Beneath the mask

Researching a book can lead you to unexpected places at times. Mining for gold you might well uncover a gem. Some years back while I was looking up books on Tibet for my historical adventure novel Caravan to Tibet I uncovered an intriguing fact in Amaury de Riencourt’s book Lost World Tibet (published 1950) that while travelling, wealthy Tibetan women wore painted face masks of yak hide to protect their complexions from the sun. This odd little nugget could only provide background details for a particular scene in my book. But the oppressive thought–to what lengths the pursuit of beauty could lead women nagged me till I expressed it in a poem.



Beneath the mask

my face melts like a jaggery cake in the sun

Mercifully, I can see

even as I preserve the pink of my skin.

But what’s the use?

my sisters remain strangers behind yak skin cheeks

that cannot exchange smiles

to lighten the tyranny

of the road to Lhasa. All

blinding earth and searing sky

bleached bone and rubble

hung over a chafing saddle

feeding fleas.

Only when night’s black tent

enfolds the enemy, sun,

can I breathe. Let

chilly air soothe broiling skin

let laughter flow free…

as I shed the mask.

Hard it is for a woman far from home. And

endless the road to Lhasa

beneath a mask.

Note: Jaggery is a kind of unrefined sugar.


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