Across the hills and far awayKumal was merely fifteen when he was accosted one afternoon by his elder brother, who told him that a family in Kathmandu required his services.
Kumal was merely fifteen when he was accosted one afternoon by his elder brother, who told him that a family in Kathmandu required his services. He did not know how to react except that he felt a penetrating anxiety and twinges of excitement of living in the city. That week, Kumal threw a party at a nearby hill terrace and drank lots of Coca Cola served with beaten rice with his friends.
“You will have a blast in Kathmandu,” remarked a stout looking friend. Kumal grinned.
“Will you be back during Dashain?” questioned another stout looking friend. Kumal shrugged and replied, “I don’t know, let’s see.”
“Is there a bull dog there?” enquired another stout looking friend. “I heard there are many bull dogs living with affluent families in Kathmandu,” he remarked.
“I haven’t been there yet,” Kumal laughed. “I will write to you when I get there.”
All his friends at village were stout looking but nobody knew that.
Trotting down the hill, past narrow passages, the deceitful green and singing songs of glee, Kumal descended through thickets and blueberry bushes to meet his beloved Saili. She lived in the foothills where the ‘low castes’ lived. The ‘upper caste’ lived on higher grounds and dictated the lives of those who were beneath, for centuries.
Saili was dark and petite. She had left school in the second grade just like Kumal had, to earn some money for the family. But she never liked the school as it didn’t have a toilet. For four days every month, she missed out on school and helped her mother to do the dishes around the neighbourhood. She was admired for her beauty, and her furtive glances skipped the beats of even the high caste young men on the hill.
Kumal greeted a group of porters as he descended downhill. Laden with imported rice in bulging sacks, sweetened sodas, instant noodles and junk food in plastic wraps, the porters, hunchbacked against their wicker baskets, were slowly heading the other way. The group of twelve old men greeted Kumal without a word and passed him quietly—like apparitions. Kumal always hated their empty glances, for he dreaded he would end up like them, forever fixated on the narrow strip of road ahead. He would never toil like them. Kumal was promised an salary of five hundred rupees in Kathmandu and he became light hearted at the thought of such a job prospect.
Kumal had his hair gelled to the right, meticulously combing all strands of his dense locks and had applied a handful of coconut crème to his dark skin, which appeared to glitter in the sun with the incessant sweating. As he approached Saili’s house, he tucked in his flannel shirt onto the jeans pant he had acquired from a cloth donation programme in the village. Shod in plastic boots, he also tucked in the denim hems to appear more presentable.
As he approached the courtyard of her house, he could see a horde of stern men with red flags speaking rather excitedly. As he came closer, he could see bundles of corn and hay hung from a Plum tree which was ripe with hues of scarlet and yellow. He cut through the crowd, which seemed to be talking politics in jargons he didn’t understand, and slipped into the house unnoticed before calling out for Saili.
Saili came out with a bronze tray in her hands which contained a dozen of small plastic bowls. Kumal could smell that it was rakshi. She grew ecstatic with his sudden appearance. “Go upstairs to my room,” she said nervously. Kumal nodded and with long strides, climbed a wooden stair to which was splintered at the edges and almost rotten.
Kumal sat cross-legged near the window, observing the men. He could
see Saili offering them the bowl. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. He lamented the moment when he must tell her
that he was going to the city. He tried to go over what he’d say but his throat
parched with thirst and his head went numb. After a while, Saili ran upstairs where she could see Kumal sitting, somber with his head rested on the window sill, gaping into the world.
“You should be thirsty,” she remarked softly and slowly drew an aluminum bowl from underneath her bed which contained homemade beer. Kumal let out a faint smile in approval. She took out a sieve to filter the beer from underneath her bed again and began to churn it with a wooden paddle. “Why do you look like a ghost?” she inquired playfully. They smiled at each other.
“Because I am going to be one,” Kumal sighed thoughtfully. “I need to tell you something import,” Kumal cleared his throat.
Saili looked perplexed. She poured the beer into a steel glass and handed it to him. As Kumal took the glass, he felt her fingers and paused. He held her hand and said, “How hardened are your hands.”
Saili suddenly became solemn. “What do you mean?” she demanded.
“I am tired of all of this. I need to find my fortune. I want your hands to be soft like petals. I need you to stay with me. I need your love so that I can have a good future.” He glanced at her. “Our future,” he stressed. “Without your love I can’t do it. Do you understand me?”
“I don’t understand you,” she smirked and pushed away his coarse hand.
“I am leaving for Kathmandu tomorrow. My brother has got me a job there. It is easy housework and they will even pay for my education,” Kumal spoke freely as Saili’s cheeks turned red.
Saili kept silent and stared into his eyes, trying to comprehend his words. It was a brutal blow for her and there was a thought in her heart that she wanted to tell him. But, she couldn’t find her voice.
“Saili, promise me! Promise me that you will wait for me. I will return each year and I will bring you gifts from the city,” Kumal retorted. “They will pay me…”
“I don’t want your gifts,” she yelled.
“But try to understand…” Kumal tried to reason.
“I don’t understand it at all,” Saili said. Then she let a wail, loud enough for her father to come galloping into the room.
“What’s happening?” he enquired sternly.
“Don’t ask me what’s happening, baba. Ask him. He’s running away from us,” Saili exclaimed. Her father gave Kumal a sharp glace and said, rather curtly, “I know, I know….. I heard that you were leaving for Kathmandu. Your brother told me about it this morning.”
Kumal nodded his head squarely. An impenetrable silence engulfed the room and Saili ran down the rotting stairs, tears still dripping down her cheeks.
Nar Bahadur crouched on the patio and gulped a mouthful of beer from the aluminum container. A dirty dhakatopi squatted atop his square head. Kumal sat cross-legged on a straw mattress and gaped at the parrots chirping in the nearby trees. A cool breeze ruffled his hair from time to time. Two women, clad in red sarees and sandals, passed them by and one of them commented, “Looks like your party is still going on.”
Nar Bahadur let out a faint smile and asked, “Where are you going in this scorching heat?”
“We are going across the slopes to cut grass for the thatch,” they replied and scooted around a rooster inside a Doko and four little chicks. The chicks gleamed bright yellow and were nimbly and thoughtlessly sprinting from nowhere to nowhere in the courtyard.
“I guess, I’ll miss this,” Kumal declared.
“What?” asked Nar Bahadur.
“You know, this!” he said, flailing his arms. “The village life, its fragrance, those forests drenched in green and sprinkled with brown and yellow, homemade beer, your daughter, everything, I guess,” he lamented.
“You’ll probably forget everything,” Nar Bahadur grinned. “You see, me and my wife were thinking about marrying off Saili,” he said nonchalantly.
“To whom?” bellowed Kumal, almost threatening Nar Bahadur.
“To you of course, you idiot! But you are going to the city. You are leaving Saili and going to be a slave to a rich family.”
“I am not going to the city to be a slave,” Kumal was confounded.
“Of course, you are,” Nar Bahadur chimed in. “you could stay here and toil like us in the farm, but No. You’d rather be a rich slave than a poor free man.”
“What are you talking about? Have you gone mad?”
“I am not mad. I am a communist,” declared Nar Bahadur.
“You are not a communist. You are drunk,” replied Kumal.
“Young men like you should stay in the village and help the poor revolt against the rich. Why don’t you stay, huh? I have stayed all my life here. Your brother isn’t planning to leave the village. Not yet,” Nar Bahadur mumbled. “Yes we may be poor but we make ends meet here and it is our land and our property and I will die proudly here. In this very yard, with my family surrounding me, weeping for me and my forefathers waiting for me in the heavens.”
“You are certainly drunk. There, there, give me your beer,” Kumal motioned towards the steel glass, “Communists don’t believe in the heavens.”
“I was a royal subject back then, but my king is dead. Long live the King, Long live King!” he began to shout. “And now I am a communist. Now everyone can be a King. Now, I am going to be the King! I am the King of Paupers!” he began to laugh fanatically.
Kumal let him be.
“I need to find Saili,” Kumal thought. “Poor girl, she should be drying her eyes out somewhere in the village. How she loves me,” he grew radiant. He must find her and kiss her and tell her that the most important thing in life is money and people who are poor like them need those bills of pink, blue and golden brown ornate with a king with a plumed crown. In the pursuit of happiness, Kumal grew unhappy. Though he loved her but he loved life enough to leave these hills where he wasn’t required and respected.
Kumal sat on a precipice, across a stream, overlooking the landscape that he had grown used to. He saw more hills, breast like contours, gazing at him as he gazed into them, teasing those who hunched on its belly, living, toiling and praying on it for centuries.
It had withered the life out of his brother who lamented not leaving this hard place a long time ago, for he had not left these slopes handed over to him by his father who also hadn’t left for the same reasons of the heart. Now, Kumal had to make a choice, to leave this existence or adapt to it. Suddenly, he smiled back at the jagged hills, dense forests, gurgling rivers and puffy clouds hovering aloft in the sky and stooped his head, as he asked for forgiveness and prayed for the strength to persevere.