Posted on: December 14, 2016

A carpet may be spread for anyone:
spread for the Buddha bathed in blood,
and also for the weaver
of the same blood-stained carpet.
- "Every town is a hometown, all people are kin," Sukirtharani

Lobsang was aged thirty-two when I first met him. He was passing through Calcutta, headed southward. He had come down from the northern plains a few weeks ago. He was headed south to visit a hospital where a fellow monk, a friend, was admitted for surgery.

I was waiting for a north-bound suburban train at Sealdah when I wandered into the long-distance platforms out of boredom. I took a seat beside a tea vendor. When sipping on tea a beggar approached me, whom I told forthrightly that I had no money with me. I was unemployed and we were in the same boat.

"Give me the tea then. Or buy me one."

"No, I can't." An eerie sense of guilt went through my spine, recognizable through years of encounters. Passing through the streets of Calcutta, one becomes familiar with these feelings especially when indulging in hedonism in the gaze of the have-nots. The feeling goes away a few minutes later, very similar to any guilt induced by capitalism and inequality.

The beggar went towards Lobsang. Lobsang was seated on the ground. The beggar asked him for money and he handed some over. He asked again, and Lobsang handed over more money. This went on for a while till Lobsang got up and walked away. The beggar came back towards the tea vendor with a grin on his face and looked at me and said, "What would you do with so much money?"

I would later learn my guilt was nothing compared to what bothered Lobsang.

I ran into him the next day at Sudder Street. I was waiting by the crossing beside Blue Sky CafĂ© for a friend to arrive. She had texted to tell me that she wasn’t going to be on time, so I started wandering around the street and smoking cigarettes to while away time.

The sky was overcast with a comfortable chill in the air, one that didn’t require more than one layer of clothing. I liked to loiter around Sudder Street and observe people whenever I had a chance. One could find a diverse group of people here, from the middle class looking for a fix or a drink, to tourists waiting to be haggled by another class of Indians. A lot of white and east Asian tourists halted in the cheap hotels targeted for backpackers. Since the hippies first arrived, neighbourhoods such as these in most cities learned to peddle religion, drugs, ethnic trinkets and clothes to the young backpackers seeking adventure, belief, and authenticity.

It didn’t take long for the drug peddlers to start asking me what I was seeking. One of the peddlers told me some new stuff had arrived, which the city hadn't seen before. I told him I had no money. He asked me to spread the word. I responded with a certain nod of the head. When my friend arrived she stood with me on the street and smoked some more while we bathed in the comfortable winter wind.

That's when I saw him again, or so I thought. A Buddhist monk was walking by on the street.

"Oi, bald man. Oi, Buddhist. Need some stuff?" the peddler shouted out to him.

The crowd around the narrow crossroad turned its gaze towards the peddler. He kept shouting and calling out to Lobsang. Lobsang kept his eyes on the ground, not moving from the feet. As Lobsang walked away from the lane towards the main road, the peddler turned around to see the crowd staring at him. The peddler looked all around and started laughing as the crowd dispersed and he took a drunken walk to the curb and sat down.


Lobsang ran away from his monastery when he was twenty-nine. He had come to Calcutta to look for certain books when a man had mugged him on the streets in the night. With no money to go back, he reacted. He ran behind the man who stole the money and tackled him on the ground. The man reacted with his elbows but Lobsang hit him in the face a few times till his fist was bloodied. The tussle went on for what felt like a few minutes. When Lobsang got up, he noticed that the man was not moving and his clothes were tattered.

Lobsang went to the nearest police station with his bloodied, torn attire, surrendered and confessed the whole incident. He stayed locked up in the prison for eight months while he waited for his trail to finish. The state-sponsored lawyer made sure he was proven not guilty with a plea of self-defense. The man he had killed, was a repeating offender. It did not take the judge much to persuade.

Since then Lobsang has roamed the streets of Calcutta and Eastern India without any affiliation to a monastery, much like students unaffiliated to the universities, reading and studying on their own. Lobsang wrote about his days in the prison in a national daily. He wrote about how in his life of repentance he had come closer to the common people and in the process acquired greater knowledge. The insularity of the monasteries had never led him to ponder on deeper questions of practical ethics. When was it right or wrong to kill a man?


It was when he was published in the daily, which was later syndicated across various websites and social media, I recognized the man I saw on the streets those two times. Lobsang was a man who was much more complicated than he first appeared under the simple clothing. The ochre-colored cloth seemed to me like a vessel to carry the ascetic body and also a costume to hide behind. As the media lapped over him and slowly projected him as a man of wisdom, I started to wonder whether wisdom was too hasty a word to use for anyone.

During an encounter with Lobsang when I accompanied my friend Romila, a documentary director, he looked into the camera and gave elaborate answers to all questions Romila threw at him. During one of the interviews that he was giving for a television network, we followed him into the studio and recorded the interview from behind the studio cameras. His face never flinched when he confessed about the killing. His smiles transitioned effortlessly into a contemplative face. We replayed the videos in slow motion but couldn’t find an iota of guilt on his face. His wandering it appeared had indeed purged his guilt.

When we asked him what motivated him to write in the daily, his eyes looked into one of the cameras for a second and then looked straight into Romila’s eyes and he answered, “I wanted to share the knowledge I accumulated over the years.”

Written by: Debarun Sarkar
Photograph by: Michael Ken

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