In summer 2008, I had taken a brief time off from work and had gone to do a short retreat in the hidden valley of Beyul Langdra, the sacred site of Guru Rinpoche, the great saint who brought Buddhism to Bhutan.
My friend, seventy-five year old Meme Tashi from Bumthang had just finished the third session of his retreat practice. He came to my room and sat beside me, wiping the sweat off his receding hair line.The old man looked satisfied with his practice for the session, like a farmer who’d just returned from his field after an exhausting day.
“Meme, will you tell me a story?” I asked the old man, handing him a glass of orange juice.
“Hmm… a story?,” Meme said, accepting the glass. “What kind of story do you want to hear?”
“Tell me something about your life,” I said. “About something unforgettable that has happened to you.”
“I don’t remember any such moment,” the old man said, and took a sip from the glass.
I quickly rephrased the question.
“Ok, then, tell me about a sad moment in your life.”
“Hmm…a sad moment? Well, I’ve had many sad moments in my life.”
“Tell me about your saddest moment,” I prodded.
The old man rubbed his chin and thought deeply.
“Ok,” he said, his rumpled face brightened up. “I will tell you this one.”
“I was a cow herder since I was eight,” he began. “I started doing business when I was fifteen. It was the time when the dzong (fortress) in Thimphu was being renovated, the time when there was this Chief carpenter called Zorig Chichab Papey Yoezer. He was a famous man.
I used to do all kind of business at that time. I would buy cows from the East and sell them to people in Thimphu and Wangdiphodrang in the West. My peak business season used to be during the summer months. After selling the cows to my customers in Thimphu, I would travel back to the East to fetch Palang (traditional wine containers), Bangchung (bamboo containers) and butter. During those days, I could get a kilogram of butter for just one rupee. It would fetch me ten rupees in the West. Our country did not have paper money of our own during that time, so we used to use the Indian currency and coins.
I would also go to Durjeygang to buy pigs. During those days, we used to get these giant pigs from Drujeygang – monster pigs that couldn’t be lifted even by four men. And it used to cost only two hundred rupees. Nowadays, it is difficult to get a pig even for twenty thousand rupees. Also during those days, you could get a bottle of Ara (local wine) for just one rupee. I would buy Ara also and would sell them for four rupees in the western part of the country.
Then, there were these magnificent cows that I used to buy from a place called Banabali in Dagana. The best quality ones would cost three hundred rupees, and the second best were priced at two hundred rupees. I used to sell these cows for double the original price in places like Gaselo in Wangdiphodrang.
This way I made a lot of money.
One day, I took all my money with me and went to Kaliphu (Kalimpong) on a business trip with two friends – both of them are dead now. When we reached there, my friends and I bought almost everything that we could set our eyes on. We would sell them to our people during the spring Tshechu festival. Zaii!!! At that time, the best Tsangthra gho made from wool, and the Hothra Thikthra clothes that came from Tibet would cost just about thirty rupees. Those were the best clothes during our time.
So, after buying everything we could from Kaliphu, my friends and I returned home. When we reached the junction between Thimphu and Wangdiphodrang, I sent all my goods on horseback and told my friends to wait for me in Wangdiphopdrang until I returned from Thimphu. I had to stay back to collect the money which some of my customers owed me.
But the next morning, one of my friends who was supposed to go Wangdiphopdrang came back to see me. I was putting up in a small tent in the Changlimithang ground.
“Why have you come back?” I asked my friend, surprised.
“Yes I have come,” he said with a low voice and downcast eyes. I could sense that something was wrong.
“Of course, you have come, but I am asking you why you have come back?” I said.
“Yes, I have come,” he said again.
“Shudd wai Tosa… Say it directly!” I shouted at him. I was losing my patience.
“Has the horses been attacked by animals or what?” I asked.
“No,” he said, without looking at me.
“Is our friend sick or what?”
“No,” he said.
“Then what’s the problem?” I said. “You two were supposed to go to Wangdiphodrang. Why have you come back?”
“We have lost our things,” he said.
“W-what? Lost our things?”
My heart sank and I felt like a thousand arrows piercing through it.
“D-did you say that you’ve lost all our things?”
My friend nodded and said, “Yes, some thieves have stolen everything last night.”
My goodness! My friends had lost all my life savings! I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. After that moment, even the water that I drank felt like it wounded my heart. The money that I’d invested on those goods wasn’t a small amount. If it was today, it would amount to more than two hundred thousand Ngultrum. Everything was gone now!
How can I show my face to my parents? I thought. I had left home around October and was returning home only after seven months.
At that moment I decided that I would better run away from home and never show my face again. But then I thought: What will become of my horses if I run away? Who will reach them back to my house? Wait, wait, I told myself. I have something more important than the horses. I have a son at home. How can I leave him behind and run away?
Then I made up my mind to return home. Had it not been for him, my eldest son, who was just a toddler then, I would have never gone back to my village. I muscled up my courage and went home empty handed.
When I reached my village, I became weak and frail. I lost my appetite, my hands became numb and senseless, and my body felt weightless like a piece of paper. When I walked, my legs felt like it had no nerves left in it at all. The suffering was so great that I felt like committing a suicide.
I am seventy-five now. It was the worst kind of suffering that I experienced in my life. I like to think that this particular incident took care of all my future sufferings because after that incident, I never faced any other suffering that was more intolerable than that.”
Meme Tashi then picked up his glass and emptied the juice in one, long swallow.
“What happened after that?” I asked him. “Did you get your things back?”
“No way,” the old man said. “Where’d I get them from?”
“How did your parents react when they learned about your misadventure?” I asked him.
“My father was furious when I told him that I almost decided to run away from home or thought about committing a suicide. My father said, “Wai Tashi! What did you say? Commit suicide? Run away from home? Did you say that? Listen, son, this is not the end of the world. You have a life ahead of you. Feel lucky that you are still alive. Who’d have taken care of your things and money if you were killed by those robbers? You see, people can make money, but money cannot make people. Remember this, and don’t you ever speak of such things to me again.”
“My old man advised me this way,” Meme said, “He was worried for my life. But how could I not get sad? It was a lot of money. If I had a poison with me during those days, I would’ve surely taken it, because I nearly went insane. There is our Bhutanese proverb which says that the spells of black magic cannot kill a man, neither can a (menda) gun. What can really defeat a man, what can really kill him, is his grief. I found this to be very true.
When a man is striken hard with grief, there is no need of a knife or a club to kill him. His suffering alone is enough to destroy his life. Grief can easily end a person’s life, but my father was a wise man. He did not let it overpower me, and gave me hope in times of need. I am who I am today, living right up to this ripe age, all because of my father’s kindness. My father taught me to move forward in life with a smile even in the face of adversity. He taught me that suicide is no solution to grief.”
“He was a wise man, my father,” the old man said, and smiled, reminiscing the good old memories of his father.
“Thank you, Meme,” I said. “That was a wonderful story, and your father was truly a wise man.”