During my post-millennium residence in the magical foothills of the Himalayas, specifically in the picturesque town of Dharamsala, home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama and a thriving Tibetan community, I made friends with a charming American couple who lived a few houses down the way from me on winding Jogiwara Road.
Theo’s father had been one of those eccentric inventors whose patents had made him rich. He’d left his only son with a trust fund large enough for him to do as he pleased. Theo was a recent though fervent convert to Buddhism, intent on achieving Nirvana at the earliest instant. Dana, his social-worker wife, was a svelte beauty with a beatific disposition who made no bones about adoring her scatterbrained husband.
One evening the three of us sat drinking ginger chai on my balcony, watching the sun set over snow-capped peaks and commiserating over a mutual acquaintance who’d recently gone into treatment in New York for severe alcohol poisoning — his skin had actually turned yellow with toxicity, we’d just heard, and his mind was rapidly disintegrating. Ever since he’d left India several years ago, Bert had gone through numerous such crises. I said I honestly didn’t think he’d make it through this time.
Silence reigned as we three pondered the tragedy of a man who’d been unable to stop drinking and smoking — ganja, hashish, and cigarettes — despite all he’d lost as a result — spiritual, physical and mental health, the respect of his wife and only son, a rare ability to sculpt and weave superb poetry, and most of all, his self-esteem. My thoughts drifted to other friends who’d gone the same route, one of them a close childhood buddy, who still remains in the throes of one crisis or another. Some of those I’d grown up with had even died as a result of their addictions.
Then Theo shocked me by confessing that, before he’d married, he’d been addicted to heroin for years; it was Dana, he claimed, giving her hand a grateful squeeze, who had picked him out of the gutter. He’d kicked most of his addictions in the last decade, he added, but simply could not find the strength to permanently banish Old Nick, insidious demon of nicotine.
Theo took a shuddering drag on his Marlboro; Old Nick was killing him, he muttered, trying to suppress his hacking cough with yet another eucalyptus-and-ginger throat lozenge. He’d tried everything — from hypnosis to cold turkey, even forcing himself to watch a documentary on the evils of smoking every day for three months — a documentary in which the camera lingered for interminable spells of time on black and shriveled lungs. And here he was, still puffing away at the rate of thirty cancer sticks a day.
At a friend’s urging, Theo mentioned, he and Dana were going to visit Tai Situ Rinpoche, a high ranking lama in the Karma Kagyu lineage, in the hope that this well-known tulku would be able to throw fresh light on his nicotine addiction. He was sick and tired, Theo announced wearily, of being sick and tired. His tale made me so sad that I stubbed out my own roll-up in disgust. Then the three of us headed for the new Japanese restaurant that had opened up close by, determined to forget our woes in a bowl of steaming bean thread noodle soup and tofu-veggie wraps.