in a lean-to with no running water, to a custom-designed industrial kitchen. Their delight is infectious and we leave with their laughter ringing in our ears.

 

In every possible way Bir is a world away from my life. Lovely to visit but all too soon the two weeks are up and it’s time to go home. Back to my job at New Idea and circulation figures, celebrity dramas and battles for stories. And time to say goodbye to Mal.

A few weeks after returning home Mal suddenly appears on my doorstep in Sydney. Just wanted to say hi, he says. Can only stay five days. We both know it’s serious. We don’t even think about the complications our lives might offer.

A month later we both have business in Europe. It seems the universe is being helpful and we make the most of it, managing to combine our trips. Mal meets me in London for my appointments, then I travel with him to Motovun, a tiny medieval town in Croatia, where he is presenting The Cup at a four-day film festival.

Friends are more than a little alarmed that suddenly not only am I out of the office – enough of a shock in itself – but I’m wandering the world, going to obscure places with a man they just can’t get a handle on. One friend emails me because she’s heard that I’m going out with an Indian refrigerator repairman. Another tells me she too wants to go to India and give out kitchens to the poor. They don’t understand anything about this enigmatic man who has stolen my heart.

‘Yes, but what does he do?’ they ask.

‘He works for a Bhutanese lama.’

‘You’ve gone mad.’

Maybe.

At the same time that my personal life is taking such an unexpected and happy turn, in the most glorious piece of synchronicity, a wonderful opportunity opens up professionally.

I come home from Motovun to news from literary agent Selwa Anthony that the half-finished manuscript for a novel, which I had slipped into her handbag at a work lunch one day, has been picked up by a major publishing house. They don’t just like it, they are offering an advance to finish it and write a second one.

The world really has gone mad. Suddenly I’m being offered a career beyond magazines, one I have dreamed of since I was a child, one that I can do while travelling the world with a certain six-foot-two man with no fixed address but a very fancy Italian coffee machine. I tell my boss I quit. I’m off to write books. He gives me a sideways look, and says he’ll give me six months’ paid leave, enough time to get this madness out of my system.

Even better – I’m being offered a safety net. I’m not so blinded by love that I don’t realise I’m throwing away a perfectly good, well-paying career for the vagaries of life as a writer on the road, and with a man I have known just four months. I’m not even sure I can finish the book. Writing it at home for fun is one thing, but turning it into a book for publication, to be read by other people ... oh lordy.

But how will I ever know if I don’t give it a try, I tell myself. Publishing houses don’t just hand out book contracts every day, and such an opportunity may never come again.

 

Three weeks later, while the rest of the world is flying into Sydney for the Olympic Games, I catch one of the empty aeroplanes out, to join Mal in Canada where he’s wearing his architect’s cap and working just outside Vancouver. A more dramatic contrast to the world of magazines I can’t imagine.

The Sea to Sky Retreat Center comprises a number of timber cabins set on forty acres of wild, pristine Canadian wilderness. The centre is built around the vast mirror-like Daisy Lake. In the distance loom the snow-covered mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb.

There are no telephones, TV, radio or newspapers, not even a whole lot of conversation as the few other people that are here are on silent retreat.

While they study and do their meditations in their quarters and Mal plays lumberjack outside, I sit in a cosy cabin, my mind back in my Sydney apartment where my book is set. We all meet up for a quiet lunch then go our separate ways again until dinnertime.

It is the perfect way to disengage from magazines and throw myself into writing.

 

After a few months Mal has to be back in Bir to oversee the installation of the new kitchen so we return to India. It is January and bitterly cold. And quiet. Most of the Tibetans are away selling their hand-knitted woolly jumpers and the monks are on holiday. There’s just a handful of people left behind, the stray dogs and us.

The truck with the kitchen fittings doesn’t arrive and each day brings a new, more outrageous story. It’s lost somewhere in the middle of India, says the company manager by telephone from Bangalore. ‘We found the vehicle but the driver got drunk and wandered off’ is the next excuse. And: ‘The truck hit a pothole and has lost half its undercarriage, but your kitchen is okay.’

Finally the delivery truck limps into Bir and the gleaming steel pots are unloaded, along with trolleys, huge gas burners and the momo oven. The handful of monks left at the institute turn out to watch and cheer. Mal walks through the huge empty room that will house the new kitchen, listening to the head chef explain where he wants it all to go. He has had plenty of time to think about it and has some very definite ideas.

While Mal talks kitchens I finish the final chapter of my book, a month ahead of its deadline. Soon we’ll be heading back to Sydney so I can hand it in to the publishers and resign properly from New Idea. I’m not looking forward to it. Giving me paid leave was a pretty supportive gesture, and I’m hoping my bosses won’t be too annoyed at my decision.

 

Six months is a long time in magazines. I’ve missed Tom and Nicole’s split, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas’s wedding, and who knows how many lovers for Fergie and Andrew. I discover also that my boss (the General Manager) and his boss (the Managing Director) have both left the company and I can’t find anyone to resign to. There’s a new Editor hot to trot in the wings and no-one seems at all fussed that Iwon’t be back. I’m not sure they even remember me. I’m off the hook.

Before we have unpacked, a Sunday gossip column runs a small piece claiming that I’m dating the godson of the Dalai Lama, which comes as news to Mal. A few days later a columnist phones a girlfriend of mine to ask if it’s true that I’ve shaved my head, cut all the legs off my furniture and will only wear orange. She laughs so hard she falls off her chair. When finally she picks herself up and composes herself she thanks him for the best laugh she has had in a long time. She tells him I don’t have the cheekbones to go bald, orange makes me look dead and just the night before, she enjoyed way too many wines sitting on my couch and the only things legless were her and me.

After years of being way too interested in other people’s private lives, it seems kind of fair that mine should come out looking so bizarre. That would be that karma thing.

 

2

 

Two Becomes Three

 

JUNE 2001

 

I’m perched on the edge of the bed looking at Mal with a mixture of fear, anticipation and excitement. The little purple ball in a glass vial, the size of my little finger, is doing its thing in the bathroom. It’s 1.50 pm. We have ten minutes to see if it turns pink.

It is suddenly quiet in our bedroom overlooking the main street in Bir. The labrang we stayed in last year is full so these are our temporary quarters – two rooms on top of the telephone shop run by the deaf-mute Indian man. There is a momentary lull in the endless barrage of noise – no tractor trolleys thundering past on their way to collect the day’s pickings from the tea plantations, no barking dogs, and even the rhythmic chanting of hundreds of monks from the surrounding monasteries is momentarily absent. It is as if, like us, everything is temporarily suspended in the sultry heat of a summer afternoon.

I’m aware of the intense worry on Mal’s face and my own frantically beating heart. We are a bit stunned at the idea and have just ten minutes to prepare ourselves. We’d talked about this possibility, but only as an abstract concept.

Something’s going on. I can feel it in my breasts. They hurt. And I’m out of breath. Just walking up the slight hill to lunch at the Khyentse labrang is exhausting. After doing it happily for weeks, now I have to stop for a little rest en route. And I feel kind of hungover, which is really odd because I haven’t had a drink since a week ago. That was when we treated ourselves to a weekend at a hotel in Dharamsala – three hours’ drive west – and overindulged in room service, beer and TV. Our life in the little monastery village of Bir doesn’t feature such luxuries, so to be able to sit up in bed with a curry and a chilled beer watching Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor on cable was our idea of a party.

The colour of that little ball in the glass test tube could mean some major changes. I can’t begin to imagine what those changes might be, but there’s a gnawing in the pit of my stomach that suggests they will be enormous and ongoing. I keep thinking of that RSPCA advertisement: ‘A puppy isn’t just for Christmas’. Oh my God, what have we done? It seems a surreal paradox that, while my doctor thinks that at age thirty-nine I’m getting too old to have a baby, I don’t actually feel old enough.

In the past twelve months my life has already changed radically. I’ve swapped my Sydney harbourside apartment, frantic weekly deadlines and regular paypackets to write novels and be with Mal, whose idea of home is wherever he’s parked his coffee machine. Its current address is his room in New Delhi in a shared household of westerners and monks, all working for Rinpoche’s organisation, Siddhartha’s Intent. I’ve been happily writing wherever Mal’s work happens to take us. We’ve fashioned a wonderfully carefree life together, spending roughly half our time in Sydney and the rest of it hopping on and off planes. I’ve been able to keep in touch with my agent and publisher via the web, sending chapters and seeing cover designs by email, sometimes crouched in tiny Indian phone booths, other times juggling a laptop and mobile phone in an airport lounge. It’s a long way from a slick city office with a personal assistant and all the trappings, but I’ve been having the time of my life. My first book was well received and I’m well into writing my second, with half-formed ideas for a third, fourth, fifth and so on into old age. The future was looking good for two footloose people with only themselves to worry about, and no responsibilities or commitments. If that little ball turns pink, the changes are unimaginable.

The big hand hits the 12 and our ten minutes are up. We race each other into the bathroom and stare.

It’s pink. We’re pregnant. Mal is in shock. I’m in shock. We take the little test tube back into the bedroom, carefully lean it against a pile of books and look at it in wonderment for the rest of the afternoon. The next few days we wander around grinning at each other like we have a delicious secret. And I cry, daily.

‘Happy tears?’ Mal asks anxiously.

‘Oh yes,’ I say, feeling excited, scared and like an army of hormones is marching through my bloodstream.

We queue at the telephone shop downstairs so that I can ring my best friend in Adelaide and tell her. After writing the phone number down on a piece of paper and passing it to the deafmute Indian man, I take my place in the queue of monks.

In the past year the phone man has married, and he signals in sign language across the room to his blushing bride. Like him, she is in her twenties, deaf and mute. She is also breathtakingly beautiful in a red sari with a veil that covers her from head to her tiny bejewelled toes. Their newlywed excitement is palpable and they keep erupting in giggles at some private joke. They make no sound but both their bodies convulse and their faces beam. It is impossible not to join in.

Finally it’s my turn, and after shouting my announcement over the dodgy phoneline, all I can do is sob into the receiver.

My friend in Adelaide laughs, the monks laugh and the deaf couple, oblivious to what is going on, are still laughing anyway.

 

It will be another four months, three continents and vats of hormonal tears before I see the reassuring face of my own doctor in Sydney.

Mal and I find ourselves celebrating the various milestones of pregnancy in a number of different parts of the world. In a hospital in New Delhi I have a series of tests, including an internal ultrasound. Out of respect for my modesty, Mal is not allowed in the room. But every female worker traipses past, interested to know if ‘whitey’ is the same as them underneath it all. It’s like a passing parade by my feet. No-one seems too shocked by what they see, which is something of a relief – although it’s a bit hard to tell as no-one gives me eye contact.

I email all the test results to my doctor; he emails back that I’m anaemic and should start iron tablets. I stop sucking in my belly when I’m naked and Mal, with that male candour that is so adorable, expresses surprise that I look pregnant so soon. I tell him that it’s a known medical fact that within days of conception a substantial layer of fat is deposited across the mother’s belly to keep the embryo warm. Bless him, he believes me.

A few weeks later we’re in Paris and go for dinner at the tres chic and ultra-cool Buddha Bar. To mark the end of the risk-filled first trimester I lash out and have a sip of red wine then immediately want to throw up.

In London, to visit insurance giant Lloyd’s for research on my new book, we have the neuchal translucency ultrasound and the baby waves at us. A heart-stopping moment. In London’s Harley Street we meet a colleague of my Sydney doctor, and he explains that the results of the ultrasound are positive. Our odds of producing a Down Syndrome baby given my age just improved from one in thirty-three to one in a hundred. He compares it to the likelihood of being killed on the motorway versus crashing in a plane. It’s supposed to be good news but now I’m too scared to get on the next day’s flight to America. I spend the trip with my hands wrapped around my belly, just in case.

In New York I have a meeting with a high-powered publisher at St Martin’s Press. Standing on Fifth Avenue looking up I realise the office is in the Flat Iron Building, the oldest skyscraper in America and one of the most famous in the world. I’m sure I’ve seen its distinctive triangular shape in the opening credits for Friends. I’m agog. The publisher’s office, when I finally find it, is in the pointy end with a view straight up Broadway.

As I take a seat I’m shaking but can’t tell whether it is with awe, the effort of not throwing up, or the fact that I desperately need the loo again. It’s been twelve minutes since my last visit and I fear the consequences if I don’t go again soon.

The publisher tells me she loved my book Apartment 255, a dark and twisted thriller set in Sydney, but it disturbed her so much that she couldn’t finish it and instead passed it over to three of her editors for appraisal, two of whom are sitting in her office, staring at me suspiciously. ‘I was shocked,’ says a sweet-looking woman called Hope. ‘I was still thinking about it on Tuesday,’ adds a man in a suit, leaning away from me as if he fears I may pull out a knife at any moment.

I try to respond but everything is coming to me through a hormonal fog. They are speaking so fast, firing so many questions, that I feel like a rabbit in the headlights, frozen and unable to move (partly because I fear my bladder may leak). I feel limp and exhausted, like I’ve lost all my stuffing. It’s a combination of the heat, my anaemia and the fact that today I’m also making two new little kidneys, or so the pregnancy book says.