Licked up in the dust and hullabaloo of Kathmandu and a far cry from the soothing lullaby of Astam village, I write with an ironic sense – of fullness. Words come humped and bumped from a place of uncertainty, frustration and disheartenment; words of transient and fleetingness; words reading disruption of rhythm; words carved out from a journey that we have chosen to put ourselves through. Nevertheless, in this evanescent year of uncertainties, we are graciously and constantly supported by shining stars. For there is always a reserved place treasured in the safe holds that encapsulates gratuity and love, for which they continue to fuel the locomotion of our journey. In the course of this winter, we are experiencing a truth more raw and real than ever before. Juggling with what seems like the darkest month and with the restrictive play of Covid, we can only continue trudging forwards and hope that we will eventually get somewhere. For now, the memories of what home was like in a hot tropical December remain a distant memory whilst we live through a rough Himalayan winter that promises crimson noses, frozen toes and swollen fingers.
Succumbed to shape-shifting structures born from the vagaries of human nature, we have been navigating through the seemingly absurd oceanic kingdom of bureaucracy where the horizon is always distant and the oars of the boat are not ours to grasp. Its hold upon us, the self-perpetuating mechanics of government, vague laws and bewildering procedures appear to suggest a tyranny without a tyrant. Akin to the card game of Rummy that the boys often play to offset their indoor-bound restlessness, it is a play of chance and skill. With events unfolding and bordering on absurdity, toying with the two forces as best possible, to walk into and out of an unpredictable outcome, undeterred, resembles an obscene test of patience. But in truth and with honest reflection, by turning our attention to the absurd does reflect our shortcomings back at ourselves. We are reminded that the world we live in is the world we created.
How does one navigate through stormy waters? Is it merely a point of perspective? If we can keep from growing bitter and cynical, and instead recognise the variables in the game of uncertainty. By persevering above the surface of the murkiness whatever the outcome, perhaps we may have succeeded in the birth of experience. We can also choose to live through the experience with a Kafkaesque lens – a lens that has a tendency to exceed tragedy and could come back around as a stroke of comedy.
In unbeknownst ways, the effects of a winter experience in a country with a lethargic Himalayan economy somehow bring about curious pockets of storytelling. By definition of normality, we are taking the stakes to a new threshold.
In the first instance, the absence of central heating in buildings or hot water from taps gives an immediate impression of what living conditions are in the winter but that’s the normality people live with. Cold weather construction is a rare practice of building here and if pursued, spikes up building costs horrifically and leaves one without guarantee of skilled workmanship or product. Hence, it would be more sensible to keep your winter jacket and woollen hat on indoors and outdoors until you are ready to slip under the duvet on premature nights. Urbanites are sort of born with a given that you need to pile the layers on and top it up with a puffy winter trekking jacket given the fact that most time spent will be indoors. Ruralites, on the other hand, who work outdoors whilst powered by glorious sunshine, require no clothing that resembles anything like a puffy winter trekking jacket. The sturdy ones keep their knee-length shorts from the monsoon days well into mid-winter clad in flip flops even when the temperature falls to a menacing 3 degrees Celsius in a dwelling that echoes tropical living. This breed of humans lives with the elements of nature from birth as they swing to sleep in their baby bamboo woven baskets that hang from the beams of their outdoor verandahs whilst their mothers are out at work in the fields.
With generally less spending power, people make do with the little things around them. Or simply learn to do everything themselves. The young man and his brother who greets winter, clad in shorts and flip-flops, are ideal examples of the new generation of farmers armed with wifi accessibility. In their very early 20s, Anil and Arjun have acquired the art and science of cultivating crops, plants and livestock, possess the skill to cook for a crowd of people, run a guesthouse and a sundry shop in the village, style and trim each other’s hair, churn out a youtube food channel and somehow, find time to be final year college students as well. At a tender age, they have the capability and motivation of finding solutions in any given situation. Raised in an environment where the land is all you have, you work with your head, hands and heart to rise beyond survival.
There are also stories that stir from my solitary walks that I love in the village. Often these walks help to soothe and iron out inner turmoil. Occasionally, these wonderings are punctuated with humourous confrontations usually stemming from cultural conformity. There was a time when the women folk of Astam began to notice that I was not a tourist. Yet I was that woman who was always spotted in jeans and trainers and was never seen working in the fields, which by default would classify one as a tourist. Anyhow, a couple of them took to the occasion of enquiring about my appearance in Nepali with hand gestures that made clear what they were wanting to convey. The first encounter had a woman stopping me in my treks and taking her headscarf off to showcase her long tangled locks. She caressed her locks with her palms to emphasize their length. What followed then was that the palm that stroke her hair with tenderness, came pointing in the direction of my very short pixie crop and with a questioning look in her eyes and a string of Nepali. I read the quizzical question in her eyes that would unmistakably be interpreted as a no-no to the embodiment of womanhood who kept no locks. I shrugged off her enquiry politely, did a little ‘love-my-crop’ gesture and scampered off. In the next week to come, I had my hair shaved clean. Pre-monsoon months were harsh and dry and my scalp was beginning to flake like snowflakes. From experience, a bare scalp is easier to heal when brushed and massaged daily with coconut oil. During that period, I had the most serene peaceful walks. No one spoke to me.
The next encounter was equally worthy of eyeball-rolling. It was from a more elderly lady, and she spoke an animated language that was universally understood. This time, I had the palm pointing directly at my chest and then at hers, obviously comparing my less endowed bosoms to her sagging but once-upon-a-time mighty attributes. She held the weight of her bosoms in both her palms with pride, and teasingly expressed with a hint of sarcasm and humour through her toothless grin where mine had gone. I stared blankly for a while, a little taken aback by her directness. I thought about it and shared comically with arm gestures and all that my boys had suckled on them for seven years and this is what they had left me! Ahh the payback of motherhood. There is no doubt that the genetic code of women folk here tends to encompass a rather curvaceous and voluptuous bodily shape and my more slender physique deem unusual in comparison.
There is a place that I live in Kathmandu which has its quirkiness. Opening a door without a door handle that has fallen off a year ago takes on a novel approach to exiting one’s apartment. Making do with a piece of rag cloth or a used plastic bag tied from the spindle and around the latch seemed to work. Somehow, the prospect of replacing appears less enticing than a fix-it-yourself version. It’s a place where you have to think out of the box to get things done else much will be left undone. One afternoon, I walked out of the handle-less door in search of a treat. I came back with a box filled with lashings of cream and white chocolate shavings. It was a moment of ecstasy. Big A was to have cake in Kathmandu for his birthday for Astam saw none of it. There was more cake to eat than the boys would ever eat in all their previous birthdays put together. Big A usually bothers not with cake. But deprivation has its ways of redefining likes and dislikes.
It has always been smooth sailing carving a new home having lived in 6 countries, 9 cities and 1 village. Homes are after all a place of one’s own making; it’s a place of shelter, familiarity, belonging and of nourishment. But carving a topography of life in this land saved by its geographical beauty is rough and tough by far in comparison. Our emotional interpretation constantly comes into play, often creating an even more rugged terrain. Perhaps the lesson here is to ask how we can embrace uncertainty as a stabilising and consistently present force. There is a sense that underlying one’s own preparedness to accept whatever life may bring, there will always be an uneasiness about the unknown. Knowing that impermanence is the essence of life, we make space for change else we may be crushed by the waves of our own doing. And what does living come down to but a reminder for bringing about connection and purpose in ourselves which we have quite foolishly (or not) attempted this year.
When I look at how the boys are growing here, although stripped of their urban comfort and choices, I think their new adventures will shape them just fine.