One cold October night in 2010, Asha Kama and his team from Voluntary Artists’ Studio, Thimphu (VAST) were sitting around a fire, deep in the Monpa village of Jangbi in Trongsa, telling jokes and singing songs.
They had gone camping in the east. It has become an annual ritual of VAST since.
“What are your wishes? How can we help you fulfill your wishes?” Asha Kama asked the villagers who had joined them by the fireside. He enquired rather matter-of-factly, as words came to his mouth. The villagers laughed it away. “You cannot fulfill our wishes,” they smirked.
Among the group of villagers was an 80-year-old man. He had never been beyond Trongsa in his life. His wish was to go for a pilgrimage to Punakha. Asha Kama promised the old man that he would take him to a pilgrimage to Punakha. The VAST group returned to Thimphu after their 10-day camping.
Six months later, towards the end of April, Asha Kama and his friends from VAST went to Jangbi again to bring the man to Punakha as he had promised. But the man had died a few months earlier.
“I felt sad and devastated. We could not even fulfill his simple wish of going on a pilgrimage to Punakha. We could have acted sooner,” says Asha Kama, rubbing the yellow stains from his paint-splattered jacket.
That got him thinking seriously about helping poor elderly people in the villages fulfill their dreams. That’d been his dream for a long time. He remembers reading a magazine article about Make-A-Wish Foundation of America which gives hope, strength and joy to the children with life-threatening medical conditions.
“What a nice idea, I thought. I had wanted to do something like that since then. My aim would, however, be to narrow the gap between the old and the young through compassion,” says Asha Kama.
Kama sent the VAST children with an exercise to ask their peers and parents what their wishes were. A little boy came to Asha Kama to ask him what he wished. “Would someone come up and rearrange the books on my shelf?” he asked the boy. “Very easy,” said the boy, dropping the paintbrush on the table. And he did it, all speck and preen, alphabetically.
“Satisfaction of being helpful to others is like no other feeling. That’s a kind of peace we get. It brings the human in you,” he said. Asha Kama’s idea of VAST is to connect children with the patients at the national referral hospital who have no one to look after them, to encourage volunteerism and teach children compassion.
So Asha Kama put Nu 50,000 from his personal assignment to the fund. Donations from friends, relatives and artists took the amount to Nu 150,000. And they headed on a hired bus to Kabjisa in Punakha where there are many people like that of Jangbi in Trongsa. There was a group of people in Kabjisa who had never been to Bumthang. They wanted to visit the holy land blessed by great saints once in their lifetime.
Asha Kama promised them that he would take them to Bumthang. They would cross Pelela for the first time in their lives.
Children from VAST took the initiative. They did everything from cooking to cleaning to helping the elders walk to faraway monasteries. They explained the history and significance of the monasteries and neys along the way, and elders told their stories.
One 80-year-old pilgrim turned and looked at Asha Kama, who had told her that this journey of the young and the old together was to bridge the gap between kids and their aging parents. She smiled, and wiping her watery eyes, asked, “When children who we don’t even know come to help us achieve our dreams, where do you see the gap between today’s generation and us?”
Villagers who could afford contributed rice. Some brought in fresh vegetables from their gardens. Some volunteered to cook.
“It was great fun. Above all, a great satisfaction looking at everyone so happy,” says Kama. He remembers particularly one Agay Alu Sangay, 86, who would crawl into Kama’s tent asking him if he had some extra blankets to keep himself warm. Kama would give a knowing smile and hand him a mugful or two of ara from his bag.
“We had kind of agreed not to drink in open,” Asha Kama says, laughing.
That was preparation for VAST to bring elderly people of Jangbi to Thimphu, Punakha and Paro. However, Asha Kama thought he needed one more trial before embarking on the task. To make the journey more interesting, he had planned to take elderly men with young women helpers. Soon after, he was pestered by the wives of the men that they wanted to go too.
So be it, he said, and organised Art of Giving 2010, making the group bigger this time. There were in total 65 people. But it was no problem. VAST was prepared to handle more people. At night, they would sit around the campfire and elderly women would sing haunting zhungdra songs. Youngsters would have the breakfast ready in the morning. Day was all stories, laughter and prayers.
By the end of this month, Asha Kama will take his team to Jangbi once again to survey and handpick elderly people for their pilgrimage to Thimphu, Paro and Punakha.
“I am worried of course. Anything could happen to them during the journey. But I take risks,” he says. “Like them, I have a wish too. Mine is to get them to the places where they want to be.” Asha Kama is a risk-taker. One time, in July of 2010, he had taken 126 children to the Summer Camp in Tsirang. Flood cut off both ends and they were all stranded. He saw the bridge being carried down by the rolling waters.
“I was terrified, but I always remain positive and resolute. We got back all safe and sound,” he says, painting Buddha on gold canvas. The picture of Jangbi elders in Punakha in a few months from now is whirling in his head, for which VAST is organizing ‘Art of Giving’ fund raising night at Alaya Gallery in Thimphu.
Artists will donate their artworks, which will be auctioned to raise funds to sponsor the Make-A-Wish programme that will bring elderly people of Jangbi to Thimphu, Paro and Punakha for a pilgrimage.