from Mister Raja’s Neighborhood
© 1986 by Jeff Greenwald
Night moves…in a plush living room with the mosquitoes buzzing, the sound of bells outside, always bells even if they’re only voices, the dogs that never stop barking, the arrogant horns of the nouveau-riche, sound of my own breathing, arrogance of the man alone. Three and a half weeks and already a surfeit of tales to tell. My senses are sharpening to what’s going on around here and I’m keeping good company, although none of it stays the night. Only the ‘skeeters….
At night, like now, it’s usually reflections on what the day wasn’t, and sometimes a rare sweet jerk-off to the tune of one of these Newar beauties drawing her sari, all five meters of it, deliciously through my crotch. But there’s no point being desperate. Everybody’s settled in to their own private safety, and I’m on the waiting list. Come what may, I can’t hold on to stateside expectations; everything’s drilled at a different calibre here.
Here. What do I see? Gods and clouds reflected in scummy puddles; my own reflection in a bowl of mo-mo soup; the brown faces with white teeth and a weird sense of what’s funny that I seem to share; the holes burned through my stack of typing paper from the smouldering incense I forgot about; a tree stump hammered thick with ten thousand nails, each one a prayer to the goddess of smallpox; rainbows every evening as the sun breaks under the thick belly of the sky and shoots to where it’s been raining.
But it hasn’t rained for two days now, and you could cut the air with a khukuri. It’s impossible to move from point A to point B without a thin scum forming on your body. No amount of the parasite-polluted water can clean you for long. Scratch mosquito bites and worms of dirt roll under your fingers. It won’t last long.
I know it doesn’t sound very appealing, but the monsoon does have its own peculiar beauty. It’s like living in the elbow of a question mark.
Write me a letter and you’re in my world, but I know damned well it’s a stranger world than any of my friends out there can speculate. We carry sticks to fend off rabid dogs, boil the buffalo milk for 20 minutes before daring to drink it. The flowers that grow here eat human flesh, and all our peanut butter is imported from India. Twice a day the electricity fails, plunging us into darkness or silent light. The nearest ocean is a thousand miles away.
As I came out of Narayan’s Pie Shop this evening I saw an odd scene transpiring in the center of the pitch-blacked-out intersection just outside the popular haunt’s front door. Someone had built a weird little shrine on the ground, with Indus Valley-esque clay figurines, incense, a burning candle, an offering of cooked rice and about a dozen 5-paise coins (100 paise in a rupee; one rupee worth about a nickle). It was all right out there, on the scrambled pavement, spared by the wheels of rickshaws and bicycles that hurried by in the otherwise dark. I crept up to have a look, then asked the kid running the “pharmacy” next door was the story was.
“For coots,” he said cryptically.
“No, no, coats!” He started to laugh. “Like night-time they are coming, bad coats.”
Suddenly I understood. Everything in Nepal is understood suddenly, or not at all.
“Ghosts!,” I shouted. “You mean ghosts!”
“Yes, yes! Goats!”
We had established that the bizarre construction somehow related to spirits, but any other attempt at drawing the boy out was futile. By the time I glanced back at the shrine a dog had arrived and was gobbling up the rice. The ragged kids came by and stole the coins. A passing rickshaw smashed the figurines. Still, the candle did not go out.
I returned to Narayan’s. A Tibetan woman had come in with a wounded crane she’s picked up in the street. It wouldn’t eat. The bird’s wings looked fine, but the eyes held a completely resigned expression. The thing wasn’t even fully developed; maybe it had been born sick. I ran next door to the medicine shop, returned with a plastic eye-dropper and showed the Tibetan how to force-feed the crane sugar water. She took over and I left, feeling like a regular bodhisattva of compassion.
Rode home through the unimaginable stinks and the hulking shadows of sleeping cows, the racy panic of barking dogs, black alleyways illuminated for blinding instants as gigantic buses heave by, spewing clouds of diesel, black on black, to the posh safety, the rugs and warm lamps and wicker of this house. Sometimes I just want to bolt the door behind me, even though there’s nothing and no one to fear. It’s an E-ticket ride out there.
The fact remains that Nepal is a different world, and the edges of Asia scrape incessantly against what’s common and true to us-in-America. Even the little things. Drinking tea this morning in the offices of Himalayan Steel, a spry clerk asked me to guess his age. The game never fails to delight the Nepalese…. I regarded the man, his eyes alive, his posture erect, hair a distinguished gray above a virtually wrinkle-free face (enlivened by a red tika-mark on his forehead) and guessed, charitably, fifty-five. Both he and my translator broke into laughter. “Guess again.” All right; I guessed sixty-six. “I’m sorry,” my liason admitted, “But Mr. Manohar here is eighty-four years old.”
So many things that are hard to believe; that I’m here at all is a constant source of amazement. Funny how a place can be so much home, yet so full of unexpected angles and inconveniences. A list of things there are not: drinkable water, drinkable milk, washing machines, dish soap, ready telephones, mailboxes, avocados, 35mm slide sleeves, toasters, ten-speeds, size 10 tennis shoes, bowling alleys, Dos Equis beer, etc… but what is here compensates, albeit in a different dimension.
Like the fantastic Swayambhunath temple, high on a hill inhabited by monkeys; I love to go up on full moon nights and watch dusk descend upon the Kathmandu Valley. Since it’s the monsoon the cloudscapes are beyond imagining, puffing like huge white blowfish over the towers and pagodas, sometimes running like quicksilver over the shoulders of the hills. From inside the monastery comes the anamelodic rhythm of a puja as saffron-clad monks ring thick brass bells and blow through horns shaped from human bone…and all around the massive stupa, butter lamps flicker in the breeze.
Night-time is alive and full of mystery. Riding my HERO bicycle over the potted, muddy streets, I catch glimpses of other worlds at every turn. Two men working by the light of a bare bulb, planing huge sheets of wood with primitive hand tools; doorways full of sleeping humans and dogs; the shadow of a sacred cow, shapelessly chewing some rinds thrown out as an offering from a nearby fruitseller. Down the alleys I sometimes glimpse a temple, where vermillion-smeared gods and goddesses dance erotically in the darkness, or where the intense, all-seeing eyes of Buddha peer out with enlightened indifference. Rickshaws, pedestrians and other bikes come bumping out of the blackness at any moment, and only quick serving cheats a collision.
During the afternoon the sidewalks are a tangled maze of merchandise and humanity where one can find spectacular printed cloth, incense, padlocks, Tibetan thangkas, bangles, Yak cigarettes, lentils, sugar, tofu and tea. Seedy individuals materialize by your shoulder: “Hey, hashish? Heroin? Cocaine? Change money?” Or it’ll be some hopeful entrepreneur who reaches into his satchel and extracts a traditional khukuri knife in a gilded sheath, or a copper prayer-wheel, and waves either or both in front of your face until you break away with an oath and the requisite smile. Grain-sellers squat in the stalls alongside huge scales, living on the thinning profit margin; a grotesque butchery displays the yellow-dyed head of a freshly-slaughtered goat on a spike outside his shop, its guts spilled out alluringly below.
I wander through my day-to-day, not yet settled, and wonder how the hell I plan to do justice to all this, and how long it’s going to take. All my ambitious plans seem so superficial, as if as if I naively believed I could live in one of Asia’s liveliest cities and concentrate only on cuteness. There is a dark side here as well, and it cannot be ignored by anyone who hopes to give more than the tourist-guide impression of the Kingdom.