Father is sixty-eight years old, and yet he wakes up somewhere between four and five in the morning from a nightmare, drenched in sweat. The sweat, to be clear, is related as much to his age as it is to the amount of blankets laid over his bed; it is winter in Gangtok, and he is in the habit of covering himself in excess to be less affected by the chill. He lifts himself out of the sheets, taking care to fold them properly so as not to disturb Mother’s sleep. He goes into the bathroom. The pipe in the sink is not working, so he washes his face with the small bucket they use to shower. There is a little moonlight coming through the window, but it is otherwise dark. Father cannot help but catch his reflection in the mirror. The pudge of fat above his eyebrows is covered in sweat.
In the last two months, Father has been assaulted by dreams of his mother. They usually involve the few sweet memories of his childhood juxtaposed against the agony of her current health condition. Often, the situations are exaggerated in ways to draw out Father’s guilt, and they leave him going to the hospital in a disturbed and under-rested state.
However, as Father takes a better stare at the mirror, he sees the wrinkles over his sandy-coloured cheeks, the wear and tear and soot that have collected under the baggy hoods of his eyes. This was the exact same way his father looked. With age, their faces are almost identical.
Father feels a churning in his chest. Father feels an anger. It is not because time has made him the inheritor of a face that is aged, ugly, or unpleasant to look at.
It is because his nightmare for the first time in a long while revolved not around his mother or his son, but over this abusive farmer who spent most of his life traumatising his children.
2nd April, 1961
On the second of April in 1961, Father was a simple boy named Samjyor who was turning seven. This was the sixties. Life was different. His homeland of Sikkim was not yet an Indian state, just as his hometown of Sakkyong was completely ignorant of the outside world. If there were foreigners at that time, they would be Bhutias or Nepalis or other Lepchas from other places, not necessarily Tamils or North Indians or Germans in the mood for a village stay. People did not have any technology of any sort to distract themselves with. They tilled the land, survived the winters, and lived peacefully with their loved ones. A birth day was also not a birthday. No one fed each other pieces of cake or bought each other presents.
The 2nd of April, in other words, was not meant to be a particularly special day, until Samjyor’s Father came home and made him remember it that way.
Normally Samjyor’s father would come home around four or five in the afternoon, directly from the rice paddies, and he would ignore Samjyor or any of his other children. He would immediately find his cot, throw the sheets over himself, and fall asleep. On that day, however, Samjyor’s father came home closer to nine in the night, just when everyone was sleeping. There was the clear smell of rakshi on his clothes. Samjyor was too young to know what rakshi was, but the stale millet smell blending into his father’s unshowered musk imprinted onto him, becoming one of the most important memories he would ever grow to have.
Samjyor’s mother began yelling. Where have you been? Why are you coming home late? Her yelling was not confrontational but curious. This was before it became normal for Samjyor’s father to come home drunk, before Samjyor’s mother learned it would not be in her benefit to confront him at all.
As Samjyor’s father came in through the door, he knocked over a grass broom. He stooped to pick it up, almost out of habit, but it was at that moment that Samjyor’s mother asked her question, causing something in his body language to abruptly change. He threw herself close to her and smacked her against the head with the broom, suddenly and with very clear intention. Even though the handle of the broom weighed little, the damage was done. Samjyor’s mother looked up, unable to respond. It was more than just being caught off guard. It was complete and utter paralysis, except for when she reached for her skull to assess whether it was bruised or bloodied.
But Samjyor’s father threw her down. Samjyor’s father clutched her throat with his hands.
‘How can you . . .’ he shouted. ‘You would choose to . . . I will not . . . I’ll kill you! You are a whore, and I will kill you!’
Samjyor was too young to understand the full language of this drunken man, who was speaking in a mix of a shout and a slur. But what Samjyor did know was that there was this big oaf of a man, as crackle-eyed and overpowering as a raksasa, threatening the life of the woman who looked after them. Samjyor should have shouted outside to get one of his uncles to help, but he was too young to be sensible. Instead he grabbed his father’s leg and cried for him to get off.
Samjyor’s father kicked Samjyor’s face with the full force of a foot. It was so strong that he was knocked out by it, completely unconscious. He woke up sometime after, with his mother wrapped around him and crying. His nose hurt worse than any other time the boys beat him, and he could feel that his tooth was broken. If he wiggled it around, it would come out. At least it was a baby tooth, and in some time it would come to be replaced by another. Samjyor had no idea how he went to sleep like that, shocked and stunned, with a need to cry, deep and loudly into his mother’s chest.
Later on, his younger brother, Lekmoo, told him wild and extravagant stories about how their older brother, Tshering, was the one who had fought off his father. Later on, his mother told Samjyor that it was his own bravery which had scared his father off somehow, or made him realise that he was going too far, which was what made him stop attacking her. Whatever the case, Samjyor’s father never apologised for how he had behaved that night. He never acknowledged what had happened. If some transgression had happened between his mother and father, it was never clarified to Samjyor, neither at the age of seven nor at any other age as he grew up. It was just one of those things that was going to be left a secret, to haunt Samjyor for much longer than the rest of his father’s lifetime.
What Samjyor noticed after his seventh birth day was that this was the day when his father’s personality changed. He spent most of his time working in the rice paddies, he only went to places where he could procure alcohol, and he rarely interacted with his wife or children, unless he was going out of his way to hurt them in some form.
14th November, 2022
Father has banged his fist on the mirror. Without thinking, he has taken his fist and thrown it with utter force against the glass. The glass, several decades old, cracks, though all of the pieces remain intact. Father gasps and withdraws his fist immediately. In doing so, he feels a sharp sting on his finger. The thin shards of cut glass are nearly invisible in the darkness, but he can feel them poking into his skin. Father has cut himself, and though the pieces lodged in his hand are most likely smaller than a needle, the blood is getting all over the sink. Father pours himself some more water from the bucket to clean it up.
In the commotion, he has woken Mother.
‘What is going on?’ Mother asks, turning on the light. Her eyes widen, and she throws herself into a panic. She grabs Father’s hand, asking, ‘What have you done to your hand?’ Father can see it now. Blood has rushed out quicker than he realised, dripping all the way down his arm. Father applies pressure to the wound while Mother rushes to find some Band-Aids.
All the while, Father yells at himself. ‘What have you done to yourself? Why are you acting crazy at this hour? It’s late. It’s almost four in the morning. You will go to work soon.’
He looks at the cracks in the mirror. He sees the face staring back at him. He wants to beat it again, no matter how much the face belongs to him.
That is how much he hates what he is staring at.
16th December, 1968
There were five of them sitting on the wooden floors of their cottage, eating the chumthuk—Samjyor; his younger brother, Lekmoo; his older brother, Tshering; his mother; and Tshering’s recent wife, who had been married to him only a few months ago. His father was not with them. Coming back home only when he felt like had become his norm. The conversation around the bowls was light. People concentrated on spooning grains of rice and beef into their mouths, taking a break only to make casual remarks when the mood suited.
Towards the end of the meal, Samjyor’s father opened the door loudly, then closed it tightly behind him so that the winter wind would not enter. He took off his boots, unstrapped his jacket. He barked at his wife, ‘I am hungry. Where is food?’
Without a moment’s hesitation, Samjyor’s mother brought him a bowl of gruel. Samjyor’s father made a place for himself around them and started shovelling the food down his throat.
Her chumthuk had a plain taste. At that time, spicing was considered a luxury because everything and anything was a luxury. Only basic survival was the goal. Samjyor’s father had eaten this chumthuk day in and day out for many decades, before his own children were born, probably before he was even married to this particular woman.
So, it was a surprise when he took his first bites and started acting like he was choking. He spat out the rice back into the bowl while Samjyor’s mother came to his side, wondering if her husband in fact had something lodged in his throat.
He said, ‘You really can’t cook, can you?’ and laughed gregariously. It was like he was telling a joke to his other drunk friends, and he looked about his household, waiting to catch the eye of someone who would smile back at him.
No one was smiling. All of the children looked down, afraid to meet his eyes, afraid of the consequences.
Samjyor’s mother tried to take the bowl, only for Samjyor’s father to resist.
‘Don’t worry, I will eat it. We should not waste food. We cannot waste food. But I earn everything for this family. I am the reason why we can afford to have beef in this soup in the first place. Next time, I want momos or thukpa. Make something tomorrow with a lot of meat.’
‘Of course,’ Samjyor’s mother said. Samjyor wanted to shout at his father. How in the world would they get money to make any of that food when they had no money at all? His father was claiming to make money for them, but he was the one spending whatever he made, while Samjyor and his siblings tried to subsist on the little that they had.
Samjyor’s father continued, ‘You know, I remember when you used to kiss me like you liked it. I remember when you actually knew how to touch me. What happened to those days? When are we going to make more children?’
Samjyor’s mother looked into her gruel, all while Samjyor’s father spoke louder about his urges and needs. He wasn’t going to control himself. He had an audience of a full family, and he would not dare waste it.
‘My son,’ Samjyor’s father said, clearly addressing Tshering, ‘you are lucky to have a wife who is young and beautiful. I wish you have many children.’
He raised his bowl of gruel as if in toast, and Tshering smiled, not politely, but warmly, because he was getting the validation from his father that he often felt he deserved.
Then Samjyor’s father turned to face his other two boys. ‘I’ve done everything for you all. I’ve done everything for this family.’
He looked like he was going to scold them more, say something specific, but he was too drunk. He started to eat his chumthuk, wolfing it down like it was the most delicious thing he had ever eaten. He filled up his belly, then gave a blank stare to the fireplace in their house, watching the flames dance about.
Then he stood up, mouthing to himself. ‘I did everything for this family. I did everything for this family.’ He put on his shoes, dressed himself, and went back out into the freezing cold.
14th November, 2022
Mother returns with some bandages. She wraps them over his hand while complaining.
‘It is so early. I will have to do pooja soon. Why are you making a mess like this?’
Father does not want to tell Mother he had a bad dream. But she can see the frustration in his eyes and make her own guesses.
‘It must be hard on you to be so far from your mother. I understand. But it is not going to help you if you hurt yourself.’
Father makes listless eyes, which makes Mother hug him.
‘Don’t feel this bad. You are doing your best. And you have done a lot. You have sent so much money. You have hired someone to help. They are there for her, but you have provided what they cannot, and they know this. They will come to respect all you do for them in time.’
Father leans into Mother’s hug and reciprocates it. He gives her a kiss on the cheek and remains there, holding her. He is glad no one else is in the room except her. He is also incredibly tired. He knows he will have a full day of work ahead of him in a few hours, and the thought exhausts him even more.
‘I am sorry for this disturbance. Let us sleep.’
Mother turns off the light. Mother and Father return to the bed, holding hands. It is not long before Mother is snoring again.
Father would have fallen asleep soon, too, if it were not for the dream.
29 August, 1986
It was said that on the day Samjyor’s father passed on, Samjyor’s younger brother, Lekmoo, touched his body before the lama began his phowa, to the chagrin of the ones who found him with the corpse. A body on its way to death should never make contact with another physical being as the lama works on directing its soul. It makes the soul easy prey to the cravings of a demon, where it may not make it to the other stages of the afterlife. Because Lekmoo touched the body, he was scolded by almost every passing relative, and threatened to be beaten and pushed out of the home he had grown up in.
Father was not there at the time, but Father wouldn’t have been surprised if Lekmoo was intentionally trying to damn his father and his soul.
That being said, Lekmoo did look visibly distraught and disturbed, shaking as the lamas chanted around the box the body was displayed on. Samjyor could not imagine what it was like for Lekmoo to walk in on his father lying on his cot, suddenly smelling of someone who was starting to decompose. Samjyor would have probably done exactly what Lekmoo had. He had seen plenty of patients pass on, he was used to death, but it was another thing to witness it occur to a loved one. It would have been easy to lose one’s control, and to touch the body, even though one would have known immediately after that one had condemned it.
There was a lot of noise, and there were a lot of relatives, many of whom Samjyor had not interacted with in years. Samjyor kept himself seated, tried to pay no attention to them. His role was to witness the pooja. There was the surreal smell of decomposed flesh mixed with the juniper branches used to preserve the box. He tried to listen to the chanting, but there were too many memories in his mind. There were the images of his father feeding him a momo for the first time and his tongue burning from the steam, or the images of when he was a little boy lost in the rice paddies and was afraid he was going to die, except that he was found by his father at once. There were the kind words his father said when Samjyor got married, there was the excitement he heard in his father’s voice whenever Samjyor visited and his father delighted himself by playing with Tshering’s children.
It was odd. Despite the fact that Samjyor objectively hated his father, during the death ceremony, during the funeral, during the rituals done at the monastery and in the village itself, Samjyor could not remember a single negative thought about him. He only remembered that he missed his father, that he owed so much to his father, and that he loved his father. And he hated himself for not being there the day his father had died. He hated that he had allowed a parent to die alone, in a way no child ever should.
Samjyor told himself then and there that he visit his village as much as possible so that such a fate would never pass with his mother. He also made it a point to attend the duentsi poojas for all of the forty-nine days in the monastery, even though it was Tshering who had been called to do so.
Samjyor became a good son after his father died. And a few years afterwards, he became a father himself. During the funeral ceremony Samjyor thanked his father for the lessons he had taught him. He also promised himself that when his own child would be born he would never make a single one of the mistakes that he felt his father had made.
14th November, 2022
It is during the second dream of this early morning that Father is in the rice paddies once more. A little boy walks around barefoot. He is under the monasteries which are common in Gangtok. Their red-and-gold walls are like squares stacked on top of the mountains. It is like each one has a little eye that is looking at Father. The child’s feet are sticking in the mud.
He is falling, and he is calling to the monasteries to find him, but not a single one responds. The eyes on the walls stare and almost look to be in pleasure as Father sinks alone. He clutches at the rice stalks but is not able to grasp any. And he is still falling, sinking, diving. The mud comes up to his waist. He pounds his fists against the earth.
Father shouts and shouts, and no one comes.
Until there is one person standing over him among the rice stalks.
That is his father.
‘Father, come help! Father, help me up.’
His father does not move.
‘Father, I am going to die. Father, help.’
The boy’s head moves deeper into the earth.
It is when the earth comes up to his chin that his own father begins to snicker. His father pats his belly and points at his son.
‘You are an embarrassment of a man. You don’t dare stand on this ground.’
Father does not know what he is saying. He thinks he is moving his mouth, but not a single word is coming out. The mud starts to get inside. He tastes the mineral notes of zinc and calcium.
Father shouts, ‘Father . . . Father!’
And his father responds, ‘You are no better than your mother . . . you let me die . . . you left me alone . . .’
Father snaps his eyes open. He does not want to stay in bed, or he will be committed to returning to this dream. But if he gets up, he knows he will wake up his wife again. He does not want to stand once more. He does not want to go into the bathroom, look at the cracks he created in his mirror, find sadness in the inherited roundness of his face that he will never be able to escape.
But there is him and his father, and there will always be a part of him from his father, whether he stares at his reflection or not.
Father feels the puff of his own eyeballs, and they weigh his eyes open, no matter how much he wishes they could close.