Night Watch

Bishnu and I were in the kitchen finishing dinner, one day after I’d moved in, when Bhim stuck his head through the door.

“Laura?” he inquired.  He asked me how I was doing.

Bhim seemed to have another world around him.  We’d been here as visitors less than two days earlier, and now I felt him observing me in my new habitat, going about my business, eating my food, interacting with the other family members.

I put two stools next to the sewing machine and we sat down. Bhim pointed to the low ceiling.  “Please be careful inside the house,” he said.  “You’ll have to stand up carefully and walk slowly to avoid hitting your head.”

This did appear to be true.

“And those straw mats on the bed must be uncomfortable.”  With the best of intentions, Bhim initiated an elaborate explanation of how I should put my inflatable camping mattress over the mats, and move my bag off the bed because the arrangement was cramped and unpleasant for sleeping.  When we’d dumped my things there, Didi had moved the rolled up camping mattress off the bed, not recognizing what it was, and I’d figured I didn’t need it.  I assured Bhim that the highly vocal chicken had overwhelmingly surpassed any disturbance caused by the straw mat.  But why hadn’t I used the mattress, Bhim insisted.  Later that evening I found everything on the bed reorganized.

I had arrived in the middle of the harvest, and the attic was full of rice.  For two nights, I slept downstairs because there was no room on the second floor, which was covered with baskets, tubs, homeless heaps and lost scatterings of unmilled pellets.  Downstairs I didn’t sleep very well.  Aamaa snored like a diesel engine.  Some new chicks were being housed in a box at the end of the bed, where they chirped and bustled around tirelessly.  But the real culprit was the chicken herself, who let loose at such a fearsome volume each morning that the mere sound was almost enough to send me through the ceiling and back up to the attic.


After a few days, the attic was rearranged so I could sleep on the mats, and at night, it was absolutely, impenetrably dark.  When I woke at some unnamed hour, it was so dark that, for all I knew, I had actually woken in the middle of the day to find that someone had painted tar over my pupils. I had been dreaming about the lake where we used to row in New England.  Its dark smooth surface, the methodical sound of oarlocks turning.  Thunk.  Thunk.  Thunk.  I sat up and squinted out the slatted window and the other side was as dark and smooth as the lake.  A breeze blew softly through the bars.  I had to pee.

Cautiously I felt my way across the floor to the ladder.  Its smooth-worn wooden rungs creaked against their rope bindings while I climbed down as quietly as I could.  The darkness enhanced the gaping silence, and as one foot found the ground, I held my breath, clinging to my privacy, trying not to disturb Bishnu and Didi and Aamaa–or, God forbid, the chicken–in their sleep.  Their breathing ruffled the tranquil blackness.

One step, two steps toward the door, avoiding the wide wooden supports in the middle of the room.

A stirring on one of the cots.

BATTI!” Aamaa’s voice shattered the glassy stillness.  “BATTI!

If I had been able to see, I would have broken into a run.  What did batti mean?  In my dream-filled ears the incomprehensible sound reverberated cavernously.  Hand signals were useless, but there was not one suitable word—such as, “pee”—that I knew how to say.  I stretched out my palms, grasping for the door, willing an escape to come to my fingertips.

I heard Aamaa sitting up as my hands found the metal rod wedged across the inside of the door.  The rod provided our only nighttime security, and at the moment, it was securing me inside.  Slide the rod this way, then that way.  It was like trying to remain calm while diffusing a ticking bomb.

I was not fast enough.

BATTI KHULNU PARDAINA ESTO UNDERO MAA KASARI BAHIRA JANNEHOTANEEEE!”  It was a mystery how Aamaa could come out of a cold slumber and create that kind of volume.  The explosion of sound tore apart cobwebs of sleep and sections of my brain were impaled against flying knives of gibberish.  My hands fumbled as I tried to set myself free from the house.  The rod slid out of its hold and I pulled two wooden doors inward, ducked my chin, and fled outside into the night.

The toilet was at the other end of our terraced millet field, just below the hill leading up to the ridge.  I tottered along the edge of the field, which was almost invisible in the meager moonlight, and felt my way over to a rock that was sheltered by old mats and cut up rice sacks.  Inside, there was a bucket of water for washing, but I kept a plastic bag full of tissue that rustled with the slightest breeze, and even that disjointed noise seemed too loud.

After I came out of the toilet I stayed outside, halfway up the hill to the ridge.  The moon was upside down; it looked like a slender bowl, an offering.  I traced Orion and Cassiopeia.  About fifty yards away, the house slept under the expanse of sky, and the evening’s symphony of insect sounds had silenced.  The village stretched out like a frozen yawn to the base of the Kalika Hill, whose massive triangular silhouette thrust toward the stars.

I made my way back to the house, so blind under the clipping of moon that I had to crawl along the edge of the garden to avoid falling off into the cut millet stalks one terrace lower.  But this journey to the toilet was to become a nightly practice, and after a few weeks the moon fattened until it was full like a white balloon; then, the terraces and the path were so light that it looked like somebody had neglected to turn off the daytime.  Eventually, after watching the moon wax and wane and wax again, and the constellations rise and fall with the passing hours, I made a regular game out of emerging from a deep sleep and guessing the time with a quick look around.  I couldn’t have described what the sky actually looked like at each hour—sometimes I barely gave it a glance—but I was usually correct within five minutes.  The night possessed a quality of solitude so complete that, like the living house, nighttime was knowable in its own right.  Those sacred moments of nothingness were the only times I felt unwatched.

The next morning Aamaa waved her hands and exclaimed about batti.  I turned to Bishnu for help.  She picked up the flashlight by Aamaa’s cot.

Batti,” Bishnu said, “means light.


Pictures of Schools

all 710I had heard that there was a small school in the woods, facing south, far below the road that cut through Kaskikot along the mountain ridge.  On a late fall morning in 2002 I went looking for it.

I followed a descending path of broad stones as far as the village mill, and from there I turned onto a winding footpath that halted and dropped and navigated roots in the ground and in some places seemed to disappear entirely.  Soon I heard no sounds except the whir of the trees and the suggestive rustle of an occasional monkey in the tall grass.  I passed a spring and a temple.  I came around a bend.  And then, demurely, as if waiting for a visitor, a stone wall appeared in a clearing up ahead.

I approached the building and emerged from the hushed woods into its open yard, a bald mound of dry dirt looking out over forests and terraced fields.  The view extended all the way down to the valley floor, but the school ground still felt hidden among the trees.  There were two piled stone buildings with wooden shutters and doors, most of which were missing panels, the gaps blocky and conspicuous like missing teeth in the open-jawed windows.  I peeked in to some of the classrooms and saw benches sitting mid-wobble on the dirt floor, facing blackboards whose still-fading scribbles bespoke prior lessons.  These objects regarded each other diplomatically, as if ready for anything but expecting nothing soon.

When I’d left the United States, I hadn’t decided where I was going to end up.  China was a leading Sada Shiva (Class 3?) - Version 3contender.  I was offered a position in a school with 2000 students. My mother didn’t want me to go to Nepal—there was an insurgency happening.  I didn’t know anything about any of these places.  I didn’t speak Chinese, for example.  I spoke French.  I was a terrible candidate to do any reasoning on the topic.  One day, in Bhutan, I was sitting still doing nothing except worrying about where I was going next, when, with as little ceremony as a tenant entering his flat, a picture of a small classroom floated in to my mind and landed there.

To this day I can’t explain why, but I knew that classroom was in Nepal.  I was going to Nepal.

I wound my way back through the forest, past the spring and the temple and the mill, and up a different set of ascending broad stones, I emerged again onto the wide bus road along the ridge.  Directly across from me a man was sitting in front of his house on a low wall.  He was wearing simple brown pants and a V-neck sweater over a long sleeved shirt, and chatting with a round-bellied man dressed in the clothing of a Brahmin priest.

The two men called me over and asked when I had arrived in Kaskikot and what I would be doing there.  I told them I had just been to a small school in the woods, whose name I had forgotten, but where I was hoping to teach.  As it turned out, both of these men were teachers at that school, which was called Sada Shiva Primary.

The man in the V-neck sweater introduced himself as Govinda Prasad Paudel, the English teacher.  For the next two and a half months Govinda and I walked the wooded path back from school together every day.  During that time our friendship was formed, and instead of calling each other by name, we began to follow the Nepali tradition of addressing one another by a familial relation.  I called him daai, or “older brother,” and he called me bahini.


The Road

The Road 

At Bagloon Bus park the fruit vendors weigh out half kilos of cauliflower as quickly as they can.  The next bus is just about to leave.  But then the bus sits there for quite some time and the snack vendors offer five-rupee cones of chana through the windows to all the people crowded inside.  Teenage boys with greasy hair flopping into their eyes are leaning against crates of spinach and sacks of grain near the front seat.  A latecomer presses his fingers against the ceiling of the bus for balance and the crowd forces him to lean over a mother and a slender man in slacks, who is seated by the window for air—but the man in slacks does not want chana.  A young child further back begs for chana and his mother relents, handing a five rupee note to the first mother, who hands it to the man in slacks, who passes it through the window.  An old lady tells a young man to stand up—she is old and she wants to sit down and she will not bounce up the road in this bus for two hours if she has to wait so long for it to get going.  The bus is late—late late late!—and there is work to do, the rice must be cooked, it will be dark when we arrive, where is the driver?—he is having his tea.

When it leaves Bagloon Bus Park at eight in the morning, or eleven, or four, or five in the evening, the bus makes only two turns: a right out of the lot and a left onto the switchbacked road that climbs up to Kaskikot.

And now it’s important to tell you about the road, because there is going to be a lot of Deurali Roadgoing from here to there and there to here and most of it, when it’s not up and down and down and up, will be back and forth and forth and back along the road, which is paved from its origin in Pokhara all the way up to Sarangkot.  There, it turns to dirt.  Its deep ruts, carved by heavy tires during the monsoon, cause the bus to loll from side to side as it heaves and climbs, and the knotted ropes hanging over the front windshield swing like drunken metronomes.  The route snakes higher, following the crest of a ridge until it reaches its pinnacle at the Peace Land Guesthouse in Deurali, where a straw umbrella is cheerfully perched over a picnic table on Bhim Subedi’s patio.

Just a few dozen yards later the Shiva Lodge marks the last bus stop.  The metal beast huffs to a halt, spent, and stays the night near the Lodge’s green picnic tables.  But the road keeps going, dropping now, following the ridge until it intersects the paved Bagloon Highway in Naudanda.

There, in Naudanda, you can turn right or left.  I don’t know exactly where left leads, because I never followed it any further than Machhapuchhre Campus half a kilometer away.  It’s to the right that we always went: down tight smooth-paved switchbacks, over a small bridge, and back to Pokhara, where we’d started.

Going down was much faster.