Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

A chronic alcoholic and homeless, Kezang Dema, 37, drifts about aimlessly, asking passers-by for drinks.  A grubby mattress and some tattered quilts—she has nothing to worry about. Zangtogpelri Lhakhang, in the heart of the town, has become her home.

From Trashigang, Kezang Dema said she can’t stay home.

“I have negative thoughts and feel confined. I hate that.”

Before she began bumming around, she used to live with her sister.

She has two sons.  Both are with foster parents.  One was born in Phuentsholing and the other in Thimphu.  She doesn’t remember who their fathers are.

Staying out in the open, drunk, she is vulnerable.  Men, young and old, have taken advantage of her.

“They give me alcohol and take advantage of me,” she said. 

Often she is chased away from hotel rooms in the morning.  One time, a man stole her money.

Today, Kezang Dema is not drunk because she is sick.  But her breath still reeks of alcohol.

“Otherwise, I start drinking right from the morning,” she said. “If I don’t drink, fear, shame, and tension overpower my mind. I just want to stay here.”

Kezang Dema said men don’t come to her these days.  This, she thinks, is because of strict Covid-19 protocols.  People are not allowed to loiter late into the night.

She has no dreams and doesn’t trust men or marriage.  She can be funny sometimes.

Kezang Dema is not new to the people of Phuentsholing.  Between 2014 and 2017, she was seen several times sleeping at the lhakhang premises.  Once she lived under a building near to the Zangtogpelri.  Sick, she smelt of human excreta and people complained.

Help came from RENEW.  She disappeared from Phuentsholing for about two years.  When she reappeared, she was back into drinking heavily.

A local and volunteer group in Phuentsholing, the Happiness Centre Recovery Volunteer Group (HCRVG), took care of Kezang Dema for three months.

The group’s co-founder, Ugyen Dorji, who gives shelter to old and homeless people, said the centre even took her to a rehab in Sikkim in 2018.

After she returned from Sikkim, the centre took her to Thimphu and admitted her to a nunnery as per her wish.  After three days, she was back in Phuentsholing.

“She nearly died,” Ugyen Dorji said. “We took her to hospital for detoxification.”

After that, she was sent to another rehab in Thimphu, which was funded by Ugyen Dorji’s close friends.  She stayed there for four months.

Then, her sister took her in. But not long after, she was back on the streets.

Ugyen Dorji said the centre was continuously monitoring her.  The centre, though, doesn’t have a women’s dormitory to keep her.

“The case looks hopeless but all she needs is proper after-care to prevent relapse,” he said.

Ugyen Dorji also said the centre’s main concern was that men could abuse her.

Until today, the centre also has given shelter to about 15 homeless people and sent them back to their parents and relatives.  The centre also helped two elderlies to go to the Goensho Tshamkhang in Wangsisina, Thimphu.  The centre today looks after four elderly and homeless people.

The centre, which looks after recovering addicts, has reintegrated 60 drug addicts into jobs.  It has referred 35 addicts to different rehab centres and catered 95 detoxifications.

It is 7pm.  The lhakhang, which was filled with several elderlies (who come to circumambulate) in the morning and are all gone, is empty.  Kezang Dema is alone.  Near her is a small puppy.  She has been Kezang Dema’s only friend.

What about meals?

Most of the time, the people, who come to circumambulate the lhakhang, bring her food.