When all I could see were the glittering faces of people standing in a circle around the bonfire, and all I could hear were the blasting music and the people chattering and laughing, it seemed a bit inauspicious that a painful feeling would cast over my mind.
When the clock hit nine in the evening, I packed my books and left for the Winter Carnival bonfire. Just a few minutes before nine, I had received three text messages from my friends, telling me either that they were on their way to the celebration or that they were there already. I was thrilled that we had something to look forward to on a Thursday night. During a regular school week, a Thursday evening is usually wrapped up in schoolwork.
One after another, we were able to find each other among the crowd gathered around the bonfire. My happiness grew tremendously once surrounded by friends, who have in many different ways made my college life all the more memorable. We joined the crowd in celebration. We moved around the circle, alternating between moving inwards for the warmth of the fire and then escaping towards the periphery, when the heat became intolerable. Our group grew bigger in number with time – friends’ friends called their friends. It is true with friends, “More people more fun!” Many group pictures were taken – with whose camera, it was hard to tell. But it was implicitly agreed upon that Facebook would resolve the confusion later. Meanwhile, the air was filled with the sound of music, joyous laughter, and people chattering. One could look around to see the glow from the fire accentuating the excitement on the faces of the people around it. Time went on and so did the fun.
But, alas, the beautiful night did not end all in happiness. It is not as if this has never happened to me before – that something I see triggers a flashback. But it shook me hard, when the sight, and more so the heat from the bonfire, suddenly reminded me of a dreadful image I had encountered recently. A freezing chill ran down my spine, and my heart felt heavy. All of my senses defied me. The exuberant feeling of joy escaped me in a blink of an eye. All I was left with was that heart-wrenching and vivid memory of a walking dead… As she took her final few steps before collapsing on the ground, she was on fire, and fire was all around her. The red flames, resembling the shape of a ferocious dragon, engulfed her from head to toe. Within few seconds, the merciless flames consumed her. From her red robes to her skin, skin to flesh, flesh to bones, and bones to ashes, the fire burned her. And just when life ebbed out, she uttered her parting words, “Freedom in Tibet. Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet.”
I would be doing a grave injustice to her suffering if I were to claim to feel the pain she has endured before her soul, like the smoke from her bones, left its burnt abode. Maybe the closest I have ever come to undergoing the excruciating agony she went through was when I burned my fingers during careless times and currently when I stood at a distance of about twenty feet away from the bonfire at the Winter Carnival. Even on a freezing winter night, the discomfort of standing for more than a few seconds in the inner circle around the fire was unbearable. A scorching heat penetrated through my winter jacket, and in the next second, a feverish feeling put me at unease. I had no choice but to frequently move in and then out in the crowd, to avoid the heat. I could only think feebly, “If standing more than twenty feet away from the fire hurts me this much, then how terribly painful it must have been for the Tibetan nun who set herself ablaze!” Yet the torment of being roasted alive is far beyond any of my lived experiences and thus beyond my imagination… But, alas, when she burned, the fire was on her robes, on her hair, on her skin, on her flesh, and on her bone, until it fully exhausted her.
All I can say now as a fellow human being, to Palden Choetso and others who have ignited their precious lives is: “As I did on this chilly night, we will remember you. Though your body disappeared in the ashes, your spirit will live through us.”