Letter For Love

Letter For Love

01 August, 2010

This month, we bring you the acclaimed poet Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s fiction debut, a story set among the Tibetan diaspora in Nepal.

LETTER WRITING WAS NO SIMPLE TASK. Take for instance Mr. Dorje who received money for his daughter’s education even after she’d stopped attending school. “She has no brains,” he explained to Karma. His daughter had twice failed the fourth grade. He suggested they avoid the school topic. “Just write about the weather and how China is destroying us,” he said. He was a widower and a cook in a monastery. He administered over gigantic aluminum pots of food with a ladle in one hand and a bottle of home brewed chang in the other.

Mr. Tendor had been a chieftain in Eastern Tibet. As evidence he wore his hat and his Tibetan dress even while lounging at home. He offered details of a country Karma would never see: lavish offerings to mountain deities on top of hills, week-long summer picnics where men shot at targets while standing on their horses, the electric air of stupefaction after a thief’s tongue was lopped off.

Mrs. Gombo owned a noodle restaurant and had more money than all six families living in an apartment building she owned, yet she still had use for $400 she received every year from a man in Florida. She had a Samsung television as tall as herself, a row of ceramic five foot-tall snow lions, and a leather sofa in her living room. She had resorted to dressing the sofa with a plastic cover because she did not trust her husband’s relatives - an older couple from Tibet living with them for a few months - not to ruin the leather. Pinching her bony arms together, she complained that she worked hard but never prospered. Karma, who was writing letters to keep her mother, Tsering, happy for nothing but good returns in future lives, nodded her head slowly.

Then there were the Trinleys: Mrs. Trinley’s face was thinner than the electric poles on the street. She had a mole on the ridge of her nose, and it was as though the mole, glossy and plump, sucked all the fat from her body. A hardworking woman who earned a few hundred rupees a day spinning wool for a carpet factory, Mrs. Trinley got to the point when writing to June, her daughter’s sponsor in Portland, Oregon. When exactly was the next cheque coming? Was it possible, for June, to send used clothes for her daughter as other sponsors did?

Her husband lectured on most topics in their letters, even on birds. “You are father and mother to my family,” he would instruct Karma. “Write that. The sun is peeping out from the clouds like a new bride,” he’d quote, with a grin. “Write that too.” In school, Karma had learned to stick to a format. Beginning. Middle. End. But if she protested, Mr. Trinley would remark that a good writer adapted to myriad styles.

Mrs. Trinley said Americans were kind people. Americans cancelled ice cream and movies in theatres in order to send little refugee girls to school. They were not crooks like the Chinese or the Tibetan and Nepali shopkeepers, who used unreliable weighing scales. She wanted to be reborn in America, even as a cat or a dog. Mr. Trinley said Americans had no shame; they had absolutely no control over their bodies. Americans farted as they strolled the streets of Kathmandu. “Just like that. In broad daylight and in public.”

“I bet,” he added, “their President lets out gas in front of his secretaries.”

Karma had recently graduated from high school and her mother had decided English would not work in her favor unless it was used to help the elders. Just earlier in the day Tsering had taken Karma to a neighbor’s house. She had pointed to the English letters on matchboxes, snuff bottles, sodden biscuit packets and to instructions on medication bottles ablated by fingers and time to a blur of lines. She had noted the expiration dates on vitamin jars; the elders saved everything even when they did not read, she had muttered. She had picked up two unopened letters. One letter implied the sponsor would visit in a year and that being propitious news, begat the next question; would Karma help translate when the sponsor came?

“Of course, she will. She has six months till she joins college,” Tsering had said.

Writing letters would improve her English and her karma. But Karma had wished she could have said, “Thank you very much. I can find other ways to improve my English.”

Now they were to compose a letter to a Mr. Gregory Hill.

“You must keep everything in perspective,” her mother said, leading Karma into Pema’s house. Karma understood this to mean she was not to get ideas about writing similar letters. Pema was not yet old but Tsering explained her situation was delicate, required swift action and that nobody else could be trusted with the task.

“This is a ‘special friend’ letter,” she said.

“Love letter from Pema to this American man?”

“Is that all you girls learn in school these days? Love letter she says, and not even eighteen years in age,” Tsering exclaimed.

“We must address Mr. Greg cordially, not too warmly,” she continued, after a minute.

Dear? My dear? Dearest? Karma wrote the three words down on a sheet of paper.

“Dearest is too much,” her mother said. “It will give him ideas.”

Pema ran a shop at an intersection where everyone coming or going in three different directions was vulnerable to her gaze. Older girls from Karma’s school said Pema was a 43-year-old widow with panties clogged with ideas.

“Strangers and government officials, even, are addressed as ‘Dear,’ Karma explained.

“All over the world?”

“Yes, all over the world.”

“O.K. ‘Dear Mr. Greg’ then,” Tsering said. “Mr. Gregory Hill. Like a movie star’s name,” she added softly.


Tsering had assumed the role of intermediary. She understood the story that was to take place and because she still had her husband, she was trusted to select the appropriate tone. She stated that the first letter would establish the direction of Pema and Mr. Greg’s future correspondence. None of it mattered to Karma so she wrote, “Dear Mr. Greg”.

“He lives in California,” Pema explained. “He’s tall and has feet the length of a Lhasa Apso. He is in tip-top shape and other than a filling in one molar, he’s disease free.” Pema’s eyes were on Tsering as she spoke. Karma had never known her mother to have female friends but for the duration of the evening Tsering and Pema appeared close.

Tsering had not seen Mr. Greg but having studied plenty of American tourists, she said she had no trouble conjuring an image of him. And, she added, he had never married.

Karma suggested mentioning the week-long festivities of the approaching Tibetan New Year. Tsering said it wouldn’t do to make Mr. Greg believe Pema was having too good a time. “A widow should not come across as a hedonist,” she said.

It would be best to portray Pema as a responsible, respectable woman, but one who was capable of jollity, according to Tsering. Letter writing was Karma’s craft but this was her mother’s project. Karma could not write a word without Tsering checking on the potency of each syllable.

“Every word is a weapon,” Tsering said, winking at Pema.

The first letter was cordial; there were questions about the size of the town Mr. Greg lived in (did any famous person live there?) and enquiries about the vegetables and fruits available in the market. What kind of deities did people worship in his town? Karma held her tongue to keep from answering the questions. To balance the ordinariness of the letter, she slipped in a sentence on the lingering reach of jasmine in the last hours of the day. Then, unable to help herself, she wrote about the dawn: how the opaque mist smeared itself so thickly it allowed people to believe it would burst like a balloon if poked with a finger.

She knew what her mother’s response would be if she read the unauthorized sentences, “Why would Pema stick her nose into jasmine plants when she knows men are pissing into them every day?”

The letter done, Karma thanked Pema for the tea and rushed towards the door. Mr. Greg would have to respond and they would take the next step. He would receive the letter in two weeks. If he wrote immediately, they could hope to see his letter in four weeks.

Karma was aiming to get home before 6 pm to catch a TV program on birds of the Himalayas. She had learned, a week ago, that the pigeons she found so dull and ungainly had originated in southern Asia several million years ago, even before humans had appeared. This fact, compounded with the idea that pigeons with white wings were not white but without color made her regard them with the same interest she kept for the tourists who came in shorts all year round. What did it mean that the white pigeon was not really white? It sounded like a conundrum the lamas would toss around in a conversation. The question, asked to nobody in particular, came into her mind several times a day when she encountered objects in white.

She waved to a friend as she walked by her store on her way to the stupa.

“Meet my cousin Rinchen. He’s here for the summer. He’s a final year college student. You can ask him about college and stuff,” her friend said.

“Hello Rinchen,” Karma said distractedly.

How many pigeons would it take to cover the stupa in pigeon droppings, she asked herself as she took a round of the stupa. A hundred or more beggars were scattered around the walking path of the stupa, their palms disciplined to receive. Tomorrow they would be elsewhere. Karma did not know how to speak of the destitute when she saw them in such large numbers; this was their country after all. Just the other day their milkman had said Tibetans were lucky bastards.

“If you were in your own country, you too would be selling your milk instead of drinking it,” he had said to Tsering. Tsering had responded that it was harder for a poor Tibetan to live in Nepal than it was for a poor Nepali to do so. “We walked across desert and formidable mountain passes to get to this country. We walked without a map and without a name to your city.” The milkman said he wished he were a refugee, perhaps then he would get a sponsor.

The milkman was knobby at the knees but nobody sent him money so he could stay home and play with a prayer wheel all day, he would tell them. He left his village at three in the morning and arrived at Karma’s house at six with the final two liters of milk and a thin coat of perspiration on his forehead. Even his cow, he said, felt the pressure of producing. Some of his customers had switched to pasteurized milk in plastic packages that were carried from the factory in a truck.

“How would you like to battle with a truck?” he asked Tsering. His cows aged each year. They were no match for Green Valley Dairy Ltd. whose milk was advertised to be, “as pure as the milk from the cows in your grandmother’s village.”

“Hello Rinchen,” Karma repeated to herself, in an effort to recall how she had sounded to him.

OVER DINNER TSERING EXPLAINED that Mr. Greg had a father, and a stepmother who was Chinese, not Chinese-Chinese but from Taiwan. A few months earlier while holidaying in Nepal, he had stopped at Pema’s shop to ask for directions to a monastery and Pema, lacking English words to explain the road’s circuitous path, had made a customer watch the shop while she walked him there. The next day Mr. Greg had returned with a bottle of Pond’s Shampoo.

“Head shampoo. Why would he give her head shampoo?” asked Tsering’s husband.

“A practical gift. First class choice,” Tsering explained to him.

Mr. Greg had then gone trekking in the mountains for three weeks and upon his return to Kathmandu he had brought Pema a bag of dried apricots.

“This proves he is a man with sense. Common sense is very important in a man,” Tsering said, directing her gaze at Karma.

Tsering had been fifteen when her marriage had been arranged in Tibet. She had seen her husband on the afternoon of her wedding day. Whatever she saw she had accepted, she had once said. Karma heard her parents address each other by their first names, not “Daddy” and “Mummy” like some couples.

THREE AND A HALF WEEKS LATER Pema visited before the morning tea had boiled. She feigned nonchalance as her fingers fiddled with the envelope in her hand. Tsering said Pema must be embarrassed to be beholden for something she would have preferred to keep secret. But the letter had to be read.

Pema said she’d just come from arguing with Mrs. Trinley. People in the area, and Mrs. Trinley included, dumped plastic bags full of refuse right across from Pema’s shop, which over time and under the blatant gaze of the sun, turned into putrefying sticky lumps of green and purple.

The stench made Pema nauseous all day. She had requested people to take their garbage out of view from her shop, to the big trash bins half a mile down the road, but nobody paid her any attention. She was now surprising people into shame; she had caught Mrs. Trinley just as she was about to let the plastic bags slip from her hands.

Might Karma or Tsering drop some hints about hygiene when they went to the Trinley’s next, she wondered? She held a photo out.

“Oh,” Tsering said looking at Mr. Greg, “Oh.”

He had begun his letter with “Pema” – no dear, not even hello; “Pema”. The word, all by itself, posited as a rebuke. It was a long way from the next line. In a Tibetan letter the salutation could take half the page, even to a stranger. Tsering said they had to continue to address him as “Dear Mr. Greg”.

“We can’t go backwards,” she explained.

Greg wrote that his father and stepmom lived an hour’s drive from him, and that he met them every alternate Sunday for dinner. He was a postman. He walked a lot. It was not the same as walking in the Himalayas but it was preferable to sitting in a stifling cubicle all day. He lived in an apartment complex, alone. The fog was thick where he was, he wrote. There were days when he imagined it was an alien swallowing his car as he pushed through.

Tsering said he was a sensitive man. Why else would he mention the fog? Her cheeks were red as though she’d been in the kitchen kneading flour.

They decided to respond to Mr. Greg’s letter the following morning. “Think about what you want to say,” Tsering called after Pema, who left to get her photo taken at a photo studio.

All morning Tsering fussed over the gray in her hair. Did she look older than Mrs. Chonzom who lived down the street? Mr. Tsering said she looked older than Mrs. Chonzom because she was older. Tsering said she had not asked him for his opinion.

Karma never saw her parents lean or rest into each other when they sat side by side. She never saw any clues to intimacy but at night she often heard sounds escape their room: whispers, assenting laughs, conspiratorial pitches.

When Pema arrived the following morning, she laid a photograph on the table. Karma recognized the studio from the backdrop. Pema’s hands were folded in her lap; the camera had caught her just as she was rounding off her smile. Her face was shaped like an acorn. Her features were small and grouped closely together, her neck an unsteady branch. Only her hair, black and thick as a log, triumphed, down the center of her spine. It was the sturdiest column on her frame.

Tsering told Karma to ask Mr. Greg if there was anything he missed about Nepal.

“This will give him the chance to say he misses Pema,” she said, with a sparkle in her eyes.

“So this is how the game is played,” Karma thought to herself. She had brought her fountain pen. It had a nib that allowed delicate machinations to letters. She had been saving it for two years but recently had come to the realization that if she didn’t use it her mother would give it away. Everything she owned was prey to her mother’s generosity. I sit in my shop all day surrounded by perishable goods. All day I watch people and feel so much happens in their lives. Day after day, I sit in the one spot, watching them.

Tsering was pensive after Pema left the house. She asked Karma to buy a calendar, one with space for notes. Karma had heard her mother tell guests more than once that she had no need of a calendar. Everything was in her head, she would say. Karma selected a calendar with birds on every page. She took the longer route on her way home. She did not see the college boy in her friend’s shop. She could not recall his name. Her mother made a big red circle on the day they had mailed the first letter. She put a blue circle on the day Mr. Greg’s letter reached Pema and hung the calendar in the kitchen.

Over the next week Karma overheard her mother ask Pema on the phone if she had heard from “him.” During the days she called out to Karma with ideas for the next letter: the King was visiting the U.S; four of her favorite biscuits were manufactured by the same company in Nepal; nasturtiums were covering the walls; Pema was not willing to go to the internet shops and have Karma send emails because she didn’t trust the boys who ran those computers; green was her favorite color (green was Tsering’s favorite color.) Tsering said Pema had Mr. Greg’s photograph in a photo frame under her pillow. She said she could calculate quicker in her head than anybody on her street but this letter writing business stretched over many weeks was bewildering her because she couldn’t foresee or calculate the outcome.

MR. GREG WROTE THAT HE MISSED THE MONKEYS and the way they swung from the temple bells and hissed at dogs. He missed the urgency of mornings in Jyatha and Asan Tole when everyone was out in the narrow streets at the same time. He said he had not seen his neighbor for a month. The only proof of the man’s existence was the echo of his shoes falling to the floor in resounding thuds, at the end of the day.

“How is your son?” he wrote.

The two women grinned at each other.

Pema wanted to speed up the correspondence. Seal the deal. But Tsering said the tactic in hand was a good one. Spitting letters at Mr. Greg wouldn’t do the trick.

“You’re not a young girl. You have to wait for him to say something,” she advised Pema.

I know the world through neatly marked cans and bottles in the shop, Karma wrote. Dried milk powder from Holland, beer from Denmark, sugar from India and pink toilet paper from China. The chocolate bars from America always include nuts or caramel. Do Americans dislike simplicity? Karma went back and forth in her mind over using the words “humble” or “simple”. Tsering debated whether to mention Pema’s mastery of every item in her shop and her genius in eliciting a profit on each sale. She decided that they should write instead about the significance of fate.

After dinner, Tsering peered into her cupboard and declared custom and obligations had taken over her wardrobe. She only attended weddings and funerals. “I was so happy the year you were born,” she said to Karma. She had been twenty-five, her husband had found a job and they had rented two rooms from a family friend. They had adopted a stray dog and bought a gas stove. She said the steel trunks they still used in the house to store their extra blankets had been purchased that year. She had imagined happiness to grow from that moment. Through the years she wondered how her husband had kept his, sitting quietly across from her everyday, never saying much, never demanding. In all their years of marriage he had never cooked a meal but he had never complained about anything she had fed him. His contentment was a burden, Tsering said. His happiness made her feel wronged.

She caressed Karma’s cheeks and announced she was going to bed. She called out to her husband to lock the gate.

He said, “So early?”

“Why? Am I going anywhere that I have to stay up till midnight?” It took her whole face to suggest the sarcasm; her skin furrowed into an assemblage of delicate crimps around her eyes and lips. There was little to hope, from the lines, that youth would make a comeback even with offerings to lamas and foreign creams; for the first time Karma saw her mother as an aging woman.

Mr. Tsering told Karma her mother was getting to be like grandma, who never had any answers, only questions to questions.

HE ASKED TO BE CALLED GREG. He found himself searching for Pema’s letter when he opened the mailbox, even on Sundays, he wrote. He recognized her handwriting. Her photograph was in a simple wooden frame at his bedside. Fate sounded so much like faith to him. His father was a landscape gardener who believed in trees, his mother exercised everyday, even on days when it rained. Greg had studied Greek literature in college but had floundered at a profession so he had become a postman. He had entered it as a short-term job but being a man of habit he had sunk into its routine.

Come to think of it, letters are perhaps the most original and accessible forms of literature, he wrote. Do chance and fate mean the same thing?

Pema said Greg was too smart for her. Could Hindi film magazines be counted as literature, she asked Karma? Tsering fretted they had used the wrong word: they should have written karma, not fate. It was Karma’s fault, she said. Young Tibetans attending English schools often thought of fate and karma as the same. The two are different, she exclaimed.

“If you write good letters and help people, you will reap good karma. Fate does not work like that, it is not in your hands. Why do you think I tell you to be good to everyone and write properly?” she said.

She wanted to know what Greg did in his spare time. Did he do calisthenics?  Did someone come to cook for him? Did he play the guitar? What about badminton? Did he drink tea?

It seemed to Karma that her mother was willing to believe Greg could be the man for Pema - and the momentum of the letters from him made her believe he was willing too. The word love had not been mentioned so far. Love, its absence or its imminence, was not to be a deciding factor in this project. Pema’s first marriage had been arranged by her parents and there had been no mention of love.

“When your parents choose a man for you, they pick someone who will make a good husband and your duty is to find a way to love him,” Pema said when Karma asked if she had loved her late husband.

“Even if you’ve only seen him once and don’t know anything about him?”

“What is there to know?”

“But what if love doesn’t come?”

“Idiot!” Tsering interrupted, adding unthinkingly, “It has to come. Look at me.”  She pointed towards Pema as though she had been referring to her.

Pema said perhaps the letter could now be signed, “with love.”

Tsering said they should wait for Greg to do so first.

What chance that these letters, entrusted into one of the most unreliable postal systems in the world, would bring about love, Karma thought. Then a third letter was announced, in the third week. And then, defying all previous calculations came postcards of New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Dallas. The arrival of each postcard led Pema and Tsering to study the map for the distance and meaning between places.

THE RAINS CAME AND LINGERED shamelessly for weeks, drowning the shape of the roads. Garbage traveled around and clung to cross streets much like the thin teenage boys hooked on glue and local arrack. Tsering had signed Karma up to volunteer at a free health clinic organized by a Tibetan Women’s organization. Rain or shine, Tsering said, the free clinic would run. By the time Karma reached the clinic, her feet were covered with mud. She washed her feet from the water that dripped from the roof’s awning and settled down at a desk. Two hours went by in a blur as she took down the names of all elders and their ailments. Every time she called out a name, the elders requested her to repeat herself.

“Is this your name and are you here with this ailment?”


“Then it is you.”

Someone said hello. It was Rinchen, the college boy. Caught off guard, Karma asked if he was hoping to see a doctor.

“Maybe,” he joked.

He asked if he could get her some hot tea. He returned with a glass of tea and a packet of glucose biscuits for her.

“Rinchen Zangpo. We met briefly at my cousin’s shop,” he said.

“I’m Karma.”

“I know.”

He was wearing shorts with rubber chappals like those worn by the little boys who played in the field behind her house. There were drops of water hanging from his glasses.

All day long, people came to her with questions: were the doctors qualified? Would they give free medicines as well? Were they eye doctors? Most men said little, they held their bodies loosely beside their wives, just in case they were called upon to respond.

Rinchen said his cousin lived across the street and he had nothing to do. The rain, he said. He had an ease about him that made Karma aware of her own discomfort. She had spent most of her life accompanying her mother around elders. She was used to building a case against young men almost as soon as she spoke to them. Rinchen asked questions as though any response would be the right one, he teased the elders and made them laugh. He seemed careless - or was it carefree? She could not decide.

By late afternoon she was exhausted from defending the credentials of the doctors, the quality of the free medicines and the continuing rain against the suspicions of people who persisted in finding a flaw in an outwardly well-orchestrated day.


Rinchen asked if he could call her, if they could meet for tea before he left for college. Struggling for a polite way to mask her inexperience, she nodded instead. She left her phone number with him and rushed out into the street without opening her umbrella.


Pema slapped a palm against her thigh and smiled. She and Tsering spoke at the same time; their voices peculiarly shrill. Pema said she was finally getting a sense of where things were going. Tsering, flushed in the face and neck, said she was pleased with the progress in these epistolary exchanges.

The commonplace was fertile grounds for exchanges; questions were good tools. She cautioned Pema against brash emotional admissions and insisted the letter continue to be signed, “yours”. She said she would consult the Tibetan calendar and time the letter to be signed, “with love,” on an auspicious day.

It had been five months, their exchanging letters. In five months the post office had closed for ten public holidays, a 20-year old monk from a nearby monastery had eloped with a married Nepali woman and the country had seen two prime ministers. The new party in power announced they would restore order to the country: they would bring electricity back and ban all strikes. Pema had trouble getting sugar and rice in stock because there was trouble along the India-Nepal border. A transportation strike, she heard on the radio. She wondered if Maoists lived in the jungles of America. How often did the electricity go off there? Was the public forced to observe curfews – no shops to be opened some days, no cars to be driven other days?


“Can you meet me for tea?”


“Whenever you are free.”

“Ok. I’ll meet you in an hour at your cousin’s shop.”

Karma had never met a man alone. She wondered if he would take it as a signal of her interest. Was she? Interested? Maybe he saw her as a sister or a good friend. She had never been asked to tea. Maybe college boys did this all the time. He was sitting in the shop on his own when she reached there. She told Rinchen of the letters she was writing for the elders, leaving Pema out of the narrative. She asked if college was difficult. He said not so difficult if you were organized and a little diligent. He offered to pick her up at the airport and take her to college when she joined in a few weeks.

“I am not that sort of a girl.”

“What sort?”

She felt stupid. “I do not meet boys regularly for tea.”

“I know,” he said.

She found herself beaming, to his smile.

A FEW MONTHS AGO the lights in the city went off for an hour. Everyone walked out of their offices and around the block as if they were in a ghost town. Nothing worked. No computer or subway trains. You could not buy tea or coffee even if you had money because the cash registers went dead. It was a very strange feeling to see everything at hand and yet have nothing.

Would you consider moving to America?

Tsering took the letter from Karma’s hand and looked at it for a long time.

Was that an American marriage proposal, she wanted to know.

“Greg hasn’t mentioned marriage,” Karma explained.

“Well, not directly,” her mother said clasping the letter to her stomach. “The question is indicative of intention.”

Pema said she’d have to find out where a second cousin lived. She was afraid to be the only Tibetan in town. How was she to communicate with Greg once she got there? Should she start selling her furniture? Who could she entrust the shop to? What sort of gifts should she buy for his family? What if he did not like her once she got there?

“Married couples don’t need to speak much to each other,” Tsering said. “There will be plenty of things to do. Don’t you see in the foreign movies, how people are always rushing here and there with big brown bags in their arms? You don’t see them lounging around street corners or having tea on doorsteps, chatting with people as we do here.”

The reply took three hours to script. My husband who is no more will be happy to see me with a good man. A young boy needs a man to look up to. It is karma that brought you to my store. You could have just as easily stopped to ask Mr. Tamang for directions, Karma wrote, obeying her mother.

Tsering was pleased, “Now we’ve tackled the whole problem of whether he is asking for marriage or not. We just assume he is. It’s easier this way,” she said. She said there was no going back. “America will be good for you, Pema.” Pema could start again and her son would have everything: good education, a future and he would care for her in her old age.

The letter galvanized them into frenzied outings. What were the colors for a new country? What did American men like? What about a different hairstyle? Tsering did not have the answers: she had known only one man as lover. For twenty years she had folded her hair into a tight bun and carried it behind her head. She suggested a green sweater for Pema. Green was a good colour for a fresh start, she said. Pema bought two seaweed green sweaters, one for herself and one for Tsering. Pema cut her hair, three inches all around. She coaxed Tsering to trim hers. Just two inches, she pleaded and Tsering allowed the hairdresser to release her hair from its habit of a clenched fist. Her hair was shampooed, cut and dried. It was Tsering’s first time at a hairdresser’s. She said she left the salon feeling as though she’d lost four kilos from her head. Her scalp tickled, her hair felt weightless.

Alone in the kitchen with Karma, she wondered, “America is a long way to go for a man. Can a woman be happy in a new country half-way through her life? What if the man’s a crook. Or already married?”

I am trying to memorize everything familiar here so that when I am there in California, I will not feel so far away. I will miss my friend Tsering. We both cut our hair and took a holiday. We even stayed in a five-star hotel. When you stay in a hotel, you feel different. Soon, I will see you. I feel my heart a stranger with so many emotions. How will America be I wonder? How will you be? I have never sat in a plane.

A few days before she was to leave, Pema brought over photos of lamas and her half opened packets of rice, cooking oil and lentils to Tsering.

“I’ll keep them for you. One day you will need them again,” Tsering said.

Pema laughed, “You are sending me to America and then you want me to return before the oil goes bad?”

“You are not coming back.”

Tsering held Pema’s hand all the way to the airport and attempted to joke. When they got to the departure entrance, Tsering offered a scarf to Pema and hugged her tight. Karma had never seen her mother cry for anyone outside the family. Pema was weeping noisily.

“Better stop or you’ll be looking like an old lady when you reach America,” Tsering teased. She waved till Pema’s face became a tiny dot in the air.  She did not speak on the journey home. When they passed the entrance to the stupa, she said she wanted to get off and do some prayers.

“But it is warm now,” Karma said.

“It will be all right. You go home.”

KARMA EXCUSED HERSELF from her letter duties a month before leaving for college. Rinchen had called her four times in the past month. After each call Karma tried to remember his face. Pema wrote that people were so carefree in the U.S. She said you could see in their walk that they felt unencumbered by duties. It does not come easily to me, this levity. Americans do a lot of things because they feel like it not because they must, like us. I think of you everyday. I look at the time and say, Tsering must be having tea now, Tsering must be walking around the stupa in her blue shoes.

Pema was learning English from the television programs made for children. Every afternoon at three sharp, she took her tea and sat out on her small porch. She listed what she did: once a week she sliced beef in thin slices and dried them in the garage; she made Tibetan butter tea in the electric blender; she made flat bread every morning. She kept an altar. Half of the goods were from China, India or Sri Lanka. Even the salt came from elsewhere, she wrote.

KARMA WAS SURPRISED to hear the announcement over the speaker; that she had a visitor. She walked out of the women’s hostel to find Rinchen sitting on a wooden bench under one of the cement umbrellas built in the last year. He stood up when Karma walked towards him. He looked different from her memory of him. He held a small box of pastries towards her. She asked if he wanted tea and got up to walk towards the college cafe without waiting for his response. She took her time at the counter. Had she combed her hair in the morning? She should have worn her jeans. She did not know how to walk back to him.

When Rinchen said he should get going an hour later she wondered if she had bored him. Walking him to the gate she tried to think of questions. What could she ask him now?

“Thank you for the pastries,” she said.

“Can I come visit you again?”

On weekends they toured the city. Rinchen always had a plan and a back up plan. He walked briskly, he laughed easily and loudly. He coaxed Karma out of her tendency to weigh small decisions as though every outcome would be damaging. Yet Karma had not mentioned him to her mother. In the beginning she had wanted to wait till she was certain their meetings had a feeling of longevity to them, and then too much time passed by and she did not know how to bring the subject up. On a few occasions she had practiced breaking the news to her mother and then Tsering had spoken about feelings, of some sort or the other. Just a week ago she thought there was more wind in her body, causing her to be unbalanced. It was as though she was half-awake. She could not shrug off a feeling that she’d left a life behind. Was that possible, she had asked Karma on the phone? Karma had not spoken up.

Rinchen was in his last year of college. He was considering going to south India for a Master’s Program in Geology. He wanted to know if Karma would transfer to a college there. Karma realized it was too late to seek her mother’s advice. She tried to find the right time to insert the story of her attachment casually, every time her mother called.

Tsering said the neighbors to their south side were adding a storey to their house. All day long, workers sent music and construction cacophony into the house. She spent afternoons with her husband, just sitting and drinking tea in his office, she said.

It was time for Karma’s class. Tsering said she’d call the following week. “Eat all your meals on time,” she reminded and hung up.

Two days later Tsering called to say they had received a wedding proposal for Karma from a family friend. The boy was studying in Toronto. Tsering said he had always done well in school and was a good boy.

“Maybe you can write to him,” she said.

Karma said she was not interested.

“What’s the harm in writing?”

“I don’t want to?”

“You don’t have to marry him. You only have to write to him.”

“I like somebody. His name is Rinchen.”

Tsering said nothing for a long time.

“Where is he from?”

Karma imagined her mother tapping her fingers against her hip as she spoke.

“What is he like?”

“He is nice. He brings me soap and flowers.”

Tsering said, “Thank god he’s Tibetan.”

The knees, her mother said. Her knees were acting up. The most she had walked in the recent past was on the afternoon Pema had flown away.  She had walked all afternoon and her knees had not bothered her that day. Now she struggled to get over a few stairs, she said.

WHEN KARMA VISITED HER PARENTS for the winter break, she noticed the calendar in the kitchen was opened to the month Pema had left. Tsering didn’t take Karma around the neighborhood to the elders. Tsering said she hadn’t replied to the last two letters Pema had sent and asked Karma to write for her before she returned to college.

English is taking so long to come to me and it’s already conquered my son.

Pema had given up making bread. There was so much of it in the market, Pema wrote. She was no longer wearing chubas, she wore trousers and T-shirts with the names of cities emblazoned across her chest, which Greg brought back for her when he traveled out of town for office retreats.

Almost a year has passed and all I have to say can fit on one page. Is this happiness?

Karma reread the line out loud. Tsering said it was harder to evaluate happiness with age. Maybe a new place and new life turned things upside down. Or perhaps happiness was only recognizable when it was replaced with something else. She said she had never demanded happiness for herself but she had prayed for Karma’s happiness every single day. She said the first time she had thought of her own happiness had been the day Pema had flown away.

She was hoping to have a big wedding for Karma. Perhaps their relatives from Tibet could come?

“I am not ready to marry yet.”

“Very few people marry because they are ready.”

“I want to finish college, get a job. I will wait till I am certain.”

“Certain of what,” Tsering asked?

Karma said she would know when she knew.


“I don’t know right now.”

“Remember the day Pema left and I got off the taxi to walk?” Tsering asked.

Karma remembered it had been a warm afternoon and her mother had insisted on walking. Tsering said she had gone to her husband’s office that afternoon certain of her feelings, but facing him she had not found the words.

“I examined my life as I stood before him and could not recollect my life as a seamless series of events. And yet, the future was full of desire. I wanted to leave. For a place I did not know.”

She had been silenced by that strange certainty in her uncertainty, she said. Late at night, her husband asked if she was all right. She had seemed different in the office.

“I told him it was not important. I had stopped by because I thought I had lost something. I told him it did not matter anymore. The idea of happiness existed all on its own and outside of me. Where could I have gone to look for something I didn’t have a face to, a name to?” she asked Karma.

Karma imagined her mother studying her face carefully in the mirror the afternoon Pema had flown away. Perhaps for the first time she had looked at the slight swelling under her lower eyelids, at the three lines on her forehead, she had looked into them for signs of options other than the life she lived.

She had seen Mr. Greg write, “Would you like to come to America?” in clear Times New Roman print.

She had whispered: yes, yes.

Two faint creases had criss-crossed her forehead, two tiny spots had appeared beneath the eyes. Yes, her mother had repeated to the image in the mirror.