They called the Village Kartunje, although I hear on the map it has a different name. Maybe a thousand people living in a valley off the main highway 40 minutes outside of Kathmandu. Emerald green patchwork plots differentiated by water irrigation channels. Calm, swaying fields of tall grasses and happy yellow mustard flowers. Earth-made huts next to concrete houses, rebar jutting towards the sky awaiting the funds for a second story. Three stores selling cookies and soap. The wrappers littering the trails.
A generation ago there was no such thing as trash. People ate with their fingers off plates made from leaves. Carried rice and lentils home from market in the same vessel every time. Everything was made by hand with the surrounding environment. All of it could be returned to the earth. This means that now there is no waste system at all. The people are still getting used to the concept of garbage. They can’t see the future of a present they have only begun to occupy. They do not yet understand the need. On my walk to and from school, I have to suppress my desire to scoop up the rivulets of trash in my arms, not knowing what I would do with the mountainous piles even once I have made them.
My home in the Village has two floors. The family on the bottom: a husband, wife, one young daughter, one niece named Shrishticka who is around my age staying with them in their single room off the kitchen. Upstairs is the principal of the school where I teach, his sister, her husband who travels most of the time, and their two young children, a boy and a girl. There also is a baby who is allowed to wander the house naked from the waist down, bundled from the waist up in multiple sweaters and a knit cap, peeing wherever she likes. For days there are puddles, the stairs, the kitchen floor, everywhere.
“She is potty training,” explains my principal. After a week I never see another puddle again.
I am given the biggest room in the house, on the second floor while each family shares one room. I suppose to them it’s worth the money.
The principle is young, under 30 with a puffed up hairdo and a single sports coat he wears every day. Acne scars, an easy smile, a stride of self-importance, a motorbike. He’s done well for himself. In the morning, he takes me to the school where I will teach English five times a day to classes from 2nd to 6th grade. The school is bright yellow, three stories, an open yard of scrubby dirt. The children are lined up in rows with their peer groups while an older man leads them in a few minutes of light calisthenics. Toddlers with mittens pinned to their bulky coats stare at the sky with open mouths. Young teachers alternate between gossiping, twittering smiles hidden behind their hands, and doling out harsh discipline. They sing a song, the national anthem?, and break to go to their classes.
I am still smoking cigarettes, filterless Yak trademark tobacco from flimsy pink cardboard boxes I buy along with disapproving glances from the local store owner. It is wrong for me to smoke, especially when I am a teacher. At home, the principle agrees that I can smoke on the roof of the house. At school he shows me a tiny 3′ by 3′ broom closet. I prefer the great outdoors.
After school and on my lunch break, I take long walks along the tiny crisscross pathways. Women in brightly colored robes, waterfalls, cows decked out in flowers and bindis. I wander in all directions, further and further out to where there were even more rural people, more isolated dwellings. Old women see me smoking and come over to squat next to me. Lighting giant hashish cigars, smoking them over-handed between their thumb and pointer fingers. They offer me some and laugh when I decline. One woman shows me how she makes her own hash by rubbing the buds of her cannabis plants together. Collecting the sticky brown paste from inside the lines of her palms.
The principle brings me next-door one lunch break to meet a friend of his. Anjay. Incredibly cute with dimples and a warm, continuous smile that feels like a hug. He is home fresh from his recent college graduation. In a country of only three possible majors, Science, Computer Science and Nepali Social Studies, he choose social studies for the love of it. Although it is the major least likely to lead to a job of any kind, he is proud of his culture and wants to preserve his heritage.
“Nepali culture will be alive. Maybe only inside me. Yes. Alive inside me.”
While living in the city, Anjay had fallen in love with a girl from University. They dated, free from the watching eyes of their villages and socially bound parents. In the anonymity of the city, he had taken her to a nice restaurant where he paid for her meal. To a dark movie theater where they held hands. He told her that he wanted to continue with Nepali studies, go back to school and become a professor. She shared How she wanted to teach writing and classic Nepali poetry. They talked about it as lovers do. Sweet nothings, pledges to help each other.
It is time to put all that aside now. For all their talk, they both knew it was only for while they were in school and away from home. They both knew they were entertaining a fantasy. And even that is a rare luxury: to have a few moments to live free, to imagine, to pretend. The reality is that his parents have arranged a marriage. And he owes his life his parents. The reality is that he has moved back to fulfill their wishes. Now he will open another little store in the village. Sell cookies and soap. Support his wife and their upcoming family.
“They tell me she is very beautiful,” he says, smiling sadly. His eyes to the floor. This will be his life.
I flip into panic mode, one million questions, one thousand ways to see things. Do your parents love you? Don’t they want you to be happy? You could talk to them. What about your studies? What about the girl you love?
“No, no. I must do what my parents ask of me. I must be a good son to them. They are getting older. I must do what is right.”
The principal returns to tell me lunch time is over. What if you marry me? I want to say, I can take you to the US and you can get a green card and maybe we can date for a while… or not… But I keep this to myself. Seeing for a moment my longing reflected in his warm brown eyes. Feeling for a moment how an arranged marriage might not be such a bad thing after all.
“Come now please,” the principal coughs uneasily. “Lunch is over. Now you come teach again.”
There’s a logic to it.The bride and groom come from similar socio-economic backgrounds, their families often have a history with each other and the marriage serves to strengthen social ties. Within this system people have the comforting guarantee of a spouse. Families can better assure the continuation of their genetic line. No one has to be alone. Everyone gets grandchildren. No one has to worry.
Arranged marriage exists within an entirely distinct cultural context, it is a different view of love and a different understanding of partnership. Peia’s parents had met and been wed through arranged marriage. Her parents have been together for fifty years. And when all her Australian friend’s parents have long ago divorced, Peia’s parents seem happier together than ever.
I am invited to the wedding. I align my will and compartmentalize my feelings, determined to join in fully. The women of the village come together in preparation for the festivities. They make plates out of leaves, cups out of husks, paper streamers. There is ceremony after ceremony. I love it all. The bride is veiled in red, her hands and feet hennaed with intricate designs. My friend looks handsome, radiant in a western suit and traditional Nepali cap. The parents on both sides are beaming with pride.
After dark, we all crowd into the family’s central room. Concrete boxed and fluorescent lit, packed around the couple for more rituals in cozy concentric circles. They say things. We throw rice. They drink from cups. We throw money. They pick up and pass around different objects. We clap and sing. In the glee of tossing a handful of rice, gratitude catches in my throat. How wondrous that I am here. Front row center, part of an intimate marriage ceremony in a tiny village in a tiny country far, far away from my own.
The feast begins with husk woven cups. It is late and I’ve barely eaten anything all day. They come around serving a milky white beverage. Accustomed to the tea drinking culture of the Middle East, I down it. Light, sparkling, a little sour, nourishing, delicious. They come and fill my cup again. In the Middle East this means ‘Drink! You must drink or I will tear out my hair from being such an ungracious host.’ I drink. They fill it again. I drink. They fill it again. I’m starting to catch on when they finally come around with the dishes. Serving little bits of delicacies one at a time.
The courtyard begins to spin, my cheeks flush, my belly becomes warm and alive with something volatile.
“What did I drink?” I slur to the old dignified man next to me.
“Roksa,” giggles the principal, passing behind me. “Rice wine they brew up in their bathtub. You are drinking the old skin from the mother’s feet. Over and over you drink!”
The next day, the only memory I have from the rest of the night is dancing- assuredly inappropriately- to the Vengaboys song, The Vanga Bus is Coming. The only song on the only tape owned by the only villager with the only tape player on repeat. At least in my memory of it, people were cheering.
By the time I go back in to teach on Monday morning, my fame has spread.
“Dance for us, dance for us,” clap the children.
The principal, measuring the feedback, decides that I must teach a dance class to the kids.
“Western dances. Like you do, but for child. Not like you do.”
My shame is still burning when we meet on the roof of the yellow three story school building to practice routines the following Friday.
There are two children I especially like in my fourth grade class. One tough, butchy girl with a short haircut who gathers all the other girls around her in a flirty ring. Making quick jokes and insightful comments. The other, a thin, mousey boy with a conspicuously limp wrist.
In dance class, they shine. The young girl brash and daring with her heavy set frame. The boy pulling out all the stops, coming alive like a Nepali Michael Jackson. He inspires so much that we begin practicing a small version of Thriller on Fridays up there on the roof. Piecing together bits of what we remember from our controversial field trip to the Internet café down by the highway to watch the MJ original on YouTube. The boys is, of course, Michael, front and center hamming it up, even finding an oversize leather jacket from God knows where and sunglasses for our final performance.
That day I choke up crying with pride watching him, her, all of them tap out our much practiced routine, when the tears become about something else. Even in their uniforms you can tell this boy is more poor than the rest. The same freshly washed sweater day after day. Holes patched, pants showing ankles.
Right here, in the jerky, expressive, explosion of this dance, this might be the most free they are ever going to be. These kids may never leave their village. May never get to live who they are. Their marriages will be arranged. She will be expected to prepare the meals for her husband every night and give his family children. He will share a woman’s bed and commit himself to the hard labor that has worn his grandfathers’ hands for so many generations.
The Principal’s sister’s name is Maya, meaning both love and illusion. It is the same Nepali name I have given myself. She is the only person I interact with who speaks no English. It is her who teaches me vocabulary, most of it kitchen related. Potato. Yummy. Thank you. It is with her that I have my first breakthrough with the language, making a successful joke when the principal is complaining about something.
“Don’t listen. He is too delicate. Can’t even wash with cold water. Needs hot water.”
She laughs and my whole heart soars. I’ve seen lots of quick, shy smiles but never heard her laugh before. She tells their cousin downstairs and for a week they’re calling the principal Warm Water, joining me in making fun of how he is the only one in the house to heat up his bucket of washing water with a dangerous looking device resembling a curling iron. Every time they do, he gets a sour look on his face reminding me that she is, indeed, his older sister.
Maya’s husband comes home from his business trip. A hulking terror of a guy towering over Maya’s stick-skinny body. She seems scared of him, always finding reasons to leave the room when he enters. Makes sharp sucking sounds and singeing glances to the kids when they get even a little rowdy. I am scared of him. The way he asks me to move closer to him when we are talking. He smokes in the house. Blares the TV late into the night in the same room where Maya and the kids are trying to sleep. Looks hatefully at the baby. There is nowhere to put my worry, nothing I can do. I make a point to give extra complements to the food at our increasingly tense dinners. Me, the husband and the principal eating while Maia quietly watches from the corner, waiting to serve seconds.
The husband has a lot of ideas about the political situation. At first I’m hesitant about engaging, but I get sucked in. I’m not sure if being withholding is better or worse for her sake.
Once, when things get heated, I try to deflect by asking,
“What does Maya think?”
“She is only a dumb housewife,” he answers, flicking his hand and sneering away from her. One day he goes on a weird rant talking about how he has many women on the side and that she is only his wife because, after all,
“A Nepali man must have a wife.”
I hate this guy.
Five days into his stay there is a commotion in the kitchen. The next night at dinner Maya eats with us. The principal, acting as server, cooks for us with the help of their female cousin from downstairs.
“Sick,” says the husband pointing at Maya. And she looks it.
Drained. Heavy bags under her eyes, wrapped in a blanket. I am searching for scars, bruised cheeks, black eyes. There is no visible damage marking the small, hunched figured concealed in her blanket, eyes looking blankly at the floor.
I pull the story out of the principal the next morning.
“She kill baby. Two babies inside. No money. Already three babies.” The next night Maya is cooking dinner for us again. Me making complements to the food. The men talking politics.
Shrishtika lives below me. She is my age and strikingly beautiful. Disney princess beautiful. Round eyes with lashes so full and upturned they look fake. A long, lean body. I imagine the hours I spend at school wondering how to sneak my philosophical agenda into the curriculum or wandering around looking for spots of rural solitude to smoke naughty cigarettes, she spends doing chores with the help of field mice. Singing songs to herself as local cardinals land on her fingertips and button quails come to paint her toes.
I peg her early on as a birdbrain. She has graduated high school and has no future plans. When I press her, she admits in a theatrical whisper that her big dream, that will not come to pass because she is no smart and no good, is to be a flight attendant.
“I will carry a tray. And I will have a short skirt. Right here. Below the knee. When I walk it will come a little above-the-knee. Just a little! I want a skirt. A blue skirt, but it can be a different color. I like different colors, too. I like red. Black is also OK. It must be international, not national. National is not glamorous and international is number one very glamorous!”
We in the doorway of the bathroom. I had asked her where the toilet paper was and she had fetched me some from downstairs. It was my second night there and I didn’t know yet that most people in Nepal wash themselves with water.
“Wait. Why will you carry a tray?”
“The tray is very important! It is the most important part of the job and the most difficult. I have been practicing carrying a tray in secret! I do not have a tray, but I practice with only my hands. I will show you now how I do with my hands. Ah, yes! I will be the best international Nepali flight attendant! I will take care with the tray and my blue skirt. Like this! And I will say Coke, Fanta, what you want? And they will say Coke or Fanta and I will give them Coke or Fanta, never dropping the tray!”
I nodded mmm-hmmm and gestured my intention to use the bathroom.
One night a month into my stay, when I am no longer using toilet paper, she knocks on my door. I’m listening to Philip Glass on my hot pink iPod mini and reading the Tao of Physics. Making tiny notes in the few remaining pages of my notebook, enjoying how artistic my handwriting looks when cramped into miniature. She hangs out by the door for a minute, shuffling her feet, humming a little tune. I take out my headphones.
“It’s OK. Come in, come in. Have a seat!”
I pat the bed.
“No,’ she says, ‘I am having my period, I am not allowed to touch any of the furniture because I am unclean.”
I laugh, “Well I do not think you are unclean. Come sit!”
She hops on the bed.
“That is what I was hoping. I was hoping I can sleep in the bed with you tonight because I am not to touch any of the furniture. My auntie is very religious, very superstitious. She still will not touch anything that has been prepared by someone of the untouchable class. No food. No food! Nothing!”
Of course I let her stay and we get to talking.
“Why are you here if your hometown is on the other side of the country?’ I ask. ‘It’s not like there more opportunities here than anywhere else.” She starts to cry and then, piece by piece explains.
There was a boy. She loved him. She had a private phone line. They talked on the phone for hours every night. Hours and hours! Her parents thought that she was talking to her girlfriends. Every day he would come to the corner two blocks from her house and wait for her so they could walk to school together. And every day after school he would walk her to the corner, two blocks away, where they would part ways. He wrote her one love letter. Saved up for a year to buy her one pair of earrings. And once, on the way home from school, in a back garden, when they were sure no one was looking, he had kissed her on the cheek.
It had been the greatest moment of her life. And someone did see. And that someone told her parents. Shrishtika came home one day from school and all her things were all packed in a suitcase she had never seen before. Her drawers torn to pieces, the earrings smashed on the floor, her private phone line ripped from the wall. Her mother sitting on her bed holding the letter from Ali.
They told her that if he was from the same caste they would arrange a marriage, but he is Muslim and this is forbidden.
“You have shamed us. Now you must leave.” That very evening, under the cover of dark, her mother took her on a bus to the nearest main town to get on a larger bus to travel eighteen hours clear to the other side of the country and deposited her here to live here in captivity under the hawk-eyes of her superstitious aunt. She is not allowed to leave the house; she is not allowed to go to college after 12 years of being one of the best in her class. She is supposed to help with the children, to be good and to feel sorry.
But she does not feel sorry. She misses Ali. She had wanted to tell the boy she was leaving, but she had not been able to. She dreams of him every night and cries thinking about how one morning, after two years of walking to school together every day, he probably waited there on the corner for her and she never came.
Her parents told everyone she had gotten a scholarship to go to a different college in a different region. Because of the differences in their caste and the shame of their relationship, he could never ask anyone what happened to her. He would never know the truth. He would think that she had left for a successful life without ever having said goodbye.
Now I see how smart she truly is. How had I not seen it before? How good her English is. How smart her decision to travel internationally for work. How calculated her good girl act is given her trial imprisonment. How had I not noticed that she never left he house? Or why had I assumed it was due to her own lack of imagination/ initiative?
I go into action mode, come up with a million hare-brained plans. I will get her out of the house by saying I need her help for something. Then we will go to the internet café. She will find his email address, very quickly! We will come right back and she will write something that I will send later. OR. She will give me his phone number and I can relay a message to him. BUT he does’t speak English. SO she will write out a message in Nepali words using English letters and then give me his phone number. I will call him and be the mouth piece for her message.
All of these are absurdly dangerous and could mean another year at her aunt’s house paying penance. She plays along for a while, but when I start getting serious she breaks it to me that she can’t move forward. I understand and, although we are bonded together now by her heart break, we never speak of it again.
I come home one day during my afternoon break. Most Nepalis in the village don’t eat lunch, but some do come home for a while to rest and bathe and maybe have a small consumer snack from the store. Shrishtika is playing paddleball by herself against a wall counting her strokes in English. Her aunt is watching. Proudly.
“Shirishtika, very good!” She titters.
Shirshtika squints at her Aunt’s praise and focuses harder, practicing her numbers.
“75, 76, 77…”
“Is it a game?” I ask.
“No. It is… It is…” Her Aunt looks miffed, unable to find the word.
“It is my pastime,” answers Shrishtika between paddles, one arm behind her back military style.
“Yes, yes!” her aunt claps her hands delighted by the identified category.
Pass time. The words have never felt so heavy to me. So literal.
One night, close to the end of my time there, we are sitting downstairs with the Aunt’s family in the harsh, white lighting that seems to characterize so much of the developing world. The room is both bedroom and living room. Their only other room being the downstairs kitchen and the upstairs bathroom they share with us. It strikes me again how absurd it is that I have a full bedroom to myself. I am paying the agency something like five dollars a day for room and board. Who knows how much of that this family is getting. And still, I suppose to them it is worth the money.
Shrishtika is sitting on the bed, her aunt and uncle on the couch. Maya is squatting in a corner after having served tea. The principal is centerstage like a young prince holding court. About five minutes earlier he launched into a cockamamie rant about education in broken English. He is enjoying his upswells and grand proclamations, directed to all those gathered here and yet in a spoken language only reliably followed by me and Shrishtika. Her aunt and uncle do speak some small, proud bits of English, but not enough to be along for this ride.
I don’t have much faith in the principles pedagogic philosophy to begin with. When I questioned him about why he got into education, he drew a blank. When I asked for advice building my lesson plans he told me not to worry about it.
“You are American!” he said smiling and backed away, waving both hands. Jazz style.
He has very few interesting things to say about the political situation. Sometimes he asks me things about America. But really, his favorite question is,
‘and what do you think about me?’
Maraya: Do you think that the Maoists training women to be gorilla warriors is nonetheless a step towards gender equality and may be part of the unconscious motivations for the female peasantry in joining?
Principal: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely correct… And what do you think about me?
Maraya: In the West we learn that Buddhism is a path of spiritual liberation from social conditioning through an empirical inquiry into consciousness and a dedication to loving kindness, but here it seems that the social system of Buddhism is incredibly repressive. As enforcing of social disparity as Hinduism and as brainwashing as capitalism. How do you reconcile the spiritual principals of Buddhism with the social realities?
Principal: yeah, yeah. Buddhism… And what do you think about me?
Maraya: You say that you feel critical thinking and creativity are what Nepal needs to spur economic development. And yet at your own school, you employee of pedagogy based on memorization and repetition. How do you think leaders such as yourself can restructure the cultural conditioning around educational institutions to lead to a brighter future for the country?
Principal: Yeah, yeah. Vey good… And what do you think about me?
Maraya: I think you should be able to infer something about that from the pointedness of my previous question.
It can’t be overemphasized here that the principal is a very nice guy and I am an arrogant 18-year-old with more intellectual artillery than gets anyone anywhere in the areas of life that matter most: compassion, relationship, understanding, love, experience, peace, self acceptance. An analytic aptitude trained in an intellectual culture that rewards critique and fails to draw focus towards the important things. Like who you are and what you want. Or what you’re feeling and what people who are different from you might be feeling.
In truth, all my smarty pants, hot shot bayonets, walking around like I am a correspondent for indie media, getting the scoop from the locals and asking the authorities all the hard-hitting questions, usually leads me to constant judgement, paralysis, unintelligibility, blame and self-doubt. All of which is simmering in a slow-cooking soup of regret and painful self-awareness at this exact moment while the principal, acting almost drunk, is plunging full speed ahead through this off kilter little tirade.
“Nepal is behind because our young people are behind. They do not think for themselves.” Cue cut to self blame. His loose tongue seemingly inspired by my own, poorly curated, rants.
“Look at Shrishtika. Home all day. Doing nothing. What can she expect for herself? She needs to be more like Maraya. Traveling. Going abroad, teaching.”
I am looking for those Bambi eyes, but are looking away from me. Flashing me a glint of my reflection in two glossy pools. I am booring into them, looking to connect so that I can say in a language unspoken,
‘I am here with you. I know this is unfair.’
I try to change the subject. I awkwardly try to stand up for her. I start to say a few things and end up putting my foot in my mouth. I can’t figure out how to do it in a way that doesn’t implicate her aunt.
The principal doesn’t seem to notice and doesn’t stop. He barges ahead in a language only understood by the two of us. Neither one of us leaves the room. Neither one of us can. In the end, we are both trapped. Her bound by her circumstances and me by mine.
PHOTO CREDIT: ART BY HARI THAMPA