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Asian Absences: Searching for Shangri-La

By Wolfgang Büscher

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I was sitting on the floor. Above my head, Indra beat the Calling Mantra and the only thing I could feel was a slowly, slowly widening distance to the noise around me. It broke over me, stronger now: it wants to carry me off the path, push me off the horse—let them clap, laugh, shout. The noise retreated, a breach opened, the drum forced it ajar. I moved forward, one step after another through noise and darkness. The drum beat my footsteps. I held on to Indra, he guided me. Suddenly the darkness brightened; I was in a familiar place, I saw myself wandering from room to room, through corridors and suites—a dilapidated palace, I knew it well, my resting place of so many nights, my dream for many years. You have survived—that was the only thing I knew. Never had I met anyone else on these night-time wanders through the palace. I made myself a makeshift home underneath the high, cracked ceilings, kept finding new rooms and traces that earlier occupants had left. At one point I tried to find a way out, but the palace went on and on. I ran. The breach turned into a corridor, the drumbeat grew faster. I ran towards a gate, it was already ajar—it led out into the open, the gate was within reach. Was it my pulse beating this fast or was it the drum? My legs began to shake as I had so often seen happen to Indra. He was now beating harder, tock-to-tock, tock-to-tock, we were riding towards the gate.

What was that? A slap on my shoulder, cries of delight, the rhythmical clapping and the shouts of encouragement were all of a sudden very close again. The noise broke through. I didn’t want to go back, not yet. I wanted the noise to stop, but it didn’t. I opened my eyes. I felt wretched, ashamed. I was sitting on the floor in the midst of a howling crowd, the path had gone, the gate been missed, the rider torn from his horse, the people were enjoying themselves. For a second I saw Father McKenzie, his dignified priestly smile, shaking his head now. And then I saw Mai. She was here, she had kept her word. I wished I were far, far away. I wished she weren’t here and weren’t looking at me like this. As if she had caught me stealing furtively into her room. Not angry, astonished rather—what are you doing here?

The worst thing was that I was fêted. It had been a good night performance—the performer was offered beer, Chinese cans appearing from wicker baskets. I pushed my way outside through the crowd; Indra and Mai followed me. We walked a short distance and smoked. It was raining heavily and softly, and they made no attempt to console me. Indra just said: ‘You came very close.’

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