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Traveling in Bardo

O nobly-born, although one liketh it not . . . one feeleth compelled involuntarily to go on; . . . noises and
snow and rain and terrifying hail-storms and whirlwinds of icy blasts occurring . . .
                                                                                                            —The Tibetan Book of the Dead

On September 13th, 2010, I lay in a Tokyo hospital, my joints aching and my skin burning hot. Only a faint glow of daylight penetrated my curtained cubicle. The routine of temperature-taking, breakfast, and doctors’ rounds hadn’t started yet, so the room was silent except for the beeping of monitors and an occasional rattling snore from the elderly woman in the next bed.

Sunk in that dimness, and staring up at the white ceiling, I remembered my grandmother’s account of a morning in 1912 when her father, my Tibetan great-grandfather, was coming down into India by pony. He lived in Darjeeling but, deeply involved in the affairs of British India and Tibet, had been carrying out a diplomatic mission in Lhasa. On the way home, he was caught in an avalanche and buried along with several of the men in his party, their ponies, and their mules. But somehow my great-grandfather was able to work his arm loose. He thrust it through the snow and waved his rosary back and forth, muttering to himself, “Save me, Guru Rinpoche! Save me!” Someone spotted him, and he was saved.

I imagined that winter day: the turquoise Himalayan sky, the sun glittering on the ice-encrusted pines; the groaning of the pack animals, their musky smell; the labored breathing of the trapped men as panic rose in their throats. I saw my great-grandfather struggling in his twilit underworld to pull his rosary free and reach for the air; heard him call to his beloved Guru Rinpoche, the eighth-century Indian sage who brought Buddhism to Tibet.

I’d been admitted to the hospital a week earlier, suffering from a severe headache and nausea, an unremitting fever of 103, and violent chills. My husband David and I, American professors at Japanese universities and residents of Tokyo for over twenty years, had been on summer holiday with our children in Indonesia, and my doctors thought I might have contracted dengue fever or malaria. None of my symptoms had abated and every day new ones were appearing: a jaundiced tinge to my skin, tiny red petechiae dots on my hands from subdermal bleeding, a pebbly rash on my knees, photophobia. The pain in my joints was so excruciating that I now understood why dengue, if that’s what I had, was known as “breakbone fever.” The only way I felt slightly less miserable was lying motionless with a gauzy hand towel over my eyes, hour after hour. All I could eat were giant purple kyoho grapes—their burst of coolness a fleeting relief in my fevered state—so I’d been put on an IV. When Dr. Ando, the internal-medicine specialist, stopped in later that morning and saw my untouched tray of mackerel, rice, and miso soup, he asked if I couldn’t try to eat just a little. A slight, somber man of about fifty, he stretched out his arms in a pleading gesture and smiled. “You may have whatever you want,” he said. “Even ice cream.”


My Tibetan grandmother was psychic. On Christmas Day 1936, as my great-grandfather prepared to travel to a town near Darjeeling to campaign for an assembly seat, she went to him and whispered, “Father, I didn’t have a very good dream. I don’t think you should go.”

“I can’t help it, darling,” he said, picking up his valise. “All the preparations are made, everyone is waiting for me. I have to go. I can’t let the people down.”

“If you do, Father, you will never come back.” She’d seen his body being brought up to the sky, with a few drops of rain, but also sunshine. Everyone was saying, Look! Look!, and pointing as his body rose to heaven.

“I pre-saw all of that,” my grandmother told me fifty years later over tea in her sitting room in Darjeeling. I was perched on the leathery elephant’s-foot stool that had fascinated me as a small girl, next to the ancient gramophone my grandparents played when they threw parties and everyone danced the Tibetan Charleston. Outside, the snowy peaks of 28,000-foot Mount Kanchenjunga glistened in the sun, towering over the Raj-era bungalows and tea gardens of the fabled former British hill station. “But he wouldn’t listen. On the platform he spoke for five or six hours, and the same night, his heart failed. In his sleep he expired. When the servants went to knock with the tea and toast, he was dead.”

If my grandmother were still alive, I wondered that day in the hospital, what would she prophesy for me? I’d had strange feelings before getting sick. Had I inherited her powers? David, the children, and I had been in Indonesia during Ramadan, and every morning I lay sleepless, listening to the muezzin sing the call to prayer in the still, blue dawn. Regret over matters large and small flooded through me. Hurtful things I’d said or done, lost opportunities, actual and imagined slights—it all flowed past in an endless loop. As if mirroring my inner state, the surroundings were surreal: women in white burkas, their faces veiled, gliding along the roadside; a band of silvery langurs leaping from a tree.

In mid-August we flew back to Tokyo, and a few days later our children started the new school year. But my unease continued, especially one evening toward the end of the month...