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.