I had gone over to the houses of almost every relative, most of them to my great relief living in the same city. Who enjoys the prospect of riding a bus for many hours on the bumpy roads of Nepal to meet a distant uncle or aunt? Last week, such was my misfortune that to meet a cousin living in the outskirt of the city as wished by my parents, I had to board a packed local bus. For some strange reasons, every taxi driver demanded far more than the usual fare. Did I look like a son of a rich aristocrat to them? My attire was ordinary—a cotton t-shirt, plain trousers and white canvas shoes.
Now that I was back home, curled up in the bed, happy and relaxed, I was going through the pages of a movie magazine. I thought I had no more close family relatives to visit before my departure to America, but I heard my mother scream from downstairs, “Son, come down. Your father has something very urgent to tell you.”
I knew at that very instant I was again in trouble. “No not again. Please God. I’ve had enough of visits. Spare me.” I mumbled as I descending the stairs and entered the sitting room.
A Tibetan paper on hand and a tea cup on the other, my father was seated on the sofa with his legs crossed. I sat beside him. He pushed the oblong paper towards me and said, “Your grandfather’s letter from village. He says the old problem with his right knee has surfaced again. Poor man. No one to look after him. But the fault is his own. Anyway, he says he won’t come to see you off. So, what do you think? It would please the old man immensely if you went to see him.”
It seemed once again that God didn’t hear my prayers or that he took no heed of them. “I would be more than happy to go and visit him at the village.” “But this swollen leg,” I said, reaching down, “is quite painful.”
“What has happened to your leg? Roll the trousers up. Let me see it.” he said jokingly.
“Don’t think I am just pretending. Look here.” I said to him furiously, pulling the trousers up and pointing to my red inflamed flesh.
Patting me on the back, my father calmed me down. “Don’t get angry. I know the last few weeks haven’t been easy for you. Visiting all your relatives. But son, you are going abroad. You won’t be seeing your loved ones for a long time. So, it should please you, as well as your relatives, if you pay them a visit.”
My mother entered the room and handed me a cup of tea. Father who had drunk his cup of tea asked for another. Mother went out to fetch the thermos flask from the kitchen. There was silence in the room. Father waited for his cup of tea. I started reading the letter held loosely in my hands. My grandfather had been living in Phul, a village in the upper terrain of Nepal since 1959. I was born in 1980. When I was two, we had a house of our own. My father like many other Tibetan refugees struck gold with the carpet business. That same year, we bought a car. My father thought, ‘What better time to call your parents to live with you. I can afford a comfortable life for my father.’ Since then he had been writing to him to come live with us. But grandfather had always declined our requests. Why? My parents had always known the answer. But I, a small boy sought nothing except my grandfather. My mother says now how I used to cry out—Popo! Popo! Whenever I saw an old man in the street. There was not a single day when I hadn’t longed for my grandfather. I couldn’t help feeling jealous of my friends who were looked after by their grandparents with great care and affection while their parents went to work. I remember shouting at my parents, “Go away. You are my enemies. Call Popo or I won’t see you.”
I thought my parents didn’t want grandfather to live with us. Little did I know then that my parents wrote letter after letter to grandpa. But now I have come of age. I know my parents wanted grandfather to spend the rest of his life with us.
Just a year ago, I remember my mother saying to my father, who was writing a letter to grandfather, “Look. You are just wasting paper and ink. Nothing can be done. You remember how many times have we requested your father. Countless times. Still, nothing. One time, didn’t you go to his place to persuade him? What was the result? Instead he shrugged you off. Listen to me. He loves it there. In solitude. In peace. Nothing to bother about in life. There is nothing you or me can do. Better you send him some woolen sweaters for the winter instead of making a fruitless effort.”
Here was a letter by someone who had never looked beyond himself. Someone who had no feelings for his only son and grandson. A selfish man. I would say. I have been on the earth long enough, 20 years, to be able to know exactly why grandfather didn’t want to live with us. He thought my parents wanted him just as a baby sitter while they went to work. But if he reasoned that way, then he was mistaken. My mother has always been a competent housewife looking after me and doing the household works single-handedly. My father, a very decent person would never have thought of getting his own father to do household chores.
Half way through the letter, my father who had already drunk his second cup said to me anxiously, “So what have you decided? I think you should visit him. You may never see him again.”
I didn’t want to argue with my father but at the same time I saw no reason to visit a man who had no love towards me. I didn’t say anything.
He said to me in a serious tone, “I know what you are thinking. But I can assure you he loves you very much. Didn’t you read the letter?”
I had never interrupted him when he was speaking, but today I couldn’t hold back my tongue. “Then why did he refuse to live with us? If he loves us then he would be here not there. I am sorry to say it, but he is a selfish man. Father, even you know why grandfather decided not to live with us.”
“You shouldn’t say things like that about your grandfather. I know you were hinting at his refusal to live with us because he thought we would treat him like servants. He feared. He didn’t trust me, his only son. At that time, even I was furious at him like you are now. But look it at this way. Your grandfather might have heard from people that grandparents are ill treated by their sons in the city. You know well how old people get treated by their children here.” As I nodded my head, he looked outside through the window. It was slightly drizzling. There were clothes hung in the verandah. Mother was busy making preparations for dinner in the room next to us. Father put on his slippers and went out of the room hurriedly. As usual, regardless of the seriousness of the matter, we didn’t mention anything at dinner. We ate silently.
As I was about to put out the light, through the window, in the porch of the adjoining house, I saw an old man singing lullabies for a small boy cradled across his back in a woollen sling. Just two months before, the old man’s wife died in her sleep. People in the neighbourhood say that her son made her work like a mule even the day before she died. “Just rumors, son.”, my father had said to me. But they were not rumours. I saw the grandparents running after the small boy who had refused to wear his shoes or eat his lunch while the husband and wife entertained themselves. One day, as I was strolling in the street, I saw the old woman holding a big gunny bag crammed with potatoes, spinaches and onions trudge towards the front gate of her house. I offered to help her, which she gladly accepted.
“Thank you very much. Young men like you, hard to find these days”, she said to me and then not knowing that I was her neighbour, she confided in me, “My own son treats me like a servant. He called us here from village to look after his son. But now we have to do every household chore. I was very happy back in the village.”
I felt very sorry for the old man and woman. I can’t stand the sight of their worthless son Tashi, his mean wife Dolma and their four year old son, a devil in disguise. Pulling the blankets over myself for it was very cold outside, I decided to go over to see my grandfather.
The small plane I was traveling in could hold at maximum 17 people but due to the recent violent activities by the Maoists in different villages, only half a dozen people were on board with me to Phalung.
“From there, for strong and agile legs like yours, my son, it is just half an hour journey climbing up a steep hill to my grandfather’s village,”father had told me.
The plane landed on a pathetic airstrip at about two in the afternoon; I saw two people chase a flock of sheep from the airfield as the plane landed, dust swirled in the air and covered the window obstructing my view of the bazaar. I only had with me just a rucksack containing a pair of trousers, a jacket, few packets of noodles to eat on the way, a warm woollen sweater and a tin of milk powder for my grandfather. So, I was in the bazaar ahead of the other people on the plane. The bazaar was almost empty except for few toddlers pulling the tail of a stray dog, four men with white powder flecked on their faces playing carom board on the porch of a teashop and restless shopkeepers waiting anxiously for their first customers. I had only been here once before—with muy parents when I was ten—so I dreaded the prospect of walking alone. I decided to wait for for more people to come. I sat on a stool next to the group of people cheering the carom board players. Half an hour passed by, but to my dismay, I didn’t see no one came to the market. I decided to set off to find my grandfather.
I stood in front of a hut confused by the two steep, rugged roads leaving at the end of the bazaar. Which one should I take?
“Dhai, can I help you?” asked a small girl with a basket full of green grass on her back and a sickle attached to her waistband.
“Ohh…sorry to have stood like this in front of your house.” I said to her.
The small girl just smiled as she put down the basket. Running my hands over her black glossy hair, I asked her, “Can you tell me which road here would take me to Phul?”
She told me it was the road to my left. After buying her a lollipop, I hurriedly climbed the steep road, trailing clouds of dust. It was already half past three.
Grandfather was waiting for me in front of a tower with an antenna on top of it, which was where my grandfather was suppose to pick me up. As soon as I saw him from a distant, I waved with both my hands to him. I was very excited to see my grandfather after such a long time. The last time I saw him was three years ago at our home during Losar, the Tibetan New Year. He was a lively character, full of life but still with that hatred towards the Chinese. On the first night of Losar, he sang and danced with the younger folks around a bonfire. When he was not reading from religious scriptures, he played the Tibetan lute and was good at it. He even showed keen interest in football when he saw it for the first time on TV. “Fotball, you see is a very simple game. There are two teams and a round leather ball. Each team battles to put the ball into the opponent’s net. No hands allowed. Just the legs.” That part of explaining to him about the theme of the game was easy.
Then, he was curious to know who were the two teams were. For simplicity, I didn’t bother to confuse him with club teams so I told him it was played between countries.
“Ah! I see. Played between countries. Then why not have our national football team. We don’t stand a chance against these muscular white people. But we can beat the damned Chinese.”
The last words were said with great excitement but it didn’t last for long when I told him it wasn’t possible because we didn’t have a country to represent. “Tibet is not a separate nation, but a part of China.”
The liveliness that was so vivid in my grandfather a moment before suddenly disappeared. The images of past: dead bodies of men, women and children lying in heaps, monasteries falling apart as set to fire and everywhere just destruction flashed across his eyes. I saw tears forming in his eyes.
It was five-minute walk on a long suspension bridge across a frenzied river from the telegraph office to the cottage. As I stepped on the bridge, the whole frame started shaking. It seemed to me that the bridge might collapse anytime. Holding on tightly to my grandfather, I made it to the other side.
Grandfather, teasingly said to me—”Look. You have got to be bold, if you are going to win freedom for Tibet. You can’t fight the ruthless Chinese with a chicken heart like that.”
My grandfather lived in a dilapidated cottage roofed with wooden shingles and with big stones stacked upon one another serving as the walls. There were four other straw thatched houses in the neighbourhood. But I didn’t see any people around. The whole place resounded with the roar of water as it hit the rocks hard. It didn’t seem an ideal place for an old man in need of a peaceful atmosphere. The land that stretched beyond us was bare—no colourful flowers as I expected because Phul means flower in our native language. Toward the horizon, the sun was slowly plunging into the nearby mountains. A few cawing crows flew past us and landed on the branches of a lonely and old apple tree nearby. Darkness was slowly engulfing the village of Phul.
My grandfather was the same as the last time I saw him three years ago. The same tired greasy face with a hidden smile, long gray braided hair, fingers adorned with well crafted rings and a rosary around his wrist.
“So boy, how are you? How is everyone in the family? My God, you have grown up so much. Just three years ago, you seemed so small. Children nowadays grow so quickly. Unbelievable,” he said in his hoarse voice.
“I am fine and everyone is fine over in the city.”
Like most of the elderly Tibetan men, concerned about their culture and heritage, he asked me whether I knew how to write and read my language and what I would do tomorrow to preserve our customs and traditions. Not once did he tell me how much he missed me or asked me how much I missed him.
What are the indications that a grandfather loves his grandchildren from the depths of his heart? Or, are there no indications at all. Is it just that you have to understand you are loved by your grandfather because of the simple reason that he is your blood relation? Then, why did I feel that I had been deprived of his affection. ‘Grandparents love their grandchildren, don’t they? Do you love me or not?’ I wanted to ask my grandfather who was busy preparing a pudding of Tsampa, which is a mixture of butter tea and roasted barley flour. But I kept quite. Squatting before a small fire, I looked at my grandfather churning the pudding with his fingers.
“I hope you have no problem eating food made from your grandfather’s hands.” I just smiled and he smiled back to me.
The cottage had just a single room. Here, the food was cooked and eaten. At the end of the day, once I collected all the kitchen utensils and put them in one corner of the room, there was enough space for two people to sleep comfortably. But that night I couldn’t fall asleep easily. I was just lying down on the mattress and looking up at a big hole in the roof. Through the hole I could see the clear night and the stars twinkling. I thought I will tell my grandfather tomorrow to mend it quickly because rainy season was just round the corner. That way, I would get a place in my grandfather’s heart. I was very happy and wished for the morning to come soon. In my home, whenever sleepiness deserts me, my hands by instinct grabs some pulp fiction from the bedside table. But, here there were no books to put me to sleep. Had there been books, it wouldn’t have been enough. Electricity hadn’t yet reached most rural places of Nepal. How is one suppose to read with no lights? There was an oil lamp placed on the windowsill. But its flame wasn’t bright enough. I had no idea that it would work. I counted the stars in the sky to pass my time. One, two, three, four, five,six…fifteen…twenty…twenty five.
It was a gloomy morning. There was a slight drizzle. Grey dark clouds were looming in the sky. A prospect for a heavy downpour perhaps tonight or tomorrow. I said to my grandfather who was packing for me a bag full of barley flour, “Grandpa, last night I saw a big hole in the roof. It is going to rain tonight. So, ask someone to mend it.”
I was expecting grandpa to look up at the roof and then smile at me for my genuine concern towards him. But instead he said bitterly, “There is no one willing to help an old man mend that. I have been living under this roof for three years. Every time it rains, I make sure to keep a pot on the floor to collect the water. The whole night I have to be wide awake so that when one pot gets full, another pot. Like this, sometimes the rain doesn’t stop at all but all containers get filled to brim.” Pointing to the hole, he asked me, “Will you help me fix that one? Ohh..but you have a plane to catch at 10. It is already half past eight. It takes an hour to get to the airport from here. So, you better start marching. Hurry up.”
I took leave from him with a heavy heart, still not having known anything of my grandfather’s feelings towards me. The drizzle still continued. The silk scarf as a token of good luck that was around my neck fluttered in the air. My steps ceased as I approached the suspension bridge and saw the water don below surging. I wasn’t confident walking on the rickety bridge, with rain slashing my face and feet making the wooden planks slippery. I had always been afraid of heights and there was no way I could have walked on the bridge. But as I finally put my right foot on the edge of the bridge, I heard a familiar voice say,”You got to be bold. You can do it.”
I got across the bridge fearlessly, though I’m not sure how. I turned and saw my grandfather give me a thumbs up.
~Rigzin Dekhang (Tibet)
Return to Bloodlines: Poems and Stories about Family by Young Asian Writers (Asian Voices)