Burning candles, Tihar

I remember where I was last Tihar, a year ago. A year ago? A year ago I’d gone to Kathmandu to hang out at the Spice deraa, my old co-owned flat in Kathmandu, with some of the folks there.

Pardon me while I wax nostalgic, but a year ago I was living in a different house in Birganj and I had another flat in Kathmandu. Now I’m squatting with an Australian working with a Birganj NGO and Peace Corps kicked us out of our places in Kathmandu.

I’ve since become a fixture at the Hotel Ambassador and Kate’s kitchen.

Tihar candles on my balcony at the flat in Raniganj.

Tihar candles on my balcony at the flat in Raniganj.

This year I was staying in Birganj. All the other PCVs had left during the holiday, just as I had done a year ago, and I was half looking forward to settling back into a rut in Birganj after not having been here continually for very long.

Since returning from the US I’d only manage to spend around 10 days, maybe two weeks, continually in town before leaving. Since getting back from the States I’d been to Kathmandu (of course), Pokhara, Hile, Ilam, Karkarbhitta, and Rajbiraj. And then back to Kathmandu.

I had been feeling somewhat lost of late. Like not sure where I was going with work or whether or not I was actually welcome in Nepal. Just before Tihar the Maoists had sent a notice to the newspapers and government that it was making steps to change its policies.

No longer would they be targeting infrastructure or low-level personnel of the army and police. Instead, they’d be targeting US imperialists. Or those associated and funded by US imperialists. Or who knows what this means.

Even during training when we could hear the crackle of gunfire in the distance as we ate daal bhaat we knew that we were safe. Really.

And even when the police (or was it the Maoists?) came and kidnapped a trainee’s host-brother, tied him to the back of motorcycle and drove off into the Chitwan jungle, we felt safe.

Even when the Maoists (apparently, it might have as easily of been the police) came and burned down a trainee’s neighbor’s house by cover of darkness, we felt safe. But this is different. This could be personal.

Mira knits at her tea stand in Murli Gardens, Birganj.

Mira knits at her tea stand in Murli Gardens, Birganj.

Sadly, the only way to gauge to what extent of danger there is we must wait and see. It’s a gamble. It’s (pardon the metaphor) like playing Russian roulette. In Birganj I’ll be fine. I’ve got bigger considerations, like my new landlord.

He’s a weaselly man that I don’t trust farther than I can throw him. One morning the family came knocking on my door to ask if I’d left my phone off the hook. While I don’t usually use it at all, the miserly bastard decided to disconnect my phone and then lie to me to my face about it.

He said he had three phone lines in his house and mine was ‘disturbed.’ It was such an out-and-out lie that I couldn’t even call him on it. It wouldn’t have mattered.

And the same morning I’d received a phone call on the disturbed phone line (in his house), did I get a visit from my old landlord, an equally niggardly man.

He’d been sitting in my living room telling my friend how I owed him money for a phone bill I’d forgotten to pay before I left.

While true enough, it was a minor amount of money and our understanding that such outstanding bills would be considered paid in full as I’d given him my old bed and another previous PCV‘s bed, both worth far more than the phone bill.

I’d also agreed to leave him my gas cylinder as well as a fan, a bookshelf, a couple chairs, et cetera. And here he was, sitting in my living room, moaning about money and complaining about my tea.

For some reason, I wasn’t feeling terribly welcome in Birganj—or even Nepal.

When Tihar began, though, things took a turn for the better. My bastard of a landlord’s younger brother asked me over to his place for dinner. My first landlord, perhaps the only honest man in this town, also asked me over. And so did Mira, my local tea stand operator.

I decided to go to Mira’s and then finish off the evening at my neighbor’s (the nice one, the younger brother) in a hope create some ties with the better half of the family. In the manner of Tihar we’d lit some candles and decorated the front door with a malla.

At Mira’s we ate and talked, but we couldn’t stay long because we had to run back to my place. We had some puri sabji and ate some sweets, looked at photos, and were the first people that Mira’s younger sister, Asha, and friends played their dialo for.

Soon, though, we left in a hurry to get back to my place. As we were ascending the stairway the Indian family living below me quickly came out to ask if I’d take some photos for them of their children.

I complied and soon I was burning nearly an entire roll of film of kids touching this idol, that idol, in this room, in that room. The film wasn’t a problem, but I was late.

The family asked if I’d go to the roof with them and set off some firecrackers, also a Tihar tradition. I was beaten and said, Sure.

On the roof the father began lighting off some sparklers and what not.

Fireworks on the roof of the apartment with the downstairs neighbors.

Fireworks on the roof of the apartment with the downstairs neighbors.

Soon, though, he had a sparkler in each hand and was lighting roman candles that he’d propped up on the side of the house. I felt like I was in Baghdad. I ducked under a fountain sprayer sparks across the roof and bid my farewell, promising prints in the future.

When I finally got to my neighbor’s house the food was on the table and they were waiting for me. I was more than daunted when I saw the family was expecting me to eat an small mountain of daal bhaat. They were smiling and asking me to sit, eat.

So I did. I guess I should say I tried since there was no way I could eat all of the food without vomiting and even thought I might do that halfway through the plate.

Finally I apologized and said I couldn’t eat any more. We chatted for a while, but soon it was the family’s bedtime and I thanked them again and left.

As I walked around the balcony back to my place I noticed that the candles I’d put out had gone out. Even though it was still a bit windy I went ahead and lit the candles again. The bad man’s daughter came by and said I should position my candles closer together.

I told her I had about thirty left in my room and would do so the next night, the second night of Tihar. In my room I sat on my bed and listened to my stomach complain about the food to me. After a moment I decided to turn off the light and sleep off my stomach cramps.

A moment later I heard the stingy man’s wife and daughter talking outside of my window.

The candles have all gone out, the mother said.

The American inside, the girl replied, He says he has many more.

I hope I do. I hope I can make these days last longer.