Ladakh, June 1981
Radio Ceylon was up and about with its weekly Binaca Geetmala, and Ameen Sayani’s soulful philosophical voice cracked over the loud radio placed slanted over a bunch of stacked rocks by the bank of Sengye Tsangpo.
From far upstream, where a group of women were washing their clothes, a woman shouts, “Gen Thupten la, please turn up your radio so we can hear the music too.” Thupten beating his clothes by the river — bent and almost frozen — stands up straight with great difficulty, feeling pain in his frozen spine at the sudden movement of his body. He smiles shyly at them, hops to the radio and turns the volume up with his arthritic fingers just as it blares Jagjit Singh’s ‘Hothon se chulo tum. Mera geet amar kar do’. “Oh yay”, clap the ladies in unison over glee of the newfound technology that their genla had bought from Leh market, one of the only few radios in TCV campus. Those who knew the song sang along in their broken lyrical words and even more broken Hindi accent.
Thupten enjoys the melody and knows it to be a ghazal but has idea of neither the song nor the singer, neither the lyrics nor the film of the song. Growing up in Stanes, all songs of propriety he was ever taught by Fathers of the Christian missionary school were Christian songs of worship, and all he had ever grooved to at parties with his Anglo-Indian school friends in South India were songs of The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Carpenters, and the like. Bollywood was as far to him as Ladakh was to Ooty — Poanta Sahib even. But as he washes his clothes pensively, he starts to feel the slow melody of the Hindi songs that blare out one by one. “Thank you genla. Bye, see you at school”, the women wave as they finish washing their bags of clothes and walk away to Choglamsar.
The land, for centuries, has always been godforsakenly barren. The air crisp and blunt dry — one could see into miles and miles of nothingness — the end of the view almost always abruptly blocked by a mountain or a range. In Ladakh, one’s eyes can gaze as far as tens of kilometers away at the base of a mountain and still feel its empowering physical presence right in front of your nose. Further up into the mountain desert plains of Changthangregion, the very space between one’s eyes and the mountains turns into hundreds of kilometers of haunting nothingness.
Just then Thupten remembers he has to go to Sumdo in Changthang the next day with gen Tenzin la to inaugurate the final establishment of Tibetan Childrens Village’s TCV Sumdo branch school for children of the nomad people. He gruntled at the thought of travelling by the rickety school jeep for hours into desert mountains and then further onward, by the even more uncomfortable journey on nomad horses. But he smiles at the thought of all the amazing stories gen Tenzin la would tell him on the way — of his farm life in Shigatse with his wife, of the time when Chinese army entered his city, of the time he joined the rebellion, and of the time he escaped into India after the death of his wife. Genla’s stories were always fascinating, and if not for the element of exaggerated drama in the art of his storytelling, they would have simply been depressingly tragic.
Gen Tenzin la was TCV Choglamsar’s headmaster and Thupten — his right-hand man — his inji lobta graduate English speaking and writing secretary — rare among those days for a common Tibetan unless you are kudrak children, of course. The so-called blue bloods.
On Thupten’s first year as genla’s secretary, he had written an impassioned grant proposal for humanitarian aid to Tibetan refugee children of TCV Choglamsar school, and in rightful desperation of the times, he had composed a vivid catastrophic geographical image of Choglamsar being submerged in a ruthless dry mountain desert under regular attack of natural calamities. Right around that time, there was an event of a huge sandstorm in Ladakh that enraptured the attention of media blaring images of people in various heart wrenching trappings of the storm. Gen Tenzin la had then paraded the grant proposal and had successfully advocated for financial support from various international organizations to build the school infrastructure. The duo team of gen Tenzin la and Thupten had been unstoppable since then. Not only did TCV Choglamsar school went about running successfully, they also ended up working to open a branch school in Changthang Sumdo.
To make up for all the hard work of the days, however, Thupten would loiter on the streets of Camp Number three taverns with young staff teachers of the school in the evenings. His mere habit of social drinking had long since turned into a regular habit of drinking chang — Tibetan wine — at the turn of seven o’clock in the evening. But then that was the harsh life of Ladakh; single men with no families needed the warmth of sweet wine to kill lonely times of godforsaken cold nights.
Thupten quickly washes off the last trouser squeezing ice cold water off of it and shakes his hands violently as if generating heat to warm his numb fingers. Sengye Tsangpo was ruthlessly cold. Tired — he sits on the side, smokes a relaxing cigarette and stares on into the river.
“Genla. Gen Thupten la“, someone was shouting from a distance and running towards Thupten. Athar, the young school cook stopped well near Thupten and panted the last few feet slowly. “There you are, genla. I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to give this letter to you on time. Acha Nangsel said I must give this to you before you leave for Sumdo. I looked everywhere for you. I couldn’t find you at school, so I guessed you must be at Shiwel Tsel helping them. You weren’t there as well. Thank god I met those women who told me you are here washing your clothes. Phew, okay now I can rest.”
Thupten calmly takes a long slow puff of his cigarette, grabs the letter, and says, “Woah, calm down Athar. It is just a letter from my home. They send me one every two or three months to check where I am. It is not that urgent. I could have received it even after I get back from Sumdo. I am sorry acha Nangsel made you run everywhere.”
“No, gen Thupten la, this seems different. Acha Nangsel said they have written the word “Important” on the envelope. Turn it over and see for yourself. Something untoward must have happened in your family. Kunchok Khen. Read it, genla, quick!”
Sure enough, right underneath the address is the word “Important” written in Tibetan language underlined by a red sketch pen. The letter also seems heavier than the usual letters he receives from home.
He urgently throws his cigarette away, stands up and tears open the envelope. A picture of a girl falls down and lands amid the riverbank stones. Puzzled, he picks it up and holds it between his fingers and reads the letter. Athar waits patiently for a reaction of sadness or tears from Thupten’s eyes anticipating news of a death or sickness in the family. Thupten reads the entire letter and gives a blank expression, not fully understanding the gravity of what was asked of him. He reads the letter again, it was only one page, but this time slowly absorbing each word written in the messy Tibetan handwriting of his father in Poanta Sahib.
Athar, no longer able to contain himself of the suspense, blurts, “What’s the news, genla? Don’t worry, we are all here for you, the entire school is here for you.”
“They want me to get married”, says Thupten.
Athar slaps his hand on Thupten’s shoulder, and laughs out loud rolling himself on the stones by the river. “Well then I am glad I ran everywhere to find you to give this news. Ah, genla, what a good news.”
Athar looks at the picture of the girl and says, “She is pretty, genla. I am sure she is also an inji lobta bhumo, speaking English and writing English like you. Oh, what a good match. You should say yes. You will not find anyone like her in the whole of Ladakh; Choglamsar and Changthang combined.”
Thupten doesn’t reply. He takes some time to process the whole information relayed to him, both by the letter and Athar’s words. He lights another cigarette and thinks to himself for a while.
“You know, Athar, when I was in school, my family lost me for many years — literally.”
“Yea. In the 1970s. My parents were laborers in highway road construction work in Manali. They sent me to Dharamsala school along with a group of refugee kids from our laborer camp. Dharamsala was full, so I was sent to a school in Shimla. And then after a few months, I was sent again with four boys to Ooty in South India. To the inji lobta. Stanes had contacted the Tibetan government that they would accept some refugee boys in their school, but because it was a strange school in a strange place that no one had heard of, the kudrak kids were not sent, obviously. Instead, they picked us four boys randomly as guinea pigs. I understood only later that if we were to do well in that strange land, then only were they to send more boys — and they did — kudrak kids. No one cared to inform my parents of my whereabouts, and it was long before my parents even realized I was not in the Dharamsala school they thought I was in. Stanes was a good school, but I spent years alone there without any communication from my family. Someone later told me they looked for me everywhere but gave up on ever finding me. They took me for dead. We eventually reunited years later, but I have resented them ever since. Every 2-3 months now, they sent me letters to check where I am. Sometimes I reply, sometimes I don’t. But what is it that they are asking of me today? Changsa? They did not ask me if I want to get married. The letter simply stated that I have to get married. I don’t know what to think of it.”
Athar turns to Thupten and says, “Gen Thupten la, you are a man of education — good education. English education. Not like any of us Aku Drokpas in Ladakh. Surely you must then think like an educated man. You know very well that you cannot blame your parents for abandoning you. Heck, they were all abandoned themselves by fate. You should thank them for sending you somewhere at least to get education instead of making you work with them on the road. I understand it must have been hard for you growing up, but this is our collective story. You write about our refugee troubles everyday in your letters to our sponsors, it is a collective narrative of our people. Everyone of us has gone through same things. You can’t simply blame your parents for that. Anyway, cheer up, we are going to Dolma changkhang tonight by Camp three, want to join us? Stare at the wine lady acha Dolma all you want tonight — for very soon, looks like you will not be allowed to do that legally, haha.”
“No drokpo, I can’t tonight. I have to wake up early morning tomorrow to go to Changthang. Gen Tenzin la will kill me if I am late. I have to go home and dry these pants. I am planning to wear them tomorrow on my trip, that is — if they dry on time tonight.”
As Thupten and Athar walk away from the river, they notice an Indian army helicopter flying very low near the ground and they think it unusual. Indian Army helicopters flying above is an all too common sight in Ladakh, but one that is flying this close to the ground, not at all.
Thupten moans out loud, “Ah, I don’t know what to think. I am very confused.”
“You are so screwed, genla, Athar runs ahead a few feet laughing. He looks up at the sky opening his arms and shouts out loud, “Ki hi hi. Oh, all gods of all mountains of Ladakh, help our genla. Give us a sign.”
Just then the Indian army helicopter in the sky wobbles in the air and all of a sudden produces a thick black smoke. It plunges nose down straight on the ground and crashes. Right next to Sengye Tsangpo.
Poanta Sahib, October 1981
Aya Topgyal and Po Ugyen are sitting under the peepal tree with a group of their lookalikes — old people — all dozing while moving their rosaries and chanting mani prayers silently; all waiting for baada baje — twelve o’clock — when their sons and daughters would call them for lunch.
Spring and summer months in Poanta shichak are as boring as its people are busy in autumn and winter months. It was the lethargy and frustration of seasonal unemployment at its peak. Every morning around eight, all elders of the shichak would gather at the common ground to discuss news, happenings, and gossip till the wee hours of baada baje. At twelve o’clock, the shichak handicraft bell would ring signaling the time. Everyone would then slowly trickle back to their houses for lunch and siesta which would last way into the evening, only for them to get up to drink chang and play sho para until sunset. Autumn and winter months are sweater-selling time in different regions of India, their yearly and only income-garnering months.
Po Rithak and Ajo Ngawang were debating whose wife make better pai chang, while acha Kalsang, ama Palyang and Ro mo were at another corner berating their daughter-in-laws to each other. As the baada baje bell rings, one by one, everyone leaves for their homes. Po Ugyen signals Aya Topgyal to stay back. After making sure everyone has left, Po Ugyen picks Aya Topgyal’s hand in his and says, “Ah, I have been waiting long for these people to leave. I have good news, Topgyal. My son has replied. He agrees to the marriage. What did I tell you? He is my son, after all. He also sent a letter for your daughter. He has asked me to give it to her. Here.”
Po Ugyen pulls out a crumpled letter from his pocket and hands it to Aya Topgyal. “I don’t know what it says. But he has asked me to give it to your daughter telling me to make sure she reads it. I was curious and opened it but it is written in English, so I don’t know what it says. But here, we have to trust them. Give this to your daughter.”
Aya Topgyal replies in glee, “Ya ya Ajo. I will give this to her. I haven’t told her yet because I was waiting for his reply. So it’s good now that I can tell her about this. It is so nice; us Gyakpon friends are finally becoming one family. What a good news. My daughter is, as you know well, a very good daughter and I hope she can be an amazing daughter-in-law to you as well. It will surely be a huge loss for me business-wise. She is but the best sweater-seller in our shichak. She can speak both Hindi and English fluently like native speakers. But being a daughter, she has to go to her husband’s house after all and what better news for me than to know that it will be your house.”
“Don’t worry, Topgyal. We will take good care of her. We can get them married on Losar. I will tell bhu Thupten to come here on Losar holiday. He can spend as much time as he can here with us and his new wife before heading back. I will insist he stay for at least two months this time. Now that his wife will be here in our home, he will also have excuses to visit us more often. I know your daughter is a good girl, but my son is also a highly educated man. I have been told he is well respected in Patlikuhl and Ladakh now. I will not be surprised if he becomes a kungo in our government. It’s all Kundun’s blessings! What a good match! In his absence, you do not worry, we will take good care of your daughter. And except during sweater-selling months, both our families will be in Poanta shichak anyway. So, she can visit you whenever she wants. Only change for her will be the sweater-selling location for a few months. Asansol to Jhansi. And bhu Thupten will visit her whenever he wants from Ladakh.”
Aya Topgyal smiles and says, “Many Tashi Delek to both our families. And Ugyen, don’t forget the next marriage of your daughter bhumo Nyima with my older son Ngodup after this.”
Po Ugyen claps his hands in happiness and says, “Rey rey. BhumoNyima is a bit too young right now. But in two years, it will be the right time. You have my word on it. Two years after my son bhu Thupten and your daughter Dechen gets married, we will marry off your son Ngodup and my daughter bhumo Nyima. So Dechen will be in my house helping us and bhumo Nyima will be in your house helping you and your family. What a great proposition! Let’s give our word to each other and hug on it.”
The two gyakpons of Poanta Sahib hug and laugh quietly at their clandestine deal with each other.
“Aya Topgyal, on this happy note, I would like to invite you to my house in the evening today for an endless round of pai chang made by my wife. You know ama Tashi’s pai is the best in the whole of the shichak. Let’s drink and be merry today on this good day.”
At half past twelve, Dechen comes looking for Aya Topgyal by the common ground. “There you are, Aya, do you realize it is way past Baada Baje. I have been worried for you. Come home now, time to eat lunch.”
Aya Topgyal and Po Ugyen wink at each other as they bid goodbye until evening pai time.
“He said okay? Just like that? Tell me everything he has written in detail.”
Ama Tashi was sincerely shocked at the news that bhu Thupten had agreed to the marriage.
“Did he really say he will get married? Ugyen, read the letter out loud to me. Bhu Lobsang, where is the letter?”
Po Ugyen gets irritated, “Atsee, this woman! How many times have I told you he said yes. Here, I will read it out loud to you.
“Dear Pala Ugyen, I am fine and doing well in Ladakh.” Blah Blah Blah. “I hope everyone at home is healthy and well. As a son, I have to abide by your wishes. But I have one request of you, I have enclosed another letter here that I want you to give to the girl. Please make sure she has read it first.”
“And what has he written in the other letter?”
“I don’t know. It is written in English. Don’t pry too much now, woman. Isn’t it good enough he has agreed? Aya Topgyal’s daughter is famous for being a shrewd sweater-seller. You know very well that she makes most sales in business in the entire shichak. Plus, she is homely and obedient. What more can you ask?”
“Atsee, I am not worried for her. I think she is a gem of a daughter-in-law as well. I just don’t believe bhu Thupten agreed like that. You never know what is going on in that thinking head of his. He is a rebel, you know that. It is that inji school, I am telling you. He doesn’t think like the rest of us, he is not Tibetan enough in his thoughts. He is too liberal and carefree about our traditional beliefs. I am sure he will refuse to get married some time later after we finalize everything. I feel something unexpected will happen. I just have a feeling.”
“Just get that pai ready, woman. Aya Topgyal will be here soon.”
Dechen came to know of her marriage plans not from her father, Aya Topgyal, but from her friends while bathing in Kyakchu one day. Now the name Kyakchu is not as literal as it sounds. It is just a disgusting name given to a pretty nice river stream beyond the fields surrounding Poanta shichak that ultimately flows into the Yamuna river. Dechen was bathing in Kyakchu with a group of her friends, clearly unaware of the whispers and gossips going on about her back. A friend had said, “What Dechen? Why so secretive about your marriage? Pray, tell us about the guy.”
“What guy and what marriage?” she had retorted.
“Don’t act like you don’t know. I heard my mother talking to her neighbor this morning that your marriage is set with gyakpon Ugyen’s son. Tell us about it.”
Dechen was truly puzzled, “Who is gyakpon Ugyen’s son?”
“Don’t try to be so innocent. Is he so good-looking that you are keeping this such a secret?”
Dechen quickly returned home to confront her father. She was not surprised her father would do something like that behind her back.
Nine years ago, as an eighth-grader in Cameron Hall school in Dehradun, her father had randomly turned up at her girl’s hostel one day without any notice. He had told her to pack up her bags and took her back to shichak. It was only on reaching Poanta Sahib that she came to know she was never to go back to school again. And that was how she had left school forever — just like that.
She had not shown anger then and she was not angry even now. Not then — because her eldest sister had died of food poisoning all of a sudden and her father was left all alone to handle their sweater-selling business. She had rightly realized that it is now her duty as the eldest living daughter to handle the family livelihood. She did not question the fairness of having to sacrifice her education while her two brothers did not have to, even though they were both older. She had accepted that it was now her duty to take care of home. Their mother had died long back in their childhood. She didn’t even remember her.
She did not feel angry now as well on not being told of the news of her marriage because she trusted her father to think the best for her. But worried she was — yes, for sure — for her father would be alone now. Who would go to Asansol sweater-selling with him? Who would go to Mussoorie to sell sweaters and gadgets in the summer now? Who will earn for their family? Her father would never let her brothers leave school and her younger sisters were both too young to know the business of sweater-selling.
“But Aya, if I go, who will accompany you to Asansol and who will go to Mussoorie for business? You can’t manage both alone. Getting me married off is a bad idea for our home because it means then I will have to go to Jhansi with my in-laws and help them in their sweater-selling business — to earn for them, not you.”
“I know, Dechen. But I have thought it through. You are at an age to get married now. And Po Ugyen is a good friend of mine, his son is a highly-educated man. He went to inji lobta as well. He is working somewhere up north and people say he has high chances of becoming a high-level kungo in our Tibetan government.
Look at the men around here in our shichak. You have been to inji lobta too. Nobody is good enough for you but him.”
“But I haven’t completed school. I only went till eighth grade and that is nothing.”
“But you did go to inji lobta. You can speak, read, and write English and Hindi flawlessly.”
“But what about you, Aya?”
“Don’t worry. It is all set. Two years after you get married, Po Ugyen’s daughter will get married to your brother Ngodup. So, she will come here and accompany me to work. She will handle our home then. They won’t mistreat you then because their daughter will be with us. You will be happy. Yes, instead of Asansol, you will go to Jhansi for sweater-selling and work for their family. I will manage my business with Dawa for two years, it will be fine. Our house is only a block away, so you can visit me anytime. Your husband lives somewhere in Ladakh and he will visit only maybe once or twice a year. So nothing will change really, if you think of it. I have thought it all through. Don’t worry.”
Dechen takes a deep breath and sits down on the chair thinking. It did seem like Aya had planned it well. Theoretically speaking, nothing will change much for her except going to Jhansi for some months instead of Asansol. Po Ugyen lived just a block away from their house, so she will get to visit Aya anytime. In their shichak, whenever girls got married off to men working for the Tibetan government-in-exile, the wives always stayed behind in the shichak with the in-laws in their family home. The husbands would visit home regularly in between their holidays to meet with the wife and the family. That’s how it had always been. Dechen had never refused her Aya on anything in her life before, she had always been an obedient girl.
But the boundaries of her subservience ended with reverence to her father. In school, she was a very popular kid. Tomboy and sports champion — Aya Topgyal wasn’t able to make more space for her sports trophies at their home almirah, which always overflowed with her prizes. She had always been a happy kid at school, not smart of academics but of everything else. After her sudden mysterious departure from school, she had received letters from her school friends asking where she had gone. She replied to everyone saying she had moved to another school in a different state. But it was hardest explaining her absence to her boyfriend why she had to leave all of a sudden. They had corresponded to each other for some months but soon enough, the correspondence ended. One summer as she was selling sweater in Mussoorie mall road, she had seen her school boyfriend approaching her stall with a group of students from her school. She had never felt more embarrassed in her life and had ran all the way to her home abandoning her stall. She had cried her heart out that night — the only time she had cried lamenting her situation in life. It was the only time she had felt herself lower than her school friends who were all still wearing school uniforms, and who could all still be something in their lives of good worth. But her resiliency was empowering, she soon forgot about the event and was back to being the best hustler on the street sweater-selling business.
Even in Poanta shichak, she was an active board member of the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress who had organized many social and political events. She was in shichak dance groups and social clubs. She was a voracious fan of Bollywood movies and would constantly lie to Aya Topgyal to go to watch movies with her friends in Dehradun or Paonta Bazaar. One Losar night, at a young people’s party, she had sung a Hindi song that was the most popular of the times called “Sheesha Hoya Dil”. Her nickname in the shichak ever since was ‘Miss Sheesha Hoya Dil’.
She was in deep thought when Aya Topgyal disturbed her contemplation and said, “Oh, I forgot. There is a letter for you. Makpa has written a letter for you and asked you to read it before the marriage. And there is a picture of him too in there.”
“Hello Dechen. My name is Thupten. It looks like our parents have decided to marry us off already. Before anything happens, I wish to know if you can guarantee me your will in doing this. If this is happening against your wishes, we can stop this without any trouble. But I need to know that you are not being forced to marry me. I saw your picture, you look nice. I am enclosing a picture of mine with this letter.”
Dechen looked at the picture and had never seen the man before in shichak. She wouldn’t have believed he is from Poanta shichak had she not been told. She showed the picture later to some of her friends and everyone swore they had never seen him in shichak before. No one believed he is a Poanta shichak kid. On the picture being passed finally to a girl, she had said, “Oh, this guy? Yes yes, he is my neighbor, Po Ugyen’s son. He is much older than you, Dechen, for sure. He comes home rarely — only like once a year — and stays indoors all the time reading books and newspapers. He always looks so serious and timid, and has never talked to me — not even once — even though I visit Ama Tashi often and pass by their house. Yeah, he’s a weirdo.”
Ladakh, January 1982
It had been three months since he had sent his letter, but there had been no follow-up correspondence from home. So, Thupten was not sure what to think of the whole episode.
Meanwhile, an urgent letter had been received by gen Tenzin la from Jetsun Pema la in Dharamsala saying that TCV is opening a new branch school in Bylakupee Tibetan Settlement in Karnataka, South India, and that someone with experience is urgently needed to go there to open the new school. The urgency was due to the fact that there had been recent upsetting political news from Bhutan whereby clashes had taken place between Tibetan refugees in Bhutan and the Bhutanese local citizens that ended up in torture and banishment of thousands of Tibetan refugees to India. Hundreds of children of these refugees needed urgent care of school and homes. The exile government had asked TCV to take care of the situation. Thupten had been asked to leave Ladakh at the earliest for Bylakupee to set up the new school and to take in the children urgently. Land for the school had been donated to TCV and a little infrastructure set up. But the overwhelming number of refugee kids needed more infrastructure and more immediate basic needs. So, it was decided that he would leave for South India by the end of the month.
Three weeks before he is scheduled to leave Ladakh for South India, he receives a letter from home. His father had written that he should come home for Losar during which the marriage ceremony will take place. He checks the envelope anxiously again for a letter from his future bride but finds nothing. He walks all the way from Choglamsar to Leh market lost in his thoughts.
At Lhasa travel agency, he buys a single bus ticket from Leh to Manali and a single bus ticket from Manali to Poanta Sahib. Then he buys two bus tickets from Poanta Sahib to New Delhi and two train tickets from New Delhi to Mysore, Karnataka.
All one way!
Poanta Sahib, February 1982
Losar preparations were going on in full swing in Poanta Sahib. All the sweater-sellers had returned home from Jhansi, Asansol, Jaipur, and Kashmir. All the Tibetan government employees working elsewhere had taken leave from their work beyond their three-day Losar holiday and had come home to their wives and parents. Thupten was received warmly amid an inebriated air of merriment and celebration. Some old friends who knew him as a teacher in Patlikuhl came to receive him at his home with flasks of hot butter tea and khapsey. At gatherings, exile Tibetan government officials and those who knew of his work showered him with great respect and reverence, while majority of the people of shichak did not even know he belonged to Poanta Sahib. They ignored him and wondered who he is behind his back.
Po Ugyen made his older son paint the whole house with brand new chuna — a yearly event — and decorated the house. Pillow covers were changed with new flowery ones that ama Tashi sewed, and she kept checking the quality of the millet wine she had so carefully made just for this occasion. She wanted all guests at the ceremony to agree that ama Tashi pai is the best pai in the whole of the shichak. The water tap outside the home was marked with an auspicious piece of butter and a white khata tied around its handle. Po Ugyen’s perennially-locked steel boxes finally got opened and he took out his special chupa and gold earrings that he had brought from Tibet. Thupten would wear them on the wedding day.
The evening before the wedding, Po Ugyen makes Thupten wear the chupa to see if it fits. Thupten, skinny and gaunt, is obviously too small for the chupa. Po Ugyen rubs his chin, takes out his needle and thread, and sews the folds that are too big for Thupten right there and then.
“There. That’s good now. As long as it holds you for the wedding, that should do it. Don’t move too much in this chupa, I only sewed superficially. So, you can’t move too much during the ceremony. Let’s have a pai now, come.”
“Bhu Thupten, how many weeks did you take leave from work? Listen, you must stay few weeks at least, for you might not see your wife for long after this. So, make sure you spend enough time with her before you leave back for work.”
Thupten chokes on his pai and coughs till his face turned red.
“Pala Ugyen. There is an urgent matter at work. I have been transferred from Ladakh to Bylakuppe to open and head a new school there. I am staying here only a week. I am heading down straight to South India.”
“What? The fool. Only one week with your new wife?”, Po Ugyen drops the straw from his mouth in his pai.
“No. I am taking my wife with me. I already bought two tickets from Poanta to Bylakuppe. We will leave one week after the wedding.”
Ama Tashi gasps from her kitchen and stops churning her Dongmo. She gives Po Ugyen a look as if saying ‘I told you so’. Bhu Lobsang nods his head left and right saying, “This inji lobta puku.”
Po Ugyen spends an hour explaining why he mustn’t take his new bride with him to an unknown land and why it is better for the whole family to keep his wife at home in shichak. At the end, he gives up and says, “Bhu Lobsang, go and tell Aya Topgyal. My son is crazy.”
A flurry of gossip flies around the shichak as people shudder at the possibility of the wedding getting cancelled last minute. Ah, the embarrassment! Po Ugyen and Ama Tashi were shouting at each other over what to do and how to face Aya Topgyal.
Leaving all the commotion that was taking place, Thupten sneaks out of his home in the street to smoke a cigarette. He lights one as he walks away trying to escape the vicinity of his home. Turning a corner from the block, he reaches Aya Topgyal’s house. Not thinking, he walks toward the house in the dark. From the doorway, he could hear his brother Lobsang talking to Aya Topgyal as both men seemed to be intently discussing something. He stands quietly for a while outside the house waiting for the discussion to end. He peers through the open window and sees that Dechen is also in the room listening to Lobsang. Thupten thinks to himself that she looks surprisingly calm. He stands outside smoking calmly, unsure of what his next move should be.
The door suddenly opens and out walks Dechen. She had needed some fresh air and wanted some time to clear her head with all the new information that she had just received. As soon as she steps out, she sees Thupten. The lone street lamp light was falling directly on his face. In an instant she recognizes Thupten, stares at him for a while, and turns away to go inside.
“Wait. You are Dechen, right? I am Thupten. I was hoping to talk to you.”
“Yes, tell me. I am Dechen.”
“You never gave a reply to my letter. I am still unsure of your will in this marriage. Was your consent asked for?”
“Yes. I am not being forced.”
“That clears a lot of my apprehension then. Thank you.”
A moment of silence rains over them.
“Okay then,” mutters Thupten, looking down and away.
“Your brother Lobsang just told us that you are taking me far away to South India with you, that even you have never been there yourself. Is it true? Our families never talked about this. Your parents will be upset.”
“I think it is a misunderstanding between my family and me. I never intended to marry you and then leave you here alone with my family. Heck, even I can’t stand my family. I would never leave you here. Husbands and wives are supposed to live together, travel together, see things together. I hoped to show you Ladakh, it is a breathtaking place. But I guess that is not meant to be. It is true I have never been to Bylakuppe but it can be an adventure that we will share.”
Dechen smiles, “I heard from a friend of mine that there are huge snakes slithering everywhere on the road in Bylakupee and that people die of snake bites.”
“I heard it too, but I am sure it is exaggerated.”
“It seems your family has given up on insisting you to keep me here. My Aya just asked me if I would be willing to go to South India with you. I haven’t answered him yet. But you should know one thing. My Aya said that if I don’t like you or Bylakuppe, I can come back to Poanta Sahib anytime. I want you to remember that I can always come back by myself if I don’t like you or Bylakuppe.”
“Does that mean you will come with me? We leave a week from the wedding. You see, I have already bought tickets for the two of us.”
“Brother Lobsang did tell us that you are the rebel. Black sheep of the family. It’s funny I have never ever seen you in our shichak. I would never have guessed that you belong to Poanta Sahib.”
Thupten smiles, eyes gleaming, “We have talked once — five years back. I kept staring at your picture for weeks and one day, I just remembered. I was home for vacation after college. It was a Losar function at our shichak temple. I was standing at the back and you came with a bunch of Tibetan Women’s Association members asking for donation. You forcefully put a lapel pin on my shirt, wished me Losar Tashi Delek, and asked for donation for Tibetan Women’s Association. I must have stared at you for a while because then you rudely asked me “What is your name?”
“Surely you are making it up that I was rude”, Dechen laughs. “Alright. I am going back in. I will tell Aya that I will go with you.”
Thupten gives a sigh and nods his head. As he turns back and walks a few steps, Dechen calls out, “Thupten la, I have actually always wanted to see other places beyond Poanta Sahib and Dehradun. See you tomorrow at the wedding. Losar Tashi Delek.”
37 years later
Dharamsala, February 2019
Rain or shine — fog or snow — on random lazy days in the Dharamsala mountains, you might come across an elderly couple — the man thin, short and gaunt, almost always wearing an uncomfortable looking cap walking a little distance in the front, ear phones in, carrying a thick rosary, both hands behind his back turning the beads, while the woman, cute with a curious face, walking some distance behind with a trippy bouncy gait, stopping ever so often by the mountain paths to stare at birds, bees, clouds — anything really — but almost always humming a Hindi song.
These two crazies are Thupten and Dechen — my Pala and Amala.