Last night at 11:30 pm, Prem’s mother passed away.
Aidan and Pascal stayed over at my apartment, and in the morning we went to their uncle’s house for the funeral. When we arrived, everything was still new. Aamaa was still upstairs where she had been alive yesterday evening. Besides our Aamaa, the only other person in Nepal I call simply “Aamaa,” instead of “small mother” or “big mother” or some other aunt-related mother-qualifier, is Prem’s mother. She spent most of last summer with us at Didi and Prem’s, sitting quietly cross-legged on the bed, head bowed forward over her ankles, while the kids dangerously hammered a football against the indoor wall of the house, screeching with delight. Many evenings I would come sit next to her, even if there wasn’t much to talk about, to make sure she was part of the fun. Aamaa has been frail for many years now, and often her whole day was spent in near-stillness. Sometimes on those summer evenings I would rub her back, to make movement. At first she’d simply sit while I made circles over her ribs. And then she’d say udo, udo – a little up, a little over. And then she’d say, esari, and lift up her cholo above her shoulder blades, and I’d run my hands back and forth over her papery skin, the half moon of her spine bowed toward the floor like a stone path.
At Narayan’s house, Prem pulled a sheer red sari back from his mother’s face and I passed a spoonful of scented water between her parted lips.
As the yard began to fill with callers, Aamaa was moved downstairs and laid on the porch. Her body was wrapped in sheets and covered in garlands, and as they arrived, her adult children and their spouses leaned over her and let out piercing cries. Prem and his brothers shaved their heads, pouring water from brass vases, shivering in the cold. I was transfixed by the first pale stripe of scalp that appeared, like a gash between walls of black hair, which too fell away and curled bodiless and foreign on the ground. A bamboo gurney was prepared in the yard, and Prem’s mother was lifted on to it, her tiny body barely wider than the edges of the narrow stretcher.
We walked four kilometers, along a length of the lake, and then through the bazaar, where a trailing white sheet pinned to wooden poles announced our procession and was swallowed close behind by vehicles and diesel swirling around our knees. Death in the middle of the mundane. An entire lifetime borne on her sons shoulders through the bus stop, where vendors were selling oranges.
Pascal had gone home to help Didi pack her things. Didi and Prem will sit kriya for thirteen days back in his home village of Piodi, where Aamaa raised her six children. Pascal would have wanted to walk in the procession at his father’s side, but he was more urgently needed to help Didi prepare for the ritual mourning period. Pascal is our serious boy, a mercurial, old soul, and I felt the sting of his loss at not being able to accompany his grandmother to her last. Bethy and I followed behind Prem and Aidan and his cousins, Suman and Nalin, all roughly 12 years old, all steps behind manhood. One becomes finally a Brahmin son, in some ways, when performing the death rights for his parents.
Although I’ve been present for the preparation of the funeral procession a handful of times over the years in Kaskikot, I’ve never followed it from house to river before, and I hadn’t realized that it is customary to jog. When I stop to drop off my backpack at a shop I frequent on the corner, where I can ask the proprietor to hold my things until I get back, we are quickly left behind, and we have to sprint to catch up.
Once the pyre is lit, Prem will not touch anyone for thirteen days. But now, as we make our way toward the banks of the Gandaki River, Aidan is close by his father’s side, watching as men in the family take turns carrying his grandmother, their shoes pounding the asphalt. His cousin Suman is a sensitive, perceptive boy, who wept as his grandmother was lifted from his own father’s home to begin her final worldly journey in this lifetime. But Aidan is as shimmery and light as ever, energized by all the activity and people and the cousins he so loves to play with for endless, exuberant hours.
Then: “I want to try,” Aidan says suddenly.
The running stops for just a beat. Carefully, the back of the gurney is lowered on to Aidan’s still-childlike bony shoulders. Instantly and without discussion, Suman has taken up the front. Their fathers and uncles stand around them, and my gaze captures this sudden and fleeting coming of age. The two boys struggle slightly under the weight of their grandmother’s body, but the whole rest of the world has fallen away as their only focus becomes carrying her home. After only a few meters of progress, the gurney is handed back, and Aidan is a boy again.
At the banks of the Gandaki, an enormous furnace has been recently built to provide a more efficient and eco-friendly form of cremation than the traditional funeral pyre. All of Aamaa’s jewelry is removed – the gold rings through her earlobes, the bangles around her tiny wrists, which cut in to flesh slightly, producing no blood. She is covered one final time, and Prem and his brothers circle her with copper vases and pour water around her. Then she is lifted in to the furnace, and the door is closed.
Now the thirteen days of kriya begin.
Aamaa, you birthed eight babies and never got to raise two of them. Your 20 grandchildren held each other today as you were carried away to the river under garlands, and your grandsons lifted you beside their fathers.
On December 12, Tuli Aamaa died. She was 94 years old and has been one of the oldest, most endearingly tired people I’ve ever known since I first met her seventeen years ago. Tuli Aamaa means “big mother” – in Nepali culture aunts are mother-figures, and they are either big or small depending on whether they are older or younger than your parent. Bishnu and Didi’s father was the youngest of five brothers, and Tuli Aamaa was his older sister-in-law. So she was our Big Mother.
Tuli Aamaa and her husband had settled down in the valley, just where the jungle path dumps us out on the highway in Pokhara. So when she came to visit us in Kaskikot, it was usually early in the morning, and she walked up the entire jungle path, a route that takes me about an hour of climbing at a good clip. Tuli Aamaa would arrive with her walking stick and a litany of woes. These woes – and Bishnu will back me up on this – would have us giggling within minutes of her arrival and for a good while after she left. In a breathy exhausted voice, high pitched but only in the range of a dull butter knife, Tuli Aamaa would tell us, and anybody who was around, perhaps even the chicken or a wooden post holding up the porch or, barring these, the morning breeze, that everything was wrong with her, and it was enough already, it was time for her to die. She never looked pleased, and yet this activity brought her such return of satisfaction, or perhaps relief, that she hiked all the way up a mountain to participate in it, and then all the way back down the mountain a few hours later. It was wonderful.
Amazingly, Tuli Aamaa has always been the oldest person in the world, and she never got older. She looked just as old in 2005 as she did when I saw her last February, in 2019.
Tuli Aamaa with baby Pascal in 2005.
Yesterday, on the solstice, Didi and Pascal and I went out to Tuli Aamaa’s house, where her relatives are sitting kriya, the thirteen days of mourning. We sat outside talking with her son Ram Chandra dai, and found things here and there to help out with as callers came in and out of the house. Didi helped Tuli Aamaa’s daughter in law Tara bouju prepare her daily meal, which has to be cooked in a single pot during the kriya period.
And then the three of us left to walk up the jungle path, along the route that Tuli Aamaa always took to visit us. It’s also the way that Aamaa climbed after she gave birth to Didi 42 years ago in Tuli Aamaa’s fields. Aamaa took refuge briefly in Tuli Aamaa’s buffalo shed, before carrying her newborn, our Didi, up the mountain the very day of her birth. I have always been captivated by this story, but today it seemed phenomenal all over again, the traverses these generations have made over these stones. Pascal bounded up ahead of us, and found some luxurious blue maiyur feathers, and wanted me to take his picture with them behind his mom, standing on the same stones his grandmother once carried her over.
Later, I unearthed a picture of Tuli Aamaa’s field, and her famous buffalo shed, that I took when I was first introduced to these climbs and their histories back in 2005…
…and then I found one I’d taken the same day, in 2005, of Tuli Aamaa in the buffalo shed where Aamaa and Didi spent their first incredible moments together.
She looked just as old in this photo, as ever. As far as we could tell, she was always ready for this day, that to the vast majority of human beings seems a cliff edge, but to her was only another day.
We’ll miss you, and your loving, irrepressible climb through this world, Tuli Aamaa.
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.
This week, my cousins Lynne and Neil came to visit from Chicago. We usually see each other once a year at a family holiday gathering in December that Lynne and Neil have been hosting since I was in college, when they took the job over from my Aunt Peggy. Our Spero family reunion is usually about three days of of extended family bonding in Chicago: walking the dogs by Lake Michigan, making our grandmother Gaky’s icebox cake, spending lazy afternoons sitting around while the Bulls play on TV, and long evenings talking in the kitchen until one in the morning. We’ve been having the annual family reunion in Chicago our whole lives.
But when Lynne and Neil said they were coming to Nepal, I was thrilled by the idea of getting to have my cousins see me in my natural habitat. In the wild.
They arrived on a Friday afternoon just as we were finishing up at the office. It was a bit surreal to see them transplanted from the suburbs, sidling up the walkway past Maya didi’s garden, and then sitting in our common room. They unloaded a collection of toys and books to keep under the coffee table (between the small people attached Sangita, Muna and me, we are badly in need of some kid-friendly distractions for workdays when school is off). They produced a jar of Nutella and then five gourmet chocolate bars which I immediately transferred to a secure location.
Then Neil pulled out a pair of oversized plastic glasses. “So, while we’re here, I need some photos of people wearing these glasses,” he said.
“I see,” I replied.
Next thing I knew, Neil and Lynne were excitedly talking over each other about this guy Harry Caray, who apparently I didn’t know about only because I live in a village in Nepal. Harry Caray is a superfamous Major League sportscaster for the Cardinals and the Cubs whose statue is erected at Wrigley Field, and every year on his birthday, fans celebrate – mostly be honoring the way Harry Caray liked his booze and sang drunk tunes off key and, furthermore, my cousins explained breathlessly talking very fast almost at the same time but somehow not directly over each other while our medical coordinator Rajendra tried to figure out what to do with the slinky on the coffee table, furthermore, Harry Caray had a mysterious connection to Nepal, for example (Neil pulled out his phone and began reading), he was the first major league sportscaster to say “Holy Cow” on air and in Nepal cows are LITERALLY HOLY.
“I don’t really understand how this slinky works,” Rajendra puzzled.
“Hang on, we have to take it outside to the stairs,” I said.
“–AND THIS MONTH IS HARRY CARAY’S BIRTHDAY, AND–”
“–PICTURES ARE BEING SHARED ALL OVER THE INTERNET–”
“–THE CUBS WON 108 YEARS AFTER THEIR LAST WORLD SERIES AND 18 YEARS AFTER HARRY CARAY DIED AND IN HINDUISM 18 IS A LUCKY NUMBER AND–”
“–SO WE HAVE TO TAKE PICTURES OF PEOPLE WITH THESE GLASSES–”
“–IN KASKIKOT, AND IN AMAZING MOUNTAIN PLACES IN NEPAL–”
“–LORD KRISHNA DIED ON FEBRUARY 18 AND HARRY CARAY DIED ON FEBRUARY 18–”
“–AND ALSO OMGOSH ALSO–”
–Neil produced a handful of full-size face cutouts of Harry Caray, who’s head then began bouncing around excitedly as my cousins completed their explanation.
“–AND WE HAVE TO SEND THE PHOTOS TO OUR FRIEND GRANT DEPORTER–”
“–AND HE’S GOING TO SHARE THE PHOTOS ON THE INTERNET WITH EVERYBODY FOR HARRY CARAY’S BIRTHDAY!!!!!”
“Rajendra, don’t tangle the slinky, or it will be ruined before we can do anything with it,” I said. Harry Caray’s shock of white hair and full-toothed smile sat perched on Neil’s hand, waiting.
“Ok, got it. Big glasses. White guy cutout. Take photos with mountains. I think we can make this happen fairly easily…all the components seem to be available.”
Then we moved on to the business of introducing the cousins to my natural habitat. We packed up a some snacks and wine, picked up Aidan and Pascal and Didi, and spent the afternoon on a paddle boat and visiting the Barahi Temple. The next day we had planned to take the jungle path up to Kaskikot and hang around carrying and chopping things and getting astrology readings all day. But at the last minute, Aamaa called to tell me that we absolutely had to change our plan.
“There’s a family picnic,” Aamaa said. “Everyone will be there. Like literally everybody in the whole universe. Two or three thousand people.” Ok that’s an exaggeration, except for the two or three thousand people part. That’s actually what Aamaa said.
“So it’s like a family reunion?”
“It is going to be so much fun,” Aamaa cooed. The picnic would include descendants of five brothers – The Grandfathers. One of The Grandfathers is Didi and Bishnu’s grandfather. That Grandfather alone had nine children, of which Aamaa’s husband was the youngest. So my point is, it’s a very enormous family.
“Don’t you think Lynne and Neil might be bored?”
“Who would be bored?!” Aamaa cried. “There will be two or three thousand people!”
“Do you want to go to a family reunion?” I asked Lynne and Neil. Having a picnic with the descendants of The Grandfathers would mean compressing our schedule in Kaskikot a little.
“Basically what it comes down to,” said Lynne, “is that a family reunion is always a thing to go to.”
We met Didi and Prem and Aidan and Pascal at Hollan Chowk at 8:30am to wait for a family reunion bus. (Neil and Aidan, who turn out to be roughly the same age, commenced exchanging shoes.) One of the buses started in Kaskikot and Aamaa called with updates of its progress as it rambled down through the hills and wound through the valley, picking up uncles and cousins and great-aunts at Milan Chowk and Simpani and Harichowk and Vindivasini.
The Family Bus arrived and drove right past us at Hollan Chowk. Pascal took off down the road with all his limbs waving, the rest of us jogging along behind him and dodging tourists out for their morning coffee in Lakeside. Luckily, due to Pascal’s dedicated flailing, family bus huffed to a stop and we climbed aboard.
Lynne and I squeezed in to the back row of seats with Didi, Prem and the boys, while Neil sat up front and got in to a conversation with our first cousin Ram Chandra Dai. This struck me as extremely entertaining: my first cousin Neil from Chicago, shooting the shit with my adopted first cousin Ram Chandra Dai, on a bus driving out to a family reunion in Chisapani. We ambled on past the edge of Phewa Lake and into the valley along the southern edge of the Kaskikot hills. The cut wheat fields yawned dry and dusty in to the distance.
After about an hour and a half, we arrived to find a shade tarp and plastic chairs set up in the hillside. Music thumped over a speaker. We set our things down and people starting flocking over to welcome us, grabbing my hands. “Laura! Isn’t this wonderful! A family picnic! Everybody is here!” Many were neighbors and longtime friends in colleagues in Kaskikot – Butu Bouju, Bhim sir and Krishna sir and Indra sir, Maile Bouju – whom I’d never really had the chance to mentally arrange as family relations.
Of course in Nepali culture people aren’t called by names, but by a relationship like Didi so I didn’t know almost anybody’s name. But it made introducing Lynne and Neil exceptionally easy.
“My Didi and Bhinaju are here from America!” I’d say.
“Oh, Didi and Bhinaju!” the thousands of relatives (who probably numbered about 200) would reply. After explaining a few times that Lynne was a cousin on my dad’s side, I learned to introduce her as my “banja-didi,” which literally means my father’s-older-sister’s-daughter. As my Banja-didi and Bhinaju, Lynne and Neil were instantly organized in to their places at the family reunion and that was that.
Cousins: Lynne and Neil with Ram Chandra Dai and Aamaa
As we wandered about the grounds, I motioned over to where a goat’s head was being prepared.
Banja-didi and Bhinaju looked alarmed.
“Most likely they brought the goat here this morning and slaughtered it nearby,” I offered. It bears mentioning that I’m the near-vegetarian in the group, but Lynne and Neil took this news hard.
Soon we were scattered about the field, seated on the plastic chairs and chatting over breakfast. I kept being worried that my cousins would get bored. I went and found Lynne.
“How’s it going?”
“Pretty good!” She pointed to Neil.
I’m going to say it was only minutes before Neil had people passing around the oversized glasses and Harry Caray’s head was bobbing up and down around the plates of chickpeas. And that’s how this happened
“Time for the program, time for the program!” somebody announced. We were all summoned to the foot of an empty garden terrace that was to act as a stage.
I didn’t really know what to expect. Our family is very musical and our reunion always includes an ad-hoc music concert in Lynne and Neil’s living room. Uncle Gus plays a spoof he wrote called the Russian Number. The younger kids plunk out notes on whatever instrument they’re learning. For about a million years, my brother had to sing Mr. Grinch in his booming base that would later anchor his college a capella group. Our cousin Greg, who is an actual rock star and jazz composer who played keyboard for Halsey, eventually takes over from the amateurs and the evening dissolves in to a combination of improv and mulled wine and Christmas music played in Jewish minor keys.
“First up, Grandfather Number One!”
A collection of relatives shuffled up on to the barren garden. I realized what was about to happen. The patriarch of Grandfather Number One’s branch of the family introduced the entirety of Grandfather Number One’s descendants to the rest of us. Photos were taken. Discussion was had. I understood what we were doing.
“This is brilliant,” I thought, as each branch of the family was called up and a senior member meticulously mapped out its relational geography. We were here to keep the books organized: to name the membership, introduce new additions, and have a long, solemn moment of silence for those no longer here, like Bishnu and Didi’s dad–Grandfather Number Four’s youngest son, born to his second wife.
It came time for our branch of the family. I dragged Lynne and Neil up with us on to the garden stage, where we stood packed in near Didi and Aamaa before the crowd. Ram Chandra Dai began an accounting of each of Grandfather Number Four’s offspring. Eventually he came to Aamaa and Didi and Bishnu (“who is living in America”), and then, to me.
“And of course Laura, Aamaa’s middle daughter. We take Laura in the family just as Bishnu and Malika. And today Laura’s Didi and Bhinaju are here from America.”
I poked Lynne and Neil and they waved, so that it would be obvious which were the three American people at the family reunion in Chisapani.
Neil looked expectant and hopeful like a puppy with a chewed up ball. I leaned forward and stood up on my toes, which made me three times the height of everyone else on stage.
“Um, thank you everybody,” I said to the crowd. “And, um, there’s just one thing I’d like to do. See, Bhinaju here, it’s his friend’s birthday. And his friend wears these glasses, and his name is Hari.” Hari is a very common Nepali name so this seemed like the simplest path to internet fame. “And Hari really liked Nepal. So, um, we’d like to have a family picture of people wearing these glasses and holding Hari’s picture and saying happy birthday to him.”
We passed out the glasses and Neil ran down in to the crowd, where he stretched his arms out over the descendants of the other four Grandfathers and snapped pictures on his phone, while we waved Harry Caray’s head around and cried “Hari! Hari!”
Man, I thought, I can’t believe anyone listens to the manic things that I say. This is actually working. Lynne and Neil looked ecstatic.
Then someone tapped my shoulder.
“We should be saying Hari Prasad,” she told me matter-of-factly. The oversized glasses and random photos of the white guy didn’t seem to faze her at all.
“Why?” I asked.
“That’s our Grandfather’s name,” she said, “Hari Prasad Subedi.” Then she rejoined the chant. “HARI!HARI!‘
The roof of the house is 40 years old and leaking. Aamaa has placed little containers on the wooden beams in the attic, and they catch droplets that sneak through the same holes where sunlight drives dusty spindles inside when it’s not raining. The stone shingles were laid back when the house was first built, and in addition to the leaking, the rough hand-cut wooden beams that hold up the roof up are rotting. The whole thing needs an upgrade.
In past years we’ve replaced the stone roof over other areas of the house, and the uppermost part that covers the attic is the only one that hasn’t been converted to corrugated tin. I wanted to restore the beautiful old shingles, and we called builders in to give us an estimate. But it was clear that Aamaa had already imagined the house covered in shiny new tin. She wanted the royal blue kind.
Before I continue this story, I need to say first that anybody who’s spent time in Nepal but is not from here will tell you that, and I don’t mean to generalize, but literally all Nepalis, I mean every single one, are obsessed with keeping stuff in the packaging. Everything. I remember once my friend Anne telling me that when she noticed the family she lived with chopping vegetables before every meal with a dull knife, she gifted them a fancy new cooking blade from the U.S. They kept it in its plastic armor and hung it on the wall.
To take this further – stay with me here – if things like, say, a vacuum cleaner or cell phone do need to come out of a box, the packaging still gets kept. You can totally normally have entire storage areas taken up just by boxes and covers. Not a mere two shelves of the pantry, like I have in my apartment in Connecticut due to an inability to throw out satisfyingly sturdy takeout containers, but whole storage spaces like the one under the stairs in our office, stuffed with the likes of vacuum cleaner boxes. Every time I arrive in Pokhara, I end up dragging a variety of packaging out to the dust heap from there.
“Why are we keeping the box for our WiFi router?” I’ll ask.
“In case we need it.”
“You never know.”
“Are we going to resell our router?” We use the router all day, every day. It’s attached to the wall.
“It’s a good box. Let’s just keep it.”
Even the furniture stays stays covered, sometimes in real cloth covers but at least as often in the actual factory plastic. I arrived in Sindure once to find our dental chair still wrapped in cling wrap, a patient lying atop its torn and receding shards while having an exam.
But let’s come back to the leaky roof.
I met Aamaa in Pokhara and we went to the tin shop. Needless to say I know far more about corrugated tin than I ever expected to. An uncle met us there, and he and Aamaa loaded up ten sheets of royal blue tin on to the bus. Aamaa kept pretending to defer to us – “I don’t know anything about it, I’ll do whatever you say” – but in fact I could tell Aamaa knew exactly what she wanted. We tossed some bags of long, thick nails to the driver, and sent the roof up the hill.
I really, really hoped to be in Kaski during the days the roof got dismantled and replaced. We’ve had some great adventures together. On the outside, the stone shingles are beautiful, each one representing a journey from another place, fitted and laid by hand. I hated to see them go, but if they had to, I wanted to help. And then there was the inside, in the attic, where the underside of the stone shingles are exposed.
I slept in the attic for the first year I lived in Kaskikot, when the house was smaller. I loved it up there. I felt protected but open to the world, which was visible through the slatted window that I had to bend over to peer through even when seated on a mat. Even now, when I climb the increasingly creaky ladder and poke my head through the attic floor, I feel a rush of nostalgia that nearly knocks me back down to the basket of millet by the kitchen door. When I lived in the attic, Nepal was completely new to me, but so was the sensation that I had always been on my way and now I had arrived. I had been looking for the attic forever, and I’d found it. In the renovation, two massive raw wood pillars that hold up the hefty stone roof would be rendered obsolete and removed. The attic would feel different; more spacious, and more tinny, I imagined.
Despite my hopes, the renovation occurred while I was in Pokhara. It only took three days to remove all the heavy stones from the roof, break down rafters, remove the boxy supports, and replace everything. By thursday it was finished. I arrived on Saturday morning.
I came over the hill eagerly, feeling the arrival momentous. The appearance of our roof over the crest of the ridge is always a kind of solemn performance, the overture to my favorite symphony, grand and dependable, a confident transition from the chaotic street to the hushed and orderly theater.
One cue, the gleaming blue roof emerged through the trees. But something looked funny. I squinted at it.
It looked like there were logos all over the roof.
We got tin with logos printed all over it? This is something I was sure a tin company would do. I mean, all the doors in my apartment in Lakeside still have factory stickers on them that were clearly never designed to be removable. Sometimes houses by the highway get huge ads painted on to them. There’s nothing too out of the ordinary about having logos all over one’s house. I came running down the hill, around the edge of the terraced wheat, and met Aamaa in the yard.
“Aamaa why does the roof have printing on it? Doesn’t this–” I scratched at an extra section of tin that was on the buffalo shed, digging my nail in to the logo.
Back it peeled.
“Hold on a second.” I scratched more. A long strip of plastic peeled away.
“Aamaa did you leave the roof in the wrapping?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” She replied innocently.
“This sticky plastic is supposed to come off.” I felt a prickly, alarmed feeling at the base of my head.
“Aamaa, the house is wrapped in plastic!”
“Why didn’t the builders——”
“Honestly Laura, it’s stronger this way,” Aamaa finally admitted.
“It looks crazy!”
“No it doesn’t, it looks fine. The rain will eventually peel it off anyway.”
“That’s why we should just peel it off ourselves,” I proclaimed.
“This way is stronger,” Aamaa insisted.
A debate ensued. This is an activity Aamaa and I are highly practiced at. How it goes is, I declare that our roof should be unwrapped and that I am going to unwrap it. Aamaa tells me it’s fine as it is. We keep having this disagreement while I climb up on to the house, clomp across the section of tin roof over the porch, pull myself up to the next level over the bedroom, and for the forty minutes it takes me to strip back the factory plastic while squatted on the highest part of the house like some sort of possessed gargoyle. I scratch madly at the logoed plastic until I can get an edge free, and then use all my counter bodyweight to stretch it upwards while trying not to slide myself downwards, on to the lower roof, and splat in to the yard. Each yank makes an uproarious and lengthy honk, as if to express the gravity of the situation. The plastic is covered in lettering that reads: AFTER INSTALLATION REMOVE THE GUARD FILM.
Saraswoti calls out from her yard, which is about level with me when I’m squatting on the roof like a possessed gargoyle.
“Whatcha doin’ Laura?”
“Unwrapping the house.”
“It was stronger in the wrapping!” (Aamaa from the yard)
“It says ‘remove this plastic’ right here on the plastic!” (Me from roof)
“Aamaa, Laura’s unwrapping the house?” (Saraswoti, pot-stirring)
“Laura, whatcha doin?” (Saano-didi’s husband wanders in to the yard)
“She’s taking off that nice plastic!” (Aamaa to Saano didi’s husband)
“I didn’t think it looked bad.” (Saano didi’s husband)
“It looks crazy!” (Me to Saano didi’s husband)
“Giggling hysterically” (Saraswoti)
“I started taking it off yesterday and then told Aamaa to leave it on….It’s stronger this way?” (Saano didi’s husband, pot stirring but also unsure what’s real anyway)
“Pascal! Get my camera and take a video will you?”
It used to be that, in the winter, we’d sometimes get up at four AM to fetch water. When the tap nearby in Deurali would dry out due to the dry weather, or the tenuously protected pipe sourcing it would breaksomewhere along its many kilometers between Dhampus and Kaskikot, we’d have to go further downhill to the natural spring in Rotepani.
In the summer, Rotepani was so rich with water that people filled their tin water jugs freely under gushing, splashing geysers while others bathed and did laundry and on the surrounding rocks, submerged up to the knees, cooled in the August heat. But in the dry season, sometimes even Rotepani would slow to a trickle from two out of three pipes that protruded from a cemented tap. The gushing natural spring that pours directly over the rocks would evaporate. Sometimes the line for water took half the day.
During those times, Saano didi and Neru would wake up before dawn and come up the path to our house. Aamaa and I, and Bishnu while she was still here, would join them with baskets slung from our heads and loaded with every jug and bottle in the house. We’d pick up Maya Bouju as we passed her house and walk single file along the edge of Gita Bouju’s wheat field. With the hills still shadowy along the southern horizon we’d cross the dirt motor road, make our way down a steep stone walking path to arrive at Rotepani in the dark, and help each other fill all the containers trickle by trickle. Then we’d walk back up the hill, pour the water in to slightly larger vessels in each of our homes, and turn around to do it again. Each trip took about 45 minutes, and we’d make three or four visits before the sky stretched open its arms to deliver another morning.
There have been times when water takes up the majority focus of attention in the household functioning. When pipes break in Deurali, when the weather is dry, when the buffalo is ill, when there many guests, or when there are very few residents to share labor; all of these lead to an immediate and exacting calculation of how much water is in the house, how long it will last, and what amount of physical labor is required to replenish it. Sometimes it’s one person’s job to ferry water for hours at a time. When I’m here, I tend to gravitate toward the water carrying—a fairly straightforward, essential, and never-finished chore.
Over the last year or so, recent changes in the government have led to mumblings about piping water to the yard of each individual home. In sixteen years, I’ve seen many changes come through Kaskikot…new two-story cinderblock houses, paved road, the occasional wifi connection, a completely transformed economy from subsistence to remmittance. Cellphones, Facebook, TVs, hotels, cars. Many of the houses around us in Kaskikot have already rigged up pipes that they can attach to the Deurali tap when it’s not in use, offering a continuous stream of water that passively fills an enormous polypropylene tank in the yard. But water still lords great power over us.
In our case, we’ve had a tank for years, but like the enclave of about four houses near us—including Saano Didi’s and Mahendra’s houses—we still have to carry water to it, the regular way. Our water situation remains basically unchanged. We still take baskets five minutes up the road to fetch our water from the tap in Deurali. When Deurali is dry, we still go to Rotepani, 15 minutes away. On occasion, when Rotepani is too busy or the flow of water is almost dried out, we walk winding footpaths half an hour down to the fields in Dadapari and use a cup to lift water from a natural pool under the rocks. A few times, I’ve accompanied Aamaa to do a household of laundry on flat stones there.
Aamaa, of course, is sixty-two and lives alone most of the time. So by “we,” I mean Aamaa.
Last summer as I was leaving in August, somebody rigged up a pipe that had been brought from Deurali up to the crest of the ridge by our house. Its mouth wasn’t in our yard, but it was only a up on the ridge, about seventy-five yards away instead of all the way in Deurali. The day I was leaving for the U.S. was the same morning that this new pipe was first hooked up, and all our closest neighbors clamored about filling buckets and oil gallons and jugs while Mahendra’s father presided over the fray. Whenever the pipe was unattended, it sprayed wild streams of water that swirled into muddy rivulets, spilling down the side of the hill and into Khemraj sir’s corn field. Little Narayan and Amrit were ecstatic with the newfound responsibility of presiding over a line of eager adults and aiming the unruly three-headed pipe head as it washed dirt off the footpath and over the terrace.
When I arrived back this week in January, I discovered this setup slightly relocated but similarly conceived. With water more spare in the winter, each household has been assigned to use the pipe on alternating days. Today was our assigned day; Aamaa began fretting about it last night. I assured her that I would take water duties in the morning, which is pretty straightforward, but the problem is that for reasons I couldn’t determine, Aamaa wanted to get cracking at dawn…and one thing that’s changed in the last ten years is that I am no longer so interested in proving something that I’m motivated to get up before dawn. I am happy to prove my value during daylight hours.
Lucky for both of us, for some reason the water didn’t become available this morning until 9am. Having slept until American hours and had my tea, I dutifully began the water retrieval process. Pascal helped me bring all the water jugs and bottles and even buckets up the hill, where we set them down beside Maya Bouju’s house to wait our turn.
Saraswoti was there of course, and Jivan’s young wife Bal Kumari, and Mahendra’s father. Everyone had brought literally any item in their house that could hold liquid. The issue–and the thing is, I’m American, I’m trained to spot potential matters of inefficiency and to fret about them–was that the pipe itself was barely producing a trickle. So filling the army of receptacles from our three households was a phenomenally lengthy task that quite literally involved watching water drip for long, yawning minutes. And minutes. And more minutes.
I squatted down next to my pals Saraswoti and Bal Kumari. They were perfectly happy with the distraction, the pace of the task, the opportunity to sit on a hill and chat or not chat and pick at blades of grass. I was like, “Yo you guys, it’s going to take me approximately one million years to fill all this stuff.” My gaze drifted to the footpath. Four minutes away was a perfectly functional, largely unmanned water tap.
I calculated that in the time it would take Saraswoti and Bal Kumari’s water jugs and buckets and bottles and gallons to fill in front of mine, I could easily take a jug to Derail, fill it, bring it home, and bring it back here for a second filling.
“Just wait, Laura, it won’t take too long,” Saraswoti assured me, despite the fact that this was plainly inaccurate advice.
“I’m just going to go…um, fill this jug and come back,” I said. I did. When I came back, my other six jugs and buckets and bottles were still waiting in line. Bal Kumari had left and Saraswoti was taking her turn.
“Have a seat, Laura,” Saraswoti said. I sat. Saraswoti and I watched the water drip lazily, its splashy pitch changing as the surface level crept up the inside of the tin jug. The winter mountains pierced the entire panorama of the northward sky, and to the south the hills were clear and fresh. When it was my turn, I filled our jugs, took them home, dumped them in to the tank, and began the whole process again.
Of course, Bal Kumari was back.
“Laura didi, it won’t take long,” she and Saraswoti assured me. Given that the water hadn’t become more abundant, this statement had also not become less untrue. I couldn’t take it. I took one jug off to Deurali, repeating the entire process as before.
As my trips accumulated, so did the various filled containers in the yard. The tank filled. Aamaa has recently installed a recycled oil barrel that comes to my chest; it was filled. At intervals, Pascal was reluctantly cajoled in to retrieving filled bottles and buckets from and dumping them out at home and returning them to our muddy hill. The tubs and emptied kerosene gallons were filled. Each time I thought I was done getting water, Aamaa would find another centimeter of space inside some container or another and make an entire four liter tin jug of water disappear in to it. I started to get annoyed, and then I started to giggle. The teapot, after all, was still empty.
I couldn’t help but think of when our only containers were two tin jugs, a leaky plastic box, and two small lotos. By comparison, there was now enough water in the house for all of us to bathe five times and do a midnight water puja under the moon. But Aamaa kept finding more spaces to add water and sending me back to the maddeningly dripping pipe by Maya Bouju’s house.
“Aamaa, I think–” I wanted to point out that the tap in Deurali was currently available daily. Why was I an indentured servant to the drippy pipe by Maya bouju’s house, today, just because it…existed?
“It’s so much closer,” Aamaa said. “If the tap dries up, I’ll be without water,” she explained. I found this both entirely logical and entirely illogical at the same time. It couldn’t be solved. It reminded me of the time that Bishnu and I had dozed off in the middle of the afternoon with Pascal lying between us when he was a baby, and we woke up to find the lights on in broad daylight amidst the ruthless load shedding schedule; Bishnu yawned groggily, “Hey when the electricity is available, we have to utilize it.” This immediately launched me in to fits of hysterical laughter for the next ten minutes and I would lose it every time I thought about it for years. Now, I also knew the only thing to do was keep getting more water from the pipe on this, our assigned day. The opportunity was not to be missed, irrespective of any broader analysis about overall benefit. And while I claim to have nothing left to prove in Kaskikot, let’s face it: where the rubber meets the road, I still have too much pride to throw in the towel early.
The only way out was to prove this labor was unwarranted.
“Aamaa, are you gonna take the cups out of the kitchen and have me fill them up too?!” I cried, half joking and half serious. Truthfully, I wanted to sit around and read. I resented this unreasonable purgatory, even though I not only signed up for it voluntarily, but also understood that it technically started and ended far away from the pipe by Maya Bouju’s house. I didn’t want Aamaa to have to haul water tomorrow or really ever. It just seemed to me, like, you know, we totally had lots of water.
Finally, when our entire yard was ringed with anything that could be turned in to a basin or pitcher, each brimming so high that the act of dipping a cup in it would spill a few steps worth of hauled water, I put the basket and rope down on the porch.
The buffalo honked lazily. It was mid-morning, and the day stretched bright and clear in front of us.
“They say,” Aamaa mused to nobody in particular, “that we’re each going to have our own water tap. I brought the pipe here already. But I’m not allowed to connect it up to the yard.”
Let’s start with background info: my father is both an engineering physicist and a tech entrepreneur. Add to that Olympic athlete and type A+ personality, and you have a world-class Explainer. My dad is so good at Explaining Things nobody even knew existed, much less needed explaining, that some time ago I started a Dad Explains It video collection.
On the Explaining front, Dad and Aamaa turn out to be a match made in heaven. Because Aamaa requires explanations of everything from traffic lights to faucets, and Dad has a limitless endurance – some might even say compulsion – to leave no beautiful creation of the universe Unexplained. This is extremely handy for all of us. We girls (Bishnu and Mom and I) just aim them at each other and go about our business.
Over the weekend, we’ve made a family visit to a high rise apartment being constructed in downtown Bethesda. Aamaa is curious about all forms of construction. Like my nephew Jonah, she presses her nose to the window every time we drive past something being built. I decide this comes in the same vein as knowing the origins of food and other things that in Aamaa’s world travel very short distances from creation to use. There are comparatively few things in her life that just appear with no traceable origins–I mean, back in the day, Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa used to walk to the border of Tibet with baskets to trade for salt. Even modern concrete houses in Kaski are constructed without machinery using materials readily available in the local environment. So a suburban high rise presents a mystery on many levels. How is it all put together? Where does it come from?
First we stop at the building company, where we are provided hard hats. We all agree that Aamaa kills in the hard hat. (She has to sign a visitor agreement, and since Aamaa can’t write her name, she uses a kind of plus sign – it is always strange to see Aamaa’s incredibly dextrous hands fumble unfamiliarly with a pen.) Then we head across the street to a service elevator that is in place just for purpose of constructing the high-rise. When Aamaa and I were in Kathmandu a few weeks ago, we visited the third-floor rooftop of a mall. “Holy crap this is high up,” Aamaa proclaimed. “All the buildings in Kathmandu are enormous.”
“Push the button for floor seventeen!” Mom cries as we enter the service elevator.
Aamaa grasps Mom with both hands and the elevator lifts us off the ground with a jolt.
We wander the half-built highrise apartment, whose main walls are still open to the sky. Aamaa and Dad are transformed in to a superhero team patrolling Gotham City: there are things that need explaining EVERYWHERE. The space is divided by empty wall frames which have mammoth-size pallets of insulation stacked up between them. Dad and Aamaa commence an epic geek-out over insulation and plaster, and then shift their nerdfest to the feat of having transported the insulation – and the rest of this stuff – seventeen floors above the ground. Where will the plumbing go? And electricity?
The construction company employee treats us to a view of the roof. Aamaa has surprised us all with an ominously keen sense of direction in this unfamiliar world. The first few days after she arrived, we were driving around in Connecticut when we approached the drug store on the corner of my street. “This is your street, right?” Aamaa asked, before I had made the turn. I was absolutely baffled that she could get oriented so quickly when most of the visual landmarks are foreign objects with no inherent meaning, like a drug store. Now, on the roof of the high-rise apartment, Aamaa surveys the city below, which she has spent some time touring with Bishnu and me. She extends one finger toward the top of some buildings.
“The subway is in that direction, right?” she asks, correctly.
My Dad becomes ecstatic over Aamaa’s engineer-like spacial acuity. My Mom responds by scanning the horizon herself.
“And over there I see…Machhapuchhre!” she announces.
A few days later we went to go visit Great Falls and the Tow Path and along the Potomac River, where my parents used to take us for hikes on the weekends. Back then we had a special rock bench that my brother and I “discovered,” and which was, for purposes of eating a picnic of peanut butter sandwiches, the target of every summer expedition we made to Great Falls. My dad and I have both rowed many miles on the Potomac River, and on the fourth of July our family would come to the boat house and put on smelly life jackets and watch the fireworks from canoes on the water. This area is part of the circulatory system of our family. We pulled in to the parking lot at Great Falls with Aamaa.
For some reason that now I can’t completely put together, one of the first things to occur was that Aamaa and Dad got to trading their shade-producing accessories. I’ll just leave that there.
The only major bodies of water near Kaskikot are the Gandaki River and Phewa Lake. The first, we can cross through the riverbed in our flip flops unless a flood or unusually extreme rain has come through. The second can be crossed by paddle boat in about half an hour. So Great Falls was…great.
And now another confession. For all the years that my family has spent at Great Falls, for all the rowing and firework-watching and picnicking…my brother and I somehow both grew up thinking this was the “Toe Path.”
I know. It’s bad. Because of the Explaining that is required with Aamaa there, this comes up in conversation.
“What?” my dad says, with the displeasure of a Master Explainer who has realized, at a time when his offspring are grown-ass adults raising children and trying to survive in the world on their own, that something so basic, and so explainable, and so important to the family history as the tow path, NEVER. GOT. EXPLAINED.
Dad explains the history of the C & O Canal as a trade route, complete with a detailed explanation of the the locking mechanisms that allowed canal boats to move upriver. And, swept up in all this Explaining, Dad finally breaks out in to song. This is a thing that happens sometimes.