My foster-mother did not love me. I think now that she feared me, for her own sake, and on behalf of her own two sons.
Perhaps she was right. For my part, I hated her, and I hated them.
My foster-mother was obsessed with purity. Whatever I did, it was impure, and she would punish me for it. It was an offense against Lord Buddha, she said. It was bad karma, and would send me to hell.
She described all the hells vividly—the Freezing Hell, where your flesh turns black, splits, and peels off from the cold; the Crushing Hell, where you are smashed between red-hot iron plates; and the Hell of Black Weapons, where swords and spears fall from the sky and spring from the earth and slice you to bits. And each time you die, you are instantly reborn again in just the same place.
She wanted me to be a monk. Only monks could escape such disastrous rebirths. But to be a monk, one must always be perfectly pure, to avoid bad karma.
At times, terrified of hell, I tried to learn all the rules of proper Buddhist conduct. But no matter how hard I tried, she found fault.
Monks had come to our village often, before the wars started, people said. They were kind and noble and brilliant. That was the story. But we saw monks only once in a blue moon; and a sorry lot they were. I did not want to end up like them. Rag-tag beggars, thin and coarse, they seemed interested in little besides how much food we gave them.
My foster-mother treasured every word they spoke, and she had them explain morality to me. The essence of Buddhism, I learned, was to choose never to do anything you wanted. Fun, especially, was against the word of Lord Buddha.
I began to hate this Lord Buddha. Supposedly, he was to protect us from all suffering; but actually, he wanted everyone to be miserable. Especially me. What he wanted and what she wanted were always the same.
I became suspicious. And I noticed that she did not intend her own children to become monks—just me.
Maybe everyone in the village was wrong about what Lord Buddha wanted. The monks too. Or maybe my foster-mother bribed them with extra food into telling me what she wanted, instead.
Wasn’t my real mother a Buddhist? She never talked about purity or karma. Or Lord Buddha! She liked fun; she made up games for me to play; she mostly let me do what I wanted.
My real mother was a dakini—a witch. Could you be a Buddhist and hate Lord Buddha? Could you be a Buddhist and be a witch?
Had my mother gone to hell?
Was she, even now, being fried, squashed, or diced?
That was a terrible, awful, intolerable thought.
My resentment extended to my foster-brothers. I hurt them whenever I could.
The younger was hardly older than me, a newborn at the time of the invasion. We were physically matched, but I learned that I could trick him with words. I could cheat him, make him look an idiot, dare him into disobeying his mother, or—once—into jumping out of a tree and breaking his leg. When he realized I had fooled him again, we would fight, and I would lose as often as not; but torturing him was worth the pain.
My other foster-brother was four years old when our fathers died. He was quiet as a child, and silent as a man. He did whatever his mother told him, however senseless, never complaining.
He mostly ignored my provocations. At first that made me all the more determined to rile him up. Occasionally, when I got seriously out of control, he laid me out flat with his fist, so I learned not to go too far. Even then, he seemed abnormally devoid of anger. He held no grudge.
He was a man in the year I met Sukhi, strong enough to drive a plow. He had taken over the field that had been my father’s, as well as the one that belonged to his family.
He was more than old enough to marry. But the girls ignored him. Instead, that year, they flocked around me.
“Surya, do you like my skirt? Do you like my necklace? Do you like my eyes or hers better?”
“Surya, Surya, I burnt my finger making chapatis—please will you look at it?”
“Surya, I am going to the spring in the woods to fetch water, will you come with me?”
I had no interest. I had known them all my life. I hated them along with everyone else in the village.
Life is remarkably unfair. He was a good man and would have made a good husband.
Whereas, as for me… I went to hell.