The Given Child

To what lengths would a mother go to ensure her family’s survival in a remote Himalayan village?

Pema Khandro, just days after her mother gave her away, seemed not to mind her new situation, as she rode her horse like a princess. (Photograph courtesy of the author)
Pema Khandro, just days after her mother gave her away, seemed not to mind her new situation, as she rode her horse like a princess. (Photograph courtesy of the author)

Jigme led the girl’s horse to the river’s edge. The girl sat her saddle as if it were a throne. The ford was shallow but boulder strewn, and the water flowed fast. It posed hazards no matter how you threaded your way. Up and down the riverbank they probed, Jigme leading the girl and her mount, sizing up the footing, the pools, the obstructive rocks. Then he started the horse into the flow. Jigme gave a sharp tug, and the horse gingerly followed. The girl held on, swaying with the animal’s cautious steps.

We had been told she was seven or eight. This was her fifth day on horseback and her fifth day of separation from her mother and village. Yet from the start, in the saddle and in camp, she seemed to possess the composure of a princess. Even at the close of day, when, like everyone, she was hungry and spent, she maintained her cheer.

We were a medical expedition roaming the limits of farthest Dolpo, on the back side of Nepal’s Himalayan crest, almost in Tibet. We were a traveling village of 80 or more people (including doctors, nurses, a dentist, a traditional healer, camp tenders, and guides) and a similar number of mules and horses. Week by week and village by village, we’d held clinics that provided medical care to people who rarely received it. Also in our party was the highest lama of the region, whom we called Rinpoche (the most familiar of his several titles), along with his attendant monks. Wherever we traveled, people joined us from many miles away, to see Rinpoche and receive his blessing.

In one village, a destitute mother asked Rinpoche to adopt her daughter. He agreed. But Roshi, our teacher, disapproved, as did most of us. Roshi was the abbot of a Zen retreat in the United States. The medical expeditions she organized had served Rinpoche’s domain for several years, and his endorsement of her efforts opened doors for us, both literal and figurative, throughout the region. Roshi told him—politely and respectfully at first, and then later with the considerable bluntness for which she was known—that although generous, the adoption would lead to no good, that he would open himself to dangerous and ugly accusations and thereby put the entire expedition at risk. The girl was too young, for goodness sake, and such a child should not leave her mother, let alone be given to a stranger, and a man at that, no matter how august his reputation. But Rinpoche was as stubborn as he was gentle. He accepted the girl as his daughter, as her mother had asked. The girl, despite her tender years, gave no sign of resentment.

Adoption may suggest a formality that was never present in the transaction we had witnessed. The girl’s village lay in the shadow of snow-clad Dhaulagiri. No matter where you were in the village, whether you looked at the soaring, cloud-wreathed mountain or the bleak stone houses, you felt the contrary pulls of majesty and poverty. Out of this world stepped the mother of the girl.

We were walking a dirt lane between goat pens, Rinpoche in the lead. There was nothing strange in the woman’s approach, for everyone freely approached Rinpoche. In a land of much holiness, he was especially revered because he was seen as a tulku, a reincarnated being in a line of lamas who had embodied the same spiritual essence for age upon age. Everyone knew this. He had come to the village to be close to his people, to be approached. So the woman came up to him.

She said she had three children but could feed only one. She had no goats, no sheep, only a little plot of barley and a mustard garden. She said her husband had not been seen for seven years. He was a trader. He traveled. The yaks he took with him had not been seen again either. He may have died. He may have chosen to live somewhere else. After three years, she took a second husband, the brother of the first. But he, too, went trading and disappeared. She had to keep her eldest child, a 13-year-old girl who was old enough to work. And the boy of nine had gone to be a monk in Pokhara, which meant one less hungry stomach. But there still remained the youngest child, whom she could not support. Would Rinpoche accept her as a humble gift?

Rinpoche, a small man in his 30s with large glasses and ears that projected like wings from his head, tried to visit every family in every village. He had heard tales of sickness and accident. Tales of beatings and abandonment. The importunate woman’s account was one of several he had heard that concerned hunger verging on starvation. But it was the first that ended with the offer of a child. He paused, considering the mother. She was sincere, not at all equivocal. She modestly lowered her eyes and stood before him.

Whereupon a small, slight girl in quilted pants and sooty jumper stepped from behind the mother’s broad skirts and peered up into the lama’s bespectacled eyes. The girl’s cheeks were smudged with grime. A mustache of snot crusted her upper lip. She neither smiled nor frowned. She leaned against her mother’s hip, regarding him. Her gaze was unafraid, her eyes bright. “What is your name?” he asked. Meekly she said, “Pema Khandro.” She watched him carefully.

Among the lama’s first thoughts, I would later learn, was the idea that nothing in his experience had prepared him for this moment. But that did not seem right to him. No, all of life prepared one for all of life. He had heard of such adoptions. Still, they were rare. A week earlier, he had accepted two boys who would come with him to Kathmandu and become monks. But they were almost teenagers, and they would join the temple, or gompa, not his household. They would still belong to their parents.

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William deBuys is the author of 10 books, including The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss. He lives in northern New Mexico on a small farm he has tended since the 1970s.

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