The Fourteen Year Old Mother

by Namgyal Phunstok

Hope is a thing with feathers

That perches on the soul…

And sings the tune without words

And never stops at all

monk in Dharamsala. Himachal Pradesh, India

Monk in Dharmasala. Source: Wikipedia

Something is happening to the way we think. My landlady, an old woman, was born in Tibet and that’s what makes her special. Someday, I will call myself Tibetan to feel different to my colleagues. It’s been almost a year since I came to this place (Dharmsala in Himachal Pradesh state of India and the exiled home for His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and many Tibetans) for my project and since then I have been staying at this old lady’s place. Her vocal cord and accent is that of a typical Tibetan woman bred on Yak’s meat and butter tea. Her husband in her words lived for the nation and then died for the nation as well. He was is in the army and fought his last battle in the 1962 war with China.

She used to stay alone. Yesterday, I saw a Tibetan girl with a little baby tied on her back. She looked very young, but possessed the attitude of a mature person.

That evening, when my land lady brought dinner to my room, I immediately asked her about my new neighbor. She told me to finish up my food first. She went to kitchen and returned with a thermal flask with herbal tea. As I held my wooden bowl high for a toast, a new evening had begun. It was calm all around as if the whole world had come to listen to her. She began by saying that the girl was from the same county (Tsangchu County in the eastern part of mainland Tibet) she belongs to in Tibet. She takes a great pride in relishing her native place and the legendary tales it is often associated with. I found it as a prime reason why she brought this girl and the baby from the Newly Arrived Tibetan Centre at Dharmsala.

She had gone to the hostel to donate some clothes when she saw this girl cleaning the floor with a mop stick and a bucket of Dettol mixed with water. The girl still had the baby on her back. Every time the baby cried she would rush to a corner to feed it. My land lady was curious and enquired about the girl. She was delighted to know that they share the same county. She proposed the girl gladly accepted – ‘come, stay with me’.

I could not digest that this girl was only fourteen years old and already was a mother to a year old baby. I wanted to know about more it. My land lady spoke of the many inhuman atrocities and obstacles both the girl and she earlier had to face when escaping from Tibet through Nepal’s border into India.

Even nature hadn’t been cruel as the fellow human being to young girl so full of dreams. She wished for a simple life, which she thought was only possible in India or rather I should say far away from the Chinese brutality that keeps mounting in Tibet. She passed the snow-capped mountains, the chilling breeze, the sun burns, surviving on a limited stock of Tsampa (a traditional Tibetan barley dish). Finally, she made it to Nepal’s border.

All her papers were duly checked by the Nepal Army personnel at the border. Everyone else who had walked and dredged along with her got through, but she was detained. She was escorted to a tent, where she spent three mornings and nights to come not able to resist the constant visits of Army men who raped and harassed her physically and mentally.

A little light dawned when she was escorted to a camp where the Newly Arrived Tibetans stayed in Nepal. She arrived to the young and lost. Within a few months, she was found to be pregnant. The nurses tried to help her, while for two years she stayed helping the cleaning staff.

It did not matter to her if Obama became the President of United States. While other little girls carried books to school, she carried her baby on her back, continued mopping the floor and thought about the price of milk. She did not notice how the rain fell. It mattered more to understand what her baby wanted and how she was to raise the child. She poured her mind into work like it is said, work is love made visible.

In the camp, she had heard nothing about her family back in Tibet. So, in her loneliness, she held her lonely daughter and set out to Dharmasala. Dharmasala is home to the exiled Tibetan government, many Tibetan institutes, and many tourists round the year. From a place where she felt hope had died, she gathered all necessary documents and transferred to Newly Arrived Tibetans Centre located in Dharmasala, Himachal Pradesh.

For a while she admitted her daughter in a baby care centre called Rogpa, which literally means help in Tibetan language, catering to the call of working parents. But, she couldn’t spend any time away and immediately took the baby back.

The last time I saw her she was at the gate of a kindergarten school peering at the light blue and black school uniforms. Maybe, she really wants to see all those unfulfilled simple dreams of hers through her daughter’s life. There are only some memories that time can erase.

Her determination makes me recall a phrase ‘Í know how men in exile feed on dreams of hope…’


The writer worked as the Joint Secretary in the National Democratic Party of Tibet for four years, organizing rallies, hunger strikes and other protest demonstrations for FREE Tibet. Then, the writer was an active member of the Tibetan Jewish Youth Exchange, which imparts  education to students through games and activities. His family has settled in his hometown, Mcloed Ganj, Dharmasala in Himachal Pradesh. Having completed three poetry books, Namgyal currently stays at Chennai working as an Associate in SITEL BPO company at Tidel Park. 

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