I’ve tried out a story based on the local belief, “Pengpa Yurung Bo Tshe, Koncho Towa Treto” in Kurmedkha. (Pengpa Yurung is name of a bird. In Dzongkha it’s known as Ser Juru) This belief is commonly shared in the localities of Tsamang region under Monggar dzongkhag. This local belief embodies in itself the prevalence of seasonal poverty in the locality. The bird, Pengpa Yurung sings at a time when seeds have gone to the grounds for next generation of crops. This is the time when farmers would have their granaries gone at its lowest, therefore facing acute shortage of grains until next generation crops fill their granaries to the brim. Now with development initiatives penetrating deeper at the grassroots level, this may no longer be relevant to many farmers but this painful situation had been a farmers’ part of life until mid 1980s or so.
Peng…pa yurung! Peng…pa yurung! a melancholic song of a bird comes from a distant forest as the morning sun hits the roof of Ap Pema’s traditional duplex house. Monsoon is at its peak, with sudden and unexpected showers. “Tik…tik, tik…tik,” last drops from the midnight’s rain dripped down from the edges of their bamboo roofing. Ap Pema was still in his bed lying sideways facing the window with his head rested on his left palm, lost in a deep thought. He wasn’t thinking about his day’s work or any of those sorts. Hearing the song of a bird, and recollecting the words of his elders, his heart ached, as with the songs of this bird tough days awaited him and his family.
As usual Phogmo, his wife was already up. She swept the rooms, cleaned her face and offered Yoenchab and Sang in the family altar. The altar consisted of an old Kuthang of Zhabdrung Phuensum Tshogpa hung on the wall and a table laid before it. The Kuthang although was stitched from one of those calendars, appeared dark and antique due to constant exposure to smokes from their oven. The shrine looked perfect for a decent family of Ap Pema when seven bowls with water offerings are laid on that table and a Bumpa appropriately placed on its right. The rooms were filled with soothing and refreshing smells of Sang that his wife had offered.
Ap Pema laid there surrounded by his three children. On his right was his little daughter Yangmo in her deepest slumber. On his left were his two sons Karma and Dorjila. While the younger son Dorjila was still in his sleep, Karma was awake and was trying to wake up his younger brother with his usual prank by placing a piece of thread in his nostrils. In few attempts, Karma succeeded in waking up his brother with a huge sneezing. This broke Ap Pema into laughter allowing him to hide his sorrows for the time being.
Phogmo sat leaning over an oven, biting her nails as Ap Pema returned after washing his face.
“You look sad today, what’s the matter?” asked Ap Pema.
Phogmo looked at her husband to speak out the truth, but then their children rushed in.
“Kids go and fetch your bangchungs and cups,” announced Phogmo while she diligently placed pots of Kharang and curry at the center of the floor. Phogmo then served breakfast, first to Ap Pema and then to their children.
With games over ruling their thought, children finished up their breakfasts hurriedly and went outside to play. Father and mother were left behind sitting face to face there. Just when Ap Pema was about to pack his bangchung, his wife said, “Our kharang stock has really gone low. I don’t know if it would last for another few weeks.”
Ap Pema did not reply, instead scratched his head and looked through the window completely baffled. Outside their maize crop have grown their heights and some of them already bore infant corncobs and it means another few months to fully ripe.
While children ran about, their poultry went helter-shelter as if a hungry eagle soared over their head. Hearing this Ap Pema could not resist blaming the ill fate that his family was undergoing through and murmured, “Even these hens have stopped laying eggs.” “And our cow’s milk has drastically gone down too,” his wife added. The situation was only getting worse with their supplementary foods too, slowly drying out. And then a dead silence followed, as the two stared at each other helplessly.
After a deep sigh, “We might have to survive on porridges for dinners and light lunches from here on,” Ap Pema suggested. “I think we should start doing this immediately, in order for us to pass this lean period,” agreed his wife. Ap Pema pulled out his knife and rope from one of the corners of the room and left to collect grasses for the cattle.
Thereafter, the family had been on porridges for couple of weeks now. It may not be as nutritious as regular Kharang but Phogmo’s skillful boiling of maize flour along with salt, chili and a pinch of pepper sufficed their dinner. The children frequently expressed their dislikes over it, but it wasn’t to the likes of their parents either. It was the situation that dictated.
One evening, Phogmo as usual, placed a pot of porridge and cups in the middle of the floor and was ready to be served. Ap Pema pulled out his cup as Phogmo served them. Karma and Dorjila pushed their cups reluctantly while their youngest, Yangmo sat beside her mother, her head drooping and hands scratching the cup. This sent a message across that tonight she is not going for it. Ap Pema could not find any ways to plead Yangmo, instead he looked up where Lama Koncho (a bowl for offering food to Kenchog Sum) was kept. It stood there upside down and has been like that for last few weeks. At that moment, “Peng…pa Yurung” a song of this bird is heard again loudly from nearby forest. This instilled in Ap Pema yet another painful thought, “I’ve heard our elders say, but never experienced it myself before. The old local belief that when Pengpa Yurung starts singing, the Koncho would go hungry is still valid. Actually it’s not just Koncho that’s going hungry, it’s happening to my family this time.” He could not bear to see his daughter going to bed without anything to eat that night.
In the corner, Phogmo started snoring with her right arm held over Yangmo in a hug. Similarly, other two children were at the peak of their sleep. However, Ap Pema could not sleep. The more he gave way to his thoughts of helplessness, the more it haunted him. As father and the head of the family, the responsibility of keeping children and family happy fell upon him. Seeking solutions to restore family happiness kept him awake that night.
The next morning, Phogmo is awakened by unusual bleating of the calf.
“Wai Pema, our calf is bleating unusually today.”
There was no answer. Clearing her eyes, she looked at his bed. Ap Pema is nowhere to be seen while Karma and Dorjila enjoyed their peaceful sleep. Wrapping Kira around the waist, she went to the barn where only calf was seen with its continuous bleat. The cow is gone too.
Where did Ap Pema and the cow go, she wondered.
As she approached their wooden stair, “Where is Apa?” came in soft voice from the top. Yangmo woke up early today and was watching her from the stair top.
“Apa has gone for some urgent work at neighbour’s place. He’ll come in the evening only,” Phogmo lied and kept the worries of his whereabouts to herself only. There was nothing she could do at that moment, but she did suspect that he could be on some business.
Towards the evening, when she was readying her pot for dinner preparation, someone started climbing up the stairs heavily. It was her husband carrying a bag on his back. Phogmo was frustrated and did not want to speak. Sensing that Ap Pema said, “Phogmo you don’t have to behave like that. You see, yesterday when our child had to sleep empty stomach, I got totally disturbed and I could not even sleep.” Hesitantly he continued, “There was nothing I could do …” as he unloaded the bag.
Phogmo looked at his eyes and compromised, “It’s okay. You did this for good – for the happiness of our children. I was just worried where you would have disappeared.”
“Then let us give our children a surprise tonight,” replied Ap Pema much relieved.
That night, children were seated as usual. Phogmo opened the pot of rice that lit up the eyes of their children. While children happily ate their dinner, Ap Pema was left staring at them and the songs of “Peng…pa Yurung” gradually faded away from his mind.