Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Old Man and the hills

On the curious case of Amran Abraham in Mcleodganj.

Aditya Raj Kaul


June 24th, 2012

Amran Abraham being blessed by The Dalai Lama
The Tibetan Children’s Village Café (TCV) at the Dolma Chowk in misty McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh, is a favourite among tourists from around the world. Famous for its coffee and local delicacies and ideally located at the sprawling market-centre at the roof-top, the cafe is thronged by people through the day.

Amidst the visiting crowd, seated next to the staircase is a frail old man, who looks barely alive. An obvious foreigner, the figure draped in white from head to toe is quiet, unmoving and in no visible discomfort. Even though, there is a certain vibrancy of compassion emerging from his glowing wet eyes, silence is all we can absorb from his grace. With merely odd walking stick by his side, this unknown personality, who attracts tourists visiting the destination, remains seated like an unnoticed deity.

In this tiny hamlet at Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, this is the story of a stranger, far from his home in New York. A lifelong tourist, he travels to survive each day and make ends meet. It is a hidden, untold tale of a curious old man from Mcleodganj, headquarters of the Dalai Lama-led Tibetan government-in-exile.

“Oh yes..he’s famous around here. I just saw him walking last weekend”, says Ken Smith, an 'atmospheric enthusiast' (sic), who maintains a blog to track the weather of Mcleodganj, to help tourists.

'Amram', as the locals address him, may even be a 100 years old, for all we know. Some speculate he is 61, despite his fragile body, severely hunched back and his long white beard. He has no home, no relatives either. Tourists mesmerised by him, help Amram with meals and even lodging, at hotels around the hill station.

“He was severely hunched over, walked with a cane, had a white beard down to almost his stomach, and was dressed in white khakis, white jacket and flip flops”, remembers Farrell Gilmour, a Canadian tourist on his travel blog. Beset by Parkinson's disease, Amram's skin is being eaten away by a fungal infection. The imperfection of his shivering hands however doesn't stand ground compared to the perfection of his smile which oozes tranquillity.

Travelers from across oceans who have visited Mcleodganj have written extensively about the strange old man they encountered, not just from the USA and Canada, but even counties such as Israel and New Zealand. The outpourings in these writings doesn't end at the hopelessness of the old man they all met, but also the frustration associated with dealing with him as a matter of normal routine.

At the St John’s Church in the wilderness, merely a mile away from the Mcleodganj main entrance, Dan and Fion saw Amram, “I spotted an old white man – thin, bent over and shaking with Parkinson's, who was obviously having trouble getting up from his seat. So I did the noble thing and asked Dan to help him”, writes Fion, “little knowing that my famous last words of 'Dan, do you want to help that guy up from his chair' would turn into 'Dan, do you want to help that guy walk/ pee/ sit/ stand/ move for the rest of the day?' - and possibly ad infinitum if he had anything to do with it…”

Writes Mario, a fellow working towards rural electrification in India, where he landed after helping the victims of the earthquake in Haiti, “Many months after having met Amram, all that stays is not the regret for having helped him, or having dragged some friends into helping him (sic), but primarily an appreciation for the fact that in the world there are many people willing to help an old man.”

Born and raised in the USA, Amram Abraham has been traveling the world continuously for 44 years and claims to have visited more than 100 countries. “I lived in a motor home in the USA and Canada for 12 years, in Jerusalem for ten years, and in India for more than two decades, and have come to rest in the Himalaya Mountains,” Abraham says, adding, “Life in India is quite rugged and to make money as a tourist is almost impossible”.

A Google search on his name opens to a ‘Letter of Appeal’, bearing his signature, requesting for sponsorship from volunteers in the form of cash deposits through wire transfer. The appeal is attached along a photograph of Dalai Lama blessing Amram, perhaps a sign of genuineness of this appeal. Not just the Dalai Lama but even Hollywood star Richard Gere has promoted this appeal on his Facebook page.

“I was hit hard by the world financial crisis in 2008 and my savings were wiped out. In the same year I developed Parkinson's disease. I am taking a course of Tibetan herbal medicine from the Dalai Lama's personal physician and am starting a course of Tibetan acupuncture and massage”, writes Amram, in the letter.

“Life in India is inexpensive and costs me 800 euros per month for room, food, medical treatment, a caregiver and taxi fare. May I request your generous financial support during this crisis at this time in my life. I would be grateful for your pledge to donate an amount to enable me to cover my life expenses and to continue medical treatment. Please be my sponsor”, he writes further.

While most tourists are touched by his sufferings, there are a few sceptics, who call him a 'good actor' who is only 'gaining sympathy'. There are yet others who call him a CIA agent or even a Chinese spy. Often visibly irritated, even abusive, he moves on in his solitary caravan.

The  only family he seems to have is a local Tibetan nurse who is often seen feeding him with mashed fruits and porridge. Is there a sense of abandonment in his heart or is it a desire to remain secluded?

“I never incorporated myself into society”, the old man had told Ferell while parting, adding that he had never worked a day in his life. Perhaps, society too left him to himself, wandering in the meadows of Mcleodganj.

With a sliver of sunlight touching his feet, he stands alone, gazing at the endless street. A light-grey English cap on his head, he slants his face at an odd angle. Neither the cries in the market nor the tourist rush bother him. The walking stick keeps his aged body erect. Perhaps it isn't the wooden stick but the resolve to keep going on.

I was at the rooftop of the Café when I noticed his presence far down the street at the intersection. As I ran closer to the verandah of the cafe to frame a picture on my lens, he raced down the street towards the 152-year-old Nowrojee General Merchants shop. The fraction of a second was enough for him to get going.

He gave me a glance, perhaps for the frame which I managed to fix, and as I clicked... he walked away. Into yet another journey of hopelessness.

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