Everything is Illuminated

[some names have been changed]

Delhi

“What is your business in India, sir?” Police inspector sahib was looking me intently in the eyes (with what I swear was a smirk). It has been proven by the record of El Al that the single best method of revealing a suspected highjacker is by employing a thorough screening interview.

“I’m actually not staying in Delhi, but just transferring through to Nepal. My younger brother is getting married there.”

“But you are Indian, no?”

“I’m American, but yes, my parents are from Gujarat. Well, actually my mom is from Africa but she is Gujarati too. But the girl, she is Nepali.”

“But your last name is not Gujarati. You must be Bihari.”

“No, I’m quite sure of it. I am Gujarati”

“Can’t be. I have Bihari friends with the same last name.”

“I know, I tried to convince my father once that we weren’t Gujarati also…but after a half hour he got mad at me and said I was just wasting his time and that even great-great-grandfather was Gujarati.”

“I think you must be from somewhere else, not Gujarat.”

Should I have continued to argue some more? Maybe he was right. My confidence regarding this whole matter was rapidly deteriorating. I was equally troubled by the fact that I could not locate Bihar on a map. Who knows who migrated where 300 years ago? He had a gun. Most importantly, I still hadn’t been given the clearance to pass. There was a very long line behind me and I could feel stares on my moist back. Inspector sahib kept on with that smirk and his head was now cocked to the side. I don’t trust people with side-cocked heads. I gently reached for my bag without his verbal clearance. With purposely slow movements (eyes on the ground) I walked away. I hoped that airport security did not determine me to be a counterfeit Gujarati unworthy of passage. My family had gotten away with it for a few hundred years. I couldn’t now fail them all.

Kathmandu airport

“Mr. Abhishek? I am Mr. Baji’s driver. He has asked me to pick you up and take you to the party. There is a bandh in the valley. I just have my motorbike. Things are very bad. Driving is not safe on Ring Road. They are stopping people.”

I had been traveling for 36 hours. My family had arrived here ahead of me. A party was to be held tonight so that our family could meet my brother’s fiance’s family. It would be the first chance for me to finally meet my new sister. I looked down at my two large suitcases and then up again at the driver of the man my brother would soon refer to as “daddy.” He looked at my bags too.

“Ok sir, let me see if I can find a car somehow and we can take some different routes.”

A western style open-air restaurant

It wasn’t until I arrived at the party that I figured out that the groom and his family would not be attending because they were essentially trapped in their hotel rooms just outside the valley. Mr. Baji was a shy and quiet man, only to be outdone in both shyness and quietness by Mrs. Baji. Far outdone.

“Your family cannot come.” Although it sounded like a question I realized that it wasn’t.

“Wait, my brother isn’t even here?”

“No, it is too dangerous. You cannot meet them today. We will send you to another hotel tonight. Will you be okay here?”

I looked around the open air restaurant, bar in the center, kids running around. This is how our two families would first meet. More than 200 Nepali-speaking Bajis surrounding a single unshaven, puffy-eyed, counterfeit Gujarati who was rapidly assesing the situation in the same manner as a left-behind Navy SEAL with only one round left in the chamber. The only easy day was yesterday Abhi. My Bihari family was counting on me to make a good impression for all of them.

“There is Susie.”

“Oh, I have never met her actually.”

“Never? First time?!”

“No. The engagement was so quick and when I went to Idaho I did not get a chance to…”

“Come.”

Running the Gauntlet

“He says it is too dangerous and wants 2000 rupees to take you.”

“Are you sure it is a good idea for me to go, then?”

“Yes, sir. Right now it is safe. Very early. They are not stopping cars.”

The car hurtled through narrow streets which were blanketed by a thick cloud that had decided to sleep in. Like it did every morning. Dogs would appear out of the mist and dodge the taxi just in time. An average Nepali dog has an IQ far higher than most western dogs I believe. Evolution disguised as death-by-automobile has long since excised the dross. To keep my mind occupied I imagined a first conversation between a rough-necked Nepali street dog and an American bitch. Would she be impressed by his life experience and multitude of ugly scars or prefer a dog born with a silver spoon in his mouth instead? The latter could give her a sweater to wear while the former could build a fire with his paws.

I arrived at the hotel at the edge of the valley. My family would want to know all about the party. The front desk informed me that the roads had closed just behind me. Again.

Budhanilkantha

Man of Faith: “Nobody can explain it. Even though he is reclining on his back you can see the reflection of his face in the water. Even scientists don’t know why.”

Man of Science: “I don’t believe it. Science can explain everything because that’s how God set up the system. It is the same way that karma explains “evil men.” We just haven’t discovered all of science so far. That’s all. But he wants us to.”

Man of Faith: “Tell me how then? Why can we see his face in the water?”

Man of Science: “Well…rays of light travel in a straight line. Any part of the statue that is in a straight line from the water…I’d actually have to be able to get down to the water’s edge to check this all out properly. Hey, check out this sad looking goat. Is it still alive?

Man of Faith: “That red paint on it means it will soon be offered as a sacrifice.”

Man of Science: You’re kidding! I think he knows. Look how sad it looks. That really sucks. He definitely knows how this will end.

My brother and I then walked back to the hotel. But not before stopping in front of a sign that reminded me that I was threadless under my shirt.

She can leave him at any time

“You see,” her oldest uncle the journalist explained to me, “in the Newari tradition the woman is more important. Before marrying her human husband she has already been married to God…in the form of a fruit. This means that if her husband dies then she does not have to mourn him as a widow. She can simply find another husband. Also, she can choose to leave him if she wants to at anytime. As long as it is for the fruit that she originally married. Ha ha heh. Strange customs no?”

Strange but nice I thought. How refreshing. The woman is given more importance. I had to explain this to my assorted relatives who assumed they were on the more important side of things. The four hour ceremony was a “masala-like” (oh yeah, I said it) mish-mash of religions and cultures. I did not even notice when the shoes disappeared.

“How did you know to steal his shoes?” I asked her cousin. “I didn’t think you guys would even know about that.”

“But we watch Hindi movies,” she said coyly.

I hate Bollywood.

The ceremony was nice. The fruit was not at all jealous about this second marriage. The Baji’s gained a son as compensation for the great sadness they would soon have to endure.

Pashupatinath

I gazed down at the platform. The royalty of Nepal had all been burned there. Right there. Not a hundred yards downstream, three bodies were burning even now. Men waded the shallow river just beneath neighboring platforms. Gold coins are often placed in the mouths of the dead. The men mined now for these small treasures. They sifted through mud, ashes, and remains. I wondered if this place was really creepy at night.

Prakash

“What is your name?”

“Abhishek.”

“Ohhhhh!” said all four in unison. “Like the actor. Do you know the actor? [make karate chopping moves]“

“Yeah, yeah. Like the actor.” This was getting to be rather routine. Anytime I told someone my name they informed me about a famous actor with the same name. I really hate Bollywood.

Of the four children (ages 9-12), Prakash’s English was the best. They were all on winter holiday until next Sunday. During this time they freelanced as smiling guides around Bhaktapur. The British couple, the Ugandan/American mother and daughter, and I had unofficially hired all four. As I took in the sites Prakash told me about his family, his brother, and his friends. He asked me what I did and I tried to explain but I don’t think he understood. He didn’t understand the word “Moon.”

“Prakash. You are the smartest student in your whole school aren’t you?”

“No Abhishek. I am second.”

He led us into a store where my travel companions looked for souvenirs.

“Abhishek. I like you very much. I don’t know why.”

“I like you too Prakash.”

They left waving a half hour later after we had given them some money. Sometimes local guides are worth hiring.

“Abhishek,” I heard in a whisper five minutes later. I stepped out of another store. Prakash and the gang were back.

“Can I talk to you? I need this book for school. Can you get it for us.”

“What kind of book.”

“It is a Nepali-English dictionary.”

“How much is it?”

“I don’t know Abhishek, I will take you to the bookstore. Come.”

“Wait. You go ahead of me. Go into the store and ask how much it is. Then come out and tell me and I will go in.”

Prakash looked perplexed. Then he smiled and shook his index finger at me.

“Oh Abhishek, you are very clever. Ok, I find out how much.”

As Prakash, Praveen, Laxmi, and Devi walked away with their new dictionaries I thought of that one quote from that one book that always seems to linger in the back of my head:

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. [Link]

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p>It is of no use to you

I had never been shaken down before. I am always prepared though. Always. I pulled my decoy wallet out of my pocket. The real one was safe in the other pocket. My carry-on bag was full of the silverware that my brother and mom had offloaded on to me after the wedding. The fact that it was wrapped in dirty laundry made the whole situation rather sketchy. Now the Nepali guards wanted their hard-earned cut.

“Do you have money? You will have to pay tax.”

“Why? These aren’t commercial goods. I am coming from my brother’s wedding. This was all used for the religious ceremony.”

“No, we cannot let you pass. Do you have any money? Just give it to him. It is of no use to you now.”

After a few moments like this I took a wad of small bills out of my fake wallet and wadded them some more for good measure. Crumpled bills look like they are worth more than neatly folded bills.

“Here, this is everything.” I handed it to him but he directed me to put it in my bag instead. Then he pretended to fold my clothes and took the money out of my bag. He was right. I had no use for it. I did however have plans for that money. Much later I would take the foreign currency out of my real wallet and hand it over to those who really deserved it.

We are all the same

The Punjabi aunty sitting next to me asked me what I was doing in Nepal.

“My brother got married there.”

“To a Nepali girl?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, that is good. We are all the same anyway, isn’t it?

“Yes.”

79 thoughts on “Everything is Illuminated

  1. Abhi: You are like Naipaul but with a sense of humor. By the way, your story did make me “homesick.” I will be landing in Delhi next month, and if I run into that policewallah who claims many Bihari friends, I hope he goes easy on me. I am a Bihari, with a Punjabi last name.

  2. Star of David balances out the swastika :-)

    :) The six pointed star is a Hindu symbol too. It’s the satkona yantra.

  3. Abhi, nice post, I miss my home.

    little tale.

    I went to a boarding school close to where budhanilkantha (the sleeping god) resides, it is/was a well known folk story that the prince and kings were not to visit the temple in case a snake would see them and really bad omen would befall. Lo and behol, the prince who used to go to the same school, did not care for the story (man of science?)and sneaked ot of the campus, to supposedly be chased by the cobra… there you have it, the omen did come true, he killed the entire family and shot himself.

  4. So far no one’s congratulated you for being a Bihari, let me be the first…

    Oh! I meant to tell Abhi that, apart from the fact that it’s a crying shame he can’t locate Bihar on a map, I take issue with this sentence:

    I hoped that airport security did not determine me to be a counterfeit Gujarati unworthy of passage.

    Unworthy because you’ve been revealed as a Bihari?! My friend, you not make benefit Glorious Nation of Bihar!

    .

    In any case, if we can’t have Abhi then I’m glad we still have Amivata Kumar. A fine evening to you, professor :)

  5. I want to point out the obvious here. With a last name like “Kumar,” Amitava might in fact be a counterfeit Bihari.

    I’ve never read Naipaul (past the first 5 pages). That is closely tied to my darkest secret. I have never read a single book of desi fiction. I saw Sacred Games at the airport and thought about picking it up but it was too thick. :)

  6. I saw Sacred Games at the airport and thought about picking it up but it was too thick. :)

    Damn! And all this while I have been trying to think of the ways I can smuggle the cheap paperback version from India into the US.

  7. Abhi,

    You should read one book of contemporary Indian fiction without fail – ‘English, August: An Indian Story’. As it happens, it has been released in the USA recently, even though it first came out in India way back in 1988.

    Why this one book?

    Because you will thrill to your toes when reading it, I’ve divined this from the tealeaves of your posts.

  8. That is closely tied to my darkest secret. I have never read a single book of desi fiction. I saw Sacred Games at the airport and thought about picking it up but it was too thick. :)

    What? Sir, you need to remedy that quickly. I would readily recommend Monica Ali’s Brick Lane to anyone who is foraying into the fantastic world of Desi fiction.

  9. I would readily recommend Monica Ali’s Brick Lane to anyone who is foraying into the fantastic world of Desi fiction.

    No, don’t start with Brick Lane…I mean it’s a really good novel but it’s like a second/third tier one.

    I’d say A Fine Balance, Midnight’s Children and A Suitable Boy are a good trio to start with.

    I love The God of Small Things but it’s obviously one of the most polarising books ever written…

    And anyways, maybe your aversion to desi lit is like me being an English major and never reading in my spare time. It’s a bit much of a muchness.

    And since you didn’t mention monkeys, tiny little beggars and clearly stated your hatred for Bollywood, you’re already a kwality desi writer :)

    Great post, great pix. Thanks for the wallet tip! Not exactly something Lonely Planet would tell ya.

  10. How else do you spot a Hindu though?

    Some of us use powders, others liquid stain, others stickers.

  11. No, don’t start with Brick Lane…I mean it’s a really good novel but it’s like a second/third tier one.

    Grrr Tash, you misunderestimate my plan; Monica Ali will help him unlearn before he learns.

  12. Abhi, for 50 bucks, the cop would’ve passed you for a Nepali or Madrasi. Not that I’m endorsing the “chai-paani” culture or anything.

  13. Abhi, I really loved this post!! being kannada i know the feeling when peeps think you aren’t what you are (or in my case, think you are making up an indian sub-culture. my favorite is when indians don’t know where karnataka is…)

  14. ylrsings

    my favorite is when indians don’t know where karnataka

    My favorite is when a director at NIC based in Delhi asked me, if ‘they speak Tamil in Andhra Pradesh’ :) I would’nt expect much from a cop.

  15. I would’nt expect much from a cop.

    Before you guys go on bashing the cops and “ignorant” indians, the cops is not wrong theortically.

    True, Abhi’s family originates from Gujarat, and no doubt goes back to hundreds and hundreds of years.

    Trip@this, originally, mostly come from UP/ Bihar.

    Remember, the cop even in US of A is not some cosmopolitan dude, like Bono of U2.

    Likewise, as Tandons mostly come from Punjab, even though my parents have spent most of their life in Roorkee (now, Uttranchal).

    You have to take neo (baby)-Naipauls with a grain of salt. Sometimes ridiculing others show our limited knowledge too.

  16. Remember, the cop even in US of A is not some cosmopolitan dude, like Bono of U2. I like that Bono has become a symbol of cosmopolitanism and open erudition. It makes me giggle, rather than my normal reaction of wanting to poke his eyes out.

  17. True, Abhi’s family originates from Gujarat, and no doubt goes back to hundreds and hundreds of years. Trip@this, originally, mostly come from UP/ Bihar.

    Well, the brahmin last names are same in the entire North India. Trip@thi, Pathak, Shukla, Trivedi, Upadhyay, Acharya, Dixit are examples of Brahmin last names that can be found from Punjab, UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, MP, and Gujarat, Maharashtra (in some cases). So, a Mr. Shukla like a Mr. Trip@thi can be from UP, Gujarat or Rajasthan or MP.

  18. Upadhayaya, Acharya, Dixit, Vaidya, Sharma are common in Maharasthra too. But, I haven’t come across Shukla, Trip@thi, Trivedi in Gujarat/Maha/Kar before. Interesting!

  19. Abhi: We are glad to hear you made it back home – safe. When we left Kathmandu they went through Yo Mom’s bag with a fine toothed comb at the airport. Once I have had a customs officer at Mumbai airport blatantly asking me to hand over a bottle of Johnny Walker Black label to him in front of everybody without a shame. Obviously I told him to go take a hike. These things are very common in South Asian countries – so I am told. As fot Trip@thi Surname there are about 200 t0 300 families in Gujarat, mostly around Ahmedabad. Kush is right. Commonly Trip@thi’s are from UP. It is interesting that first Gujarati Novel was written by a Trip@thi. The famous novel “SARASWATICHANDRA” was written by Govarndhanrav Madhavram Trip@thi. Someone told me that few Trip@this in UP also go by Travadis or Tiwaris. Not that it matters but our “Gotra” is KushKush, who was son of Maharishi Viswamitra. Nuff said. Love….Dad – still in India -

  20. That was really grand. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I’ve always wanted to recap my various trips around India but can never do them with the kind of finesse that you possess.

  21. Abhi: We are glad to hear you made it back home – safe. When we left Kathmandu they went through Yo Mom’s bag with a fine toothed comb at the airport. Once I have had a customs officer at Mumbai airport blatantly asking me to hand over a bottle of Johnny Walker Black label to him in front of everybody without a shame. Obviously I told him to go take a hike. These things are very common in South Asian countries – so I am told. As fot Trip@thi Surname there are about 200 t0 300 families in Gujarat, mostly around Ahmedabad. Kush is right. Commonly Trip@thi’s are from UP. It is interesting that first Gujarati Novel was written by a Trip@thi. The famous novel “SARASWATICHANDRA” was written by Govarndhanrav Madhavram Trip@thi. Someone told me that few Trip@this in UP also go by Travadis or Tiwaris. Not that it matters but our “Gotra” is KushKush, who was son of Maharishi Viswamitra. Nuff said. Love….Dad – still in India –

    Respek! Yo Dad, you are a rockstar.

    …and might I add, Maharishi Viswamitra is a pretty rockstar ancestor to descend from.

    Congratulations to your family on the wedding! (Now that you can have grandbabies from kid #2, I guess Abhi is off the hook for a while…)

  22. Hi,

    As a brahmin male ru faceing guilty , that under ur shirt u do not have janeu (sacred thread) i do not thing so if ur real brahmin u know ur that so there is no guilty conceousness. I do not consider u as VS Naipul, his outstanding novel the house of Mr Biswas or millan of mutiniues now. the only thing common of both of ur case u both are rootless brahmin. thanks if u required janeu i can supply u free of cost from varanasi