“Thubten Returns”

This is one of my first published short stories. It appeared in ‘First Proof: The Penguin Book of New Writing 4’ published in 2008. The anthology, which featured both fiction as well as poetry and non-fiction, took the unusual route of having the fiction stories start from one end, and the non-fiction from the other, with the two sides flipped in orientation (effectively creating two covers that were identical except for a difference in colour tone). I tried a multiple-voice approach to telling the story “Thubten Returns”.

Thubten returns

Aditi meets Thubten

It was just a matter of chance, but I was there both times that Thubten returned. The first time, it was a few months after I had started working at the shop, minding the counter, finding my feet. It was a crazy place, and I was used by now to weird people wandering in, not like I felt when I’d just started, I remember on my first day there this couple who looked like they hadn’t washed their clothes in a few years, I was thinking what the fuck, but then they turned out to be investment bankers out of New York who had taken a year off to travel around the world. By now, like I said, I was used to it, so I hardly paid any attention to the ragged Nepali-looking guy who limped in, man he had some limp, walked like a rickety boat in heavy seas. Gave him one look, then got back to checking the stock register against the bill book, Amrita ma’am really gave me an earful about it the other day, but it’s not my fault I’m forgetful, it’s all these chemicals in the air and water, they addle our brains, our entire generation is like that, can’t remember a thing.

Next thing I know, he’s at the counter, waiting for me to finish. I wasn’t looking up, but I kind of smelt him standing there, the sour smell of chhang tinged with, oh gross, the sharp tang of pee, I had a brief moment of, like, what kind of cocktail is that, man. So I started giving him The Look, but now that I was seeing him, like really seeing him, I couldn’t help but see that he was quite interesting, he was wearing this beautiful technicolour dreamcoat thing over a stringy, malnourished, bony body. His face was something else, all angles and ridges, some nasty-looking scars on his cheek and chin, it was a face that spoke of the mountains and you believed it.

“Hi, I’m Thubten,” he said.

“Oh, Thubten!” I had heard a lot about him. “I’m Aditi. Amrita ma’am has spoken about you.”

She had, many times. Thubten’s was one of the stories about the shop that had made me feel this was where I wanted to be, I didn’t seem to fit most places, everyone wanted the same-old same-old, you know, pressed clothes, every hair in place, I’m not like that at all, I have to be my own person, don’t I? The way Amrita ma’am described him, Thubten was more of a misfit than I was, so it seemed to me that if he was okay for the shop, why not me?

I knew Amrita ma’am would want to know he was back, so the first thing I did was call her.

Amrita thinks about Thubten

Aditi’s call really threw me. Thubten was back! I couldn’t believe it. And yet, at another level, it seemed perfectly natural, almost run-of-the-mill. Of course, he was back.

I was used to his unpredictable ways. From the first day he had walked into the shop, a couple of years ago, he had been nothing but unpredictable. He had come with Tsering, a Tibetan student at the university, who often visited the shop. I was at the counter that day – we were between assistants, as we often are. I waved hi to Tsering and went back to the book I was reading.

After a while, the two of them came up to the counter. Tsering had picked up a leather-and-brass bracelet, which he asked me about. I told him it was from Nusrat, a runaway who had grown up on the streets, and had been working as a ragpicker when I had shown her how she could make this kind of jewellery. While talking to Tsering, I studied his companion, who was standing to one side, looking at the jackets and shirts. He had a very interesting face, craggy and lined, but it was his clothes that I was interested in. He had on a white blouse-like shirt, with beautiful red and black embroidery on the yoke and here and there on the body and sleeves. His loose linen pajama-like trousers were a deep scarlet, and they too had embroidered motifs on them. Midway down the calf, the legs disintegrated into knotted strips that hung down to his ankles.

Suddenly, still holding the lapel of a jacket he had been looking at, he turned to me and, without preamble, said, “I’m tailor, madam. I do your tailoring. This work no good.”

I was a little affronted. I prided myself on the quality of work put in on the clothes we sold through the shop. Osman, the master tailor whom I worked with to produce most of my designs, had been hand-picked by me several years ago, and worked with us ever since. I was quite satisfied by his work, even if he tended to be recalcitrant in executing anything too innovative.

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked, and the annoyance must have been evident in my voice.

It didn’t seem to bother him. He took the jacket off the rack, and brought it over to the counter. Over the next five minutes, he gave me a masterclass in tailoring, going over the item in minute detail, pointing out a series of flaws that would have been invisible to almost anyone else. I would only have spotted a couple of them if I had studied the garment meticulously.

By the end of his discourse, I was convinced. The exquisite cut of his clothes and the superlative work on them, all of which he told me he had executed himself, certainly added weight to his words. I gave him part of a bolt of vegetable-dyed khadi that had just come in from the block printers in Rajasthan, and asked him to do a jacket with the same cut as the one he was critiquing. I thought he would take that piece to use as reference, but he put it back on the rack. As he was walking out the door, it struck me I knew nothing about him, not even his name, and asked him what it was. “Thubten, madam,” he said, and walked out.

What he came back with a week later was such an improvement on my original design that I knew right away that I’d found someone special. I immediately worked out a deal with him, and he started tailoring outfits for the shop. His output was limited – unlike Osmanbhai, he didn’t have a workshop full of ‘cousins’ doing all the hard labour – but the results were inevitably spectacular. I earmarked a special Thubten rack in the shop for his products, but had to soon do away with it – the rack was often empty, for pieces rarely stayed on it for more than a day.

As the weeks passed, I also got to hear Thubten’s story in dribs and drabs. How, growing up in Lhasa, a bout of polio had left him with one leg twisted for life. How his father, who owned a small shop in Lhasa, had been arrested by the Chinese police following a dispute and had died of a beating in jail. How his mother had packed whatever she felt was absolutely necessary and, with Thubten and his sister Dechen – and a group of about twenty other refugees – begun the long trek over the mountains to India.

“But she not strong, madam,” Thubten told me, “not like you.”

The rigours of the journey had been too much for her. She had fallen sick, a malaise aggravated by months in a damp, insalubrious road camp across the border. She had managed to make it to Dharamsala with them, but lasted only a few more weeks.

That was fifteen years ago. Thubten was seventeen, his sister four years younger. He had promised his mother he would make sure Dechen’s life was as free of strife as possible under the circumstances, and he had struggled assiduously to keep his word. He had more or less forced a Tibetan tailor in exile in McLeodganj to take him on as an apprentice, and had soon displayed an innate talent that far outshone his mentor’s meagre skills.

Encouraged by the older man, Thubten had moved to Delhi where he had set up a shop of his own in the Tibetan market, selling outfits he tailored at home. It couldn’t have been easy – nothing is easy in Delhi if you aren’t flush with cash – but he spoke of it in a matter-of-fact way. It was what was necessary to ensure that Dechen got at least a semblance of a life, and he had done what was required. From the money that he made with his sales, he had greased the right palms to get Dechen into school. Later, while she was still in college, he had managed to find her a husband. Once she was married, he felt free and that’s when he started looking at other things to do with his tailoring.

“Then Great Buddha deliver me to you,” he said. “Maybe as reward for my patience.”

I had cried at his words. He had reached out and taken my hands in his. What beautiful hands they were, fingers so long and slender, almost alien in their proportions, like ET’s with the glowing tip.

During the fifteen months that Thubten wove his magic for the shop, I got used to his idiosyncracies. For one thing, he seemed to have no concept of time. Often, he would promise a date of delivery and then disappear, to walk in with his consignment several days late.

On one such occasion, already stressed by low sales in the wake of a bomb attack in the city, I rebuked him, “Thubten, if you’re going to be so unreliable, I can’t keep giving you clothes to make.”

“What happened, madam?” he replied, quite the innocent babe.

“You said delivery on Sunday. That’s what happened.”

“Today Sunday, madam.”

Taken aback at this amazing response, I almost laughed. But I managed to keep my voice stern.

“Today’s Friday, Thubten. You’re five days late!”

To my complete disconcertment, he looked at his watch, and then said, “Sorry, madam. Watch stopped.”

After a few moments of speechlessness, I just broke up, laughing till my stomach hurt.

I also stopped giving him designs to work on. He seemed to approach his design from a different dimension from us trained professionals, and the results were extraordinary. I had realised early that it was a much better idea to let him do his own thing with the textiles I gave him. Ninety percent of the time, I would get back something out-of-this-world. Ninety percent of the time.

Once, a visiting Japanese friend had given me a length of beautiful turquoise silk as a gift. My husband’s birthday was coming up, so I asked Thubten to design something special out of the silk as a gift. A few days later, Thubten came to the shop with a newspaper packet. He opened it with all the flourishes of an amateur magician and showed me – a set of long turquoise strips.

“What is this?” I asked him, nonplussed.

“Sadhu underwear,” he replied, beaming with pride and pleasure.

He had cut the cloth into long strips to create a set of loincloths for my husband to wear. And he’d actually thought it was a great idea.

That was what it was like with Thubten. You never knew what was coming next.

One day, about a year ago, he had dropped off a consignment and was telling me about life in the Tibetan settlement in Majnu ka Tila where he was staying. A customer who was looking at the music CDs asked me a question about a musician, and I got side-tracked. As I spoke to her, Thubten gestured to get my attention. When I looked at him, he mimed smoking a cigarette and walked out the door. And that was it – he just vanished.

I was not too perturbed. By his standards, this was everyday behaviour. He had disappeared before, for days on end, when no one seemed to know where he was. But this time, it seemed like he was gone for good. I asked Tsering the next time he came to the shop, but he didn’t know anything about it. He checked with Dechen when he met her, and later told me that she had no word of him either. We all decided philosophically that we would see him when we would see him. But every time I had a particularly interesting fabric to work with, I wondered where he was and whether he was okay.

Now, out of the blue, he was back. As I got out of the car, I had to restrain myself from running to the shop. When I got there, he was standing at a rack, fingering one of the pieces like he had done the first time he visited the shop, while Aditi watched him furtively from her position at the counter. He was looking more emaciated than he had when he disappeared and, when I got close to him, I saw that he had a couple of scary-looking scars on his face. I walked up to him and almost hugged him, but I knew that would make him uncomfortable, so I restricted myself to just holding him by the shoulders and giving him a big smile. Even at that, he shrank a little inside the colourful coat that he had on.

“It’s so good to see you, Thubten,” I said. “Where have you been for such a long time?”

“Good for me, too, madam,” he responded. “I’ve been most time in jail, madam.”

I was flabbergasted. This, I thought, was going to be some tale. It was close to lunchtime, so I told Aditi to shut the shop for a while. We went into the office, and Aditi joined us as I sat and gestured for Thubten to do so as well.

“Tell us the whole story, Thubten,” I said.

Thubten tells his tale

Madam look at me with so much kindness, I ask Great Buddha why she look at me like that, but others like I am cowdung. But right now, I tell her what she ask.

“When I leave shop that day, when madam talking to lady customer, no cigarette-wallah nearby, because Pandu, who sits two doors from shop, not there that day. I walk towards park, find cigarette-wallah, and see who is there? My friend Dawa, his brother and one more Tibetan. They all have Tibetan flag tied like hanky on head, look like sun is rising out of their minds.

“Dawa tell me, ‘Come, Thubten, free Tibet demo… demon-tation in park, you also join.’

“Dawa good friend, so I go. Big crowd in park, all shouting this slogan, that slogan. I sit and think about design of Tibet flag on jacket. Suddenly, lot of noise, then water thrown hard at us, people running here and there, policemen hitting with lathis. I try to run, but legs not good, I fall down. One policeman hit me with lathi again and again, I try to save myself, he hit my hand, break fingers.

When I tell this part, madam hold my hand, see three fingers now all bent. Madam cry, I can’t say anything. Once before also, she cry like this.

“Then police push me into van, many other Tibetans also, take us all to jail.”

Madam look very upset, she say, “Why you didn’t call me, Thubten? You have right.”

I think about that. How to say what I am thinking?

“When man have no country, no home, no address, madam, man not exist. Man who not exist have no right, madam.”

“You been in jail from then, Thubten?” madam ask.

I say, “No, that was only short time jail. But in jail I meet foreigner, he German, but he speak English, not very good. He say his name Gunther. We talk, he ask me questions, what I do, how much I earn? He ask, you want to make big money?

“I think, Dechen married, now I free, why not make big money if chance comes? I say sure, Gunther. So when woman come to give money for Gunther, he say give money for Thubten also. I go out with Gunther and lady. They take me to airport, fly to Calcutta.

“I stay in Calcutta three-four days, in hotel, Gunther pay everything. They give me new suit, haircut, shave, take me for photo. Then they give me passport, my photo, my name Thubten Yangphel on it. They give me bag, plane ticket, tell me I fly to Austria. Very exciting for me, first time going to abroad. I know something funny, but big money, nice people, why ask too much questions.

“When I go for flight, man at custom desk stop me. They put me one side, open my bag. Take out some packages. Then, back to jail. Police say I smuggling. I say I don’t know, someone give me to take. Judge say, one year jail.

“Two days back, I get free. Catch train to Delhi, general compartment, no ticket checker. I go home, someone else living there. I have some chhang, fall asleep in a gutter. When I wake up, nowhere to go, come here.”

Madam give me strange look. Say, “Thubten, you something else.”

I reply, “Yes, madam.” What else to say?

Amrita gives Thubten a home

As he had done so often in the past, Thubten had left me speechless. How could one life be so crammed with so many bizarre, tragic-comic experiences? It was almost like he was a lab rat being thrust into incredible situations by a mad supernatural scientist, to test how he would react to them. Kind of like Job in the Bible. Where Job had faith, however, Thubten had a fatalistic Buddhist equanimity. Nothing seemed to faze him. He simply accepted all the ups and downs, maybe because he had never experienced any such thing as a stable, sedate life.

Luckily, I didn’t have to think much about his immediate future. The condition of his hand ruled out his doing tailoring work, now or anytime in the near future. If that hand was to return to normal, it would have to be attended to by a top-notch surgeon, maybe a dedicated physiotherapist as well afterwards. Not a treatment plan I could afford to sponsor.

What I could do was set him up with an alternative livelihood, until someone came along who could fund his recovery. And I had one, ready and waiting. Tripathiji, who was the caretaker at my brother’s farmhouse, had asked to be allowed to go back to his village, where he owned agricultural land, so he could build a house for himself. His daughter would be old enough to marry in a year’s time, and he wished to be able to organize the ceremony in a pucca house. My brother had asked me to find someone to take his place, someone trustworthy who would look after the house and the guests of my brother’s who sometimes flew in from Britain, where he stayed. I had been looking for a few weeks, but hadn’t found anyone suitable. Now, it looked like I had.

So I set Thubten up at the farmhouse. He was quite happy there. There was a lot of free time, which he spent trying to train his claw of a hand to obey his will. I would look him up every few weeks, and was glad to find each time that he had made surprising progress with his embroidery. It was slow and painstaking, but the beauty of his handiwork shone through. The other thing he was doing was reading – he had decided his lack of fluency in English was a major factor in the difficulties he had faced in the time away from the shop, so he was now trying to get himself up to speed. On my visits, we would speak in English, and he was constantly improving in that area, too.

After close to a year had passed, during which I saw him less and less, one day he was back at the shop. I was working at the computer in the office, and was startled to see him as he walked in. He was now looking quite healthy and happy again, and his being seemed to shine with an inner light. He was beaming from ear to ear, as he reached out and shook my hand.

“I have something to say, madam,” he said, “but it is difficult.”

“What’s up, Thubten?” I said. “You know you don’t have to be shy with me.”

“Not shy, madam, but a little worried. Hope you won’t mind what I say.”

“Try me – that’s the only way we’ll know.”

“Madam, I want… no, not want… madam, I have to leave.”

“Leave – for what? Where do you have to go?”

“I have good opportunity, madam. In England.”

“In England!? What opportunity?”

“Madam, I have fiancée there. I want to go to England and get married, settle down.”

Once again, Thubten had me dumbstruck. After I had found my voice, I tried to get to the bottom of this extraordinary revelation. It turned out that the lucky lady was the daughter of one of my brother’s friends, a girl called Priscilla Pinkerton. I couldn’t even believe the name, it sounded like it belonged in a fairy tale. The young woman had come to India to find herself, and had found Thubten instead. It was a whirlwind romance, by the end of which they had decided to get married. She had returned to England and, from there, made all the arrangements for him to join her.

I was riven with joy and fear – joy for the love that he so transparently displayed, and fear that this may be another of the puckish games that fate liked to play with him. But I didn’t let the fear overpower the joy.

“I hope Great Buddha will look after you,” I said.

“He will, madam, he will,” Thubten replied solemnly. “My name, Thubten, madam, it means ‘good fortune’ and see my good fortune. I find you and now Priscilla find me.”

I helped him organise his passport – that would have been a difficult one, but my husband knew some people in the external affairs ministry – his visa, his belongings, found someone to take his place at my brother’s farmhouse. Eventually, I saw him off on the plane, and this time no customs official stopped him, because I got a call from Priscilla a day later to tell me Thubten had arrived in London.

Aditi meets Thubten again

The second time that Thubten returned, it was eight years after the first, I was now working in a tattoo parlour across town from the shop, doing well for myself out there. I had a photo exhibition coming up, I had been shooting the people who came to us for tattoos, they’re fascinating people, mostly. The tattooed bodies make for good photo subjects, too. I was headed for the shop that day to talk to Amrita about publicity material for the show, she was still my sheet anchor, turned to her every time I needed to do something big, new, different, whatever. She’s like our mother, you know, all of us ever worked at the shop, and a good mother, one that will yell at you, but only for your good.

So I walk in the shop, anticipating the raucous reception I’ll get, haven’t been there in a while, after all, but the joke’s on me. There’s Thubten, sitting drinking tea with Amrita. He’s wearing this awesome purple suit with a mauve silk shirt, one look tells me it’s tailored by him. He gets up when I walk in, and reaches out a hand, I’m having none of that, I grab him and squeeze tight, and wonder of wonders he puts his arms around me.

When we disentangle ourselves, he reaches down to this humongous bag he’s got lying at his feet, pulls out a package and gives it to me. It’s a beautiful necklace, looks like it’s spitting fire as it turns in the light, I can’t possibly take this from him, but he insists and Amrita says, take it, it’s your karma.

We yak and yak, and I get the picture bit by bit like a jigsaw puzzle. He’s happily married, has two kids, he and Prissy (that’s what he calls her, fucking hell!) run a very successful boutique in Soho, she looks after the business, he does the design and tailoring. Oh yes, tailoring – one of the first things Priscilla did after Thubten got to England was to take him to see one of the finest neurosurgeons in the country (Indian, by the way), and by the end of the year his hand was fully functional again. The boutique is doing very well, Thubten is fabulously wealthy, he does outfits for the rich and famous, even some rock stars who like his quirky sense of aesthetics.

So he’s back here in India, you’ll never guess for what.

“To repay my debts,” he says, and his accent is almost flawless.

He’s been visiting everyone who ever helped him when he was in India, and giving them the most appropriate, the most heart-warming gifts. And that means everyone – even one jailor who was slightly less cruel to him than the others.

“What a turnaround,” I say. “Who could ever have predicted this?”

Thubten thinks about this for a few moments. He is evidently thinking back to something in the past, something that he remembers.

Finally, he says, “When a man has no country, no home, no address, Aditi madam, he has nothing to hold him back. He can do anything, go anywhere, be anyone.”

He looks at Amrita and winks, actually winks at madam. Amrita laughs and reaches out to squeeze his hand.

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