|Photo: Yak Tseten/Courtesy Lotus Gallery|
Thupten arrived at the Kathmandu airport, grabbed his duffle bag from the conveyor belt and walked right past the security check. There was a huddle of people waiting to put their bags into the scanner, and at the sight of him they gripped their rusty carts and shouted at the security guards, ‘Oye! Ke ho esto? Wake up, security!’ But the skinny men didn’t stand a chance at stopping Thupten. Instead, they just sat on their wooden stools, mouths agape as the strange longhaired man barrelled by with his duffel bag. Was he Chinese? Japanese? He didn’t even look back! He just stomped by, right towards the sunny glass doors where a hundred greeters waited for loved ones, though Thupten knew none of them waited for him.
As he passed through the barricades, a dozen or so drivers swarmed around him, pulling at his shoulder straps and pointing him towards the parking lot. He settled on a wiry, flannel-shirted kid – 250 rupees. It was lower than the next price by a good deal but Thupten still couldn’t believe he was paying so much. Ten years ago, with 100 rupees in your pocket you could have circled the whole city and bought a glass of bitter homemade raksi with change left over to flirt with passing girls.
Leaving the paved roads of the airport, the taxi burrowed into the mess of the city and the heat met Thupten with a vengeance. He wiped his face with his shirt that stank from the many hours of flight and shook his head. New sweat quickly formed on his forehead as the taxi was caught in a three-way jam involving a truck and a jeep trying to bully a rickshaw out of the way. Thupten’s mouth was parched; he could now smell his own stench – something the airplanes’ air conditioning had masked, and he could feel the exhaustion break through. This place…this place was paying him back for leaving years ago.
‘Pull over here,’ Thupten said, seeing a row of stores. He went up to the counter of a shop bursting with . As he stared at the contents, he found he could remember some of them – Wai-wai and Rara noodles, Nabisco biscuits – but many seemed like new brands. He had not expected there to be new brands. He asked the storeowner for a bottle of water from the back of the fridge and then got back in the taxi, relieved for the first time to be heading home. But as he unscrewed the bottle’s cap and arched his neck back to drink the cold water, the driver said, ‘It will be 400 rupees now, because we stopped.’
Jiggy had been sitting on the roof terrace since breakfast, blasting tinny music from his cell phone and writing his thoughts in a notebook. The girls next door were also on their roof, gossiping, drying their hair in the sun and making eyes at him, just as he was making at them. At their request, shouted across the rooftops, he had put on Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’, and raised the phone’s volume as high as it could go. Jiggy put the cell phone on the stool beside him and got back to writing: ‘Wassup babes. U too gud for me. But I can’t let U go, nah. Sho me a heart dat neva breaks. Sho me a eye dat neva tears. Sho me a skin dat neva cuts. Sho me a chance to luv U for real. Btw Ich liebe dich. Dat mean I luv U in German.’
He was scribbling the draft of an e-mail to his American friend, Maria. She had come into his life a month ago at a karaoke bar in the city’s tourist district. Jiggy’s family had a small shop selling trinkets there, and in the evenings after he pulled down the shop’s shutters, he and his friends passed through the crowded roads, going from one backpacker bar to the next to party with the foreigners. Maria, Maria, Maria – she had looked like a doll to him. With her yellow hair and small thin lips, she laughed heartily. The kind of laugh that invited others to join in. And she sucked in cigarette after cigarette, twirling them above her slender wrists as she sang along to the music. He had managed to get her e-mail address at the end of the night, gaining the courage to ask after she bought him and his friends some beer. Of course, all the guys wanted Maria – not only was she white, she was also not a desperately poor hippie. But Jiggy had just turned 17 a few days earlier, so they made way for him – with this tourist at least. She lived in Oregon, Maria did.
‘Tru luv dun die. Tru luv dun have a happy ending. Coz tru luv dun have a ending at all…’ Jiggy was mid-sentence when he heard a motorcycle pull up. Normally just the roar of motorcycles got him a little excited, but the sight of one coming to his squat little house, where the only wheels around were his rusting childhood bicycle, made him jump up from his stool and peer over. Had his father finally bought a motorcycle?
He saw a tough-looking man silence the bike and pull off his helmet. His ponytail fell on his shoulders, and Jiggy recognised him immediately: Thupten, the greatest Tibetan ever born in the Tashi Phuntsok Tibetan Refugee Camp – Jiggy’s parents’ old camp. He once played for the Tibetan national football team. One year, they had competed with other stateless teams such as Kurdistan and Northern Cyprus. Thupten had been on TV, running around in an official uniform – the first ever, for Tibet’s first national team ever – carrying a Tibetan flag for the world to see. Since then, there would always be Red Label whisky for Thupten at the house of every relative. Even 12 years after he went to the West, Jiggy’s family still spoke of him with fondness. And whenever something about America came up in conversation or was shown on TV, someone would invariably refer to Thupten. Had he been caught in the big snowstorms shown on CNN? Were the flash floods happening in his area?
Beyond this, Jiggy knew in his heart that Thupten was just special. He wasn’t just a normal Tibetan. Something inside him was different. He was a non-Tibetan in a Tibetan’s body. Tibetans are good at waiting; at this, they are the champions. They will wait for their meat to dry until it becomes ‘edible’; they will wait for their barley wine to ferment; they will wait for the reincarnation of their great monks and, when they find them, they will wait until the monks are 18 before they can offer guidance once again. But that also means they wait patiently for handouts, for respect, for what is rightfully theirs. Not cousin Thupten. He was a self-made man and he wanted his share – now. Instead of pity, he inspired confidence. Fear instead of ambivalence. People said that Westerners had even asked him for help! And not a single person managed to fool him, though they did try, looking as he did like a plain old gullible Tibetan.
‘Do they know who my grandfather was?’ Thupten was saying as Jiggy came into the living room.
‘Chocho!’ Jiggy said, running barefoot down the stairs. His mother, aunt and father were seated in a semi-circle around the great Thupten.
‘Jigdel?’ Thupten leaned back abruptly in recognition, his voice quieting to a whisper. ‘Kunchoksum … now, I know I’m old…’
Was he joking? Jiggy could barely look him straight in the eyes, he looked so fierce. More fierce than Yamantaka, the Buddhist Terminator, the Slayer of Death. More fierce than the rapper DMX, with his pitbulls and rippling muscles. ‘Thupten, my bro,’ he wanted to say, ‘U are definitely my fav cousin and imma stick wit U like P Diddy and Biggie Smalls TILL DA END. Or till U goes back to Canada. Or maybe U could take me wit U?’ But before he could work up the courage to speak English to a real English speaker, his father interjected.
‘So you were saying – what do you say to those white people in Canada?’ Jiggy’s father, Pasang, was beside Thupten, his nose literally two thumbs’ distance from Thupten’s cheek. How embarrassing, he thought. Jiggy’s mother got up and went into the kitchen to make tea, while his aunt remained sitting glumly further down the sofa from Thupten. She had been watching some prayer recording on their TV all morning, which was why Jiggy had fled up to the roof in the first place.
‘Pala, move aside!’ Jiggy said, waving at his father, while he stood a respectful metre in front of his cousin, marvelling at the excellent outfit Thupten was wearing: black boots, grey sweatpants and a puffy camouflage vest. You could never find a vest like that around here, he thought. If only this country’s shops were more like America, instead of being full of crap from China! And Thupten’s hair! It was long, halfway down to his elbows and tied in the back, thick as a branch.
Thupten unhooked the backpack strapped around his chest and flung it onto the sofa beside him. Jiggy’s tiny aunt bounced in her seat. The pack had a military pattern too, just like his vest. He continued talking: ‘I say to them, “Do you know who my grandfather was?” And of course, they don’t. Because while they were picking their noses, Jampa Kalsang Phuntsok of Lithang in eastern Tibet was killing Chinese communists left and right. He was stockpiling guns from the CIA between barrels of rice wine. No one knows that about him – not even our camp folks, because he wasn’t alive long in exile. And when the Americans abandoned us to make deals with China, he was the only one protecting our town.’
Thupten paused dramatically to look around, then continued: ‘And do they know who my grandmother was? As a little girl, she pulled down the only tree in the valley and dragged it by its roots to the nearest monastery as an offering. She walked six hours to the gompa and the monks couldn’t believe their eyes. She was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. And my father’s line met Jesus Christ – back before he was Christian, when he was wandering the Asian deserts looking for ideas! Who do you think gave him the most important rules in Christianity, the Ten Commandments? Straight out of Buddhist texts, just like rosaries. Have you ever noticed how the white people have the exact same number of beads in their rosaries as us?’
Jiggy looked at the rosary beads hanging limp in his aunt’s fingers. He had never checked how many beads there were. He was an SLC graduate, had finished his Grade 10 exams. And though it took him three attempts before passing, he was relatively certain he had never learned about the CIA in Tibet or Genghis Khan screwing around in Tibet or even Jesus in Tibet. Obviously the Nepali teachers just did not teach such things – or, more likely, they had never done any real research like cousin Thupten.
Thupten turned to him and said, ‘That means, Jigdel, you have some Genghis blood running through your body, too. Don’t forget that.’
Genghis blood. Whenever Jiggy asked his mother what she remembered of Tibet, she always said that she remembered a lake beside their old house, hills to the side and plains all around. That was all. Then she’d tell him to eat his bitter menzikhang herbs, meant to curb the white patches recently popping up on his face. Fart flowers, tukrimentok, they called them, saying the patches came up because of his non-stop farting.
And his father was even more useless when it came to getting information about the past. He was younger than Jiggy’s mother and was carried into exile as an infant. Jiggy’s father’s father was the only grandparent who survived the journey to Nepal. But he had drunk himself to death a couple of years ago, and Jiggy never even found out what he had done for a living in Tibet.
Jiggy’s mother came in from the kitchen with a tray of tea and the expensive biscuits, Digestives, that she saved for guests. She stood beside Thupten and urged him to eat, holding the plate of biscuits to his chin until he finally rolled up his sleeves and took a piece. At this, his tattoos popped out like an exotic landscape.
‘Tattoos!’ Jiggy said, his big nose diving forward. ‘Are they real?’
‘Oh, these?’ Thupten asked, pushing up his sleeves up until they pinched his muscles. He revealed a Tibetan flag on one arm and rangzen, independence, written in thick black on the other. The family huddled around. Jiggy’s father got off the sofa and stood directly in front of Thupten, bending at a near perfect 90-degree angle, while his mother and her sister oscillated between peering very closely and recoiling in dismay. Jiggy was now practically hovering over the magnificence painted over his cousin’s dark brown arms.
Thupten slapped his arm with gusto. ‘You have to show who you are!’ He slapped it once more. ‘Whenever I’m working at the food terminal, driving my forklift and such, and the supervisor or some other worker comes up to me, talking nonsense, trying to get the better of me, taking advantage of our Tibetan good nature, I always pull up my sleeves and say, “Look. Here. I’m not just some country bumpkin. See this writing? It means freedom, independence. I’m Tibetan and I don’t have a country anymore. I’ve never even been to my country but that’s where I’ll go someday, dead or alive. Yes right now, I’m just a guest in this country. But my people are in Tibet and they are waiting for me and I will return one day. So don’t worry. That’s where I belong.” That’s what I tell them with my tattoos.’
Jiggy looked at his parents damningly. If anyone asked, his mother always said that they were Sherpa, not Tibetan. She didn’t want them to know that they were not ethnic Nepalis, that they were just guests living without papers, in a grey zone that the government tolerated but gave no way out of. Once a taxi driver tricked her into admitting that they were Tibetan. He kept saying things about Tibetans and she slipped and said, ‘No, we don’t do that anymore.’ Fifty years they had lived in Nepal and still they could not just say they were Tibetan.’ And, what do they say in return?’ Jiggy’s mother asked.
‘What can they say, Ani? They just know who I am after that.’
Yangdol searched Thupten’s aging face. She had known him since he was a toddler, obsessed only with playing football. Then, as he grew, he had made grand promises to make money and take her travelling around the world. My favourite Ani, he’d called her. Okay, she always replied. But the West had embittered him. What had he thought, going so far just to say such things? Why had he not unburdened himself of the past instead? She would have left all of it, everything of Nepal and Tibet trailing behind as she flew away, like the white lines planes make in the sky. What would come from stamping yourself with needles and ink? Freedom. Return.
Pasang and she had gone as far from those early years as they could in this lifetime. They had survived and raised their siblings after their parents died. They had sold trinkets to tourists from their fanny packs and backpacks at first. Walking back and forth, resting along the way on perches and sidewalks for periods so they could go from morning to night. Now they had a store in the tourist district where she made and sold necklaces of imitation coral, imitation turquoise – imitations of what her mother had worn in Tibet.
‘This arm’, Thupten pointed at the bare shoulder, ‘will be my mother’s. I want to write her name across it, after she recovers.’
Yangdol looked at the others just as they looked down. A year ago Thupten’s father had passed away, and a week ago his mother had fallen ill with pneumonia. Since Thupten’s departure, his father had become the camp’s gossip – wasting his days away on the shop stoops of the camp’s main road, observing who went where and when. He had the sugar disease and the ailments of too much pride and purse strings that were too tight. His son regularly sent money home and his father hid the bills throughout the house. Under the mattresses, between clothes stacked in closets, under idols of deities in the prayer room, he tucked away the earnings of his son’s toils. But just days after hiding the money, he would forget where he had put it. Still, he always bragged of his riches, and the entire camp talked with jealousy and derision of their home, dark and damp though full of unspent money in every nook.
Since leaving the camp to live in another part of the city, Yangdol rarely returned. It was suffocating to go back, and the taxi ride there was getting too expensive these days, taking over an hour along the cracked congested roads. But Thupten’s mother would be the true loss if she did not survive. Only she could have prompted him to return.
‘She’s doing well though,’ he said with an uneasy smile. ‘The doctors say she can come back home tomorrow.’
‘That’s because you’re here now…’ Jiggy said.
Everyone nodded in agreement. Thupten smiled. Thank goodness, thought Jiggy. There would be good times ahead. Bring on the pool cue! Bring on the Carlsberg and chilly chicken! What good luck he had, that he was just the right age when Thupten came back. Finally, he was a man, old enough to experience his great cousin and not just in legend! At night, at a smoky bar, on the back of a motorcycle, Jiggy’s time had come and, however short, he was so ready for it, his palms itched.
‘So what are you doing next?’ he asked, then immediately worried that he had blown it.
Now his father would probably try to bring Thupten to play cards with the other old men behind the store. They would keep the beer and fried meat coming all day and night, and who could resist that? Jiggy’s tongue stuck out of his mouth in anticipation. Why couldn’t he have waited to ask his cousin his plans when they were alone?
‘I have got to go meet a girl,’ Thupten said with a sparkle. ‘To go have a talk.’
Jiggy bit his lip. Free at last! Free at last! Thanks God Almighty I am free at last! When his teacher had played an audio recording of Martin Luther King, Jr’s speech in class, he had not clapped or cried like the other Tibetan students at those final words. But now he was so happy, he could feel the tears coming.
‘Are you going to a bar with her? Have you tried the new one – The Factory? I could show you – you want me to show?’
‘Maybe’, Thupten said and turned to the rest. ‘She is the one my father had picked for me … a few years back.’
Everyone gazed at him in disbelief. Thupten was nearly 39 years old and had ignored his father’s wishes for his marriage for so long. Even Pasang and Yangdol had taken turns calling him in Toronto, urging him to marry a nice Tibetan girl.
‘Shall I come with…?’ Jiggy asked.
‘Just to see. Just to talk. There must be something about her. If my father liked her…’ Thupten winked but could not finish the rest of his sentence. He looked at his relatives, so hopeful and expectant. Abruptly, the taxi driver’s terrified face flashed before his eyes, the sweat on his neck, the rickety shell of the taxi. When the taxi had pulled up to Thupten’s camp, he threw 250 rupees to the front seat and argued with the driver about the price hike. One thing lead to another and Thupten ended up holding the driver by his neck, threatening to him like a chicken bone. Looking at his relatives now, he felt a sudden dread. He decided he could not stay any longer and bid them goodbye.
Pasang said something about playing cards, Ani Yangdol asked him to stay for lunch, her sister turned the VCR back on to play some video of praying monks, and young Jigdel followed him out the door. As he got on the motorcycle, Jigdel watched from the door. His face bore a large grin. His tukrimentok, his spiky hair, his desperation for life. Thupten wanted to tell him something – something to bring them both comfort, something about how life was full of possibilities:
‘Maybe you can come to the West, try for a visa, borrow some money and fill a bank account with it so you look convincing as a visiting tourist to America. Then if you get through, never return, not for four or five years at least, if then. Work in a Chinese or Indian restaurant in New York City; they will pay you cash. Send the money home to your parents. How they have suffered in this lifetime, suffering we will never know. And tell the lawyers and judges whatever you have to, whatever story of oppression you need to so they will let you stay. Work hard, work seven days a week if they let you, live in a one bedroom apartment in Jackson Heights with cockroaches and five other Tibetans who will always leave the apartment to work in places you never ask about. You will break each other’s hearts every day when you see the exhaustion build and wear each other away. But they will be there to make you laugh and they will be a kind of family.
‘And then if you are served papers to leave America, before you have even paid off the loans for the flights to America, then flee to Canada. Canada is the best country in the world. You won’t experience why it is the best country in the world, but you will read about it in the magazines and newspapers; the surveys come out each year. They will take you in and you will start over and, one day, you will become a citizen if you tell the right lies, lies that are the truth, because in the end, in this lifetime, we Tibetans are mere beggars in this world. Good people will help you and you will fall in love with a girl somewhere along the way. She will love Tibet; she will love Buddhism. Her heart will break for your people and you will always hate her a little because of this. White people will like you – her family especially. They will invite you to stay at their house on holidays and weekends; they will let you sleep in her room and they will want you to call them ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ because they think you could never break their daughter’s heart.
‘You will tell your ama and pala about her and they will tell you that you are a fool. Ignore them; you are on the other side of the planet. Try to ignore them. You will hear of relatives’ deaths, your uncle’s, your best friend from high school; you will hear of new cousins entering this world; you will know of these things as sounds through a phone and you will try to grieve and celebrate but the emotions will not stretch so far, not such long distances, not after so long. Then you will hear the worst thing yet, the thing you cried about indulgently once as a child when you fathomed its possibility for the first time. Your father is dead. You will be in Montreal with your girl at the time, visiting the old stone cities that look like they were out of children’s fairy tales. At the bar you will ask them for a beer but they will ignore you because you do not speak French. Your girl will be outside talking with old college friends, and you will try to find her so you can get a beer but you will not find her. The girl your father told you not to marry, not as long as he was alive. Never been so alone. You will slam your fist on the bar and say, “Monsur, one Heineken sil vu play!” Your finger pointing up. The bartender will look at you closely. You are on the verge of tears, a man with nothing to lose in a stony heaven. He will be kind enough to let you finish the beer before he kicks you out.
‘Back in Toronto, you will work for two weeks straight, driving the forklift from four in the morning until four at night. Take that paycheck and beg for an advance from your boss and send all of it home to your mother. Tell her you cannot come home because of work; tell her you are doing well, eating plenty, and you will send more in a month. The Canadian girl will call you, she will e-mail; she will ask your friends about you; her father will even call you. But you will not answer.
‘In your free hours, you leave your basement studio apartment. Each time, standing at your door, about to choose a place in the world to go, you are struck by the realisation that you have no direction, nowhere to go. To a restaurant, to your mother’s camp in Kathmandu, to that bar in Montreal. Nowhere is yours. The sad stupid shock at your door. And you realise it will never leave you.’
But instead of saying all this, Thupten put on his helmet and turned the key. At this, Jigdel pulled out his cell phone and turned up some song, loud. And as he drove away, his young cousin held the phone out so Thupten might hear.
~ Tsering Lama was born in Nepal and currently studies and teaches at Columbia University in New York. A previous version of this story was a Top 10 Finalist in the 2010 Asian American Short Story Contest.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
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