The moralist of BhaktapurThe copper gilded finial of Nyatapol Deval gleamed in day light before fawning tourists who, fascinated by the nuances and mystique of Newari architecture, continually snapped photos with visible glee and smiles on their faces. Tourists, sporting Aladdin trousers and Thamel’s printed tops, made their way to Taumadhi Tole which had only just welcomed the arrival of spring with the Bisket Jatra. The tole felt restful with a gentle breeze dancing westwards.
The copper gilded finial of Nyatapol Deval gleamed in day light before fawning tourists who, fascinated by the nuances and mystique of Newari architecture, continually snapped photos with visible glee and smiles on their faces. Tourists, sporting Aladdin trousers and Thamel’s printed tops, made their way to Taumadhi Tole which had only just welcomed the arrival of spring with the Bisket Jatra. The tole felt restful with a gentle breeze dancing westwards.
Goloman, wearing an Antim Grahan crew-neck T-shirt, washed jeans, and Goldstar shoes appeared as an unhappy figure on the stone steps of the ancient plaza. He held on his palm a hot corn streaked with green chili paste and a sprinkling of salt. Sitting cross legged on the steps, he took small bites off the cob; its golden kernels, slightly charred, smelled of the sisau on which it was prepared. The rustling sound of pigeons taking off could be heard in regular intervals. A nearby arcade of eucalyptus trees swayed in the wind as if they were tickled by birds that nested on their branches.
Some men scurried past him, dangling kharpan loads of vegetables with bamboo poles balanced across their shoulders. A group of porters met them at the intersection and having agreed on something marched together towards a narrow alley that opened through an archway. The porters were carrying clothes in the wicker baskets on their backs.
A disassembled festival chariot lay by the north wall of the Bhairav temple while children played dhikichyau on the evenly shaped wooden shafts. Suddenly an old woman with a hunched back approached the shrine, timidly smeared vermillion on the grimacing idol and touched her tiny head against it like she was trying to absorb some of its power. She then picked an azalea petal and placed it on her head, completing the ritual. She also gently caressed one of the brass lion guarding the facade and rang the temple bell three times.
Goloman sat with downcast eyes. He was skinny, pale and nervous, and appeared like an ailing man with deep-set sunken eyes. Every now and then he glanced at the strangers in the Square but avoided eye contacts. He kept still and just waited for something to happen.
From the chaos of shrines and ancient rose-coloured houses, a young woman walked towards him. She was fair, plump and of medium height with a good natured, handsome, exceedingly quiet and firm face. Her dark hair swept her forehead as she walked in an enthusiastic pace and beads of sparkling sweat rolled down from her face to the neck.
On seeing Goloman, she let out a howl, “Oi!” He lifted his chin. Looking cordially into his eyes she pressed his hand and sat beside him on the steps, nonchalantly.
“I figured you would be here. I have been inquiring about you,” Dalli said unabashed.
“Why do you look like the Bhairav?” she mocked his appearance.
“Why do you say so?” he questioned.
“Aama says he is depressed, in the temple,” she replied.
“It would be miserable if I were like him too,” Goloman grinned.
“You’d be miserable anywhere,” Dalli countered.
The red coloured banners hung evenly under the eaves of the roofs. Some pigeons scurried towards the patch of ground where a young woman and her daughter were throwing grains of rice. The woman began applying aksyeta and threw flowers on the dark stone statues that covered the courtyard, bowing and slapping Namaste at every chance.
“The people of Nepal are poor and yet they show immense kindness to the gods,” Goloman smirked. He gazed joyfully and intently across the Square. He suddenly sprang to his knees, stretched his legs and with palms downwards, he pulled them and the joints cracked. “Let’s get going,” he initiated. Dalli followed him through an archway into a narrow passage, swaying her elbows and taking loose steps.
The pair leaning against a wooden lintel decorated with serpents and flowers exited the square and, upon reaching a bricked road, found themselves among houses adorned in Newari woodcraft. The sight of these old houses pleased them. Sheaves of unhusked corn hung from window sills and women in red sarees with red hairbands walked through the street as chickens scampered about. Old women could be seen sifting grains on nanglos while men sat on the doorway crafting clay, metal and wood.
The street led to a large intersection with a dilapidated Hiti; its stone spouts flaunted figures of crocodiles and lions. Goloman walked clumsily trying to catch Dalli’s hand, while she, dodging his intention, rambled faster. Suddenly stopping, he stood motionless, his eyebrows furrowed. She looked back at him from a distance, attentive and perplexed, her gaze fixated upon him. Her tender and timid eyes were now downcast and bashful. Her supple rosy lips now stretched wide, revealing tartaric teeth; her slender jawline embossed her smile and with a teasing cackle, she ran forward, coyly. Goloman, sprinting towards her, got hold of her easily and held her tightly in his arms by her neck before tickling her bosom; a peal of laughter broke the dreary afternoon silence.
“Why don’t you enter the temples?” she asked tenderly. They took a right towards a narrower street.
“They’re dirty,” he remarked.
“Maybe that’s why our wishes are never fulfilled. We attend to gods pompously with tikas made of rice and yogurt, peppering flowers on their figures; then we smash coconuts on the altar and glue sweets to them so that our prayers are met with benevolence. We make a mess of their homes, don’t we?” she despaired. “The Newars built the town with so much love and donkey work,” she added in admiration.
They arrived at a chowk where a small Mahadev temple stood in the middle. A fig tree stood on its crown which stretched a few feet above ground, trembling in the wind; its leaves glistening brilliantly in the warm sunshine. The stone steps were guarded by elaborately carved brass lions; red vermillion powder visible on their evenly shaped strands of manes. The temple made of local clay bricks infused with sumptuous red colour and against this subtlety the dark brown wooden structures stood assertively. The sloping roof of the temple made of clay tiles, fire baked, provided residence to spry brown sparrows and grey pigeons. The temple struts were occupied with avatars of Bhairav in the middle while curving serpents with ferocious eyes were carved on the top. The bottom parts of the struts meticulously depicted sexual intercourse between gods in numerous positions.
Suddenly a motorbike raced through the chowk, unrestrained, the leg-guard almost striking Goloman by his ankles zoomed towards the Hiti. With a rush of blood to his head, Goloman shouted angrily “Ke ho?” The biker disregarding his challenge moved on.
“Are you alright?” inquired Dalli worriedly, holding his arm.
“I am but these pakhes are not,” he was vexed. The motorcyclists in the valley got him cross easily.
The pair turned right towards a house. It was a khaja ghar famous for local cuisines. The doors forming an elaborate lattice work stood only a few feet high. Some people smoking hukkah and chatting could be seen through a bay window which was on the middle of the façade.
“I’ll have Nepali pizza,” announced Dalli at the counter. A young woman motioned her towards the menu to consider her options, by the side of which, stood a cupboard full of traditional Newari crockeries. The menu flex, dirty and dusty, listed the servings. “An egg bara with chhoyala” she replied promptly. Goloman who was knitting his brows and musing over the list for some time couldn’t decide.
“I’ll just have black tea. No sugar please,” he implored.
“Yesterday, the university took us to an organisation working for the welfare of women,” Dalli recalled, lighting a cigarette.
“I missed it then,” Goloman replied curtly.
She let a sigh and drawing a deep breath carped passively, “You bunked the classes yesterday and you don’t even believe in women’s rights anyway.” She startled him with a piercing glance as if demanding an explanation.
“What do you mean?” Goloman frowned.
“You were arguing with our professor the other week. All girls present in the lecture wanted to behead you, including myself,” her face reddened.
“No. I didn’t say that. No, why would I say that…..Look! What I said was that we fret about women’s rights when we should actually be bothering about their duties in the first place. Rights are overrated. We need to focus on duties. We cannot develop as a nation if we bother about such petty nuisances. Besides the concepts of rights in democracy have a moral essence to it as much as it has legal implications.”
“Ke re?…you mean to say that we women of Nepal don’t perform our duties properly,” she countered irritably and impatiently.
“No, that’s not what I meant. I was misunderstood. I just wish that we did our duties properly and our rights facilitated our development. We talk development in Nepal as if it is something abstract. Look at us bunch in the university. Most of our classmates merely copy and paste the bloody assignments from internet. What sort of rights are we talking about when we are not sincere to our duties?”
A little boy brought the tea and bara, and placed the order in between the two. A stale scent of buff meat mixed with a pungent aroma of overcooked fenugreek seeds roved through the sticky air inside the room. The room, whitewashed, consisted of two columns of low-tables with round-shaped gundris on four sides for seating. A few face masks of Hindu and Buddhist gods, which were made of clay graced the walls. The window was divided into three units which covered the entire span of the room.
“It’s frustrating for me when we talk about, say, right to education. What sort of right is this when it seems to be a right to cheat? And you know what? They will use this right to cheat and get employed to work for the betterment of our glorious nation where… where… Buddha was born! Poor Buddha! He doesn’t want to be an Indian now, does he?” He ridiculed. “I don’t expect such classmates to develop our country and I don’t expect them to do their duty, or perform best to their abilities in full sincerity. I don’t want such rights to be bestowed upon them. It’s a circus. It is…it is… like these temples here in Bhaktapur. There is no difference between these temples and the state of our nation. They are beautiful only to be besmirched by our fellow countrymen, for we are treating our nation no better than the garbage dumped right next to our houses. It’s a circus!”
“So you have a grudge against the girls in our class huh?” her eyes twinkled as if she had unraveled a mystery. “What is it? Why are you so uptight? You could have reasoned discreetly and not made a pakhe out of yourself then,” Dalli burst in a fit of laughter.
Goloman and Dalli hunkered on the low table in an animated conversation about the moral degradation of conscience and the depravity of freedom rendered by the socialisation process among youths in the country. Goloman sat cross-legged, leaning his elbows on the table while clouds of cigarette smoke hovered around him. Once in a while, Dalli would cackle at his witticism, appearing thoughtful, yet confounded and irritated at the decency he lacked. He began expounding on his revulsion towards fatalistic approach to life that Nepal couldn’t escape from.
“The middle class of Nepal consists of experts in such matters of morality,” Goloman sighed. “If it were up to the rich or the poor to decide on the guiding moral principles of religious interpretation in Nepal, then we would have individualistic approach to life. The rich are busy hustling the labour market hence depriving themselves of any moral dilemmas while the poor tire themselves submitting to the demands of the rich. They have no time for religion. They merely desire a plateful of dalbhat. You see, in between are the middle class led, of course, by the Brahmins who promise magical connections with gods. They dictate our moral reasoning. They are clever for they always side with the gods. Why do you think the government doesn’t tax the temples and stupas around the nation?” he raised his brows.
“I don’t agree with your logic at all,” Dalli replied curtly. “You’ve gone bonkers. Fatalism is guided by casteism not labour market,” she added. “We are merely adhering to doctrines of that…that…Malla King and nothing more. Casteism may have had evolved through time rendering some social evils keeping some sections of the population grieving but now there are legal implications to any misdemeanour in the name of culture or religion. The government doesn’t tax religious institutions because they cannot. The politicians need votes to remain in power. Afno khutta ma aafai bancharo. It would be an unpopular decision’.
“I won’t say I don’t agree. It is a historical fact. But I still can’t see how fatalism is guided by labour market in our time?’ she quizzed. “Why is fatalism so bad anyway? Because, it prevented Nepal from turning into America?” she mocked his obsession with individualism.
Dalli slowly grew weary, unable to keep up with his vigour as the conversation ensued. She began considering narcissistic attributes that guided his fear and loathing against fatalism. Goloman was in a state of rupture and tried to reason his point of view but mostly strayed from the subject matter.
“I can’t see how you can’t agree with me,” flailing his arms, he assumed a perplexed countenance. A muscle on his right cheek twitched in frustration.
“Let’s consider the festivals and numerous rituals we ought to fulfill. Who gains from them? It’s clear isn’t it?” he questioned. “What about when one has to pass the Lok Sewa examination? It clearly favours the Brahmins. And we expect someone who has memorised thousands of useless information to contribute to development?” he smirked. “What has the birth date of Barack Obama or which country the Volga flows through have to do with public administration?’
“I think if one works hard and fulfills the criteria mandated by the Lok Sewa then anyone can pass the examination. It’s a test. Maybe a test of attitude,” she replied nonchalantly, recalling his lack of success in passing the examination.
Goloman finding himself diametrically opposed to Dalli, after a few heated moral examinations quieted down. He felt that time hung so heavy that he didn’t know what to do. Even the sun appeared to have become weary and its warmth receded with the dusk. His gaunt elbows leaned against the window sill pondering at the commotion on the street; observing the smiles, chatters, and bearings of people which were swift and graceful.
The season of spring brought forth joys and reassurance of hope for the Newars of Kathmandu. After nine long days of summoning Bhairav, they appeared to have settled and prepared for rain during summer. Some girls in the streets could be seen swinging empty pails from a wooden yoke. An old man sat on the doorstep of a small door which was framed with intricate lattice work. A small patch of white beard grew round the cheeks. He sat coiling the ends of his mustache. A gust of cool wind stroked against the scarlet walls of time worn houses on the street.
The lack of faith in god that Goloman possessed and his inability to accept the demanding nature of his presence during social occasions required from him had affected his sense of freedom. He was the eldest of sons and his presence was vital in the society. He felt that there were too many social gatherings, religious rituals and homages to be paid to gods for his liking. Even though his family was not strictly religious or societal, life couldn’t simply go on without absence of religion. He abhorred how life was intimately connected and represented with fate.
Goloman didn’t believe in fate and neither did he believe in free will. He was first, torn between faith and nihilism and secondly, he felt that he was being cast apart by the lack of ambition he needed to survive in this world. He was envious of Dalli because she was sure of the divine. She could share her inner thoughts and motivations. She could merely pray and be tranquil in life. He felt that there was calmness and assurance within her while his restraint was that of helplessness and skepticism to the joys and maladies of life. He felt that an unambitious man without faith in god is a man not worthy of life. It was essential to either have ambition or faith or both, else life became meaningless and it escaped into boredom. Goloman felt boredom was a crime and he was turning into a criminal.