Myths can sometimes be personal. My own such myth stems from a childhood recollection. It involves my Ani, who is a Buddhist nun as well as my father’s elder sister. She inhabits, simultaneously and seamlessly, the two opposing connotations of the Tibetan term: one suggesting faith, the other family; the former symbolising renunciation, the latter attachment.
I am a seven-year-old boy, having strayed far from my unlikely home in the Tibetan nunnery in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala. Every winter, my parents would deposit me in the care of my nun-aunt before setting out on their sweater-selling sojourn in some distant city. Without fail, before their departure from the small bus-stand and in full view of the townsfolk, I would protest and I would cry, I would flail my limbs in the air and throw myself on the ground. Still they would let themselves be taken away in a bus, down the hill and out of sight, as though my outbursts were merely for effect – a ritualistic send-off and nothing more.
I am so absorbed in a game of striking flattened soda-bottle caps that I haven’t noticed that night has fallen. After school hours, moving from one place to the next, my friends and I have found an impromptu playground on a hardened patch of earth in the neighbourhood below Bhagsu Road, which we call drongseb, for ‘village’. Huddled around our scattered riches, in the faint light of a distant light bulb, we wait for another boy to torpedo the bottle caps with his daka, a spherical striker made of lead, when we hear a muffled sound. Travelling through the woods and over the mountainside separating us from the town centre, it comes again, and we realise it’s somebody’s name being shouted out, truncated by its own echo. Soon I recognise it as my own, followed by, ‘Where are you?’
Seeing that I hadn’t returned even after sunset, my Ani had been alarmed. She had checked at my school, walked up to the marketplace to poke her head into the stores I usually frequented, and stopped by the houses of every single one of my friends. Not finding me anywhere, she was overcome with fear, which, as she later told me, had made her heart almost come out of her mouth (meaning it nearly killed her). As was in her character, she had begun dreading the worst: Indian child-abductors stealing me away to some far-flung city like Bombay or Calcutta where I would be sold for organ-extraction, a wild beast feasting on my flesh and bones, or a fall off the edge of a cliff.
Desperate and depleted of options, she had taken to shouting out my name at the top of her lungs in all the four directions. Into the same air that she released her prayers, she flung my name, as though the two were interchangeable, which they were, by the fact that both sought an answer: my return call.
More than three decades on, during a visit to Dharamsala five months ago, an old woman with deep wrinkles peered at me through her thick lenses, opened her mouth to reveal a few scraggly teeth, and asked me if I remembered how my aunt had cried when I had shouted back, ‘Aniiiiiii! I am here!’
I couldn’t be sure if this was exactly what had happened. Over the years different versions have been recounted to me by different people, all of whom vouched to have witnessed the incident. Back in those days, unlike today’s densely populated concrete jungle, Mola Ganji was a sleepy little town in which everyone knew everyone else. They knew not just your name, but also if you received money from Taiwan or had a daughter married and living in Switzerland. In the third person, an individual would be identified not by first name, but by his or her relation as son, as daughter, as husband or wife to this Cho Topgyal or that Acha Passang. It was as though the complete history of its every member lay within instant reach of the entire community, the quirky details waiting to be mined for rumours, the innocuous asides turned into explosive exposés.
As martially spirited boys high on swordplay games (our weapons: customised, flat, metal construction rods), my friends and I broadly categorised ourselves into the Bhagsu Gang, the Bazaar Gang or the Drongseb Gang. With these so-called gangs, each comprising several dozen kids, we made sure there weren’t any unaffiliated members walking the streets. If by any chance there were one, then god help him.
As I was to later learn, that echo-laden, silhouetted night scene had moved a few of the memory-keepers themselves to tears. Of my Ani’s exact location, however, accounts differ. Some say she had been on the side of the street where Doctor Yeshe Dhonden’s clinic stands. Others say she had been at the corner of the TIPA Road, below the Kyidong enclave. My aunt thinks it must have been somewhere closer, perhaps on the Bhagsu Road. She struggles to remember. Perhaps right above the community toilet, which, more formally, was called the shon-nu (youth) lavatory because it was built by the Tibetan Youth Congress, though informally it was the do ma yug (use no stone) toilet, by way of extolling the use of water, which was scarce, and scraps of paper, which came in many variations, mainly newspapers, magazines and comics in English, in Hindi or in Punjabi (never in Tibetan, because that would have amounted to committing a horrendous sin).
Regardless of where she stood, the distance to where I was playing had been formidable. There was an entire valley separating us. There had been thick walls of trees, and there had been ditches. There had also been sounds: of people milling about, of children playing, of radios crackling. Of dogs barking and monkeys chattering and crickets chirping.
Still, that night, an overwrought nun had screamed into the void. And a child’s voice had responded.
My Ani’s spiritual name is Thupten Palmo. Those who knew her from before she came to India, from before she became a nun at the age of 17 in a remote village in Tibet, remember her as Ani Sonam, which implies that she had taken on a renunciate’s life long before she was ordained. After the Chinese came, she and my father brought their mother over the Himalaya. Soon she parted ways with them to serve an old and ailing lama from her nunnery in Tibet who had recently arrived in exile. She remained with him and his few other disciples for several years, studying scripture and meditating, until he breathed his last on a rickety cot in a damp hovel by the gurgling River Beas in Manali.
Back in Dharamsala in the mid-1970s, she joined the Gaden Choeling Nunnery, which had opened only recently. The nunnery, then a cluster of flimsy structures with wooden planks for walls and tin sheets for roof, had been founded by a group of nuns from the Nechung Ri Nunnery in Tibet, which had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Thanks to support from the Tibetan Women’s Association and other donors, today the nunnery is a robust establishment, comprising a huge prayer hall and comfortable living quarters. One of the first to join the nunnery, my Ani is now one of its oldest members.
At 73, she looks even older, if such a thing is possible. Her face is crisscrossed with deep lines, and every time I see her it is as if she has shrunk by another several inches. A diminutive woman to begin with, she is now doubled over, with a hunchback that has grown bulbous over the years, causing her shoulders to bunch forward and her neck to vanish, a condition she attributes to a lifetime of sitting bent over scriptures. As another result of spending endless hours poring over fine print, often undoubtedly under low light, she has terrible eyesight. Despite, or perhaps because of, undergoing surgery several years ago, her eyelids now droop over in a folded mass of flesh, making an observer worry over the effort it takes her to keep them from blocking her vision. Furthermore, she has bad knees, the arthritis common among people her age, as well as occasional sores that erupt along the length of her thighs, an affliction peculiar to those who sit cross-legged, feet folded under legs or over ankles, for many hours a day, every day. Other than that, she tells me when I ask after her, she is perfectly fine.
Still, out here in California, oceans away from her, I worry. The tables have turned: just as she had feared the worst during my boyhood absences, I dread the unspeakable on account of such things as the North Indian town’s notorious monsoons and its perilous traffic. What if, I find myself asking, on her way to the prayer hall in the nunnery, she slipped on a wet surface and had a bad fall? What if, on the winding path to the main temple, one of the speeding taxis knocked her off, sending her tumbling down a cliff?
At every such thought, I feel my heart almost come out of my mouth.
Recently I found myself in her tiny quarter again. It comprises a bed, on which she sits all day long; a small table on which are heaped her prayer books, rosaries and other religious paraphernalia, her pens and ink pot, her Tibetan pills, her Vicks balm; a narrow, makeshift kitchen; and a modest altar. I pleaded with her not to go out much when it rained, encouraging her to skip the morning and afternoon prayers in the hall down a long flight of stairs, the concrete steps sprouting green moss even in dry weather. She replied that it was unthinkable: ‘How can I miss the group prayers?’ Alternately, I wondered aloud if, instead of having to clamber up and down the same endless steps everyday when the bell sounded for meals, she couldn’t let someone else fetch her food for her. After all, at any given time, she had three to four full-time students. ‘Why should I let someone else bring me food, when I am not sick, when I am not confined to bed?’ she protested.
I am not the only one exasperated by her insistence on doing things her way. ‘Ghenla is just unbelievable,’ one of her students told me. ‘There is nothing you can do to deter her from her discipline.’ Those nuns who have known her for a long time, who remember seeing me around as a little boy, express wonder that in close to forty years at the nunnery, there have been only a few times when my Ani missed a group prayer. The last time had been some four years ago, when my parents had to force her to stay at our house to recover from the eye operation.
Returning from school, I am sure not to find Ani in her (our) room. Despite my heavy backpack, I bolt towards the prayer hall, cutting sharp corners, hopping over bushes, jumping off stairs. The murmur of prayers grows louder, the incantations become high-pitched. From among the orchestra of female voices, few are recognisable to me. I know these to belong to nuns who sometimes play with me or offer me candy or call me nicknames.
The nunnery’s two or three dogs fight for my attention. They whip at my behind with their tails and lick at my hands. I take the bag off my shoulders, drop it to the ground, and play with them until I lose interest. Soon, I hunker down on an elevated concrete step underneath one of the chapel’s windows. My eyes roam over green fields stretching to the horizon. Leafy branches frame the sky. Bored, I get up, stand on my toes and, pressing my face against the cold glass, peer inside.
I see Ani, sitting third from the left in the front row facing my window, her eyes closed, her lips moving, her torso swaying. A couple of young nuns notice me. With subtle movement of wrists and pouting of lower lips, they offer taunts. I stick out my tongue back at them.
The prayers over, there is another set of sounds: flip-flops hitting cold cement floors, peals of laughter, jovial banter. A curtain of hands rains down on me, to tousle my hair, to pull at my cheeks. Smiling faces ask me how my day at school was. They dig information out of me for which I know they have no use.
The mob eventually parts, revealing Ani, her ruddy face beaming, her hand extended toward me, waiting to take me home.
Ani pumps intently at a three-legged kerosene stove to make dinner. It’s always the same fare: rice and vegetables, usually potatoes and green leaves. Meat days are rare. Her cooking is on the watery side. But I don’t complain.
Sometimes, during lavishly sponsored prayers, the nuns are served special dinner, usually momo. Without fail, whether momo or meat curry, Ani would save it for me. Today she pushes under my nose a plateful of steaming meat dumplings.
I am too young to imagine her, with another two hours to go before the session ends, not lowering her hand to pick up even one piece to put in her mouth, when everyone else around her is noisily sucking at the juice, chewing at the meat.
Instead, I watch her slurp the potato dish as if it were noodle soup, and find it mildly funny.
I am sitting on a grassy patch near the pond where the nuns usually do their laundry. Ani is washing my clothes; three or four nuns are around her washing theirs. They talk among themselves, make jokes. They lather up a thick foam, rinse the laundry thoroughly, then twist it to squeeze out the water. The way a piece of wet clothing, when tightly wound, appears taut like a twig makes me think it will snap at any moment. The sight almost causes me to blink.
They spread the wet laundry out to dry on the grass around me. I notice my uniform, my blue pants and chequered shirts, the only exception to their uniform, a sea of maroon: maroon sleeveless shirts, maroon gowns, maroon shawls.
Ani is bragging about how good I am at my studies. She tells them, as if for the first time, how I was double promoted, getting to skip up a grade, once when I was in the first grade and then again in the third. ‘Dappadappapomoshon,’ she declares in an attempt at English, throwing her hand in the air. I pretend not to make a big deal out of it, barely looking up from my comic book.
I am more worried about Ani discovering that, despite her stern warnings, I continue to loan my comic books out for 25 paisa each. Nervously I watch the shapes the nuns make with their mouths when they speak. I dread my secret tumbling out.
I dread an end to my welcome source of extra pocket money.
I have something important to tell Ani. I feel the same urgency as when I have to pee. So I run all the way from school to the nunnery.
I burst through the doors, catching Ani in the middle of perusing her scriptures. Excitedly, I blurt out the news. Ani is startled. She says something back to me, either a response or an exclamation at having been alarmed. No sooner have the words left her lips than she seems distressed. Then, as if remembering to make amends, she springs to her feet, throws herself to the ground before the altar, and offers three full-length prostrations. In between her supplications, the look she throws at me is full of exasperation.
As has happened many times before, I have made Ani break a vow. This time it is her vow of silence. It is a ritual she undertakes every month, sometimes lasting two days, sometimes a full week. She has been looking forward to it. Before embarking upon it she had made all the necessary arrangements, including giving me a clear set of instructions as to what to do and what not to do in this situation or that situation.
I look apologetic. But inwardly I am pleased. It seems a small price she has to pay for the inconvenience I am subjected to, that of having to speak with my hands.
One day, Ani asked me to teach her the English alphabet. Thus began laborious evenings and Sunday mornings when I would show her how to write A, then B, then C. To be fair, she was a diligent student, always finding time between her spiritual practices to bend over one of my hand-me-down notebooks, her hand tracing an ink pen over its pages, scrawling shapes resembling the letters I had written down for her to copy.
But she was a horrible learner.
Long after I had stopped living with her – long after I had finished middle school, then high school, even after I had begun college in Delhi – I noticed that she had not progressed beyond K, L and M when writing from memory. She later bequeathed the onus of teaching her the alphabet to my three younger sisters, who too, one after another at various times, lived with her when my parents left to sell wool garments in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. For all her discipline and hard work, she is still miles away from being able to string together words as simple as apple, bat or cat.
Her struggle with English stood in stark contrast with her expertise in scripture and her mastery of Buddhist philosophy. It was not unusual for younger nuns to vie with each other to have her as a teacher. Even as a boy of seven or eight, her scholarship was not lost on me. Most evenings when I did my homework, my Ani sitting across from me intently leafing through her voluminous text, I would find my imagination slipping out of my body to behold the sight of an ascetic and a student, much like an illustration I had seen in a Hindi textbook showing a Sadhu and an Indian boy, both deep in their studies. The drawing was accompanied by a Hindi word for knowledge, either shiksha or gyan, which one exactly I do not remember. It is to this imaginative vignette, and to the gravity my child-self attached to the accompanying notion of erudition, that I owe my love of reading and writing.
When I joked with Ani about her utter lack of instinct for English, she told me it didn’t matter that she was a bad learner. What was important was that she was trying. She said that even if she got around to mastering only so many letters of the alphabet in this life, it was definitely going to help her learn the remaining letters in her next life. The concept she was imparting to me was bhagchak: the familiarity that comes from earnest perseverance and the inevitability of one’s hard work meeting its reward.
It had to be out of this respect for knowledge – a respect akin to that one would accord a person one admires – that she hoarded every single one of my notebooks at the end of each school year. As she put it, these notebooks were testimonials to my pursuit of precious knowledge over the last ten months or so, and as such needed to be preserved. It goes without saying that I attached no such significance to those books, which I itched to consign to the bonfires as soon as the final exams had ended. Not content with merely keeping them around, in these discarded notebooks Ani practiced her English and honed her Tibetan calligraphy.
Even much later – after I had finished college and started working for the Tibetan government-in-exile – it was not uncommon for me to see those relics from my school years still in her quarters, lying atop her table amid her scriptures and ink pot and Vicks balm, their covers lovingly wrapped with newspapers, some of them with their binding coming apart. On their fronts the name was always the same: mine. What was different was the grade information – Class IV B, Class V B, Class VI A – and the subject line: English Language, Mathematics, Social Science.
Inside, wherever there was space, Ani’s English letters staggered across the width of the pages, irregular in size, unsure of their footing, their self-conscious foreignness beyond hiding. Where all the lines had been filled up, she had scribbled along the corners, the letters almost falling off the edges. In comparison, her Tibetan calligraphy was confident and stately. In her formal uchen rendering, the script was beautiful, the horizontal and vertical lines bold where they were uniform, playful where tapering, each letter a stroke of pure artistry. Her shorthand khyug was not lacking in the exquisite either, with its dips and swirls, its many flourishes, as though the letters were flower petals from another universe.
My name was a common theme in Ani’s Tibetan handwriting practice. Across the pages, filling row after row after row, she would have carefully inscribed my name, my first name first, my last name last, until you couldn’t tell which was which (topden Tsering topden Tsering topden Tsering…). Often I wondered what she must have been thinking when she had put me down on paper like that. Had she devised it as a way to conjure up my presence, to feel closer to me whenever she missed me? More than that, I wondered where I had been when she was tracing the letters that make up my identity. Had I been in class? Had I been in a movie theatre? Had I been smoking cigarettes and drinking beer with my friends? Had I been with a girl?
As an adult, holding these books in my hands, I couldn’t help marvelling at how urgently my past seemed to live in the present, and at how it made even my real present seem unreal. It felt as though my child-self were just around the corner, capable of willing itself into existence if it desired to do so – a child-self that I had long shed, like a snake does its skin, but which my Ani had kept close.
When we talk on the phone, she tells me I am in her prayers. Each unseen to the other, communicating across divides of continents and oceans (no longer mountainsides and valleys), ‘AniKherang la Monlab Gyabki Yod-da,’ she says. ‘Ani is praying for you!’
Her third-person pronouncement, intended to amplify her affection towards me, breaks my heart. So does the realisation that no matter how far along I might think I have come in life, no matter how hardened I might think I have become to the ways of the world, I am not past needing her embrace and her spiritual benevolence so that I may be kept safe, out of misery’s reach.
For as long as I can remember, Ani has included me in her flurry of religious activities. She would go to this monastery or that temple and drop crisp 50- and 100-rupee notes, asking for prayers to be held for my long life. She would seek audience with this rinpoche or that lama, offer prostrations and money, and procure divinations for me. She would climb hills to offer tribute to hermits, some of them on retreat for 20 years or more. And she would ask if they could not, somehow, into their esoteric communion with the celestial, weave in a plea on my behalf.
She would ask local mediums – otherwise unremarkable men and women – to channel fearful protective deities. Once possessed, the mediums would roll up their eyes and puff out their cheeks, veins bulging from their necks, mouths open wide as if to show Dracula fangs, issuing high-pitched hisses and words that didn’t make sense (gods’ language, Ani would say). Ani would ask them what I had been in my previous life, and what I will be in my next.
Then, her voice frayed, she would warn me against wading into water, for water had been prophesied as a potential hazard. She would caution against fire, as flames too had been predicted to be dangerous. She would advise against going anywhere near a cliff, for a fatal fall hadn’t been ruled out as a likely cause of accident. Also, in no uncertain terms, she would forbid me from venturing near fights, for some future brawl had been deemed injurious to my person. It was as though those before whom I bowed – or my Ani made me bow – profited only from turning everyday elements into undeniable agents of death.
In my colourful imagination, at each of my Ani’s warnings I would paint a picture: the knee-deep Bhagsunath stream suddenly became the ocean I had seen in the movies; a small fire, at the sight of me, quickly turned into a raging inferno, its tongues reaching out to engulf me in flames; and brawlers, say two local drunkards, at my entry on the scene, turned their violence toward me, their punches and their kicks now seeking my nose or my crotch, as though I had caused their ancestors some serious dishonour, their wives some deep shame.
In other words, given the amount of money Ani has spent on securing divine intervention on my behalf, it is purely an anomaly that I have yet to win millions of dollars in a lottery. Or that I still need car insurance!
On the phone, her frail voice would ask me whether I was wearing this amulet or that blessed cord that such-and-such rinpoche had given her and she had sent to me, all the way from Dharamsala to Berkeley in California. So it was that I would send North Face fleeces and Timberland shoes to her, and to me she would send packets of red strings, or blessed grain, or incense, or Tibetan pills.
She would ask me to drive slowly, and I would say nothing about freeways and highways and the possibility that if I followed her advice, I would either be ticketed by the police or be killed. She would ask me to be friendly with the people around me, and I would reveal nothing about the self-serving ways of the American world. She would ask me to find time to say some prayers, and I would pretend not to have left so far behind, undoubtedly to my own detriment, the solace of the belief system she held dear. And she would ask me not to worry about her.
My iPhone pressed against my ear, I would imagine Ani on the other end, speaking meekly into her cell phone, slightly intimidated by the device. My eyes closed, I would try to breathe in her scent, which I remembered from having put my head on her lap so many times in the past. On the skin of my fingers I would try to relive the sensation of running my hands over her bristly scalp, her leathery skin. On the dim horizon of my memory, I would make her come alive: a small, hunchbacked figure in red robes, walking somewhere, a red cloth bag dangling from her shoulders.
And I would wish I could see her.
The last time I saw her was three months ago, the day I left for Delhi to fly back to the United States. I bent down to let her put a white scarf, its length twice her height, around my neck. She drew my face nearer to touch her forehead against mine. Our faces inches apart, her eyes looking up into mine, she said, ‘Don’t worry about Ani, Ani will be just fine.’ To say something, anything intelligible, was beyond me, but still I managed to tell her I would see her soon.
Then, she reached her hand into the inside of her shirt and dug out her purse, and opening it, she took out a roll of 500-rupee notes. Thrusting it into my hands, she said, ‘Here, take this. On the way buy some goodies, drink tea!’ For all the many years, even decades, that have passed since I was a little boy, Ani has still not given up that habit. Of late she has begun offering money to my father when he visits her; after all, he is her baby brother. She does that to my cousins too, who offer her thousands or tens of thousands of rupees as tokens of gratitude, but who at the time of departure find themselves waving away Ani’s insistently extended arm, fist clutching the same bundles of notes – ‘For tea on the road!’
I walked her down the long flight of stairs to the group prayer, for which she was running late. I watched her take off her slippers and pry open the drapes to enter the chapel. Then, as if on second thought, she turned around, smiled at me and waved me away, as though to tell me, Now go! It was as if I was merely going to the other end of town. There was no emotion on her face indicating sadness, foretelling separation.
I had not taken ten steps toward the gate before I returned, and requested a passing nun to call her back out. When Ani came out, she seemed half-surprised, half-irritated. ‘What is it?’ she asked me. I wrapped my arms around her and then lowered my forehead to touch hers. She said it again: ‘Don’t worry about Ani, Ani will be fine!’
Reluctantly I turned to go. I walked to the edge of the nunnery. There, I swivelled around again, and joining my hands before my chest, my eyes taking in the darkened interior of the prayer hall, my mind travelling not so much to the statues or the thangkas or the scriptures inside it, but to my Ani – who I could imagine chanting mantras, her eyes closed, her torso swaying – I prayed.
I finally came out with what had been in my heart. Unable to fight back tears any longer, I prayed that she would live long enough that I would get to see her when I visited Dharamsala next.
The tables had turned again. It was I who was releasing prayers into the air, and my Ani who, child-like, was deliciously lost in her own world. It was I who was burdened by the weight of a layman’s life, with all my insecurities and my fears, with my insistence on keeping her tethered to my world, its narrow geography strewn with my endless needs, among them the need for my Ani to be around forever. She, however, was long past that need. Her shackles had dropped to the ground long ago. She saw things for what they were and not for what they appeared to be.
And so when her beloved nephew, over whom, during his years growing up, she had shed copious amounts of tears, stood before her, himself now a tearful wreck, only a day away from boarding a flight that would separate them by half a world, she had only smiles for him. No hint of sadness whatsoever. Just a pure, blissful smile.
~ Topden Tsering is former editor of the Tibetan Bulletin and former president of the San Francisco chapter of the Tibetan Youth Congress. He writes for various publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeley Daily Planet, Global Post, and the India Site.