Letters from Kathmandu #14: Rain on Tin

By Craig Greenman
(Visiting Professor of Philosophy, King’s College)

July 2021

Dear family and friends,

My last letter was a bit heavy, so I wanted to follow up with something lighter.  I was walking back to the Department of Immigration yesterday – more on that in a sec – and I thought, why not write about eating?  It’s something we all have in common . . .

Nepalis, though, eat with their hands.  There are exceptions – a film crew is shooting a commercial at the B&B (but not for it; it’s a public service ad); they’re eating take-out with plastic spoons.  They said the shoot would last from 7 till 10 am, but they’re staying till after midnight.  (As K. and A. would say: “Nepal.”)  In any case, I’ve never seen anybody use a fork outside of a Westernized context, and then only to push food onto a spoon.

Since Nepalis eat with their hands, they wash before meals; there’s an extra sink in the B&B for this purpose.  And you only eat with your right hand; the left is for something else (described in Letter #2).  Eating with your hands has its advantages:  You’re less likely to spill your food (as I often do; it slips off my fork onto my lap, but always on my right side, because my napkin’s on my left) and you can “clean your plate” better:  Instead of metal-on-china, which leaves a gap at the tangent line, a soft, flexible hand fits any surface.  Finally, all food becomes “Finger Lickin’ Good” when you lick your hands clean – as Nepalis do – like a cat.

K. tried to teach me to eat with my hands, but G. excused me, because I was so bad at it.  I was brought up – as were most of you, I reckon – not to touch my food, unless it was a sandwich, burger, or fried chicken.  I even get embarrassed to get the last bit of food onto my fork . . . “What will they say at your girlfriend’s house?” I was asked as a kid.

But Americans and Nepalis both visibly, and audibly, “enjoy” their food.  (Think of The Simpsons: glub-glub-chomp-glub.)  I’m an awfully loud chewer, so I appreciate the camouflage.  Unlike living in Paris, where I always felt overawed and worshipful, I fit right into Kathmandu’s easier habits.  Though sometimes Nepalis slurp or smack their lips, and that’s too much enjoyment for me. 

When somebody here finishes a meal, they often just get up and leave.  Nepalis don’t start eating together, either:  Guests are served first (“The guest is God,” argues K.); then men, from oldest to youngest; then women (I don’t know if age impacts them); then the cooks, who are usually women.  The cooks will sometimes wait, not only until everybody’s served, but until they’ve had seconds.  I think of my grandmother, to whom we had to say, “Sit down, sit down!” – she wanted to make sure everybody was satisfied, but like me, she was a worrier, so nobody ever was, by definition.  Several times I’ve refused food until the cooks were fed; but this may be rude, even to the cooks; they seem to enjoy watching you eat.  On one hand – no pun intended – they’re playing the servants; on the other, they’re the masters:  They control the pace of the feast, like a conductor controls an orchestra.

(I saw one guest’s mother – he was around 60 – literally sit and watch him eat, with a big grin on her face.  It was like he was two years old . . .)

But the women enjoy stuffing the men with food; I wonder if it’s revenge?  Many guys here, even the thin ones, have a “rice belly,” a small (or big) paunch, like they’re the snake eating the elephant in The Little Prince.  Their plates are piled high with rice (my English friend says it’s sweeter than the usual rice and can cause diabetes), with portions of tarkahri, the vegetable curry, and achar, the pickled salsa.  A bowl of dahl, or lentil gravy, sits by the side; and you pour the dahl onto the rice.  Occasionally there’ll be meat, like the bone-in chicken cubes (if the bones are small, I eat them; if not, I put them in the bowl), and on special occasions, there’s mutton.  You might have some yogurt, too, and I get a one-egg omelet at lunch.

Despite the lack of meat – I’ve had largely a vegetarian diet in Kathmandu – I don’t feel unenergetic, maybe because the dahl has protein, as do the yogurt and omelet.  (I supplement my diet with cashews, too.)  It’s made me more sympathetic to vegetarians who tell me I don’t need animal protein.  As K. says: “Dahl-bhaht power lasts 24 hours!”

The women also do the dishes, and that’s not fair.  In my family – my dad’s very “liberated” on this point – the one who doesn’t cook does the dishes.  But the kitchen is a women’s space in Nepal; even if K. occasionally cooks, and very well (he used to cook in Delhi when he worked there), women run the kitchen, talking, laughing, and no doubt judging.  Sometimes I’m admitted, but only as a foreign man who can’t be expected to know any better.  I’ve also convinced them to let me clear my own plate.  

(G. seems unhappy, not when she has to work in the kitchen, but when she has to do it alone.  Maybe the “problem that has no name” is as much about isolation as gender roles.  When Betty Friedan wrote her book, women were expected to make a meal surrounded by machines.  I was a “house husband” for a while, too, living with my ex-fiancée; it was the loneliness, not the tasks, that made me miserable.)  

On National Paddy Day – which celebrates rice planting – K. and I went to Bhaktapur, where his sister and parents live (and where his kids live, too, during normal times; he’s not allowed to have them at the B&B).  K.’s sister is an attractive, thirty-something woman who was the mother of the bride at the Hindu wedding (see Letter #1); her husband, it turns out, was the handsome James Caan.  They welcomed us to their “second home” – they have the humble but solid house in the hills where the wedding happened – a tin shack. 

It was unexpected:  I’d never been in a tin shack, much less shared a meal in one.  K.’s sister and her husband had moved to Bhaktapur because she’s a small dairy farmer and her milk fetches a higher price there than at home.  (Her four cows, calf, and a buffalo live in the shack next door.)  Her husband drives a truck, ferrying supplies between Bhaktapur and the outskirts.  K.’s parents live with them, too, but they go back to their village to plant and harvest rice.  They’re around seventy, but K.’s father – even if he complains about his hips – still “has it.”

To reach the tin shack, you have to pass under a small but beautifully carved public archway, then up a flight of stairs; then, just when you think you’re headed for the community temple (a clean, folk-art decorated shrine to Shiva, with Buddhist prayer wheels: classic Nepali pluralism), you cut to the left, hop up a pile of rocks – if K.’s father wasn’t so fleet-footed, he’d probably fall – and voilà.

The structure is strongly built, with bamboo poles holding up tin sheets.  Old sacks or fabrics fill the holes; and K.’s family pays about $250 dollars a year to rent the land, which belongs to one of K.’s school buddies.  The latter struck it rich selling his farm property to a developer, so now he and his family live in a partly-finished three-story house next door.  I slept there on my second visit; four of us crammed into a room after playing Call Break, a card game, which I lost at.  (I’d had to learn on the fly and I was drinking more than these teetotaler Brahmins.) 

The animals stay inside their shack during the monsoon – they live mostly in the dark for a few months – because the paths outside are too slippery.  The soil in Kathmandu contains a soft clay that turns into ice when wet.  They eat grass, hay, and a “soup” that cooks continually over a campfire and contains flour, mango peelings, and other ingredients.  The resulting milk is fabulous, neither too fatty nor too lean; it tastes “organic,” in the best sense.  Yet in the immediate context, it was almost too organic; there was a compost pile next to the shack with flies buzzing around it, and I could smell the cow manure. 

K.’s sister was one of the poor women I’d seen near Panchkhal, carrying loads of grass with a strap around their foreheads.  She walks down into the valley and cuts the grass with a sickle.  On her way is a massive house under construction; I saw one boy who lived on the finished floor playing with a toy car, alone; he looked like the inmate of a prison.  One understands, visiting a tin shack, where dreams of wealth come from; yet, this house, as cold and gray as it was, seemed to betray those dreams.

We ate “beaten rice,” a cereal-like version of what you’re used to, mixed with sweet yogurt, and mutton.  K.’s sister cooked, and his brother-in-law cut the potatoes and cucumbers with a sickle.  The meal was excellent, as was the company; but between the smoke from the cooking, the smoke used to keep away mosquitoes (Nepalis burn old egg cartons for this), and the smoke from the cigarettes, I saw again why Kathmandu Valley is so polluted.  Fire and food, one Upanishad states, are the elements of life.  And where there’s fire . . . 

My second visit was during Shravan Sankrati, the day against scabies, a problem in the wet, muddy rice paddies.  Nepalis light firewood – traditionally; nobody seemed to do this anymore – and throw it into the dark, at the edge of the property.  It’s like a mobile jack-o-lantern, keeping away the bad spirits (or viruses).  I thought again of how the Nepalis throw out their trash . . . This night, K.’s friend gave me a tour of his house; he measured his wealth in terms of giant sacks of rice, kept in an unused bedroom, along with the garlic, onions, and potatoes in a hallway.  The young man – he was around thirty – had moved into a big house, but he’d retained his village values; his family didn’t seem entirely comfortable inside the large structure.  (For example, when I awoke in the morning, two of them were sitting on my bed, chatting.)  K. was especially excited about his friend’s full refrigerator, which I assume is unusual; if you rent an apartment in Kathmandu, it won’t have one.

K. and I stayed the night and returned the next morning on a bus.  The driver and conductor worked well together and took their jobs very seriously, while very unserious music was playing in the background.  The passengers needed to be quick:  A young mother almost dropped her baby when the bus jerked to a start.  On our previous visit, on Paddy Day, we’d scootered home late; I thought it’d be quiet on the roads.  But K. said trucks weren’t allowed on the highway until nighttime, so truck after truck screamed by us, throwing dust and dirt into our faces.  I could feel the grit in my teeth afterwards.  It was scary.

The traffic in the Kathmandu Valley, post-lockdown, has become hellish.  The pent-up vehicular energy – and noise – of three months is being unleashed; and I get despairingly heartsick when I think of the peaceful Midwestern town where I refused the teaching job.  (See my previous letter.)  When I was a kid, my family took me to the Michigan International Speedway to see a NASCAR race; I cried from the noise.  Yesterday I had to walk downtown – back to my opening now – to pay my $90 visa extension fee (what a joke: go to a window; then to the ATM; then to a second window, where they’re having lunch; then to a third window; then back to the second one; then sit and wait; then finally get called up to get a stamp: done!).  The government district was crawling with police; this was the day that Prime Minister Oli was being removed by the Supreme Court.  (The next prime minister was told by his astrologer he’d have the job seven times; he’s up to five now, at 75.)

It was like a Botticelli painting, with Venus rising from a sea of chaos . . . There exists one tiny little spot where Nepalis are allowed to protest; a whole platoon of soldiers was marching to it like they were ready to kill the lot . . . An open-bed truck had pro-Oli placards and was blaring traditional Nepali music, while an anti-Oli group, maybe thirty folks, was shouting.  I couldn’t see anybody on Oli’s side; it’s a bad sign when all your friends are amplifiers . . .

It’s also noisy at home:  The crows are cawing nonstop – they’re sacred animals here – and we’ve got our own house going up nearby, with metal constantly being ground: screech!  My Doberman has been crazy; he’s discovered a new dog, a neighborhood away, whom he’s insistent on besting or befriending.  He’s gotten into a 5:30 AM barking routine, echoing a burst of dog noise in the distance; he’s replaced my rooster.  I love that dog, but sometimes I’d love to put a bullet in his head . . . His owners have been especially cruel to him lately; they make him poop on the patio.  They just clean it up afterwards.  I wish I could steal him away.

Sometimes I think that Nepalis – as the saying goes – get the government they deserve.  There’s a law against using your horn on the streets, but they’ve become almost unwalkable (at least for a sensitive chap like me) from the noise.  My English friend told me when they initially passed the law, the number of accidents went down; people had to drive more carefully because they couldn’t just blast through intersections.  Nepalis complain about government corruption, but I’m told by my students that when an accident happens they jump out and say, “I know so-and-so!”  

That said, the women (and a few men) like K.’s sister, who carry loads of cut grass on their backs, and who provide us rice and milk to eat, don’t deserve a bad government.  They deserve one that works as hard as they do.  Maybe someday, somehow, it will get change.

But I promised to keep this light.  So like a good Nepali diner, I’ll stop and go do something else.

I hope all’s well, stateside –




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