I am pleased to be sharing the prologue and first chapter of The Art of Purring.
Oh good, you’re finally here, though you’ve taken your time about it, if you don’t mind my saying so! You see, dear reader, I have a message for you. Not an everyday message and certainly not one from an ordinary person. What’s more, it concerns your deepest, personal happiness.
There’s really no need to turn around to see who may be standing behind you or, indeed, to either side. This message really is for you.
It’s not everyone in the world who gets to read these words—only a very tiny minority of humans ever will. Nor should you believe that it’s some kind of chance event that finds you reading them at this particular moment in your life. Only those of you with very specific karma will ever discover what I’m about to say—readers with a particular connection to me.
Or should I say us.
You see, I am the Dalai Lama’s Cat, and the message I have for you comes from none other than His Holiness.
How can I make such a preposterous claim? Have I taken complete leave of my senses? If you will allow me to curl up on your metaphorical lap I will explain.
At some point, nearly every cat lover faces a dilemma: How do you tell your feline companion that you are going away? And not just for a long weekend.
Exactly how humans break the news of their impending absence is a subject of great concern to cats. Some of us like plenty of advance warning so we can mentally steel ourselves for the change in routine. Others prefer the news to swoop unheralded from the sky like an angry magpie in nesting season: by the time you realize what’s about to happen, it already has.
Interestingly, our staff members seem to have an innate sense of this and act accordingly, some sweet-talking their puss for weeks before their departure, others producing the dreaded cat carrier from the storage cupboard without notice.
As it happens, I am among the most fortunate of cats, because when the Dalai Lama goes traveling, the household routine here at Namgyal continues in much the same way. I still spend part of each day on his first-floor windowsill, a vantage point from which I can maintain maximum surveillance with minimum effort, just as I spend some time most days in the office of His Holiness’s executive assistants. And then there is my regular stroll a short distance away to the congenial surroundings and delectable enticements of the Himalaya Book Café.
Even so, when His Holiness isn’t here life is not the same. How can I describe what it is like to be in the presence of the Dalai Lama? Quite simply, it is extraordinary. From the moment he enters a room, every being within it is touched by his energy of heartfelt happiness. Whatever else may be going on in your life, whatever tragedy or loss you may be facing, for the time that you are with His Holiness, you experience the sensation that deep down all is well.
If you haven’t experienced this before, it is like being awakened to a dimension of yourself that has been there all this time, flowing like an underground river although until now it has gone undetected. Reconnected to this source, you not only experience the profound peace and wellspring at the heart of your being, but you may also, for a moment, catch a glimpse of your own consciousness—radiant, boundless, and imbued with love.
The Dalai Lama sees us as we really are and reflects our true nature back to us. This is why so many people simply melt in his presence. I’ve seen important men in dark suits cry just because he touched them on the arm. Leaders of the world’s great religions line up to meet him and then rejoin the line to be introduced to him a second time. I’ve watched people in wheelchairs weep tears of joy when he went four deep into a crowd to take their hand. His Holiness reminds us of the best that we can be. Is there a greater gift?
So you will understand, dear reader, that even though I continue to enjoy a life of privilege and comfort when the Dalai Lama is traveling, I still very much prefer it when he is at home. His Holiness knows this, just as he recognizes that I am a cat who likes to be told when he is going away. If either of his executive assistants—young Chogyal, the roly-poly monk who helps him with monastic matters, or Tenzin, the seasoned diplomat who helps him in secular business—presents him with a request involving travel, he will look up and say something like, “Two days in New Delhi at the end of next week.”
They may think he is confirming the visit. In reality, he is saying this specifically for my benefit.
In the days leading up to a longer journey, he will remind me of the trip by visualizing the number of sleeps—that is, nights—he will be away. And on the final evening before his departure, he always makes sure we have some quality time alone together, just the two of us. In these few minutes we commune in the profound way possible only between cats and their human companions.
Which brings me back to the message His Holiness asked me to pass on to you. He brought it up the evening before his departure on a seven-week teaching trip to the United States and Europe—the longest time we had ever been apart. As twilight fell over Kangra Valley, he pushed back from his desk, walked over to where I was resting on the sill, and kneeled beside me. “I have to go tomorrow, my little Snow Lion,” he said, looking deep into my blue eyes as he used his favorite term of endearment. It’s one that delights me, as the Tibetans consider snow lions to be celestial beings, symbolizing beauty, fearlessness, and cheerfulness. “Seven weeks is longer than I am usually away. I know you like me to be here, but there are other beings who need me, too.”
I got up from where I was resting and, placing my paws out in front of me, had a good, long stretch before yawning widely.
“What a nice, pink mouth,” His Holiness said, smiling. “I am glad to see your teeth and gums in good condition.”
Moving closer, I affectionately head-butted him.
“Oh, you make me laugh!” he said. We remained there, forehead to forehead, as he ran his fingers down my neck. “I am going away for some time, but your happiness should not depend on me being here. You can still be very happy.”
With his fingertips he massaged the back of my ears, just the way I like.
“Perhaps you think happiness comes from being with me or from the food you are given down at the café.” His Holiness had no illusions about why I was such an eager patron of the Himalaya Book Café. “But over the next seven weeks, try to discover for yourself the true cause of happiness. When I get back, you can tell me what you have found.”
Gently and with deep affection, the Dalai Lama took me in his arms and stood facing the open window and the view down Kangra Valley. It was a magnificent sight: the verdant, winding valley, the rolling evergreen forests. In the distance, the icy summits of the Himalayas gleamed in the late afternoon sunshine. The gentle breeze wafting through the window was redolent of pine, rhododendron, and oak; the air stirred with enchantment.
“I will tell you the true causes of happiness,” he whispered in my ear. “A special message just for you—and for those with whom you have a karmic connection.”
I began to purr, and soon my purring rose to the steady, throaty volume of a miniature outboard motor. “Yes, my little Snow Lion,” the Dalai Lama said. “I would like you to investigate the art of purring.”
Have you ever marveled, dear reader, at how the most apparently trivial decision can sometimes lead to the most life-changing events? You make what you believe to be a humdrum, everyday kind of choice, and it has outcomes as dramatic as they are unforeseen.
That is exactly what happened the Monday afternoon I decided that instead of going straight home from the Himalaya Book Café, I would take the so-called scenic path. It was not a route I had taken very often, for the simple reason that it isn’t really very scenic—or even much of a path. It is more of a humble back alley that runs along behind the Himalaya Book Café and the adjacent premises.
It is, however, a longer way home, so I knew it would take me ten minutes rather than the usual five to get back to Namgyal. But having spent the afternoon asleep on the magazine rack of the café, I felt the need to stretch my legs.
So when I reached the front door, instead of turning right, I headed left. Ambling past the side doors of the café I made another left turn and walked along the narrow lane used for garbage cans, redolent with kitchen scraps and tantalizing aromas. I continued on my way, somewhat wobbly, as my hind legs have been weak since I was a kitten. I paused once to cuff at an intriguing silver-and-brown object lodged under the rear gate of the café, only to discover that it was a champagne cork that had somehow gotten jammed in the grill.
It was as I was preparing to turn left again that I first became aware of danger. About 20 yards away, on the main street, I spotted a pair of the largest and most ferocious looking dogs I had ever seen. Strangers to the district, they were a menacing presence as they stood with nostrils flared and long fur rippling in the late afternoon breeze.
Worst of all, they were unleashed.
With the wisdom of hindsight, what I should have done at that point was retreat back into the alley and exit through the café’s rear gate, where I would have been completely secure behind bars wide enough for me to slip through but much too narrow for these monsters.
In the exact moment I was wondering if they had seen me, they saw me and instantly gave chase. Instinct kicking in, I made a sharp right and scrambled as fast as my uncertain limbs would take me. Heart pounding and hair standing on end, I raced desperately in search of refuge. For those few adrenaline-charged moments I felt capable of going anywhere and doing anything, be it scrambling up the tallest tree or squeezing through the narrowest gap.
But there was no escape route, no safe ground. The dogs’ vicious baying was getting louder as they closed in behind me. In an absolute panic, with nowhere else to turn, I darted into a spice shop, thinking that I might find some place to climb to safety or at least be able to throw the dogs off my scent.
The tiny shop was lined with wooden chests on which brass bowls of spices were carefully laid out. Several matronly women, who were grinding powder in pestles on their laps, let out cries of shock as I ran past their ankles, followed by bellows of outrage as the dogs, high on bloodlust, bounded after me.
I heard a crash of metal on concrete as bowls tumbled. Clouds of spices exploded into the air. Racing to the back of the store, I looked for a shelf to jump up on but found only a firmly closed door. However, there was a gap between two chests that was just wide enough for me to claw my way through. Behind it, in place of a wall, there was only a torn plastic sheet, and beyond that, a deserted lane.
Shoving their great heads into the gap between the chests, the dogs launched into a frenzy of yapping. Terrified, I quickly scanned the gutter: it came to a dead end. The only way out would be to go back to the road.
From inside the spice store came plaintive yelping as the angry women apprehended the two thugs. With my usually lustrous white coat dusted with spices of every color, I scampered along the gutter to the road and ran as fast as my frail legs would take me. But the road was on an incline, slight but punishing. Even though I was straining every sinew of my being, my efforts were to little avail. Struggling to get as far away from the dogs as I could, I searched for somewhere, anywhere, that offered protection. But I saw only shop windows, concrete walls, and impenetrable steel gates.
Behind me the commotion of barking continued, now accompanied by the angry yelling of the women from the spice shop. I turned to see them shoving the dogs out of the shop, slapping them on the flanks. Wild-eyed and with tongues hanging out, the two slavering beasts pawed the pavement outside, while I continued struggling uphill, hoping the steady stream of pedestrians and cars would conceal my whereabouts.
But there was to be no escape.
Within moments the two beasts had caught my scent and resumed the chase. Their ferocious growling filled me with pure fear.
I had gained some ground, but it wasn’t enough. It would take hardly any time for the two beasts to catch up. Reaching a property surrounded by high white walls, I spotted a wooden trellis climbing one wall, next to a black iron gate. Never before would I have even considered what I did next, but what choice did I have? With only seconds before the dogs would be upon me, I leapt onto the trellis and began scrambling up it as fast as my fluffy gray legs would let me. With great lurches I dragged myself up, paw by paw.
I had just reached the top when the beasts closed in. Amid a frenzy of barking, they hurled themselves against the trellis. There was a crash of wood as the lattice cracked, and the top half swung away from the wall. Had I still been scaling it, I would have found myself dangling over the dogs’ gaping maws.
Standing on top of the wall, I looked down at their bared teeth and trembled at their blood-curdling snarls. It was like looking directly into the faces of beings from the hell realms.
The manic frenzy of noise continued until the dogs were distracted by a canine licking something off the pavement farther down the street. As they raced toward that dog, the beasts were stopped short by a tall man in a tweed jacket, who seized them by the collar and snapped on their leashes. As he was bending over them, I heard a passerby remark, “Beautiful Labradors!”
“Golden Retrievers,” corrected the man. “Young and high-spirited. But,” he added, patting them affectionately, “lovely animals.”
Lovely animals? Had the whole world gone completely mad?
It was ages before my heart rate returned to something approaching normal, and only then was the reality of my situation apparent. Looking around, I could find no branch or ledge or escape route of any kind. The wall on which I was standing had a gate at one end and a sheer drop at the other. I was about to raise paw to mouth to give my spice-smeared face a much-needed and reassuring wash when I caught a whiff of something so pungent that it made me stop instantly. Just one lick, I knew, would set my mouth on fire. That did it. There I was, trapped on a high and unfamiliar wall, and I couldn’t even groom myself!
I had no choice but to stay where I was and wait for something to happen. In stark contrast to all the turmoil I was feeling, the property inside the wall was the very picture of serenity, like the Pure Lands of the Buddhas that I had heard the monks talking about. Through the trees I could see a large, stately building surrounded by rolling lawns and flower-filled gardens. I longed to be down in those gardens or prowling along the veranda—it looked like just the kind of place where I would fit in. If someone inside that beautiful building spotted the snow lion stranded on top of their wall, surely they would have the compassion to come to my rescue!
But despite much activity at the main gate of the building, no one walked in or out of the pedestrian gate near me. And the wall was so high that passersby on the sidewalk could barely see me. The few who did glance my way seemed to take no notice. As time went by and the sun began to slide toward the horizon, I realized that I would be there all night if no one came to my aid. I let out a meow that was plaintive but restrained: I knew only too well that many people don’t like cats and coming to their attention would only put me in an even worse predicament.
I needn’t have worried about unwanted attention, however, because I received no attention at all. In the Himalaya Book Café I might be revered as HHC, the Dalai Lama’s Cat. But out here, spice-stained and unknown, I was completely ignored.
Dear reader, I will spare you a full account of the next few hours I spent on the wall and the indifferent glances and uncomprehending smiles I was forced to endure, along with the stones thrown by two bored scamps on their way home from school. It was after nightfall and I was weary with fatigue when I noticed a woman walking along across the street. At first I didn’t recognize her, but there was something about her that gave me a sense that she would be the one to save me.
I meowed imploringly. She crossed the road. As she drew closer I saw that it was Serena Trinci, the daughter of Mrs. Trinci, His Holiness’s VIP chef and my most ardent admirer at Namgyal. Recently appointed caretaker-manager of the Himalaya Book Café, Serena was in her mid-30s. Looking svelte, her dark shoulder-length hair gathered in a ponytail, she was dressed in her yoga clothes.
“Rinpoche!” she exclaimed, looking aghast. “What are you doing up there?”
We had seen each other only twice at the café, so when she recognized me, my relief was beyond measure. Within moments she had dragged a nearby garbage can over to the wall and climbed up to where I was. Gathering me in her arms, she couldn’t help noticing the bedraggled state of my spice-flecked coat.
“What’s happened, poor little thing?” she asked, taking in the multicolored stains and pungent aromas as she held me close. “You must have been in some sort of trouble.”
Nuzzling my face into her chest, I felt enveloped by the warm fragrance of her skin and the reassuring beat of her heart. Step by step, as we made our way home, my relief deepened into something altogether stronger: a powerful sense of connection.
Having spent most of her adult life in Europe, Serena had arrived back in McLeod Ganj—the part of Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama lives—only a few weeks earlier. She had grown up there, in a household devoted to food. So after high school she had gone to catering college in Italy and then worked as a chef, rising through the ranks at some of Europe’s best restaurants. Recently she had left her post as head chef at Venice’s iconic Hotel Danieli for the top job at a fashionable restaurant in Mayfair, an upscale part of London.
I knew that Serena was ambitious, energetic, and extremely gifted, and I had heard her explain to Franc, owner of the Himalaya Book Café, how she had felt the need for a break from the 24-hour treadmill of restaurant life. She was burned out from the relentless stress, and it was time to rest and recharge: when she returned to London in six months, she would be taking on one of the most prestigious jobs in the city.
Little had she known that her arrival home would coincide with the exact moment that Franc needed someone to look after the café. He was returning to San Francisco to take care of his father, who was seriously ill. While managing any kind of food business hadn’t figured in Serena’s holiday plans, compared to what she was used to, taking care of the Himalaya Book Café would seem like a part-time job. The café was open for dinner only from Thursday through Saturday, and with the head waiter, Kusali, overseeing daytime service, the demands on Serena would not be great. It would be fun, Franc assured her, and give her something to do.
More importantly, he needed someone to take care of his two dogs. Marcel, the French bulldog, and Kyi Kyi, the Lhasa Apso, were the other two nonhuman habitués of the café, dozing through most of the day in their wicker basket under the reception counter.
Within two weeks Serena’s presence at the café had made its mark; on meeting her, people immediately fell under her spell. Patrons of the café couldn’t help but respond to her vivacity: she seemed to know just how to turn an evening out into a night to remember. As she breezed through the café, her warmth and upbeat personality soon had the waiters falling all over themselves to please her. Sam, the bookstore manager, was openly captivated by her, and Kusali, tall and shrewd—an Indian Jeeves—took her under his paternal wing.
I had been resting in my usual place—the top shelf of the magazine stand, between Vogue and Vanity Fair—when Franc introduced me to Serena as Rinpoche. Pronounced rin-po-shay, it means precious one in Tibetan and is an honorific given to learned Tibetan Buddhist teachers. Serena had responded to the introduction by reaching out and caressing my face. “How utterly adorable!” is all she said.
My lapis-blue eyes had met her gleaming dark ones, and there was a moment of recognition. I became aware of something that is of the utmost importance to cats, something we innately sense: I was in the presence of a Cat Lover.
Now, in the wake of my run-in with the dogs and the spice shop, Serena, with help from Kusali and some warm, wet cloths, was tenderly wiping away the spices that had become embedded in my thick coat. We were in the restaurant laundry, a small room behind the kitchen.
“Not so nice for Rinpoche,” remarked Serena as she removed a dark smudge from one of my gray boots with great delicacy. “But I just love the smell of all these spices. They take me back to our kitchen at home when I was growing up: cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, cloves—the wonderful flavors of garam masala, which we used in chicken curry and other dishes.”
“You prepared curries, Miss Serena?” Kusali was surprised.
“That’s how I started out in the kitchen,” she told him. “Those were the flavors of my childhood. Now Rinpoche is bringing them all back.”
“Our esteemed diners are often asking if we have Indian dishes on the menu, ma’am.”
“I know. I’ve had several requests already.”
There was no shortage of kiosks, street kitchens, and more formal restaurants in Dharamsala. But as Kusali observed, “People seek a trusted purveyor.”
“You’re right,” agreed Serena. Then, after a pause she added, “But Franc was pretty clear about sticking to the menu.”
“And we must respect his wishes”—Kusali was emphatic—“on the nights the café is customarily open.”
There was a pause while Serena removed several whole peppercorns that had lodged themselves in my bushy tail and Kusali dabbed tentatively at a garish splash of paprika on my chest.
When Serena spoke next there was a smile in her voice. “Kusali, are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Sorry, ma’am, I am not understanding.”
“Are you thinking we might open on a Wednesday, say, to try out a few curry dishes?”
Kusali met her eyes with an expression of wonderment and a broad smile. “A most excellent idea, ma’am!”
We cats have no fondness for water, and a damp cat is an unhappy one. Serena knew this, so as soon as she and Kusali had cleaned my coat to something approaching its usual pristine condition, she dried me with a towel chosen especially for its fluffiness, before asking Kusali to find a few morsels of chicken breast to tide me over until she took me home to Jokhang.
Being a Monday evening, the restaurant was closed, but Kusali found some delectable morsels in the fridge and warmed them briefly before placing them in the small china bowl kept exclusively for me. From force of habit, he took it to my usual spot at the back of the café, and Serena followed with me in her arms.
Although the café was in semidarkness, it so happened that Sam Goldberg, the bookstore manager, was hosting a book club meeting that night. Leaving me to my dinner, which I attacked with gusto, Serena and Kusali went to the bookstore section of the café, where 20 or so people were sitting on chairs set up in rows, watching a slide presentation.
“This is an illustration of the future from a book written in the late 1950s,” a male voice was saying. The speaker’s shaven head, wire-rimmed spectacles, and goatee gave him a cheeky look, adding to the aura of naughtiness about him. I recognized the face instantly. Sam had hung a poster of him in the store several weeks earlier, along with a quote from Psychology Today describing the man—a well-known psychologist—as “one of the foremost thought leaders of our time.”
It was then that I noticed Sam standing at the back to greet latecomers. Fresh-faced and handsome, Sam has a high forehead, curly, dark hair, and hazel eyes that behind his somewhat geeky glasses convey a luminous intelligence, along with a curious lack of self-confidence. Like Serena, Sam had been working at the Himalayan Book Café for only a short while, although his was a permanent job.
Sam had established himself as a regular patron at the café several months ago, and when Franc quizzed him about the books and downloads that seemed to hold his constant attention, Sam explained that he had worked in a major Los Angeles bookstore until it had recently closed down. This had instantly grabbed Franc’s attention. Franc had been thinking of converting the underused space in Café Franc, as it was known then, into a bookstore, but he needed someone with experience to make it happen. If ever there was a case of right person, right place, right time, this was it.
But it had taken some persuasion. Sam was still nursing his wounds from being laid off when the LA bookstore closed down and didn’t think he was up to the job. Franc had had to use all of his charm—aided by the considerable powers of persuasion of his lama, Geshe Wangpo—to get Sam to relent and set up the bookstore section of the Himalaya Book Café.
“Bearing in mind that from a 1950’s perspective, today is the future,” continued Sam’s guest speaker, “would anyone care to comment on the accuracy of the author’s vision?”
There were chuckles from the audience. The picture on the screen showed a housewife dusting the furniture, while outside her husband was docking his anti-gravity car, having descended from a sky filled with flying cars and people with jet packs on their backs
“The Lucille Ball hairdo isn’t very futuristic,” one of the women in the audience remarked, to even more laughter. “The clothes,” someone else said to more guffaws. The woman in her puffy skirt and her husband in his drainpipe pants clearly didn’t look like anyone we would see today.
“What about those jet packs?” contributed another.
“That’s right,” agreed the speaker. “We’re still waiting for them.” He flicked through several more images. “These show what people back in the 1950s thought the future would be like. And what makes these images so wonderfully, charmingly wrong isn’t just what’s in the pictures. It’s also what’s not in them. Tell me what’s missing from this one,” he said, pausing at an artist’s rendering of a streetscape in 2020, with conveyer-belts as sidewalks, whisking pedestrians along.
Absorbed as I was in my chicken dinner, even I found the image on the screen surreal for reasons I couldn’t quite place. There was a pause before someone observed, “No mobile phones.”
“No female executives,” offered another.
“No people of color,” said someone.
“No tattoos,” added somebody else, as the audience began to notice more and more.
The speaker allowed a few moments for the images to sink in. “You might say that the difference between the way things were in the 1950s and the way people imagined the future to be came down to what they focused on—anti-gravity cars, say, or conveyer-belted sidewalks. They imagined that everything else would stay the same.”
There was a pause while the audience digested what he had just said.
“That, my friends, is one reason why we are all so poor at guessing how we’ll feel about certain things in the future—in particular, about what is likely to make us happy. It’s because we imagine that everything in our lives will stay just the same except for the one thing that we’re focused on.
“Some call this presentism, the tendency to think that the future will be just like the present but with one particular difference. Our minds are very good at filling in everything else, apart from that difference, when we think about tomorrow. And the material we use to fill it in with is today as these images illustrate.”
Continuing, the speaker said, “Research shows that when we make predictions about how we’ll feel about future events, we don’t realize that our minds have played this ‘filling in’ trick. That’s part of why we think that getting the job with the corner office will deliver a feeling of success and achievement, or that driving an expensive car will be a source of undiluted joy. We think our lives will be just the same as they are now, with that one point of difference. But the reality, as we’ve seen”—the speaker gestured toward the screen—“is a lot more complicated. We don’t imagine, for example, the huge shift in work-life balance that comes with the corner-office job, or the anxiety we’ll feel about getting scratches and dents in the shiny new car, not to mention the pain of those monthly lease payments.”
I could have stayed longer to listen to the speaker, but Serena wanted to get home, and she was going to see me safely back to Jokhang. Carrying me in her arms, she slipped out the back door of the café and took the short walk up the road. At Namgyal we made our way across the courtyard to His Holiness’s residence, where Serena bent down and placed me, like a piece of delicate porcelain, on the steps to the main entrance..
“I hope you’re feeling more yourself, little Rinpoche,” she murmured, running her fingers through my coat, which was now almost dry. I loved the feel of her long fingernails massaging my skin. Reaching over, I licked her leg with my sandpaper tongue.
She laughed. “Oh, my little girl, I love you, too!”
Chogyal, one of His Holiness’s assistants, had left dinner for me upstairs in the usual place, but having already eaten at the café I wasn’t really hungry. After lapping up some lactose-free milk, I made my way into the private quarters I shared with His Holiness. The room where he spent most of each day was silent and lighted only by the moon. I headed to my favorite spot on the windowsill. Even though the Dalai Lama was many miles away in America, I felt his presence as if he was right beside me. Perhaps it was the spell of the moonlight, which cast everything in the room in an ethereal monochrome, but whatever the reason, I felt a profound sense of peace. It was the same feeling of well-being I experienced whenever I was with him. I think what he was telling me as he left on his trip was that this flow of serenity and benevolence is something any of us can connect with. We only need to sit quietly.
I began licking my paw and washing my face for the first time since the horrors of the afternoon. I could still see the dogs bearing down on me, but now it felt as though I was picturing events that had happened to some other cat. What had seemed so overwhelming and traumatic at the time, in the tranquility of Namgyal diminished to just a memory.
I remembered the psychologist down at the café describing how people often have little idea about what will make them happy. His illustrations were intriguing, and as he spoke, something else struck me about his message: it was quite familiar because the Dalai Lama often used to say the same thing. He didn’t use words like presentism, but his meaning was identical. His Holiness also observed how we tell ourselves that our happiness depends on certain situations, relationships, or accomplishments. How we think we’ll be unhappy if we don’t get what we want. Just as he pointed out the paradox that, even when we do get what we want, it often fails to deliver the happiness we expect.
Settling down on the sill, I gazed out into the night. Squares of light flickered through the darkness from the monks’ residences. Aromas wafted through the first floor window, hinting at the evening meals being prepared in the monastery kitchens. I listened to the bass-toned chants from the temple, as the senior monks brought their early evening meditation session to a close. Despite the trauma of the afternoon and coming back to an empty, unlighted home, as I sat on the sill with my paws tucked under me, I felt a contentment more profound than I would ever have predicted.
The next few days were a buzz of activity down at the Himalaya Book Café. Along with all the usual busyness, Serena was rapidly evolving her ideas for a curry night. She consulted with the café chefs, the Nepalese brothers Jigme and Ngawang Dragpa, who were only too happy to share their own family favorites. She also scoured the Internet for rare treasures to add to her already full recipe book of personal favorites.
One Monday night Serena invited a group of friends she had grown up with in McLeod Ganj to sample some of the curry dishes she had rediscovered or reinvented. From the kitchen came a mélange of enticing spices never before combined in such glorious profusion at the café—coriander and fresh ginger, sweet paprika and hot chili, garam masala, yellow mustard seeds, and nutmeg.
Working in the kitchen for the first time since returning from Europe, Serena was in her element as she prepared crunchy vegetarian samosas, removed generous helpings of naan—Indian flatbread—from the oven, and decorated brass bowls of Madras curry with spirals of yoghurt. She remembered the sheer joy of creation, the passion that had led her to train as a professional chef. Experimenting with a whole palette of flavors was something she hadn’t ventured in 15 years.
Her friends had been grateful but constructive critics. Such was their enthusiasm that by the time the last pistachio-and-cardamom kulfi had been eaten and the last glass of chai had been drunk, the idea of a curry night had expanded into something altogether more extravagant: it was to be an Indian banquet.
I was the top-shelf witness to the inaugural banquet less than two weeks later. As the Abiding Presence of the Himalaya Book Café, why would I not be? Besides, Serena had promised me a generous serving of her delectable Malabar fish curry.
Never had there been so many diners in the restaurant at one time. The event had proved so popular that extra tables had to be brought into the bookstore area and two additional wait staff hired for the night. Joining the local residents who were café regulars were Serena’s family and friends, many of whom had known Serena as a child. Serena’s mother was operatic and center stage in a multi-colored Indian shawl, her gold bracelets jangling at her wrists and her amber eyes flashing with pride as she watched her daughter choreograph the evening.
As if to compensate for the Italian brio, at the table next to Mrs. Trinci’s was a more sedate contingent from the Dalai Lama’s office, including His Holiness’s executive assistants, Chogyal and Tenzin, along with Tenzin’s wife, Susan, and His Holiness’s translator, Lobsang.
Chogyal, with his warm heart and soft hands, was my favorite monk after the Dalai Lama. With wisdom well beyond his years in dealing with often-tricky monastic matters, he was of great assistance to His Holiness. He was also responsible for feeding me when the Dalai Lama was away, a duty he performed punctiliously.
It had been Chogyal who, a year earlier, had volunteered to take me home with him while the Dalai Lama’s quarters were being redecorated. After lashing out at him for having the temerity to remove me from all that was familiar, I had spent three days sulking under the bed covers, only to discover that I had been missing out on an exciting new world, one inhabited by a magnificent tabby who was to become the father of my kittens. Through all these adventures Chogyal had remained my patient and devoted friend.
Across the desk from him in the executive assistants’ office sat Tenzin, a suave professional diplomat whose hands always had the tang of carbolic soap about them. He had been educated in Britain, and I had learned most of what I knew about European culture from lunchtimes in the first-aid room, listening to the BBC World Service with Tenzin.
I didn’t know Tenzin’s wife, Susan, but I was familiar with His Holiness’s translator, Lobsang, a deeply serene young monk. . Lobsang and Serena had known each other from way back, having both grown up together in McLeod Ganj. A relative of the royal family of Bhutan, Lobsang had been a novice monk studying at Namgyal when Mrs. Trinci needed extra sous-chefs in the kitchen. He and Serena had been conscripted, and a close and delightful friendship had ensued, which was why Lobsang was also present for the Indian banquet.
The night of the banquet, Serena had transformed the café into a sumptuous dining room with richly embroidered and sequined tablecloths on which she had placed exquisitely carved condiment pots. Clustered at every setting were flickering tea lights in brass lotus-flower holders.
Indian trance music swelled and ebbed hypnotically in the background as a parade of dishes appeared from the kitchen. From the vegetable pakoras to the mango chicken, each one of them received an ecstatic response. As for the Malabar fish curry, I could personally vouch for it. The fish was mild and succulent, the sauce deliciously creamy, with just enough coriander, ginger, and cumin to deliver a delightful zing. Within minutes I not only had eaten my serving but had licked the saucer clean.
At the center of everything, Serena was masterfully in command. She had dressed especially for the performance in a crimson sari, with kohl make-up, chandelier earrings, and a glittering jeweled collar. As the evening wore on, she went from table to table, and I couldn’t help but notice how touched people were by her warm heart. During the time she spent with them, she made them feel as if they were the center of her world. And she, in turn was moved by the outpouring of affection she received.
“It’s so wonderful that you’ve come back, my dear,” an elderly lady who was a family friend told her. “We love all your ideas and energy.”
“We’ve needed someone like you in Dharamsala,” a classmate from Serena’s school days had said. “All the most talented people seem to leave, so when someone comes back we treasure them more than you can imagine.”
Several times during the evening I watched her lip tremble with emotion as she raised a handkerchief to dab the corner of her eye. Something special was happening in the Himalaya Book Café, something that went beyond the Indian banquet, however sumptuous, and was of much greater personal significance.
The clue to it came several nights later.
Over the past few weeks, an intriguing working relationship had been unfolding between Serena and Sam. Serena’s vivacity was the perfect complement to Sam’s shyness. His cerebral wonderland was balanced by the here-and-now world of food and wine that she inhabited. And knowing that she was only a caretaker who would be returning to Europe in a few months gave their time together a bittersweet evanescent quality.
They had gotten into the habit of ending each evening that the café was open for dinner in a particular corner of the book store section. Two sofas arranged on either side of a coffee table made the perfect spot from which to survey the last of the restaurant’s diners and talk about whatever was on their minds.
Headwaiter Kusali no longer needed to be asked to bring their order. Shortly after they sat down, he would arrive bearing a tray with two Belgian hot chocolates, one with marshmallows for Serena, the other with biscotti for Sam. Also on the tray would be a saucer with four dog biscuits and, if I was still at the café, a small jug of lactose-free milk.
The soft “clink” of the saucer on the coffee table was the cue for Marcel and Kyi Kyi, who had obediently remained in their basket under the counter for the whole of dinner service. The two dogs would scramble from their basket, race across the restaurant and up the stairs, before sitting at the coffee table with heads cocked and pleading eyes. Their eagerness never failed to bring a smile to the faces of their two human companions, who would watch the dogs devour their biscuits, snuffling up any crumbs on the floor.
I would make my way over in more leisurely fashion, stretching myself for a few quivering moments before hopping down from the top shelf of the magazine rack to join the others.
After their biscuits, the dogs would jump up on the sofa, flanking Sam as they lay on their backs, in eager anticipation of a tummy rub. I would take my place in Serena’s lap, kneading whatever dress she happened to be wearing while giving her an appreciative purr.
“There’s already been a flurry of bookings for our next banquet,” Serena told Sam that particular evening after all five of us were settled.
“That’s great!” he said, sipping his hot chocolate contemplatively. “H-have you decided when you’re going to tell Franc?”
Serena hadn’t. Still in San Francisco, Franc knew nothing about last Wednesday’s Indian banquet experiment. Serena had been holding to the wisdom that it is sometimes better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.
“I thought I’d let him have a pleasant surprise when he gets the month’s financials,” she said.
“He’ll get a surprise all right,” agreed Sam. “The biggest take for a single night since the café opened. And it has turbo-charged everything since. The whole place has become more vibrant. There’s more of a buzz.”
“I’ve thought that, too,” said Serena. “But I wondered if I was the only one.”
“No, the place has changed,” Sam insisted, holding her eyes for a full two seconds before breaking his gaze. “You’ve changed, too.”
“Oh?” she said, smiling. “How?”
“You’ve got this . . . energy. This j-joie de v-vivre.”
Serena nodded. “I do feel different. I’ve been thinking about how in all those years of managing some of the most upscale restaurants in Europe, I don’t think I ever had as much fun as I did last Wednesday night. I never would have believed it could be so wonderfully satisfying!”
Sam reflected for a moment before observing, “As that psychologist said the other day, sometimes it’s hard to predict what will make us happy.”
“Exactly. I’m beginning to wonder if being head chef at one of London’s top restaurants really is what I want to do next.”
I was looking at Sam as she said this and observed the change in his expression. A gleam came into his eyes.
“If I go back to doing the same thing,” continued Serena, “it will probably produce the same result.”
“More stress and b-burnout?”
She nodded. “There are rewards, too, of course. But they’re very different from the ones here.”
“Do you think it was cooking for family and friends that made the difference?” Sam suggested. Then, flashing a mischievous glance he added, “Or was it about awakening the vindaloo within?”
Serena chuckled. “Both. I’ve always adored curries. Even though they’ll never be haute cuisine, I love cooking them because of the many flavors, and they’re so nourishing. But as well as that, it felt as if last Wednesday was really special for people.”
“I agree,” said Sam. “The place had a great vibe.”
“There’s something very fulfilling when you can do what you really care about, and it’s appreciated by others.”
Sam looked pensive before putting down his mug, rising from the sofa, and going to a bookshelf. He returned with a paperback copy of Man’s Search for Meaning, by the Austrian psychologist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. “What you just said reminded me of something,” he said, opening the book at its preface. ‘“Don’t aim at success,’” he read. ‘“The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue . . . as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a course greater than oneself.’”
Serena nodded. “In a very small way, I think that’s what I’m discovering.” For a moment they held each other’s eyes. “And in the strangest of ways.”
Sam was curious. “How do you mean?”
“Well, the whole idea of an Indian banquet only happened because of a chance conversation I had with Kusali. And that only happened because I found little Rinpoche stranded.”
Sam knew about the afternoon I had been trapped on the wall. There had been much speculation about how I had ended up there, none of it correct.
“You might say that all of this only came about because of Rinpoche,” she said, gazing down adoringly and stroking me.
“Rinpoche, the catalyst,” observed Sam.
As the two of them chuckled, I thought how no one, least of all me, could ever have guessed at the chain of events that would be triggered by my decision that Monday afternoon to turn left instead of right when I left the café. Nor would any of us have believed what was still to come. For what had happened so far turned out to be only the beginning of a much bigger story—a story in which many dimensions of happiness were to emerge as unintended but most rewarding side effects.
Unpredictable? Most certainly. Enlightening? Indubitably!
END OF CHAPTER ONE
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