Summer arrives with a series of mellow drizzles that gently coax life out of the plateau. Our visitors shiver as they step out of their cars in T-shirts. “What hemisphere are we in!”some joke. Indeed it is colder here, more like the onset of winter in most places than summer. The sheep shiver too, as they pick expertly at green sprouts of grass. But today the sun is shinning. A veil has been lifted and the plateau is revealed like a bride on her wedding day. The puddles ripple in dance, sparkling and twinkling as they flirt with the sun’s rays. Today, anything seems possible.
But for at least one family in the village it is these small hints of renewal that are the most painful. Every flower that blooms, every yak that grazes, every horse that gallops and every pig that grunts, is a painful reminder that life waits for no one. While the world blooms with new life, this family silently dismantles their house, a beginning to an end for the family. Beams and pillars are stacked in neat piles. Bricks are piled at one end of the courtyard, shingles at the other. Friends and neighbors have turned up to help in the careful destruction of a house that has been the family’s home ever since nomads started having houses. It is all that friends can offer to diffuse the sorrow that hangs from every pillar, beam and wall. “How could something like this happen? He must have been possessed.”There are no words to console the family for their terrible loss.
I never knew him personally, but I knew of him, had noticed him around on occasion. One Children’s Day, under the bright skylight in the office, I casually asked my team whose children were getting prizes that day. “Of course Ach Kesang Tso’s grandsons”they answered. Ach Kesang Tso happened to be there, she beamed proudly while continuing to sew a tag onto a scarf.
“The older boy is the smartest in the class, gets the highest mark. The younger one is doing very well too.”I remember glancing at her, beaming shyly, a woman in her fifties who, as all grandmothers do here, raised her two grandsons. That was three years ago. He must have been thirteen then.
But the prodigy had dropped out of school. I still haven’t dared ask what happened, the wound is too raw. Earlier that week, a month after dropping out of school, the boy had sold a yari (baby yak) for a bargain price. Some say it was his father that got angry and others say it was his mother who scolded him. It happened that same evening. They found him kneeled over, head stooped to the ground, the rope pulled tightly around his neck. How could he have hung himself while still on the floor? The more superstitious say he must have been possessed. This was a house of bad omen, a house that would taunt the family with memories of better times, when children’s laughter filled the walls. The house had to go, the omens had to be buried with prayers.
Acha Kesang Tso turned in her resignation, requesting that she not appear for her parting gift, a Norlha scarf. “She thanks Norlha for her years here. She has sent someone in her stead.”There is silence in the room as the words sink heavily with the family’s grief. Someone clears their throat and the meeting resumes, the weight is defused by new topics. Life goes on, my heart goes out to the family, death is a loss like no other.
It is windy again. The younger generation curses the wind as freak weather, but my father-in-law says it’s normal. When Spring is not quite summer, the plateau wind arrives, tearing through the landscape like a child released on a playground, wild and mischievous, leaving in it’s wake, a tangled world.
I trudged up the hill, clasping Norzin’s rough little hand. My head was wrapped in a scarf that the wind kept tugging at menacingly, as it tussled our hair about and flung open our jackets. The plateau had started shooting small sprouts of grass so tried as it might, there wasn’t too much dust to fling upon us, but there was the stench. The wind hauled it in bucketful, first a whiff here and there, then in full force, enveloping us; the smell of rotting animal flesh.
Norzin, oblivious to the wind, was skipping along, holding my hand with one grubby hand, and pointing and counting with the other, “fifteen….and yes sixteen! Ama sixteen so far!” she stopped in her tracks, jerking me backwards, “What happened to all of them?” she said looking out and over the plateau. Her hair danced around her and her cheeks were pink, just like her T-shirt, her jeans and her shoes. Even on the plateau, pink has managed to dominate her little world – it is her favorite color. I examined the little pile of flesh, skin and bones, “Actually that would be seventeen – look it’s a lamb and it’s mom – together”
We stared for a moment at a tangle of legs, concluding there were definitely two decaying, lifeless bodies. The sheep in our village are starving to death. The nomads haul the dead bodies as far as they can bother, a few meters off the paths and dump them at the base of hills. Hundreds have died and hundreds are still dyeing. The plateau is littered with them. The yaks are more resilient but still there is no milk to buy off the nomads this year. There is barely enough for the female ones to feed their young.
“We knew we were doomed since last fall” my nomad friend had explained one day after work. “Usually the sheep are the fattest at fall, but last year they were so weak we had to bring them to the winter pastures in tractors. Everyone has been dreading and expecting this. That’s why the waiting list at Norlha is so long!” He laughed. I almost wonder at the resilience of people here, picking up the pieces and going on with life, such is the nature of life to them.
Later that evening I sat with an old friend, a woman in her sixties and a long time employee at Norlha. Behind us, the plateau looked deceivingly still, green and peaceful. With no trees and less dust, the wind was invisible from inside with only an occasional howl and shatter of the glass reiterating its presence.
“What’s happening with the sheep?” I ask, pulling Baby D’s dusty sweater off of her as I struggled to get her ready for her evening bath.
“There’s too many of them. And too little grass. Have you seen them licking the ground, they’re so hungry. Fodder doesn’t help either. There isn’t enough and anyway, eating solely dried oats will make them choke.”
“Norzin and I counted seventeen bodies just on that hill there” I pointed South to where a majestic hill spread out, a beautiful graveyard. My guest shook her head.
“Young people nowadays, they have too much and at the same time never enough. They don’t even need the skin! In the old days if an animal died, we skinned them, lamb skin makes excellent sheep skin robes. Without skinning the animals, the vultures don’t come and they are left to rot. I mean look” she waved her hand across the plateau, “they don’t even bother to take them to the top of the hill – dumping the bodies in the valley! Vultures prefer hill tops….” She trailed off and them mumbled “Anyway, it might just be that the vultures have more than they need – so many are dyeing.”
Last year, there was no drought, but the rains came later, hitting more in fall rather than in spring. The previous year, many families sold off their yaks and bought more sheep. My old friend shook her head, “Everyone has sheep now, less yaks. They are thinking of faster money. Sell, sell, sell, money, money, money” her hands made a fast pattern through the air, “now there isn’t enough grass! It’s just not the way to be a nomad. You have sheep and you have yaks. You have to go into the summer pastures in the depth of winter so that the yaks graze there. It’s a difficult life but it is the only way the balance is kept. Anyway, she shook her head “there are just not enough family members to take care of a complete, balanced herd”
“How about your grandson? Has he returned?” I knew that her seventeen-year-old grandson had run away into the depths of China. He had left his mother alone to tend to their herds of over a 150 yaks and 100 sheep. He was supposed to find a bride, be a nomad and help his parents, but he had rejected that life. At least for now.
Suddenly a strange choking sound came from my guest. Baby D and I stopped in our tracks. We had been bustling around the kitchen as I chatted to my guest. I had stopped trying to bathe D and had turned my attention to fixing soup. Baby D was running around half undressed being clawed at and chased by our cat. I stopped, Baby D stopped, the cat stopped, we all looked at our guest. My friend’s face was cradled in her hands and she was gasping and heaving.
“I raised him since he was 17 days old and he just left. His mother only breast fed him for 17 days and then he was all mine to look after. I am old and I have no family to surround me. I go about as if nothing is wrong, but my heart is broken…my children don’t love me, I am left to fend for myself. It is my job at Norlha that pays my bills.” She sniffed and wiped her eyes on the long sleeves of her robes. “I am so sad that my body is riddled with lice. I never had lice before but now they have attacked me in my weakness”
“Baby D” I nudged my toddler, who stood staring, her pot belly protruding from under her tight, slightly too small thermals. “Ask her if she wants some tissue. Go give her a kiss” I said nudging D again. Baby D approached our friend, “what’s wrong, do you want tissue?” she gave her a small pat on the head and bent over for a kiss on the cheek.
“My eyes are hurting little one.” Our friend explained.
Baby D looked enormously relieved. “Sometimes, my eyes hurt too” she shouted as she ran her toddler run across the room and grabbed a handful of tissue. The cat ran at her heels lashing out his paws playfully “It is the wind” Baby D said wisely running back and handing over the tissue.
Our friend dabbed at her eyes, “Young people can’t tell what is valuable in life. If I have a roof over my head and a full stomach, I can live without the riches of the world, but I can’t live without love. If I tell my children that love and family is what matters at the end of the day, they don’t understand, they need to find out for themselves, the hard way, only to come to the same conclusion later in life. Wouldn’t it all be so much simpler if they listened to us older ones? Even this cat here,” she sniffed and reached out grabbing the cat and began petting it as it purred happily, “If he has a full belly and a warm bed, he doesn’t need any more riches, but he never has enough love. Do you? You never have enough…always want more love!” She grabbed the cat’s face in her hands and peered into its eyes, “Are you actually wiser than us people? Are you on the right pursuit for happiness?” she muttered and then laughing at herself gave Baby D too a cuddle and heaved a big sigh, “I feel better!”
Pancha fidgeted and shuffled his feet. “I don’t know how I could have made such a mistake” he said adding yet another to his clumsy stack of apologies that swayed precariously, like haphazard Jenga blocks, ready to collapse into a burst of tears.
I didn’t know what to say either. I stared at his fingers, running nervously over his baseball cap. One of his many silver rings caught the evening sunlight and flickered for a second. Today Pancha was dressed in a pleather jacket, sneakers, straight cut blue jeans and a baseball cap. A man nearing his fifties, he looked like he had lost his luggage and borrowed his son’s clothes.
A few months ago he had entered my office excitedly, his mouth swollen to the size of an apple and a smile revealed a hole where one of his front tooth had once been.
“I figured out how to do four peddle designs on the power loom! The training was successful!”
“What happened to you?” I asked studying his cheek carefully.
“Oh, yeah” he said running his hand over his swollen cheek. “The conditions at that factory were so bad! Nothing like our Norlha. I was bending over to check out the wiring of a circuit and got electrocuted. The shock sent me flying across the room and I hit another loom. My cheek ballooned up and look!” he opened his mouth to reveal the missing lower front tooth.
He shrugged, “Oh well, at least it was worth the trouble – I’ve finally figured out the loom!”
But now a month later, Pancha was confessing that he, our master trainer at Norlha, imported all the way from Nepal and a weaver from the age of 16, who knew everything about all looms, could not figure out the power loom. We had sent him to train on the power loom at a dingy, gloomy factory in India but when he returned, fully trained, he realized that the loom was different. We were back where we had started. I gulped down my anger and frustration. His was guilty enough as it was. We would have to take a deep breath and form plan B.
I have known Pancha for eight years. We brought him from Kathmandu to our village on the Tibetan Plateau. He is a small, very dark man, more Indian looking than Asian, with a pensive expression. When he accepted the position at Norlha, he quit his job suddenly and without prior notice, leaving him with nowhere to return to, his chances of getting his position back slim to none. He committed himself to this unknown land, where he didn’t speak a word of the local dialect and wasn’t familiar with the climate or the diet. Having just met us, he hung on a fine thread of trust and hope that his future was secure with us. Would we be as trustworthy as a mutual acquaintance had promised, and would this team of largely young people be able to carry on the art of weaving in this remote village? The alternative, failure, was a disastrous prospect; returning jobless to Nepal with a loss of face. On our end, we were just as dependent on him. Having spent time in workshops over the past few months, we were confident on the organization and management, though the actual skill of weaving was different. Without Pancha, there was no one with the level of skill required to train nomads to weave hand made products that could be ranked among the best in today’s merciless commercial world.
Over the years, Pancha and I have been through a lot. “When you are here, I feel safe!” he greeted me once after I returned from a short trip. Being the only one to speak Hindi, I was his sole thread of communication. He had cried at least twice in my office. Once was when his wife who got sick and he urgently needed a large sum of money to send home. I gave him the cash, arranged for it to be wired and told him that everything would be all right. His wife recovered and he was in tears when he thanked me.
During that first summer in Ritoma, many years ago now, we pitched tents and started training. During the week the team would work hard, sometimes into the early hours of the morning. On the weekends, we treated ourselves to a trip to the nearby town of Labrang where a shower, town food and TV shows awaited us. One Friday evening we all piled happily into the car. Half way over suddenly we looked at each other and exclaimed “Pancha!” We had forgotten to bring him along. This was not the first time; he was so quiet and we were engaged in so many activities, that he simply slid by. We grabbed the phone and quickly called a nomad employee in the village.
“Yes, he’s fine now. Don’t worry about it”
“What do you mean ‘now’ – was he upset?” I asked grimacing to the others in the car. We all knew that the last time we forgot him, he had burst into tears when he saw the car drive away in a cloud of dust.
“Well, he was crying”chuckled the unsympathetic nomad who had fount it amusing to see grown man well up in tears for missing out on an outing. Maybe anger, irritation and a long face, but crying! All the same, the nomads came to appreciate his child like purity and innocence, a disposition that brought tears with sadness, but also made him burst into song and elaborate bangra dancing when happy. When he was upset with a spoilt scarf, he scolded his trainees in a surprisingly strong, booming voice. But when work was out and a snow ball fight began, he was just as animated as the nomads, running, throwing, chasing and jumping. The nomads treated him as they would a little child. They spoke to him in baby Tibetan so that he would grasp the foreign words. The women set up turns to comfort him when he cried. Those on ‘duty’ would surround him, pat him on the shoulder and ask him to show them pictures of his family. He would sniffle and slowly brighten up to their kindness. That day too, a few women had comforted him. Their care gradually nurtured him into feeling at home in this far flung community. Soon he was rejecting our invitations to trips to Labrang, saying he couldn’t make it as he was invited to RT, the warper’s house for lunch on Sunday.
The nomads and Pancha bonded over the years. Despite cultural differences, they understood and empathized with the importance of culture and recognized it as the binding factor in the fabric of a community or society. Pancha often referred to himself as ‘just another villager – like the nomads’. He understood and appreciated the need for religion and often praised the more pious women. “It is good to have religion, keeps the people pure!” Whenever we invited monks over for prayer or a blessing, he would announce loudly, “Pujas are good, it will bring sanctity to the work room”. Behind one of the looms he added his own picture of a Hindu deity.
The villagers in turn respected his decision not to eat yak meat. Initially they kept insisting that yaks were clean, however, soon they realized that he wasn’t eating them because he thought them holy and this led to a new level of appreciation. “Not big meat, just small one” they would say as they placed lamb in front of him “eat, eat”
Once we were sitting on the steps together soaking in the sun, when he suddenly pointed out,
“I think the people here are much better fed than in my village! Look at how strong the women are!” During playful games it was the women that Pancha competed against in tug of war or races.
“Forget about the men, I don’t think I can beat the women!” he would exclaim.
In the workrooms, Pancha circulated all day, telling women to talk less, throw out their gum or men to get back to work. He adjusted looms and examined each weaver’s scarf, no faults escaped Pancha’s eye.
One day about three years ago, Pancha asked if he could talk to me.
“Sure” I said “go ahead” I said waving to the cushion beside me on the floor.
He glanced around him nervously and sat down. “There is something I need to tell you, it is quite embarrassing”.
“What is it?”
He mumbled something in words that were too sophisticated for my limited Hindi.
“I don’t understand” I answered. “You’re sick where?”
Pancha blushed furiously. He muttered carefully, “You know how men have two down there that women don’t have?”
I nodded seeing where this was going.
“well…” he continued, “One of them is this big” he rolled up his hand into a fist.
“Oh no” I said for the lack of a better word in Hindi. Winter had already set in and it was almost time for him to return anyway, so I gave him the option between checking in the local hospital or returning home.
“I think I would like to go home. My family can take care of me and I know a doctor.”
We arranged for his departure the following day and packed him off with ample cash. A month later he called to say he had recovered and everything was fine. When he returned he was thinner but full of gusto to get back to work.
“Norlha is my heart!” he often exclaimed. “If Norlha does well, then so will I. I have married my daughter with money from Norlha, I have become someone in my village, I have found health through Norlha so Norlha and I are now tied into one – like two threads twisted together!”
Tomorrow is Tibetan New Year; the year of the sheep begins. The little Himalayan town is bustling with Tibetans from all corners of Tibet. There are wares from as far as Tibet stacked high in make-shift stalls. People weed in and out of the crowds, guiding toddlers, carrying babies and balancing large bags full of shopping. Laughter, bustle and excitement fill the spaces between crowds. How many of them have been touched by the recent news? How many are relishing in the gossip of it? How many are heartbroken and how many are oblivious? Two monks speaking in the familiar Ngapa Amdo (Tibetan) dialect walk by glancing at their phones. They have probably been touched by the recent murders. They are from the same area as the two killed. A group of teenage girls skip and dodge past me almost knocking me off the gritty road. Their giggles ring through the air, the ‘Indian-Tibetan’ dialect trails behind them as they call to each other. The recent news is probably just background noise to them, a juicy story of gore, a piece of gossip to be tossed on. It will be just another Losar among many that they have had, just another day not unlike others. I envy them.
I think I have learnt more from Totsik Choedak since his death than when he was alive. I went back to emails from him, replayed conversations we had had, and for the first time actually read the articles that he had written. I even started listing all the advice he had given me. In his death, his words have been reborn.
He was a historian, a scholar, a literary figure, a man of many words, many thoughts, many opinions. We were of the same age so we liked to talk, argue, debate.
“We are two people of different ingredients” he liked to joke “ You are made of rice, dal and burgers. I am made of steamed bread – monastery food!”
He liked history, I liked fiction. He was out-going, I am reserved. He rejected business as temptation, I embraced business as a tool. Our differences taught each other of another world, another existence. We drew from each other’s strengths. We were friends.
“Choedak, you talk so loudly. You don’t have an audience here! It’s just us” I would joke shushing him.
“Sorry, sorry” he would say checking his surroundings and lowering his voice.
I have never heard Choedak give a talk. But he is known for his elocution, the ability of his words to fill a hall, grab your attention and plant inspiration and motivation deep within you. He will be missed by many who listened to him, who leaned on him for inspiration, for motivation. There are many to mourn him.
“You need to get out there at any opportunity – let people know of your views, your goals. Public speaking is important! Practice at home, think about what you want to say and then most importantly, say it with conviction, from the heart. Stage fright is nothing you can’t combat” Was one of Choedak’s many advices to me. I will hold it dear.
Choedak is easily one of the smartest people I have ever met. He loved books. He was passionate about reading. He liked to refer to his books as ‘his wives’. Every time we happened somewhere together, he would have to stop at a bookshop or a friend’s to pick up a book.
“Are you sure it isn’t going to take too long? I need to get going” I would say.
“Just a second, just a second. There’s just this one book I’ve been waiting for…”
“My favorite book in the whole world is ‘The Way of the Bodhisattva” he told me once. “I really mean that, I’m not just saying it. You can go an entire lifetime and not finish reading it. It opens up a world of meditation, makes you a happier person, a better person. Read it, meditate on what it says and apply it to your life. The book will be your loyal companion through life. See…better than a wife!” he laughed. “The book will never leave you as long as you don’t leave it!”
What actually happened on that doomed day? No one will ever know for sure. It is all speculation. It all happened within a span of half an hour. A man and a monk were seen walking off deep in conversation. Their conversation got more heated and took them under a flyover and near a mound of earth. Four construction workers saw them. The two men were pointing at each other’s faces and suddenly a knife and Choedak was stabbed repeatedly. Some say six times, others say ten. At the horror of what he had done, the monk stabbed himself in the chest and then took his own life. He slit his throat. That is what the eyewitnesses say. That is what has been officially recorded. The truth behind the cause of their death has been buried with them. Both had followers, both were equally learned, equally respected, both leave behind many who are hurt, confused and heartbroken.
Choedak was killed a little after six. I talked to him at five thirty. His last words to me were, “Need to go now. Will talk later”. He will be missed dearly.
Returning to your childhood home, everything seems smaller. The tables lower, the ceilings closer, the rooms tighter; even the distances seem shorter.
My brother and I huffed up the hill. We both wanted some exercise in our lives so evening power walks have become a part of our routine.
“Strange I used to think this point was really far”
Most of our walk is in silence, both of us concentrating on our breathing, relishing in the rush of exercise. My brother spends his days tackling endless research, mornings spent perusing books on history, philosophy, religion – books that I am usually too exhausted to read. Afternoons he spends clicking at his computer, writing dense articles that put your concentration and intellectual tendencies to test. Once in a while he glances at his old crumbling Nokia phone and mumbles something about our father being late. My brother’s schedule is molded around my fathers’ days, a soft padding around my father’s retirement. The only son in the family turned out to be the home body, the one who takes care of our aging father, our aging nanny and clumsily but amiably fumbles with supervising the house keeping.
“Genam, we need some butter. Genam is there any cheese? Genam can the tread mill be fixed? Genam, are you going to neuter Sangpo (the St Bernard) – when are you going to do it?”
I will always be grateful to him for staying home, after all, with my mother traveling the world for Norlha, someone has to be home for our father. My father has been severely hard of hearing since his mid-forties. Hearing aids, diet changes and finally a cochlear implant have compromised his balance but have also saved him from going stone deaf. With the onset of old age he seems to have retreated into himself. He spends his days going through his meditations and prayers and then relaxes into a film in the evenings. Genam’s girlfriend Suz, seems to have accepted the situation. Dutifully, they spend every evening in the sitting room watching re-runs of Homeland or James Bond or whatever other action film that my father can appreciate. Genam pauses the show every ten minutes to explain to our father what is going on. The soft clickity click of Suz’s knitting needles swim through the room as she patiently sits through the action movie of the night. My brother and her have been living at home together for the past four years.
Genam and I reach the top of the hill. We catch our breath and the walk down is a cruise as we talk about movies, actors, Tibet, India, our dad, the kids, the dogs, drifting wherever our words carry us. The definition of success is touched upon and I see that Genam is genuinely dismissive of achievements in the material world; they don’t seem to entice nor intimidate him. I secretly wish I could so confidently lay the material world aside, be a spectator, a commentator but not a player.
“A dog attacked Daisy! She got beaten up. Suzy took her bag and whacked it over the attacker.” My sister, Sonam, gave Daisy a pat and a kiss. Daisy started life as a mutt but then climbed the social ladder by adopting my sister as her owner and securing a leading role in our lives. My sister talked on about her afternoon spent at the hotel where she is designing the interior. A few days earlier I had walked through the lobby of the new hotel, Himalayan birds fluttering on the walls in hues of a deep red and orange. The rooms felt warm and cozy and I had to remind myself to congratulate her on her work. With siblings you often forget, think it is assumed. Sometimes it just needs to be said out loud.
“Oh, there was a naked man walking down temple road.” My sister added dismissively half an hour through the conversation.
“Like stark naked?” I asked.
“Yes, he didn’t seem like he was high or drunk or anything. He was just walking along sort of hugging his shoulders, looking around, as if he was out for a stroll and it was just a tad chilly.”
“Yes, why is this so strange?” my sister asked, her intense eyes piercing through me “I mean isn’t that skewed how we are so shocked by our own natural forms?”
“No underwear even?” I persisted…
“I mean if he was out on a drunken rampage, or looked drugged, I can see why that would be scary. But this was just a sober guy going for a walk, naked.” She shrugged, “I mean he was probably schizophrenic…but still, it is strange how we have come down to this – finding the natural so shocking…I didn’t try to shield Norzin, who was with me, from it. I mean that’s what a man looks like. Why should she not know that? And if he’s mentally ill, that’s part of life, she should start to see it to be the natural phenomenon of life.”
She paused and giggled, “I mean it was definitely funny though…just taking a stroll down temple road, naked…he was Indian..”
On Sunday I discovered that Norzin had head lice! Suddenly my head started itching too. Was it ghost lice or real, moving, creepy crawly creatures? Norzin and I bent our heads under the tap and carefully washed our hair with lice shampoo. Then we sat on the terrace and combed our hair out in the sun scanning the lice combs for any wiggling beings.
“This is when we realize we really aren’t that different from monkeys” Sonam commented looking on.
“Except that I don’t eat the lice” I mumbled, tugging at Norzin’s hair. As a child, going to the local school, we were caught in an endless cycle of catching and getting rid of head lice. My sister and I would lie awake in bed at night talking as the moon shone through our window. One of the topics frequently revisited was, “if you had three wishes….” We had both agreed that the first wish would be to never ever, ever have head lice ever again….
I washed the combs, changed the towels and told Norzin to make sure she didn’t touch heads with anyone at the local creche she went to.
“What about at nap time?” she asked.
“It is absolutely ridiculous that a six year old has nap time!”
“Then can I stay home?” she asked expectantly.
Every year I take a two-month break from Tibet and go stay with my parents, brother, his girlfriend and my sister at their houses in India. Our two house compound is perched on the side of a hill, the Kangra Valley spilled out at it’s feet and stretching out into the horizon. The snowy Dauladhar range towers to the East. Wildlife in the form of macaque and Langurs peek into windows and prowl in the gardens, Himalayan birds flutter and sing, croak and twitter, and inside, the less wild animals, dogs ranging from St Bernards to Chiwawas occupy the choice spots in the living room. The main house is the one where I grew up. As an adult I get to relax, complain and strategize for the upcoming year.
Norzin, my six year old, started her count down as the trip approached. During the few times that I left the plateau in the year, I parked my children with my in-laws, and consequently my two daughters had not descended into the world below for the past ten months. Norzin had memories of a school, monkeys, and lots of dogs from her pervious winters in the Himalayas. She was excited to escape the cold, to see trees again and touch the flowers (NORZIN DON’T PLUCK!!) that bloomed even in the winter. For two-year-old Baby D, she was just excited that she was included in the car as we set off. For once she was on the inside waving goodbye to the outside.
Initially I was supposed to have a series of meetings with KPMG an audit firm in Hong Kong. The meetings got postponed and I found myself left with tickets from HK to Delhi. My husband Yidam and I decided to make a little family holiday out of it. He would take us to HK, we would go to Disneyland and the children and I would continue to India while he returned to Tibet. We were excited about how excited the children would be by Disneyland.
“No, no, no, pleaseeee” This was Baby D. She was terrified of the rides, the crowds, the big bubbly Mickey Mouse and even the smiley Princess Belle. She even refused to sit in the rented stroller. From the 3D Donald Duck to the Lion King show, it was all too loud, too quick and too pushy. She spent much of the day her face buried in her father’s chest.
Norzin was a little pensive and reserved.
“Ama, is the princess real?”
“Ummm, what do you mean real? It’s a real person.” How do I answer this?
“But where does she sleep at night? How come they’re all here – together? Is that elephant real? Is the castle real? Why does it look like paper then? How come there are so many children? Why does the princess like that girl better than she likes me? Why is Cinderella ugly? Can we go to India now?”
Yidam had his own set of questions, it being his first time to Disneyland as well.
“Why are there adults without kids here? Don’t you think that’s a bit strange?” he muttered as we waited in line behind a group of Chinese Mainlanders in their forties. Below us, a car whizzed by on tracks as a Chinese man in his twenties sat behind the wheel squealing. Yidam scoffed,
“Why would a grown up ever want to do that? I mean we drive real cars. What’s the fun of that if you don’t have a kid to enjoy it with?”
“I went to Disney land as a teenager…” I admit.
“But these are adults and they are pushing in lines and fighting with children over rides! They should not allow them! Kids should be able to go first in line!”
I sigh and shrug. He does have a point. Standing in line for half an hour with a two year old and six year old is even more tedious when you see that half the line is made up of adults without kids. Sizing up the group in front of me I silently agreed that it was a bit strange; a tall Chinese woman in her fifties in loud flower prints fought so hard to scrunch herself ahead of us that I didn’t have the energy to fight back. Her front teeth were black and her hair was a short messy crop. Carrying a grocery bag as a purse, she stood with purpose and conviction as if she were at a train station, waiting to fight for a seat on an actual train with a real destination.
Then there were the Aussies with their golden little girls, blond hair, blue eyes and princess dresses. Norzin stopped to stare at them. To her they were like little angels, princesses just like Cinderella. Back at the hotel at night, Norzin stared in the mirror and began attacking her short home cut hair with a brush. ‘AMA!!” she demanded, “WHY am I so red?” finally she flopped on the bed and after some contemplation ended, “I need to have a princess dress. Everyone had one! I don’t want to wear pants anymore. I look like a boy” Elbows on her knees, hands cradling her chin, she looked at me with wide, serious eyes. So we bought her Princess Elsa’s dress and Norzin was conformed to the norms of Disneyland.
So Disneyland wasn’t so successful after all. We had a terrified two-year-old and a suspicious six year-old. On the other hand, the drive up from the plains of Jammu to the Himalayan foothills was a thrill for the girls. Norzin dove into the arms of my older sister Sonam who had come to pick us up. Clad in a leather jacket with two dogs on her heels, she was the epitome of cool to Norzin.
As we drove up, the children oohed at the large colorful trucks, the dusty trees and the occasional flower on the roadside. Baby D, smiled and pointed to a buffalo, “Go go” she said happily, the baby word for yaks. At a roadside Dhaba, we stopped to eat a late lunch. A little monkey was chained up to a tree with a box as his shelter. Norzin and Baby D approached the monkey with Sonam and together they fed it. Baby D wasn’t terrified but thrilled and for the first time Norzin didn’t ask, “is it real?” A stray dog sashayed up wagging its tail for a few scarps as well. Norzin and Baby D squealed in delight. Monkeys and dogs and buffalos – this was right up their alley. And so our two-month stay at my childhood home has begun.
“Sure, why not?” I answer casually, not looking up from my computer.
Yidam shrugs but doesn’t comment. I have a reputation for avoiding local gatherings and festivities. One day I actually sat down and made myself dig deep within ‘me’ to find out why.
‘Insecurity’, that was it! I triumphantly concluded. Having grown up as a product of two cultures, fitting in and belonging has always been a source of self-consciousness. A load that I picked up as a child, and has since been molded and intertwined into who I am today. My new year’s resolution was to open the closet and face my skeletons. My nephews wedding presented itself as my first challenge.
I clenched my hands nervously as I crossed the cold dark Labrang streets. The sun was making a lazy appearance typical of winter. It would be awhile before its rays hit the sidewalks on this January morning. The air was sharp and smelled of coal. We were visiting the young couple’s apartment where family assembled to congratulate them on their new unity of a lifetime. We climbed the dirty cement steps up to the apartment and there my fears took over. Yidam was swept away by a group of men looking to make wedding arrangements. A wave of cousins carried Norzin away and cooing in-laws snatched Baby D up. I stood awkwardly and finally dove for a seat near the window and sat staring at the scene laid out in front of me. A boy with a sweatshirt with the words ‘FUCK’ splashed across his back kept weeding in and out of the crowd. Here these swear words might as well have fallen on deaf ears and blind eyes, they were reduced to mere meaningless English letters.
The apartment slowly swelled with people as more and more relatives trickled in. As I settled into the scene around me, I realized that the room was split into two distinct crowds. There was the town crowd who effortlessly dominated the scene. They were mostly from the bride’s side. Then there were the nomads who were largely my husband’s family. They were glued to their seats, eyes wide, sweating in their large sheep skin robes and taking in the scene around them, fish out of the water.
“How is it so goddamn hot and there isn’t even a stove in sight. One has to move mountains just to get outside for a breath of fresh air!” they grumbled. I wasn’t the only one out of place here.
“Come on, we’re going now” Yidam said two hours later, and I quickly stood up and followed him out of the apartment. Out in the parking lot there was a confusing commotion of people and cars. Yidam was driving a borrowed Lincoln so having the second best car (the best car had to be white, draped with flowers and set aside for the bride and groom) he offered to drive his sister and her husband, the parents of the groom. He motioned for me to slip in as well. Norzin fell into the trunk of the car.
“Ama, did you see that car? It’s sooooo beautiful!” she mused at the dainty car that would leave last in the procession. The bride and groom only arrived once guest and family were all seated.
“What’s wrong?” Yidam asked his brother-in-law, a man in his early forties, slightly pudgy though handsome. There was nothing special about his attire today and he kept shifting in his seat and glancing around. Once in a while he would roll down the window and start shouting at someone in the street.
“I don’t like this.” He mumbled. “Why couldn’t they get married in the village? At least I would know what to do. I feel so stupid, I don’t know where to step next, and I’m the father of the groom today.”
Yidam chuckled as he eased the car out of the parking lot. Yidam’s sister, seated next to me, mumbled, “It’s what young people want these days.”
“I mean I don’t even know what’s going on. I’m nervous! I swear by Labrang Monastery! Did you see the ridiculous pictures they took the other day?”
This time I chuckled. I had quite enjoyed going through the album that the young couple had compiled. Heavily made up, they posed together in front of different backdrops alternating between grasslands and castles. They were dressed sometimes in Tibetan traditional attire and other times in frilly princess dresses and waistcoats with ties. I had to admit that they made a handsome couple. Norzin was very impressed by the castle backdrops and frilly clothes.
“It took them the whole day and we had to wait and wait. If you ask me, for a woman I understand, but it just makes a man look silly spending time and money and dressing up like a little girl!”
“You know that you have to make a speech and go and offer shots to all the tables.” Yidam said, chuckling.
His brother in law head shot towards him, “You’re joking! Stop making me so nervous!”
Traditional weddings will vary in tradition from village to village, though on the whole they are very different from town ones. What they do have in common is that once the families have reached an agreement on dowry and the stars of the prospective bride and groom are matched, the wedding itself is about fun and games dosed with complacency and humor. There is no religious ceremony, but it is a time for an entire village to come together, help each other in preparations and collectively celebrate.
The first visit is by the middleman who arrives at the groom’s house with saddle bags laden with large rolls of brocade and the bride’s jewelry bought for the occasion. The dowry is actually a contribution both the bride and groom’s family. The brocades are unrolled and the dowry jewels examined, and a date is agreed on for the father of the bride and men from her mother’s side who will escort her over to the groom’s house on horse. Young men from the bride’s village follow them, also on horseback and dressed in their finest robes. As they approach the village, they are to be met by the groom, mounted on a white horse. The groom gallops around his bride three times with the men from her side in pursuit. He will have to offer sweets and small cash if they manage to stop him. Then he gallops ahead into the village and the beating of hoofs alert the villagers of the approaching bridal party.
That night the bride sits by the stove in the center of the room, politely refusing to eat too much and putting on a show of modesty and humility. The women hover around her urging her to eat more. The men seat themselves on the kang. The entire village is invited and the singing competition begins. Men from surrounding villages have heard of the approaching wedding date and have prepared for days, sometimes weeks, the songs they will sing. Some are congratulatory; others tease the father-in-laws of the bride and groom. Ironically, in Yidam’s village, they don’t sing love songs, which are considered private and to be sung only during courting.
That night the neighboring villagers perch themselves on the roof around the skylight looking over the biggest family room. They have a thread with wool tied at its end, which they lower through the skylight and into the midst of the party below. A battle of songs ensues and if the party below looses, they have to tie a bottle of alcohol and send it up the skylight. If the wedding is that of an affluent family, the singers on the roof are relentless. They have practiced hard and will try and squeeze the family of as much alcohol as possible. On such occasions, the battle can continue until the early hours of the morning. The entire village is crowded in the house below eating and laughing, entertained by the singers and their wit. As a teenager, Yidam saw his older brother betrothed in this way. Not being such a great singer, he still hung around the skylight at other people’s weddings helping to count, sort and pour the alcohol that they won.
The next day the bride has to wake up at dawn and go fetch water. The women from her prospective husband’s family accompany her and examine how she unloads the water vessel, fills it, and loads it on her back. They will gossip about this later and god forbid if she trips, falls or spills water. Later that morning, women from the entire village surround the matchmaker who is usually a family friend and present throughout the festivities. They chase him and wrestle him to the ground. He is a ball of dust and earth by the time they are finished with him.
That morning, the bride returns to her village with her family. The groom’s relatives load the brides’ family horses with large chunks of meat as parting gifts. The father of the bride himself has come with saddlebags laden with small cash, candies and dried fruit. The women from the groom’s family surround the parting horses and tease the brides’ family, ”Your daughter is joining our village. How do you want us to treat her?” The father has to dig into his saddle bags and throw out candy. The women chase them out of the village with verbal challenges that he will respond to with candy and cash, strewn on the road, that the women and children will chase each other playfully to collect.
The next few days are the bride’s final days with her family. She visits relatives and relatives visit her. It is her time to say goodbye to her loved ones. A few days later she departs for her husband’s family, this time forever and with little ceremony.
Yidam’s brother-in-law had married his first son in such a fashion. His second son went to school and is now a government-employed teacher. His is a love marriage; he met and courted his girlfriend, a town girl, and the two of them decided on a modern town wedding.
When we arrived at the wedding banquet, the guests were already seated. Fireworks were set off to announce the arrival of the bride and groom’s immediate families. Baby D covered her ears with her hands and buried her head into her aunt’s robes. We were led to occupy seats at the front of the banquet.
“This is stupid” Norzin kept mumbling. “I have no seat. I’m too old to sit on your lap”. For the next few days, she scowled at anyone who asked about the wedding, grumbling, “I had no seat!”. Finding a seat was a bit of a commotion as wedding crashers were rife. The food was bountiful, Chinese style endless variety of chicken, duck and stir-fried vegetables. I enjoyed the menu though the nomads nibbled at the chicken and took reserved, suspicious bites at the vegetables. For them a banquet without large meaty dumplings, piles of boiled meat and hot steaming bowls of noodle soup is not a banquet.
A stage was prepared at the front of the hall from which local young and hip Tibetan singers sang catchy, modern songs. Once everyone was seated, the bride and groom made their entrance, introduced by an announcer who directed them to present white scarves to their parents. There was a confusion and a scuffle for white scarves as grandfathers, assuming they were the head of the family, stood up to receive scarves that were meant for the fathers. An embarrassed fumble for more scarves ensued before the elders sat down a little self-conscious and red in the face. For the next hour, the couple had to visit each table and offer a shot of alcohol to their guests. Once they had made the entire round, the fathers of the bride and groom had to make their rounds, offering a few words and a shot of alcohol. Yidam quickly came to the rescue of his brother-in-law whispering to him who was who. He grabbed his robe sleeve that was dragging on the floor and made sure he had his chance at a speech and wasn’t just quietly tagging along with the father of the bride.
“That table is all of your son’s classmates.” Yidam whispered. “You pour the alcohol and make a short speech”.
The father of the groom awkwardly cleared his throat. He probably had never said anything sugary in his life. “So you all came” Grunt “Come to the after party, in the apartment building in the vegetable sellers’ yard. Behind the tomato seller there is a door, open it, and go up to the second floor.” He ended with another grunt and a forced grin. He repeated this same speech at each table.
“He could have said something a little deeper, more auspicious.” Yidam grumbled later. “This was a little embarrassing.”
“Give the poor guy a break. He was a fish out of water.” I was full of empathy. More people than meet the eye are a product or a causality of two cultures. My brother-in-law’s dilemma was not too different from my own.
At the end of the banquet women from the brides’ village couldn’t resist including a bit of tradition. They circled the groom’s father, playfully harassing him for taking away a beautiful girl from their village. He pulled out a 500 Yuan in notes.
“She’s worth far more than that!”, they teased. Finally he turned around and counted out 1000 Yuan.
“Ok, we will make an exception for you. Though the girls from our village are priceless” They then squeezed into a circle and among chairs thrown back and tables stacked with left overs, began to sing a high-pitched song suited to the openness of the plateau. The banquet hall echoed with the voice of another time and generation.
“Some wedding!” were my brother-in-laws words as we left the banquet.
“If you churn a pot of shit all you will get is stink and mess and crap all over the place” Boomed the voice on the other end of the phone. I suppressed a giggle, “I completely agree. Let’s leave that pot of shit alone”
My monk adviser didn’t seem to find it funny. The situation was actually not amusing at all, but then again life is a package deal of pros and cons. The price we pay for this package is the importance we assign to the ups and downs, and twists and turns of life. There are some things you just need to shrug off.
The hate letter appeared on a prominent Chinese social media site called Wechat. Strangely it was directed at an individual rather than Norlha as a whole. A picture of one of my managers was posted with a cross down the middle. An introduction ran where he was depicted as a cruel, money-grabbing individual. Among the faults listed was the incident of the two girls (see blog ‘An initiation into village politics’) who had gotten drunk during working hours and then belligerently jumped out the window of the guesthouse where they were working. Following the pleading of the Village Monastery Heads, Norlha had forgiven them. They were back at work but the dust has not settled on the incident. In many ways I was waiting to see how this would backfire. Nomads are conservative and many found the incident unacceptable and they were not happy with the way we resolved it. The wechat posting chastised not just Norlha and my manager but also the Village Monastery Heads for pleading the case of the culprits. Why my manager was personally blamed baffled me. It only meant that it was someone holding a personal grievance against him and manipulating these incidents to vent his anger. Needless to say, my manager was upset. He wanted retribution. He wanted the police involved. He wanted to dig out the person who had splashed this all over the local social media. I told him I would do whatever my advisor recommended, who happened to be his uncle, a monk and quite a wise one at that.
“I know you helped this woman’s daughter” my monk advisor continued, “I know how with helping, comes a certain affection for a person, so it put you in a vulnerable position. But it was very unprofessional of you to have forgiven her. It was a biased decision. This is a mistake that you made”
“I understand.” I mumbled.
“The person who wrote this is probably someone jealous of your manager. On many points he lied, but with the women, there is no argument. My advice is to examine his words but to leave the shit pot be. Do not stir it.”
There was a silence, then he continued, “If you had consulted me when the incident with the girls happened, I would have steered you away from forgiveness. I understand your compassion for them but this is for the benefit of the whole. Your responsibility for Norlha doesn’t afford you such forgiveness.”
“Yes, you are absolutely right” I mumbled. There was a grunt of approval from the other end of the phone. “Well, now it is too late to regret your decision.”
Was it wrong that I didn’t actually regret my decision? I hadn’t called my advisor about the girls, for I knew what the advice would have been and I knew I didn’t have it in my heart to follow his advice. The sufferings of a little girl somehow weighed heavier than the rules of Norlha. I guess I would have made for a weak king.
“I agree not to act on this hate posting but out of courtesy of my manager I decided to consult you. After all some of the accusations have nothing to do with him so I felt it my duty” I answer.
There was a sigh at the other end of the line, “Yes it is too bad for him. But if let’s say, you had a very expensive car, like the Lincoln that Gendun (a local flashy flaky businessman) drives. If it smashes into a tractor, the Lincoln will probably be more damaged than the tractor. We are like the Lincoln car deliberately smashing into a tractor if we fight the man who wrote this letter ”
I hung up the phone, closed my eyes and leaned against the wall. I thought of the forgiven girls. Had I been weak? How much harder it was to be mean than to be nice. Was that true for everyone? Certainly not for the person who had written the hate letter, but then again, even he hadn’t had the courage to reveal his identity. Would I ever make it as a leader? I had ended the conversation apologizing for my unfairness and promising never to let my personal feelings cloud the benefit of the whole. “This would be the last time” As soon as these final words escaped my mouth, I wanted to reach out, grab them and stuff them back in. Would I have the heart to turn away someone else in the future who needed a second chance? I had just promised to that and for me a promise is everything.
Outside the plateau has decided to give a new definition to the word “cold”. My nostrils stick together when I walk my dog in the mornings. My bones ache. Norzin my six-year-old who hates to be constricted by coats and gloves and hats, has decided to abandon the outdoors. She stays at home all day but not without having invited the neighborhood brood over. She is trying to make the best out of winter. For another little girl, a little girl who has a genetic muscular disorder and can’t jump and run with the others, this is the best time of the year. No one is running out into the hillside leaving her watching after them longingly. Until now, her only friend was a kitten, which too eventually grew up into a cat and left her. Now in winter, her newfound friendship with Norzin means she arrives on her mother’s back every morning to our house. Norzin makes sure that games are designed in a way that Little Lhamo has a fair chance. UNO is a favorite. When it is time to go to the bathroom Norzin pulls Lhamo up into a standing position and the two of them hobble off. Norzin helps Lhamo pull off her pants and drags her onto the toilet seat.
“You are way too heavy for me!” Norzin complains but she helps her again the next day and Lhamo shrugs off Norzin’s complaints.
As I watch the two of them together, I have no regrets on the decision I made on forgiving Lhamo’s mother. Life is often like a see-saw. Today Lhamo and her mother are on the high seat and my poor manager is on the low. And as I enter yet another new year, I continue to learn to maneuver with the little rules of life: Let the shit pot rest.
I stare out into the dusty plateau. The wind whips up a cloud of dust. It playfully twirls the dust into a perfect vortex before scattering it over a grazing herd. The sky is smudged with an unattractive grey, this is winter at it’s gloomiest. Sometimes I wish humans hibernated, but then again, what a waste of time.
The lone rattle of a tractor echoes across the plain below. A nomad hurtles three sheep back from town, a deal gone bad over a couple of hundred Yuan. What a disappointment. What a waste of time.
Below me, the stout jovial schoolteacher who is my neighbor’s wife emerges from her house, walking briskly with two rubber Jerry cans “There’s no water…” I mumble to myself. From my perch on the veranda I can see her leave her yard and go towards the water tap as predicted. She twists and turns the tap but no water.
“Told you….” I mumble. She walks off with an air of efficiently and disappears into her- house. A few minutes later she emerges with her step- daughter, a girl in her twenties about fifteen years her junior. They march together to their neighbor’s tap with the two Jerry cans.
“No use…no water there too…” I mumble. “Just wasting your time…”
It is Saturday and a local holiday. I woke up to a cold house. The heating system was down and there was no water. Unlike all the other houses in the village, we have plumbing inside the house with showers, sinks and flushing toilets, so usually I am the first to know if there is no water. The rest of the houses in the village have water taps right outside their front yard. I find it odd how no family actually put the government sponsored taps inside their yards. It was as if they were suspicious of this new piece of infrastructure and preferred to leave it at arms length and outside their front door for the time being.
I scavenged the house for some water, shaking out thermoses and water bottles and finally found enough to heat up. Clasping a hot cup of instant coffee, I decided that this was a good day for the girls to bundle up, go out and embrace winter. I could happily stay under covers all day but that would probably be Norzin’s definition of hell; a complete waste of perfect time.
“Sure I’ll come and pick them up!” my baby sitter answered jovially. There was a village gathering at the monastery and I felt it would be good for the girls to go there. Norzin could meet her friends and they could trade candies. I packed a bag full of American candy that my sister Noryang had sent from Seattle. Norzin counted them out. There were fifteen. Her eyes widened , “Wow Ama!”
“Not just for you ok? You give it to friends when you see them”
“Can I have some money too?” mischief radiated from her narrowed eyes. Lets squeeze Ama as much as we can.
“Five” I said as strictly as possible.
“Ten” She answered folding her arms over her chest. Then changing tactics, she sighed, “Things have gotten so much more expensive nowadays”. I was about to fall for her trick when she took it a little too far by pointing at an umbrella and saying, “Even that’s fifty now!”
“Ok Goobs, I know that is not fifty. Ama might not be up to date with how much candy costs, but a child’s umbrella is not fifty! Go along now and stop wasting my time”.
The first time I had been on such an outing with Norzin, I had made the mistake of not taking any goodies. It was supposed to be a day of prayer so I had taken my camera and some white scarves and set out. As we came across other women and children at the monastery, they dug into their plastic bags full of little goodies and pushed them into Norzin’s hands. I noticed that other people reciprocated and blushed with embarrassment whenever someone handed Norzin candy and I had nothing to give back. I was younger then and more self-conscious and worried that people would think I was stingy. The following year, I asked Yidam to pick up a bag of goodies from town so Norzin and I would have something to reciprocate with. He bought all the wrong things and I found myself struggling with huge chocolate bars as I fumbled with the multiple wrappings and clumsily broke off pieces to give out. Norzin stood glaring at me. The following year I sent her off with her baby sitter and some cash while I stayed at home and watched a movie. Today, I had American candy, small, convenient and fun to give out. The three of them had trotted off, taking a good twenty minutes to reach the bottom of the hill, stopping to count and recount the contents of the candy bag.
My neighbor and her stepdaughter return with their empty jerry cans. There is some deliberation before they go back into the house. My mind wanders out to them. They are a strange little family. The grandmother, who was one of our first spinners when Norlha opened in 2007, is 78. She likes to mutter obscenities and smokes. Sometimes I see her drawing at her pipe in the solitude of their back yard.
“Ahh, it’s just old ChoeTso. She picked up those habits during the hard times” People say, surprisingly understanding of the old woman’s habits. If she spots me watching her, she quickly hides her pipe and flashes a wide, toothless smile at me. We have been on relatively good terms despite a small incident that happened a few years ago. I chose to dismiss it as the senseless superstitions of an old woman though at the time I was deeply haunted by her words. Six years ago, Yidam and I built a cheap little house on the same land where today we have our much grander house. The stone outer walls were so badly built that they crumbled twice during construction. One day, walking up to inspect the site, I came across old ChoeTso. Without warning she starting pushing me back down the hill, “What did you do, you dirty bitch!” she shouted, pointing at my house and at my swollen belly. I looked around desperately hoping there were no witnesses. A woman employee at the workshop quickly scuttled out of sight. I never told anyone of this incident. Today it is just one of the many that I buried away, deciding that reflecting upon them is simply a waste of time.
Acha Choetso had worried I was bringing bad spirits to the little hill we jointly occupied. She lived alone in a small mud house then. The previous year, when we first proposed building a workshop to the village and monastery, after much negotiation and deliberation, they gave us two choices for land.
“The one there” they said pointing towards a large plain “is tilted slightly to the North so a little cold and damp, but it is a great piece of flat land.”
“Then there is that land”, they pointed to a slope with a clutter of abandoned earth walls. A thin string of smoke snaked out of a single occupied house. “It is a great piece of land, protected by the hill and facing South, though families are known not to prosper there. However, since you are a company that is building a place of work, we think it might be alright if you pay proper tribute to the necessary deities. They will be more likely to accept your presence.”
Two years after building the workshop, we asked for a small piece of land at the top of the same hill to build a house for my family, explaining that we needed somewhere to live. The villagers and monks warned us again, specifying that the hill was a difficult place for a family to prosper. They pointed to Old ChoeTso’s house and said, “Her family has left her too. She lives alone. It is hard to thrive here unless you are very powerful. The Gods do not just accept anyone”
“Why is that?”
They pointed across the plain to the single highest peak in Ritoma. The hill was directly across conical shaped mountain and the villagers explained that it was the site where the gods left their horses when visiting the peak. The hill was cradled between two higher slopes and there were only roads leading towards it, none running across or behind it. This was considered inauspicious though perfectly suited to the Gods for mounting and dismounting their horses when visiting their mountain.
“The Gods won’t allow just anyone to occupy land that they use. Most families who have tried to settle here have been driven to poverty and forced to move. It is hard to be deemed worthy of living there by the Gods”
I realized that Acha ChoeTso felt she was hanging by a thread. Any activities to displease the Gods and she would be driven off her little abode that clung to the hill. Where would she move? Who would help her build a house? She didn’t want me jeopardizing her presence on the hill.
Eventually, the walls of our house held together and we moved into the house. The little hill began to prosper and Acha ChoeTso’s life too took a turn for the better. Although I had nothing to do with her new found good fortune, she took it that I had appeased the Gods after all. Today, brick and cement extensions flank her old mud house and a glass veranda encases its walls. Her son, her three grandchildren and his new wife have all returned to the village and joined her so she need not spend her last days alone. Acha ChoeTso has been very cordial since, even hiding her pipe when I pass by. Neither of us ever mentioned the unpleasant incident that took place more than six years ago. Today I watch her silhouette from my window; a stout old woman perched at the top of the hill, a toddler stumbling behind her. A little puppy yaps and frolics around them. Her life is no longer a series of casual “wastes of time” strung together. She has a purpose in taking care of her grandson and it has made her a happier, kinder person.
“Listen, listen” seven-year-old Lhamo says pointing her little finger upwards.
I watch out of the corner of my eye as Norzin stops sniffing to listen. It is the kitten meowing softly.
“The kitty is crying because you’re crying. You better stop crying” A tactic used by adults to get toddlers to stop bawling.
Norzin wipes her nose with the back of her hand and manages a smile.
“Shall we keep playing then?” Lhamo asks smiling and holding up her cards. Norzin nods and glares at me. I had reprimanded her for trying to cheat at which she had flown into an embarrassed tantrum.
Lhamo shrugs and looks at me, “We both cheat sometimes. It’s ok as long as you’re not caught. It’s part of the rules.” I decide not to get involved.
It is Thanksgiving Day. Not that I have ever celebrated thanksgiving but with social media nowadays, thanksgiving was pretty much shoved in my face. My mouth had watered as I scrolled through pictures of turkeys on Facebook.
“I’ll make you a whole chicken if you want” Yidam had said peering over my shoulder at the picture of a large turkey set in the middle of a table. “Really? “
Baked and stuffed and all?”
“Well, maybe not stuffed but baked”
Lhamo and Norzin put down their cards as Yidam’s nephew enters the house with the shopping. Norzin skips over happily and Lhamo drags herself over, clinging to the side of the sofa. “What’s wrong with your friend?” Norzin’s twenty-year-old cousin asks.
Norzin shrugs. “What do you mean?”
“Lhamo, what’s wrong with your legs?” Norzin relays, more interested in getting into the shopping bags.
Lhamo shrugs. “Has always been like that. It’s getting better though” The reality is that it isn’t getting better but slowly deteriorating (See blog Little Lhamo). Little Lhamo knows this but accepting and admitting is another matter.
Norzin keeps jumping up and down, “What’s in the bag?! What’s in the bag?!” Lhamo catches up with the bouncy Norzin and they peer eagerly up at the cousin. A trip back from town always means that stocks on goodies such as fruit, bread, nuts and sometimes even the junk food basket get replenished.
Norzin’s cousin pulls out a plucked whole chicken and slams it on the table. It is pink with no head, no feet and no wings. There is a second of silence and suddenly, the girls start screaming. Norzin runs to the sofa and buries her face in a pillow. Lhamo, her legs unable to carry her, flops to the ground and bursts into tears. Yidam runs in at the commotion, scoops up Lhamo and places her on the sofa next to Norzin.
“But both of you have seen yaks, sheep and pigs slaughtered, what’s so scary?”
“That’s not a yak, sheep or pig” Norzin snaps angrily and then wrinkles her brow, “Ama, what is it?”
“Well, it’s a chicken…you’ve eaten chicken before”
“But it looks so pink and slimy and there’s no head and feet and wings” she looks at me accusingly. “What are we going to do with it?”
“Well, eat it.”
Norzin crosses her arms and scowls at me emphatically, “Well,” her eyes dart between me and Yidam, “ we are not going to eat it” Lhamo nods in agreement.
Two weeks since the incident and my little carnivore has not touched meat, coincidentally since the day after her sixth birthday. I have tried to coax her into eating meat but she just rolls her eyes at me, “OMG Ama! How many times have I told you that I am vegetarian! Vegetarians don’t eat meat! So stop trying to give me meat!” Everything I have to say is annoying and uncool anyway. People’s comments are varied and I let her take the hit without rescuing or answering for her. After all, if she insists on plowing through winter without meat she had better be able to offer a good enough explanation for it.
“Why are you vegetarian?” ask the nomads
“I feel sorry for the animals” Norzin offers
Elders praise her for her compassion and worry that winter is coming and she will not have enough strength to stay warm and healthy. Norzin is smug and proud by the attention and the praise.
Little jealous boys tell her she isn’t “Tibetan” and that’s why she can quit meat. Norzin looks a little confused by this statement, which later leads to “Where am I from Ama?”
Little friends console her that potatoes don’t taste too bad and maybe there is still something left to look forward to. Norzin confirms that sugar isn’t meat so she can still eat gum and candy.
Once Norzin pointed at a piece of sausage, “Ama, is that meat?” she asked longingly.
“Yes, it’s meat. But it’s ok to eat it” She shakes her head and stomps off. I am starting to run out of things to feed her. Outside the temperature has dropped to below four degrees Celsius and an icy wind has invaded the plateau. While Norzin is adamant about not eating meat, she is even more insistent about not eating vegetables. Every meal is turning into yak yogurt with barley or yak butter with barley. Maybe one day I can add protein-rich quinoa to her diet.
Coincidentally, a few weeks ago a group of Taiwanese landed upon us in our little corner of the world. They showered us with praise for what we had achieved with Norlha and then turned to the object of their visit: planting quinoa. “Green gold” They said, their eyes twinkling. I was excited by the offer as quinoa is recognized as a highly nutritious plant, native to highlands, it’s habitat being the Andes Mountains. Farmers in Tibet receive little for their barley and colza and many are giving up farming land by selling it to industries at best. Quinoa has 10 times higher market value than the usual crops in the area, and could become the reason for farmers to remain on their land. It was all a little overwhelming but when Norzin turned vegetarian and I watched her skinny frame bouncing around, I involuntarily began giving quinoa, green gold as they called it, more serious thought. Suddenly the benefits of quinoa were magnified. I decided to just do it. We set up a “quinoa team”, started our research, and set a date to sign the contracts with the Taiwanese group. For better or for worse we will start planting quinoa in ten test fields next April.
Maybe Norzin will remain a vegetarian forever. Maybe we will harvest our quinoa and have our own Tibetan thanksgiving one day. Maybe the story of the green gold will be told; A little girl breaks down at the sight of a chicken, becomes a vegetarian and has a mother who starts planting quinoa.