The morning walker K promised me hasn’t arrived, though it’s 8.00 AM this Friday.
chi-bi-bi-bi! bi-bi-bi! Lampucchre aka Magpie is a very noisy bugger.
Finally had a proper chat with Uncle – he is short, gaunt, worn, with teeth poking out of receding gums and a heavily creased, gentle face and gentler demeanour, wrapped in track pants, waistcoat, and funky woolen hat with braided earflaps. I find it comforting to speak in clichés about the city and the country; he tells me he is so habituated to cooking over a fire that a gas cylinder lasts them four months, only to be used when they have guests.
Back in the day they walked down to Butwal, a journey of eight to nine days, to get their salt (bhot noon was deemed too weak), clothes, and just about everything else. The currency from here was mainly ghee. It was a simpler life, a harder life, and I cringe inwardly recalling that I was going to offer to bandage his hand yesterday – he cut himself hacking bamboo out of the way of the bulldozer carving a line to his home – when he explained that if he fell out a tree and broke an arm they’d simply fashion a splint out of half a dozen bamboo cuts and paste it together with a whisk of eggs.
I finally got around to cooking a dalbhat dinner, and with K’s personable nephew in attendance, was relieved it turned out quite well – brown rice, dāl, sāg, chanā. Kids these days … may be different in the village. Achyut goes out of his way to be helpful, he’s smart, does well at school, and likes his football. He doesn’t read, though. I packed him off with one of the only English-language books on K’s shelves – Animal Farm.
My morning walker was a no-show again and fair enough, people have better things to do than squire around city slickers with odd notions about the country. These are busy folk – forever cutting, chopping, gathering, more comfortable with work to get on with than not. K’s parents sold their buffalo last year but bought another soon after, I’m told, at least as much for the milk as for the blessed work involved. With a calf by her side and another on the way, it seems a good decision.
So rather than mope around on my low-level belly ache (the buffalo milk and last night’s jirey khursāni churning in my guts), I set off finally on a walk up the mountain. I instantly regretted not having gone sooner. Heading straight up the hill through a gāu of bahuns, I overtook a party on the way to a ‘mareko ghar’ just past Kafle Niwas. (They looked festive enough, as did the house of the dead.) It was a bit late for birds, though I paused to scrutinize some late callers along the way, skirting the relatively traffic-free dust track to Tehelchaur. It was a fresh morning to sweat my way up through. But I struggled to identify even the most basic of mid-hill trees – Chilaune, or Schima wallichi. I plucked a few leaves for later id-ing, well knowing the futility of doing so twice a year. One has to be in place.
The track has changed things – women walk up it, for starters, and the houses are mostly pakki, in bright-painted concrete, but the settlements remain villages. A single-storey structure further up summed up the state of play in these parts. Padlocked, its chief feature was three white marble plaques into which the names of donors were engraved. It tells us where all the men are – Korea, Qatar, Saudi, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Dubai, Macau, Malaysia, Bharat and You-Kay. All proud members of Tamuwan, with the odd Aryal thrown in for variety. But where is their homeland if they cannot be here?
Hijo up, āja down. An earlier start saw me cross the highway and head down to the Andhi Khola, but not before being cross-questioned by an older gentleman – rather rudely, I thought, but that is the way of ye olde Syangjalis perhaps. Once I explained myself, of course, I was let into the slipstream of one of K’s relatives, who was pleased to learn I was also a Lamichhane and therefore shared his ancestral rishi, Garga. Referring to the Thapas, he noted we left the chaubise rājya of Satahun dherai agādi (250-odd years ago), but not dherai dherai agādi.
And thence to the river, in the early morning mist, with the sun just peeking over the hills and creating a weird and wonderful interplay of light and dark and condensation steaming off the surface of the greenish waters. The bāluwā-gitti tractors were never far away though, and their tracks to and fro (visible even under water as pale white traces) and over to a large sandbar pockmarked with excavations pained me. I was tempted to chuck into the waters a shovel left in one of the ditches, but to what end but a penalty for a wage labourer? The criminals are those who manipulate the law and exploit our apathy to extract as much as they can while they can, and those they supply for grand houses in the city. The shovel, when I shoved it back into the sand, pointed an accusatory finger at me. I hope K can get the message through to the Mayor he is setting up to meet the next time he is over, while presenting his project for a model homestay village (he reckons she is a good sort, and easier to influence).
Still, the river was beautiful. I tiptoed over a precarious bamboo bridge to the sandbar, disturbing a large stork at the far end, where the waters were shallow and calm. Where this canal curled around to join the main flow it was limpid, deeper, and I imagined a lovely spot for a summer dip. In the dissipating chill of a January morning, I was content to take photos.
Up and over a suspension bridge, past a tarp slipping off a bamboo frame littered with the aftermath of a bāluwā-gitti party – Himalayan Dragon Beer empties, half-devoured meals, a sodden fire, bike helmet, damp blankets. Two hungover shabbies came to wrap up the tarp, and stood sentinel over the bridge with music blaring out of a mobile phone as I passed. What else is there to do in a village like this if you don’t care to farm or attend school, on the way to moving out to the Gulf?
Soon I arrived at the ramshackle, painted tail of Lampata, less a village than a town now that it is connected to the road that winds up to the highway. I took the shorter, stiffer route up behind a couple and caught up with them at the top; they looked winded. I met the highway and strode home, wending my way past a hitch of motorcyclists who’d just scraped a jeep and were circling each other in imitation of some ancient ritual of masculinity, spears at the ready, ready to prove themselves worthy of the terrain.