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Small World, Reconnecting with the Past

“I wonder which of the people who cross my path, their faces unknown to me, have nonetheless played a part in my life without my being the slightest bit aware of it.” ~Anne Berest (2015)

I recently read a book entitled ‘Sagan, Paris 1954’ by Anne Berest, a popular French writer. It’s a literary memoir covering a few months in the life of the 18-year old Françoise Sagan who, in 1954, published her controversial first novel, ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ (‘Hello Sadness’ in English).This teenage girl’s coming-of-age story is sometimes compared with J.D. Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’, and when it won the prestigious Prix des Critiques book award it catapulted Sagan to instant fame. 

In Anne Berest’s portrayal of those few months in Sagan’s young life, she describes how ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ was discovered and rushed into print by her publisher. Berest also tells us that she, herself, was once a reader for a Paris publishing house where she praised a first novel by yet another young woman who went on to become a noted writer. 

“Some years later, at a dimly lit Parisian party,” she writes, “I ran across that same girl, who was now famous on account of her book. ... Needless to say, we were still both the same age as each other. But the success of her book had catapulted her into what seemed to me to be life as it was meant to be lived, whereas I was vegetating in the limbo of my own mere existence. I asked her for a light, and she obliged, but in an offhand way, without even bothering to look at me.” 

“I often think of that incident,” she says. “I wonder which of the people who cross my path, their faces unknown to me, have nonetheless played a part in my life without my being the slightest bit aware of it.”

Anne Berest’s wonder reminds me of people whose lives once crossed mine, and with whom I have later reconnected in some fleeting way. 

For example, one day in 1964, in my Peace Corps village of Kunchha, Lamjung, I photographed the boy in the snapshot. Clad only in a torn kamijandlagauti, as young village boys from poor families often dressed in those days, he had come down from his village to Kunchha to be inoculated against smallpox. That spring, my Peace Corps partner and I vaccinated nearly 25,000children in Kunchha and other villages acrossLamjung and in adjacent Tanahun and Gorkha Districts. I snapped the photo of the boy  as he and his mother watched, somewhat pensively, what we were doing.

Four decades later, in the early 2000s, I happened to meet a well-dressed gentleman in Kathmandu who, in the course of a short conversation, told me he was a doctor, and also that he had been raised in a village near Kunchha. I judged him to be about the right age to have been one of the children whom we immunized. When I asked him, he said that, yes, he had come to Kunchha with his mother to be vaccinated.

Because it was a long time ago, he said, hedidn’trecall much else about it, so he was surprised when I told him that I had probably made the vaccination scar on his arm. About thenwe were interrupted andour conversation ended. I didn’t get his name and we never met again, but I remembered the photograph and though I never confirmed it I am reasonably sure that he was the boy in  the picture. 

I have often wondered where all those children are now? How many went on to become doctors, or other professionals, or remained in the villages to teach school or farm the land of their forefathers? Have any of them lived “life as it was meant to be lived,” as Anne Berest puts it. And after so many years, who of them remembers those few moments when our lives briefly crossed. 

I found out about another boy from the village one evening in 1985 while travelling in Nepal’s far western Terai on a rural development consultancy. After eating an early supper ina bhojnalayaopen to the bustling main street of Dhangadhi, wehoped to find a better place to takenext day’s breakfast, away from the honking horns, exhaust fumes and dust. 

A restaurant down the road looked promising, but when we entered to check it out we saw that it was more of a bistrothan a diner. It was the kind of place where men come to drink heartily, eatchaat or mo-mos, and talklate into the night. It wasfar too early for that, and the place was empty but for the owner in the kitchen preparing refreshments for the night’s crowd. When he looked up and saw me he exclaimed: “Mr Don! You’ve come.” 

I was astonished. I knew nobody in Dhangadi (I thought). So who was he, I wondered. And how did he know my name?

“I’m Narayan,” he said, but seeing that I was still puzzled, he added, “I am the mischievous school boy whom you knew when you lived in Kunchha.” As Kunchha is in the hills over 200 miles east of Dhangadhi, I had to refocus my thoughts. Then I remembered a young Narayan who had been mixed up in some sort of misbehavior over exam papers at the local high school. Now here he was, proprietor of a business far from his childhood home. We laughed about where life sometimes takes us, andnext morning, at his invitation, we returned for omelets with tea and toast. 

Not long after that I met yet another child of Kunchha, grown upnow and married, with children of her own. My son Hans and I had stopped for tea and a snack atPaudi Dhikon the road north through Lamjungto Besisahar, where a side road cuts west toward Kunchha, which I hadn’t visited in many years. We selected a teashop at random, entered, sat down and placed our order. When it came, the proprietress immediately addressed me as “Mr Don.” I had no idea who she was, but she remembered me, she said, as one of the Peace Corps volunteers who sometimes ate meals at her mother’shouse in Kunchha. “I was only three or four years old, and you read picture books to me,” she said. “Don’t you remember? I was the little sister to Narayan, the boy who got into trouble at the school...”

Small world.