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Published: June 10th 2013
The UN had added more technical assistance projects to its portfolio, and an additional secretary, named Kalpana Lopchan, was recruited to the office establishment to help cope with the growing work-load. Her aristocratic manner spoke of good breeding. She was assigned to a project room on the ground floor, so Frank only got to know her slowly. On the occasions that she came upstairs, Sunita ignored her.
“She is very charming, isn't she?” she said to him after one such visit. Frank looked at her. This sounded like sarcasm. He shrugged.
“She's a nice person, if that's what you mean.”
“Yes. Very nice,” she said brightly.
As the weeks went by Frank learnt something about Kalpana's past. She showed him a picture of her father with the brother of the last King of Sikkim, taken three days before the King’s brother was killed in an air crash. It was rumoured that the King was behind his brother’s death, and that he was also responsible for the death of Kalpana's father, a well-known doctor, and a man of importance in Sikkim. He was poisoned subsequently while travelling in a remote area. Her mother had died in child-birth, and so she had been brought up by distant relatives who had not shown any interest in her or her school achievements.
To escape an unhappy adolescence, she married young, and moved to Kathmandu with her husband, Tashi, and her two children, to find work. She had interesting stories to tell, and Frank was curious to meet her and her husband in their domestic setting. No invitation was proffered, and so, one day, he mounted his bike and cycled over to the district of the city where he knew they lived. There are no postal addresses in Kathmandu, but he only had to ask one shop-keeper where Kalpana and Tashi lived to get the directions he needed. They had obviously made their mark on their neighbourhood.
He dismounted and opened the big metal gate to their front yard. He had no idea what their reaction would be, but he was young and bold. Kalpana was bathing her newly born baby in a bowl, and gave a restrained whoop of delight when she saw who her visitor was. Tashi emerged from the house:
“I've heard all about you,” he said.“Welcome!”
They sat chatting in the yard for a while, while Kalpana finished soaping and rinsing her baby. The house was a shabby, nondescript, one-floor concrete structure, standing in unhappy contrast to the tall traditional red brick houses of the Newars, Kathmandu's indigenous people, Sunita’s people, that still predominated in the neighbourhood. The kitchen and toilet were in out-houses on either side of the yard.
Eventually, they moved inside. Inside consisted of just two tiny rooms, the one they were sitting in which was reserved for visitors, and the other the family bedroom. Frank was given a bowl of creamy millet beer, called chang
, to drink, and when Kalpana asked him to sing for him, Tashi seated himself cross-legged on the floor in front of his harmonium and sang in a mellifluous voice a song of love, its agonies and ecstasies:
Come, let us dance in this darkness like fireflies,
Float with the wind, like strands from the simal tree.
Leave our sorrows for tomorrow
For tomorrow we will suffer, come what may.
Whisper sweet words to me.
Dusk fades away too soon
Later tonight, all alone,
We will return to weep again.
As he sang, Kalpana clasped her heart and sighed.
It was getting dark and Frank got up to go. Tashi offered to show him a short route back into the heart of the city, and so they cycled companionably together through a confusing tangle of lanes and alleys. Some weird amplified sounds lured them to a small square where some hippies had gathered for a happening. While some sat meditating, others were blowing sporadically on a variety of instruments while a middle-aged hippy, with the long, matted hair of a Hindu sadhu
, did a long ba-paddy-bap on the mike. This improvised chant, utilising as it did as many spectacular vocal effects as was humanly possible, was acclaimed by the participants. Tashi and Frank joined a small group of Nepalese men who were sniggering among themselves at the performance.“My! This is wonderful! What amazing music!” Tashi said. “Where can I get a recording?” Frank caught the eye of another spectator, who had a less jocular take on the scene. “They are doing mockery of our religion,” he said. “It's very disgraceful.”
A meditating girl kitted out with a headband and a motley assortment of multi-coloured garments, sat cross-legged with her eyes closed.In front of her was a begging bowl with a few coins in it.
“Why do foreigners come here and pretend to be poor. Is poor good?” observed another of the on-lookers, in English for his benefit. “They are rich but come to Nepal to beg. It's crazy.” The girl opened her eyes, and caught Tashi's eye and smiled. Tashi smiled broadly back. “It's nice to see a western girl meditating,” he murmured. She was beautiful, and had bestowed her smile on him. It was enough to win her a dispensation from the general condemnation. Although she had closed her eyes again, after easing the discomfort she was obviously experiencing in holding to the lotus position, Tashi remained transfixed.
Frank took his leave of him. Reluctantly tearing his eyes away from the vision, Tashi told him that he was welcome to visit them any time, and if he came at the weekend, he could sleep overnight.
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