These past few weeks, I increasingly find myself reliving the morning of April 25, 2015, when my phone woke me at 6:30am. I rolled over and Prem was on the line: a 7.8 magnitude earthquake had ripped through Nepal. I stumbled to the kitchen table in my slippers and didn’t move for what seemed like days. The papers were covered with images of fallen temples that were whole in my albums, with tent cities at familiar outdoor intersections in Kathmandu, with maps seen from high above and covered in digital markings. It was a long time before anyone could capture photos of people, especially in the rural expanses of the country, which were accessible only by helicopter for what seemed like ages. But in my mind’s eye the earthquake was a long, long parade of individuals. Today, I reread the email I sent out three days later.
It is a strange feeling to find the whole planet in crisis. Population-level disasters of this scale seem to disproportionately fall upon the shoulders and homes and rivers of the world’s most vulnerable places, while the other places try to help. In the years I have worked in Nepal, Nepali people have plodded on through civil war, three major government transitions, annual landslides and floodsand hail, the 2015 earthquake, water shortages and electricity outages up to sixteen hours a day for years on end, and of course, the daily vulnerability of chronic poverty, weak infrastructure, and floppy safety regulations. The road to Kaskikot has had three bus accidents in the time I have considered it my second home. I remember thinking after the earthquake, as I watched messages flood my accounts, that people didn’t realize how often Nepal’s communities were used to seeing things broken, taken, lost, or never having existed in the first place. The earthquake was unthinkably horrible. Yet for those who didn’t lose everything–people, entire villages–that trauma was largely swallowed within a few months by massive shortages of petrol and goods due to political instability and border closings. The summer brought deadly landslides. Six months later, most of the country was no longer discussing the earthquake.
These last few weeks have been an odd, house-of-mirrors experience. While Nepal is facing pandemic, New York City and Milan and Barcelona and Sydney are also facing pandemic. My colleagues are quarantined in Pokhara and Kaskikot and Tilhar, and I’m quarantined in Hartford, and Prince Charles is quarantined in London. The realization that anything could happen to anyone at any moment has set upon us all, a realization that seems to be expanding daily. And amidst a great deal of chaos and uncertainty and worry, I find myself in occasional moments of disconcerting calm. Things were always this way. Now they are simply unveiled. We are all the defenseless Other.
Now as then, there is great beauty to uncover in difficult times. In the months after the earthquake five years ago, we improvised. I have no idea how many kilometers Dilmaya and I walked. Practically speaking, I learned a huge amount about the contributions a small community-based organization like ours can offer in disaster management. At that time we found we were well placed to spend personalized time on unique household and community circumstances, to mitigate challenges that didn’t meet a universal disaster threshold but were extremely destabilizing for the specific individuals facing them. Our focus became “the lower percentage of damage:” the houses that were not fallen, but cracked and indeterminately unsafe. It was a life-changing experience.
Every day this week I’ve joined in a group call with my colleagues in Nepal as they work from home, developing a strategy to redirect our rural health care personnel from dentistry to coronavirus. Since we launched our Dental Hub app in September, hundreds of patients and their phone numbers have been entered in our database, so our first step is having dental technicians replace their weekly clinics with “phone clinics,” calling every patient in the database. We’ve created a script for checking in with each family to see how well they’ve been able to implement isolation guidelines and what if any obstacles are in the way. We don’t yet know how this will go or how useful it will be, but it’s something to do. It’s a way to be in community.
All that said…the 2015 earthquake was irreconcilably different than the looming crisis we are facing now. To begin with, the rest of the planet is occupied with its own emergency, not fundraising and overloading the aid channels in Nepal with variably useful assistance strategies. Second, Nepal’s health care system was inadequate to meet public need before coronavirus, and there is effectively no intensive care available for severe Covid-19 cases. So even though there are so far very few confirmed coronavirus cases in Nepal, I am still trying to understand how “flattening the curve” works in a health care system where the capacity threshold is fairly close to zero. We don’t know the answer, if there is one. I’m not sure yet if anyone does.
Like many of us, I can’t help but wonder how we would understand our society if we felt this vulnerable and interdependent all the time. It is deeply unfamliar to us in the dominant American culture–replacing the community of work-productivity with the community of survival. Confronting the primacy of the nuclear family, when that family is cut off from neighbors, schools, social supports, food production, occupation, and future planning. This discomfort feels worthy of deep and shared reflection. In the mean time, I have made a call list, and have been doing one quality catch-up each day with someone I’ve missed, or who I want to make sure isn’t alone.
For whatever reason I also found myself drawn back this week to this poem, written during the (still unresolved) family separation crisis at the US border in the summer of 2018. I hope to use coming weeks to catch up on past entries and continue posting about the unfolding of this pandemic Nepal on my blog. In the mean time, wishing all of you patience and resilience and comfort as we, as a world, navigate the weeks and months ahead.
The cicadas came when I was five
behind the school yard.
I put my finger on one
and then I picked it up
it was like a fig, dark and rough.
At five cicadas were interesting, like figs.
Now I am much bigger
friendly, the little goat nuzzles my shoulder with his warm snout
soft, we are alive, together easily.
And then I press my eyes shut
as I capture the insect that has invaded this carpet, which is mine
because I own it.
Sometimes I wonder how I can find my way back
from the pliant kid to the figs to the cicadas, captivated
with all their legs, their slick ribbed shells, all their songs enchanting
the school yard
all chirping and chirping tickling my ears until my ears overflowed with music
amid the crunching leaves and delicate wings
a symphony, a society, a universe blossom
after seventeen years of silence.
Sometimes I wonder
what we are afraid of
why we crush things, bugs and leaves and oceans and people
when I was five, I used
just one tiny finger
to say hello.
Aamaa and I landed in San Francisco in mid-afternoon, and Youba came to get us at the airport. It’s hard to imagine that exactly two short years since Aamaa’s first visit to the US, Bishnu has gotten married and had a baby. Little Serena Dali is still just a month old and she doesn’t yet weigh six pounds.
Aamaa and Youba, of course, had never met in person before we arrived. Bedraggled, we emerged from the airport, and Aamaa and her son-in-law looked past each other and shuffled their weight, unsure how to introduce themselves without the normal directives of a proper setting or the customary procedure that goes with such a meeting. Nepali mothers don’t meet their son-in-laws for the first time with nobody else around, at Door #4 of airport arrivals.
“So, um…hi,” Youba offered. He had gallantly driven through Bay Area traffic at rush hour to retrieve us, and now we had to get through rush hour Bay Area traffic in order to get home and take a nap. I was tired and grumpy wanted to sit alone being antisocial in the back seat.
“Aamaa, you sit in front.”
“No way, you sit in front.”
“Come on, you and Youba can—“
“Nope,” Aamaa replied, and annexed the back seat of Youba’s Honda before any further negotiations could be held.
When we arrived at Bishnu’s apartment, of course, baby Dali was all bundled up waiting for us. We immediately took our first US-side family photo.
I am staying in San Francisco for a week before leaving Aamaa and Bishnu and Dali and Youba to head back to Connecticut for the fall. So we’ve got about eight days together to hover over the baby and deploy a non-unified strategy of obsessing over competing certainties about what to do with a baby.
Even though it’s obvious, we’ll state right off the bat that I am on the lowest rung of qualifications in this debate by many orders of magnitude. The baby did not come out of me and I have never raised one. Bishnu comes in at a solid second place since she’s the one who made the human. But in the lead, Aamaa is Aamaa. She raised Bishnu and Didi and two grandsons and she runs shit. The issue is that the shit she runs is usually in Nepal and we are in America and I come in first place at being American, thus resulting in a rare case of circular cross-continent baby-doting logic that cannot be solved.
Let’s take the matter of baby massages. It is traditional for Nepali mothers to massage their babies with mustard oil a few times a day, usually in front of a fire where they can warm the oil and warm their hands. I watched Aamaa drip oil in to Aidan and Pascal’s eyes and ears until they were well past toddlerhood. This is thought to be good for the baby’s development.
As we were unloading our suitcases, I extracted a few 2-liter sprite bottles that Aamaa had filled with ghee. I admit I knew these illicit items were stowed in my luggage and I consented to the, um—smuggling—for the sake of the baby. But then—Lo!—a two-liter bottle of mustard oil was discovered next to my shirts.
“You can’t get good mustard oil here,” Bishnu explained. Yes, these two were in cahoots.
“The oil massage is fine, but no oil in the eyes and ears,” Bishnu told Aamaa.
“Oh god, definitely no oil in the ears,” I squirmed. “And the eyes are out of the question.”
“La, la,” Aamaa murmured.
Aamaa set happily to her oil massages. However: we were missing fire. She would sit in a patch of sun in the living room, but it wasn’t the same thing as having fire, and fire was needed.
Are you worried about where this is going? Be worried.
September in San Francisco is temperate to hot. Bishnu’s apartment consists of a small living room attached to the kitchen, and there is one south-facing glass door that collects heat all afternoon. When the door is slid open, it lets through a nice breeze. For fully developed human mammals like me, this nice breeze is refreshing and has other benefits such as abundant availability of breathable oxygen. But for Nepali babies, moving air is considered cold. ANY MOVING AIR. There is a general understanding in Nepali culture that babies should be kept warm, so much so that they are ensconced in multiple layers of clothing and hats even in the middle of the summer. I have tried to free many sweaty babies from their multiple baby hats when I’ve had occasion to visit with said babies in said season in Nepal. It’s futile; the babies are going to be re-swaddled and re-sweated immediately. But I’m intolerably hot and uncomfortable just looking at them in their hot clothes, so I try to free them anyway.
Seeing Dali bundled in layer upon layer of clothes and blankets in San Francisco raised my sense of temperature regulation distress to a previously unattained level. Clearly, American territory calls for American swaddling to American body temperatures. Plus, the nurse who came by to check on Dali our second morning told Bishnu that the baby didn’t need to be put under so many layers and that the breeze was good for her. See, that’s what I said too.
So what this means is that each morning, I get up and crack the glass door – or sometimes just throw it open – and Aamaa runs to Dali in the opposite corner of the room to shelter her from the evil hypothermia-inducing fall breeze. Henceforth, we alternately, each when the other isn’t looking, adjust the glass door and Dali’s armor of clothing to our respective levels of comfort. This is of course an implicit pact. I know Aamaa’s going to undo my adjustments, and she knows the same, and the deal is that you have to respect the other person’s catastrophic approach to baby temperature maintenance by executing your improvements on the sly.
Advocating for your method, on the other hand, happens in the open and frequently. This is a lot of where Bishnu comes in. (Remember Bishnu?) Throughout the day, each of us loudly comments to Bishnu on why her baby should be kept hot or breezy. Bishnu tolerates this expertly. Both of our contradictory opinions are correct at all times. Bishnu is both too happy and too tired to care. We have nothing better to perseverate about. Everyone’s fine.
Now, the so-called absence of heat for Dali is particularly problematic during Mustard Oil Massage Time every few hours, due the aforementioned missing open-fire pit. On Wednesday, I go for a run. I breathe a great deal of healthy unimprisoned oxygen wafting off San Francisco Bay. Hot and refreshed I enter the apartment to find the glass door sealed shut…and Aamaa puttering in front of the floor-to-ceiling central heating unit, which is going at full blast, and where I realize she has just given Dali an oil massage. The apartment is about 10 million degrees.
I stand in the door, probably with a friendly look on my face.
“What?” Aamaa asks.
“Are you serious, you turned on the central heat in the middle of summer and closed the door and we’re all gonna cook and die in here!”
“Oh, it’s warm for the baby,” Aamaa says innocently.
“Oh my God, Aamaa, ok…Listen!” I throw open the glass door. “In a week, I’m gonna be in Connecticut and you guys are going to do whatever you want. But for the love of God, while I’m here, can we have air for the grown ups to breathe?”
“La, la,” Aamaa says, satisfied. I do have to hand it to her for that round.
The next day a package shows up from Amazon. Youba, bless his cotton socks, has ordered it.
For the rest of the week, and indeed as she will do for the next six months, every few hours Aamaa sits in front of the space heater in Bishnu’s room, which rises to five thousand degrees, happily massaging her squishy granddaughter. She warms her hand in front of the space heater and dips it in the mustard oil we brought from Nepal and presses it in to Dali’s tiny belly, cooing and giggling over her. Bishnu dotes around the two of them, delighted in their overheating together, and I pop in and out of the room reminding everyone that it’s much too hot for any normal person, and Aamaa answers, “La, la,” but I also have to take some pictures—they are so beautiful together and that space heater is so ridiculous and fantastic—and Youba sits in the living room letting us girls do what we do, and we are utterly content in our Dali’s world.
Bishnu had baby Dali six weeks early, on August 2nd. We got the news while we were all finishing dinner at Didi and Prem’s. On the English calendar, Pascal’s birthday is a day earlier, on August 1st, but by a twist of the planets, on the lunar Nepali calendar Pascal and his cousin share a birthday of Saun 17. This convention-defying-cross-cultural-intercontinental-astrologically-phenomenal-birthday-coincidence —a shared birthday in Nepal, but not in America—has us thrilled. We texted Bishnu and Youba and Dali a Welcome to the World picture, marveling over a coincidence, fourteen years plus eternity in the making, that has initiated our Dali’s life.
Dali’s name is actually: Serena Subedi Bhatta.
Aamaa is coming back with me to the US to meet her granddaughter, an American citizen. We’ll fly directly to San Francisco, but we can’t leave Nepal until after summer professional development the last week of August. So we’ve passed the weeks talking with Bishnu on the phone, and each Friday I download new photos and ferry them to Kaski where Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa and the neighbors pore over them. Aamaa’s favorite is the one with Youba holding Serena just minutes after her entrance in to the world, shiny and swaddled. Aamaa likes to pull this one up on my iPad and zoom in and stare at it for ten, fifteen minutes at a time.
“It’s like, the longer you look at it,” she says, “the more you want to look at it. You can just look at it and look at it.”
Bishnu had a difficult and sometimes unnerving pregnancy. Serena was born six weeks early, at 3.9 lbs, less than 2 kilograms of sugar, I told Aamaa. She spent a month in the NICU. Bishnu wouldn’t bring any baby shower gifts home until it was almost time for the baby to leave the NICU and join her there. I’ve found myself thinking back to the day fifteen years ago when I stood outside Gandaki Hospital with Didi, right after she wasn’t able to see a doctor at what was supposed to be her last prenatal checkup, when we ate cel roi at a roadside stand. A week later Didi’s first child was stillborn at full term.
For a long time after I moved to Kaskikot, I didn’t know that Aamaa had little a sister. One day Aamaa was reclined on the bed, lying sideways with her head on her arm and an elbow pointed out at me, when she mentioned that her sister had died in childbirth, along with the child.
“Wait,” Didi said the other day, her eyes widening when I told her about Bishnu’s baby shower. “People her gave her baby presents before the baby was born?”
The day of our departure for America gets closer. We are scheduled to fly out on Teej, the festival of women. In the strange way that our lives here seem to cycle back like knitting stitches, it was Teej when I arrived in Kaskikot in August, 2003. I had stayed in Kaski for two months, gone back to New York, worked as a waitress, and then called six months later to say I was coming back to Kaskikot. I arrived under the hot gaze of summer and found Didi and Bishnu dancing in Maula, where the whole village was gathered for the festival of women. Didi was newly married to Prem, and I realized she was pregnant. And that is how our year together began, with dancing.
Our summer is a theater of rains, curtain after curtain, a production that will eventually deliver the harvest. By then we will be in America. Teej begins from Sept 1, when Aamaa and I will leave Kaskikot, and goes to September 2, when we’ll fly out of Kathmandu. It’s funny how people attempt to impose order over the unknown when they are about to embark on a long journey. I like to leave my living space robotically clean and organized, and I will compulsively sift through 5-month old stacks of mail and fix wobbled stools that have been committedly ignored for months. Aamaa’s strategy appears to be getting fixated on the cucumbers. They are ripe and fat on the the vines around the house.
“Laura,” Aamaa says, “we’ll bring cucumbers to Tulo Mama in Kathmandu.” The breed of cucumbers Aamaa grows in Nepal isn’t like little American cucumbers. They can grow to a foot or two long, and the circumference of a coffee can.
“We’re going to bring cucumbers to Kathmandu with our luggage for America?” I ask. Tulo mama is our Aamaa’s eldest brother, our ‘big uncle.’
“…Is it allowed?” Aamaa asks a bit sheepishly.
“Sure, cucumbers are allowed.” I realize this is happening no matter what. “Let’s definitely bring cucumbers to Kathamandu.”
Aamaa has just a few outfits to take to America, but food items are another story. Provisions are sorted over the entire month of August. We pick all the ripe cobs off the corn stalks, roast some in the fire for snacks, give some away, and hang the rest all over the house to dry by winter. Last time we left for America, we also cut down the empty corn stalks, leaving only the milletto ripen by late fall. But this time Aamaa skipped planting millet altogether, and she said we’re not going to cut the empty corn stalks down because they will dry out on their own. I keep surveying the gardens and feeling that the tall scraggly corn stalks are going to look a bit like an army of tuxedos at a beach party by October, when everyone else’s fields are left only with slender waist-high millet and rice plants. But that’s her plan and she’s Aamaa, so we leave them be. The house remains hemmed in by walls of stripped corn stalks.
A sack of rice is sent to Didi in Pokhara. Periodically we revisit the cucumber question.
“We’ll take a large stash of cucumbers to Didi, and a smaller bag for Tulo Mama in Kathmandu,” Aamaa revises.
“It’s allowed right? To take cucumbers to Kathmandu?”
“This will be my first go at taking a bag of cucumbers to Kathmandu, but I think it’s allowed.”
“Just a small bag.”
“Ok,” I assure her.
One evening Aamaa ponders: “How will we get to Pokhara when we leave here on Teej? Because, see we’ll have luggage and we need to bring the big sack of cucumbers to Didi.”
“We’ll call Hari Bhaai in Caragaun and go in his taxi.”
“Will it fit all the cucumbers?”
“Um….” I search for the right answer. How many cucumbers are we talking about? I decide to gamble. “Yes. Hari bhai’s taxi will definitely fit the cucumbers.”
In addition to a little baby outfit, I want to bring something special to San Francisco for Bishnu’s little Dali, who’s acquired about twenty times her bodyweight in baby clothes during her short life so far. I make a plan. Pascal comes with me on the expedition.
We spend Saturday afternoon hiking up the Kalika Hill, and I film him leading the way, finding berries and hidden water springs, waving a stick of bamboo around at the skyline and narrating our journey until we reach the Kalika Temple. We ring the large bells at Kali’s door; the clanging and echoes out over the trees, the familiar houses below, over the valley. I pan my camera over sheets of rain that have blanketed the foothills, and frozen into a bruised mist on the north and south horizons. We search over the laid stones of the Temple ground and choose a rock that Pascal holds in front of my camera, little chips of flint gleaming under a stormy and imminent sky. I will bring it to a silversmith and have it made in to a necklace. Our descent is fast under gathering clouds, sandals pounding and tapping over the brambles.
As the summer draws to a close, relatives stop by to bid Aamaa a safe journey. Aamaa sends them off with cucumbers or ears of corn. A few days before the buffalo calf is due, some men from Parapani come to purchase pregnant Isabella, who nobody calls Isabella except for weirdo foreigners like me and Ann. Aamaa has cared for Bella during her whole pregnancy, cutting her grass and watering her and keeping her living quarters clean. I am grumpy that Bella will be taken just before having her baby and providing us a week of delicious milk. But four days later, we find out that Bella’s calf was born dead. The buyers withhold $40 of the remaining amount they still owe to Aamaa.
Aamaa is sad about Bella. All that work for nothing. “What’s wrong with her?” she asks nobody. We won’t know now. We are quiet over Bella’s loss for a few mornings.
“We don’t need to bring any cucumbers to Kathmandu,” Aamaa updates me later. “Tulo Mama has to leave for Nepalgang before we get there.”
I’m disappointed; I was excited to see Tulo Mama. He is the oldest of Aamaa’s three younger brothers and the one who dotes on her. But he lives in the far West and even though he always asks to talk with me on the phone when he calls, in seventeen years I’ve only met him in person twice.
The last two weeks of August I don’t get up to Kaskikot, because we are completely consumed with our summer professional development training. I take Dali’s rock to a jeweler and search through gems before finally pairing it with a fiery pink ruby. The week ends on a breathless and exhausted August 30th, Friday afternoon. Bethy helps me pack up my room all in one go, throwing things in to bags over just a couple hours, cleaning the kitchen, ferrying items between the office and my apartment. By the time we get in to a taxi to go up to Kaski it is 8:30 at night, and we arrive at 9:30 to find Aamaa sitting in the house surrounded by friends. Swirled up in their saris and shawls, Saano didi and Parbati Bouju and Mahendra’s older sister are there, and an aunt has come to visit – Aamaa’s sister in law, who would have grown up right here with these women and her brother, Aamaa’s husband. The old friends are sitting on stools in the old main room of our house, by the kitchen, where I have fallen asleep to the chatter of so many women. As we organize our things in the outer room, a wave of gratitude rolls over me, carried on the familiar soothing sound of their muffled voices on the other side of the wall.
“Tulo Mama delayed his travel so he could meet us in Kathmandu,” Aamaa revises when Bethy and I take up seats on a bed. “So, we can bring him cucumbers.”
“Tomorrow we have to pack the cucumbers in a sack.”
“Right.” I reply. “I am ready for cucumber packing.”
Night brings brings a steady rain that clangs on the roof long in to a lazy Saturday morning. It bathes everything, washes away the work week, the summer, the soil around curling roots that are retreating beneath our feet as we prepare to walk away from this village and into another world. It rains as we get up for our last day in Kaski, as we have our black tea, as a man and woman I don’t know arrive and sit on the porch and begin talking with Aamaa.
Bethy and I are ready to spend Saturday helping Aamaa pack up the house—but it is unclear what this involves. Before I can identify a plan of action, Aamaa has disappeared with one of the morning’s visitors and they’ve returned with armfuls of voluptuous cucumbers. The cucumbers, each a foot or two long, are dumped in a pile in the middle of the yard, slick with rain, and the two women disappear again. Then neighbors start showing up – Saraswoti, Saano didi, BAA! – all with more rainy cucumbers. It turns out the visitors are vendors from Pokhara, come to purchase cucumber stock. Aamaa’s yard is transformed into a cucumber staging area. It takes an hour to pick the rest of our cucumbers and combine them with cucumbers from contributing neighbors. The female vendor sorts them in to excellent and sub-excellent status cucumber piles while the male vendor chats with Bethy about countries he’s traveled to. When the yard is fully covered in piles of cucumbers, an amazing ghetto-fabulous hand scale is brought out, made of two plastic tubs hanging on a hand-held balance. Aamaa produces a collection of rocks.
“Wait a second,” the vendor says cautiously.
“This rock is one kilogram,” Aamaa announces, picking up a black, smooth river stone. “And this one is a half kilograms if you combine it with this other little one.”
The vendor tries out the rocks in different combinations, weighing them against each other.
“Huh,” she says. “Well there you have it.”
Weighing and calculating against river stones commences on the ghetto fabulous plastic tub scale. Some 100 kg of cucumbers are weighed and sold. Aamaa makes about $15.
“Now,” Aamaa says to me shortly thereafter, “we still have to pack up the cucumbers for Didi and Tulo Mama.”
“The big sack of cucumbers is for—“
“I think I’ve got it.”
The afternoon passes. The evening arrives. The cucumbers are packed in to a large sack for Didi and a handbag for Tulo Mama. Dinner comes and goes. We have taken the cases off all the blankets and put them in the only dresser in the house. The floor has been repainted with a smooth layer of clay. Aamaa’s single bag sits in the window. Our last night falls.
I slip out of the house to brush my teeth, and there is Kali rising above the empty uncut corn stalks, a wide triangle of hillside, holding the village in her lap. The damp summer air has cloaked away all but her gray glow in the night sky, revealing only a broad a density etched into meager starlight. I stand facing her familiar outlines, and feel suddenly, like a darkening storm, the women who have come through this house and have sat by this fire and grieved by its ashes and made nourishment over its flames. The inexplicable, inevitable certainty of the four of us draped over the blankets after sunset, while she presides over us, immutable divine feminine, creating again and again from dust.
Watch over us, I find myself asking.
I see us in my mind, walking out to the road. I see our hands holding Serena in San Francisco. I see us moving from place to place, but with a sudden and forceful clarity understand we are tied together here, under her gaze, where we have always been.
Stay with us.
It is time to go to bed.
The next morning neighbors trickle in to see us off to America. BAA! arrives, and then goes home again to retrieve tikka powder to put on our foreheads. Aamaa still can’t stop talking about the cucumbers. After Saano didi’s husband has taken the large sack of the cucumbers out to Deurali where Hari Bhai will pick us up in his taxi, there are still cucumbers lying about and we’re not sure who they are for. I end up with three of them in my bag and we eventually remember these were gifts for my office.
Today is the beginning of Teej. In a few hours when we are in Pokhara, we’ll see off Prem’s cousins who will come to take his porcelain, wrinkled mother back to Piodi, her snow white hair tilted forward as she is carried away piggy-back down to the road, so she can celebrate the Festival of Women at home in her village.
But now we are waving through the taxi window, and driving down, down, down the switchbacks while our house disappears behind us. The driver and Aamaa make small talk over the weather.
“All this dry hot summer, and the last two days, nothing but rain,” Aamaa remarks.
“Didi bahini rhuera hola,” the driver replies, talking about Teej. “Maybe it’s the tears of our sisters.”
“Maybe,” Aamaa answers offhandedly. The hills roll by. “It could be.”’
We are having a family get together in Asheville, North Carolina. My dad is turning 80 this summer, and it’s Father’s Day, and Bishnu is pregnant with a baby girl. She and Youba arrive on a red-eye from San Francisco, Bethy and I fly in from Connecticut, and my parents drive over from Chapel Hill with Ricky and Julie and the kids. We plop our bags in a cluster of wood-paneled cabins shaded by rustling trees. It is the first time we have all been together since Bishnu got married last year. Now she is Bishnu Subedi Bhatta.
Bishnu and Youba have made the questionable decision of asking for name suggestions. We bat around ideas as we eat ice cream and go to the playground and climb Chimney Rock, where, even though there is an elevator, Bishnu takes the stone staircase up to the top, plodding along step by step while Youba fawns hopelessly over her. At the summit we take a family photo, the North Carolina hills yawning green in to the distance, an endless rustle that is too far off to hear from the top of Chimney Rock, giving way to blue.
In the six years after I first showed up in Kaskikot and before Bishnu came to the US, we would talk on the phone from time to time. It was always morning on one continent, and evening on the other, and in the decade since then I can’t say the phone connection has improved much. Through the static I’d hear about how Saano didi and Mahendra’s families were doing, and whether the millet or corn stalks with their stacked Groucho Marx mustaches had recently been planted or cut down. I’d tell her about New York City, where I was living, and say that Mom and Dad and Ricky were fine. We ended most of our conversations the same way.
“Ok then, well let’s meet in a dream.”
“Where should we go this time?”
And then we’d plan a meeting at the Kalika Temple, or in the kitchen with Aamaa, or on a mat in the yard to paint our nails, or at the festival of Teej. And then we’d say goodbye, and go to sleep to meet in a dream. And always in Nepal.
It has always seemed to me that Bishnu and I were born in to this world with a thread between us, translucent, like the kind used in mobiles or dental floss or to catch carp, because it is unassuming, tensile, and indestructible. The kind that seems as if it can be spooled out forever without reaching the other end that’s buried somewhere in its bottomless coils.
I decide to print the Chimney Rock photo for Father’s Day, which requires sneaking away in to Asheville. We need three copies of the photo for Dad, Ricky and Youba. While I’m out in Asheville I send a text to the family chat to ask if I need to pick up any ingredients for dinner. My mom replies.
Bishnu is cooking dal Bhatta.
I giggle at auto-correct, which has apparently learned Youba’s last name already. My mom means “dal bhaat,” traditional Nepali food–but the more I look at this, the funnier I find it anyway. My fingers tap over the keys.
Does this mean they picked a name for the baby?
It is Youba who replies.
Dal sounds like a boy. Shouldn’t it be Dali?
My mother and I become ecstatic over this. Bishnu’s kid is immediately christened Dali Bhatta. Mostly it is only my mom and me who think this is brilliant. It could be worse, though. My mom called me Loolie-tabooli-tabootznicky…and by “called” I mean “calls.” This is a true story. I was named for my grandfather Louis, and my family turned it turned into Tabootznicky.
We spend the rest of the weekend fishing in the pond, making s’mores on the porch, and turning the kids upside down. Bethy and I are staying in a cabin with Youba and Bishnu, and my mom has brought Bishnu an old notebook along with a pile of belongings from her now-“old” room in Bethesda. We flip through its pages, mystified and awed, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. It contains, in Bishnu’s handwriting: a list of instruments needed for the prehistoric version of the Kaskikot Dental Clinic; draft text for a sticker about fluoride toothpaste to be printed and posted in Kaskikot shops for vendor outreach; and practice answers to questions Bishnu expected to be asked at her visa interview with the US Embassy in 2008. She does a dramatic reading in the living room.
I remember when we bought Bishnu’s first pair of jeans. She looked as out of condition in jeans then as I did in my floppy kurta salwaars, each of us yet to learn to fit our bodies to these foreign garments that we irrevocably longed to inhabit. The more time Bishnu spent attending different trainings and programs that year, the more time I spent at the house with Aamaa alone, learning to move the goats about and cook and plant and cut. When Bishnu was away, Aamaa and I developed a quiet and comfortable flow together. Then Bishnu would come back for a day, arriving on the last bus at 7:30 at night, and I would feel a pang of sadness. The loss of the illusion that I was useful. I would fall back in to following Bishnu around and learning from her for the next twenty four hours. The spool would turn inward, we were drawn together, arguing, sitting in the kitchen, going to the temple, teaching each other about our worlds.
Bishnu always left to go back to her training programs early in the morning. They got progressively further away- Sarangkot, Pokhara, Damauli. America. (I didn’t know it then, but there would be a time when Bishnu was to wake me early in the morning in Bethesda, before going to work in Virginia.) On these mornings I could never motivate myself to wake up any earlier than necessary. Instead I would close my eyes to stave off departure, and then in the dawning bloom of morning, Bishnu would come take my shoulder to say goodbye, and slip out the door to catch the 7am bus. It always seemed, once she had been here, that she was going terribly far away; suddenly, I would be at a lose end. For a few hours, everything seemed empty.
And inevitably, after some period of months, I would spool away to America, and we would meet in a dream.
It is 2019. In my parents’ cabin, I assign my nephew Jonah, Ricky’s eldest and and a lanky eight, to instruct his three and four year old sisters as to how we are going to surprise three fathers with their family photographs. Jonah orders his sisters about for fifteen minutes, placing them behind the curtain, behind a couch, and practicing a chaotic toddler chorus of “Happy Father’s Day!” It is decided that I am to cue the surprise with a casual unsuspicious phrase, for which Jonah has selected “Wasn’t it nice weather today!” With this, my nephew and nieces are to spring from their hiding places and proclaim the happiness of Father’s Day.
The plan goes remarkably well. Youba’s features spread momentarily in to an arrangement of euphoric surprise: he is going to be a dad. And then, a collage of moments fluttering around us. We coo over Dali Bhatta. Jonah and Eli and Nell swing elatedly in the hammock, laughing hysterically over each other, until my dad and Ricky and Youba take their places. The trees around the cabin fall in to a still sheltering, rustling blessings over us, and the sun drops slowly over the hammock, delayed like a water droplet on velvet. We are gorgeously suspended in time.
Bishnu and Youba have booked a 6am flight. So it is still dark when Bishnu comes in to wake me the next morning. I roll over and can almost feel the straw mat under arm as Bishnu whispers, “Bye Laura, we have to go to the airport.” I wrap my arms around her and Dali Bhatta, suddenly both at peace and without coordinates; it is an old feeling, ancient as the notebook and the Dead Sea Scrolls, bottomless as a whole new human being.
The enormous future seems unimaginable in this pre-dawn, where we stretch away in to a miraculous dream, until we are real again.
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?”