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

    Abhi, You probably not aware of Indian cop humor. They like to make small talk and pull leg. It breaks monotony. He might have known you are Gujarati but wanted to ramble on. I am not sure.

    They like to talk. I have had some humorous exchanges @ the airports and elsewhere. Don’t be condescending to them. Often, they are rural folks who are eager to share their thoughts with someone who is other.

    Years ago, we (immigration officer and myself) chatted what I did for my profession. To explain geophysics, I had to start with geography, etc. I enjoyed it.

  2. Ah, I hate bollywood too, but I loved your Salinger reference. Thanks for this, Abhi.

  3. Are all Hindus in nepal “threaded”? Anyone know if maatr (meaning only, quite common in South India) i) considered archaic in Hindi or is used by some people? I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it used. The photo suggests that it’s a widely used word in Nepali.

  4. Great post! Very interesting understated observations!

    And I agree with Kush Tandon, it is sometimes quite interesting chatting with the immigration officers. There is a queue behind you, but they go on rambling, and it is difficult to figure out whether they are actually pulling your leg.

  5. Are all Hindus in nepal “threaded”? Anyone know if maatr (meaning only, quite common in South India) i) considered archaic in Hindi or is used by some people? I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it used. The photo suggests that it’s a widely used word in Nepali.

    Kurma

    I dont think that all Hindus in Nepal are “threaded” (ie wear janeu ). Only brahmans wear it (after upnayan snaskaar).

    maatr is a very common word in North India . It is a hindi tadbhav word . I hear and use it everyday .

  6. I love the catcher in the rye reference, and that you were thinking it while buying the kids the nepali-english dictionary, as if somehow, giving the gift of words would somehow save them… I forgot how much I loved that book as a kid.

    Sounds like you had quite the adventure. Is Yo SisterinLaw really named Susie though? It just didn’t strike me as being a Nepalese name.

    And did you really see his face in the reflection? You couldn’t tell in the picture, and it sounds sketch…

    Welcome back…!

  7. Abhiiiii! I love the way you think, machang, even when you’re a bollywood-hating crankypants. What a delightful story. Thank you for sharing. And congrats to the broski on his first marriage; to the lovely bride on her second :)

    I’m thinking Kush is right about the airport security small-talk. You get used to that kind of stuff in India. And if they really do outcast you from Gujrat then you can be a part of my Bihari family! But before that happens, you gotta learn to identify the state on a map…

    I was equally troubled by the fact that I could not locate Bihar on a map.

    For shame!!

  8. Aacha loh, yeh dekho… aur yaad rakho!

    (Yes, I realize you probably don’t speak a word of Hindi… but since you’re Bihari and all, perhaps you should start learning it real soon :P )

  9. Thanks all :)

    Kush,

    Abhi, You probably not aware of Indian cop humor. They like to make small talk and pull leg. It breaks monotony.

    Me too Kush.

    Taz,

    Is Yo SisterinLaw really named Susie though?

    No. It is similar though. She changed her Nepali birth name to a western one because she liked how the new one sounded.

    I dont think that all Hindus in Nepal are “threaded” (ie wear janeu ).

    I am almost positive they don’t either. How else do you spot a Hindu though?

    Is that a Star of David next to the Buddha?

    That’s what I asked too. I don’t think so though. It would be so out of place.

  10. I am almost positive they don’t either. How else do you spot a Hindu though?

    Abhi,

    A Hindu is not required to wear something special or unique to show that he is Hindu . In general only brahamans wear Janeu . Tilak or teeka is a good pointer ,but most of the Hindus dont apply it .

    In general , sanyasis can be spotted because of their saffron cloths and some marking depending upon the sects they belong to.

    and according to scriptures ,Hindu is one who want to know that by knowing which everything is known .

  11. And by the way, that is not the Buddha. It is the Lord Vishnu who is lying down.

    Oh, I guess that makes me a Buddhu:) From what I gathered, I’m not alone.

    No less intriguing is the name given to this Vishnu temple. It is called Buddhanilkantha, a source of endless confusion. It has nothing to do with the Buddha, though that doesn’t stop many Nepalese Buddhists from worshipping the image as Lokeshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. The word ‘Nilakantha,’ means ‘One who has a blue throat,’ and rightly belongs to Shiva. According to legend, Shiva’s throat turned blue when he consumed a deadly poison which was threatening the stability of the living world, as a consequence of which his throat turned blue.

    Good to see you back and peace

  12. Newar practice both Buddhism and Hinduism. It is believed that the Newar were originally Buddhists but the long historical process of Sanskritization (adoption of Hindu rituals), led to the development of the NewarÂ’s unique syncretic tradition. According to the 2001 Nepal Census, 84.13% of Newars were Hindus and 15.31% were Buddhists.

    That surprised me. I figured more would be Buddhist.

  13. abhi, what a wonderful abstract story telling post. had me glued there ;) . interesting fact : maatr is also used in south east asia among the indians who belong to the brahmans. keep rocking my world…;)

  14. Interesting fact : maatr is also used in south east asia among the indians who belong to the brahmans. It comes from the Sanskrit. Usually an affix added to nouns meaning ‘measuring as much as’ or ‘as high or long, or broad as’.

    On it’s own it means a Brahmin of low order, the full measure of something, or an elephant. As to why, your guess is as good as mine.

  15. Haha, great to hear what you’ve been up to Abhi. Congratulations to your family! This is one of my favorite posts in a while. Really well done. Thanks for taking us all along for the ride.

  16. Great post Abhi, even with all the danger, I always thought Nepal was worth a trip. Oh and I also get sick of hearing…”Your name is like that Indian actress!” I hate Bollywood to. Congrats to your family!

  17. The hexagram (“Star of David” in Judaism) is an important Hindu symbol. It is often called the Shatkona (6 triangles in Sanskrit) or Shanmukha (6 faces in Sanskrit) symbolizing the combination of the Shiva kona, representing the element of fire, and the Shakti kona, representing water. Together, they represent the union of male and female.

  18. I have a long relationships wid delhi-haryanvi-pandoos, you can learn a lot from them. hilarious post senor

  19. It comes from the Sanskrit. Usually an affix added to nouns meaning ‘measuring as much as’ or ‘as high or long, or broad as’. On it’s own it means a Brahmin of low order, the full measure of something, or an elephant. As to why, your guess is as good as mine.

    Cool. Elephant? Brahman?! All the other meanings are almost the same as only/exactly. Is it used in the sense of Brahman by non-Brahman? My guess is that it’s used by the “higher order” Brahmins.

    Master vk, where is this place where you lived and tatsam words are in common use? Interesting. I’ve never heard it used in spoken Hindi, not even on the more formal radio/TV.

    Sasha, thanks. Use in SE Asia clearly because of the Sanskrit use, right?

  20. Awesome story Abhi! Congrats to your brother! I have more of a love-hate relationship with Bollywood. Did you really see the reflection in the water? I am really curious, I would love to go check it out sometime. Those kids are SO cute, very nice of you to get the books for them.

  21. The only easy day was yesterday Abhi..

    :D . Always true.

    My Bihari family was counting on me to make a good impression for all of them.

    Can’t say I’ve ever met a Bihari who made a terrible impression on me or the missus (yeah, I know about the statistics and all that). In fact, she said of the legendarily handsome Greek guys, “You know, Greek guys and Bihari guys look equally good to me”

  22. Master vk, where is this place where you lived and tatsam words are in common use? Interesting. I’ve never heard it used in spoken Hindi, not even on the more formal radio/TV.

    Kurma All tatsam words are not common though i use many . Nowadays many tatsam words are used as name like pratham , kopal, etc . tadbhav ,tatsam and deshaj words are used together not separately .

    It will be wrong to say that most of the hindi speakers use tatsam words .But at least some words are used . Like many people will use keval instead of maatr .

    You may have heard the word ekmaatr (only one) . But these tatsam words are common in print media and poems . Check the poems of Surayakant trip@thi ‘neeraala” or Sumitranandan Pant to see overdose of tatsam words .

  23. ::On it’s own it means a Brahmin of low order, the full measure of something, or an elephant. As to why, your guess is as good as mine.

    –>elephant? hmmm .. ;)

    Sasha, thanks. Use in SE Asia clearly because of the Sanskrit use, right?

    :excatly. the root of the native language here is heavily influenced by Sanskrit words..

  24. Nice article.

    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.

    Cremated. The practice of including a piece of gold with the deceased is common amongst Hindus. When I immersed by father’s ashes in the Kaveri (Srigrangapatna), I also saw a man, not two feet from me, bend down to search for the gold piece. At that point, I was utterly disgusted. After a few hours, I felt very sorry for him – it is not a job one does, unless one was desperate.

  25. Incidentally, the wikipedia link of Pashupatinath states that the head priest was from Udupi (Pandit Adiga). Interestingly enough, King Birendra inaugurated the Bhagavad Gita mandira in Udupi during the 1990s. This temple is basically a large hall in which, there are black marble tablets on which every verse of the Gita is carved. Very nice.