Dear family and friends,
It’s June – and since we remain locked down (the grocery stores were even shuttered today, though you could still get meat, fruits, and vegetables at the street shops), it seems like a good time to write.
Many of you have sympathized with me for being in Nepal during a lockdown; others are worried I’ll get sick. But I had Covid last December, and I got the first Moderna shot in March, so I’m more or less immune. (I trust the science on this.) I have Nepali friends who have lost grandparents, tragically, but Covid hasn’t affected me much.
In the Book of Job, God allows most of Job’s family to be wiped out, his fortune lost; but it’s only when Job himself gets sick, from boils covering his body – and when his wife and friends blame him (a friend who’s a Catholic priest reminds me) – that he crumbles. N., with whom I’ve had many discussions, might say that’s evidence we care first and foremost about ourselves. I’ll discuss our friendly debate in my next letter; but there’s no doubt I was more miserable when I was sick than I am now, when others are hurting.
In fact, my life has leveled out. I’m neither on a high (as I was soon after I arrived) nor at a low (as I was during my eye infection). Most of my daily existence is taken with domestic things, with K. and his family, at the bed and breakfast. (I’m the only lodger.) K. and his wife, G., whom I’ve mentioned, have two kids, a daughter and a son; and K.’s cousin often comes by, too. There’s also a King’s student, P., who lives nearby and eats with us. He’ll become a bigger part of my story later on.
K.’s daughter or son call up my room and announce, “Rice is ready!” and we all eat. Most days, it’s dahl, bhaht, tarkahri, and achar, that is, “lentils,” “rice,” “vegetable curry,” and “pickle” (the last is often a tomato salsa, good with eggs). It’s excellent food, and K.’s family is very nice to me. We try to communicate, though only K. and P. know much English; K.’s cousin and his daughter also know a bit. We occasionally jump rope, and G. and the children play badminton. K. gets me what I need, including beer, and he and I talk philosophically from time to time. We celebrated P.’s birthday last week (“I don’t eat cake,” he laughed, “but everybody sends me cakes!”). We might feed a stray cat, or smoke out mosquitos, or fix a lighting fixture. Everyday stuff. But it’s this stuff, in large part, that keeps me sane. I’ve been welcomed by good people, who have sustained me in a faraway place.
I’ve also come to feel an affection for the Doberman next door. He recognizes me now. I’ve sung to him, “Please, dog, don’t bark,” and spoken to him gently, “It’ll be all right; no one will hurt you.” (Maybe I’m also speaking to myself.) I now find him irrepressibly cute when he sticks his head through the guardrail, perks his ears up, and listens for distant dogs, ready to bark them into oblivion.
At first, I tried to deal with his barking through fiction. I began a story called “The Dogs of Kathmandu,” where each dog is named after a character from the Ramayana, the great Hindu epic. Here’s a piece of it (you can see that I thought the Doberman was tougher than he is):
It is almost dawn. I am restless. Two floors down and across the alleyway, a rooster is about to crow. The sun rises; he speaks. So in touch with “nature” . . .
Not me. I lie awake at night, caged, too high to jump but too close not to yearn for the ground. Do I long to live or to die, jumping? They amount to the same thing: I am a prisoner.
Years ago, my ancestors made a bargain. They traded freedom for food. They were wolves; now I am a “dog,” and there’s no language in which that is not an insult. At night, I feel my position: I have my bowl filled, my plywood box for sleep (but I sleep only in daylight, when I can forget), and a dog collar. My master wears a Brahmin’s sacred thread, but I wear a dog collar.
They call me “Ravana.” It is because of my howl. I pace, circling the patio, looking through the bars, wanting to jump, to retrieve nature. I have a memory. I know. Something in me remembers.
I will be revenged.
I know, it’s a little silly.
I’d like to go back a few weeks now, when I was hiding trash bags in the empty corner lot. The next day, I went out to rescue them, and lo and behold (unless I’d missed them before) two more trash bags had appeared! One was filled with corn stalks; the other was a giant burlap sack, probably with a dead body in it . . . My guess is that somebody had seen me leave my garbage and decided they’d leave theirs, too.
I packed the new bags into my own black ones (for consistency: and this probably shows my “anal retentiveness” more than cleaning up itself), then filled a couple more and carried them to my alleyway. It was around 4 or 5 pm; the garbage truck would arrive in the morning. (The truck is a small, Volkswagen-bus-looking thing that arrives when a man blows a whistle; that’s the sign to “Bring out your trash!” There’s no trash compactor; it’s an open-topped vehicle with one guy riding on top, Beverly Hillbillies-style, packing stuff in. They give him a cushion to sit on.)
I knew when I dropped the trash in the alleyway – even though it was well-packed and well-tied – that I might cause a ruckus. Somebody might wonder why a stranger was leaving a bunch of garbage by their house . . . After all, it hadn’t come from this neighborhood, but from down on the corner, where the poor people live; and one reason to live in our neighborhood, at least behind a wall and a locked gate, is to avoid them.
Bingo: As I set down my bags, a woman called from a balcony: “You can’t put that here!” Ech, I thought, the gig is up. But I replied: “Yes I can. I live here” – and I pointed to the bed and breakfast. “No!” she said. “But they’ll pick it up in the morning,” I reasoned. But she was immovable. So finally, I said, “I’ll put it over on our side of the alley.”
That satisfied her. K. opened our gate and told her we’d in fact put the trash inside our courtyard. (He is a genius at solving problems.) I said to the woman, “I’m cleaning the alley for your children.” (I think the screamie meemies – the ones I described in an earlier letter – were related to her.) The woman said, “Thank you,” but I couldn’t tell if it was for cleaning up the alleyway, or just for moving the bags to our side.
(I saw a woman the next day – maybe it was somebody else; I didn’t get a close look – further down the alley, sweeping up. Maybe I’d gotten to her . . .)
After this episode, I apologized profusely to K.; I’d made trouble for him, and he had a tourist business to run. But I felt a twinge of pleasure, too: This was activism – trying to do the right thing – changing minds. I’d even gotten a “thank you.” All was well.
Then things fell apart. Later that evening, I was playing my guitar on our roof – I’d bought a guitar soon after arriving in Kathmandu; I figured it’d be as cheap as paying the baggage fees for my own (and I got it at a store near our alleyway: very “local”) – and I was singing “Greensleeves” and some other songs. My usual thing. An American friend who’d lived in Kathmandu for 12 years told me it’s good to have a rooftop during a lockdown; if you can’t go out, you can at least go up.
Around 7:30 or 7:45 pm – we hadn’t eaten dinner yet – a grumpy old man barked at me from the building next door. I use the word “bark” intentionally: It was the owner of the Doberman! He bellowed out that Nepali people go inside at night and he was tired of my “performance.” The neighborhood, of course, was alive with sounds: ringing bells for evening rituals; a TV or a radio in the distance; and always, the sound of dogs. It wasn’t even 8:00 pm yet. So I didn’t stop playing; in fact, I asked him to sing a song for me. That just made him madder.
A few minutes later, I heard a strange noise below: It was the police arriving. The guy had called the cops! Six or seven officers showed up; one had a sawed-off shotgun-looking thing. I ran downstairs: K. and P. were negotiating with the head officer. I told him it was my fault; I’d been playing and singing upstairs. The officer asked me where I was from. I said, “America.” He said his spouse lived in the U.S. and he’d be visiting her in Kentucky . . . Then he asked me why I was in Nepal. I said I was a professor at King’s College. At that point, he ordered everybody to go home. Being a professor still has some cache around here.
(His reply to a question of mine, though, struck me. I asked him, “Is it against the law in Nepal to play guitar at 7:30 pm?” And he said, “The law has nothing to do with it.” Very telling . . .)
K. was shell-shocked. It was the only time since he’d managed the bed and breakfast that the police had been called. I thought he was angry at me, and I certainly felt responsible. If I’d apologized earlier, not only was I apologizing now, but with a real sense of shame. But then K. told me that the same old man had yelled before, when he was doing yoga with two Christian lodgers; they’d been chanting “Om” too loudly, the man said. P. added that he was an angry drunk, very nasty to his neighbors. In fact, it turned out that, while I’d felt bad on K.’s account, thinking he wouldn’t want me in the bed and breakfast anymore, he’d felt bad on my account, thinking I wouldn’t want to stay there. It became a joke: “It’s a good place except for the man next door.”
Since then, I haven’t played guitar on the roof, and we haven’t seen much of the old man. But here’s a postscript (or a prequel): When I first arrived, I’d spoken harshly to a fellow who’d put out food for the Doberman. I’d said to him, “You’re treating your dog cruelly; it’s morally wrong; and he barks and whimpers and it keeps me awake.” Well, that turned out to be the old man’s son. He’d said, “Yeah, yeah, I know, I know,” but nothing had changed. So I’d spoken to him a second time; still, nothing changed. So maybe the old man – or his family – was getting revenge.
It seems more socially acceptable in Kathmandu to shut your dog out at night, barking and whining, then to play a guitar at 7:30 pm on a rooftop . . .
The whole kerfuffle reminds me of a poem by Bhupi Sherchan, a Nepali poet recommended by a King’s colleague. It’s from his excellent book, A Blind Man in a Revolving Chair, and is called Mero Chok, or “My Courtyard”:
My courtyard is on a narrow street.
What do I lack? Everything’s here:
Only joy is missing –
Here it is banned.
Well, not completely, just on the rooftops . . .
I hope everybody’s doing well,
Letters from Kathmandu #7: Neighbors