And by what destiny or virtue does one, at a certain age, make the important choice, and become “accomplice” or “rebel”? From what source do some people derive their spontaneous intolerance of injustice, even though the injustice affects only others? And that sudden feeling of guilt at sitting down to a well-laden table when others are having to go hungry? And that pride which makes poverty and prison preferable to contempt?
When I was eight years old I had a friend named Cass Estes. Cass was older than me by a year, and was definitely one of the cooler kids in grade three. Her mother, Georganne, was my second grade teacher and sometimes I would take my time in the classroom after school just to hang out with Cass, who would inevitably show up with ideas of animals to draw on the chalkboard with the brighter colored chalks and games to play. Her short dark rolling curls were not unlike mine. She was wilder than so many of the kids at Lincoln School, which was itself a fairly wild school, as any tiny hamlet of exploration-bound minds from every corner of the world would be in Kathmandu in 1984.
On rare but not unwelcome occasions I would walk to Cass’ house, through the clamouring streets punished by road-beaten TATA trucks from India, past the cows and funeral pyres, down the footpaths and alleys, and finally across a small stretch of land that led to the gate in the fence just opposite her door. It was a world of incense and rice, blood and gods, filth and intrigue. Stones and trees imbued with the essence of a particular deity marked all paths, each coated with tika powder and the greasy residue of tiny butter lamps that burned a sour smoke into the air.
On this day I was going to have pizza eggs. A unique invention of Georganne’s that Cass had also mastered, although now, so many years later, she has no memory of them. The concept was simple – an egg, fried, with pizza sauce on top, and, perhaps, if available, a little cheese. It was a good snack for an eight-year-old, almost like getting real pizza, which didn’t exist in Nepal save for homemade, and even then the ingredients never were quite right. We had to make due.
On this day I was going to get to hang out with Cass. I was excited about that. Perhaps it is why I remember the circumstances so clearly – more clearly than any other of that time period. I have no memory of what we did, other than the pizza eggs, or even the inside of the house. I don’t remember going home. I remember very little, actually, except this: on this day my life changed. I feel it even now with the visceral awakening that only comes from moments of profound realisation. I credit it as the beginning of my awareness of injustice and my place in it. I credit it with permanently shifting how I would live my life.
On this day a boy was standing at Cass’ front gate. I could see him at a distance as I emerged from the chaos of what still was, at that point, a small but not un-busy city, roiling in the puzzled maze of organic human structures of process and survival. Dishwater thrown in the street for lack of plumbing, mangy and beleaguered dogs sorting the refuse piles, monkeys and cows interrupting their pillage at various occasions – the cows large enough to scare them off, the monkeys tough and quick enough to sweep in for choice fruit or to reach their hands into the bags the dogs couldn’t open. Momos steamed in giant pots. Crows and rickshaws and metal workers and bangle shops and butchers occupied the street sides. And bikes. Rickety Chinese frames, somehow indestructible and punishingly heavy, repaired and patched and rebuilt well beyond their expectancy.
The boy stood. He leaned lightly against the railing of the short fence, and was unmoving. I stopped to ponder him. Who was this stranger? Why was he at Cass’ house? He clearly was Nepali, but looked different. He held himself in sorrow. I could see it even at distance. There was something wrong. I felt empathy, perhaps as all children do, and perhaps as all humans should – a function of the raw emotion of childhood or a core element of being human.
As I got nearer I could hear him crying. His clothing – simply a burlap sack he had found and cut a hole in like a poncho, covered his body to about his knees. We were both about a burlap-sack-and-a-half tall, and when I reached him, after apprehensively but casually walking the worn dirt to the gate, our eyes met as equals.
His face was raw, red in the weary spots and dirty at the nostrils. His thick black hair was matted and dusty, and his cheeks were lined with miniature canals funnelling the water through tiny dirt walls from his eyes down past the corners of his mouth, to the tipping point at the base of his chin. From there the tears fell off into the dry dusty dirt. He could not stop sobbing.
I looked at him. He was shaking lightly. He reacted only with acknowledgement that I was there. He said nothing, but breathed the tired and irregular breath of emotional exhaustion. I asked him, without the language skills or hesitance that perhaps some foreigners may consider before engaging, if he was okay. He looked at me and answered in Nepali. It was unintelligible to me. I’d only been in Nepal a year, and my words were those of an exploratory child: how are you, what is this, where can I buy kites. He sobbed through the beginning of a story and I began to slow him down. I listened and he continued, in that mix of theatre and expression that surpasses language amongst children, and the few mutual words we could muster.
He was from the Terai, the lowlands along the Indian border – restless and populated by tigers and elephants as much as some of the poorest of Nepali families. His family was there. They farmed but had nothing. A man had come. He had come to all of the families. He had offered jobs to their children, good, paying honest jobs in the city. Kathmandu. Many hours by winding and dangerous roads through the mountains up north. The man would provide the transport, the boy explained, he came with big TATA trucks and would drive any of the aspiring young workforce to his construction site in the city. The money was there, Kathmandu was growing and the money was there. The boy’s family, too poor to refuse, had put the boy in one of the trucks and he had said goodbye to them there. He was on his own and, like so many children of poverty, was made to grow up too quickly.
He had not mistrusted the man. Indeed, when they arrived in Kathmandu there was the construction work, and even a place to sleep. He had worked for many months – hard labor for a small boy, carrying stone and clearing refuse, barefoot and without a change of clothes. I can only imagine that it was when these wore through, too threadbare to continue, that he had fashioned the burlap sack around his body.
Just days before, the project had finished and the team was to be returned by truck to the Terai, where they would be reunited with their families and paid. Without telephones or post, the absence had been silence, and the boy was heartbroken with the grief of that parting. His mother and father would not know that the boy was not on that truck, nor would they know even to look for it anymore than they surely normally would, awaiting their child with expectation, as it had now been many months. The truck would not come.
The boy had been sent out on the last day of construction, and abandoned to the street. He was not paid for his work and was not provided transport. He was not literate and was never able to read the name of the company. He did not know where the Terai was, but he knew he was from there. He did not know how large the Terai is, or where in particular he should go if he was to get there. But none of that mattered. He did not have any way to get there. He had no money. No food. No friends. No relatives. No clothes. No place to sleep at night. He could not articulate where his parents were. And he had no trust for men.
We stood there, him trembling slightly but calmed that someone had listened. I stood like a black hole, reeling in the gravity and immensity of our lived experiences. I wanted to show the boy, somehow, that I was crumbling on the inside. That I understood how profound his sorrow and fear were. But I did not understand. All I could understand was that these things do not have endings. They do not have finishing points, that you can’t quantify and demonstrate that you too know the feeling. We never will. All I could comprehend at that time was sorrow. And that is not finite.
And helplessness. I could comprehend helplessness. I felt it. I strained to consider options. I worked quickly in my head to devise strategies, but I found none. I had no way to right these wrongs. I was eight years old and I could not imagine my way to make things right. I simply did not know how. All I had was the rupees in my pocket, whatever was left of my twenty rupee allowance, which I gave to him and he held, for lack of a pocket or sock to stuff them in. I gave him also whatever strength I could muster, although I do not know that he was aware.
I left him there. Standing, crying.
In my life now I think about this boy. I think about him often. I wonder if he got back to the Terai, although I do know the answer. I wonder if he is alive. I wonder what his life looks like in parallel to mine. I wonder if he was ever able to stop crying.
It is that memory that defines who I am. It has shaped my life.
I do not remember any more of this day, save the pizza eggs. But the boy will be with me as I die.