Your Birth Day

by Dondrub Gyal. The original Tibetan-language work was printed in all three editions of Light Rain (Sbrang char) in 1983, 1994, and 1997. This translation originally appeared in Song of the Snow Lion: New Writing from Tibet,¬†a special issue of the University of Hawaii’s journal¬†Manoa, volume 12 number 2, in late 2000. The issue was edited by Tsering Shakya, Herbert Batt, and Frank Stewart.


I know you, I know everything about you because I am always with you. You are an ordinary man, you have five senses like other men. But you are very clever, knowledgeable, honest, patient, and brave–in those ways you are much better than other men.

However, you are an unlucky man. When you came into this world, there were no special signs, such as earthquakes or rainbows. I am sure that you came into this world with a loud cry. Your father was overjoyed when he learned you were a boy. He went on the roof with a conch shell and, as is our tradition, blew it three times in order to announce that you had been born on this earth. Moreover, having been blessed with a son, he pressed his hands together in front of his chest and prayed that all your wishes would be fulfilled.

As soon as you were born, your mother, although in the grip of unimaginable pain, raised her head to see if you were a boy or girl and had all five senses. However, only your parents heard your cry, only a few neighbors heard your father blowing the conch shell. When your father prayed for you, nobody knew; even the local gods and protectors didn’t hear. Only your mother knows how painful it was for her.

You are an unlucky child. When you were born, both your father and mother were beside you, but your father disappeared two hours later. Since then, you have been an orphan.

Your parents’ life story is a long one, sometimes sad and sometimes humorous. If you want to know their story, please ask your mother. She will tell you about her life with your father.

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However, I have to tell you something that is not clear in your mind and that you could never remember–your birthday.

You are really an unlucky child. You are one of the children born during the Cultural Revolution. You were born in 1968 and don’t know your birthday. Even your mother doesn’t know it. You were raised during the movement to destroy the Four Olds–old thoughts, old customs, old culture, and old habits–and among people shouting, “Revolution is no crime. It is reasonable to rebel.” Your father’s crime was that he believed it is indeed reasonable.

Two hours after you were born, five or six Red Guards came to your home holding sticks in their hands. One of them was your father’s best friend, Samten. All your father’s crimes can be traced to your birth. His crime was blowing the conch shell three times to announce you were born on this earth–that was your father’s crime.

The Red Guards tied your father’s hands behind his back and led him away by a string around his neck. At that moment, your father called out, “My son, my sweetheart!” and turned back to look at you with tears falling to the ground. It is impossible for you to know how your father felt at that time. Even I cannot describe it with pen and paper. Since then, your father has not returned home.

I don’t need to tell you about your mother’s feelings, the situation of you and her at that time, because your mother knows this and she will tell you. You don’t know your father’s story after he left you; even your mother doesn’t know. So I have to tell you the story of what happened to your father after he left you. Please listen to me.

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Your father is a brave man, a really brave man. He was twenty-nine years old at the time the Red Guards led him by a string around his neck into the heavy rain and the strong wind. There was a clap of loud thunder. For your birth, this could not have been a good sign. It was a sign that you would be an orphan.

Your ancestors had something they could rely on for protection: the Triple Gem. That is why your village has something precious, something to which everything is offered generation after generation. It is the monastery located above your village.

The Red Guards took your father, beating him all the way to the monastery. The gate of the monastery has a picture of Mao Tse-tung. Not long before, DGA DHE ZIL NEON LING (the place of subduing enemies) was written above the gate. Now, there is written MIMANG CHIKHANG (the common house of the people).

A few years ago, monks recited prayers in soft voices: “I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha. I take refuge in the Triple Gem.” Now, people shout, “Defeat the Triple Gem! Long live Chairman Mao!”

Not long ago, many young people in your village gathered together and burned incense. With the smoke spreading across the sky, they shouted, “Lhagyallo, protector Amny Nyanchen, . . . Kiki soso Lhagyallo!” Now, the cry “Religion, gods, and protectors are superstitions; annihilate the Four Olds” fills the air.

That day was not just your birthday. It was also the day of the meeting to refute counterrevolution. Communist Party secretary Zheng and other staff were on the stage, proud of their meeting. All the people of your village were heroes and heroines because of the counterrevolutionaries, which included your father. All the people were enraged. How did they get this angry? I should ask a god, if there is a reliable one. But it was a time for not believing in each other or anything.

Opening the meeting to refute counterrevolution, Party secretary Zheng announced the crimes of the counterrevolutionaries:

Damchoe, for drinking human blood and eating human flesh.
Lhagyal, for believing in religion, gods, and protectors.
Sonam, for being connected with the Dalai Lama clique.
Geden, for deceiving people to get goods from them.

These were the counterrevolutionaries. Each man was wearing a tall hat made from paper, and a square plank hung on his chest from the neck. On the plank were each man’s crime and a red cross. One of the men was your father. I am going to tell you what your father’s name is. Your father’s name is Lhagyal. Lhagyal believed in religion, gods, and protectors. He is your father. All this happened on your birthday. That is why you are an unlucky child.

Not only that happened. The people of your village beat the counterrevolutionaries, beat them to make them confess their crimes. Actually, the people who beat the counterrevolutionaries didn’t know what the crime of counterrevolution is–they didn’t even know why they were beating the counterrevolutionaries. The people, including your father, who had been accused of counterrevolution by the Communists didn’t know what their crimes were, so what were they going to confess to? All the people getting mad had no idea what they were doing.

Your father’s best friend, Samten, became a hero. He slapped your father on the face and said, “Lhagyal, the counterrevolutionary, if you have gods, you bring them here.”

Your father clenched his teeth and raised his head.

“Raising your head to challenge the Communist Party,” said Samten and stuck his finger in your father’s eye.

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I am going to continue telling your father’s story. The Red Guards took the criminals, including your father, to Rebkong town. There were many counterrevolutionaries who had been brought there from different areas of Rebkong: Shar Kalden Gyatso, Alak Dzangkar, the chief of Gyolpo Lingtshang, and Rongwo Nangso, among others. All of them were accused of counterrevolution and were surrounded by soldiers with guns and by hundreds of Red Guards holding the red book called Selected Works of Chairman Mao and shouting, “Refute the counterrevolution! Long live Chairman Mao!”

The day of your birth was nearly over. The sun was going down behind the western mountain. The busy town of Rebkong was slowly becoming dark and quiet. The counterrevolutionaries were divided into two groups, put into two trucks, and taken somewhere–nobody knows where.

However, the tracks taking the counterrevolutionaries north of Rebkong broke into the quiet night. I am so sorry. I don’t know anything about your father after that. I don’t know whether he is alive or dead. I can tell you only that your father has not yet returned home.