At someone’s shegu2, a few of us had gathered around making small talk. In the most non
sequitur manner, the small talk ended up resulting in a story-telling session. Our topic- Death.
It seemed uncomfortably ungracious but strangely fitting to be talking about death at a shegu;
and we did. We spoke of people we knew who had passed away. Of people we had loved,
people we had barely known. What I realized was that everyone had a thing or two to say
about death. Everyone had stories.
“It happened about six or seven years ago,” I began. “I was new on the job and never punctual
to work. Every morning, I would hurry out from the car and run to the elevator to take me to
the third floor of the office building. In a clumsy celerity, I’d make it to the elevator just in
time to be greeted with, “Good morning, Bainila3,” by the lift operator, whom everyone called ‘Lift Agya.’
Lift Agya was in his 40’s; He could have been in his 50’s. Nobody knew how old he was and
nobody cared anyway. He had the face of an ordinary exhausted man. There was nothing
distinct about his facial features or the tone of his voice. Even with his glasses on, one could
see deep wrinkles formed around his dark eyes. He was querulous in nature but I suppose all
of us are. He drank on the job. It was no hugger-mugger and he had been warned but he
seemed to function quite all right even as an inebriate and I don’t think other than babunis
who chew gums uncouthly or skillfully knit at their office desks while exchanging gossip of
their localities, no one seemed to have a serious problem with his drinking habit. It was also
known that his wife had left him many years ago (because of his drinking) and his children
were all grown up and lived away from him. He was lonely and he drank to escape from it.
That was the unexpressed justification. On regular mornings, in that 30- 40 second ride up,
he’d sometimes complain about the weather, financial difficulties or someone he disliked.
Every now and then he’d ask me if he could borrow 100 rupees and sometimes 200 rupees.
He used the term ‘borrow’ but I never expected him to return it. In spite of being warned by
few babunis at work, I didn’t mind giving money to him. I knew the man had difficulties. With
that kind of bond built, we both went about with our Sisyphean tasks.
One Wednesday morning, as he was taking me to the third floor, he asked, “Bainila, can I ask
you for a favour?” and I knew what he needed. “Could I borrow two hundred rupees?” He
requested. I reached into my wallet and realized I wasn’t carrying any money. “Lhaaa4! Agya,
I don’t have cash right now. I need to go to the ATM,” I said. He looked disappointed and let
out a sigh. I felt awkwardly guilty and I don’t know why. I mean I wasn’t compelled nor was
he entitled but I remember feeling like I had failed him.
On Friday when I got to work, there was a bit of a commotion going on. “What’s happening?”
I asked a colleague and he replied, “Inquest. The police are here.”
“Lift Agya passed away. He committed suicide and has left behind a note. He blames no one
The news shook me in the same way that shakes everyone when they are told that someone,
they knew have killed themselves. It is never easy to process instantly.
The next few days, I kept thinking about my last conversation with Lift Agya. Naturally, I
dwelled on regret and guilt for not giving him the two hundred rupees that he had asked for.
I knew he would have used it for alcohol but that didn’t matter to me. If that was one of the
few things he wanted to do before killing himself, I wished I had helped him then.
After about a week, I made up my mind to go to the monastery one morning to light chimmi5
and say a prayer for him. It seemed to be the right thing to do.
At the Chimmi Lakhang6 a young monk was busy arranging the butter lamps and making sure
the water level was right in the thi bum7. There were sizes of butter lamps laid across the
table- big and medium. The monk asked me, “How many would you like to light?”
Without considering the sizes and the number, I replied. “All on the front row,” and began
praying while he got the incense ready. I wasn’t really saying prayers but in fact, apologizing
to Lift Agya that I couldn’t give him what he wanted and hoped that he was in a better place,
in another world.
I opened my eyes, lit the lamps on the front row, followed by chyaap8. Then with folded
hands, I bowed before it.
Turning to the monk, I asked, “How much la9?”
“Two hundred rupees,” He replied.
1 a term used to refer to an elder male in the Sikkimese Bhutia language
2The 49th day Buddhist ritual following the death of a person
3 a term used to refer to a younger female in the Sikkimese Bhutia language
4 an expression used when one makes a mistake or regrets one’s action.
5 butter lamps used in Buddhist rituals
6 the section in the monastery where butter lamps are placed
7the vessel used for water in Buddhist rituals
8 sprinkling of water as a part of the purification ritual
9 a vernacular suffix added to the end of a sentence by Sikkimese people