The frost heralding the coming winter was silver on the stones when Thangzom first saw the monastery.
It clung to the slope of the mountain, white and blue and golden, a splash of colour on the grey stone. Flags fluttered in the constant wind, and prayer wheels gleamed in the light of the morning sun.
Thangzom had been travelling for two days, and had exhausted what little food he’d carried with him the night before. He was tired and hungry, thirsty and footsore, and was in no mood to appreciate the beauty of the buildings that lay before him. His mind was on the job he had to do, and yet, at this last moment, he had a curious reluctance to enter.
It was the year of the great famine, when the villagers in the provinces were starving, their fields lying bare even in the harvest season. That was the year when the village elders anxiously studied the flight of the birds in the hope of being able to divine the weather, though such efforts were forbidden by the monks. It was a sign of the villagers’ desperation that they even considered going against the orders of the monasteries, even in secret. And even though the villages were full of informers, so great was the peoples’ need that the certainty of word of their disobedience reaching the ears of the abbots failed to deter them.
That year, Thangzom had just reached eighteen, but could have passed for six or seven years older. Nine or ten years of labour in the fields had left his face sunburned and weatherbeaten, his squat frame heavily muscled, and his hands thick with calluses. His small eyes, already deep set within his broad dark face, seemed even smaller because of the wrinkles which already surrounded them after years of squeezing them into slits to cope with the glare of the sun on the snow.
The drought did not, of course, mean that the villagers were excused from paying their regular donation to the monasteries, which could be half or more of their harvests. This year, they had had virtually no harvests, but all that meant was that they had to pay out of their emergency stocks of food and money. The tax officials had their quotas to meet, and the monasteries needed their share.
Thangzom’s parents had only a small piece of land, which they held as sharecroppers, renting it from the owner, a tax official. They bent their backs over this land through the months of spring and summer, fertilising it with dried yak dung, sowing and harvesting a scanty crop of barley and rice, of which so much had to be paid as rent and so much more donated to the monastery that even in a good year they had little enough left over for themselves. And this had been anything but a good year.
Thangzom remembered the look on his father’s face, four days ago, when he’d finally given him and his mother the bad news.
“We’ll never be able to pay,” Chelmang had said, his shoulders bowed with the weight of defeat. “Even if we sell the yak, we won’t have enough to pay the rent, the donation, and still have anything left over for ourselves to survive through the winter.”
Thangzom and his mother had known it, of course, but it had a stamp of finality when uttered by Chelmang. He was not a big man, but had always carried himself with immense dignity, and it hurt even more to see the pain of failure in his eyes.
“Maybe the owner...” Thangzom’s mother, Mongneilhing, had begun. “If we were to talk to him, and explain the circumstances, perhaps he’d understand.”
“It’s no use.” Chelmang had cut her off with a gesture. “I already did. And Linboi did as well.” Linboi was their neighbour, who sharecropped the remainder of the tax official’s land. “He told us both that he had his expenses, and if we couldn’t pay we’d have to leave the land.”
“Your family has tilled this land for forty years and more,” Mongneilhing had reminded her husband, quietly. “How can we lose it now?”
“Do we have a choice?” Chelmang had demanded. “Linboi at least owns four yaks, so he can sell a couple of them if he has to and get through the winter somehow. But we have nothing, no way out. All we can do now is go abroad, to the towns down in Nepal or India, and look for labourer’s work – if we can get it. What with the drought, the labour market’s glutted with out of work farmers.”
Thangzom had turned to look out of the window. In the middle distance the granary had stuck out of the landscape like a block of ugliness. “The walls of that place,” he’d said, “are bursting with barley and rice that the people need.”
His father had frowned in warning. “It belongs to the monastery,” he’d snapped. “We have no rights over it – not even to think about it.”
“Who can stop us from thinking?” Thangzom had got up and gone over to the window, staring at the building. “Everyone can think.”
“Don’t ever talk that way.” Fear and anger had struggled for supremacy in Chelmang’s voice, and finally anger won. “You sound like one of the Red Banner traitors.”
Thangzom had shrugged. “One doesn’t have to be a Red to see common sense when it stares one in the face.”
“If the monks get to know what you said,” Chelmang began, his face beginning to mottle with anger, “then there will be hell to pay, do you understand, you fool of a boy? Hell.”
“The question,” Mongneilhing had cut in, more to defuse the tension in the room than anything else, “is how to get to keep our land. If the landlord isn’t going to reduce the rent, then there’s only one way out that I can see.”
“Yes?” Bitterness had dripped from Chelmang’s voice like poison. “What way do you see that I can’t, woman?”
“Why don’t you go to the abbot in the monastery?’ his wife asked. “He rules under the direct authority of the Great Lama, doesn’t he? I have always heard he is merciful and compassionate. If you go to him, I’m sure he will order the landlord to reduce his rent this time. He will at least spare us the donation to the monastery for this year.”
“You really think he will?” Despite the doubt in Chelmang’s voice, Thangzom had seen the hope creep back into his father’s eyes. “I have never heard the monks do any such thing, in all these years.”
“Nevertheless, why don’t you try? What have we got to lose?” Mongneilhing had gone to the shelf above the fireplace, taken down an old tin box, and rummaged inside it until she found the precious, much-folded sheet of yellowed paper. None of the three had, of course, any ability to read, but they all knew that piece of paper well. “Take this to him, show him how long the family has been farming this land, and that we have never, ever, failed to pay the rent and donations before this. Tell him about the drought.”
“All right,” Chelmang had replied. “I’ll go tomorrow.”
But that night Chelmang had developed a fever, and by the morning was shivering, mumbling on the verge of delirium, and so weak he could barely sit up. The local healer had been persuaded to come, and after stirring the sick man’s urine and studying the results, had given him an infusion of herbs and ordered him to stay in bed for a week.
“A week might be too late,” Chelmang had said, despairingly. “The landlord said he would send men to throw us out if we didn’t pay, and take the yak and our personal belongings as compensation.”
“But then what can we do?” Mongneilhing had gone white. “I’d have gone, but I have to stay to look after you.”
“I’ll go,” Thangzom had said.
“You?” Chelmang had been about to say something more, but his words dissolved into a fit of coughing.
“Let him go,” his wife had said. “There’s nothing else to do, is there? And he can talk to the abbot as well as anyone. If the abbot will listen to you, he will listen to him as well, even if he is only a boy.”
“I’m not a boy,” Thangzom had told her. “I’ll be leaving right away.”
“No, you eat something and rest. It’s a long way and you’ll have to walk. Start early tomorrow morning; I’ll pack up some food for the journey.”
His mother had not been wrong. It had been a long, weary way, even over the mountain paths that the shepherds used, and he’d had to spend the nights in the tiny huts used for storing fodder. He’d hardly been able to sleep. The first night it had been due to discomfort. The second night – last night – he’d dropped off from sheer exhaustion, discomfort be damned, but had been awakened by noises. He’d lain awake, listening to the clicks of stones running downhill and muttered words and footsteps. Someone had paused outside the doorless entrance of the hut and a torch beam had briefly licked across the walls, just missing Thangzom where he lay in the far corner, his heart hammering and his mouth dry. Eventually the voices had faded and the night had settled in once more, but he’d hardly been able to doze off again.
Now he stood looking across the stone yard at the gates of the monastery, trying to make his legs move these last few paces, his fingers clutching the thin cloth of the bag containing the precious papers.
Inside those walls, he knew, lived the lamas – the monks who were so holy that they lived on a different plane altogether from such as he, men who had attained a plane of existence so high that when they died, they were reincarnated only to become lamas again. They were so far above him that he hesitated to thrust his petty concerns on their attention. All his life he’d been told that the highest he could aspire was to serve them. Surely distracting them from their pursuits was not serving them as they deserved.
But his family needed the land, and the lamas could help them keep it.
He might have stood there much longer, hesitating, but for an interruption. Someone coughed at his shoulder, almost apologetically. He turned, and saw a thin young man of perhaps his own age.
“Something wrong?” this stranger asked. “You’ve been standing there for a while looking unhappy. Maybe I can help?”
“No, nothing. I have to go in there, and talk to the lamas.”
“Oh.” The young man had glanced from him towards the monastery gates and back. “I see. You’re from one of the villages, I take it? Something to do with the farm?”
“Yes, my father sent me to the lamas to ask for their help. They can help us keep our land, or we’ll lose it.”
“The old story. Do you know how many times I’ve heard it before? And do you think they will really help you?”
Something in the young man’s voice made Thangzom flush. “Why shouldn’t they? I know we’re only peasants, but the lamas are great and wise. Of course they’ll help.”
The young man snorted expressively. “Go on, then, and ask them. But when you get your answer, remember what I said.”
“Yes, of course I’ll ask.” Thangzom moved across the yard towards the gate, without looking back.
“You peasants,” the lama said, “are the blood of the earth.”
He was probably still short of middle age, his plump face looking even rounder under the dome of his shaved head. He had introduced himself as the abbot’s personal assistant, as that worthy was far too busy on urgent work to be able to meet Thangzom that day. “You can tell me whatever you want,” this lama had said. “A problem with your family, is it? Someone ill?”
“The blood of the earth,” he repeated, after listening to Thangzom’s recitation of his family’s troubles. The creases at the corners of his lips deepened in a smile. “The very blood of the earth, I tell you.”
They were in a room in the ground floor of the monastery. Outside, some monks walked past, talking, while from somewhere not too far away came the steady sound of hammering. The room was small but to Thangzom’s eyes luxuriously furnished. It even had hangings on the walls with writing on them.
“Without you peasants,” the lama said, “we in the monasteries would be as nothing. Without you, our entire society would fall to ruin. We could never dedicate ourselves to the search for truth without you.”
Thangzom bowed his head slightly, wondering what was coming next. “Yes, Serene One,” he said. “Thank you for the kindness. I would not have bothered you. My family’s problems, however –“
The lama smiled again. “Ah you see, there’s the difficulty. The monastery has its own needs, you know. Now suppose every one of the farmers came to us with the same request, and we gave in to them all – you see the problem that would create? And if we gave in to one, how could we in conscience refuse another?”
Thangzom said nothing. The lama looked at him and down at the paper. “Now this says does it not, that your family doesn’t actually own the land? You’re merely sharecroppers. I do appreciate that you have problems – but isn’t the person you should approach the landlord?”
“We did,” Thangzom said. “He said that he would send men to evict us and take our belongings as compensation, if we did not pay.”
“Well then,” the lama said, smiling and handing the paper back, “you see, the authority directly over you is the landlord, not the monastery. He has the right to do as he sees fit if you can’t pay the rent. I don’t see what we can do!”
“But the landlord works as a tax official for the monastery.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Thangzom realised how silly they were, and what the monk would say in reply. He was not mistaken.
“That has nothing to do with his position as your landlord,” the lama said sharply, the jovial smile vanishing from his face. “The landlord is your feudal superior. Whatever problems you have with him are between him and you. We in the monastery have nothing to do with it at all.”
Thangzom’s mouth had gone dry, tension twisting his gut. He could hardly feel his own hand as he held it out to take the paper. The lama must have seen something in his face, because all of a sudden he was jovial and friendly again.
“Come, come,” he said. “There’s no need to be so upset. The Bodhisattva teaches us that everything comes in cycles, and surely your family’s fortunes will pick up again. Given time, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to have a farm of your own, is there?”
“My parents – they expect me to save the land somehow. That was why they sent me here.” Thangzom felt impelled to explain all over again, as though repetition could get the message across. “They are getting old, and they can’t start a new life now, and without even money or anything else.”
“Come now – they have a big sturdy lad like you to provide for them, don’t they? You don’t happen to have any younger brother or sister whom you have to feed as well, do you?”
“No, Serene One. I’m an only child.”
“There you are then.” The monk rose, dismissively. “I’m sure you must be eager to be getting back home. Your parents will be missing your help, won’t they?”
Thangzom’s eyes stung with the thought of his parents, hoping for him to return with the news that they would be able to keep the farm for another year. “They’ll be waiting,” he said.
“Yes, of course they will. The blood of the earth, you peasants. How could we ever exist but for you?”
“You look hungry,” the woman in the shop said. She was about Thangzom’s mother’s age, broad-faced and grey-haired, the striped apron of matrimony stretched over a body shapeless as a sack of potatoes. “Hungry and tired. You’d better sit down and have something to eat, boy.”
Thangzom had been looking for some cheap parched rice to buy for the journey home, or some cubes of yak cheese to chew on and keep hunger at bay, when he’d passed the little dumpling shop. Involuntarily, he’d paused, his stomach clenching painfully from the smell of cooking food. He’d not had a real meal for over two days and for a moment his mouth had filled with saliva. He’d clenched his eyes, trying to fight down the hunger, and when he’d looked again, the shopkeeper woman had been staring speculatively at him.
“Come in,” she repeated. “Come in and sit down before you collapse, boy.”
“It’s all right,” Thangzom protested. “I’ll be all right, Elder Aunt.”
“Nonsense. Sit down.” She waited until he had sat as directed, and ladled steaming soup and dumplings into a bowl. “I’ve brought up four sons, and I know when a boy’s got that starving look in his eyes.”
“Don’t worry about payment, if that’s what’s bothering you. You can pay me another time.” She watched keenly as he ate, as though each mouthful he consumed gave her physical pleasure. “It’s a lean time,” she said inconsequentially when he’d finished, and refilled his bowl unasked. “Not a good year out in the country, I’ll wager. Whereabouts are you from?”
Thangzom told her the name of the village, eating the second helping more slowly now that the first rush of hunger had passed. Then he introduced himself and his family.
“I think I know your mother’s people,” the woman said, pouring out some tea from a kettle and handing it to him. “They’re distant relatives of mine. Is this your first visit to this town?”
“Yes,” Thangzom admitted. The tea was far weaker than the brew he was used to, and virtually tasteless, but the warmth flooded through him with every sip. “I’ve never really been away from the village before.”
“The town’s not a good place,” the woman said pensively. “Not for a boy out of the provinces, who’s not used to it. There are plenty of bad people here, and bad things.”
“I didn’t actually want to come,” Thangzom said defensively, as though she had meant it as a personal criticism. “My parents sent me...” and he found himself pouring out the story, all of it from the beginning, including his father’s illness and the monk’s rebuff. The only thing he left out was the incident of the previous night, the voices and the torch. He knew that was not something one spoke about.
The woman clucked sympathetically when he’d finished. “You know,” she said, “I’ve come across so many others like you this year, coming to the town to ask the monastery to forgive this year’s donation. Half the farmers in the province must have made this same trip as you. None of them got any help from the lamas – not one.”
Thangzom remembered the lama’s words. “Hasn’t anyone protested?” he asked. “If everyone got together and protested, all the farmers, then surely-“
“Hush.” The woman threw a quick, nervous glance over her shoulder. “Protest – against the monastery? They’d call anyone who did that a rebel against the Great Lama, or worse. You know who I’m talking about?” She paused just long enough to see his nod. “And then the monastery’s police will lock them up and throw the keys away. The cells are already full, in case you didn’t know.”
“So what am I to do, Elder Aunt?” Thangzom asked. “My parents are depending on me.”
The woman looked genuinely distressed. “I wish I could help – I really do. But all I have is this small shop.” She brightened as a thought came to her. “You’ve been travelling two days, and it’s a two day hike back home, isn’t that right? You spend tonight at my house, sleep and rest, and start off tomorrow morning.”
Thangzom was tempted. Even his heavily muscled body ached, and with the hot food inside him, he felt suddenly immensely weary. He began to yawn, and caught himself.
“Look at you,” the woman said. “Almost asleep on your feet. You’d never make it half way unless you rest yourself a bit. One day won’t make a difference, will it?”
“It might.” Thangzom fought down another yawn. “If the landlord’s men come...”
“If they do come, what do you intend to do – fight them?” The woman snorted. “At least lie down in the back room for a few hours. If this afternoon you still intend to go I won’t stop you. But I couldn’t in any conscience let you leave in the shape you’re in.”
Thangzom allowed her to lead him into a tiny inner room, on the floor of which she rolled out a thin mattress. “It’s not much,” she said, “but the heat of the fire comes right through the wall, so you’ll be warm at least.”
Thangzom said nothing. He was already too far gone into sleep to fully understand what she was saying.
From the crest of the ridge, the monastery looked fragile and delicate, like a porcelain flower, and the town near the walls was an ugly rust-brown sprawl.
Thangzom had not wanted to look back. He had resolved to himself that he wouldn’t turn back to look at the monastery, but as he walked up the hillside, despite his determination his head had turned and he found himself looking back – not at the monastery, but at the town. Already, from up here, the mud-coloured sprawl was too indistinct to identify individual houses, but he thought he could make out the shop where he’d spent the day and then the night.
The early morning sun failed to melt the frost on the scrubby grass by the path, and made little rainbows in the puffs of steam that his breath made as he climbed. The bag he’d slung over his shoulder was heavy with the food the woman had thrust on him after feeding him breakfast early in the morning.
“I wouldn’t send any son of mine out without enough food to last him the journey,” she’d told him sternly. “Nor any nephew – and you yourself call me Elder Aunt, so don’t say another word.”
Down there, she would be making dumplings and tea for her customers now, her mind already turned to the day ahead. He wondered how her day would be. He wondered other things about her, such as where the sons she’d alluded to were, or her husband. She hadn’t talked of any of them. She hadn’t even told him her name.
If he ever came back here, he promised himself, he’d bring her gifts, whatever he could afford. Even he, who was used to poverty, had noticed that she was poor, her gown worn at the bottom, her woollen stockings worn through at the heel. That made her generosity even the more precious, and at the contrast between her and the smug lama in the monastery his throat clenched with sorrow and anger.
Something – perhaps a small animal, perhaps merely melting frost – had loosened a pebble further up the path, and it came skittering down, startling him and bringing his mind back to his situation. He’d already been delayed too long – he should have started back yesterday. Only the Bodhisattva knew what had happened back home during these days that he had been away.
Home! His mouth twisted bitterly at the word. It would not be home much longer – if, that is, it still was.
Bending forward as the slope steepened, he began to walk up the stony way as fast as he practicably could.
Far away to his right and left, the wall of rock extended until they merged with the towering mountains crowned with snow. On the other side of those peaks, he’d heard, were the hot, steamy plains of India and Nepal, full of dirty, congested cities throbbing with noise and bustle, and more people than he could ever imagine. He’d heard the tales many times, from the traders in the village who’d journeyed to those lands, how the people there would lie and cheat honest hillsmen in every way they could, and had resolved never to stray from his beloved mountains. But now, if they lost their farm, would there even be a choice?
Shortly after midday, he stopped briefly and ate some of the food the woman he’d called Elder Aunt had given him. The balls of rice, unappetising at the best of times, had congealed into a gluey mass, but he was too hungry to be discriminating. Afterwards, driven on by a creeping sense of desperation, he hurried on again, chewing a hard brown block of yak cheese as he went.
He had already decided not to spend the night in the hut he’d occupied on the way down, where he’d heard the voices outside and nearly been caught in the beam of the torch. He’d move on as far as he could until it was too dark to see, even by moonlight if the moon was out, and then wrap himself up in his coat and huddle somewhere by the path until it was light enough to go on again. If he could move far, and fast, enough, he might even be able to get home by tomorrow evening – assuming there was still a home to get to.
By late afternoon, though, the sky was covered by dark clouds, and just before dark, as though rubbing salt into the wounds left by the drought, a light but freezing rain began to fall. Soon, not only was Thangzom soaked to the skin, but the stones of the track were so slippery with water that to go on was to risk injury from a fall. So he climbed up the hillside by the path, squeezed into the shelter provided by an overhanging rock, and despite the cold and discomfort, he soon fell asleep.
He woke with a start, sure that something had just passed by on the path below, almost near enough to touch. For an endless minute he lay perfectly still, curled up as he was, his eyes still tightly closed, listening. And then he heard it again, the noise of sneakered feet passing quietly by, the laboured breathing of heavily laden men. Slowly, very cautiously, he opened his eyes.
Sometime during the previous hours, the rain had ended, and the clouds parted to let through the light of the nearly full moon. Its rays lay like milk over the world, illuminating the mountains in the distance, the stony walls rising on the other side of the path, and glinting off the rifle barrels of the column of men filing by.
He knew who they were even though he’d never seen any of their units before. The village chief had held meetings several times over the last months, talking of the men who flew the Red Banner, and warning the people that they were traitors, filled with an alien ideology, rebels against the Bodhisattva, who wanted to overthrow the natural order of things and even the Great Lama himself. The Red Banner had spread through the countryside during the last years, at first slowly, and then, as the drought took hold, with a speed that was as dismaying as it was unnerving.
“They take the boys and even the girls,” the village chief had shouted, spittle spraying from his lips, “from their parents. They take them at gunpoint, and teach them to hate everything that we hold sacred. They tell them that the lamas are men just as we, and deserve no special veneration. They raise their clenched fists against the very Bodhisattva, and worship their Red Emperor, the Chinese Mao.” The assembled villagers had murmured in horror. “They want us to throw away our traditions and values, and learn new and alien ways. Be on guard against them at all times.”
“But,” someone had asked, “how are we to guard against them? They have guns and we don’t.”
“Their lies precede them,” the chief had replied, ominously. “These lies claim that they are actually trying to liberate us from what they call the oppressive yoke of the monasteries. They call us slaves to a feudal system.” He’d paused dramatically. “Liberate us, indeed – from the gentle rule of the serene ones! Stay on guard against these lies. If you hear them, report the liars, whoever they may be – even your brother or your daughter, your neighbour or your friend. That is your holy duty.”
The villagers had been alarmed and impressed, and had begun looking over their shoulders before even taking the name of the Red Banner – just in case some envious neighbour was listening. But the months had passed, the Banner had stayed away from the village, and little by little the urgency of keeping body and soul together in the crippling drought had overshadowed all other concerns.
But the Red Banner was here now, walking past almost within touching distance. It might even be the same unit which had almost found him in the hut two nights before.
Right in front of Thangzom, one of the Red soldiers paused, glancing casually up at the cleft in which he lay. For a moment Thangzom was sure he’d been discovered, but the shadow under the rock must have been too deep for him to be seen.
Hardly daring to breathe, Thangzom stared back, fascinated, at the Red Banner trooper, at the heavy old bolt-action rifle over his shoulder, the bulging rucksack on his back. This, he thought, was what he’d been warned about – the enemy of the Great Lama himself, the agent of a devilish foreign ideology. But the enemy did not look like an agent of foreign evil.
The man looked as if he was from one of the northern tribes, with high cheekbones and eyes like slits. He was very young, probably younger than Thangzom himself. In the moonlight his dappled green uniform looked almost black, and the red bandanna on his head resembled clotted blood. Thangzom wondered what he was doing so far from his people, and whether he perhaps had a family he missed. What would make a young man like this leave everything and go off with a band of rebels against the Bodhisattva, enemies of all that was right and holy? He wished he could ask the question.
There came a soft command from up the path. The young Red soldier looked around, shifted the rifle on his shoulder, and continued up the path, another rebel following just behind him, and another.
It was only a long time after the last of the rebel soldiers had vanished up the path that Thangzom dared emerge from his shelter. He was still wet, with nervous sweat as well as the rain, and it was bitterly cold. But he dared not wait any longer. The Red unit might come back this way, and in any case he had to warm himself up before he froze. The moon was still out, and he hurried on by its light as quickly as he could, trying to make as little noise as possible on the stones.
The night was still and calm, and the moonlight beautiful on the hills, but he had no eyes for the beauty. Each little sound spoke to him of a lurking enemy, and every shadow seemed to hide a man with a gun.
The shadows were growing long when Thangzom climbed the last hill above the village. He had kept going all the night and through the day, eating on the move, driven by a desperate urgency to warn the villagers as well as to get back to his parents. By now, with evening closing in around him, he was nearly staggering with exhaustion, only his determination and the nearness of his destination keeping him going. His tiredness threatened to overwhelm him, but he had to get back home. Once he got back home, he’d tell his parents that he’d failed. And then he’d tell the villagers – what?
He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. What, precisely, could he tell the villagers? That the Reds were on the march? The unit could be anywhere by now. And, in any case, what could the villagers do about it? Send to the monastery for soldiers?
He remembered his grandfather, who had died years ago, telling him about the soldiers of the lamas: men hired from the tribes and the lands of the southern borders, who descended on the villages like a plague of locusts and took all they could as a matter of right. The old man had said that bandits and renegades were preferable to the soldiers, because they only plundered and moved on. The soldiers stripped the people bare, the old man had said, and then they stayed to strip the flesh from the bones.
Which would be worse, he wondered, clambering over the huge rock on which, as a child, he had played with his best friend from those days. Then, he hadn’t known or cared that Jomte was the son of an aristocrat and big landlord.
He remembered their last meeting. He’d come up here to the rock, and found Jomte here – sitting chewing meditatively at a grass stem. The boy had barely looked up at him, and that was very strange.
“My father,” Jomte had said eventually, “says I’m not to have anything further to do with you.”
“Why?” Thangzom had been too puzzled to be hurt. “Why did he say that?”
“Because you’re the son of sharecroppers,” Jomte had said, jumping up and throwing away his grass stem. “You’ll never be anything more, or even learn to read and write. That’s what my father says.” And, bursting into tears, he’d rushed down the hill into the village. The next day he’d gone, and later Thangzom had heard he’d been sent to school in the capital.
Thangzom had seen Jomte again, once or twice in later years. Jomte had grown plump and round faced, and looked older and more mature than his years. He’d walked as though he was careful not to be contaminated by the touch of the ground on his shoes, and though he’d seen Thangzom, he’d acted as though he hadn’t noticed him at all.
It was because Thangzom had become lost in the memories that he was inside the village before he noticed anything was wrong. He stopped abruptly, looking around and almost sniffing at the air. What was it?
The silence, he realised, that was what he’d noticed. At this time of the early evening, the village should have been full of the noise of people coming back from the fields, or talking to each other before heading indoors for the night. Children should be scampering about, shouting and being shushed by their parents. But there was only silence. Not even the big black dogs of the village were barking, and he couldn’t see a single person in the streets.
For a long moment he stood, dread clutching at his heart, before hurrying down a back alley to his parent’s house. It lay in near darkness, only a single lamp glowing in the window. When he knocked at the door, he was suddenly convinced that nobody would reply.
The door opened, though, his mother peering cautiously out. Relief washed over her face when she saw him. “You!” she said, cracking the door open a little further. “Come in, quickly.”
“What’s going on?” he asked, slipping through the narrow opening.
“The soldiers,” Mongneilhing whispered, shutting the door. “The soldiers are here, sent by the Great Lama’s government, from the capital. They say there are Red Banner spies in the town, and tomorrow they will search and question everyone.”
“Soldiers?” Thangzom’s mouth went dry as he remembered what his grandfather had said.
“They came just a little bit before dark, and are at the chief’s house. We all had to send over food for them. I’m sorry, but there’s no food left in the house now. I can’t even give you anything to eat.”
“He’s still ill.” Mongneilhing pulled her son by the arm into the inner room, where Chelmang lay on the cot, his face shining with sweat. “He’s burning up with fever.”
“Thangzom?” Chelmang’s lips moved slightly. “Is that Thangzom? He’s back?”
“Yes,” Mongneilhing said. “Don’t worry, he’s back. Come to the kitchen, son.”
“The lamas don’t want to help,” Thangzom said as soon as they were in the kitchen, in a low voice. “I could only meet one, and he just about told me whatever happened to us was the landlord’s business and nobody else’s.” Slumping down on a stool, he spoke on, describing the visit to the monastery and what the woman at the dumpling shop had said. “So there’s really no hope after all,” he finished.
“It hardly matters,” Mongneilhing shrugged. “The soldiers are here, so who knows what’s going to happen. Besides the landlord sent around word today – he’s sending his men round the day after tomorrow, and we’re either to pay or get out.” She looked at him. “Even if your lama had agreed to waive the donation, I don’t see how we could pay by then.”
“And what about Father? He’s worse.”
“I don’t know. The infusions don’t seem to have done any good. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him. I’ve prayed to the Bodhisattva, but...”
“We can’t take him away from here in his condition. He’d never survive.” Thangzom glanced around at the familiar walls of the kitchen, which suddenly felt like a stranger’s house now, already someone else’s property. “What shall we do?”
“I spoke to the cheese maker’s wife, Chuchais. You know her? She said we could stay with her for a few days until he’s better. Of course we’d have to pay for our upkeep, but that’s only to be expected. Times are hard for everyone.”
Thangzom poured some water from the chased metal pot on the shelf – a valuable heirloom, and probably something the landlord’s men would seize if they found it, he thought – into an earthenware cup and sipped it. “Who called the soldiers here?” he asked, to change the subject.
“I don’t know. Someone must have, for sure. We’ll probably have a good idea when we see whom the soldiers arrest tomorrow. Their enemies...”
There was a tremendous blast, so loud that for a moment Thangzom thought he’d gone deaf. Something slapped into the walls of the hut, hard enough to send plaster crumbling to the floor. Mongneilhing had begun to rise from her stool when Thangzom grabbed her and pulled her down to the floor. The night outside was full of noise now, loud bangs that he dimly realised were rifle shots, shouts, and running footsteps. The shooting subsided momentarily, but then flared up again, and culminated in a succession of blasts so loud that they made the walls tremble hard enough to rattle the dishes on the shelf.
When Thangzom’s ears had stopped ringing, he realised that the shooting had stopped, but distant shouting continued, voices calling out to each other, and the dogs were barking now, their voices echoing. Through it all, from the bedroom, he heard his father calling out, plaintively. Suddenly stricken with shame at the thought that he had been concerned with his and his mother’s safety and hadn’t even thought of his other, sick, parent, he got to his feet and pushed past his mother and out of the kitchen.
The front door, directly opposite the kitchen door, was open, and someone stood there, a bulky silhouette in the shadows. Then the figure stepped forward, and in the flickering light of the lamp in the kitchen Thangzom saw that it was a girl.
She wasn’t just any girl. Her short, sturdy form was clad in a green uniform, her hair tied back with a red cloth headband, and she held a rifle in her hands, the butt against her shoulder and the barrel pointing directly at the centre of Thangzom’s chest. “Stop right there,” she said, her voice nasal with the accent of the southern border. “Or I’ll shoot.”
“Wait!” Thangzom raised his arms, holding his mother back. “Who are you?”
“You’ll find out,” the girl snapped. “Now, who’s in this house?”
“Just my mother,” Thangzom said, nodding over his shoulder at the older woman, “and my father. He’s lying in this room here.”
Still holding the heavy rifle pointed unerringly at Thangzom, the girl pushed open the bedroom door with her shoulder and glanced inside. For a long moment she stared, and then she turned back to Thangzom.
“That man is very sick,” she said.
“Yes,” Mongneilhing said over Thangzom’s shoulder. “He’s been ill for several days now. The healer’s given him an infusion.” Thangzom heard the desperation in her voice, and remembered the tales that had gone around the village, that the Reds killed anyone who was too old or sick to work. “He’ll get better soon,” she said, trying to squeeze past him. “He just needs rest and the infusion, and he’ll be fine in a day or two.”
“From the looks of him, all he’ll be good for in a day or two is cremation.” The girl stared at Thangzom and Mongneilhing out of unreadable black eyes. “You two wait here with him,” she said, as if coming to a decision. “Do not leave the house. Do you understand? I’ll be right back.”
“What’s going on?” Chelmang asked fretfully, when they went to him. “What is all that noise?”
“Hush,” his wife said, wiping his brow with a wet cloth and pushing him back down on the cot. “It’s all right. Try and relax.”
“There’s something going on,” Chelmang said, with something of his old fire, and then dissolved into a coughing fit. “Is it the landlord’s men come already?” he asked when he could speak again. “Is that what it is?”
“No, no.” Thangzom and Mongneilhing exchanged acutely uncomfortable glances. “It’s not the landlord. It’s the Red Banner. They’re in the village.”
“The Banner!” If Chelmang could have got up, he would have. “The traitors – they’re worse than the landlord. Where are they?”
“Here,” a voice said from the doorway. “The traitors are right here.”
Thangzom had heard the voice before, and recognised the mocking tone. So he wasn’t surprised when he turned to find before him the young man he’d last seen outside the monastery three days earlier. The other recognised him too, and raised a sardonic eyebrow.
“Well, well,” he said. “Look who’s here. So you got the lamas to give you what you wanted, did you?” He paused, keenly watching Thangzom. “No, of course you didn’t. I’d told you, but you wouldn’t listen.”
“You know him, Comrade Minthang?” The girl, at his side, looked from one to the other, her brow furrowed in confusion. She had slung her rifle over her shoulder and suddenly looked much less menacing. She would have been almost comical in her uniform, like a child playing at soldiers, but for the hard black shine in her eyes.
“We’ve met.” The young man called Minthang turned away from Thangzom and bent over the sick man on the cot. “Lie down, please, Uncle,” he said. “Let me have a look at you.”
“He’ll be all right,” Mongneilhing said desperately, pulling at his sleeve. “Please, I promise you, he’ll be fine.”
“I see you’ve been listening to the propaganda,” Minthang said, rummaging in his rucksack and coming up with a thermometer. “I assure you, they’re all lies. We don’t kill sick people.”
“But-“ Mongneilhing pulled at his sleeve again. “Please, just leave him alone.”
“Choiness,” Minthang snapped, “please take Elder Aunt here to another room and keep her there while I examine Uncle.”
“Mother,” Thangzom said, “please go out and wait. I’ll be here.” He watched the girl whom Minthang had called Choiness shepherd Mongneilhing, still protesting, to the kitchen. Minthang, ignoring him, was peering at the thermometer, shaking his head.
“Uncle,” he said, “you’re burning up. A couple of days more at the most and...” He let his voice trail off and slipped the instrument back into its case. “I do have medicines for it though.”
“Your Red poison, you mean.” Chelmang tried to spit, but only managed to dribble on his sheet. “I don’t want any of it. Keep it for those who want to die.”
“And wait for your herbs to cure you, I suppose, the way they’ve been curing you so far?” Minthang snorted and fetched out a syringe, which he filled from an ampoule. “You,” he said to Thangzom over his shoulder. “Whatever your name is. Hold him steady so I can inject him.”
“What is that you’re giving him?” Thangzom held the feebly cursing Chelmang so he couldn’t swat the syringe away, and watched the needle slide into the skin. “Is it some kind of foreign medicine?”
“It’s an antibiotic. You wouldn’t understand.” Withdrawing the needle, Minthang rubbed at Chelmang’s arm. “I’ll be back in the morning to give him another shot.” At last he glanced at Thangzom. “You don’t seem to be as frightened of us as your parents and most of the villagers,” he observed. “How come?”
Thangzom shrugged. “I don’t know what to think any longer,” he said. “I’ve been hearing that the Red Banner units are evil rebels, and I’ve always been taught that I exist only to serve the lamas. But it seems to me now that the lamas can be as greedy as anyone else.”
“It took you so long to catch on, did it?” Minthang looked down at Chelmang. “Rest well, Uncle,” he said. “I’ll be back soon.” He smiled as he heard the older man’s curse, as though it was a benediction.
“Well then,” he said, turning back to stare at Thangzom. “Come.”
“Where are we going?” Minthang was striding along so quickly that Thangzom had to trot to keep up. The girl, Choiness, had remained behind with Mongneilhing, who had not yet got over her astonishment at finding her husband still alive.
“There, to the granary.” Minthang pointed to where the blocky building stood. A small crowd had gathered, amongst whom Thangzom recognised their neighbour and fellow sharecropper, Linboi. A couple of Red soldiers stood at the door, which sagged on broken hinges, and passed out sacks of grain one by one. “We’re sharing out the lamas’ loot to the people,” Minthang said. “You’re entitled to a sack, so get hold of one and let’s get it back to your home.”
The sacks of barley were lumpy and very heavy, and it was obviously hard work for the two Red Banner men to move them out of the building, where the people took them one by one. Nobody refused, not even Linboi. When his turn came, he looked at Thangzom apologetically out of the corner of his eye.
“Look how much the buggers had accumulated,” he muttered, “while we were starving to death. It’s a shame.”
While Thangzom waited, he looked around him at the village. Red soldiers passed quickly by, in ones and twos, and some of them were gathered around a small number of other men standing dejectedly in a group in front of the chief’s house. Thangzom recognised the brown uniforms, which he’d seen in the town. They were soldiers of the Great Lama.
“What will you do with them?” he asked, pointing.
Minthang shrugged. “It’s the commander’s decision. We can’t take along prisoners, so we’ll probably be letting them go. Why, did you think we’d massacre them?”
It was Thangzom’s turn to shrug. “I don’t know what to think. Everything I was taught to believe seems to have turned upside down these last few days.”
Minthang shot him an oddly sympathetic look. “In your place I’d probably feel the same. Look, here’s your sack. Do you need help carrying it?”
“No,” Thangzom said, pride rising up against his feeling of being helplessly overshadowed by this man who might have been his age but was obviously far ahead in almost all other respects. “No,” he repeated, squatting to hoist the sack on his shoulders. “I’ll be fine.”
“Suit yourself.” Minthang walked beside him all the way home, and waited until he’d deposited the sack on the kitchen floor. “What was your problem?” he asked suddenly. “The one you went to meet the lamas about?”
“Why do you want to know?” Thangzom asked suspiciously, wondering if he were in for another round of sneering. But Minthang’s face looked perfectly serious.
“We’re redistributing everything,” he said. “Land as well. The bad old days of the landlords are over.”
“What’s that?” Mongneilhing had come into the kitchen just in time to catch the last of this. “You say the landlords are gone?”
Minthang looked at her quizzically. “Yes, we’re taking the land away from them and giving it to the people who actually do all the work, the sharecroppers and tenants. All the old land deeds are cancelled. You can tear them up if you want.”
“That’s nice to know,” Mongneilhing said. “As a sharecropper, I’m very happy to know that. But are the landlords happy to know that?”
“I don’t follow you,” Minthang replied. “What do the landlords matter?”
“This,” Mongneilhing said. “Your little army won’t stay here permanently, I take it? Tomorrow, or the day after, you’ll be gone. And then, the landlords will be back, won’t they? And the lamas, too, asking why we took that...” She poked at the sack of barley with the toe of her shoe. “Asking questions, and perfectly ready to punish us if we can’t give them answers they’ll be happy with. Well? Who will protect us then?”
“You will,” Minthang said. “We’ll be recruiting volunteers to make a local defence force. We aren’t liberating you just to let you slip back into their clutches.”
“Liberating.” Mongneilhing spoke the word slowly, dragging the syllables out. “You’d call this liberation?”
“Yes, why not?”
“Young man, I know you mean well. Please don’t think I’m ungrateful or that I don’t know that you’ve probably just saved my husband’s life. But you do know that everything you’ve achieved is only because you hold a gun, don’t you? If you didn’t, who’d listen to you?”
“There’s a time for violence, Elder Aunt,” Minthang said quietly. “If we could have achieved our aims without fighting, I wouldn’t have left my home and studies and joined up. Choiness there, she’s in the same position. All of us are, really.”
“You’re young and you think you can change the world. When you get to my age, you’ll know nothing ever changes, not really.” Mongneilhing bent to prod the sack of barley with a finger, and sighed. “I wish I could tell you to take this back, but I can’t. Our need’s simply too great.”
“There you are,” Minthang told her. “That’s exactly what we’re talking about. The old ways, the veneration for the lamas, they no longer work, and they don’t work because the lamas are taking advantage of the people, looting them. They’re looting them with their own permission, because the people have been brainwashed into believing the lamas are divine and infallible.” His voice was rising excitedly, his eyes shining. “Yes, change is possible. It has to be possible. Things change all the time, everywhere. Why not here?”
“I suppose you’re right,” Mongneilhing said, with a heavy sigh. “Things change – a year ago I’d have said that this barley is stolen property, and now look at me. But the way to change you’ve chosen is painful and will take a long, long time. You know that, don’t you?”
“It may take longer than my lifetime,” the Red soldier acknowledged. “It probably will. But do you really think there’s another way?”
Mongneilhing shrugged silently, and set about boiling some of the barley. “Will you and the girl be staying over tonight?” she asked when the water was beginning to bubble.
“No, we’ve got other duties. I’ll just check on your husband and be off.” He briefly squeezed Thangzom’s shoulder. “Cheer up,” he said. “Everything’s going to be all right.”
“Is it?” Thangzom could not help asking. “Really?”
“Who knows?” Minthang responded equably. “But what else is there to believe?”
“I know you think they saved my life, and our house.” Chelmang spooned out the last of the barley and put the bowl down. “But they are rebels against the Bodhisattva and the Great Lama, and against the natural order of things. Mark my words, nothing good can come of this.”
It was two days later, and life in the village had returned to a cautious kind of normalcy. The Red soldiers could still be seen around the lanes, guns over their shoulders, but people had begun to accept their presence. Most of the unit had left already, but a few, including Minthang and Choiness, remained. Twice a day, Minthang came to inject Chelmang with the antibiotic. The older man had plainly turned the corner now, and had begun to make his feelings as plainly known.
“That man,” he said, pointing in the general direction of the door through which Minthang had just left, “is either a fool or a villain. Maybe both. And the rest are the same.”
“They haven’t killed anyone yet,” his wife said. “And they’ll be leaving soon.” She hadn’t yet told her husband that they now had enough barley stacked in the kitchen to be able to pay the rent. There was, after all, no way the landlord, if he returned, could prove it came from the granary. “I do wonder,” she mused, “why that boy is helping us. The others in the village aren’t getting anything like this treatment from them.”
“He wants something,” Chelmang said ominously. “Just you wait and see.”
They both turned simultaneously to look at Thangzom, who sat by the wall mending a broken knife handle. He had grown very quiet over the last days. Feeling their eyes on him, he looked up from the task.
“Yes,” he said quietly. “You’re right. I am going with them when they go.”
He’d dreaded making the announcement, had even considered going without a word to them. But Choiness had told him, firmly, that it was his duty.
“I didn’t tell my parents,” she’d said, her black eyes full of some emotion Thangzom could not read. “And every day since I’ve regretted it. They don’t have the faintest idea where I am, or where I’ve gone. I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again.”
He still did not understand his own motivations. Part was, he acknowledged, his growing antipathy towards the lamas and the landlord, which had been growing steadily over the past few days. A part was his growing attraction to the sturdy girl rebel, which he dared not acknowledge to himself fully, let alone to her. But the rest of it was a mystery, even to him.
“I know,” Mongneilhing replied, as quietly. “But are you sure?”
Thangzom nodded, once. “Yes,” he said simply. “I am.”
Chelmang had propped himself up on his arms and stared at his son. “Is that your final decision?” he asked at last.
“You know that your mother and I will be left all alone?”
“I know, Father. But there are sacrifices that have to be made.” Thangzom thought of the Red soldier he’d seen on the journey back, the tribesman from the northern wastes. How much greater might his sacrifice have been? “Someone has to stand up first,” he said, echoing something he’d overheard Minthang say, “if everyone is to stand up eventually.”
There was a long silence.
“Then go,” Chelmang said at last. “I won’t stop you. I believe you’re on the wrong path, but if it’s what you’ve truly chosen for yourself, then I won’t stand in your way.”
In later years, when Thangzom thought back to this time, this is what he remembered: his father, sitting up in bed, his eyes suddenly full of calm and ancient knowledge, giving him his permission and his blessing. He remembered, and, remembering, felt torn in ways he never could discuss with anyone, in all the years that followed.
In time he would grow well known to the people, in ways he had never imagined, and would take no pleasure in his fame. In time there were those who trembled at the mention of his name, and others who worshipped him like a deity. But he never forgot that moment in his father’s bedroom, and never ceased wondering what he would have done if Chelmang had not permitted him to go.
“May you be successful in whatever you do,” Chelmang said.
“Thank you, Father,” Thangzom replied. He left the next morning, as part of the Red column, Minthang and Choiness walking just behind him.
All the way up into the hills, he did not look back. They thought it was because he was resolute, but they were wrong.
It was because he did not want them to see the tears in his eyes.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012