Excerpted from the Book
The Perils of Celebration
The Tibetan New Year, known as Losar, didn’t come until the beginning of March, but preparations for the festivities began weeks ahead of time. Houses received fresh coats of blue and white paint, women bought newly made traditional Tibetan aprons, and men got new haircuts. In the days following my trip to Chandigarh, the holiday was all the hospital staff talked about: whose friends and family were coming to visit, what types of food would be served, how much chang (rice wine) everyone would drink.
Two evenings before Losar, the more traditional families made big dumplings with special symbols inside, such as a piece of coal or a coin. At dinner, each person received a dumpling predicting his or her karma for the year. Coal suggested a bad temper, while a coin meant the recipient would be getting plenty of money.
The day before Losar began, the hospital experienced a sudden epidemic of health – apparently many of our inpatients wanted to be home for the holiday. After an entire day spent discharging patients, one of the nurses predicted that the ward wouldn’t stay quiet for long. “Lots of injuries and illnesses occur during Losar,” she warned. As if on cue, a man who had eaten bad pork came in and began vomiting violently on our floor. I realized I was in for a rough time, being the only doctor on duty for the entire four and a half days of celebrations.
On Losar Eve, the monks at the Dalai Lama’s monastery threw out all the bad spirits from the previous year. Then precisely at midnight, some of the old village stalwarts rushed out to look for the first fresh spring water of the year. By 4 a.m., the festivities were in full swing. I awoke to the sound of firecrackers and the rumble of taxis taking people up the mountain road to the main temple. There were roving groups of Tibetans, who probably had had a little too much to drink, walking around yelling “Tashi delek!” for everyone to hear. Losar was obviously the biggest celebration of the year.
At 8 a.m., I was able to leave the hospital for a few hours to watch the official New Year’s Day ceremony. Ministers from the government brought in offerings, mainly sculptures made of butter known as tormas in large bowls, huge homemade crackers called kabsay, and plenty of white scarves. After the prayers, everyone was given a blessed red cord to be worn around the neck for protection against evil spirits. The Dalai Lama then walked onto a balcony overlooking the crowd and gave a short speech. His Holiness is known for his humor even while giving serious teachings, and he didn’t disappoint today. He told the crowd that he knew everyone was going to drink chang, but being the father figure he was, he told them just to not overdo it!
When I ran back to the hospital, I found some patients who would have benefited from hearing their spiritual leader’s speech and following his advice. One of the waiters at the Hotel Tibet had fallen down a full flight of stairs, cutting the top of his head wide open. The blood was all over our emergency room and still flowing from his cut. Despite the early hour, he was quite drunk, as were the other waiters who brought him in.
There’s a man in there that had an accident,” Youdon told me, pointing to the Ambassador.
OK, what kind of accident?” I asked impatiently.
“He fell off a train.”
I had to pry her for details.
“I see. How did he fall off a train?”
“Actually, he jumped out,” she clarified.
I looked at the patient’s friends. “Why did he do that?”
Youdon spoke with the men for a minute, then translated. “They were all sleeping in the train car when he suddenly started yelling about his ancestors and spirits, ran to the door of the train, and jumped.”
“Wow,” I said, quite surprised. It was an amazing story so far. “Where did this happen?”
I quickly tried to do the math. Maharashtra was south of Bombay, on the Indian Ocean coastline.
“That’s got to be over 1,500 miles away!”
Youdon stared at me with a classic Tibetan look that I had learned to appreciate for its dark irony. Her face was blank, providing no clue as to what she thought about the situation. For all I knew she was as shocked as I was, but from her appearance it seemed like a routine call.
“How in the world did his friends find him?” I was ready for any answer.
“They pulled the cord and jumped out after him as the train slowed down.”
“When did this happen?” I asked, afraid to hear the answer.
“Three days ago.”
“Three days ago?” I repeated, disbelievingly. “Has he seen a doctor yet?”
“Yes, well, they drove to Delhi, and the health worker in the Tibetan refugee camp referred them up here.”
“Are you trying to tell me that these fellows drove for two and a half days half way across India with an injured friend in the back seat to come see us at Delek Hospital?”
“Yes that is what I’m telling you.”
We all paused.
By this time, I was totally incredulous. The story was completely and utterly crazy, but I had gotten used to these kinds of surprises.
I had them bring in the patient, who was a middle-aged Tibetan from one of the southern settlements. He was covered with bruises and scratches and did indeed look like he had jumped out of a speeding train, although I have to admit that I had never before actually seen anyone who had jumped out of a speeding train. I guessed he was an alcoholic. He had probably tried to quit cold turkey, experienced withdrawal hallucinations, and really did think he saw his ancestors’ spirits. After examining him and doing a plethora of X-rays, all I found was a small fracture in his ankle and a cut on his lip. Amazing.
I figured I had a lock on the most unusual case of the year, until I shared the story with Michael that evening. He listened with a grin before bursting my bubble. “Oh yeah?! The other day, I saw someone who jumped off a train in the South and drove up to Himachal Pradesh for an X-ray.”
I couldn’t believe he had bested my story.
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