The evening was cold. The promise of snow was looming in the air and the heavy smoke from the countless bukharis gave Bumthang an eerie atmosphere.
The Dawa Transport screamed to a halt in front of Sonam Hotel in the cold dusk. The passengers, all buried under thick clothes, looked tired and hungry. Who wouldn’t be? They had been cramped inside the cold bus for the whole day, and on crossing Thrimshingla, had even caught a snowfall.
Slowly, reluctant to leave their warm seats, the passengers disembarked off the bus and hurried to the safety of the hotels; some to Sonam Hotel, other to others. Aum Sonam, the owner was waiting with flasks full of steaming suja. And, she had also prepared a large pot of bathu, just in case.
“Brrr…it is COLD!” remarked Karma to nobody in particular as he entered through the door. He straightaway moved towards the bukhari, where some women were warming themselves. He edged himself near a young woman with a baby in her lap, whom he had seen on the bus some six rows ahead of him. He noticed that she looked young, maybe 17 or 18… but her face bore the marks of motherhood. He offered her a smile which she returned in kind. Karma’s heart fluttered and he blushed, as sudden lust took hold of him. But he managed to keep a straight face.
“Aunty… can I have a bowl of bathu?” Karma asked of aum Sonam, who went into the kitchen to comply.
Opposite to Karma, a gyelong sat, sipping something from a cup, which he assumed to be suja. Suddenly the baby started to cry, and the young woman nursed the baby. Karma could see the lust in the gyeong’s eyes as he espied her pale breasts. The baby suckled for sometime, while Karma’s bathu arrived.
As he put a spoonful to his lips, it was scalding hot. “Dha…” he cursed, unmindful of the others in the room. His cursing awoke the child, who started crying again.
“Yalaa… sorry” he apologized to the mother.
She smiled at him but said nothing. Then the driver of the bus joined them. He was an elderly man, pot-bellied with a hint of yesterday’s stubble on his chin. He was followed by his helper, the khalasi.
“Your child must be cold, that’s why she is crying”, the driver remarked. The mother smiled and looked at the child fondly. The khalas also saw the gyelong gazing at the woman and nudged the driver.
“Wai, lopen gyelong! Your eyes might fall out of their sockets” commented the driver, to which the gyelong scowled. Meanwhile Karma had finished his bathu and joined in his conversations.
“How many of you want rooms?” aum Sonam shouted across the room towards thebukhari. The driver and his helper asked for one, so did Karma. But the woman did not. The gyelong was silent.
After some time, Karma left the comfort of the bukhari and collecting his room key went to his room which was located upstairs. He refreshed himself, and exited the room only to bump in the woman in the corridor. She was full of tears.
“What happened?” he inquired.
“That gyelong and the driver were teasing me, so I left” she replied. As it was chilly in the corridor he invited her inside his room and asked whether she had booked a room in this hotel or not.
“No, I haven’t”.
“Then where are you staying?”
She didn’t reply. Her neck bowed, she was silently weeping.
“Tell me… Is there any problem?” he asked her softly.
“My husband… I ran… I ran away from my husband… he used to beat me a lot. He works in Thimphu… and… I don’t have any money” she faltered.
Karma didn’t know what to say. He also didn’t have money to spare because he was working just as a temporary staff in THPA. He was returning home to visit his ailing mother.
“You can stay in this room” he offered. When she looked quizzed at him, he added, “You can take the bed. I will sleep on the floor”.
She cried further but silently because her baby was sleeping.
He offered to go downstairs to bring something to eat. As he entered the bar he saw thegyelong deep in conversation with a woman. He was offering her beer, while he drank from a cup. The driver was nowhere to be seen but his helper was still beside the bukhari. He was teasing an elderly lady, passing crude jokes and lewd remarks which she seemed to be enjoying.
Karma ordered dinner and said he would take it later in his room. He didn’t say anything about the woman in his room. Next he went outside and bought some chugo. He even went to a medical shop and got some condoms.
When he returned back to the hotel, the gyelong was leaving, accompanied by the woman he was drinking with. On an impulse he went to the table where the gyelong had sat lately and sniffed his cup. It reeked of ara.
“Gyelong tramaship!” he muttered under his breath.
He carried his dinner himself with the pretext to eat in his room, but as he reached the landing, he saw that his door was ajar. The woman and the baby were nowhere to be seen. Nor were his bags there.
He returned back to the counter to complain to aum Sonam but she was deep in a lively laugh with the driver.
“Wai… Jinda Aum. My bags have been stolen from the room by the woman with the baby.”
“Which one? The one who sat with you beside the bukhari?” the driver asked.
“I thought she was with you, because she asked for your room number, and she implied that she was your wife” aum Sonam said.
“How did she get inside your room?” the driver asked to which Karma replied impatiently, “Never mind how she got in. She has disappeared with my bags…” The driver and aumSonam passed a knowing look between them.
“What can I do? All my money is in that bag” Karma lamented.
“She must have used the back door to flee” aum Sonam suggested, not the least concerned.
Then they resumed their teasing, while Karma looked around angrily. And helplessly.