For some time now, Govinda has been asking me to join him on a trip to Begnas to meet his in-laws. We began planning our visit a few days ago. Govinda’s father in law, who he calls Bua, will be alone for a few days while other members of the family are traveling, so it was a good time for us to arrange a visit to keep him company.
There was some thought that we would travel with Guru sir, who is searching for a match for his daughter. This has raised for me many questions about match-matching procedures. Does one stand in the road and stop the first reasonably marriageable looking male? Go from house to house soliciting bachelors? Distribute letters of inquiry? And why travel all the way to Begnas for this undertaking, twenty kilometers east of Kaskikot?
I asked around a bit. My investigation was admittedly hindered by a very limited cache of Nepali words related to arranged marriage, but I deduced that Guru sir’s first visit to Begnas was for the purpose of meeting his relatives to discuss the search. So that solved the geographic question, though as far as I could tell, it simply meant Guru sir’s relatives would be standing in the road picking up single men. You can see why I was quite looking forward to whatever was going to happen during our visit to Begnas with Guru sir. But at the last minute it turned out that Guru sir’s rice harvest bonanza would be the same day we had planned our outing, and he would not be able to join us. So I’m afraid that at this time I can’t offer any resolution on the question of Guru sir’s daughter’s marriage arrangement.
Early in the morning, Govinda and I set off for Begnas on our own. We arrived in Pokhara mid-morning and stopped in to see the artist who is helping us with our school mural, and I paid him. We discussed the idea of having him come to Sada Shiva to give a talk about his profession, as part of the series of visits I’m working on for the kids to learn about topics of interest like how libraries work and what pilots do and how photos are made.
At the bus depot in Prithvi Chowk, where dozens of buses paw sullenly at the pavement and pant in the diesel-filled hot air, we boarded another bus to Begnas. It set off laboriously down the highway, and I felt sleepy in the warm, acrid air inside the bus. Govinda bought some peanuts, and we ate them together in companionable silence, throwing the shells out the window, as storefronts sped by and blended together in a haze of mid-day life: pencils, apples, kilos of sugar, shoes, sticky cartons of fruit juice, pencils, sugar, apples, shoes. Finally the highway dead-ended in another small depot, where a dirt road wandered away from a collection of food stalls and small shops. It disappeared gently up into the hills. We followed it and began a long, rather hot walk to Bua’s house.
The walk was pleasant, even though I still felt lethargic from the unyielding sun. Govinda’s uneven, methodical gait kept time, spurring us on at a steady and unchangeable pace. Begnas is warmer than Kaskikot, and we passed mango and banana and guava trees; it is currently orange season, and everywhere we could see ripening fruit that will soon find its way back to the roadside stalls and slung baskets and curbside mats heaped with fruit that we passed on the journey in. We stopped at a tea shop for peas and hard boiled eggs, and I drank a moderately cold coke out of a glass bottle, which left me feeling reinvigorated. We bought some hard candy and crackers to gift to the family. When we set off again, a hush had set over the terraces and orange trees, and the city felt far away. Finally, as we approached Bua’s house, I could see Begnas Lake to the west and Rupa Lake further east. Govinda removed his hat, and fanned himself briefly in the yard.
No sooner had we arrived than we were gathered around a plate of oranges with Bua. Govinda’s father in law was a slender, wiry man with a square jaw and lined, approachable face. He had a boyish way of moving that reminded me of my monkey-like fifth graders. Bua had work to do around the house, so even though Guru sir wasn’t there to answer my questions, Govinda and I sat outside talking about marriage practices until the sun dropped below the hills and it got cold.
We went back into the house where Bua was just starting to cook dinner. The next two hours were the longest rice-preparation process I’d ever watched on a hungry stomach. We did have an interlude of tea and biscuits, but I’ve become used to watching rice-cooking as a well-rehearsed, mindless affair, something that occurs very efficiently in the cramped spaces between other work. But Bua cooked very slowly: first one item, then the next, often pausing to talk as he cut vegetables or mashed spices. He was at once nimble, even lively, and unmistakably weary. It was as if he had to keep re-convincing himself that quelling his hunger was worth all the effort, and yet in the absence of dinner, I felt he would have been quite content to simply sit and gaze at the darkening hills with us.
While Bua cooked, Govinda and I sat at a table, I with my journal resting under my hands. But I didn’t do much writing because Bua began to ask me a series of questions about America.
“Nani,” he said, addressing me as one does a grandchild, “I hear they have very tall buildings in your country. Very very tall. Is that true?”
“Well, in some places they do.”
“And I hear there are those things that can take you up in the building,” he added, raising his hands.
“Yes,” I replied, “they’re called elevators.”
“Nani, in your country, how do people make money?”
“Nani, in your country, are clothes made to be durable for a long time?”
Between questions, Bua moved around the cooking fire cutting vegetables with his sickle. He seemed a little sad, but without a trace of bitterness, and there was an authenticity about Bua that put me at ease. I don’t think I’d ever met someone who could be genuine and restless at the same time like Bua was when he asked me about worlds I have seen. As the evening wore on, we developed an uncomplicated rapport, Bua taking an interest in this and that, and me content to feel like the kind of guest that he enjoyed: a participator with no agenda. It was a relief not to be waited on in awkward silence, and to have the opportunity for manageable dialogue that left space for the clumsy maneuvering of language-learning.
As Bua picked up a korela vegetable and pulled his sickle down the middle of its alligator-like lumpy green skin, Govinda rose to go outside. I gazed quietly at Bua in the orange glow of the cooking fire, waiting for the next topic of discussion.
“I’m going to die here,” he said matter of factly. He lifted his long hand and indicated the house.
I didn’t have a good answer, because he’s probably right. So I just waited while he picked up my journal and gazed at its pages and pages of tiny writing.
“You will do your writing, see our country, and go back to America,” he sighed. The ink-filled pages suddenly seemed a pathetic sum of Bua’s entire world. “Me…” he waved again at the dim narrow walls, “I will die here.”
Then he shook his head, and picked up his sickle again.
“Nani,” he said amicably. “In your country, what are houses made from?”