Hong Kong was an invasion of noise, crowds and lights. People whizzed by, eyes glazed, minds far off, looking but not seeing. I had stepped into a time machine, a vision of the future; a mounting attempt at attracting senses that are continually numbing. Silence is a luxury.
Hong Kong was about meeting people, working on a business plan with KPMG and going to the toy store. Both my daughters’ birthdays were approaching on the 26th of November. Both were born on the same day and Norzin, my almost six year old assumes all siblings share birthdays.
I scan the shelves of Toy R Us. My most recent shopping mantra has been, ‘Buy less, trash less and choose to last’. That meant no balloons or plastic knick-knacks that would be tossed out in one day or break in a week. I pick up a Barbie doll and examine it. How is it that this plastic Hooters figure brings so much joy and love in young girls, even the tomboyish ones who live in the Tibetan pastures with nomads? I sigh and put it in the bag. After a pause, I add another, and then yet another: three Barbie dolls.
Norzin is home schooled in the mornings along with one of our employee’s girl who has AMS. AMS is a genetic disorder that slowly deteriorates the muscles, attacking first the legs, then the hands and finally the muscles around the lungs. The disease can be fatal, and after a series of tests in the best, most specialized hospital in Beijing, I promised her mother that I wouldn’t forget Lhamo. I would help educate her, keep her mind pre-occupied, challenged, giving her a reason to live. If she couldn’t go to the local school, then she would be homeschooled with Norzin. Her mother sniffed, swallowed hard, looked at the ceiling and nodded.
Since then Norzin and Lhamo have become best friends and fellow accomplices in crime. A birthday Barbie for Norzin would inevitably mean one for Lhamo, and then there was Lhamo’s older sister. Each would get one.
I drowned out the mumbling and sobbing voices around me and concentrated on the wooly wrap-around that Lhamo’s mother was wearing. The patterns were faint and snake like, weeding in and out of the fabric. I sniffed; my eyes ached from battling back tears. A drop made it’s way down my cheek and I rubbed it angrily with the back of my hand, cursing. I looked at TD lying on my hallway floor, sobbing, her head cradled in her arms. There was an oil stain on the blue Uniclo jacket I had given her some time back. She wasn’t dressed in her traditional robes today. Lako, TD’s husband sat kneeling near the front door, head bent, eyes fixed on the floor. This was the same man who was hired two years ago by the village to guard the pastures. Of medium stature, lean and composed, Lako’s ability to fight was known throughout the neighboring areas. His presence perched on a hill that gave a sweeping view of the area, cautioned thieves away. It had been a hard, lonely and dangerous job and he had asked for a position at Norlha where he now worked in our dyeing section. Today he was reduced to kneeling in front of me, a woman, his head touching the floor, a white scarf offered up. If I accepted, it meant there was hope for them. If I didn’t then there was none. For a man to kneel before a woman, the pride passed down from generations over and embedded centuries deep had to be shed. One’s pride is everything in Ritoma. It is more than the wealth you own or the sons you have. I snatched the white scarf and leaning against the wall, slid to the floor. Images of the Barbie dolls kept taunting me, their wide grins smirking.
“What were you thinking?!!” I repeated angrily as I wiped another tear. I cursed myself for that tear as well.
They were both talking at the same time, but I couldn’t hear the words. Little Lhamo, was the only one smiling, looking on in amusement at the scene. She sat leaning against her father, her weak legs turned at an awkward angle. An angle that hinted, even when standing that there was something slightly unusual about her legs.
“Didn’t you even consider what this would do to you? And to your children?”
“I wasn’t thinking!” TD kept repeating.
“She isn’t usually like this. I don’t know what got into her.” Lako repeated and continued on about how thankful they were for everything we had done for Lhamo and to please find the heart to forgive TD and give her another chance.
“Where’s Norzin?” Little Lhamo asked loudly evidently tired by the whole scene.
The previous day, towards the end of the five hour-long car ride from the airport to Ritoma, we made a final stop to pick up Norzin and Baby D from my in laws. The car continued down smaller, windier roads when suddenly our light, chatty mood was punctured with a series of abrupt, desperate and choppy phone calls. Baby D was throwing up in the back seat so I couldn’t pick up the phone. My husband, Yidam’s phone started ringing.
“Drunk?…..hospital?….suicide?!!….Do you think it’s necessary to call the police?”
“Uh huh….do you think they will survive?!”
My chest tightened and I felt a hot flash take over as panic oozed out from my pores. The phone call was from one of our Norlha managers. I assumed that one of the men had gotten into a brawl, but drunk at four in the afternoon? I prepared myself for the worst.
“Wow” Yidam said hanging up. “The girls at the guest house went through those two bottles of white vodka, remember the 1000yuan ones that the officials brought as gifts? Well they drank both, and then tried to commit suicide by jumping from the second story window!”
If ever there was a loaded sentence this was it. This was incomprehensible on several levels.
“But they don’t drink” I said stupidly. For the seven years that I have spent in Ritoma, I have never once had even a casual beer or a glass of wine in front of some of the best friends I have made here. Drinking has very deep and dark implications in the village. In 2009, at least half the men from Ritoma went to the local monastery and swore to a lifetime of sobriety. The other half, who still drank, did so discretely in a tight circle of friends. For two women to have been caught drinking an alcohol that wasn’t even theirs, during work and in the workplace, was incomprehensible. And one of them was Lhamo’s mother, the one who was supposed to be in charge of the guesthouse. And she jumped out a window?
“How badly are they hurt?” I asked fumbling for my phone as I desperately wiped off the puke and propped up Baby D.
It turned out that TD, Lhamo’s mother was only slightly hurt with a bad limp. The other girl, her 18-year-old fellow cleaner and accomplice was critically injured. The three managers driving her to the hospital were as hysterical as men allow themselves to get in these areas. They kept repeating that the police should be informed immediately as we didn’t want the death of the girl on our hands. Their voices shook over the phone. Later they recounted how a blood-curdling shout rang through the workshop followed by shrill screams. The managers ran out, their first fear being that the boiler had burst and killed someone, but they were pointed to the guest house. The young girl was lying in a pool of blood her face so badly bruised, swollen and bleeding that she was beyond recognition. They had taken her for a corpse, but made the right decision to quickly load her into a car and drive her to the nearest hospital, forty minutes away. Later I found out that contrary to what I had assumed, drinking was hardly considered their worst crime. In the local village, dying deliberately on someone else’s property was the worst and final curse you can put on the owner. There are stories where women who were abused by their husbands and turned out of their home, destitute and hopeless, sneak back to kill themselves at their husband’s doorstep.
“I have nothing to fight you with but I will leave you my corpse” is the desperate person’s final curse. Aside from stealing the alcohol and getting drunk during work, the fact that the girls had tried to “leave their corpse at Norlha” was inconceivable to my managers. This was unforgivable.
“I can forgive her” I said. My four core managers were lined up on my office couch, I sitting in a chair facing them. They were stone faced. I searched their faces for any trace of sympathy or empathy but received none. I tried to explain myself. “I feel sorry for her daughter. It’s not for her. And I have thought of this but I can’t get myself to ruin her daughter’s life.”
Silence. Stone faces.
“I know that on the one hand we fine someone for chewing gum in the workroom and on the other hand if we forgive someone who stole, drank and jumped out the window….” My words trailed off. Just saying it aloud sounded ridiculous. Who would still respect us? Our rules would be a joke. I cleared my throat and changed my tone, “If the four of you don’t support forgiving her, we will take a unanimous decision. After all you are the ones who have to oversee the rules”
The relief was almost palpable. I knew that when I accepted the white scarf from Lako, I would risk being perceived as weak, naïve and maybe even stupid. At the back of my mind I knew this was the inevitable decision, but I had wanted some sympathy from my managers, some empathy, and I had found none. To them it was about upholding the authority of Norlha and what the two girls had done was simply unforgivable and inexcusable. My eyes throbbed.
“Well, I guess that’s our decision then. Get me Lako. I want to talk to him privately”
The four of them filed out in silence.
“I can’t” I said shaking my head. Lako sat on the floor of my office with yet another scarf in his hand. This time, I didn’t accept it.
“I am sorry but I can’t even begin to justify what she did. She will have to stop working here”
He looked up through his long hair, wide eyes. He started to say something but then changed his tone, “I won’t hold it against you. I am still thankful for everything you have done for our daughter”
Lako stood up and as he pulled the door closed behind him, I noticed his shaking hands. The grinning Barbie dolls continued to smirk. I couldn’t concentrate anymore so my mother and I trudged up the hill towards home, half an hour before lunch break. She was visiting and silently witnessed the on going drama. There was little advice to offer. She understood the decision I had made. I felt weak, sick to my stomach my eyes throbbed from the un-shed tears. Was I just a naïve fool for feeling sorry for TD? Or was I the only one with a heart? I also had the sinking feeling that my wishes had meant so little to my managers. But then again, they were upholding the values of the company that we had built together. And at the end of the day, more than anything, I wanted them to know that their opinion did matter to me and to the foundation we were building.
“Do you really want to give her a second chance?” he asked looking me straight in the eye. There was after all one manager who had felt uneasy by the unanimous and silent vote that countered my decision. He was my nomad turned accountant friend and he had come to seek me out at my house at lunch break.
I put down the dishcloth I was holding, plopped down and nodded. “I really do. Maybe I am naïve, maybe I am weak but this is what my heart tells me.”
“There is a way then.”
I perked up and suddenly the day seemed brighter. “What?” I asked eagerly.
“This has to be between you and me but there is a way that we can play the local politics. I need your full consent if we are to do this”
I nodded eagerly as S laid out the plan. It was a good plan, to be played like true politics.
My mother smiled and nodded as I explained the strategy to her. It was on. That evening and the next morning, the events unfolded.
Needless to say the workshop was still buzzing with the breaking news. Now that there had been no critical injury, the gossip was flowing freely, debated and passed on. That afternoon, the office let it out that the girls were fired. In the workrooms, people nodded and agreed that this was the inevitable decision. At the local school, TD’s elder daughter wept bitterly. She was eleven, a good student and “hated her mother for ruining her life”. Her friends cried with her and suddenly found new appreciation for their own mothers. Norzin was horrified and assaulted me with continuous cries of “Ama, how can you do that!”
“I had no choice!”
“But you’re the boss!”
“Sometimes it’s not as simple as that”
“Who decided then?”
“All the other managers agreed that she has been very very naughty”
Norzin glared at me, “They’re all boys! What do the girls think? Did you ask the girls?”
Stunned, I mumbled, “What girls?”
In the meantime, Lako took the afternoon off. After lunch break, as I walked down from home to work, I saw Lako and S break from a quick talk. They walk in opposite directions. I watch as Lako rode off on his motorbike, the roar of the bike breaking through the silence of the plain laid out before me. He had much work ahead and although I was well aware of the plan, I was far from prepared for the events that unfolded the next day.
The following morning I enter the office with my mother, talking loudly when suddenly we stop short. A group of men stand in the lounge, awaiting our arrival; a large man in a chuba and a smaller one, a monk in deep pink, and an imposing grey haired man holding a white scarf. He had really done it. Lako had managed to round up the two heads of village, the head of the monastery and an older man, an uncle and respected elder. We shuffle around awkwardly and seat ourselves in the lounge. The man with the scarf approaches me and crouches down on the floor at my feet, holding out the white scarf. I start back, my face freezes and my heart starts racing. The Barbie dolls smirk at me. As much as I had been a part of what was happening, this extreme display of humility by a respected elderly in the village and aimed directly at me catches me off guard. He touches his forehead to the ground and starts asking for my forgiveness. I sit frozen in my seat as he explains that his nephew’s wife’s actions are unforgivable, and elaborates on how in a village where even men stay off drink, for a woman to not only loose herself in alcohol but also to attempt to ‘leave her body’ at our doorstep is unforgivable. Silence follows his monologue and my voice is shaking when I finally blurt out my response. My speech is hardly as eloquent and lacks the characteristic idioms that mark a powerful local speech.
“I am an outsider” I say my voice quivering, still stunned by the man kneeling before me, head bowed. “If it were entirely up to me it is one thing, but I am forced to abide by local custom. I do not want to do anything that goes against local culture” I sweep my hand towards the other managers, “they are the ones who have to oversee the rules and they are the ones who have to deal with people’s complaints. It is important that I have their support in whatever decision is made” Despite its lack of eloquence, my speech has managed to uphold my managers’ authority publically while hinting that we must do as ‘local culture dictates’. Local culture would corner my managers into accepting the appeal of the Village and Monastery heads.
I give the floor over to the other managers who give far more eloquent speeches. They are followed by the Village and Monastery Heads who reflect on the family’s poverty and the fact that it was only their sympathy for the family and their disabled child that led them to plead for the offender’s case. They also touch upon how we had helped Little Lhamo with hospital bills and an education and that they didn’t want to take advantage of my generosity but…. The talks go on for half an hour and my mother too puts in a few words on how she has started this project with the intention of helping people. She hints that there is forgiveness in her heart. Finally the managers and I conclude that we need to deliberate before giving them an answer.
After they have filed out of the office I turn to my Managers, “Lets decide and get this over with”
We meet once again in the office. This time the team drag in chairs and sit more leisurely spread out through my little space, forming a circle. There is small talk as we wait for everyone to assemble. The previous day, it had been impossible to even consider forgiveness, as Norlha’s reputation would have been at stake. Today, it was different. The Village and Monastery Heads were shouldering the responsibility of the outcome we wished for. It was as S had predicted; no one could refuse the appeal of the Village and Monastery Heads. I was relieved that my managers didn’t perceive the turn of events as being coerced into granting absolution, but rather had welcomed them as a chance to forgive. There was warmth in their hearts after all. My mother explained to our small circle that rules are important but sometimes given the situation, one should have it in their heart to forgive, especially if the offender is a first time one and has a chance to return to the right path.
“At the end of day, I will side with whatever Amala and you think is right” D, our production manager offered and the others agreed. Lako’s efforts had paid off. He had driven late the previous evening to the neighboring village where he had an uncle, a local elder and a figure of authority. It was midnight when he finally convinced him to accompany him to rouse the Village and Monastery Heads. To Lako’s credit, he must have had a solid reputation in order to draw their support, a none too easy feat. The underlying factor that won them over, though, had been the hint of my sympathy and the indication that it was the managers that needed winning over, thus saving Norlha’s face and authority. I was touched by their sensitivity to my feelings and for their ability to forgive.
We then started discussing the younger girl who had stolen, drunk and jumped with TD. While TD had been witnessed to leap first out of the window, it transpired that the younger girl had been the one to suggest they take ‘a sip of the alcohol’ and later run upstairs to retrieve the second bottle. While TD had a spotless record, she had already been given a second chance…twice. We knew her behavior was linked to serious emotional problems and felt sorry for her, but felt there was little chance that it would improve. We would have to let her go. In any case, neither her nor her family ever contacted us to reconsider.
We gathered together the second tier of managers to present our decision. “This is just outrageous” One of them kept repeating. “How can the monastery support drinking?!” Many shook their heads in disbelief. “I mean yes everyone needs compassion in their hearts, but isn’t this too much?” Some said it was the timing of Lako’s plead, midnight, and the probable half awake state of the heads of village and monastery that had led to their consent. For days following this incident I would walk into rooms that would turn silent suddenly, caught in their discussion of the situation. This would be a topic that would be debated long into winter nights by the villagers; Compassion and forgiveness versus punishment and retribution.
Norzin and Lhamo are at home when I arrive. Norzin rushes downstairs to open the door for me.
“Ama, so is Lhamo’s mom coming back to work?”
I pick up Norzin and give her a hug and a kiss, “Yes!” I whisper into her neck.
She tears herself from my embrace and bounds up the stairs to Lhamo shouting, “You mother is coming to work tomorrow!! Yah!!”
Lhamo shrugs from the top of the stairwell where she stands with her little, twig like legs twisted in an awkward position, “I bet it was the monks who got her to come”
“So what happened exactly?” I ask TD the next day as she stands in the guesthouse kitchen wiping breakfast bowls.
“I didn’t want to come back. I didn’t think I could face you and all the angry looks in the workshop….” Yet another tear escapes TD’s swollen face. She tells me how her husband had sat her down the evening of the drunken episode. He had asked her first and foremost whether she was suicidal. Was she that unhappy? Was she ready to leave her daughters forever? She had shaken her head, assuring him that never in her right mind would she have contemplated suicide. It was the influence of the drink. In that case he had told her that it wasn’t about the job or the money but purely for the sake of earning forgiveness that she should seek to be reinstated. She was a smart woman and would be able to find work elsewhere, but if she didn’t face her situation, this would haunt them forever. The incident would follow her everywhere and she would always be seen as the ungrateful woman who had tried to leave her body at our doorstep, after everything we had done for her and her daughter. As long as she wasn’t suicidal and there was no chance of her repeating this episode, she would have to face us, retrieve the skeletons in the closet, do whatever it took to beg for our forgiveness.
I was impressed by the wisdom behind the words of this quiet thirty-year-old. Most husbands would have tried to save face by declaring they had ousted their wife out or sent her back to her family. Instead, he had shed all pride and knelt on the ground for her, for their little family.
TD sniffed and looked at me, “I promise I really didn’t know what I was doing when I jumped. I can’t remember jumping. I would never try and commit suicide on your doorstep. I swear on the lives of my children that I have learned my lesson. I will never do this again.”
“You know that the heads of village and head of monastery signed a contract with us on your behalf. Why did you start drinking in the first place?”
TD nodded and then crouched to the floor burying her face in her hands. Her voice was muffled and long after her words turned to sobs, the room still echoed with the words “Lhamo is going to die at fifteen. Lhamo is going to die at fifteen. Lhamo is going to die at fifteen….” I held her and rocked her like a little child. The ceiling danced with the wide empty grin of Barbie dolls. I needed to be stronger. I concentrated on what my mother had once told me, “It’s like exercise, the more incidents like this you go through, the more strength you will build.”