“C’mon brother, let’s go!” Tshetem’s older brother used to urge him out into the night, needing a companion for the long walk to a home far enough away that it was unlikely to house a cousin or a valued neighbor. Once there, Tshetem’s brother would settle him on a haystack, instructing him sternly: if he gave their alarm signal, Tshetem should run to join his brother and get away; otherwise, Tshetem was to stay put, no matter how long it took his brother to return.
His brother would then sneak off to the main house. With no windows on the ground floor, he would scale the side of the house, pry open a wooden shutter with his knife, and slip inside to where everyone was sleeping. The best case scenario is that it was a girl who knew and liked him, who would have told him where she sleeps in the communal room. If not, he would have to move carefully to find the girl he had in mind. Either way, he’d be hoping for a “silent catch”–a girl who is quiet and allows herself to be caught. If he mistakenly goes to the father or brother in the dark, or if he finds the girl and she cries out, he’ll have to run to escape.
Night-hunting is traditional Bhutanese courtship and play: boys, or even grown men, hunting women in the night. Sometimes it’s an evening adventure, sometimes it’s the beginning of a marriage, but always it’s good sport in the village. It might be dawn by the time they returned home. It might go awry, and his brother would give the alarm. Tshetem would jump from his hiding place, even 10 or 15 feet down, in order to run away. Later, he would look at the place and think, “Whoa! I jumped from there? How could I?”
By age 12, Tshetem was curious about what went on inside the farmhouse. Still too small to break in on his own, his brother would sometimes let him in to a house. Too young to do much, he was simply mischievious. A few years later though, he had learnt the best strategies from his six older brothers and went out hunting with his friends.
1. As soon as you get inside, go unlatch the front door from the inside. This way, you can get out easily and you know your way to the door.
2. Every year, each house has an annual ceremony to bless the house and all the people are invited. Pay attention to the layout of the house, so that moving through it in the dark will be easier.
3. If the wooden hinges are noisy at that house, pee on them. They won’t squeak later when you leave after a good catch.
4. If you hit your head in the dark, don’t say, “Ouch!”…Say,”Meoowww!”
If a boy is caught, his family will have to make amends with eggs, alcohol, and other gifts. However, with no electricity to just switch on a light, a boy has a good chance of extricating himself without anyone knowing who he is. If a girl is caught, she will still be able to marry someone else–even if she gets pregnant. Although there are some family-arranged marriages, most village marriages come about through night-hunting. “Everyone has been night-hunting,” Tshetem (now near 40) tells me, laughing. “Wait and see when we go to the festival in Tashigang at the end of the trip. Maybe I won’t be at the hotel in the morning!” We tease him that with electricity now, he can’t get away with it so easily. Undeterred, he tells us with confidence that the main circuit breakers are outside the house and jauntily mimes pulling the fuse and tucking it into his shirt!
Once, a beautiful girl in a nearby village had never been caught. She was clever–she always slept in a different place. She teased the boys and told them that she would marry the one who could catch her. The boys started betting amongst themselves, and they agreed to take some white limestone paste when they went hunting in order to streak the hair of the girl they caught. It was difficult hunting. Sometimes two or three different boys would show up on the same evening. They would quarrel outside the house, but they either had to compromise or they all had to go home–for if one went in, the others would throw stones on the roof to wake the family and ruin the hunt. On various days a woman would show up with white in her hair, but it was never the right girl. In the dark, it was hard to tell. Sometimes it was her sister, once it was her grandmother! (All the boys got a good laugh out of that one!) Finally, a boy hid in the attic before night. In this way, he could see where the girl went to sleep. After dark, he snuck out and caught her–and she took him for her husband.