Supper in the Shadow of the Avalanche

Pasang Karma Sherpa was one of sixteen Sherpas who were buried alive in the Khumbu Icefall in April 2014. He was working for Jagged Globe when he, and about ninety other Sherpas working for numerous commercial expeditions, were forced to wait while a ladder bridge was repaired. It was the worst possible moment for the slope above them to avalanche. On the day of the accident managing director Simon Lowe flew from the UK and reached the family house two days later. He met Pasang’s widow Kandi and her three children, and undertook to raise money for their education.

Pasang Karma’s family lived in Bupsa, a hillside farming village a day’s walk south of Lukla. Their modest house perched grandly upon a promontory and was visible for miles. To reach it we had to walk through the village with its handful of tea houses and strike out along the narrow ridge crest, our shoulders almost brushing the walls of a monastery. A red-robed monk swept past us with a smile. Wall-mounted prayer wheels begged to be spun.

Two small children, a girl and a younger boy, were playing outside the house. Their tiny bodies darted to and fro in the dimming dusk. They were oblivious of us until they heard our greeting, in reply to which the girl ran into the house like a frightened cat and the snot-nosed boy, barely three years old, stood sentry, as though he was a man to be reckoned with. Two women appeared at the door, the shy girl peeping out from behind them. They were expecting us. and greeted us warmly in the Nepali way. There was no body contact, no touch of the hands. Although friendly, they were formal, and I had to suppress an urge to hug them all and tell them how sorry I was for their loss. Instead, I was forced to hold back, to weight the lid on grief’s warming water while the fire beneath it burned.

Rossy and I were led through the door where goats and chickens slept and up steep stairs to the building’s only room. It was sparse and rough-hewn, lit by two puny bulbs. Apart from the heat of the stove it was devoid of comfort for either body or soul, a place of function rather than relaxation. We sat on a hard wooden bench with our backs to the hard wooden wall while Pasang Karma’s widow, Kandi, placed opaque glasses and two bottles of beer on the table. She gestured us to drink, then she joined her sister who was crouched busily over the stove at the far end of the room. We could barely see them in the dim yellow light, but above them and their whispers and a shelf of copper pots was a row of unframed photos  of a handsome young man. Closest to us sat his oldest son, fifteen year-old Geljen, the new man of the house. Next to him the shy girl, Purnima, stole glances at us. At nine, she seemed small for her age. Less shy was her three year old brother, Tenzing, who wandered around the room leaving a trail of drips from his leaking nose. Every minute or so he’d stop in front of our table to regard us with unwashed delight, before scampering back towards the stove and the safety of his mother’s side.

The activity around the stove reached a hushed crescendo. Best crockery landed gently on timber. A pan was scraped. Kandi came over, using both hands to carry one precious plate of food. She placed it in front of me, and returned with another for Rossy. With a hand-gesture she asked if we wanted more beer. Then she retired to the shadowy end of the room to sit with her sister and watch from a distance while we ate our omelettes. The children meanwhile grew bolder, edging closer until Kandi lassoed them back with her sharp Sherpa tongue. It was impossible to tell whether we were welcome or abhorred, and sitting in the kitchen of a family whose father, husband and provider had died while working for the company that I’d founded, I felt that we were both. The darkened dwelling housed an emotion that was precariously balanced on the tightrope between gratitude and resentment, that the slightest nudge – a careless word, an error of etiquette – could topple the wrong way. It wasn’t the first time that I regretted my inability to communicate in Nepali, but it was undoubtedly the most bitterly felt. I wanted to talk to Kandi and her children, to tell them how sorry I was and to reassure them that Pasang Karma wasn’t forgotten. Sign language was found wanting.

We finished our omelettes. Kandi came over with two more beers and left with our empty bottles and plates. Rossy and I talked quietly, trying to involve the children. Purnima giggled but declined Rossy’s invitation to come and sit next to her. Tenzing’s nose was now miraculously clean. Geljen, sitting silently at another small table, hadn’t moved the whole time we were eating. There was no other conversation apart from whispers at the dark end of the room. It was uncomfortable.

Then, with a scribbling motion with her hand, Rossy asked them for a pencil and paper. Kandi produced them and Rossy began to draw. From a few arcs and strokes and dashes, a little girl appeared, her cartoon features recognisable as Purnima’s. Rossy patted the bench next to her and Purnima’s caution was won over by her curiosity. Rossy pointed at the picture, then at Purnima, and the little girl, understanding that it was her, shattered the uncomfortable quietness with a squeal of delight. Rossy shifted her hand across the paper and a little boy, all mischief, arrived from the tip of her pencil. Purnima giggled again, and ushered Tenzing towards her and he climbed up beside her, and Geljen, the new man of the house, stood up so he could see Rossy’s gift. Kandi emerged from the gloom at the other end of the room for a quick look. Her smile, as bright and brief as a shooting star, was her first of the evening. Then came more pictures, appearing as if by magic, until the whole family was smiling from the paper. Rossy’s images were happy and humorous, and soon we were all laughing. For a few minutes, the avalanche that took their father was forgotten; its ice was broken.

Later, after Purnima had let Rossy plat her hair and Kandi had shown us some family photos, we rose to leave and the avalanche tore back in to everyone’s consciousness and the earlier hush returned. Kandi presented us with decorated katas, placing them over our bowed heads with the solemnity of a high priestess. Purnima started crying. Rossy knelt down and hugged her, then she hugged everyone else: Kandi, Tenzing, Gelgen and the silent sister, and by the time I wrapped my arms around each of them, their faces were wet with tears. Only Geljen held back. He remained dry-eyed and unsmiling, as strong as he was expected to be. I pressed a folded wad of rupees into his hand and told him it was for his mother. As well as acknowledging his new and unwanted role in the family, placing him between us and his mother made our offering feel less like Judas’s thirty pieces of silver.

In the morning, when we were about to leave for the return trek to Lukla, Geljen appeared in his school uniform. He pointed at Rossy’s rucksack and said, ‘I take’. Rossy, who’d been comfortably carrying it for the last three weeks, refused at first, but seeing that a young man’s honour was at stake, she let him take it and he carried it to Poyan where he went to school, more than an hour’s walk away. Geljen knew a few words of English, and while walking we learned what he wanted to do when he finished his studies. ‘Sherpa,’ he said. ‘Ev’res’ Sherpa.’

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