In Darjeeling, the landscape and my familyscape seemed to be living, breathing beings, the paths like veins and the stories like the flow of blood.
Did Ann sleep well?
Walking around Darjeeling, I followed the map in my guidebook, but other maps became apparent, like in a palimpsest landscape. When I first visited Observatory Hill, I saw a wooded rise where hundreds of colorful Tibetan prayer flags fluttered in the breeze, pilgrims offered incense at the shrine on the summit, and snowy mountains floated along the horizon. But when I climbed up one day with my grandmother, she told me that Observatory Hill was where our family celebrated Losar Tibetan New Year; where one of our ancestors, Lama Rinzing, arrived on pilgrimage in the eighteenth century and built a monastery. I imagined her map as an antique pictorial map, Observatory Hill illustrated by ancient grannies in Tibetan headdresses drinking butter tea and watching singers, jesters, and storytellers perform. Important sites on my grandmother’s map of Darjeeling also included the three-story house down in the bazaar where, at the turn of the century, she lived with her father, stepmother, brothers, and three stepsisters. In the girls’ bedroom was a wash basin, an almirah cupboard for my grandmother’s few items of clothing, and a writing table where she read Jane Austen by candlelight. Not far from the house was the route where, on her wedding day in 1930, she and my grandfather rode horses through town, and the road where, in 1936, she walked in the mile-long funeral procession to Ghoom Monastery for her father’s cremation.
In Tokyo, where I’ve lived for over thirty years, things disappear: from one week to the next, the 7-Eleven becomes a parking lot, the sushi restaurant a reflexology salon. But since in Darjeeling, things mostly stay the same, it’s easy to imagine how life used to be. My mother left her hometown for New York at nineteen to become a doctor and settled in the US; because she was disinclined to talk about the past, I’d often wondered what her youth had been like. In Darjeeling, exploring the physical surroundings and my grandmother’s stories, I started filling in blanks, visiting the shops, restaurants, monasteries, and schools my mother grew up with. I walked the two-mile route she took every morning to classes at Loreto Convent; the road she walked to the Gymkhana Club for roller skating and tea dances. At my grandmother’s house, I sat in the living room where, on evenings in the 1930s, my mother and her siblings were bathed by the fire in an aluminum tub and my grandmother read to them from a British book on hygiene. I slept in my mother’s girlhood bedroom and saw the desk where my mother, a star student and the first in her family to go to college, studied far into the night.
In Darjeeling, the landscape and my familyscape seemed to be living, breathing beings, the paths like veins and the stories like the flow of blood. I often felt I was walking within a body: my family’s body, my own. I was a time traveler moving through past and present, as well as on paths that extended into the future, that in some way my children would walk, as we carried our individual stories—and our family story—forward.
Ann Tashi Slater's work has been published by The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, AGNI, Granta, and the HuffPost, among others, and she's a contributing editor at Tricycle. She recently finished a memoir about reconnecting with her Tibetan roots. Visit her at: www.anntashislater.com.