Echoes from fieldwork

By Harmandeep Kaur Gill

It was the strangest morning. The news of one death had been followed by the news of several others. 

Cho cho (brother) Dawa is walking up to town when we run into him. “Where are you going”? Acha (sister) Jigme asks him. There is a small break before he replies, “Mola (grandmother) passed away. I am going up to the mountains to spread her ashes”. The unexpected news of her death on a sunny and bright day leaves me speechless. My mind drifts to the last time I saw her. She was resting in a high hospital bed in her room at the old age home, covered in several layers of thick blankets. Not having the strength to speak, she had given us a gentle smile. I remember even wondering how much time she had left. Yet, as I hear the news of her death, it is hard to imagine that she is gone. Where did she go? All that remains of her, Cho cho Dawa is carrying in his backpack; her ashes which she wanted to be spread somewhere high up in the hills of McLeod Ganj. 

The Death of Mola Choedon

Cho-cho carries on. A few steps further down the street, we spot Mola Tenzin, sitting on a bench at the side of the road. We walk over to her. Acha Jigme asks how she is doing. We exchange a few formalities and as we are about to leave, Mola thrusts at us, “Mola passed away (Mola trong song)”. At first, I am confused about who she is referring to. I know several Mola, but perhaps that was a denial on my part to accept the truth. Because I was not ready to let go off that Mola yet. As it dawns upon me that Mola Tenzin might be speaking of her neighbour, I ask, “which Mola?” “Mola Choedon”, she replies. In that moment, the noises around me quietened. And gone was the fresh Monday morning and the liveliness around me. “When?”, I jump ahead and ask before Acha Jigme. “On the first day of the Tibetan new year (losar)”, Mola Tenzin says. “Ama (oh mother)”, is all that comes out of me. “Nyinjey”, Acha Jigme says, a word Tibetans use to express sympathy or compassion for someone. Mola Tenzin carries on, “Her daughter took her to her place before losar. She died there”.

I remember that day. I had gone to Mola Choedon’s place to give her the cough medicine she had requested me to buy. Her door had been locked and stepping by Mola Tenzin’s place next door, I had found that Mola Choedon’s daughter had taken her to her place in a different city. “She didn’t eat anything for the last three days. Her daughter is now at the Tsuglag khang (the main Dalai Lama temple in exile). They cremated her this morning”, Mola Tenzin shares. While Mola Tenzin keeps on speaking, I am able to fathom the rapidness of it all. I had visited Mola Choedon only nine days ago. Afterwards, she had gotten terribly ill (worse than before), passed away, been cremated and vanished from the face of this earth. I am unable to keep up with Mola Tenzin and Acha Jigme’s words. A bypassing Tibetan man overhears the conversation and stops next to me. When silence finally falls over Mola Tenzin and Acha Jigme, he jumps in and shares the news of two more elderly Tibetans who passed away during the Tibetan new year. One of them was his aunt who I also knew. He shares that she died the morning she returned to McLeod Ganj with the night bus from New Delhi. We express our sympathies. I think neither of us knew how to leave the conversation and walk away. It was too much to bear. But then we walked away in separate directions, saying goodbye, forcing ourselves to carry on as usual. It was the strangest morning.

Mola Choedon’s death is hard to forget. She passed away on the first day of losar (Tibetan new year), on February 16, 2018, in the evening. Mola Tenzin said that it is good to die in the evening. The last time I had visited Mola Choedon, I had taken along another kilo of apples for her. That was Wednesday, February 7th. One of her daughters, who I had never met before, had been present. She had left her seasonal sweater business earlier than usual and hurried back to McLeod Ganj to take care of her sick mother. Mola Choedon had requested her daughter to put the apples in the kitchen, “I will offer them at the chod khang (Tibetan-Buddhist shrine) on losar”, she had said. So much from that day’s visit and others flashes before my eyes. Her voice and words echo in my ears. As I sit in my room and write these words, I ask myself, isn’t she only about two kilometres away, resting in that dark, small apartment? I can just walk over to her, can’t I? Open the door and find her lying on the bed? Or sitting outside her room on a sunny day? Did she know that death was coming for her so soon? That she would not get a chance to offer the apples at the chod khang and afterwards eat them one by one?

I Hoped the Days of Sunshine Would Return

I think back to the first time I met Mola Choedon. It had been early November 2016. It was the day I had come to her area of residence to make a wooden shelf for my room. While the wood maker had constructed the shelf, I had walked down the street to look around and to pass time. That is when I had noticed her, seated on a plastic chair outside the house of a local Indian woman. Mola was not much bigger then either. She came across as extremely sad. That is how I always recall her: sad. The only smile I had seen on her face was in a photo taken at her granddaughter’s wedding. I had stopped over to talk with her. What I still recall clearly is asking if she had any family or children. She had told me about her daughter who lived close by, but did not care to look after her. At the time, she had not mentioned her other two daughters (one in USA and the other who was gone for the seasonal sweater business at the time and who I had later met) and the son (in USA). The local Indian woman had been feeding her since Mola had no money due to demonetisation in India from November 2016. I had felt so bad for her as she sat there outside the Indian woman’s worn-down house in close proximity to cattle dung and their equally dirty bodies. Not knowing what I could do to help her, I had chosen to leave her with a two-thousand rupees note that had come into circulation just around the demonetisation period. That had made it easier to walk away.

I had hoped that the days of sunshine would return. The days she would not have an aching pain in her stomach and would tell me that she felt better. I had looked forward to keep visiting her and take along another kilo of apples and other kinds of goods. I had looked forward to laugh with her and to hear about her life in exile, India and in Tibet. The last time I saw her, the last glimpse I have of Mola Choedon, is of her resting beneath a white blanket in a dry and warm bed. I thought she looked comfortable. After the long fight between her and her daughter an hour earlier, silence had finally descended upon the room. I had walked over to the bed and taken her hands in mine, “I am going Mola. Do you need anything from McLeod Ganj? I will bring next time”. “I need more cough medicine”, she had replied. “I will bring, lo (okay)”, I had reassured her. Mola had thanked me and left me with these last words, “I will pray for you”.

And I had left, without the slightest idea that we would never meet again. All that remains of her is an echo.

Leave a Reply