|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen Trong Van
On the recent Buddha's Birthday, I got the opportunity to attend the International Buddhist Conference held in New Delhi, India, as an independent researcher of Buddhism. When the meeting came to an end, I was invited by the Organising Board, together with the other freelancers like me who did not belong to the Buddhist Sangha, to pay a visit to the township of Bodh Gaya. Veeru Singh, Ph.D., one of the Board members, told me that the name meant "Cradle of Buddhism".
The 45-year-old guide was tall and tanned and enthusiastic, with round black eyes. "I'm in great sympathy with Viet Nam," he said when he came to me one morning. His sincerity was why we soon became friends. "We meet lots of pilgrims coming to this holy town from various lands and all walks of life. Many of them are your fellow-countrymen who have voluntarily stayed here as nuns living at charitable institutions." His words excited me. I couldn't believe that in such a far-away sacred place, I might meet such people.
Indeed, it was here that I was lucky enough to see a true Buddhist believer. Oddly enough, she was not only an acquaintance of mine, but also one of my former classmates. I had not heard anything about her for ages, except for a few unconfirmed remarks that she had given up everything to lead a secluded life somewhere no one knew.
"There she is! She's one of my Vietnamese acquaintances," Veeru Singh said, pointing at a nun in deep blue. She was busy helping the newcomers sit down to meditate under the shade of a luxuriant bodhi tree, where 2,500 years ago, Prince Siddhartha had meditated for three days on end; as a result, he became the Buddha. Although it was very hot, they tried to keep order in silence. Frankly speaking, I did not know how he could recognise her among the nuns in deep blue. I could hardly spot her amid the audience, all of them clad in deep blue and praying in low voices.
"She's a real introvert," Veeru Singh told me.
"But if that was so, my dear friend, how could you make her acquaintance?" I asked, half seriously, half jokingly.
He just smiled. Slowly, he walked towards the nun, then whispered something to her. To my surprise, she did not turn round to look at me, even though I was her fellow Vietnamese citizen. Instead, she looked straight ahead and kept praying. In my heart of hearts, I understood that she did not want to meet me at this moment.
"She's too busy, perhaps," he explained in a sad voice, as if he would be to blame when he came back to me. In the meantime, she remained attentive to her work.
"Dear Singh, it doesn't matter at all," I consoled him. His eyes were open wide. Maybe he felt a bit ashamed, for a few minutes before he had told me that he had been very friendly with many Vietnamese in this town. Without saying a word, he just nodded. Perhaps nobody came here only to contemplate the beautiful scenery in this sacred cradle of Buddhism. Some minutes later, her image completely disappeared in twilight.
"Among the pilgrims here, Vietnamese are very kind-hearted and easy to recognise," he observed.
"Why?" I asked.
"I find them small in stature but very wilful in mind," he answered.
I thanked him for his favourable assessment about my compatriots.
"Both Indians and Vietnamese have rice at meals, yet your people usually eat more vegetables than us," he added.
"He really knows the Vietnamese believers' habits here," I said to myself. As for me, I came to understand that the dark brown skin of Indians was due to the country's harsh weather.
At midnight, Bodh Gaya was still submerged in sunshine. The sun's rays seemed to cling to the Himalayas and shine on the adjacent land of Nepal. The pilgrims stayed awake to enjoy the golden chance. They strolled here and there in the small town and had a good time after spending the whole day under the sacred bodhi tree.
Strangely enough, during one of those white nights, a woman arrived at our little hotel to look for me. Of course, in so small a town, the search for a Vietnamese visitor was not difficult.
All of a sudden, there were some hesitant knocks at my door. I opened it slowly. The visitor removed the scarf covering her face. It was the nun that Singh had pointed out to me.
"Oh dear, my class-mate Hue!" I exclaimed. At once, she stepped inside and timidly closed the door.
"I recognised you immediately when I saw you. In fact, I did not intend to avoid our encounter, because after Singh pointed me out, I must have been easy to spot," Hue said, sitting down in front of me. She looked quite healthy with a body full of vitality, but appeared a little smaller in her deep blue cloak.
"Did you come here by chance?" she asked.
I knew that she wanted to know the purpose of my trip. What should I say? While I was still on tenterhooks, she went on.
"My past living conditions aren't worthy of being dealt with here. Please, when you return home, try not to disclose my presence at this place," she said.
"What does that mean?" I asked her.
"I gave up everything. Did you hear of how I ran away from home?"
"No, never! Recently we had a class reunion and a few of us wanted to know something about you."
"What did they say?"
"They said that they hadn't seen you for ages. Moreover, they knew nothing about you either."
"Was that all?"
"But what else?" she added.
"Hoai Thu, our sub-prefect, called at your house when you were out. Your husband only told her that…"
"What did he tell her?"
"He told her that you'd taken your children to your mom before you went away secretly."
"Time and again I've wondered whether my sons still miss me. As for me, I miss them very much. Well, time flew very fast, you see," she said, looking straight at me.
"You should come back to Viet Nam with me, shouldn't you?"
"I'll return home some day, but not now," she replied in a sorrowful voice. "Frankly speaking, I got rid of everything. Please don't try to make me feel better. It's a long story. Anyway, why are you here?"
"Just to attend a Buddhist conference in New Delhi! I came here by chance. You see, everything doesn't always go plain sailing. Come back home as soon as possible and we'll solve the matter later!" I tried to persuade her.
"It's too late, dear brother! But I've thought a lot about coming home in the future."
Silence! The night in Bodh Gaya shone with dim silvery light, which seemed to come from the range of snow-capped mountains in the land of Nepal. Outside, it was very cold. I had the impression that there were two seasons within each day: yellow sunshine in the daytime and dreary cold at night. Silently, Hue tried to fold her hands. She was not the girl I had known. She had become older, more pensive, gentler. I felt my heart sting. "What happened to her?" I asked myself.
I also sat motionless so as to recollect our four unforgettable years in university with countless sweet memories, love affairs, sad separations. All of them seemed to me to have occurred normally. But for Hue, things didn't seem to be that simple. Although she was not beautiful, she gained the sympathy of lots of students, male and female alike.
I still remembered the day she entered the university auditorium at the age of seventeen, when I was thirty-three.
"May I sit down beside you, dear Uncle?" she said to me in a polite voice when she reached my table.
"OK, I'll be seated here, by my dad's side." She changed her form of address from formal to informal with a playful manner. I was greatly amazed. I burst into laughter when I recollected her weird behaviour that day. She looked startled.
"My story is rather long. Do you want to listen to it? After hearing it, you might understand me better. Then you'll know why I changed my lifestyle," she said to me.
"Wonderful, that's what I wish to hear from you, but…"
"No buts, brother," she reproached me. "Well, actually, I'd better not deal with it now."
"Come on, please. However, bear in mind that up to now you've let lots of questions go unanswered!"
"That way seems more useful for me, dear brother. In my heart of hearts, I know that none of my explanations would be acceptable. Is it possible for you to regard me as a 17-year-old student forever? Can you still remember how I addressed you as Dad and called myself younger sister? she asked jokingly.
"Of course, I remember that very well. It was the most interesting way of address I'd ever heard."
"On our first day in the campus you looked very old, black and…"
"And as serious as a military commander."
I'd come back to our university after fifteen years in military service. Perhaps my seniority made a lot of female students afraid of taking a seat beside me. Only she was brave enough to do so.
"We used to have so much fun. How fast time has passed! I can't believe it's been over twenty years!"
"What about your decision to present yourself at our class's next meeting?" I suggested.
"How innocent we were back then! Innocent in everything we did, in hate, in love!" she blurted out.
"In general, that innocence has liquidated all human emotions," Hue said to herself in a sad voice. That logical statement of hers made me feel greatly embarrassed. All my intentions to convince her seemed now in vain, especially when I took a glance at her determined countenance with her deep blue cloak on.
"I got married by the end of 1993," she said.
"Yes, I know. You were the first student in our class to get married. Surprisingly, when you finished your studies, you married a handsome young man. In the opinion of our class-mates, you were both lucky and wise," I told her.
"Wise or foolish? The life ahead of me is similar to a dusty path leading to a far-away region full of challenges," she said in a mournful voice.
"Most of the girls in our class wished to be your bridesmaids, while the young men just stood observing the event with burning longing," I said.
"Did you reproach me or feel regretful for me then?" she asked.
I kept mum. I guessed that she did not want to reveal her mysterious sentiments to me. While we had sat side by side for four years, we rarely talked outside the classroom. We only recited some of our poems to each other. As for Hue, she had only a few friends in the class. Coming from the poor district of Thanh Son, in what was then the province of Vinh Phu, she was close to very few of our classmates.
"Unexpectedly, I married early and quickly," Hue confessed. "So early and quickly. It was stupid!"
"I don't think so," I objected.
By the end of the second year, she was no longer herself. She looked taller and more attractive, like a model. When our last lesson was over, she rushed out quickly to take a seat on the luggage carrier of a red motorbike Simson BS 51 driven by a middle-aged man at least ten years senior to her, to the admiration of her female classmates.
"As a student coming from a needy family in a far-away province, I had to cling to a wealthy man so that I could live in Ha Noi after leaving university, you see," she said to me in a sorrowful voice.
"Sadly, she sold herself for material things," I whispered to myself.
Hue remained silent, clumsily touching the edge of her deep blue cloak impregnated with the silvery street light. I realised that she was going to reply to the questions that had so far been left unanswered.
"In fact, that day when I got married, I was very nave. There wasn't much calculation that went into it," she said, completely contradicting her previous statement. "I thought I would live a nice life with my husband, but in the end, I was just his well-paid maid."
Her sincere confession was making me very nervous.
"My two sons were not his," she went on.
"Oh dear!" I whispered to myself, amazed. "Is she saying what I think she's saying?"
"In appearance, he was just like other men. He enjoyed a nice life with a luxurious house and car and two healthy boys, but - " she stopped abruptly.
"The kids don't belong to your husband, is that what you mean?" I asked.
She was speechless. Then looking square at me, she said, "My spouse thought so, too."
"Was she insane?" I asked myself. "Obviously not! Her sons were the reason why she gave up everything to come to this serene and holy place." At last I had found the answer!
* * *
The Air India plane back to New Delhi took off on time. Looking down from above, I found Bodh Goya mysterious in the morning sunshine.
"Hue is a well-educated lady and her English is very good too," Singh said to me.
"Dear Singh, please tell me how you met her," I said politely.
"Outwardly, she looks very gentle, yet in fact she's got a strong will," he replied. He had a high opinion about her, which showed that he knew her very well through her work. I nodded to indicate that I agreed with his remark. He held my hand tightly.
"I believe that she acted appropriately at that moment, at least," he observed. "Both Indians and Vietnamese followed Buddha's teachings. When Prince Siddhartha came and sat under the bodhi tree to meditate for three days, he dreamt of getting rid of all the sufferings that mankind had borne before he became the Buddha. He expected that someday man would not have to bear an unfortunate burden twice."
I half-closed my eyes, lost in thought. Early this morning, when Hue returned to the vast courtyard under the bodhi tree to resume her job, I could hardly sleep a wink. Her story made me very tormented. In my mind's eye I saw her husband lying beside her with a satisfied look. For the past twenty years he had led a contented life, offering her body to his superiors in exchange for fortune and fame. I felt horrible, as if I had just been chewing a mouthful of vegetables and encountered a worm. To some extent, I secretly reproached her for her great mistake. "How could she bear such a shame for a long time?" I thought. "How could she return home shamelessly after each reluctant orgy with that man according to her husband's agreement, then let herself be bound up tightly in his dirty arms? Would she be really glad to accept that dishonest affair in order to get much more than what her clan possessed?"
I felt both utter pity for her humble plight on the one hand and contempt for her behaviour on the other. "Why is life so paradoxical?" I whispered to myself with a sad sigh. I felt as if my heart had been deeply stung.
Closing my eyes, I remembered one of her poems, A Grain of Dust. Had such a grain come down into her beautiful eyes, a grain so strong that it could not be removed for a long while?
Translated by Van Minh