Mahendra and Madu are two of the first boys I ever met in Kaskikot. They grew up in the houses on either side of us, and when I first arrived in 2002, Mahendra was about 13 and Madu was 11.

Mahendra, '06Mahendra has the chiseled features and doe eyes of a movie star and the athletic, wiry frame of a boy who is too restless for his environment. As a teenager, when all the kids built swings for the festival of Dashain, Mahendra would climb a towering stalk of bamboo like a monkey and fix the rope at the top while hanging horizontally, high above the ground. If Mahendra had grown up in the U.S., he would have been the star of the high school soccer team who smokes pot and can be counted on for a party when the parents are out. He’d always hated being born poor in this bottomed out village, even from the time he was very young. It bored the hell out if him and insulted his power. He was meant to be dangerous and to cut his teeth on anything but here.

Madu on the other hand was a gentle, slender boy with a soft voice and midnight skin. I often used to sit in his house in the evenings while his mother brewed moonshine to sell for a few dollars. Like Mahendra, Madu dropped out of high school before he graduated, and signed up with a manpower company when he was about 16. Before he left, Mahendra married and left behind a pregnant wife. Madu’s older brother Jivan left; then Madu left.


So many of the boys in this village are like Madu and Mahendra. For the first few years I was coming to Kaskikot, we spent a lot of time together working in the fields, carrying loads, pounding and climbing and chopping and joking in the yard over tea. There was a posse of them that used to wander out at dusk after the work was done, to play soccer or roam or plan the future. Sometimes I would hear Barat playing his flute on the other side of the hill, where the posse used to hang out in his yard.

Then they started disappearing. Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai. Madu’s house gained a TV and a new room, and Mahendra’s mud house, like many others, was rebuilt with cinderblocks. Large swaths of the hillside turned year by year from fertile to uncultivated land. One home after another became inhabited only by old people.

Last Monday night I arrived in Kaskikot for the twelfth year in a row. The next morning when I got up, Madu came over and sat in the yard talking with me for half an hour. He was wearing a faux-leather jacket and shoes. He has been working at a noodle factory in Malaysia for three years, first sealing spice packets, then as a line manager. It started off bad: the overtime they were promised not paid, the meals they were promised not provided, the roommate who ate dinner, went to bed, and then didn’t wake up the next morning for a reason nobody knows. Everyone was afraid to touch him, this body that at home would have been sacred. Once Madu got promoted, his salary doubled and it was better. Most of them, he admitted, don’t promoted.

I went to fetch water at the tap. I passed Barat’s yard and the whole posse was there. All home from their various countries this winter. Most of them married. Leaning carelessly against the wall, sitting with an arm angled across a knee, laughing at a private amusement, hair greased and shining in the morning sun. Mahendra looked as glamorously bored as ever, but he did light up – to the extent he does – to see me.

I asked what they’re all doing now. The answer: waiting for new visas.

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Roof Leaping

Bishnu and I went to the field at about 7am to cut grass before breakfast.  After we ate, it was time for more house painting.  Fortunately, the structural layer involving buffalo poo is all done, so now we just have to go over it again with thinner mud that has color mixed into it.  This is how the house ends up orange on the bottom and white from the middle up.

The village looked like a party.  The jaunty line where the orange and white paint meet seemed to be winding from house to house in the sunlight, leaving its fresh mark on one cheerful home after another.  Women splattered in paint and mud were scattered over rooftops and sticking out of the grass behind their houses, painting away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur house is shaped kind of like a house on a house.  There is the roof over the first floor, and then the attic built on top of that, and then a triangular roof on top of the attic.  I came outside to find Bishnu and Aamaa standing on the highest roof, painting the uppermost part of the house.

As I stood there planning my next move, Mahendra came over carrying a severed goat head and smeared blood over our door.  His family was roasting the body in their yard on the terrace behind and above our house, in preparation for today’s big meat-eating celebration.

I climbed up to the lower roof, where I go frequently to lay out laundry in the sun, and after a while I got bored waiting for Aamaa and Bishnu to give me something to do.  So I did what you would do if you were standing on a middle roof with nothing to do: I made to climb up a level to the upper roof.

Aamaa immediately had a fit about how I was going to fall and kill myself.  “You can’t, you can’t do it!” she cried, as if she didn’t know by now that the fastest way to get me to do something I’m unqualified for is exactly like that.  And Bishnu expressed her disdain in characteristic fashion by smirking and standing in that unsympathetic posture that says, “What are you going to do, American?”

This attracted the attention of Mahendra’s entire family on the terrace above us, where they had previously been observing the headless roasting goat.  Just as I was realizing that climbing on to the upper roof really wasn’t that easy, I also took some pleasure in being more interesting than a headless roasting goat.  I calculated that climbing up on to a roof wouldn’t be all that difficult if a) I hadn’t been wearing a lungi and b) I had full confidence in the stability of the upper shingles.

So there I was.  Ironically, the only one trying to help me was Baa!, Mahendra’s father, who as a general rule seems more ambivalent than anyone of my right to show up like this, to explore the poverty he got stuck with like it’s some kind of escapade.  Let’s just say that Baa! has shown a distinct lack of confidence in my ability to be a fast learner.  But from edge of the roasting goat pit, he was, quite generously, making emphatic motions indicating the pulling up of one’s lungi above the knees.

Let’s face it – there really is no way to climb up from a middle roof to a top roof in a lungi except by grabbing on to the shingles over your head and jumping.  You hope for the best and don’t ask yourself what’s really worth risking your life for.

I was up.  The shingles did not fall off the roof, but Aamaa was still yelling “YOU CAN’T!” in a prolonged and energetic babble that apparently couldn’t be cut off simply by being proved incorrect.  I stood to my full height–more than enough to be a chimney for this house–raised my hands up, and tromped around defiantly.  Great view up there.

And that ended the show.  Everybody went back to their business.  Roasting goats; smearing mud.  I, however, still had nothing to do.  So when Bishnu and Aamaa went around to the other side of the house, I decided it was time to go down.  I returned to the spot where I’d come up.

Well, let’s just say that leaping up is one thing.  Leaping down a different matter entirely.

The audience had dispersed.  So it was before the eyes of God alone that I saw myself peering off the edge of one little roof, down to the top of another, reaching one leg down and straining with my toe, which dangled a good foot above the sloped shingles below, at the bottom of which was a nice little drop to the ground.  I looked over my shoulder to make sure nobody was watching.  I tried everything: this leg, that angle, slide on my bum, brace to the left, hike up the goddamn lungi; I looked for another disembarkation spot, an invisible step; I considered the unthinkable—waiting for Bishnu to give me a hand.

With sudden clarity I thought of Katharine Hepburn climbing houses (I’ve been reading her memoir, of course), and wondered if the roof below me could support my weight if I just jumped.  I pictured myself tumbling off the edge below, breaking my leg, and thinking that any small concession would have been a better gamble than loosing every last shred of dignity (and my leg).  I really dwelled on that image – what it would feel like, lying there on the ground in my own pain and stupidity.

I jumped.  I landed softly on the lower roof and walked over to the other side of the house, where Aamaa and Bishnu were still painting, and demanded that they give me a job.

Matters of Poop

P1070066I came home to find Bishnu and Aamaa painting the house in preparation for the festival of Dashain.  Aamaa had a pot in one hand, and in the other, a rag dripping with goop that she was slapping and smearing over the walls.  Next door, Saano didi was doing the same thing – in fact, all over the village this week, women are standing on their roofs, sticking up like chimneys and shouting to each other across the open space.

Now, and this house-painting business is an interesting topic.  Because it’s something I really want to be a part of: the annual re-making of our house, renewing and refreshing the walls that shelter us.   It is both an extremely practical and very beautiful tradition, which we in our brick-and-plaster, carpeted houses are denied.  It a special opportunity to want to share in restoring the house and strengthening it for the coming year.

Unfortunately, the house is made of mud and buffalo shit.

See, I have this problem with shit.  I’ve really made some serious efforts to get over it.  I accepted Didi standing knee deep in a mound of shit and hacking at it with an axe, sending little bits of buffalo turd flying everywhere.  I accepted Aamaa walking into the house with an enormous heap of poop in her hands and cooking it in a vegetable pot in the kitchen and then putting it on Bishnu’s sprained ankle and then putting Bishnu in bed with me.  I’ve accepted that the hands that carry buffalo shit around the house are dark with grit beneath the nails and also cook the food that keeps me alive.  I even carried some shit in a basket hanging on my back and swung it bravely over my head to make it land in a tidy basket-sized pile of fertilizer in the wheat field.

But I cannot put my hands directly and purposefully on shit.  I can’t do it.

I know that the house is made of shit.  I know that I walk around in bare feet in the house made of shit; I eat off a plate on the floor of the house made of shit; I know that the wall that I lean on next to the bed is made of shit.  This is all perfectly okay with me.  But it is not okay with me to sink both hands into a pile of shit, mush it around with water and mud, and smear it against the wall.  I simply cannot touch shit in pure shit form.  It needs to at least be disguised as part of a house.

So instead of helping to paint the house, I took a nap inside, stewing in guilt and regret that could not quite defeat this final barrier in my relationship with shit.  And much later on, when Bishnu and Aamaa had come in for the day, and the ladder to the attic had been put back inside, and the mud and shit mixture was still drying on the rungs and I kept putting my hands in it and then washing them with soap and water, and our various water jugs—used both inside and out, for washing, cooking, and occasionally for giving liquid to the animal family members—had had the soupy brown water washed out of them, but had not been sterilized with hospital antiseptic, and everyone was going about the evening business of sitting around and cooking rice…even then, I still felt bad that I hadn’t helped paint the house.  But I felt worse that I’m afraid to just up and pick up a wad of shit—and worst of all, that I still didn’t want to.

And the conclusion that I came to is that I’m simply never going to want touch shit before I do it.  If I’m going to do it at all, and if I’m going to use my own two hands to renew the house for the new year, I’m just going to have to touch buffalo shit before I’ve decided that it’s okay with me.