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Tenzin's Hammer

Tenzin's Hammer

August 27, 2011

In another man's hands - those of his former self - the hammer could've meant something else. But not anymore.

During my last week in Varkala in July, I was walking up to my favourite roadside hotel for some chai and a breakfast of appam & egg curry. The food at Amantha Restaurant is not exceptional but it is cheap, and always delivered with a smile, so the tables are often full. At the front of the hotel sat Tenzin, a large hammer on the table in front of him and a glass of chai in his hand. His eyes bore a hole in the street in front of him, his mind seemingly elsewhere. In a flash I imagined him finishing his chai, putting down his glass, picking up the hammer and striding off to mete out bloody mafia-style justice to some foolish transgressor.

I deliberately walked into his eyeline so that he would notice me, and as soon as he did, his face lit up just as it always does.

“Oh! Barnaby! Hello!”

Tenzin has one of the best smiles of anyone in the world
because he always smiles with his whole face. Everything lifts, from the corners of his mouth to the highest wrinkles on his forty? fifty? year-old forehead, and he looks directly at you with wide and completely unassuming eyes. The previous intense look on his face had stood at stark odds with his usual serene demeanour, and was now long forgotten as I reflected his smile.

Tenzin has been running his Tibetan shop Wind Horse for over eight years now, which makes him one of the longest serving shopowners in Varkala's tourist area. Like many other Himalayans – Kashmiris, Tibetans, Nepalis – he's in Varkala from mid-August to mid-May every year, and during the May to August monsoon returns with his wife to Tibet to spend time with family and buy stock for the next season. Together, they use their customary courtesy and a quiet, unshakeable self-belief to convince tourists that they need beaded necklaces and notebooks made from recycled paper, among thousands of other items in their cliff shack.

“What's the hammer for?”
I asked as I sat opposite him, my back to the street.

“Pardon?” he replied. Obviously the hammer wasn't as prominent in his thoughts as it was in mine.

“The hammer! It looks like you're... ready to use it,” I said, hoping he'd get the implication. (No chance.)

“Oh! The hammer! Well, I have some workers to build my new shop but they don't have a hammer, so I had to go and buy one. After this I will go back and we will continue the work.”

These two weeks are the exception to Tenzin's off-season routine. Like the majority of shopowners on the cliff, he returns to Varkala to rebuild his shack, which has deteriorated due to sea spray. This ritual tearing down and rebuilding is Varkala cliff's yearly regeneration. Most workers who come from elsewhere only make it through one or two of these regenerations before cutting their losses and trying another tourist paradise. Either they weren't making money or, worse, they made too much money and got forced out by a local population swift to act against any rival to their operations.

This means that each season a few old shops disappear and are replaced by new ones. It's a miracle that Tenzin has stuck around so long – but it doesn't mean that he's exempt from the regeneration, or the quality of local labour.

“How's the work going?” I asked.

“Oh, Barnaby, it's not going very well. These men, if I don't watch everything they do, they do very bad work. I have to tell them all the time what to do!” He raised his voice above the din of a passing Ambassador racing down the newly tar-sealed road with its horn blaring. “Even though they are builders and I am not a builder!” He's still smiling, almost laughing at this point, as though this crucial stage of the process – which sets the foundation for his and his wife's livelihood until next May – is just another thing to be dealt with. Nothing to get too upset about.

It's a hard enough fight just to remain solvent for a businessman in Varkala, let alone to remain as calm and collected as Tenzin always seems to be. He's been faced with serious challenges to that composure. At the start of last season, the manager of a neighbouring restaurant took a shine to Tenzin's wife and started openly flirting with her. Without hesitation, Tenzin called a meeting with him and stopped the issue before it exploded, as such matters so often do in Varkala. Despite the affront, he made sure to maintain a positive professional relationship with the guy. And in his shop, with the customers, he kept on smiling throughout the episode.

Apparently he wasn't always like this. He used to drink, he used to smoke; he used to have extraordinary violence in him that could rise to the surface at the slightest provocation. Something happened to change all that, something he never told me about in detail. All he ever said of it was, “I thought I died. I should have died.” After that, he latched onto a selection of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs that made sense to him, found a guru and was effectively born again. Having never known the angry Tenzin, the very idea of it is impossible to reconcile with the peaceful man I know. He defeats all comers, not with blunt instruments but with a warm heart and unwavering self-conviction.

I wonder, though, if that look on his face as I walked up offered a glimpse into his past. Perhaps that violence is still in him, somewhere. Maybe just the memory of it returns to him sometimes, an unwanted but helpful reminder of what he had been, before he files it away again and moves on with his life.

Tenzin tipped back the last of the chai and gently placed the glass back on the table. “Sorry, Barnaby, but I have to get back. If I'm not there, you know, they won't work! It was nice to see you.”

He picked up the hammer by its head and allowed it to hang freely from his fingers, like a set of house keys dangling innocently from a forefinger. And off he went down the road armed only with his inner strength, the hammer's potential fury neutralised.

Photo credit: Sean and Jennifer Ward 


  • Diaz Samera
    Diaz Samera
    28.08.11 08:23 AM
    Nice post.
  • umashankar
    28.08.11 08:23 AM
    You have packed in a few paragraphs what some of the celebrated authors fail to do in hundreds of pages. Amazing characterisation!
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    28.08.11 02:22 AM
    Thank you both! Sharell, did you know Tenzin at all?

    Reborn, it sounds like you've channelled that negative experience into a strength, which is a wonderful thing.
  • Reborn
    27.08.11 10:46 PM
    Yes, captivating, story indeed! Stopping by to say that I can relate with the 'dying' experience. It does happen. The past, however, hasn't completely left me. Still lingers, the difference is, I don't complain anymore. Full with thankfulness instead. :)
  • sharell
    27.08.11 07:27 PM
    Wow, captivating story and really well written. Interesting in so many different ways. :-)

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