ISSN 2768-4261 (Online)
(Translated from the Tibetan by Stanzin Lhaskyabs)
“Ah, they are too tenacious,” said my companion, gazing at a Muslim family in front of us. It was apparent that they were faithfully passionate about their culture and religion. The father, about fifty years old with a stout physique, was wearing a pale grey hat. His bushy and coarse red beard resembled a yak’s tail that not only covered his neck but also the chest pockets of his knee-length dress. About half the age of the imposing father, the mother wore a black longish dress that covered her completely, concealing even her feet. A pair of big eyes with long brows and large lashes peered through her burqa; its colour that of her dress. Moreover, their sons of about eight and nine years of age wore white hats and knee-length upper garments. Their attire truly represented a typical Muslim family.
“Yes, indeed they are traditional,” I replied to my companion. I didn’t know his name yet as we had met for the very first time in the morning that day at New Delhi railway station.
While waiting for my train at the platform, two fair men with popped eyes gazing around emerged amidst a rush of dark skinned Indians (generally, most Indians at railway stations are dark skinned). Of course, I immediately recognised them as my own flesh-and-blood Tibetans. The one carrying a large rucksack was a tall and skinny young man; the strap running over his left shoulder had The North Face written on it in white. Aged around forty, the other was short and rotund. His temple and neck were profusely sweating; moreover, the sweat oozing from his underarms had turned his shirt dark. He also had a North Face-labelled wallet around his waist. He was dressed similar to shopkeepers who dawdle in the alleys of Majnu-ka-Tilla in Delhi.
The moment I reached the station, I had begun to look for a Tibetan traveller. Finding a fellow Tibetan traveller would have meant that I could use the train’s washroom without having to cart my luggage in there. However, I was hesitant to approach the two Tibetans I had spotted, so I chose to ignore them. In my experience, not all Tibetans are helpful and keen to reach out to their own kind. Nevertheless, to my surprise, both of them walked straight towards me.
“Brother, where are you going?” the younger asked.
“I am going to Bangalore. What about you two?” I responded.
“I am not travelling. He is going to Bangalore. What’s the departure time of your train?”
“Twenty past nine.”
“Great! It’s the same train. Could you please help him? He doesn’t know Hindi, and I was looking for someone who could accompany him on the journey,” said the younger, as the older one stood, smiling. Belying his businessman-like appearance, his countenance was that of a mother seeking help for her child travelling away.
“Sure!” I replied cheerfully.
I can understand how difficult it is not to know the local language, and how help can go a long way when you’re in need. When I was new to India, I didn’t know English (Hindi I still struggle with), and I remember how wonderful it felt receiving some help. Such experiences from my initial days keep me ready whenever I am approached for help. That occasion was no different, and having a Tibetan fellow traveller only made my journey more comfortable and easy.
Of course, despite being on the same train, we ended up on seats not adjacent to each other. Nevertheless, upon my request, a young Indian man, sitting next to the Tibetan traveller, agreed to exchange the seats without any problem.
The Tibetan repeatedly thanked me, saying. “Aha! This is good. You have been really helpful.” An authentic smile brimmed over his brownish face.
During our conversations, I came to know that he came from Tsongon (Qinghai province) in Tibet──I don’t recollect the name of his birthplace, though he mentioned it. For a decade since fleeing Tibet, he had been working as a cook in a Tibetan organisation in Dharamsala. During that period, not much occasion arose for him to learn any Indian language, including Hindi. Only this year had he received permission to return to his homeland in Tibet. However, before doing so, he wanted to do a pilgrimage of the monasteries of Sera, Drepung, and Ganden in southern India.
“I came from Driru County, and it has been about fifteen years since I reached India. I work at the Tibetan Translation and Research Institution under the Dalai Lama Trust as a translator of His Holiness’s books from English to Tibetan.” I too introduced myself.
“Aha! You will accumulate great virtue, rHa-la Jo Aa (work hard),” he responded in elation and warmth. “rHa-la Jo Aa” reminded me of the words of the elders of my homeland──they felt much more soulful than those of the great masters, leaders and scholars preaching about race and protecting our fatherland. Despite living in a foreign land for as long as a decade, the man had retained his original dialect and pronunciation, the way it was spoken back in his village. The culture and ways of his fatherland seemed immersed in his heart, a realisation that resulted in a strange feeling of camaraderie with him.
As we settled in the train, we engaged in various conversations, and because no one was able to understand us, we had the freedom to talk about anything. That allowed him to make his comment on the Muslim family sitting in front of us. “Ah! They are tenacious,” he said. Even I felt a rush of exhilaration and a sense of adventure when discussing them while others couldn’t understand us.
I told him about an article I had read in a popular journal which said that in fifty years Islam will be the most followed religion in the world. “It must be absolutely true,” he responded, and began staring at the Muslim woman. In fact, ever since the family boarded the train at a small station, he had been continuously staring at the woman, whose eyes alone were visible. Though I felt uncomfortable, I couldn’t stop him, considering we were not even acquaintances. Considering his conspicuous staring, lost in bouts of long drawn wonderings, the sight of a woman covered head-to-toe in black seemed a novel experience for him. Consequently, he continued his disrespectful gaze while I increasingly grew apprehensive of her fierce husband. I couldn’t even utter, “Dear friend, don’t stare at them.” I just ignored him.
“One of my sisters eloped with them,” he uttered, turning towards me abruptly. Deducing from his comment, it felt like a sudden thought. I guessed he was referring to the Muslim family. He wasn’t. Soon I realised why he was staring at the girl. I asked, “Ah, how did that happen?” a vague image of a Tibetan woman coerced to elope flashed in my mind.
“These days she wears black dresses like that, too,” he said, smiling without responding to the question. However, behind his smile and voice, an intense pain and embarrassment was apparent. I grew curious to know more about the incident. But I couldn’t ask him explicitly, so, without interrupting him, I continued listening.
“If I recount the story, you will realise how unbelievable it is.” He maintained his grave countenance. “My sister met someone working on the side of the road in our village. Initially, our parents and family refused to accept the man and didn’t allow to them to stay together. In fact, once our father even beat her badly, but to no avail, as she was pregnant by then. Finally, our parents allowed them to stay in a reasonable house nearby. Our relatives even offered livestock to ensure them a livelihood. After a few years, sister birthed her second boy. Their life wasn’t extraordinary, yet they managed somehow. After a good many years, in the winter of 1999, my brother-in-law fled with his entire family and disappeared. While with us, he pretended to be an orphan with nowhere to go. Moreover, he sought audiences with important Rinpochés and temples and even learnt prayers and mantras to impress and win our hearts. Yet, he left with my sister and their two sons. Isn’t it terrifying?” he gazed at me in astonishment with wide eyes, further piquing my curiosity.
Moving his head sideways, he reiterated his shock and said, “…not a few years, but ten odd years. For a decade he pretended he had no home and no parents, meanwhile mastering Tibetan language. However, one night with the help of his friends, in a jiffy, he left with my sister and their two sons. The next morning, he secretly managed to contact his home region, preparing everything. He lived amongst us for ten years. Isn’t it incredible?” His face was a picture of shock, his eyes protruding and his mouth stretched in disbelief.
“Indeed, it is,” I responded, taking in his tale, “Really shocking.”
As the train ran with clickety-clack sounds, the heads and shoulders of the Muslim couple moved to its rhythm. They had exhausted every topic of conversation. Bored, they sat in silence. Their younger son was sleeping with his head on his mother’s lap, with his legs resting on his father’s. The elder son was asleep on the upper berth of the compartment.
As the day descended into twilight with the dimmed sun setting in the west, its crimson yet soft glow entered from the windows of the train to brighten the woman’s dress. Even the beard of the fierce man turned more reddish.
“I remember that night very clearly,” he continued, while I observed the proceedings keenly. Such situations often enrich my stories.
“That night I went to their place for dinner. Amongst the siblings, sister was the most affectionate towards me. Moreover, they had a newly installed solar light. I was very fond of visiting her place in the evenings. After dinner, it snowed a little while I was returning home. I had an unusual feeling then. Unlike other days, sister came with me up to their livestock pen to see me off, and said, ‘It’s too cold this winter. If I earn enough, I will make a tsarla (sheep-skin robe) for you.’ Even after so many years, her last words still ring in my ears. Though I didn’t notice any sign at her house that night, I had an inkling when parting from her. It was a strange feeling. Have you had such an experience?”
Indeed, humans have an extraordinary sense of knowing associated with our feelings. However, I was caught off-guard when he asked this sudden question, so I couldn’t recollect any such incident. Nevertheless, I responded in the affirmative, while he continued. Moreover, I was curious to know about the events that occurred after he returned home, walking in the snowy night with a heavy heart.
“That night, they left forever. Except for the tire marks in the snow outside their courtyard, there was nothing left. Everything inside the house was still intact. Next morning, instead of grieving, our parents burst into anger at her. The house was intact with its things untouched, but it didn’t occur to them to wonder if she was coerced to leave. That’s not without reason though: as a child she had run off to Lhasa twice. After realising she was gone, we began a search for her. We reached out to our relatives, friends and neighbours, and moreover reported her missing to the police, but to no avail. For a decade our family and well-wishers kept the search on but without any success––we didn’t even know if she was dead or alive. In grief, father couldn’t live long and soon passed away. Even at his death bed, he would ask any woman visiting him if she were Lhamo Tso. It was unbearable to witness his pain.”
At this point, he lowered his head and approached me with a deep sigh and sorrowful eyes. Perhaps, instead of the Muslim family and I, he had a vision of his poor father. Looking at his face full of sorrow and pain, I was clueless as to how to console him. Despite being a writer, I am really bad at words, particularly in such unusual situations.
“After that incident, I came to India,” he said after a pause. “My family learned of her whereabouts several years after I left for India. She was in a Muslim county near Chantse. One of the elders of her family had permitted her to contact us with the details of her address. If not for him, we still wouldn’t have located her. For a long time, she was not allowed to venture out of their house. She had literally no clue of her own whereabouts. Ah, it’s truly unbelievable.”
“Later, we learned that a few of the men working in our village belonged to the same region she was taken to. While working in our village, they became close to our villagers. Yet none of them uttered a word about her. They were extremely secretive. Isn’t it incredible? Had it been Tibetan men, they would have even bragged about it. We could deduce from it the extent of their tenacity.” Speaking these words, he looked at the Muslim family. Even I acquiesced. Had it been Tibetans, they would have certainly boasted in such a situation, compromising its secrecy. I wondered if she had returned and met her family.
“And then?” I asked him in hope.
“With a cousin, a monk elder brother went to her place. They tried to bring her back, but she was hopeless. Upon seeing them, she sobbed and almost collapsed. How could she return home, just like that? She refused to accompany them back. She would just cry and had nothing much to say. By then, she had three more children; how could she possibly get back with her children? Her husband and the villagers would never allow her to leave with her children. In fact, they warned her of grave consequences, including divorce, had she returned that day. Most of our relatives don’t even mention her these days. The villagers don’t see Muslims in a positive light. And, here, His Holiness the Dalai Lama wears Muslim caps and visits mosques. She was stuck in such a plight. Her husband and his villagers fooled and trapped her. There was no reason for our villagers to boycott and bad-mouth her, considering her fate. Yet, such was the mentality of the villagers.”
He paused a while, looking out of the train windows. The sun had set and night was falling. On both sides of the track, houses visible in the day were now replaced by intermittent lights. Our vague reflections began to appear in the window panes of the carriage.
“Later, when I found her WeChat number, I contacted her,” he continued. At first, she would curse her fate and just weep. I was clueless and had no idea what to talk about. Gradually I learned that they stopped her from leaving the house and they controlled her, but they didn’t physically harm her. In fact, the family were affectionate towards her. That felt so strange!” While speaking these lines, he was looking askance, in a bid to console himself.
“Since that fateful night of separation, she never lost her hope of returning. However, she refused to accompany my relatives when they went to fetch her. She told me, ‘after the death of our parents and your departure to India, there was no point in returning. In fact, it’s not the custom for a married woman to return to her parents’ home,’ she said, pointing at herself.” Gesturing with his lips towards the Muslim woman, he said, “She, too, wears a black gown like that.”
“I hadn’t seen her for so many years then. We would interact though voice-chat only. She would turn down video-chat requests often. For a long time, she hadn’t even sent me a photo. However, after a lot of persuasion, I received a photo of her recently. She was wearing clothes similar to those. Upon seeing it for the first time, I experienced an uncomfortable and terrifying feeling. Eventually though I got used to it. These days we video call each other. She likes that I accept her without judgement. Though, she often says, ‘it’s fine if you blame me.’ I don’t judge her for getting influenced by her husband and his family, but most of my relatives aren’t like that; they have completely shunned her.”
At this point, I felt pity for the woman. There was no reason for the relatives to shun her. She was trapped under the influence of her husband and his family. It’s natural to feel compassion for her.
“She is indeed an ill-fated woman,” he continued, as if he gauged my thoughts.
“As the eldest of the siblings, she had to undergo many hardships as our family was poverty-stricken back then. And, when our financial conditions improved, she fell under the influence of her husband and was taken away. What had she done in her past life?” He said, leaning towards me with a sorrowful countenance.
Suddenly, a sarcastic smile played over his face, and he said, “These days she doesn’t refer to a pig as a pig. Whenever I mention pork she says, ‘we don’t eat the-one-with-big-ears.’ She still recites mani mantras and the Kyabdro (prayer for taking refuge in Buddha, Sangha and Dharma). Even after so many years, she still chants the mantra. Isn’t it remarkable? Pondering these ironies, it’s excruciatingly painful; they demonstrate her loneliness. This time, I am returning to my fatherland especially to see her. Since my parents have passed, she is the one who loves me the most. Also, I am most indebted to her. Even today she teases me saying, ‘your sister still has to make a tsarla for you.’”
Needless to say, such words touched my heart. After so many years, he hadn’t forgotten the night when his sister disappeared, just like she hadn’t forgotten her promise. A pair of dark skinned Indians interrupted my wondering and his story. They offered us dinner in a plastic box and ice-cream. After the dinner, my companion received a call. In a loud voice (people from the highlands are known for their loud chattering) he was speaking about how he met a good Tibetan fellow traveller. I, meanwhile, busied myself watching a movie downloaded on my phone.
As our train continued onward, I lay on the upper berth facing the iron roof and the fan attached to it. By 9:30 pm, an Indian soldier on the lower berth wanted to sleep, so the two of us moved to our respective seats and slept with fresh odourless white sheets provided by the train staff. I could hear my co-passenger on the middle berth murmuring over his phone.
While waiting for sleep lying on that narrow bed in the train compartment, I was thinking about his story and the woman. Although I haven’t seen her or her photograph and can’t visualise her exact features, a vague image of a Tibetan woman keeps appearing in my mind, a Tibetan woman draped in Muslim dress, visiting mosques regularly and refraining from eating the meat of the-one-with-big-ears, who hasn’t forgotten mani mantras and the Kyabdro prayer.
Written on 31 January 2020.
(The original story was published in Tibetan on the author’s blog: https://www.rangthar.com/short-stories/item/39-the-fate-of-a-strange-woman.)
Kunchok Rabten was born in 1989 in Driru County of Tibet and came to India in the year 2006. He has previously worked as translator at the Tibetan Translation and Research Institution in Dharamshala. He is currently working on various short story projects.
Stanzin Lhaskyabs is a poet and research scholar in International Politics and Area Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University in India. He is author of the first English poetry book from Ladakh Himalayan Melodies published in 2016. His poems are taught in the University of Delhi, Doon University, and University of Ladakh.
© 2021 Yeshe | A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities