For the past two weeks I’ve started becoming rather familiar with the underground world of primary schools in Birganj.
For the next year I’ll be working with primary English teachers, helping them to develop their teaching and English skills. At the moment this requires lots of visits to my cluster of schools, roughly 26 in the urban parts of Birganj.
So far it’s been a tour of the bizarre. I’m not seeing things through a cracked looking-glass, but through one that’s so old the glass is beginning to run. The schools really aren’t that old.
I think the oldest is around 42 years old. But Birganj is not a gentle place and the schools are beginning to show their ages. At one school, I saw a classroom that had collapsed into the sewer below.
But it’s really the people who have made the school visits interesting. With three trips to the training site, three weeks in India, a week in Kathmandu for a workshop, and all the travel time in between, I really hadn’t been in Birganj for more than a few days straight for almost two months.
One day back when I was sitting and having tea and talking with the tea didi about how I was a truly terrible person since I’d never given her photos of myself I was accosted by a very strange, very articulate man: RK Yadav.
He sat down across from me smiling broadly and asked me for my ‘good’ name. He asked me if I knew John. RK told me about how he and John had worked together in a small village a ways north of Birganj called Chhotaily for two years. He began telling me about how he and John had started an eco club at a nearby secondary school.
It sounded like the ghost of a previous PCV and it was. I’ve heard of this happening to other volunteers—almost always in small village settings—but it’d never happened in Birganj before.
I was surprised and interested to learn about this guy who’d been in Birganj who I’d never heard of before.
There are two major ghosts of volunteers in Birganj: Martha and Randall. I know about Randall because a current PCV in Birganj taught at the same school for a year.
I feel like I know Martha a little better because I used to live with the fellow she worked with while she was in Nepal, Rajesh. Rajesh had photos of his family together with Martha in the same room where I ate with them.
And then there was John. RK‘s English was archaic and sometimes spoken like a single line of an EE Cummings poem. Actually, RK himself was a poet.
He was in Birganj because he’d just had a collection of children’s poems in English published and had come to check on the order. His plan was to take the books to primary schools and help the teachers use them in teaching English.
Chhotaily was an excessively earnest guy. I couldn’t really get a clear picture of this John character, mainly because RK remembrances of him were so bizarrely inflated that it was impossible to figure out what was and what wasn’t.
Apparently, John had taught English, founded conservation projects, wrestled tigers to the ground, and built a few schools, as well as a hospital.
It was dizzying. Then RK pulled out of his shirt pocket a crumpled envelope.
I have received this letter from John.
While slightly exhibitionistic, I couldn’t help but take the letter from RK, who was still smiling. When I finished reading the letter, I put it back into the envelope and collected my thoughts.
The letter was a single typed page. The envelope was dated June 2001 and was soft and slightly discolored. I could feel the oil from hands opening it, holding it, reading it, refolding it, again and again.
RK wore his topi and tikka, both symbols of the Hindu Kingdom (which is Nepal), and smiled at me proudly.
In his letter, John told RK that he was at seminary and suggested to RK that he read the Bible, pray to Jesus, and become a Christian in order to save himself for eternal damnation in hell for his pagan ungodly beliefs.
RK then went on to tell me about how once he and John had to spend the night together in the jungle of the Parsa Wildlife Refuge.
There was only one sleeping bag and John refused to let RK walk back to his home because it required a trip through a dangerous area (probably something to do with the Maoists, I thought).
John enticed RK into staying by giving him his sleeping bag. And what did John do? He slept only in his clothes the night through.
Sadly, I don’t know much else about the story. RK told me that John had only sent the single, proselytizing letter sine he left Nepal around four years before.
I think about what sort of character RK painted John to be, but when I think of the singular letter that may well have been a form letter from the How to Convert Heathens manual, it just doesn’t add up. It’s fascinating.
Anyhow, maybe I’ll see RK again and he’ll sing more glories of John. But let me sing of RK‘s glories, through his own poems.
First, an excerpt from the poem Means of Transportation:
Trucks carry heavy load,
Buses bring passengers;
Is very danger
Actually, there’s no clever tie-in between that excerpt and what I wrote about the mysterious John or RK himself, who is probably an excellent teacher; however, it is our duty to recognize the humorous in everything. From SEASONS:
Rainy uncle is dangerous.
Bring landslide and flood
Crops grows very fast
Parasites Suck the blood.
While RK‘s poetry showed me that he was really interested in contributing to the schools, to the community, to my amusement, John’s prose forced me to answer difficult questions that RK asked me about a man I’d never meet
Who was I defending? And why? Rainy uncle is dangerous, I guess.
It’s the question I’m asked the most. Well, I’m probably asked about US visas more often. Anyhow, I get asked if I’m married a lot. Every day, probably.
Every day. Every single day. The same question. Constantly. But this is life and I have fun with it. Some days I’m a widower, some days I am waiting for my elder brother to be married, etc.
But I didn’t have a clever response when the headmiss of JP Primary asked. I just told her that I wasn’t married, that perhaps when I returned to the US I’d get married.
She was a hefty woman. She was, in fact, enormous. She was a big, fat, jolly woman who strongly suggested that she find me a wife. I explained that almost no-one in the US had arranged marriages.
When love comes, I said in Nepali,
She looked at me, confused. (I do speak Nepali terribly.)
She then told me about how Mike had married a Nepali woman. I didn’t quite understand, so I asked again. Yes, she arranged a wife for Mike.
Who’s this Mike?
Mike was an English volunteer who had worked in Birganj some time ago for some NGO or INGO. I read in the school’s ledger where Mike had written an entry after awarding a student a prize for a drawing contest.
So the headmiss would have me believe that one day an English-speaking aid worker came to JP Primary, awarded a prize for a Birganj-wide drawing contest, and then entered into a marriage the headmiss had arranged. The day before.
Then I asked the headmiss,
Can you find me a nice wife? I asked again and again.
Mike’s wife was from Hetauda, a city about two hours north of Birganj, and had been found by the headmiss.
Basically she had discredited everything I had ever said about how ‘my people’ don’t have arranged marriages.
She was quiet for a moment, waiting for me to concede that (a) I needed to get married immediately, and (b) she was the only qualified person in Birganj to find a white man a nice Nepali girl to marry. It was my lucky day.
My head was spinning. Never before had been stumped like this by a Nepali. Usually I’m the one saying strange things, but an Englishman distributing prizes for an art contest in Birganj and then asking the headmiss,
Find me a wife, please, was a lot to understand at one moment.
Was this woman kidding? She told me that they met at their wedding and then went back to England together about a week later.
Anything’s possible in Birganj. While the headmiss waited for my concession, I considered—for a minute—having her arrange maybe half a dozen candidates for me to look over, like troops presenting arms for inspection.
It was a rather misogynistic daydream, but after keeping company in a patriarchal society for so long, the idea didn’t immediately strike me as inherently evil.
After a moment, the headmiss then said something I’ve heard more than once.
Look at you. You’re white. White is beautiful, she said.
I told her that I thought Nepalis were some of most beautiful people I’d ever seen, which she quickly dismissed,
We’re black. Black is ugly. Look at me, she said pinching her forearm before turning to mine,
You’re white. Very nice.
I found my loophole. I asked,
So why do you want me to marry a Nepali woman if you think they are ugly?
She didn’t even hesitate,
You are white. Your Nepali bride will be black. You children’s color will be very beautiful.
Her logic was a bit cloudy to me, but I didn’t press for more answers. I was uncomfortable discussing this woman’s hatred of her own skin color, let alone her admiration for mine.
It’s been strange times since coming back to Birganj after my month long hiatus, filled with poets, matchmakers, and the strange, mysterious bideshis that made all of this relative to me.
And to add to the dynamic, the two new N/196 PCVs just showed up in town yesterday.
I wonder what stories they’ll hear of me when I’m gone.