Monthly Archives: June 2002

One-armed man of Birganj

In Birganj, there’s a sizeable Sikh population—especially in my neighborhood. Sikhism is a religion sprouting from Hinduism, reflecting some Islamic influences, in a brief (and debatable) synopsis. I knew Sikhism by two things: knives and hair. Sikhs carry a kirpan, a knife.

The knife is symbolic of the heritage of the Sikhs (partially due to their marginalization and the occasional persecutions they faced in history, ancient and modern). Recently there was a debate in a Canadian public school about whether a Sikh boy would be allowed to carry his knife in school. Usually the knife is worn under clothing. In the end, the school allowed the boy to have his knife and education too.

Sikhs don’t cut their hair—ever. Sikh males, at some age, begin to wrap their hair in colorful fabrics. Sikh boys are easily spotted because as soon as their hair begins to become long they wear it in a bun on the top of the hair, covered with something looking like a cup cake paper (sort of like Princess Leah, but in mono and on the top of the head). Because hair grows unevenly, sides are shorter and create wisps of hair that fall along the side of their head.

Which seemed a bit androgynous at first.

The circumstances under which I learned about Sikh adolescence are pretty embarrassing. I thought these kids with pinned hair were girls. It took a tactful word from another PCV from Birganj to set me straight. I live in the Birganj suburbs, as far as Nepal is concerned. There aren’t white picket fences, but there are tall concrete walls sprinkled with broken glass (like in Mexico) or sharpened iron spears pointing upwards.

A wall near Pani Tanki in Murli Gardens in Birganj, Nepal, with chalk graffiti.

A wall near Pani Tanki in Murli Gardens in Birganj, Nepal, with chalk graffiti.

One night I stayed late at Jane-Erie’s and Robin’s deraa for dinner and found myself locked in (the gate had been bolted). Though I knew the family wasn’t asleep, I thought I would just hop over the fence and be on my way.

It didn’t quite work out like that. The fence is about eight feet tall first of all, not including the knife-sharp, tetanus-laced metal daggers that ran along the top. I managed to use a palm tree to help me ascend to near the top of the wall, but when I tied to find footing along the wall, between the hazards, I felt one hazard easily slicing through the melted butter of my shoe.

So there I was: back pressed against a palm tree by the weight of my body on my feet that were slowly descending onto medieval spikes level with my head. I first asked to myself, Now how did I get myself into this? And then, How am I going to get out of this without a hole in my foot and a body bruised from an eight foot fall along the side of a palm tree?

All I will say is that I got down without major injury but didn’t catch the family before they had gone to bed. But this is normal suburb life, right? Getting stuck on a fence, risking life and limb because you don’t want to bother people who might be sleeping.

My neighborhood is affluent. The Sikhs have done well as a people and are in Birganj for two reasons. One, they may be retired Indian army, living in Nepal because they are either Nepali by birth or live here because it’s cheaper than India. Two, because Birganj is Nepal’s dry port and business hub, the shop keeping, trade, and general mercantile arts that Sikhs have woven into their modern culture are plentiful.

For a short period, I was a novelty for the neighborhood kids. Rob and Luke were old news and Jane-Erie and Robin dwelt deeply in their cave. I made friends. Walking through the neighborhood, I considered myself on the level of astronaut or perhaps minor TV celebrity. Kids came from cricket games, running across the field to shake my hand and ask the standard questions in simplified English:

What country you?

What are you?

Why are you?

Where do you play?

I was back at my deraa one day after a regular round of introductions trying to cool off. I’ve found that to cool off is quite simple: strip and get in front of a fan. And on this particular afternoon, I was following standard operating procedures when I heard my front door close.

Close?

Quickly realizing I hadn’t bolted my front door, I was able to get some pants on before I found three children casually walking through my deraa. I had met these three kids, two boys and a Sikh (who, at the time, I thought was a little girl), just a while ago in a house adjacent to the large field near my home that is used for cricket games.

I sat them down in the side room and we talked a bit in my broken Nepali. Instead of describing my Nepali as broken, I prefer “confused” as a precise description. I asked my questions with honorific verb conjugations, which the children interpreted as:

Sir, which is your school?

Sir, how is your feeling of school?

Sir, it is hot, no?

Sir, I have no understanding of the cricket game. May you to me learn game?

Kids are forgiving, but using the polite form of the pronoun you is like referring to them as sir/madam. It’s sort of the fault of Peace Corps, because they drill in the tapaai form as our default, which baffles children who are used to being referred to in the lesser timi conjugations.

These kids promised to teach me cricket the next day at four o’clock in the field by the smallest boy’s house. I thought that if I could gain an understanding of cricket then I would have accomplished as much cross-cultural sharing as possible for my time in Nepal. If I could bring back an understanding of this cryptic game to the United States and introduce it, much like the Europeans gave horses to the Native Americans, I would be the greatest human being in the world.

We sat together, and I had the kids drawing. They had been wandering about my room picking up every thing and asking me how much it cost, if they could have it, why I was sweating profusely. The Sikh boy found a luggage lock and asked me over and over again if he could have it.

He said to me, coveting the lock, Kasto design, meaning, in Nepanglish, What a design. This is a language often heard in the Terai. Add almost any verb to garnu (the modal verb ‘do’) and an educated Nepali will understand.

It’s hard not to smile when you’re having a conversation with someone in Nepali and they tell you, Enjoy garnus.

But I didn’t let the kid have it. He would have let every other kid in the neighborhood know what the bideshi had given him, and then I’d have myself a Halloween situation without the costumes: kids at my door wanting a trick or a treat (no one ever expects a trick, though, just luggage locks).

I had them coloring, and they asked for the paper, they asked for the markers, one kid even asked for the standard-issue metal cup that he had a dozen of at home.

It’s frustrating being in a country that has sort of an inherent tendency to expect something from the bideshi. The constant presence of aid agencies that poorly administer funding, dumping money into Nepal’s bottomless cup, is well understood by Nepalis. Or it may just be because the things of mine seem different and unusual from what they’ve seen before. Or perhaps they’re just kids with the ‘wants.’

The kid with the scar of India on his calf, riding my bike in Murli Gardens, Birganj.

The kid with the scar of India on his calf, riding my bike in Murli Gardens, Birganj.

The kids were looking at pictures from my world atlas when they turned to the Indian subcontinent page and began debating about something, I couldn’t tell because the Nepali was flying too many ways too quickly. Then I saw that they were looking at the younger boy’s leg.

I asked and the Sikh boy said to me, pointing to the youngest kid present, the meek Hindu boy, Circus manche. The young Hindu boy was about 11, and I think small for his age. He showed me his lower calf and a scar (it looked like a water burn, like something had scalded him) that looked exactly like nation of India—even slightly topographical.

Now if I think that having a scar of India is exceptional, I don’t think it qualifies him for the freak show. I said that I thought that the kid was a good guy, scar of India and all, which seemed to please him. And then they left.

In the middle of the night, I awoke realizing that the Sikh boy had pinched my lock. I knew it before I even stood up from my bed to deal with the urges that had awakened me. I grew angry.

I went into the room and took a quick inventory. As I imagined, the lock was gone. The deceiving Sikh boy was sleeping with it stuffed under his pillow in his Sikh fortress thinking he had fooled the bideshi. I felt compelled to confront him, corner him, and tell him he was a Kasto thief.

It’s a small neighborhood with a finite number of kids with connections to a Hindu child with a scar of India on his calf.

As you can imagine, finding a kid with the scar of India on his calf wasn’t so hard, but having him rat out his Sikh friend was. Perhaps it’s that this tiny Hindu boy felt intimidated informing on his knife-packing buddy.

I can imagine a mob of Sikh boys, headed up by their lock-pinching ringleader, cornering the Hindu boy in the locker room, or some sort of Nepali equivalent to a locker room, wielding their shivs and threatening him to be careful of what he tells the outsider, the bideshi. Maybe the Hindu kid had a similar nightmare.

(Well, for me it was a sort of fantasy I played in my head during lulls in my teaching schedule: imaging the Sikh kids cutting him down in a place not unlike my old high school, in a bowling alley in Oak Cliff in Dallas, or just driving him out to some dock in Brooklyn circa 1925, to a gray pier—where only the Sikh mobsters’ turbans can be seen in the moonlight—where they walk the Hindu kid out onto the pier and say something like, Well, Sammy, you should have known better than to turn your back on your kind? and then they pull out a huge scimitar that glitters for a moment by the light of the full moon before it comes down the lops off the tot’s head. Gruesome, yes, but also absurdly amusing.)

I’ve taken the Hindu kid under my wing, offering him protection and Tang. He still refuses to disclose the whereabouts of his marauding Sikh friend and said friend’s possible role in an underworld of Birganj Sikh gangs, but he will crack and I will have my lock, so help me Shiva.

Mental health days

It had been a rough couple of weeks. I had the misfortune of being in the first group of volunteers to leave Narayanghat the day after swearing in. We were to leave early, by 6 o’clock.

We were the volunteers to the southeast or Narayanghat: Jane-Erie, also going to Birganj; Patty, a forestry instructor heading to Hetauda (due east of Narayanghat, due north of Birganj and where we would turn south towards India); and Lee, a science teacher going to Kalaiya, a rural village near Birganj.

Emotions ran high, and I hadn’t expected to see so many people in the morning wishing us off. Since leaving the States, I’ve been the one leaving, never the one to stay behind to wave and smile to people on their way.

At the Vishuwa Buddhist monument in Birganj, a woman prays by candles on Buddha Poornima

At the Vishuwa Buddhist monument in Birganj, a woman prays by candles on Buddha Poornima

After two months of incubated friendships, many of us were parting ways with close friends—I felt in some ways that they were my only friends—with whom we’d shared phenomenal experiences. We’d meet again at the All-Vol, the ‘all volunteers’ conference in January, eight months away. What I’m trying to say is that it was sad. Really sad. Grown men-crying sad. Women wailing and beating their breasts sad.

Of course there were easy goodbyes, the token, We’ll write. It was exactly what I didn’t need as I was driven off to what I knew would be an awful few weeks. In a matter of hours, I was unloading my bags into my new deraa, wondering, bedless, What now?

I left for a hotel, overwhelmed by the settling in I would have to begin in the morning. The enormity of a simple task of, let’s say, finding a bed turns into, How do I ask to buy a bed in Nepali without buying a water buffalo?

That night, eating alone, thinking about people who I missed, people who I knew where finding out how much the presence of others had made our previous adjustments easier, more communal. But now I alone. Alone. Just me. Big time. Lonely? Yes. Acute? Indeed.

There were a couple other PCVs living near me in Birganj, Luke and Rob, but both were gone from site for the next few weeks. The anxiety and sadness that I had felt leaving the States had been manageable, but now it began to erupt—almost uncontrollably.

Staying in a hotel was awful. Nothing exacerbates loneliness more than sleeping in a room overtly symbolic of the transient nature of my presence. And here I was, doing two years hard time in the inferno-like heat of Birganj, spending one more night in one more bed that I’d never see again.

I was not sure of being a nomad by choice. I had eaten at Himanchal Cabin, a restaurant with a Nepali-speaking staff, in comparison with Birganj’s large Bhojpuri-, Hindi-, and incomprehensible Nepali-speaking populations. (A combination of all three of these is something I call ‘Hippurali.’)

But man was it depressing. It was like I was in Hopper’s Nighthawks, alone with the soda jerk, who could only speak Nepali and with whom I could only discuss fruit preferences let alone my feelings of unrelenting depression. Now that would be a painting.

But that was weeks ago. I might have not been able to make it if I hadn’t broken the rules, though.

We’re not supposed to leave our site (also called ‘post,’ as in a big stick that is stuck in the ground that doesn’t move) for the first three months, which isn’t that tough since we’re just getting settled in and beginning our work. (I had walked into the school year in progress and was playing catch up with the book as my students hadn’t had an English teacher all year).

It was announced after I had been at school for two weeks that we would have a long weekend in celebration of the Buddha’s birthday, born in 5 BCE on a Sunday, apparently in Lumbini, a village west of Narayanghat by about seven hours.

A good friend, Chelsea, had taken her assignment in Gaidankot, the village where our training had taken place. Her school, in fact, was about 500 meters from our training site. She had found a deraa in nearby Narayanghat.

Chelsea was living with Shana, another volunteer from our group who worked with an NGO that promoted sexual health awareness and offered assistance to sex workers. Good work. Interesting pamphlets.

Matt, a science teacher and secretly Canadian, with whom I’d drank Glenfiddich with at the bar way back in San Francisco, also lived nearby. It was going to fun, old times recaptured, and it was going to save (or at least distract) me from my discontent.

Then on the morning I was to catch my bus, I heard on the BBC that Nepal’s Prime Minister, Deuba, had dissolved the Lower House of Parliament, a major elected body. Nepal had been under a state of emergency since the previous November, and the House was to vote to either reinstate or discontinue the state of emergency, which, in effect, is martial law.

I live under martial law. I never thought about it like that before.

The police and army are a constant presence. On my way to the bus park at exactly 5:30 a.m., I passed a formation of army marching and armed. Apparently the House had told the PM that it would vote against reinstating the State of Emergency.

So the PM took action by getting support from the Crown to simply do away with the elected (and also dissident) faction of the government. I expected to go home then, that Peace Corps would be calling me shortly to warn of impending riots.

But there weren’t any riots. There wasn’t even a peep of social unrest in Birganj. I had been told about a Bollywood actor who had been quoted making anti-Nepali statements, and there were huge displays of violence in Nepal. Buses were burned.

There were riots and the army and police had to be deployed until the actor assured the public that he had been inaccurately quoted. But for half of the government being tossed aside, there wasn’t even that. Buses ran on time, including my bus with me on it, and I even got to Narayanghat ahead of schedule.

The Makalu line is the one to take. Outside the Makalu ticket office in the bus park there is a gorilla-like man working for Makalu who chants, quite passionately as if he’s trying to get a batter to miss a pitch, Makalu, Makalu, Makalu, Makalu, Makalu. Hey! Hey! Makalu, Makalu . . . .

It wasn’t until this past Tuesday when I went to Kalaiya to visit Lee that I had a bad bus ride. Experience has proven that on any given bus ride, you’re definitely along with at least one or two people who will suffer from motion sickness. Vomit will be sprayed along the side of the bus as it roars down the road.

See, local buses are what you take between the big city and the village. Local buses stop and pick up anyone—or any thing for that matter—along the way. This is also means that most of these people on local buses are rural folk, less used to vehicular transportation (in contrast to animal-powered transportation).

We were so close to Kalaiya when this woman sitting two rows ahead began to lose it. Boy howdy did she.

I first saw the men sitting in front of me jump up into the isle as the woman made quite a mess of herself. She then got her head out of the window and made a mess of the bus. And then I sat and watched streams of vomit splash along the outside of my window.

Suddenly, turning to talk to the man next to me who had been pleading with me to give him a US visa was the better option. That’s why bus rides can be awful. But not for my big return to Narayanghat.

The bus arrived early and I had enough time to take a tempo to Gaidankot to visit my host family. I saw many old faces, drank chiye at all the old pasals and was appalled by the same tremendous wave of heat that is Narayanghat.

A brother and sister pose for me near Shana's place near Narayanghat.

A brother and sister pose for me near Shana's place near Narayanghat.

The second pose is more natural, probably because I waited for it.

The second pose is more natural, probably because I waited for it.

It was nice, though. It didn’t take long to feel an absence of the people who had made these places special. My host family clearly had no idea of what to do with me. I sat in the room where I had ‘grown up’ in Nepal, although it had become again what it had always been: my host parent’s room.

I could see that as long as I was in Nepal, I would be a drifter. In the early evening I met Chelsea on the Narayni Bridge. She and Shana were living with the old host family of one of the language teachers, followers of Sai Babba, one of the most popular living Hindu gurus.

I have only met one Nepali who didn’t like Sai Babba. He ran the Nepali Guest House, a hotel in Narayanghat with the finest daal bhaat around. Andrew and I were eating lunch one day when he began examining an extremely kitsch photo Andrew had bought of Sai Babba.

It was a gold-flaked photo, like Gustav Klimt posters you can buy in the mall’s artmart. He had said, in Nepali, “What a great picture, but what a bad man.”

The followers of Sai Babba, as far as I can tell, have two distinguishing features from other Hindus. First, they hang pictures of Sai Babba instead of the usual orthodox Hindu gods. He’s a funny looking man, somewhat portly in an orange robe, sporting a massive Harlem Globe Trotter’s-esque fro.

They also keep a small ornamental chair near their Sai Babba shrine, a sign of respect and hope that perhaps some day Sai Babba will pop by to visit and need a place to sit.

Secondly, the have a daily call to prayer that initiated by a high pitched bell, rung with incredible fervor by a true believer, at least every morning at 5:00 a.m.

The weekend went well. All sorts of people showed up from the area. I met a volunteer, Renee, a science teacher stationed in Monglepur, 30 minutes away by bus from Narayanghat, who had gone to UNT, who had finished up in the fall of 1998 and who had lived in Bruce Hall that semester, my old dorm.

We knew a few people in common, namely Bean, my old roommate my first semester in Bruce. There isn’t much to say about what actually happened that weekend but about what I saw, what I felt, and how far I have come since then. Birganj is home, and I feel planted. There was one special moment.

We had gone to Sarauha, a scenic, tranquil city on the edge of the Chitwan National Park, home to Bengali tigers, where elephants are as common a sight as cars or bikes. To go to Sarauha, you take a bus east from Narayanghat and then south at the city of Tandi Bazaar, when the scenery becomes more distinct.

Instead we walked most of the way from Sarauha back to Tandi, through pastures with dozens of water buffalo, to see a clear horizon where the sun was setting. There were seven of us, and I felt then that I was really a part of something cohesive. We crossed a small foot bridge and then came to the main road. And tempo happened across us. We decided to hitch a ride back to Tandi Bazaar even though the tempo was already more than full.

Matt took the roof with two other Nepalis, and Shana, Renee, Naomi, and myself hung to the sides and back of the tempo as it buzzed along rural Nepal. It was cool by then—evening is the only time when Terai weather is bearable—and scenery rolled by not unlike summer trips across Kansas to visit grandma’s.

Boy, that’s some sentimental garbage.

But emotions seem to run high in Nepal. Things are better now, good even, and I’m looking forward to a summer full of adventures. There’s a Fourth of July event in Janakpur (four hours by bus). I’m planning on going: many friends, many stories, and many chances to be sprayed by vomit.