There’s No

Tsering Döndrup

(Translated from Tibetan by Choegyal Kyab)

In this color photo, six people are standing at the door of a black tent which is yellowed and shabby at the edges. Among them are a frail 70-year-old grandfather, a grandmother whose neck and nose are like a wrinkled toe cap of a boot, a man in his forties, a nineteen-year-old girl wearing a sheep skin chuba, and two bare-footed ten-year-old children. The children’s faces are full of smiles, and they appear to enjoy having their photo taken.

The photo has an automatically printed date: 87.07.12.

Dorjee, the secretary of the Civil Affairs Bureau, took this photo. We usually share materials for creative writing.

“How do you see this photo? Does it help your writing?” he asked. Since he also added some information about the family, I decided to ask him where they are and the name of the family leader so that I could look for the people in the photo.

“They are the only family in Yaklung valley. The name of the family leader is Tengyam. The tall guy in the photo is called Gonpo, who is Tengyam’s son. If you visit them, please help me pass this photo to them. I promised to send this photo to them,” he said.

The next day, I rode a slow-paced horse and arrived at Yaklung valley around noon.

“Is this uncle Tengyam’s family?” I asked.

“Yes. Yes. Come in.” The tall guy in the photo welcomed me according to the Tibetan ways of hospitality. Two boys flanked me, staring at me. The grandmother passed a black container with many bulges to one of the boys sitting beside me and had him go fetch some water.

Grandfather Tengyam put his right hand in the front pocket of his chuba and spun the mani wheel with his left hand while murmuring mani prayers. Gonpo asked me where I came from and where I was going.

“I came from the county seat. Oh––here is something for your family,” I said, taking the photo tucked inside a notebook and handing it to him.

“Father. Mother. Look at this,” he said.

Grandfather Tengyam stopped spinning the mani wheel and stretched his neck. “Oh my god. Exactly the same! Really wonderful! How mysterious.” He shook his head and started spinning the mani wheel again.

“Show me,” the grandmother said, taking the photo away and looking closely. She passed it to the boy sitting beside me, and her fingerprint was printed on the photo.

In the tent, there were a few old sheepskin chubas, a box covered with yak skin, two sacks, two tsampa bags, three porcelain bowls broken at the rim, and three porcelain bowls bought in Lhasa. These were the only amenities the family owned.

The boy who had gone to fetch water came back with the half-filled container and spilled some. As he saw the photo in the hand of the boy sitting beside me, he said, “Let me have a look.” He snatched it and tore it into two pieces. Now they were holding a piece each in their hands. Gonpo swiftly slapped them. They cried at first and then fell asleep holding their heads. The protection cords worn around their necks were stained with dirt, which piqued my curiosity.

When the tea was ready to serve, grandmother took the butter box out of the yak skin- covered box and placed it, along with a bag of tsampa, in front of me. “Help yourself,” she said repeatedly, never letting me put the broken-rimmed porcelain on the floor.

After a while Gonpo stood up and said. “You enjoy your meal. I’m going to herd the sheep.”

“Sure. Sure,” I replied.

As Gonpo went outside, a man riding a black and white dzo dismounted at the door and entered with a heavy saddle bag in his hand. “Grandfather Tengyam. How have you been?” he asked.

“I am doing well. What? Who are you?”  the grandfather asked, stopping his spinning of the mani wheel and staring at the man with bleary eyes.

“Father, he is uncle Rabgay,” Gonpo announced as he came back inside the tent. “Oh. Have a seat. Wife, hurry up and serve him tea. Is your mother getting worse?”

“No. Recently she has been doing fine. Did the hailstorm affect your family?”

“By the grace of god, it fell only a bit here. What about your family?”

“No words to express it. It killed 17 sheep.”

“That is terrible. If that happened to us, we would have no option but to beg. The Three Jewels… This year’s weather is…” he shook his head in disappointment.

Suddenly a strong thunder sounded from behind the mountain and the man said, “It’s going to rain again. I should go now.” He stood up and took out a hefty amount of mutton from the saddle bag. “This is from the fatter sheep that were killed yesterday,” he said, then went outside.

“Uncle Rabgay, when is our village having Drong Rinpoché come to pay us a visit?” Gonpo asked him when he was seeing the guest off.

“On June 15th. Ten days to go.”

“Alright. Do you have 200 yuan to lend me? A few days back, some cadres from the county came to my family and took a photo. They also promised to give my family 500 yuan as a subsidy. I will repay it as soon as I receive it,” Gonpo said.

“Sure. You can come to collect it anytime,” Rabgay replied. He then lashed the dzo, and it went away with a swinging tail.

Gonpo was ready to go herd the sheep, so I went to him. “Uncle Gonpo, I have some questions to ask you. Can I go with you to herd the sheep?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said.

“I heard that your family was very rich at the time the commune system was abolished.  Is it true?” I asked him as we went along.

“You could say that.” There was a sense of pride on his face. “The year after the commune system was abolished, when we went for a pilgrimage to Lhasa for the first time, my family was the richest one in my village. At the time of the second pilgrimage, my family was at the medium level. During the third time, we had around 3000 yuan on hand after selling off all the domestic animals.”

“But currently, your family’s condition isn’t like before. Am I right?”

“Umm. When you look outwardly, it appears that my family doesn’t have enough to eat our fill. But in fact, my family has twice the savings we did before, boy.”

“Oh. Where are they?”

“In the mind of the Jowo in Lhasa and in front of Yama Dharmaraja.”

Our conversation drowned into the ocean of silence.

When we reached a group of twenty or so sheep, he sat on the grass. I looked around and asked him, “This is your flock of sheep?”

“Yes, just these.”

“If that happened to us, we would have no option but to beg.” Grandfather Tengyam’s expression clicked in my mind. I asked him. “Is your family in the category of nga sung – the ‘Five-protecteds’?”

“What did you say? It is said that if someone pays homage to Jowo Rinpoché once, they won’t fall into hell. My family paid homage to Jowo Rinpoché three times. But will we still fall into hell?”

He had misheard nga sung as ngan song, “fall into hell.”  “No, No. Nga sung. A family belonging to the ‘Five-Protecteds.’” I immediately made the clarification.

“Yes. My family is a nga sung family,” he said, and we laughed together.

The sky was covered with a black cloud as a lid covers a pot.  It seemed as if the animals couldn’t breathe. Gonpo took the rosary from his neck and started murmuring mani. I suddenly felt annoyed and felt I had no choice but to go back home.

“Did you get anything?” Dorjee asked.

I put the short story which I had written in front of him and shook my head.

“Did you get the chance to see the young woman?” he asked after he had finished reading it.

“I didn’t.”

“Ah ya. You didn’t have the luck to see her. She is really attractive. What a pity that during their third pilgrimage to Lhasa, they had a car accident. The grandfather lost one of his hands, Gonpo lost his wife, and her scalp was peeled off. Though she’s still young and attractive, she hasn’t got a hair left on her head now. That hasn’t sat well with the local men, none of whom have proposed to her so far.”

Zerrrr… The door opened and Pema Gyal entered. He had never composed a half page of poetry, but he called himself a writer. Moreover, he had eight pen names including Tayang Gyatso, Tsangsi Gadok, Chukyi Gyalpo, etc.  He was really fond of literature. He had come to congratulate Dorjee for receiving payment for his work titled “The Goldfish.”

“Very good. But before I get the booze out, since you are a ‘writer,’ you must evaluate his writing.” Dorjee tossed my story in front of him.

He read it once. “First, there’s no main theme. Second, there’s no protagonist. Third, there’s no beginning and end. Fourth, since the names of the places and people are all real, there’s no actual fiction. And fifth, since the title is clunky, there’s no chance it’ll catch the readers’ eye.” He counted off five There’s Nos then asked him to bring the booze.

“There’s no booze.”

Tsering Döndrup is one of the prominent contemporary authors in Tibet. Born in Amdo in 1961, he has authored numerous novels and collections of short fiction. His work has been translated into several languages including English, French, German, and Japanese.

Choegyal Kyab was born in Tibet and pursued his education in India and South Korea. He has nurtured a lifelong passion for linguistic translation, particularly between English and Tibetan. Over the years, he has translated a total of eight books from English to Tibetan, including notable works such as A Christmas Carol, To Sir with Love, The Family under the Bridge, Sky Burial, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Presently, he holds a role as weekly news presenter for the Department of Information and International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration, delivering the news in Korean.