Bishnu Maya Karki, now 69, formerly from Samdrup Jongkhar in southern Bhutan, who lost most of her family members at five, later spent her childhood in a family-owned ‘gotth’ (cow-shed) rearing cattle, chronicled her powerful early life history to TP Mishra, who wrote this essay based on her actual narratives.
One of my kaakaa (uncles) and my father had been to Nepal to meet my phupu (aunt). While returning home, both of them had been exposed to a bizarre illness.
Fast-spreading daabar (rashes), small dot-like red and black lesions, covered their faces. I often saw them scratching their faces until they would get swollen. Neighbors called it maai khatiraa (sort-of chicken pox).
Our house was located in a thinly populated Beetaar village, better known to Bhutanese as Neuli (Neoli) Bhutan. Beetaar was a minuscule village only reachable by several hours walk, as it was on the hilltop of Bakuli block under the Samdrup Jongkhar district, far from the immediate reach of capital Thimphu, in southern Bhutan.
Both kaakaa and father could not fight the sickness back. It rather got exposed to my mother and two younger siblings. Not only in our village, may be there were no hospitals in the country. At least I had not heard about it. If there was one, it may have been in Thimmu (capital, Thimphu).
Local jhankri (shaman) did whatever he could to treat the sickness. Jhankri, however, was only able to provide us with some perceived healing. That’s it.
Kaakaa breathed his last followed by my mother. My 6-month old sister was third in the row before father succumbed to the illness. The tragedy continued to rule our family. My 3-year old brother passed away on the twenty-fifth day of my mother’s passing.
It should have been a typical summer time, may be in 1950. I was about 5-6 year old when I lost these family members within the tragic period of about seven weeks. The nature somehow spared my two elder sisters and me. Not sure why, but I guess it was god’s will.
I was not moved much by the tragedy then. My grandmother, who was living in our house, gave me everything I had asked for. She continued taking care of us. She once told me that my father and I were born in the same house.
My father, according to grandmother, had owned about 50 acres of fertile land. He was around 32 years old when he passed away. Mother was few years younger than father. We used to grow cardamom, buckwheat, rice, orange and many other fruits and vegetables in our fields, more than enough for our extended family.
Three years after I lost most family members, my grandmother decided that I would stay in the gotth (cow-shed) looking after the cattle-herd. Our gotth was in the middle of a dense Gopaetaar jungle, about five-hour walk from our house.
On the first day of my stay at the gotth, my father’s elder brother told me that our grandfather had set this trend. When it was passed on to my father, he had grown it larger. By the time I joined it, we had more than one hundred beautiful cows and oxen. Few other gotth, mostly of my relatives were close to ours.
Sunmaali, the name I once gave to one having white spots on the forehead and the knees, was my beloved cow in the herd. I was excited to see her again after a long time. She was so beautiful that I wanted to be near her everyday.
It should have been one early spring morning in 1954-55, birds were chirping around our gotth, the cloud was moving slowly clearing the sky. I was feeding the Sunmaali and others. I saw a strange object at about 200 paces away from the gotth.
Initially, I thought it was a big stone fallen miraculously from the sky that night. A few minutes later, I saw it moving. Now I could see big ears that suddenly reminded me of the description of an elephant my grandmother once narrated me.
I went inside, got some butter and poured it into the burning koila (charcoal) and chanted this- ‘please take your own way lord Ganesh (elephant).’ My grandmother had taught me to do this. I immediately rushed to uncle’s gotth only to confirm that it was indeed an elephant. Thankfully, Ganesh followed through my mantra (prayer) and was out of sight in about 20 minutes since I first saw it.
My uncle and or one of the elder cousins used to stay with me during the nighttime, at least until I turned ten. After that, I was by self and doing almost every chore alone.
Manage fodder for the cattle. Take them to the pasture. Milk dozens of cows every morning and evening. Clean the animal-shed. Churn the cream. Get logs for firewood. Fetch water from a nearby creek. These were some of my usual errands. A typical shepherd back then had to do so many other things—you name it—and I might have done all.
One autumn of 1956, we moved our gotth to a different location due to shortage of pastureland—needed for the survival of the cattle. It was moved to a new distance, few hours by walk from our initial station.
We ran out of food for ourselves in this new location. Nobody from our house came with supply of ration as in other days. Or, may be they came and found us nowhere. This lasted for almost a week until two strangers—both later learned to be local animal poachers—from the Dukpa (Drukpa, mostly referred to people of the northern Bhutan) community chanced to appear in our gotth.
The poachers offered us with their prize—deer meat. I was so excited. We were also assured that they would inform our family. Two days later, our family members along with both the poachers came to our new location with food.
I continuously stayed in gotth until I was mid-14, the time when I had to get married, as arranged by my grandmother. My first husband, whom I met in the wedding day for the first time, was nine years older than me.
My husband used to teach in an Indian school located in the Indo-Bhutan border. After two years of our wedding, one Indian fellow teacher poisoned him to death in the school dorm. I never knew the reason.
I moved in back to our gotth after the completion of ritual rites. I also used to stay few days at my husband’s house upon the request of my mother-in-law quite often.
Then 17-18 year old, I was still in the gotth when my grandmother passed away due to natural causes. She should have been in her 100s when she died.
My uncle’s family arranged my second marriage when I was nineteen. He was just seventeen, a hardworking farmer. We lived together happily for ten years before he passed away due to what neighbors referred to as malaria.
More responsibilities fell onto my shoulder, as I had to take care of four kids and a 13-acre farm. After three years of staying alone, I again got married and we have been living together since then. Unfortunately, I also lost some of my children at their young age back in Bhutan.
Now that my age continues to climb up, the childhood memories, the challenges faced back then and the legacies left behind by my grandmother and parents have been limited to the dreams that I often see in this new land. In reality, as I wake up, my long walk of this beautiful life continues.
According to Bishnu M. Karki, the government evicted her family in early 1990s. She stayed in the UN-run refugee camp in Nepal for nearly 19-year before she and her husband along with their elder daughter’s family got resettled in Cincinnati, OH in Aug 2011. Bishnu and her husband moved to Hampton, VA to join their only son in less than a month of her arrival to the United States. They stayed there for about a year and moved along with her son’s family to Charlotte, NC in 2012.