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Published: June 25th 2013
One morning a friend of the Lopchans called on Frank with an invitation to attend the naming ceremony of their new baby. He had a car, a rare asset for anyone to possess those days, and he drove him to the Lopchan’s home.
A young Buddhist lama
was presiding. He had been delegated to do the job by an older lama
who was unable to attend, and the Lopchans were not completely happy with this arrangement. He wore secular clothes, and said he could get married - a far cry, Frank was told by Kalpana, from the state of affairs in Sikkim, where lamas
were genuine lamas
The altar was set out on two crates, and on the altar stood a brass vase with a long slender spout, containing a holy liquid, called 'thui
', made from milk, water, sugar, honey and butter. In the vase stood an ornate object made of peacock's feathers surrounding a red centre rather like those Baroque Catholic monstrances containing the host in their centre. On the right of the vase stood a small stylised metal thunderbolt called a 'dorji
', a small bowl of rice, an oil lamp, a statue of Buddha; and 'tito pati'
, a green plant normally used to clean floors, and used on this occasion symbolically. On the floor by the left end of the altar was a bowl of burning coals on which incense was sprinkled. A special white stone lay in the coals, and, Dawa, the eldest son, fanned them to make the stone hot.
The lama began chanting mantras, accompanying himself with a hand-bell, and now and again by a double-sided hand drum. From time to time he sprinkled a little rice in the air. No-one bothered to listen to the mantras, unless actively involved. The prayers were the lama’s responsibility alone. The family went about its business without lowering their voices, stopping only when they had a part to play in the proceedings.
A big bowl was placed in front of the altar and the 'tito pati'
was put in the bottom, and the hot stone on top of the plant. Kalpana, her baby in her arms, sat beside the bowl, and held her hand over it. The lama poured some 'thui
' onto her hand and into the bowl, which caused a cleansing sizzle. She wiped the 'thui
' over her baby and herself. This was repeated several times, after which the rest of the family participated, giving their mouths and hair the most thorough treatment.
Then the lama took out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket, and read the baby's name: Pembhu ('Pem', because it was born on a Saturday; 'bhu' because the lama said so). This is the name the child was to be called in everyday life, though in fact nicknames such as 'elder brother' or 'younger brother' are more usually used for young children. The Lopchans could not recall the real name of their second daughter, and called her bahini
, little sister. They would go later to a holy lama
for the most important naming ceremony, involving the consultation of astrological charts. The name chosen would be used in astrological predictions throughout the boy's life.
Following this, a white scarf was put around the Buddha, and the family took turns to prostrate themselves three times before it. The whole affair was wound up by some more mantras, after which Tashi presented 10 rupees on a plate, wrapped around by a scarf, to the lama for his services.
The rest of the day was spent eating, drinking chang
, and chatting. In the evening, Tashi and his friends sang and danced while the children slept in the other room. The day finished with a surprise meal at midnight. Kalpana said this happened often, and she had to cope alone with the babies and make food for her husband's rowdy friends.
It was raining, and a tiddly Tashi insisted, in spite of Frank’s protests, that his friend would drive him back home. No-one could say 'no' to Tashi, and his friend was compliant.
“I'll join you for the ride,” said Tashi, and he climbed into the coveted front passenger seat, leaving Frank to sit in a less prestigious position at the back. They honked their way slowly through the throng, and rain. The windscreen wipers weren't working, so every now and then, their driver was obliged to reach out of the window and wipe the windscreen with an old rag, all the time steering the car with his left hand.
Tashi escorted Frank into his flat, which seemed an unnecessary courtesy, leaving his friend outside minding the car. He lingered for no apparent reason, and Frank felt obliged to fill the silence with some awkward small talk. It was late and he wanted to go to bed, but felt obliged to invite him to sit down. He asked if he wanted a whisky, but no he didn't. In the end he had to ask him what he wanted. With a show of great shame and embarrassment, Tashi confessed that he had just got a woman pregnant and had to find 200 rupees to pay for an abortion and to compensate her for the 'inconvenience'. Frank gave him the money, sternly admonishing him for his carelessness, and impressing on him that he wouldn't help him to get out of a similar mess in the future.
“Don't worry,” he said. “I'll get a vasectomy.”
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