Phuntsholing, Bhutan. 15 January 2020
In Africa there is a saying, that “it takes a village to raise a child”. Among traditional communities in Bhutan, it is more or less the same.
As a child growing up in the 1970s, the villagers of Drung Gonpa, who are my relatives, helped raise me and my siblings. Our aunts carried us on their backs as they went about with their daily chores. Our uncles taught us how to collect firewoods – and tend to the animals. Our grand aunt, especially abi Dawa, used to call our names whenever there was something special to eat, like a piece of meat or few walnuts. Our grandpa taught me how to say the boddhicita prayers, which became my life’s purpose. Our cousins sneaked us handful of zaw (fried rice snack) because they knew we would be always hungry.
Drung Gonpa in Radhi, the place I was born, is a small community of some 20 households – all related to each other. I have vivid memories of playing in the creek, of walking barefoot, or accompanying my grandpa on rimdro trips to Radhi and Phongmey. I also remember sitting on the edge of the fields as my mother harvested the wheat or maize for others. My family was extremely poor. At times we had to take food loan – known as kuendru from the wealthier relatives. But we kept going and we survived. In many ways, I am not ashamed to say, that these people kept us alive.
I left my native village at 5 – with my father who had a job in Phuntsholing. And I rarely went back – preferring to spend the school holidays in Tashigang Pam – my father’s village. I did make few short visits though, and the last one was in 1983.
Fast forward by 30 years, between 2013 and 2014, during my short stint in Sherubtse as a professor, I visited the village several times and was overwhelmed that the genuine and unconditional affection had not eroded with time or age. For them I was still that nice little poor kid. They still brought rice, eggs, butter, cheese, etc. – and this time as gifts and still called me by my pet name, kota (meaning younger brother) – because of my elder sister. More than that they poured out their heart, and their love to me. They cried when they saw me after 30 years, saying how I resembled so much with my grandfather and my mother. They held my hands and hugged me and spoke to me like I was a child – like someone who came back from the death.
Ever since I made it there more often. Last year I visited the village with my sister to appease our very-demanding tsan (mountain deity) and we were received with the same warmth and affection. Our visit became a local holiday. The village stopped working and hovered in the house we were staying – eating and drinking and singing the songs our late mother used to sing to them. She was a fun, I was told, and they missed her every day of their lives. They asked me to initiate the reconstruction of our house and offered free labour. This gesture made me really ponder on what I could do to match that – and also pay my gratitude for everything. So I proposed to send them all on a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya (dorjedhen) in India – where Buddha attained enlightenment – a must-visit for all Buddhists. My siblings and I would do that for the support and love they showered on us. We would do that in the memory of our late mother, who had the biggest influence in our lives.
So, here we are. 48 of them showed up. Basically the whole village. Many have locked their houses and dropped the cows and chicken with people in another village – for, this was the trip of their lifetime. Most of them are travelling for the first time out of the village. They have have never been beyond Tashigang. When I saw them off in Phuntsholing, there was nothing but tears of joy and gratitude and excitements. They said they felt as if they have already reached the Dorjedhen (Bodhgaya). They promised that they would pray for me and my family too – for my sisters, my brother – and that they will wish to be reborn as my relatives in our next lives. This is the best compliment I ever received.
They paid homage to my late mother and to my father, who was present, for raising such wonderful kids.
I think it took a village to raise these kids.