Characters, part 1

Oh, the places you go and the people you met. I’ve been in Nepal now for 15 months and met more than a couple interesting people. I decided that I’d write about some of the more interesting people I’ve met in installments. This is the first.

Here are three individuals I met while in Jhapa back in March 2003. All live in Birtamod, where my friend Drew is posted, and all are strange. While Birganj has enough lunatics to fill several entries, these are some special people.

Sunjay the Islamic extremist

Take the appearence of the scuzziest rickshaw driver from across Nepal, give him a thick English accent as spoken by someone who learned English in India, circa 1950, and add a lazy eye to the mix. I met Sunjay in Birtamod, Jhapa

He’s an odd man, what many Nepalese would call a tragedy manche, because of his rather unpleasant and/or unlucky life story.

One of Drew’s friends in Birtamod runs an optical shop, selling mostly sunglasses but also producing fine facsimiles of eye glasses. On any given day in Birtamod you can find Sunjay at the optical shop, waiting for a most likely mythical ophthalmologist to show up and fix his eye.

I asked Sunjay how long he’d been waiting. About seven years, he answered, without smiling.

The optical shop is run by Nissam et al. Nissam is an Islamic extremist, trapped to a life of infidelity in Nepal, or so he says, Other Muslims do not think I am true Muslim, he grimaced, as if defeated, because I do not live in Muslim country.

A sign at a restaurant pretty much simplifies the Are you Nepal? question.

A sign at a restaurant pretty much simplifies the question.

He told me this several times during our first meeting and I began to detect it was the source of a great inferiority complex within the world-wide Muslim community.

This inferiority complex, I also believe, is what gave birth to his Islamic extremism. A while ago when Drew stopped by to say hi, Nissam asked Drew to come in and sit down.

We have something to ask you, he asked Drew. He went on to ask Drew to help him go to the US. Drew, remembering past conversations about the US with Nissam (not good) asked, Why do you want to go the US?

Unlike most Nepalis seeking exodus to the US, Nissam had a formulated reason, I want to kill George W. Bush. Yes. OK?

I didn’t understand how strange the dynamic at the Nissam & Co. Optical was until Sunjay asked Drew and I over to his house. On the second floor of a building either being built or crumbling (hard to tell), Sunjay lives in a single room with his mother and two sons.

The wife ran off around ten years ago and Sunjay has been a destitute tragedy manche ever since. Sunjay kicked open the door and Drew and I got a full glimpse of his mother sitting on the bed, mostly naked.

Sunjay immediately launched into a diatribe about Muslims, or rather, Those fukcing Mohammedans, man (it’s the 1950’s Indian English), after telling us about his Christian faith and showing us a dusty photograph of not quite completely decomposed saint from Goa, India.

His mother was getting dressed in the corner or the room during all of this.

You can’t trust Mohammedans, man, Sunjay told us, Once they move in, the place goes to hell, man with a special emphasis on the last word as if he knew what he was talking about, but mostly amused at what he was telling us.

Drew and I looked at one another. Sunjay, Drew said, You spend all your day with Nissam and, um, he’s a Mohammedan.

Good God man, Sunjay yelled, That’s what I’m talking about, man. Mohammedans!

A bit later, Drew said that Nissam and Sunjay had gotten into a fight. Out of the kindness of his heart, Nissam had been asking Sunjay over to eat with his wife and son.

Sunjay always accepted and was usually intoxicated, most likely as a coping mechanism to deal with the harsh reality that the mystical ophthalmologist was never, ever going to come and fix his eye.

(No one is really sure where Sunjay got this notion that his eye could be fixed or that some specialist was coming to Birtamod, Jhapa, to do the operation in a small bazaar pasal for free.)

So Nissam had taken Sunjay aside, shoeless and smelling of third-rate cheap liquor, and asked him if he was going to come to his house, eat his food, and sit with his wife and child, he’d sure appreciate it if he could try and do it sober.

God damn Mohammedans! Sunjay screamed, I’m going to Cally, man, (‘Cally’ meaning Calcutta) and he left.

And off Sunjay went. Drew was sad when he told me about Sunjay’s departure, but a month later when I talked to Drew he told me that Sunjay had returned, had his operation in Cally, and his eye was still grotesquely gazing in the wrong direction.

Oddly Drew found Sunjay sitting in Nissam’s optical shop and, as far as Sunjay was concerned, having no need for the fantastical ophthalmologist. Sunjay is notorious around Birtamod—not popular.

I have no doubt that Sunjay is still sitting at Nissam & Co. Optical with his best (and only) friend. A Mohammedan.

A child named Time Pass

Another interesting resident of Birtamod, Jhapa, is Time Pass, a most unusual 10-year-old boy. I first met Time Pass while walking through Birtamod with Drew on our way to his place.

As we passed a shack, a motorcycle repair shop, a couple young grease monkeys from inside yelled out at us, Hey! Time pass! Time pass!

I politely responded that I didn’t have time for ‘time pass’ and had to be on my way. Drew’s ears perked up and he said, No, Time Pass is a kid you have to meet, and we headed inside.

Posing in Birtamod, Time Pass. What else to say?

Posing in Birtamod, Time Pass. What else to say?

When the young men, apparently the guardians of Time Pass, went inside to look for him they reappeared empty handed. No Time Pass today, I guess, and we left. Just a few hundred meters from the shop this small, rather chubby kid comes running around a corner at full speed.

His pants were pulled up to his armpits and a candy bar was hanging out of his mouth, chocolate slathered around his face. Hey, hey. How ya’ doin’ there? he asked me, invoking the voice of a 50-year-old used car salesman.

Drew had told me what made this kid exceptional was that there was merely the body of a child, but a soul of washed up small-time crook. Besides his name, Time Pass had the strangest body language and behavior I’ve ever seen exhibited by a child. I grabbed my wallet.

Before I could actually say anything to Time Pass, though, and old, also chubby woman in a sari came stumbling around the corner from where Time Pass had come rushing from. She was clearly in a hurry, clearly mad, clearly trying to kill Time Pass.

Above her head in one hand she held a jagged rock, about the size of a softball, and her eyes were burning to see Time Pass’ blood spilt.

Time Pass noticed this as well, Hey ya. Well, don’t you know. Gotta be goin’, and off he went about the time the old woman sent the rock sailing through the air narrowly missing Time Pass, executing a move reminiscent of OJ Simpson’s football footwork.

We stayed until we could no longer see the old woman chasing Time Pass into the jumbled streets of Birtamod. I never met Time Pass again, but Drew gave me an update a while back. While Drew was out of town, Time Pass had come by looking for Drew, looking for money.

Between two volunteers, Time Pass.

Between two volunteers, Time Pass.

The only person at home was Drew’s Aamaa, the old woman of the house, a moderately insane woman as well, who often tells people calling for Drew that he’s dead, and spends most of her time watching Animal Planet dubbed in Hindi while smoking marijuana.

She’s a kind, old Limbu woman who’s just become slightly eccentric in her retirement. She wouldn’t harm a fly.

Time Pass, apparently, does not qualify as a fly. All that Drew could discern from his Aamaa‘s rambling, drug-influenced recollection of the incident was that Time Pass had squatted in the house refusing to leave until Drew returned or his was given a bribe to leave.

The Aamaa finally had it with Time Pass, who was undoubtedly being a buzz-kill during her zany animal bloopers program, and chased him out of the house with a khukuri (those scary banana-shaped Nepali knifes) drawn and waving about.

Time Pass lived to tell the tale, but I must say, Time Pass walks a fine line.

After meeting Time Pass, I asked Sunjay about him.

You can’t trust that boy, man, he said rather somberly, Good God, man. He’s notorious! I think he’ll be the damn mayor one day, man.

And if Sunjay doesn’t trust someone . . .