Journal of the Grassland

Written by Yangtso Kyi
Translated by L. Hartley
Published in Manoa 12, no.2 in 2000; originally published in Beacons (ATA Journal of Literary Translation) 4 in 1998.


Written in Serzang Tang in X, on the x day of x 198x

“Now if you wanna talk about the old days . . . Our yak-hair tent back then was cured with smoke! We had a huge iron pot–soot-black we used it so much! Hmmph. And who was that, you ask? That was my family . . . Wa Tar’s family in Logor. I’m the son of an outstanding man! The hide of an excellent yak! Who else but me, Norbum, was raised reining in wild horses, leading wild yaks by the nose, seizing the chests of charging tigers, and grabbing the horns of rampaging yaks?! Hmmph. And why do I mention this? . . .” By this time, Akhu Norbum’s eyes were bloodshot, and his strength having waned, he could no longer hold himself steady. A long strand of drool wound its way to the ashes below.

“Ano! . . .” called Norbum’s younger brother, Tsewang, who was seated across from him and was now quite concerned. He tried to quiet Norbum. “Ano, now you’re drunk!”

Akhu Norbum simply ranted all the louder. “I’m not drunk! Ever since the world began, people have had to pay for brides and the mother’s milk that nourished them. Especially these days–now that Party policy has improved . . . Besides, this daughter of mine is our firstborn, the first pup of the litter. We need something to tell our relatives, no? Something to show up our enemies, right?”

Akhu Tsewang looked uncomfortable. He repeated, “Ano, you’re drunk.”

But the guests who had been asked by their relatives to arrange this marriage hastened nervously to defer. “Of course! You’re absolutely right.” Showering Akhu Norbum with such remarks, they adorned with ornamental laurels the worthy points he’d just made. [End Page 19]

It was nearly midday. Ama Dzomkyi was seated in the doorway of the tent she shared with Akhu Tsewang, sunning herself, as she did every day. One end of the wide sash at her waist was draped over her head to shield her from the sun’s bright rays. Under her chuba of navy-blue wool, she wore a tattered, white silk shirt. Where its collar button was left unfastened, one could see the string of her amulet pouch and a soiled, red silk cord blessed for her protection. Ruddied by sun and oil, her face was flushed and happy. While her fingers kneaded the time-worn prayer beads, Ama Dzomkyi peered out lazily towards the grassland. Her glance fell upon the young woman who was spreading out wet dung to dry in Akhu Norbum’s yard. It was her niece, Drolkar. Ama Dzomkyi continued to recite under her breath, concluding, “I dedicate any merit accumulated now and always to the Buddhahood of sentient beings who have all once been my mother.”

With these words, she turned around slowly toward her husband, Tsewang, who was busy arranging the cloth that covered the thangka painting of Sakyamuni Buddha. “Why give that girl to a family who lives so far away? It will be difficult for us to visit each other even once.”

“Who? Oh. Drolkar?”

“It’s not like there aren’t other families. What about giving her to Uncle Sonam Tsering’s family? Our nephew is practically a young thoroughbred. He’s from a good family. And in terms of property, while they might look flashy on the outside, down deep they’re as rich as dark earth. Or you could give her to Yangbum Jyal’s family. They’re respectable–and rich too! That’s for sure. Why give her to some farmer?” She sat with her head turned away in disapproval, but Akhu Tsewang’s attention was wholly fixed on covering the thangka and he didn’t respond.

Ama Dzomkyi drew the wrinkles of her brow into a single furrow and placed around her neck the prayer beads she’d been holding. “Nama! How about making some tea? We’ve missed teatime again.” She stretched her legs out, then folded them back to the other side and continued, “It’s too cheap, sending her to some old farmer. If you’re going to buy, then buy right. If you’re going to sell, then sell right.”

Akhu Tsewang stopped what he was doing and glanced down at her. “Hold your tongue! You’re a woman. What would you know about it?”

Ama Dzomkyi snorted in disgust. “Ho ho, ya! Oh, my! If it wasn’t me, then who let golden light into your starving valley? Who allowed greasy pools of fat to form on your deprived family’s meals? We know perfectly well how your family used to live! I took care of everything for our eight children and managed to find three daughters-in-law. Was all this the fault of my ignorance and the virtue of your knowledge?”

“You?! . . . My background, this business about Drolkar . . . What’s it to you? Why not chant some mani instead, and that will be your virtue!” [End Page 20]

Ama Dzomkyi yanked the sash from her head, infuriated. “I am the very blood of your flesh, the stuff of which your bones are made! Do you think I want to bring your family down?! Don’t I have any right to discuss Drolkar’s business? Pfft! That old farmer is a donkey racing against horses, a goat trying to outdo sheep. Is he not?”

“What difference is there between farmers and nomads except a few fields and yaks? If you’ll recall . . . our families were also farmers once. It’s just that they left Rebgong Gartse. Now be quiet. Hush.”

“Ya! And if I don’t, so what?! I’ve a mouth on me. Fruit hangs on a tree! Don’t I even have the right to speak these days?!”

“Aarrgh, women!” As Akhu Tsewang’s anger flared, his tone grew harsher. “Have you gone mad?!”

“Your face just looks stonier the older you get! If you can’t agree to my having a happy life here with our son and daughter-in-law, you’ll be the one to suffer. Even if the sky ripped open with your anger and the dragon up there fell to earth and died . . . I would speak! I’d be happy even.”

Akhu Tsewang was incensed. With a rage from somewhere deep inside, he grabbed the poker off the hearth and rushed towards Ama Dzomkyi.

Ya, ya. That’s it. I’ll end my writing here for now. Anything further surely wouldn’t bode well for this old couple.

And whose tent have we here? Oh. It belongs to Akhu Norbum’s older sister. So sad. I first heard a bit about this woman’s story some time ago, but it’s too long to tell here now. Anyway, her karma isn’t good. She was married four times and had three young boys, like tiger cubs. But it was all as if a magician had performed some sleight of hand. She alone remains after so many have died, abandoned like the adobe stove of a deserted nomad camp. It’s truly difficult to take one’s life when, even after several attempts, the Lord Death won’t come.

Again today, when Ama Huamo had performed all the chores a nomad woman must, she looked up at the ray of sun streaming in through the opening in her tent and said to herself, “Oh, it’s time for the midday meal.” She fanned the fire in her stove, coughing as she blew.

One can tell by the dusty look of her dress, by the dried dung and milk stains on her padded clothes, that this is what she always wears. It’s as if her dingy hair, bared shoulder, and many rows of wrinkles are meant to serve as fearsome warnings to folks that such is the twisted path of time. Just look. Who knows how many cups and such have been washed with those grime-eaten ends of her sash? [End Page 21]

“Ayi! This meat is for you from Uncle Ano’s family!” Akhu Tsewang’s young son arrived with a share of freshly cut meat for his aunt.

“Oh, honey, you didn’t need to bring that. I don’t eat nyinsha [meat of an animal killed the same day]. Besides, today I’m on a fast.” After a long sigh, she added, “I’m preparing the midday meal right now.”

But what can a young boy know of an old woman’s sigh? He placed the cuts of meat inside the tent and skipped off. Ama Huamo called out after him, “Lhakho! Tell Ache Drolkar that I need some help softening a sheepskin!”

A moment passed. Suddenly a sob rose and caught in her throat. Perhaps it was Drolkar’s situation that came to mind. “Now my niece will have to go. How can that beast even think about giving his daughter away to some farmer? It’s like they say: old people are powerless. Am I invisible to him? As if I haven’t had experience with in-laws! Marrying her off without any choice! She may be a devoted daughter, but it will certainly crush her. It’s never easy holding one’s own under a mother-in-law’s thumb. Had she agreed to it herself–farmers or not–it wouldn’t matter where she went; she could stand any amount of her mother-in-law’s ill will. Honestly! Are those two folks half-crazy? If they weren’t planning to find a mogwa [a husband who lives in the home of his in-laws] for their only daughter, why did they send their two sons off to be monks? Oh my goodness! Now look, ignorant old woman that I am–reaping the bad karma of unmindful speech. It’s a blessing from Kunchog Sum that I have so many nephews who are monks, right? But once they’ve given their daughter away, my sister-in-law will have to suffer what I did. And now they don’t have any sons to get a daughter-in-law. Uh, oh. The tea has boiled over.” She hastily removed the kettle from the stove, burning her hands as she set it on the ground.

Akhu Norbum’s old dog is barking and rattling his chain. A visitor must have arrived. But I am drawn to look back at Ama Huamo. “Pity,” I think. “Not until the day she dies will this old woman’s lonely conversations cease.”

Oh. The visitor is Akhu Norbum’s younger brother, who was offered to a couple many years ago to be raised as their foster son in Dragmar Village. Really, it’s just like the old saying: “Mistaking animals provokes a fight, but mistaking people–laughter.” Just look. Akhu Norbum and his younger brother resemble each other in every feature: the strong but slightly stooped frame, the aquiline nose, broad forehead, jaunty chin, and long thick beard–even the way their lips twist to the right when they laugh. Nevertheless, one can be sure who’s older and who’s younger by the amount of white hair they have, the depth of their wrinkles, and their temperaments. [End Page 22]

Looking exhausted, the younger brother took off his felt hat and laid it on the ground. He wiped his face several times and huffed. “Ah, la la la! It’s so far! I rode that blessed horse nonstop.”

Akhu Norbum inhaled from his pipe and asked, “How was your family’s party? We couldn’t go. The two of us were just leaving for Lhasa at the time . . . How old is your daughter-in-law anyway?”

“The party wasn’t bad. She’s sixteen.”

“Good, good. It’s good if there’s someone who can take on the busy work.”

Akhu Norbum’s wife sat in the doorway stirring the chura that she’d laid out to dry. “It’s hard to find such a daughter-in-law these days. Druglha Jyal gave that girl’s family fifteen hundred yuan, a horse, seventy bottles of chang, and forty sets of clothes just to get her as a daughter-in-law. And then later, he still had to take more clothes, turquoise, coral, and whatnot for the girl herself. I heard that her father was saying that if the wager for the hand of Drugmo [heroine of the Gesar epic] was a horse race, then wealth could certainly win his daughter. He said that unless he got enough turquoise and coral to measure by the kilo and a beaver skin at least two handspans wide, then it would be meaningless to say he’d acquired any real wealth, and one might as well say, ‘Drugmo was a nobody.’ A family like ours–really!–we could never match that, even if we emptied our grazing yard out front. The Druglha Jyal family has relatives everywhere, enough wealth to fill the sky. Pride like that can’t lose.” She tossed a piece of dried cheese in her mouth and chewed on it while she shuffled inside and took her seat next to Akhu Norbum. “Now let’s have tea. Never mind breakfast. I haven’t had time to set this bum down since dawn.”

Truly. Clearing dung from the yard, spinning and weaving–for women of the grassland, such endless work is fusing their flesh to their skin and distilling their bones. Yet, far from being bored, they feel these chores should be done in high spirits. See for yourself. Akhu Norbum’s wife, Ama Drolma, is now sixty, but still she . . . Oh, it’s too sad to talk about just now.

“Uncle, have some tea.”

“Ya, such a sweet girl.” Akhu Norbum’s younger brother took the cup and set it on the ground. He glanced again at Drolkar and addressed his brother, “I came here today because of this business with your daughter. Ano, what kind of man are you?! We came from the same womb. Couldn’t you have at least discussed it with me?”

Ama Drolma, who had never approved of the marriage, aired her frustration. “You’re absolutely right! I can’t even talk to him about this business! . . .”

The younger brother continued, “Our family is well known. We’ve always been highly regarded. If you don’t uphold our honorable name and [End Page 23] our father’s estate, who will? Even if you can’t decorate our good father’s bones with gold, don’t scatter his white hair to the bitter winds! I trust that a meat-eating hawk like our father didn’t sire a shit-eating crow. You haven’t consulted our uncles or said a word to our guardian aunts. Think about it! This is bound to start some serious quarrels.”

“Whether I ask them or not, whether they agree to it or not, I have to give her to that family.” Akhu Norbum puffed on his pipe as he made this pronouncement. “In the first place, the boy’s father and I are sworn brothers. In the second place, we went to Lhasa together. And third, I have a lama’s prophecy.”

“A prophecy? Which lama’s prophecy?”

Akhu Norbum took a large sip of tea and then tapped his horn-bone pipe against the bottom of his shoe. Once he’d cleared the ashes, he coughed and said, “It’s not your fault you don’t understand. This business started forty years ago. Drolkar, could you please get some chang for your father?”

I make this offering to the lamas, the yidam, and Kunchog Sum.
I make this offering to the noble dakini protectors.
I make this offering to the eight families of god,
the nagas, and the six spirit families.
For a few moments, Akhu Norbum’s tent was filled with the aroma of chang and the murmur of his chanting. “Of course, only an old couple like us knows about this stuff. Again, it’s like that old saying: ‘No one has faith when the lama’s present, but when your faith is there, the lama isn’t.’ He was so compassionate–my lama–but now he’s already passed away.” He gulped down some chang and stared at his younger brother. “Ya, I forget. How old were you when they sent you to live there?”

His brother replied, “I must have been about eight.”

“Ya, that’s right. That’s right. It was four years after you left. Our father –bless him–he took me to Lhasa, on foot. Gompo Kyab, who’s county governor now, and Kalbha–do you know him, director of the cultural bureau? We all travelled to Lhasa together. It took us a full year–there and back. Can you imagine? We certainly were something in the old days, huh?” A proud smile came over his face. He swallowed some more chang and continued, “I was eighteen at the time. So proud of myself–my long hair all braided and wrapped around my head. Of course, we did have to carry a sack and beg for food. Heh, heh. Kalzang’s father–you probably don’t know him . . . Om mani padme hum. That was when he and five other old people drowned–swept away looking for a place to cross the Drichu. Of course, with such a pure goal they must be in a higher realm now. Several of the people we met on the way we already knew. One of these was this friend to whom I’m bound by oath. I don’t know why, but we felt really close to each other. On the way back, we met a famous lama from Kham [End Page 24] and told him about our friendship. The lama said, ‘You two are connected by good karma. It is really rare to have a son in the male tiger year and a daughter in the female dragon year, but . . . ha, ha, ha.’ The way he laughed is still clear in my mind. Based on what the lama said, we made a pledge then, but never entirely believed that anything like this would actually happen. We met again, because of our karma, shortly after the Cultural Revolution. Only then did we discover that everything the lama had predicted had come true–his son, my daughter, even their birth years and signs. But the lama was killed many years ago in a struggle during the Cultural Revolution. I’ve never met a Buddhist like him. He knew exactly what would happen.” Whether Akhu Norbum lost himself in reminiscences about his pilgrimage or had come to the end of his story–I don’t know. But it goes without saying that he sat sipping his chang for some time.

As she wiped the tears from her eyes, Ama Drolma turned to her brother-in-law and asked, “Now what to do? Never mind how different farming is compared to a nomad’s life–we won’t be able to see her even when we’re on our deathbed.”

“I won’t give her away. No, I just won’t do it. This niece means as much to me as the moustache on my face or the hair on my body. Don’t I have any rights in this?”

Kunchog Sum! This younger brother is emphatic too! Perhaps alcohol, which fortifies tongues and emboldens hearts, caused a quarrel to explode between these two brothers–like the sparks that fly when metal strikes metal. But, after all, what significance do farts have if everyone’s asleep? What meaning is there in chang-laced speech?

While they were milking together, Ama Drolma took the opportunity to say, “Drolkar, I heard that Akhu Hualo’s family has just returned and set up camp again this year on the back slope of the mountain. I’m sure their son Wema Dorje will visit you tonight, but it would be good if you kept this marriage matter to yourself for a while. Otherwise . . .”

Even as her mother spoke, tears began to fall like a string of pearls from Drolkar’s eyes, onto her turquoise and coral necklace–only to sink into her heart again. The sight pierced Ama Drolma’s own heart with a thorn of anguish, since she herself had endured much and had few happy tales to tell. Wiping tears from her own eyes with the backs of her milk-caked hands, she continued, “It’s like they say: ‘A woman–tressed and to be wed–should leave her father behind, however good his name, for her husband ahead, however poor his name.’ What is there to do but go?”

Ama Drolma spoke more or less decisively, but when she saw the broken hope in Drolkar’s eyes and the tears she shed and heard the sound of [End Page 25] her daughter’s listless milking, the mother’s heart was suddenly gripped with fear. She thought of the saying “The fox smoked out of its lair escapes only to sacrifice its life.” Might her daughter look for a way to take her own life if her mental suffering grew too painful? Ama Drolma quickly added in a softer voice, “Honey, don’t cry. Look, it’s not your father’s fault. And even though all of this is the fate given to you by Kunchog Sum, we still have to discuss it with the elders. It’s possible that you won’t even be given away.”

Drolkar. Where did Drolkar go? Oh, she’s finished milking the drimo, Blaze. Now she’s milking Chestnut. Though from her size the tulma looked young, her horns had grown sharp and held a certain strength, a boundless, untamed spirit. Her body, strong and fleshy, evoked autumn’s abundance. From time to time, the tulma would toss her horns with displeasure, switch her tail sadly, or even give some warning kicks. Nevertheless, Drolkar had laid her head upon the tulma’s haunch, crying softly with frustration–perhaps she was listening to her mother. She wanted to tell this tulma with silent, gentle words all the stories she had strung on the ribbon of her mind –stories of women who had come from other plains, stories of the countless brides who had left this grassland home. But–bang! The tulma unleashed a frustrated kick straight at the small milk bucket. She turned towards her calf and lowed, then ran off, leaving milky hoofprints. As Drolkar watched the retreating tulma, she was overwhelmed with intense anger. Gradually, the sense rose in her that this anger had several causes. At the same time, she felt admiration for the tulma’s youthful courage to resist. But with a deep sigh and eyes that had turned again into pools of sorrow, she stared at the milk for a long time–watching it seep into the grass. Then she slowly wiped up some milk with her hand and smeared it respectfully across her forehead.

Usually, Ama Drolma would let out an endless string of curses if even a cup of milk were lost. But today she needed to be absolutely patient.

Akhu Norbum’s yard was gradually suspended in particles of darkness. Mother and daughter remained, breathing in the air, each sitting with her own recollections and tears. There was nothing left to say. And yet still there sounded in the dark the endless milking of the grassland–sshh, sshh, sshh, sshh . . .