Mr A. Writinghawk (writinghawk) wrote,
Mr A. Writinghawk

Among the mustard

Our departure is delayed by bureaucracy till the next morning, and despite sunnier estimates takes over 12 hours, on a very long bus journey to Urlabari, followed by an autorickshaw to S's sister's house where we pick up his motorbike and set off out of town. Though we woke at 5 and arrived at the bus station by 6, it is dark by the time when, racing along crazy twists and turns among narrow raised paths between fields, we finally reach his family home. The verandah is bustling with people: various relatives and other neighbours have come to peer at the visitor. S tells me I am probably the first foreigner ever to visit the village.

In the morning, the brilliant spring-like sunshine gives me my first clear view of my surroundings. The house is built of cheerfully blue-painted bricks with a tin roof, and consists, beside the verandah, of three bedrooms - one of which has been vacated in my honour. The kitchen is an outhouse of bamboo wattle and daub, also tin roofed. The only tap is a pump in the front yard fed from a tube well; a water filter, which consists of concrete filled with sand and pebbles, stands next to the kitchen and renders the water potable; and another tiny outhouse of corrugated tin holds the usual Asian squat toilet. In the fields round about the predominant crop is mustard, whose bright yellow flower is reminiscent of that other oilseed, rape. 'When the seeds will be ready they will be red' (one of the children explains to me). 'We will take them out (of the pod) and they will dry and we will take them to the mill and get oil.' Of course, mustard-greens are also eaten as a vegetable like spinach.

The land is so fertile that it grows paddy in the rainy season and a second crop in the winter. Those not filled with mustard are growing potatoes or wheat or what have you or are ploughed ready for planting. Coconut, betel-nut and banana palms, bamboo, grapefruit and lychee trees grow round about, and goats, buffalo, chickens, roosters, dogs and cats roam hither and yon. Sheaves of rice are tightly stacked in cylinders with the stalks outwards, to deter rats, and with conical tops to throw off rain. Boys play cricket with a tennis ball and a misshapen stick, farmers drive oxen drawing wagons loaded with sacks, and women wash clothes and pots at their pump.


Someone decides, perhaps because of my meagre pretensions to have been a teacher once, that I should pay a visit to the village school. It is quickly arranged and we zoom off on the inevitable motorcycle. The school gate gives onto a large field with a row of poky brick classrooms along one edge. All the classes are taking place in circles sitting in the field, the classrooms being deserted (because they are 'too cold', S says, though this makes no sense). But there do not seem to be all that many students in the field, either, at least compared with its size. S together with the maths teacher, the only one who seems to speak any English, explain that this is because more than half of Nepali school students now go to private boarding schools, which are considered much superior to government schools like this one, partly on account of their English-medium teaching. When this school was built many more local children would have been its pupils. The teachers take me to be some vague kind of Official Visitor and soon cheerfully gather round to chat, forsaking their classes, whose ring-shapes on the grass like fairy rings slowly crumble and dissolve as the kids take advantage of their sudden unexpected freedom.


Our next call is to a rather grand wooden house as such things go - it is on two storeys - belonging to Bidhya Devi Bhandari, the current and first female president of Nepal. The house now functions as a kind of museum consisting of some dusty empty rooms and a series of photographs, above a doorway, of communist leaders from Marx to someone who may be the President's late husband, who was a Nepali communist leader. Besides its imposing stature and well-kept garden, the house's principal feature of interest is a lookout gallery and series of hidden entrances and trap doors, built when he was a rebel leader and a quick getaway might have been needed at any time. I first take the gallery to be one from which one would wave and address crowds - but it is unlikely that anything much like a crowd would be found in this fairly remote village.


Later on we ride into Urlabari to meet some friends of S. The little roadside town now seems like a thriving metropolis. We have tea served from a hatch in the wall and then, on a whim of someone's, zoom off to see a nearby tea plantation, on a large area of land belonging, I'm told, to the former king. Acres of tea bushes, with tall trees planted among them for shade, are criss-crossed by a square grid of broad paths. Nepal's most famous tea is Ilam, which grows not far from here but in the hills, which are supposed to have the best climate and topography for tea. Many Nepalis will tell you - I have never investigated the story - that the still more famous tea garden of Darjeeling properly belongs to Nepal, and that India has effectively annexed it but continues to pay rent for it, or some such tale.

In the evening, after dinner, S tells me that another delegation of relatives has arrived in hope of seeing his distinguished visitor. 'There are lots of pretty girls,' he says. I ask tartly if he couldn't have found any pretty boys but he makes a face and leads me onto the verandah, where assorted people are standing around including some newcomers, young women (some of them married) who are introduced as nieces or cousins of some kind. They are perishingly shy and will hardly speak, so conversation is halting, though I am of course my usual affable self and even play them a tune on the whistle. Before long S decides that the audience is at an end and shoos me, somewhat peremptorily, back into my room, but they soon pluck up courage and poke their heads round the door, and S and a couple of others follow and soon I am hosting a small party. Aayush interprets as they ask me questions. Then he takes down a guitar from behind the bed, and calls on his cousin Anjan to play it. Anjan is summoned, and can fingerpick the tune of some well-known Nepali song moderately competently, while singing the same song, also moderately competently but in a completely unrelated key. ('Excellent,' I say afterwards, with only partial honesty.) Luckily some of the others join in the song and drown out the discordant guitar strings. After that I sing 'Molly Malone', and teach them to join in the chorus; and then the evening is declared a great success and everyone retires to bed.
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