Chiang Mai: Skype call from P in the North of Scotland, walking through a shopping mall interior, holding up his phone camera in front of him and I’m able to enter into a view of the world at this moment, about 5500 miles away. It feels like I’m really there; a chromium steel, tiled and glass environment with Starbucks and everything is recognizably ‘the mall’. People wearing scarves and hats, thick clothing – it’s below freezing outside that building. Light from the mall windows fading out to zero white, pixelated edges of electric blue and turquoise suggests air so cold it’s like an ice-cream headache, chilled nasal passageways and cranial cavities. I’m thinking of ice-rinks, peppermint and menthol. Words come out with vigour in great gusts of steamy vapour.
I lived there in a former life – long ago and far away. The sharp clear air, constant wind, and winter daylight lasts only a few hours; it was a world without colour. Cold, wet, windy and the mind is saying: ‘No, I don’t like this. I want sunshine, I want warmth,’ the samsara of wanting it to be different from how it is. And eyes looking through the gap between hat and scarf, out into the world but inwardly removed and seeing the sunshine in some fictional landscape created in the mind. I didn’t know anything about the Buddhist perspective on Suffering, dukkha nirodho ariya sacca, at that time, just ‘driven’ by a sadly dysfunctional family and nameless hunger that arises from the feeling that there has to be something better than this.
So, one thing led to another, and it’s a long story, but eventually I discovered it’s not ‘me’, it’s just the way it is. I can have loving-kindness, mettā, for the created ‘me’ and lighten up about that. I don’t get seriously into it any more, now there’s that distance from my constructed identity. It’s been with me all those years, wow, like something historical: ‘This is the house that Jack built.’ And now I’m here in South East Asia; not too hot at this time of year, warm like a Mediterranean summer; rubber slippers, shorts and a T-shirt. The quality of light is amazing, colours of things are outstanding, as if lit from within – a Disney cartoon – papaya fruit is an amazing fluorescent, magic-marker orange; green trees against blue skies and the whole thing feels like it’s been photo-shopped. The air is warm like a soft quilt cover wrapped around the shoulders, with no weight, so you feel this lightness – ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being ‘ by Milan Kundera, worth reading if only for the title.
But all this coming to an end very soon, less than a week to go before the time comes to go back to Delhi and the colder climatic conditions of the North. Not able to flop around in thin cotton clothing any longer… nope. This time next week I’ll be socked and shoed and trousered, and scarved and coated, hair-combed, passported and ticketed and transported to the North of India in a passenger jet, but that’s not happened yet so there’s time to reflect on that difference and get ready for the adjustment.
I’ve been living in other people’s countries for more than 30 years; met Jiab on the way. She still identifies with her Thai cultural context. I’ve nearly forgotten mine. I used to go back to the family home up there at the top of the world and most people couldn’t remember me; all the elders’ hair going grey, and greyer then white, Now I go there for funerals and people just don’t know me at all. I’m a foreigner there and a foreigner everywhere else. I’m more into the Thai world than any other culture – they see me as a kind of cultural hybrid.
There’s a shrine in Jiab’s family home; a structure of tiny ornate tables placed one on top of each other, in a hierarchy of size. The larger ones are at the bottom and smaller ones placed on top and even smaller ones placed on top of them. It’s built up to about five levels. An ascending, perspective effect as things recede above eye level with candles and an image of the Buddha on the topmost table. It’s the one where he’s protected by the hooded snake god Naga, extending Cobra neck hood and curved over the head of the Buddha forming a kind of umbrella (there was a rainstorm at the time of approaching enlightenment). Above that, framed on the wall, there’s a row of these faded old sepia photos of Jiab’s ancestors. There they all are, looking down at me. I feel their gaze because I’m not just a cultural hybrid in their eyes, I’m from a different planet too. I sometimes feel they need to look at me more carefully than they look at other visitors to the shrine. So I just let them do that, it’s a kindly gaze, without the burden of thought, comfortably dwelling in a state of wakefulness, and understanding things in their actuality.