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Manoa 13.2 (2001) 150-152

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Russian Names

Kesang Tseten

Ever since his neighbor's daughter and her two children died in a fire, Loka has stopped sitting out in his yard, where I would join him and listen while he talked. The news came on a sun-drenched summer day, perfect for sitting outdoors, and arrived like a siren in the midst of a lazy picnic.

Loka is in his seventies--no one knows for sure his exact age--and gaunt. A man of wide learning, he is known in particular for possessing a rare, intimate knowledge of the old traditions. There is about him an air of practiced self-control--not because of tai chi, as he likes to say, but simply because he is a master of Eastern dignity and poise.

On the terrible day of the fire, he is tending his garden. He wears a faded-blue cotton coat over his pajamas--an outfit only he can get away with--and an old sun hat of dried grass, made in the People's Republic. When he hears the news of the fire, he drops the branch of the rosebush he has been tending, and as it falls, a white scratch appears on the back of his brown hand.

Loka reacts with shock and sadness, as any neighbor would upon hearing such news. He recites an extra passage from his prayer book and lights a hundred butter lamps at the temple of Tara. He would light another hundred lamps--or another two or three hundred for that matter--but guided by propriety, he restrains himself.

Loka is among the last surviving native Tibetan sages. True experts like him can only be found in his generation, and sad to say, they are dying out. The more obscure the subject matter, the finer Loka's grasp of it. Polyandry, the library of the Ninth Dalai Lama, famous female yogis of the eleventh century--all esoteric topics are at his fingertips.

Loka lives off fees he gets from allowing foreign anthropologists to interview him; their books, filled with his knowledge, are displayed in a row on his shelf. He delights in giving his visitors just a glimpse at a time of his vast storehouse of knowledge, and takes even more pleasure in showing up these hotshot professors from prestigious American universities. No matter how annoyed they may be by his condescension, they tolerate it, aware of how quickly men like Loka are disappearing and of the consequences of such losses for their scholarship. [End Page 150]

After a session with them, Loka sits alone in the evaporating glow of their flattery. As he scans the lengthening row of scholarly publications labeled with the scrawled word "Tibetology," his bitterness makes him appear even more gaunt. His bitterness and anger become grief when he looks at the envelopes containing the fees left by his visitors. He uses the money to purchase choice bones for his five dogs. One day, when he dries up completely and there are no more note-taking imposters with their envelopes of money, what will happen to his beloved little ones? To Tenzi, Tutu, Tashi, Mummy, and Singdu? Pronouncing their names, Loka massages each little frame one by one, feeling the little ribs, as the shaggy little bodies sniff warmly and excitedly at his feet.

Autumn winds blow away the stillness of summer, and a sweet melancholy has set in. There is a munificence in the gold of falling leaves and the fragile blue of cloud-streaked sky. Then the first whiff of winter comes: the intense glare of snow suddenly appearing on the distant peaks, the quickened pace of pedestrians in the streets, the delicate aroma of warm bread everywhere, and colorful woolen clothing set off against the darkening winter sky. The young people are invigorated by the cold, while the old people oil their aging joints until their skin almost glistens.

All at once, Loka has stopped his fretting. He no longer talks about the tome he plans to write on polyandry and polygamy among the Jangthang nomads. He stops working on his Tibetan equivalent...


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