Friday, December 9, 2011
Grandmas Like "Em!
I’m driving my mother nuts asking her the whereabouts of her mother, my grandmother. She’s got information that I’m doing a piece on her mother and is worried I might stifle the facts. I don’t blame her. With people of my grandmother’s time, facts are like Lego pieces, they could fit in anywhere there is another Lego piece.
So she tells me, visibly trying to fit in the jigsaw puzzle. Her mother was born in Bumthang, definitely a year or two after the coronation of Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck. This she ascertains from the fact that her grandfather was part of the retinue of the first king. Her mother was born to Zangmo from Kurtoe in Tangma Chhu and Nyema Yoezer from Thungchung Khoche in Pemagatshel. He had in time settled in Bumthang in the services of the king and that’s where my grandmother, or “ayeya” as we all knew her in life, was born and became a fully bred Bumthap.
It’s a strange feeling talking to your own mother talk about her own – there are probably hundreds of other faces that have left indelible impressions in her life that I’ll never know. But for now, the subject is her mother and my ayeya – a tribute to an ordinary person who lived in extraordinary times and a tribute to all grandmothers, who form the spokes of the wheels that drive so many families to everything that is good about a family.
“And what of her occupation” I prod my mother. She says after Nyema Yoezer, as was the custom of the day, left the palace for Lhasa in Tibet to pursue Buddhist studies. That after years of study he’d come back as a ‘geshay’ – a learned Buddhist to spend the rest of his life in quiet contemplation back in his village. That he could not persuade take along his daughter with him, for she had to replace him in the palace duties. That then was her calling up to the age of forty, when times changed and she moved with her daughter from Bumthang to wherever her destiny lied.
This part of the story almost seemed mythical - I guess one’s perspective is beholden to the times one lives in. An interesting anecdote my mother recalls of her mother is the first king, in need of direction to a certain destination somewhere in Bumthang, telling her “hey little lassie, is this the right way?”
To me and my family and the many grandchildren and great-grandchildren that she bore, what mattered most was that she was the Aeiya, with her typically stabilizing and stimulating presence in our lives (which in retrospect was such an earthy balm). She lived long and strong, through good times and bad, never wavering from the core of her personality; warm, jovial, generous, practical, wise, playful and above all, endowed with a sense of humor at once witty and laden with sarcasm.
Her retorts, one liners and observations came with the arrows of probing intuition that always hit us flat, at times immediate and at others, prolonged, but they never missed what she saw and wanted to hit. She sat like a boulder amidst the often tumultuous shores a family shelters in and faces, and more often than not molding the shape, size, structure and direction of the family she seeded and nurtured, through the waters of life both calm and stormed.
She was the anchor, the boat, the lighthouse and the shore all at once. I remember her as always being there, like a mountain, as did all of us who grew up in and around her intriguing aura. With her salt peppered short hair, a heavy mani in one hand and a long oak-colored cheim in the other, mantras of the Buddha of compassion continuously flowing down her tongue, like the waterfalls of Taktsang, Guru Rinpoche’s own abode where she now abides. She never seemed to age; she appeared and remained for us the way we always saw her, pictured her and now remember her even though we have our own families to continue the saga.
Old people have this sense of character about them and Ayeya was no exception. She was loving, gentle and manipulative and at others, scheming with good purpose. Her personality and traits of character amused, angered and inspired us all with seldom a dull moment. Like all Bhutanese grandmothers, she was the nucleus around which our lives unfolded and in her manner of dying and death, she taught us all how life should be lived. That then was her final calling, and in her death, we all gathered and found our own selves in every sense.
She was 97 (give or take a year, as my mother says) when she finally breathed her last, on December 22, 2004 on a peaceful morning in the kitchen bedroom which had become her own sanctuary for the last half a dozen years or so after her legs had given out. She chose that particular avenue, as it was the busiest part of the house and she loved directing the human traffic.
This is a remembrance and a tribute to a loving and humorous granny whose money I used to steal as a teen, and whose influence and symbolism as a mother, grandmother, to the title of “aeiya-kuri” or great-grand mother is to me as much a personal story as it is the symbolic end of an era in Bhutan’s own continuously developing and evolving journey as a nation.
When she was born the year was 1907. Bhutan had just been unified as one nation and a kingdom was to arise under the kingship of Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck. The people elected him as unified Bhutan’s first hereditary king in the old capital of Punakha, ending centuries of feudal fights and dominance, giving birth to the Dragon Kingdom.
My first cousin would always egg me on to ask her about the times she grew up in and record her stories. I never got around to actually taping her and asking her questions about her own roots, the fact that she did most of the talking took away my focus. The talks were simple tease-full conversations about life, work, cousins, relatives and family gossip invariably concluding with a dharma reminder. The odd times she got around to answering my pointed questions were almost always out of context. She would blurt out the answer as if to cut me short and begin to lecture me about my stupid-ness, ignorance, long haired-ness, joblessness, and blonde “chilingpa” girlfriends.
These exchanges almost always concluded with the inevitable dharma sessions. I guess it just didn’t make any sense to her to elaborate on the details we educated lot are so thirsty for. It didn’t matter to her that our Second King’s recorded history is mostly oral and vanishing. When asked about the Second King, she would throw laid back one liners such as, “of course I was there, ‘course I saw Him, what else is there to add? Now go get me a matchbox, I got incense to light”!
So that more or less wrapped up my quest to squeeze out some information about the Second King’s time.
Talk about her work in the palace of Wangdichholing in Bumthang was rather more appealing to her - the central district where the second and third kings and the royal family spent a lot of their time. She eventually built a house there, made a home and had three daughters. The house is located below the palace in a village named after the palace. The old palace still stands; part of it became the Indigenous Hospital. The house and home she nurtured still stands today. Later she would claim without any arrogance that her house was the biggest of its day; today it’s probably the smallest! But that is true of everything old in today’s Bhutan.
What was touching about these sessions with the ‘ol gran was the way she told them. Abstract as it seemed, she somehow understood the changes her own life and the country she grew up in had undergone. There was never any spite when she spoke about things new, maybe a gentle playful subtle sarcasm to juice up our thoughts or the conversations, but none that smacked of bitterness. Her eyes would travel back in time, misty and moist with age and those nostalgic recollections, concluding the piece with a look of calmness and satisfaction. The old granny carried no regrets. She was of a generation that lived the hard life. Learning the hard way made her and her generation possibly the last torchbearers of a life seeped in tradition and religion, rooted in the earth that provides and the clear skies that inspire. Thus when she spoke, she evoked things long gone we wished were still around. She lived in a simple time when wish-fulfilling stones called forth from the brooks and rivers of the countryside.
Ever fond of candies, granny had a mouthful of sweet teeth. Her bed was a one-stop-non-stop shop. Moving a hand about as she sat there, she would fish out bubble gums, candies, chugos, cookies and the like, while her other hand kept the rosary rolling. We all enjoyed these simple things she provided right down to her last days. My own son, and my nephews and nieces took our place in time as they would gather around her kitchen bed, playing, receiving a candy and being subjected to her sharp observations of “who’s good and who’s not”. Gran was not just a goody do-gooder ought to please all and sundry. As a matter of fact, she was far from it.
She kept a sharp mind and a blunt tongue, never hesitating to barge right into the personal problems and histories of all the family members. She was her own person, unfazed and opinionated with no filter at all whatsoever. She would more than hold her own against anyone of us. If matters got worse, she would club out the arguments with a classic granny cuss, telling us off to go “eat our own words full of shit”. These were her way of telling us how nonsensical our world had become when we would beguile her with modern miracles such as Armstrong walking on the moon and being able to write and send letters through the Ethernet. Her spirituality came loaded with a cargo full of the practical necessities of life. I guess it was the understanding that a good life meant having the necessary finances. That raising a family required a job, getting a good job meant having a good education; a good education again requires family support, money and the like.
She struck a fine balance in her own life, and tried to pepper us with the importance of doing both, wholeheartedly albeit wisely. Perhaps at times we overlook the spiritual path she had so embraced. In death she taught us what she never lacked in life. That to die a good death is a life well lived, and as Buddhists, the emphasis and the desire for such a death is the ultimate goal.
In death she erased any doubts we might have had, and the manner of her dying gave us all the will and the strength to go on embracing life, with all its conundrums. She was cremated on January 2, 2005, up above in the holy Buddhist pilgrimage site of Taktsang and one of Ayeya’s last wishes had always been to go back “one last time” to the “Tiger’s Nest”.
Today she rests nestled in one of the holy caves in Guru Rinpoche’s Paradise.
I’m sure she’d have like that