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Peaks and pagodas (c) satisshroff freiburg 2007

Kathmandu Blues:

THE LAND OF THE GREY-EYED (Satis Shroff, Freiburg)

Mom, I’ve received an invitation from Raj. I’m going to Germany!’

Saraswati’s mother, who had just finished her morning puja1 and meditation in her house-altar, and was carrying a copper plate with tika and other offerings, replied rather shocked, ‘Germany? Why on earth do you want to go to Germany? All those terrible skinheads and neonazis! How could you do such a thing? Didn’t you see the horrid pictures in Nepal TV and BBC? And the sad letters that your brother Raj wrote to us? It’s sad enough to have a son living abroad and now you want to leave your country, your matribhumi2.’

Saraswati tried to comfort her mother and said, ‘ But mom, I’m not leaving my country forever. I’ll just do a bit of sight-seeing and return home.’

Your brother also went to study and came back with a memsahib as a buhari3. Not that I have anything against Claudia, she’s a decent daughter-in-law, but I’m worried about you. You’re a young girl, and not a man. Think of the dangers in a foreign country’.

Mom, you can’t worry about everybody all your life. In my absence you could live with Sandhya and her family in Biratnagar.’

Please don’t mention Biratnagar,’ replied Mayadevi disdainfully.

You know that I can’t bear the beastly heat down there in the Terai. I am a pahari4 woman. All those cockroaches, lizards, snakes and pesky mosquitoes. No thank you. I prefer to live here in Kathmandu and battle with the bad air, rising prices of vegetables, change of governments and so forth.’

Mayadevi blessed her daughter by applying a scarlet tika on her forehead and went on to admonish her. ‘Let me read what Raj wrote about Germany’. And with that she went to her bedroom took out a letter from a bundle of blue-and-red striped airmail envelopes and put on her reading glasses.

Mom, I’ve also read the letters quite a few times.’

And you still want to go to Germany? A country where 45,000 Nepalese soldiers died in trenches in the two World Wars ?’

It took weeks to pacify her mother but finally Deviji resigned to her fate and moaned, ‘Perhaps it is my tagdir. Perhaps the Gods will it this way.’

And so it was on a lazy Saturday afternoon in June that Saraswati out to board the jet that was to take her to Germany. There was a haze over Kathmandu, obscuring the normally picturesque blue Mahabharat Mountains girdling the valley. The Himalayas weren't visible either.

A Nepalese policeman with a walkie-talkie was strutting on the tarmac of Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport rather importantly. The mobile staircase sped away from the belly of RNAC's Frankfurt-bound 747 jet. The engines began to purr and whistle to a crescendo. Saraswati peered out of the jet-window to catch a glimpse of Surendra and Rani, who'd come to see her off, in vain. Surendra was a college friend with whom her brother had lived at the Amrit Science College hostel in Thamel. They had gone to school in the Darjeeling district and both of them came from Eastern Nepal. They’d done their Intermediate in Science from Ascol and had stayed on in Kathmandu to do their Bachelor's degrees. After college Surendra had gone to Australia for higher studies and her brother had gone to Germany on a scholarship, but they’d remained good friends. Whereas Surendra had returned to Kathmandu and had married and built a house, her brother had settled down in Germany.

Inside, two experienced sari-clad stewardesses, with rich glistening jet-black hair, began to show the passengers the routine safety and emergency gadgets. A moustachioed Nepalese steward started along the aisle with a bamboo basket full of bon-bons, a curt commercial smile on his round face. The jet headed for the northern end of the runway, swerved around, came screaming down towards the southern approach and left the ground.

There was a time when this same airport was described as being the size of a handkerchief. Some handkerchief, with DC-10, Jumbo-Boeings and Airbuses landing all the time, not to speak of the internal-flights of RNAC, Necon, Nepal Airways and so forth.

The sun was going down in the Mahabharat mountains and the clouds appeared yellowish, with orange taints. Through a break in the clouds you could see the lights of Kathmandu winking at you, and glittering as though myriads of gemstones were scattered from the heavens by Manjushri5.

And suddenly Saraswati saw the Himalayas: majestic and breathtaking. It certainly is one thing to look at the snows from below, but quite another to peer at them from above. Snowy clouds appeared and then a meandering river and behold, the Himalayas, those tectonic giants.

There were orange tipped mountains in the distance because the sun was setting and you recognised Mt. Langtang instantly with its broad conical peak. Further to the west another massif: the Ganesh Himal, and then the Manaslu and Himalchuli. Far out, sticking out like the tail-fin of a fish, the Machapuchare, followed by the still higher Annapurna South. But Saraswati’s thoughts were elsewhere.

She was thinking about the wonderful Nepalese friends she was leaving behind. She thought about her sister Sandhya and her traditional presents meant for her brother. Her mother Deviji, who'd insisted on sending a radish -chutney (pickel) and some expensive Nepalese rugs. She had no idea that an air-passenger was permitted to take only 20 kilos of baggage. How could she, anyway? She'd never flown in her life.

She'd travelled with her husband throughout the India subcontinent by train and bus and had often been to Bombay and Calcutta, and naturally to places of pilgrimage from Hardwar in the north to Kanyakumari in the south, and naturally to Benaras and Mathura to bathe in the holy, but hopelessly polluted Ganges. She'd seen a lot of US air-planes flying sorties to the jungles of Burma against the Japanese during the Second World War, when she spent her holidays in Assam with her grandma and grandpa. Grandpa used to run coal-mines in Assam and was rather influential and entertained the British gorasahibs6 and their memsahibs by organising hunts in the Terai for them, and was also known for his parties.

Deviji was a child then, and cherished and treasured a green toothbrush an American fighter-pilot had given her as a parting present, before he went on a mission and never came back. The Japanese must have got him in Mandalay.

We're flying over Lucknow city, fine weather, ninety degrees Fahrenheit,’ cut in the captain. Then came the usual Nepalese and western music. And in next to no time they were soaring over Delhi and headed for the United Arab Emirate.

Lunch was an orgy with shiek kababs, tuna and dessert. And the dinner was a cinch. Saraswati sat near a small woman from Sikkim named Nirmala who'd been invited to Germany by her German boy-friend. She'd only seen him a year ago in Gangtok. And here she was with mixed emotions, for the first time in a big jet that was hurtling through foreign skies taking her to a destination and fate that was unknown. She had no idea what Germany was like, the German language, leave alone life in Germany. It was a big question mark. She was trying to hope for the best and to make the best of it. Saraswati thought, at least she had the assurance that her brother would be waiting at the other end, for she'd sent him a fax through Surendra’s NGO office and had telephoned with him.

A Sikkimese male, a Lepcha, was sitting next to her and he answered her questions put in Nepali, in English. He was one of those convent-educated brown sahibs, who took pride in speaking English and even humming the latest MTV-hits, oblivious of politics, culture, tradition and religion. An orientation towards the west without any objective criticism. But Saraswati preferred a sympathetic Sikkimese to an arrogant Bhutanese official, especially after they threw out thousands of Bhutanese of Nepalese origin, and Nepal has been taking care of them ever since.

The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel once called Bhutan’s King Jigme ‘a buddhistic ecological dictator which takes pride as a model-nation of the Himalayas.’ The poorer section of the Bhutanese people are just as innocent, unspoilt, honest-to-God like the Nepalese. It’s only that the King of Bhutan and his government approve of subtle, medieval, undemocratic methods in their dealings with the Nepalese, creating thereby tragic problems for thousands of Nepalese, instead of letting them live according to their own ancient Nepalese traditions and customs. On the other hand, Bhutan isn’t exactly, what one might call, a democratic state. What the King of Bhutan and his Foreign Minister have precisely done is shove their Bhutanese ethnicity and bureaucratic ideals and values down the throats of the so-called Lhotsampas.7 A policy of live and let live would have been appropriate in that Himalayan Kingdom. Bhutan doesn’t seem to have learned and absorbed much from the teachings of Buddha. One thing that Bhutan understands is tourism management.

When the passengers alighted at the United Arab Emirate, Saraswati and Nirmala followed their Sikkimese dandy to the terminal where he advised them to stick together ‘lest they be enticed to a sheikh's harem.’ It was strange and exciting to see so many sheikhs in flowing kaftans, sauntering around with their families, heading for destinations around the globe: have oil, will travel. The cleanliness and sterility of the Arab airport terminal and the luxurious shop windows impressed her. Soon it was time for them to board the jet again. The next stop was Frankfurt.

As the jet flew over Frankfurt Saraswati felt elated. She was wondering what her brother would look like after such a long time. Perhaps he'd put on weight and looked like one of those middle aged German tourists that came to Nepal to do a bit of trekking in the Himalayas. Perhaps he's just as worked up and anxious to see her. Somehow, even though she really hadn't seen her brother very often, they still had a great deal of respect and sympathy for one another. Since the people in Nepal believe in astrology, their planetary constellation was auspicious, and that was why they understood, respected, and harmonised with each other. The Nepale­se expression for it is: graha milyo. However, when the 'grahas'8 of two persons don't agree or coincide, the result is: ashanti, that is restlessness, turbulence, conflict and disharmony.

Before a hinduistic Nepalese goes on a journey, a jotisi or astrologer is consulted to seek out an auspicious date for the travel, so that no mishap should befall the traveller. The jotisi also chooses the proper time for departure. Saraswati’s mom had beckoned a bahun9 from Dhankuta, who happened to be on tour, and he'd consulted the stars and planets in his 'patro' or astrological calender, and had fixed a date, but getting a visa from the German Embassy in Kathmandu had taken more time than the astrologer had planned, so she had to extend her flight date. She’d hoped nothing inauspicious would occur. As a Nepalese she was obliged to take some rice, a beetle-nut and a coin wrapped up in a piece cloth to assure a journey without inauspicious things occurring to one.

She’d told her mom not to worry, but she'd already fixed up a day for a puja so that she’d be blessed. After all, her daughter was crossing the kalo pani10 (the black water) and going abroad to the Land of the Beef-eaters, pork-eaters, the Land of the Grey-Eyed, which they called 'kuiray-ko-desh' in Nepali.

Her mom was scared that she’d begin to eat pork and beef, because she was an orthodox Hindu and very religious and never left her karma and dharma-principles. But she was a sympathetic, well-meaning soul, and wouldn't even hurt a fly. She prayed and meditated throughout the better part of the day, and fasted on Sundays. Saraswati meditated every Wednesday. Deviji was of the opinion that even when the sons didn't care much about religion, the daughters had to carry out the traditions, and accordingly Saraswati was to undergo a three-day Hindu ritual purification ceremony called: pani patiya. This particular ceremony is meant for Nepalese Hindus returning from overseas to help them regain their caste, which might have been lost inadvertently during their sojourn in a foreign country with its strange customs, religious and eating-habits.

There was a time when the Nepal Durbar (Royal Palace) was so strict with regard to religion that the Gurkhas, those fearless fighters, were liable to punishment and arrest if they were known to enter Nepal without undergoing the ritual purifying ceremony. That's why every Gurkha regiment has its own pundit or bahun. Moreover, the traveller is given an egg, dried fish, meat and curd, and friends and relatives bring marigold garlands , spices, fruits and perform an ritualistic aratie with minute oil lamps placed on a bronze plate and moved in circles in front of the person bidding farewell. Saraswati had often seen such small farewell puja being performed at the Tribhuvan airport when her college friends left for Russia, France or the USA on government scholarships.

When in 1982 the First Battalion of the Duke of Edinburgh's Own Gurkha Rifles was sent to the Falklands, the battalion-bahun went along with them to cater to the religious needs of the Gurkhas. It is a Nepalese tradition to put two gagros (bronze pitchers) on the two sides of the decorated doorway when a member of a household is leaving for a far-off destination and also in case someone is returning home, in which case the traveller is obliged to put in some coins. The gagros are posted near the doors also during marriage because they are thought to be auspicious.

It took a long time to get through the German customs at Frankfurt. There were scores of jetliners parked outside. It was a different air that she breathed. It wasn't the fresh Hima­layan air of Lukla, the pungent cocktail of kerosene and petrol of the Tribhuvan Airport. Nor the hot blast of the desert air at the Gulf. In Frankfurt it was a whiff of car exhaust and industrial discharge. Yet there were people who'd adapted to this environment, and wouldn't dream of changing places.

The passengers were escorted by a hostess to a lift, and when the door opened Saraswati recognised her brother Raj, who was busy making a video with his camcorder. Her German sister-in-law Claudia held her 3-year old daughter Elena-Chiara’s hand and came forward to hug and kiss her. Claudia looked beautiful with her pearl-and-gold ear rings and her blonde hair. Her well-chiselled facial features seemed to have acquired a certain pinkness, for she seemed rather pale when Saraswati had seen her last in Nepal. At the traditional Nepalese marriage in Patandhoka, Dada had looked at her and had exclaimed, ‘She looks like a Bahuni from the hills of Nepal. So fair and slim.’

Saraswati was shy as usual, and Raj greeted her and gave her a kiss on her cheek. That was unusual for a Nepalese, because they generally folded their hands and wished the other: namaste, which means ‘I greet the godliness in you’. The elder person touches the head of the younger and blesses him or her with the words ‘bhagyamani hunu!’ He was a bit modernised and Germanised, she thought. Her brother looked the same, except that he had more grey hair. Nevertheless, it was strange to meet him in a foreign country, the country of his choice.

They posed for the obligatory photographs, and proceeded to the other end of the airport where their baggage were to arrive and they had to separate again. They saw fat Germans, Europeans, the international set, flight captains and crew, women in fashionable dresses, elegantly groomed males going about their business with urgency.

When they finally came out with their baggage, there were a lot of Nepalese and German faces and greetings in Nepali and German. Saraswati bade farewell to Nirmala, who was picked up by a decent-looking blond guy, probably a student from his looks, and the gallant Sikkimese dandy, who seemed to have business connnections, was greeted by a baldy German. Saraswati went with Raj. They took an U-bahn (tube) to the railway station, and then an sleek, fast, white ICE (inter-city-express) train to Southern Germany. Destination: Freiburg, a university-town at the foot of Germany’s Black Forest.


About the Author: Satis Shroff is a writer and poet who writes in German & English. He has written over a period of three decades, what the Germans would call a “Landesumschau,” for his readers with impressions from Freiburg, Venice, Rottweil, Prague, Paris, London, Frankfurt, Basel and Grindelwald. Satis Shroff has worked with The Rising Nepal (Gorkhapatra Sansthan), where he wrote a weekly Science Spot and editorials and commentaries on Nepal’s development, health, wildlife, politics and culture. He also wrote weekly commentaries for Radio Nepal. He has studied Zoology & Geology in Kathmandu, Medicine & Social Science in Freiburg, and Creative Writing under Prof. Bruce Dobler (Pittsburgh University) and Writers Bureau (Manchester). Satis Shroff sees his future as a writer and poet. He was awarded the German Academic Prize. Satis Shroff’s bicultural perspective makes his prose and poems rich, full of awe, and at the same time heartbreakingly sad. In writing ‘home,’ he not only returns to his country of origin time and again, he also carries the fate of his people to readers in the West, and his task of writing is a very important one in political terms. His true gift is to invent Nepalese metaphors and make them accessible to the West through his prose and poetry.Please read his poems and articles in & under search: satis shroff.

Copyright © 2006 Satis Shroff, Freiburg


1 Puja: ritual prayers with offerings

2 matribhumai: motherland

3 buhari: daughter-in-law

4 pahari: hill-woman

5 Manjushri: the legendary patriach of Kathmandu Valley, and also the God of Learning

6 gorasahibs: white gentlemen

7 Lhotsampas: Bhutanese citizens of Nepali descent

8 grahas: the planets

9 bahun: male hindu priest; bahun= priestess

10 kalo pani: black water, a term used for oceans

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