Early Memories, Nepalese Childhoods

Features Issue 97 Jul, 2010
Text by Ujeena Rana & Jebin Gautam / Photo: ECS Media

I collected them up, brought them home, poured myself a cuppa java, and sat down at the kitchen table to read them, one after another. I realized right off that none qualified as ‘earliest’ memories in the literal sense, but that almost all qualified as relatively ‘early’ memories ranging in age from two or three to 15 or 16.

Ove­r a year ago, the editor asked ECS writers to submit short essays that harked back to their earliest childhood memories. Seven came across his desk and languished there unattended while he was busy doing whatever else magazine editors do. One day recently he passed them on to me with a request to “do something with them.” This is that doing.

I collected them up, brought them home, poured myself a cuppa java, and sat down at the kitchen table to read them, one after another. I realized right off that none qualified as ‘earliest’ memories in the literal sense, but that almost all qualified as relatively ‘early’ memories ranging in age from two or three to 15 or 16. I also saw that, not surprisingly, a few themes run through the lot: aromas (smells), sounds (especially music), words (harsh or happy, bitter or sweet), mothers (of course), and strangers (foreigners).

Of those the editor received, four are featured here (below). A fifth one did not fit the bill, and the sixth eventually morphed into an article by Utsav Shakya published in the September 2009 magazine, entitled ‘The molding effects of living in an extended family’ from a young adult’s perspective.

Before we read the four that I’ve selected to highlight, however, let’s look at the seventh essay—a long, fascinating story of a family’s strange tragedy, of a younger sibling who passed up an elder one in school, to the consternation of their parents who felt that the world was supposed to run in a different direction. In what follows, a short excerpt, the author—Ravi Man Singh, a freelance writer—assures me that names have been changed to avoid embarrassment. It’s a story his wife told him, from her young life.  When her  parents heard that the younger sibling—their daughter, ‘Sarita’—had passed the all important School Leaving Examination (SLC) and that, simultaneously, her older sibling—their son, ‘Shyam’—had failed: “Down came a mountain crashing to the ground!” Stereotypical prejudices about age and gender and relative accomplishment and the proper order of family and society were dashed. After learning the startling results, “the silence of our house was shattered by a piercing wail, soon followed by a sobbing from my parent’s room” as ‘Sarita’ tells it. And “words blurted out by my mom wafted across: ‘Mata syaeema “pass”! Mata chyakeema “fail”!’, Newari vernacular with a mix of English words that mean the one who is supposed to snuff out the oil lamp—‘pass’!, whereas the one who is to kindle the lamp—‘fail’!”

Ravi Singh concludes his wife’s tale: “Thus, ‘Sarita’, with that faraway look and softened eyes, wound up her story... Upon my curiosity to know more about her brother ‘Shyam’, she laughed and put in, “You know what? He flunked the SLC exams the next year too...”

Memories of childhood are revealing—of innocence, joy, wonder, or incomprehension. Individually, each essay reveals a bit of one person’s personality, and sometimes of a whole family. Considered together (and for this I wish there had been more stories), they sometimes reveal a collective character set, though that may be only the generalized character of a set of youngish Nepalese writers—who knows.

Without further ado, here are the four stories, whole or in part (paying attention to space, and general interest). Each speaks for itself, a thin ‘slice of life’, a glimpse of something that each author recalls of his or her Nepalese childhood. (Text by Neale Bates)

They were British
They were British. Richard, Emily, Dorothy, and David. I vividly remember their names. I was ten then. All were tall and young. To our miniature statures, they were huge, really huge; we strained our nape to get a good view of their entire form.

How could we nail their nationality so precisely when at those times every fair skinned person with blonde hair and an accent inexplicable to our young Nepali minds was an American?

Well, they introduced themselves to us.
Apart from the exchange of the names, we hardly conversed. We whispered looking at them, we talked about them, and we smelled the scent of the British. Their coming to our school was the talk of the town. We told our parents and they told their friends and that is how the entire town knew about their coming... [And] they were white, very white and smelled good, real good.  When we were growing up in Hetauda, foreigners were rare sights. To see one we had to be very lucky or come to the capital, which was a rare and long journey. However hard I stimulate my grey cells, I cannot remember why they had chosen to come to our school, Siddhartha Sishu Sadan.  Whatever the reason for their visit, it did good to us, in many ways noticed and unnoticed.

Unlike the kids today that you see in Thamel or Basantapur who do not hesitate hovering around foreigners, and never exhaust the greeting “Namaste” to every passing foreigner demonstrating a chirpy attitude, we could not utter a word to them; probably because we saw the ‘Whites’ rarely and understandably, the presence of the four British unleashed the coyness in us.

Before their coming to our school, our headmaster was the only one who exuded aroma. He used expensive and strong perfumes. For growing young minds, that was one of the luxuries of life. Whenever he passed through the classes during his routine patrolling, his aroma reached the finish line before him... The smell of his perfume would enunciate the reflex action in us: we would stop talking, act nice and have our eyes fixed on the ‘blackboard’ even though there was nothing written on it. Our act could not be argued because it was instantaneous. His perfume was our signal and whoever missed that sign was chastised with his long and thick yellow stick and the entire school would know about it because the one who wronged would howl like a dog and it would be impossible to miss that sound in the middle of a quiet afternoon.

With the British coming to our school, the entire milieu smelled of jasmine, musk and lavender. It felt good to be near them. No one dared to touch them though, however strong the longing would be. (Text by Ujeena Rana)

Music nights
. . . When my father married my mother, he welcomed something into his life, besides the loving care of my mother, that is. He welcomed Music into his life. And [as a child], I was beginning to think that gift was something else in disguise, nuisance for example. Every night, before we all drifted to sleep, someone would wail on her Philips radio. In what sounded like a stricken dog’s howl ringing through the night, she tried to find peace and solace. Sometimes she would heave a long sigh, close her eyes, shake her head in the manner of a student who has just got whatever her teacher was howling for an hour and half, and mutter something. It was one of her much loved phrases, the one she oh-so-frequently used, “Life’s like that” she would say and drift to sleep.

Considering from the point of a 10-year-old kid, my mother had a strange and somewhat weird taste in music. I had none whatsoever, but could tell between a good song and a bad one. I would personally have preferred the silent cadenza of a raga that ensured a good night’s sleep. My mother had other ideas and so did her stereo. I was deeply suspicious of that contraption. I tried to tune it out of order, change the stations and get it to play the music of my liking. I distorted its antenna, played around with buttons on its bulky mass, and it lay there dead before me. Not even a single note escaped from its honeycombed speakers. But, my mother was a magician. On her slight touch, it sprang to life, breathing music through its speakers.

She teased the controls, speaking to it in the language it understood. She fiddled around with the tuning knobs until the signal fluctuations eased their way into soulful music. “This is Aakaash Vani” it reported, as it came to life. “And you are listening to Classical music hour.” And so my troubles would start. In what she called as the “divine hour”, I would die a thousand times over, harpooned by the nauseous din the stereo regurgitated. For what seemed like eternity, the torturous session would go on. In barely understandable mutters, the punditji’s (pundit is an honorific title given to the eastern masters, of any genre) and occasional nightingales sewed polyphonic syllables from their extended repertoire into what they called song and what I called prescription for a headache. Pundit Bhimsen Joshi, the most requested singer on the airwaves, would take an aalaap (part of the raga) and make an epic out of it. For god-knows-how-many minutes, he would stretch his larynx to make music. To my untrained and frankly uninterested ears, he was merely yodeling through the alphabets of Devanagiri script.

“I can do that better than him!” I’d retort.
“Aaa aaa, la la la, rum pum pum!” I’d launch off into the night, breaking into a brilliant aria of incoherent howling, making up the words as I went along. Quite a card I was! I would leap off to the top of the bed, cover my ear with one hand and launch the other in the air and start to sing. Eyes close, head swaying to the never heard ragas, I’d imagine conquering the world stage with my singing abilities.

“Call me an Ustad” (Master), I’d demand from my audience, which mostly comprised my irritated parents and my amused little sister. She always provided the necessary chorus of vanity. “Wah, Usatad, wah!” she’d say. 

Often, a sharp knock on my head would silence me, draining the drama of the moment, silencing my natural theatrical skills, if not my singing ones.

Hearing my displeasures, mother would pull both of us, brother and sister, closer. “Would you go to sleep if I sing you a lullaby?” she’d ask.

“Yay! Sing us our favorite one, please,” we begged of her, tugging her saree until she gave away to our wishes.   

“One song and you’ll go back to sleep. Ok?”
We would nod in silent agreement. And, then she would start to sing. Her golden voice soothing our naughtiness into a sublime poetry dedicated to sleep. By the end of the first verse, sleep would slowly crawl into our eyelids luring us into what lay beyond. The sleep fairy promised an exclusive tour of her castle filled with treasure troves of beautiful dreams, one that promised to be true.

Her songs kissed us to sleep, the echoes of the lullaby tucking us in. Ah! Those were the days; days of the golden childhood I will never forget.  (Text by Rishi Am­atya)       

Primary colors
The sun hot and drowsy, the mat with the faint musky fragrance of new straw scratching under my skin. My grandmother, slowly peeling the membrane of an orange and popping them in my unresisting mouth. I am absorbed, absorbed in my playmate Parvati, a strawdust stuffed rag doll slightly taller than me. I try pushing little orange bits in her mouth too, but they just fall on the ground, squelching on the clean ochre straw, getting coated with a layer of white powdery dust of the ground. It is warm and drowsy, and the hum of bees is in the air.

Then red silk everywhere, and glittering sequins. A wedding. My mother is carrying me. There is loud music and laughter, and the air is weighed down with the heavy smell of perfume, tears and turmeric. Turmeric mixed with cream, and rubbed on the soft white body of the bride. And I am crying, my tears loud as my inarticulateness. My mother gets angry at me, because I am incapable of explaining with my two year old vocabulary that the tiny, glittery stars on her sari are rubbing my skin raw.

Green, everywhere would be green then. Lime green of the magnolias, dark green of the bamboos. Wheat, ripe in the sunlight, waving under the load of its ochre grains. The sky a bright blue stone.  I’d run, running barefoot over the hot tin roofs, chasing the string as what seemed like hundreds of colorful kites filled the air, tying the sky together in one giant web. I’d be holding my cousin’s hand. Clapping my hand in glee as our brothers’ kite cut off a rival one, and it floated slowly away from the sky. Then the battle would start all over again. And again. Again. Again. Again... until the night caught us unawares, when a coal black sky would take over the turquoise and we could no longer distinguish the colors of the kites from the light of the burning stars. (Text by Sushma Joshi)

They have skin as flexible as rubber
He was a boisterous little boy, maybe five or six; looking for an adventure, looking for fun. The crystalline marbles mud-caked in his bruised palm, held little thrill now and neither did the green pond shimmering with bright orange fishes. His little hands, battered and beaten, were itching for mischief, instead. Sitting under the intricate decor of Krishna Mandir, amidst old men enjoying a game of Bagh-chal, his mind meandered with impish maneuverings.

At a distance, the Patan Durbar stood firm with its majestic demeanor. There were a group of tourists, khuhires examining the splendor of the palace. The red, blonde and brown of their hair mingling with the brilliant and loud colors of their dresses, emulated a life-sized kaleidoscope. The 60s era glowed radiant and new. He approached the crowd, intrigued by their incongruous colors, illuminating the otherwise insipid setting. Sitting on the brick-lined pathway concealed behind a stone-lion, he examined their foreignness, their unfamiliar stature, the paleness of their skin and their alien language. Most prominently, the flawless white skin of a sturdy lady who approached the place of his concealment to photograph the stone lion. It took him by surprise. How one can have such impeccably fair skin, he wondered. Unable to bear his curiosity, he pinched the lady’s legs, trying to feel her foreignness, as if examining the material one is made out off. But feeling a foreign hand the lady shrieked and pulled back. The young boy, panic-stricken by her reaction, had not had time to let go. The lady’s skin seemed to have stretched an inch or even more. But he noticed she was shrieking more with shock than with pain.

To run off from trouble, the boy zoomed past the temples, criss-crossing the alleyways, as fast as his wee legs could carry him. Escaping the newness, he reached the safe confines of his home, where he described his mischief to his sister, describing the unique trait of the foreigner’s skin. “Khuhires—they have skin flexible as rubber,” he said, boasting his boldness and valor. He even revealed his finding the next day at school, telling and retelling the tale to each one of his friends, leaving all of them with joyous laughter.

While in a cafe somewhere in Kathmandu, a woman poured out her ordeal to her friends, about a little pervert trying to pinch her through her stockings. They smiled and laughed over the incident, cautioning the troubled lady to be careful next-time.
But, shrill and loud, the laughter prevailed everywhere. 

Neale Bates is a writer and occasional contributor to ECS Nepal magazine. He may be contacted by email at nealebates@gmail.com. The essay writers are Rishi Amatya (rishi.amatya@gmail.com), Jebin Gautam (jebin.gautam@gmail.com), Sushma Joshi (sushma@alumni.brown.edu), Ujeena Rana (ujeenarana@hotmail.com), Utsav Shakya (utsavshakya@gmail.com), and Ravi Man Singh (ravimansingh@hotmail.com; with thanks to ‘Sarita’ for a bit of her story).