Nepal

An excerpt from the book “Save Send Delete

Danusha Goska

Look – it’s fantastic: a carpenter in Israel two thousand years ago is crucified, and that fixes everything, everywhere, for everybody. Do I really believe that?

I have been obsessing on that question for days, and I have not come up with a “yes” answer or a “no” answer. Rather, I’ve come up with yet another story. Can you be patient and hear yet another story? Honestly, this is the best I can do.

Years ago I was a teacher in a tiny little outpost in Nepal. It wasn’t inhabited enough to be called a village, but let’s call it one. There was no electricity. No running water. No one had a radio. No planes flew overhead. It took me five days from the nearest dirt road to walk there.

There were only about four inhabited houses, in a rough scrape of yellow dirt, on a tongue-shaped plateau hanging seven thousand feet in air. On three sides, the earth dropped very steeply down through three thousand feet of zigzagging trail. First were pines and rocks. Rhododendron blazed up crimson in spring. As you climbed down through the thickets, careful not to get lost on woodcutter’s trails that meandered into mazes of brush, you heard peacocks whose lovelorn cries rippled curtains of monsoon rain.

You drank from waterfalls so pristine their exquisite beauty made you regret all of civilization. Up above you, gray langur monkeys shot the breeze. Their faces and hands are black because Hanuman, the monkey god, burned his face and hands while rescuing Sita from the fires of the
Ten-Headed Demon.

Wearying, you blessed chautaaras, platforms that pious souls erected around the base of pipal trees. Buddha achieved enlightenment under a pipal tree, a sacred fig, 2,500 years before, and travelers now rest at their bases. Chautaara platforms are built of stone and perfectly calibrated to reach just to the height of a load being released off of a weary traveler’s back. I can feel right now the rearrangement of muscles and bones after I backed up to a chautaara, placed my backpack on the platform, released the waistband, shrugged off the shoulder straps, and stepped forward. Refreshed, and climbing all the way down, you reach the
crashing white water and the foam of the Dudh Kosi, the river of milk, one of seven sister kosis.

There is also the Sun Kosi, the river of gold, and the Arun Kosi, the river of the dawn. The Milky Way is a reflection of these seven rivers; they are so full of reflective bits of mica from the Everest range of mountains which they erode.

On the fourth side, behind the village, the earth rose in wrinkles like a bunched-up carpet. This ridge blocked the sun; we always had an early sunset. Kids gathered firewood up there. Jackals ate one of the kids. His father wandered around, very sad, for days. People called out, “Hey! I heard a jackal ate your kid. I’m really sorry.” And he shrugged.

Wildcats stole chickens. This happened even as you watched. You knew you were watching five chickens and you’d not see a darn thing – they were that fast – and suddenly there were four chickens. Tracks of cat paws and chicken wings traced in the dust, but the cats were the same golden color as the ripe grain out of which they materialized.

During the day, sometimes, I heard clack, clack, clack; a weaver weaving homespun. I heard one isolated bird’s song. This was a wagtail, a small, gray, white, and black bird that patrolled the stream and ate its bugs. Some days, that bird’s song was the loudest, most significantly patterned sound I heard. Wind. Rain. Every night, the jackals, yelping.

Every now and then, someone would go down to the center of the settlement, and start hollering for all she was worth. I theorized that this might be a form of mental illness unique to this village, or a religious ritual. After I’d been in the village for months, I heard, way off in the distant hills, another person hollering back. Previously, I had not been acclimatized enough to hear the other half of the conversation.

I slipped a lunghi – a tube of cloth – over my head, dropped my sari to the ground, and walked into the wagtail’s stream. One day I washed my underwear before washing myself, and placed my underwear on a rock. By the time I was finished bathing, my underwear had frozen to the rock. I chipped them free with my Swiss Army Knife.

I had fleas. Everyone had fleas, but around me everyone had fewer fleas. Something about me was very attractive to fleas. When I slept next to others in tea shops, they would awake in the morning and bless Buddha for how few bites they had received in the night. My sleeping bag could practically walk.

For about a month in late winter, we could buy tangerines in the market. They were the best tangerines, ever, anywhere. I ate the peels. I can’t say that the peels tasted good. I can say that I was hungry. As the days become milder and winter loses its grip, the old harvest’s crops have all been eaten, and the new season’s crops are not yet in. Spring’s wild berries, fruiting from snow, tantalize your tongue, but cannot fill your stomach. I collected alien leaves along the path.

My test: if they looked benign, I ate them. My neighbors warned, “Miss, that stuff is poisonous!” I survived.

I had a favorite student. He was dyslexic, and I am, too. One Friday he gave me a marble; a rare gift in that village. I still have that marble in my backpack. Monday he did not show up for class. “Stomach ache.” Dysentery. He was dead.

In the United States, my brother became fatally ill. Within thirty-six hours of sleeping on a clay floor, under a wattle roof, where mice ran along unfinished rafters peeling bark, I was in the United States. I saw people so fat that they took up the space that two or even three Nepalis
take up. People complained of headaches, took aspirin, and were well. Homes were outfitted with curtains and wallpaper and picture frames and slip covers and bed sheets. An American room had more to protect it from mere air than my students, who were, as often as not, barefoot, with just their one ragged garment, day in, day out, between them and wind and sun and snow and rain. Americans threw away more manufactured objects in a given day than most of my villagers would touch in a year.

I was looking out the windshield of a car driving through Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. Pedestrians crossing the street, shoppers on the sidewalks, everyone, without exception, was acting out dramatic unhappiness. Their faces and postures told individualized accounts of bitterness, disappointment, paranoia. Shoulders slumped. Parents jerked children by their wrists.

I kept toting up all they had that most people in most places during most times in history never had: calories, choices, warmth in the cold, the ability to read, access to information; they could vote; they could drive; they could drink water from a tap; they could close a door and be alone on the other side of that closed door.

I didn’t want them to be better people. I didn’t want them to accept Jesus. I didn’t want them to box their old clothes and canned food and bandages and send that package anywhere. I just wanted them to be grateful. The car moved on through Pompton Lakes, New Jersey.

My brother died. I flew back to Nepal. In Peace Corps, there is a story that volunteers tell each other; often an old-timer will tell this to a new trainee. I don’t know if it is true. A Peace Corps volunteer comes back to the United States and goes mad in the cereal aisle of the supermarket.

I did not want to go mad. I wanted to be a good sister to my brother and daughter to my parents, and so I flew back to America when my brother was dying. I wanted to be a good teacher to Laxmi and Raj Kumar, and so I flew back to Nepal. I feared that I could not hold those two worlds in my mind without going mad. I did not even try. I said to myself: “When you are in this village, no place else exists. Once you leave, this village does not exist.”

Rand, I have had moments when I was as sure as I’ve ever been sure of anything that Jesus Christ is true man and true God, that he lived and died for you and me and that faith in him is all that is necessary. Those have not been moments of bliss. They terrify. Surety that God
suffered and died for *me* defies everything that I mime believing so that I can survive consensus reality. Belief in Jesus Christ violently wrenches me out of what I’ve come to nestle into as moorings.

Yes, Rand, I do. At this moment, as I write to you, and I inhabit my left brain, and run my sharpened pencil down the inventory of things I believe and find plausible and things I find fantastic and too painful even to contemplate, I believe. I don’t believe because it makes any sense in a world where rape and murder and war crimes and child abuse are rampant. I am as if a receiving clerk checking off a bill of lading against all my expectations of what a convincing deity should be and do.

That receiving clerk finds this story pretty outlandish, and, frankly, full of holes. But, even at this moment, when I inhabit my inner receiving clerk, I know that, while walking down modern streets in modern cities, against my attempts to forget her, to sequester her behind an impenetrable ghetto wall in my mind, for no better reason than my own cognitive convenience, I remember Nepal.

I remember hungry peasants who gave me their food, expecting nothing in return. I remember vivid joy and vitality in the faces of my students, filthy and barefoot though they were. I remember moonlight on that massive curtain of ice and rock, Nuptse Ridge. I remember the deafening silence and the blinding azure sky that became louder and more overpowering the closer I got to Sagarmatha. I know that that other reality exists.

I know because I was there.

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