As we pulled out of Gilgit and onto the road south, I looked up at the sawtooth mountains and shuddered at the journey to come. The bus was picking up pace, the radio blaring: Chandni, O meri chandni… I was heading back south to Rawalpindi after several weeks in the mountains. On my lap was a bag of cherries bought from an old woman in the bazaar. The cherries were sweet and plump, but not over-ripe. Beside the cherries was a book I’d found at a second-hand bookstall, a tatty paperback with fungal spots sprawling across the cover and the word ‘Buddhism’ written in biro on the spine. I bought the book on the off-chance that I might discover I was a Buddhist. I imagined myself in five years time, swathed in saffron robes, up in some mountain retreat.
I’d travelled up this same stretch of road before, so I knew the journey ahead was going to be nightmarish. The Karakorum Highway, no wider than a country lane, hugged the sides of the mountains, barely broad enough for two buses to squeeze past each other. Out of the window, a couple of feet away, was the increasingly sheer drop down to the churning Indus river below. Every week, the newspaper had stories of trucks, buses, or wagons veering off the road and plummeting into the river with all lives lost. Even the drivers were not immune to the terrors: an acquaintance in Gilgit told me that they smoked hasish to calm their frayed nerves.
I put my head out of the window—there was no glass—and looked down to where the river bellowed in the gorge. I put a cherry in my mouth, spitting the stone out of the window, watching it arc clear into the middle of the void and then fall out of sight. I imagined the pip being swept downstream where, on the banks of some quiet tributary, it might take root. But leaning out of the window made me feel giddy. It wouldn’t take much—a single slip of the wheels, one misjudged bend, a blaring of the horn just a fraction too late—and we too would join the ranks of the dead. I was eighteen. I was too young to die.
I turned my attention to my bag of cherries, and to the consolations of religion, opening the green, mildewed paperback, and I started to read. I saw there was a chapter on meditation, and thought that it might help me develop a degree of calm. So I flipped through the book, smelling the faint scent of mildew, until my eyes came to rest on a section with the title: Meditation on the Stages of Decomposition of the Corpse.
Despite myself, I started to read.
Stage one: The corpse is bloated, one or two days dead, swollen as a bellows full of wind.
Stage two: The corpse is pecked by crows, hawks and vultures, gnawed by dogs and jackals, devoured by maggots that ooze from the nine orifices like heaps of boiled rice.
Stage three: The corpse is a framework of bones, tied with sinews, bespattered with blood and hanging with flesh.
That was not the consolation I had in mind. I looked up from my reading. Why, I wondered, had I decided to buy this appalling book? It was perverse. It was unhealthy. It was downright weird.
But I had nothing else to do, and reading was better than looking into the abyss. So as the bus jolted and blared its way south, I returned to the book. The corpse meditation, the book said, should not be seen as anything terrifying. Instead, the monk should set out to the charnel house or the morgue, ‘both happy and joyful, like a nobleman on his way to the scene of anointing... or like a pauper on his way to unearth a hidden treasure.’
I ate another couple of cherries. I thought momentarily about throwing the book out of the window, but by now I was morbidly intrigued. I wanted to know more. I read on.
Stage four: The body is a framework of bone, stripped of flesh, blood-bespattered, held together by sinews.
Stage five: The skeleton is stripped of flesh and of blood, but remains held together by sinews.
Stage six: What remains of the corpse is a scattering of bones in all directions: here a thigh bone, there the pelvis, in another place the skull.
By now it was getting dark, and it was becoming increasingly hard to read. A horn blared ahead of us. The bus braked sharply, and we squeezed past a truck coming in the other direction, teetering uneasily on the outside of a hairpin bend. The man sitting next to me tapped me on the arm. ‘Pakistani roads are very dangerous!’ he grinned, with a perverse nationalistic pride. I offered him a cherry, and took another myself. Then I returned to my book.
The monk should sit upwind of the corpse, it said. To avoid the smell. But not directly upwind, because that is where demons gather. In the ideal spot—upwind and slightly to the side—the monk should contemplate, ‘Before long, I too will be like this.’
The stages of decomposition continued:
Stage seven: The bones are bleached and resembling shells.
Stage eight: The bones are piled up, jumbled together, broken.
Stage nine: The bones have crumbled away to dust.
I read the rest of the commentary until I came to the end of the section. Then I closed the book. It was a relief, in a way, to get to dust. Dust was OK after all those maggots like boiled rice. I could cope with dust. By now, I was certain I didn’t want to be a Buddhist. I didn’t even particularly want to meet any Buddhists. Not ever. To distract myself from horrific visions of my body in the gorge below, slowly decomposing by the side of the Indus, I put another cherry in my mouth. I was rapidly running out of cherries.
But it was precisely then that something odd happened. For a few moments I awoke to the sheer naturalness, the absolute inevitability of my own death. And the fact I would eventually die—if not now and on this journey, then at some other point in the future—seemed no longer to be a dark and terrible spectre on the horizon, but instead was something simple, something straightforward, something woven into the fabric of my life from the very beginning. I was going to die. Sooner or later I was going to die. And suddenly the taste of cherry exploded in my mouth—sweeter and more intense than ever before—and the world was illuminated in all its transitory beauty: the fading sky, the mountains, the road, the sound of Bollywood hits, the blare of the horn, the smell of cigarettes, the quiet companionship of my fellow passengers. I sucked the flesh from the stone, spat the pip out of the window into the void, and watched it disappear into the dark.
It was then that I realised I was happy. I was happy in a way I could not remember ever having been happy. My life could end at any moment, and yet I was happy. I leaned my head against the window, feeling the breeze in my hair, and gazed into the dark. I was no longer concerned about whether I would see in the following morning. There was nothing I could do about it. The moon appeared over the grey mountain peaks. And eventually, I fell asleep.
When I woke, the sun was already risen, the bus shuddering to a halt at a roadside truck-stop. We had made it down to the plains, and the highway was behind us. I rubbed my eyes. ‘Breakfast!’ my next-door neighbour said to me. I followed him off the bus. We squatted side by side, quietly companionable, drinking chai and munching on hot, greasy paratha; and breakfast has never, before or since, tasted better.
Will Buckingham is a writer based in Leicester, UK. His most recent novel is The Descent of the Lyre.