“What I learned in Nepalganj” in the Peace Corps, “has kept me alive in situations when I might have gotten killed.”
By T.D. Allman
April 12, 2015
Nepal-I met my first untouchables in Nepalganj, a writhing market town on the Indian border where living gods and human feces are scattered all over the place. I also became acquainted with my first prince there. He and his wife received me in their small palace, a whitewash-streaked ersatz-Palladian structure with a tin roof. Over tea we discussed defecation. It was a perplexing and important topic for a cleanliness-obsessed young American like me. For the first time in my life, I was living in a place where almost everyone was not white, and not prosperous, and not one person in a thousand had ever used toilet paper. My house had no toilet, only a circular cement hole in the floor. Daily-and when my latest attack of diarrhea struck, many times a day-I would approach that hole with a greater sense of foreboding than later, as a war correspondent, I would any battlefield. The people in Nepalganj had no such scruples. They moved their bowels, it seemed, anywhere the spirit moved them. “You too must squat!” the prince informed me, while his wife poured more tea. “It assures a more complete and healthy evacuation than your American sit-down affairs.” We turned next to love. I had heard that people here actually got married to people they had never met. “Oh, you Occidentals and your love matches!” the prince exclaimed. “When you marry, your love is like a vat of boiling water. As soon as you get married, you take the water off the heat. Everything cools off, whereas our arranged marriages,” he continued, “are like pots of cold water. When we marry, the pot is put on to the heat, so year by year it gets hotter.” At this point, he and his wife exchanged glances of tender complicity.
The Sweeper’s Beautiful Wife
The first untouchable I got to know was the sweeper who came almost every day to the little house in the middle of the bazaar where I lived. “Sweeper” was a euphemism. His essential function was to assure the removal of the human waste I deposited into that round hole in the concrete. Beneath it was a rectangular cavity the size of large suitcase. On the street side of the cavity was a little door. With a mixture of dread and eagerness, I awaited the sweeper’s first visit to that little door-dread because of the shame and injustice of it all, eagerness out of a desire to have that fetid material removed from my vicinity. The sweeper never came; he made his wife do it. She would use a large wooden scalpel to scrape my refuse into a wicker basket. I never met the sweeper’s wife. Whenever I did glimpse her, making her rounds with her basket, she would avert her eyes, out of shame or modesty I never knew, though once I did I see her face. She was as beautiful as a Bollywood starlet. Her husband, in contrast, loved to visit. He would lean on his broom as he quizzed me about America. He was astonished to learn that we didn’t have water buffaloes in America, and even more astounded to learn that in the villages in America, people spoke English. He had assumed that American farm folk spoke dehati, the country tongue villagers did hereabouts, while in American cities, just as in Nepalganj, he supposed, the rich educated people spoke English. Years later, when I came back to Nepalganj, I met many of the people I’d known during my Peace Corps days there, from 1966 to 1968. The sweeper reflected on how good life had been to him and his wife. They had 12 children; every one of them had learned to read and write. He showed me a treasured possession: his Nepalese passport. In Nepal, passports are for the elite, the high caste. How had he established his right to such a document? “My grandfather was the public executioner,” he explained. “Whenever it was time to behead someone,” he said with pride, “they would call for babuji.” Among the evidence he had marshaled to prove his Nepali citizenship was the axe, handed down through the generations in his family. Today condoms in dozen of shapes and colors are festooned for sale in every cigarette stall, but that time I discussed arranged marriages with the prince and his wife, they informed me that they were the first couple in Nepalganj to practice family planning. Ultimately they had three children. One of their sons became a Marxist-Leninist politician and got himself elected mayor. They also were among the first to get a satellite dish. It was bigger than a beach umbrella. Over the years it became rusted and pocked with many holes, but it still pulled in sketchy images from all over the world. The last time we met, in the late 1980s, I confessed to the prince that I’d never fully mastered the squat position. He told me his knees had gotten so bad he now had to use a Western-style toilet. Their little palace had long since been demolished and replaced with a nondescript modern building. They ran an English-language school in it. The prince and the untouchable occupied opposite ends of the hierarchical spectrum of people I came to know during the 21 months I lived in Nepalganj. The young barber who shaved me with an old-fashioned straight razor every few days later slashed himself to death. He loved looking at the pictures in my art history books, especially those with naked women in them. The washer man, tall and spindly, looked like the stork bringing babies in fairy tales as he came and went with his sacks of laundry.
You Can’t Pick and Choose
I also came to know a family of clever capitalists. One of the sons created a sensation when he came home from studies abroad with a white wife. Like everybody else in Nepalganj, they didn’t realize that when it comes to what back then we called “development,” you can’t pick and choose. Over the coming decades this wealthy joint family would gradually be sundered by all the modern wonders-from the transistor radio to the idea that you should marry for love-whose intrusion they had enabled. One of Nepalganj’s most animated conversationalists was an Indian tea shop owner with a Clark Gable mustache. “No life without wife,” he would remind me. “Cheapest is best,” he added whenever I paid more than necessary for a battery or a thermos. People whispered that he was living on the Nepal side of the Indian border because of some unspecified misdemeanor. Later he returned to India and became a successful politician, affiliated with the Hindu nationalist movement. “We want good relations with the United States of America,” he assured me. Among many other things, Nepalganj taught me what it’s like to be a rock star. The neighbor women, shameless, would stare at me through my windows. Whatever I was doing, they stared and stared. It was like being inside a television set. The eyes of all those young students who came to wonder at me brimmed over with excitement and hope. A few wound up teaching school, or got jobs as clerks in government offices. Most would come of age in a world stripped of the old certainties, devoid of new opportunities as well. My presence didn’t produce “development.” It did help fuel the revolution of rising expectations, which in Nepalganj eventually became a real revolution. Before Nepal’s bitterly violent civil war finally ended in 2006, there would be political murders in the same bazaar where during the hot season I’d identified the cuts of meat and pieces of fish by the different shapes the flies swarming over them made. Looking back, I sometimes ask myself why it is that the flies and feces still horrify me in some visceral way that acid rain and holes in the ozone layer never do. Sometimes I think of the people I never knew in Nepalganj-of the musicians who night after night, accompanied by a harmonium player, would sing in the Hindu temple that stood right in the middle of the main bazaar road. Why did I never stop to visit with the naked sadhu with the trident who lived under that big tree?
It seems strange to say it, but in Nepalganj, far more than in the rural areas where I’ve lived, the progression of the seasons shaped what I felt and saw. My first monsoon took weeks to get there. Every night people would go up on their roofs and watch as the rains, visible on the far horizon, crept closer. Then came the exciting moment when you heard the thunder as well as saw the lightning. The monsoon surged upon us in the nighttime blackness, in a deluge of hail. People burst out of their houses laughing, rubbing themselves with the ice. Within days, people were complaining. Would the rain never end? As if by magic, the rains had turned Nepalganj from a sea of dust into an ocean of mud. During the winter dry season, the giant-wheeled oxcarts ground the dust of Nepalganj so fine and powdery that by moonlight it felt and looked like snowfall in Vermont. It would get so cold that at night there was nothing to do except huddle inside my sleeping bag on my rope bed, trying to get news on the short-wave radio. By day everyone sat outside, trying to absorb some warmth from the sun. Mostly you never thought of Nepal’s famous mountains. Then, on one of those clear cold days, you’d look up, and there they were: the great Himalaya sparkling on the horizon, a hundred miles, and a two month trek, to the north. For most of my time, I was the only American within 50 miles. I flattered myself that I was one of the very first Americans ever to visit Nepalganj. Then in a building on the outskirts of town I came upon an immense old photograph. Framed under dusty glass, leaning unnoticed against a wall, it was the size of a modern flat screen TV, though its images were as grainy and monochrome as those in an old silent movie. It depicted a hunting party. The splayed cadavers of tigers occupied the foreground. In the background you could see the mahouts with their elephants. In the middle of the photograph, surrounded by turbaned nawabs, squinting through his glasses, leaning on his rifle, was Theodore Roosevelt.
The Nepalganj Lesson
I’ll always be deeply grateful to Nepalganj because it’s there, starting at age 21, that I learned the most important thing of all-what I call the Nepalganj Lesson. We may be rich or poor, literate or illiterate, but in an essential, irreducible way we are equal. It is that all humans are truly, totally, completely, indivisibly, equal. We may be rich or poor, literate or illiterate, Boston Brahmins or untouchables, but in an essential, irreducible way we are equal-equally fallible, equally capable of good and evil, of every glory and depravity.
As I soon would discover, first in Laos and Cambodia, and then across the world, it’s a lesson many people refuse to learn, no matter how many opportunities life gives them. Again and again, I would see how easy it is to keep counting bodies, to keep throwing good money after bad, to keep purporting that this time violence is the answer, as long as you can keep yourself from understanding that the people you’re trying to kill or save are exactly like you-that in an irreducible sense, they are you. Nepalganj taught me too well for that. Nepalganj gave me world-smarts. In some pervasive way it humanly enabled me too. I truly do not know what might have become of me without Nepalganj. For decades its utter inability to make the world seem happier or easier than it really is has helped me see past the clichés, the conventional wisdoms, the official spokesman cant, what are today called “talking points.” What I learned in Nepalganj has kept me alive in situations when I might have gotten killed; it’s helped me live well too. Thanks to what I learned there, much more than what I learned at Harvard and Oxford, I have been professionally and financially self-sufficient ever since. To this day there’s still a lot more of Nepalganj inside me than there is of Paris or Washington, though not of New York, of Cairo, of Bangkok. That’s why it remains one of my hometowns, wherever I go.
After Nepalganj, T.D. Allman exposed the CIA’s secret war in Laos, rescued massacre victims in Cambodia, became an Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, survived a kidnapping in Beirut, a bullet in Tiananmen Square, and a balloon crash in Kathmandu while reporting from more than 90 countries. He presently lives in France, New York, and Miami. His article on Laos will appear in an upcoming edition of National Geographic.
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(Thanks To Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975-76) for the ‘Heads Up’)