It's raining incessantly, a monotonous drone drearily knocking on wooden panes. I lean over the window of the wooden house that I call home. gazing at the myriad colours unfolding under a luminescent grey sky and the smiling gold rimmed eyes of Lord Buddha on a hilltop boring down into infinite stretches of stench, filth, poverty and brilliant sunsets.... Blowing away a lingering stray hair, listening to nature's rhythm alternating between a frenzied climactic din on tinned roofs and a stealthy hushed up muffle. This is a world where the rich and the poor lie closely juxtaposed, constantly surveying each other under a microscopic glance, one envying the full throated laughter seeping to the streets below from winding stairwells and the other...? It's the sanctified grounds of the Pashupati temple; undying expanses of glistening idols gaping blankly into eternity, compassionate and avenging deities freely mingling with a stream of humanity; fat, skinny, poor and wealthy, beggars and tramps. Shiny Mercedes and green Maruti taxis, tooting rickshaws, muddy river water and soap bubbles blending with fragrant incense and fuming pyres and glowering embers of scorched corpses; the remains of someone's aunt, father, son or mother.
When I start the story of Kanchi. I wish to begin from the start, not that her birth was anything near to being momentous, there were no celebrations and no sawing heads off goats and even chickens. She was born because she had to be born. sad but a bitter truth! Her mother kept mourning repeatedly deeply hurt by yet another daughter. " I can't put her back in my stomach, didi (sister), so she might as well come out..." I suppose she was an accident formed in a passionless coupling where biological urge prevailed over any emotion that came close to affection and in due course became a newborn wrapped in a bundle of tattered saris, abandoned to suckle her thumb in the corner of a dingy shack while her mother trudged along to the gates of Pashupati temple joining hands in supplication, bowing, rubbing red vermilion paste on her forehead, praying for a son and promising the lord a coconut and undying devotion in return.
Tolling temple bells from the banks of river Bagmati harken the valley of fierce deities into golden shadows, the clanging bells herald no blessed sacred showers but scream through a gathering dusk, splitting, screeching, vibrating over trees sullenly naked and seeping into a surrounding dreariness which by now you know is the world that the likes of Kanchi, my heroine inhabits. A little shack against the wall of my building with our windows curiously staring at each other its as if we view each other's lives through these gaping holes intent and absorbed with faces pressed against the panes. Stripped off all warmth she sits pale today squatting on the floor, a stainless steel plate glaring up at her, scantily furbished with whatever "ama" (mother) has been saving all day, a little rice and a lump of watery potato curry. She gazes at it wistfully. She has just come back from her neighbours' house across the street, thankfully for her they have a daughter of her age, her playmate and she has had her fill of yellow haired dolls and brilliant coloured plastic toys and not even the steel plate glinting at her can wrench away the thrill that has enveloped her guts.
"Chaali chapli setting in dewal
Couting nummer sikty pho...."
(Charlie Chaplin sitting on the wall
Counting numbers sixty-four....)
She hums the rhyme twisting words of a language largely incomprehensible, nibbling at the meal and licking off morsels running down her hands. After the meal she will go down to the river and come back lugging a copper water pot on the crook of her hips, moving a little from side to side with the lightness of a pendulum. Dodging greedy, street dogs milling around the butchers' shop. Smiling at the potbellied shop keeper busy cracking betel nuts while spitting out a flame of red spit on the floor. "Aye, Kanchi wants to marry my son," the mustachioed neighbourhood drunk, raucously teases her as she hurries home where nightly chores patiently await her little chapped fingers. "C'mon hurry you good for nothing girl," screams her mother swaying on the doorstep, a heavily pregnant mother of three who by day sells little amulets and flowers on leaf plates on the portals of the temple where the massive bull Nandi sits towering on a stocky potbelly, dolefully gazing down at worshippers tripping past.
I get up to familiar sounds in the morning with the loudest blare imaginable from my neighbours' made in China radio churning out latest Hindi film songs very close to my ears and the swoosh of onions on frying pans. It's nine o'clock and every one is hurrying past my door. First comes Santa didi freshly powdered with pink lipstick in a bright green sari, proudly touting her children "Bye bye. going to school" the two heavily oiled students call out to neighbours. Maya auntie my landlady waddles down the rickety stairs, sighing and loudly blowing her nose at every step, with betel leaf stained teeth, the official commentator of anything "hanky panky," that is worth a gossip in the narrow nooks and crannies of the neighbourhood, presently on a self imposed exile from things that she deems mundane like, cooking and cleaning. Dedicating herself passionately to match making, bhajans and puja (hymns and prayer) and churning out "top of the line" comments on a wide variety of subjects ranging from teenaged pierced belly buttons, mini skirts and greedy politicians to ongoing scandals and controversies. Maya auntie drops into my room once in awhile on her way to the temple, hastily examines my room, sniffing nosily as if she were on the look out for condoms and scandals, plomps herself cross-legged in my armchair turning over the pages of a magazine and wrinkling her nose at the pictures of actresses in bared midriffs and after a hot cup of chiya (tea) offered out of mere compulsion and habit on my part and heartily welcomed with a gracious smile by her she continues her pilgrimage. Down below in the gates of the temple, Kanchi's mother has started cajoling and coaxing pilgrims hoisting her sari up above her knees and swearing on the entire pantheon of gods and goddesses that her flowers come from the cleanest plots in the valley.
I think Kanchi's mother exists in a microcosm, wrapped up in a vignette of dreams and personal cravings and a deadly desperation to feed her children, relishing bits and pieces of diverse emotions and outbursts of cruelty. Sometimes she brings radish pickles to me and asks me if I could teach Kanchi ABCs and sometimes she releases her rage that must be locked up all inside and once unlocked flows out lava like seething with fury. She is screaming today in the middle of frenzy that her kids do not understand. "Hurry before I tell your father and he thrashes you and move quickly you. lazy girl," she lashes out stinging her poor daughter into instant action. Kanchi runs into the hut and starts vigorously pulling the strings of the straw cradle wherein lies her sister cuddled up in the warmth of tattered rags, faintly smelling of urine- dank and fetid. "Hush baby go to sleep", she mutters, mumbles and dozes crawling close to the coal stove, its soft embers giving off a feverish heat. the only living warmth in the shack. It's night this little study of tragedy and misery of my time must be sleeping, probably dreaming of holding a little yellow haired and blue eyed doll, softly sighing and tossing involuntarily closing her ears to the sound of creaking wooden planks and occasional grunts; her father and mother are at it again. Making babies. So many babies and so little rice....
Little THOUGHTS, few LONGINGS, innocent DREAMS and A PLATEFUL OF HOT STEAMING FOOD and probably boring into her drowsy soul are blue eyed dolls and English rhymes as she consigns herself to sleep and the all pervading labyrinth of noise; barking dogs, a restless river, quivering wooden planks and noisy grunts. Night draws to an end. her night as usual has been an ordeal puffed up with trifle heartaches and a half full stomach.
My Kanchi has joined her mother they are allies, sharing a gunny bag on the floor of the temple complex selling flowers. Running after tourists and worshippers alike tugging at the corner of brilliant red saris, handing out amulets she has been taught to say "Six rupees only madam please, buy, please," if things go well she will pocket at least three rupees and happily strut back to her mother who closely follows the progress of her young protege. Kanchi's father, Rame dai an irresponsible man, rather a Casanova in his sober state, quite handsome in a rugged way, flaunting his looks to get sympathy from the fairer sex, an out and out male chauvinist pig, beats up people at the drop of a hat and apologises for his wrong doings when sober, cries broken heartedly when drunk, perpetually in a state of stupor. He sits close by drinking tea, letting life slide by. Nonchalance suits him well. Leaning on the table of his early morning habitual den "She is six. old enough to help," he mutters at the old women huddled together on the doorsteps of the dilapidated Pashupati old home, nodding their heads in unison. Wisdom and age oozing from every word uttered, senior citizens, the gnarled habitants of the Pashupati old home come together for a biweekly ritual of prayers and hymns, a cantankerous loud affair with hooting conch shells, jangling of bells and sudden outbursts of "Hare Shiva." They will totter back gaily to their tiny corners with armful of alms from the wealthy to pacify wrathful deities, shooing off half-dressed street urchins and familiar beggars waiting on the stairs ways to jump on the old selfish hags. At dusk the river Bagmati swells dwindles and turns murky washing away the feet of corpses as a red bridal sari torn away from a dead woman reluctantly trails along. As evening settles down and the temple silhouette blends into the night. I hear Kanchi singing
"Aija chuneri chunu munu chunu mun aija,
Aija chuneri aija ho baba hoho."
"Come pretty sleep come
Come to my little baby."
An ancient lullaby that has echoed within walls of marble laden homes and fragrant white palaces lined with Jacaranda trees hummed by fragile bejeweled mothers in imported nighties. Her hands are busy and intent pushing the cradle suspended from a tin ceiling... I hear the familiar Creak! Creak! Creak! The beams in the ceiling sing out in rhythmic protest as the grown up sister of six puts her sister to sleep.
Kanchi's mother has stopped making her routine dish washing calls on me and when I meet her occasionally on the temple stairs she smiles awkwardly, bursting and swelling with her pregnancy, she tells me it's the... "Lords work," raising her eyes towards the sky and confiding... "Didi what to tell you, I have nothing to do in this matter, my husband wants a son. Kanchi sits close by looking up with eyes that are little dream pools of hope suspended... fluttering, waking.dying. spinning, her fingers hovering over the wilted flowers.
It is early morning and I wake up to an agitated noise and loud shouts from the street below and get up, leaning over the window to see a small crowd gathered behind the tea stall. Animated gesticulating and loud shouts from below. Sarita didi comes screaming up the stairs spluttering, "Come quick... somebody has thrown a newborn baby in a sack, it's dead." "Hare! Shiva! . Bad times are here. Imagine! Doing it so close to the temple. may the witch get sores and die..." yells my landlady spitting arrows of white saliva on the ground below, hitting her palms against a leathery forehead and leaning over the railing and directing a "I told you so" look at the increasing volume of bystanders below and gaping tenants. I look down at a world suddenly turned awry, mad and bewildering.
Monsoon has long gone from the valley foraging for victims in stranger places falling on unknown tin roofs and courtyards. It's a sunny Tuesday in the valley, my neighbours have roused themselves up, down below people squat bundled around teashops, transistors gaily blaring out film songs and business is in full swing with the vegetable vendors and flower sellers. It has been many months since I last saw Kanchi and her mother. I was told in a conspiratorial tone by Maya auntie that Rame dai had taken them back to Panchthar, their village in the hills and Kanchi's mother was accused of strangling a live baby girl and would serve ten years in a prison in Charkhal Adda, Dilli Bazar in Kathmandu. She was found inside the temple premises clutching her dazed children close to her breasts in a state of delirium, smelling like a sutkeri (woman who has just delivered) raving and ranting at the gods and accusing Rame dai. who always wanted a son swearing on the stony idols .that she had not killed the stony idols.. That she had not killed the baby. she was innocent!
As I write this, I wonder where Kanchi is. She is most probably running bare feet along a muddy path with hair streaming in the wind, down to the village school with a book tucked under her arm. Squatting for hours in a shop handing out betel nuts to customers and keeping coins under a mat or sweeping the floors of a big house and given a square meal in return. Well! Who knows she might still be in the streets of Kathmandu, salvaging plastic bags and bottles from under a pile of rubble by day and by night humming lullabies and gently patting her sisters to sleep while Rame dai looks on nonchalantly... letting life slide by. noisily sucking at a Khukhuri brand cigarette and flicking ashes on the ground.