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Published: July 19th 2013
Now that his time in Kathmandu was drawing to a close, Frank felt honour-bound to return the hospitality that he had enjoyed over the eighteen months of his volunteering assignment. His UN colleagues had often had him around for meals, but, lacking adequate accommodation and the cooking facilities needed to entertain anyone with higher expectations than his fellow volunteers, he had been unable to reciprocate.
During one of his flute lessons, he asked Lakpa if he would be able and willing to organise a party at the school in the Jawalakhel refugee camp where he and his parents lived. Lakpa was thrilled at the prospect and suggested that he and his friends and family make momos
, Tibetan meat dumplings, one of his favourites, washed down, naturally, with chang.
Putting his trust in his Tibetan friends to deliver a great farewell event for him, Frank handed invitations to everyone inhabiting his social universe: on the one hand, his volunteer friends, for whom this event would not be anything out of the ordinary; and, on the other hand, his work colleagues, both friends and enemies, who would regard the party as a cultural and gastronomic adventure, and possibly, a source of scandal. This well-heeled group included Mr Al Falan, the irascible head of mission, who had not forgiven him for not falling in with his plans. His instinct would be to refuse the invitation, so Frank handed the invitation to his charming wife, who was always up for an interesting experience. He could trust her to drag her husband along. Then there was the great UN diplomat, Jegan Rajasingham, who would attend if the Al-Falan's attended. The frustrated and yearning Jenny Van der Byl, who had shared an office with him for over a year and a half, could be trusted to come out of loyalty to him. The meddling Messrs Pradhan and Malla, would attend in order to ascertain what new scandals Frank could offer them, in spite of their disdain for unclean Tibetan refugees, those unwelcome and unloved bhotiyas
who should never have been provided with sanctuary in their country. Of course, Frank could not overlook Alex Papadopoulos, the noisy office manager and his wife, and a number of other minor characters who have not been invited to enter this story. Sunita took his invitation from him and said of course she would attend.
His wronged dharma sister Kalpana was unable to accept because of her family responsibilities. At least, that was her excuse. The turmoil in her heart was likely to have had something to do with it. Her handsome, single-minded husband, Tashi, always on the look-out for fun, accepted, and promised to bring his harmonium.
On the appointed day, a Saturday, Frank went up in the early afternoon to the refugee camp to offer a hand, but was made to sit down and do no more than watch as Lakpa's family and friends scurried around setting low tables and carpets around the school hall forming three sides of a square. The fourth side, near the door, would be filled with the Tibetans and their pots and pans. Lakpa's father was in charge of the team feverishly preparing momos
, spooning the minced meat into little circles of pastry and then turning them into little parcels by rapidly pinching the edges together, one after the other, ready for the multi-storeyed steamers. The pile grew rapidly into a mound as the afternoon progressed.
As evening fell, the guests started to trickle in, and seated themselves on carpets on the floor, each choosing to sit with their own kind. The foreign UN staff placed themselves along the premium far side of the square, distant from and opposite the door and the Tibetans. Sitting on the carpet was a challenge for many. They would start in the cross-legged position, and then, as their knees protested, shift to sitting with their legs folded under them with an arm for support. When that became unsustainable, some tried drawing their knees up in front of them (this was the least successful position since it not only interfered with eating but looked undignified), while others tried kneeling, which made them tower over the rest of the company. Jegan's size made matters even more difficult for him than for the others, and he was not enjoying himself. He could not find a position that combined comfort with dignity. In any case, this was not the kind of event that was consonant with his status.
The Nepalese contingent seated themselves along one of the adjacent sides, and the volunteers filled the third side of the square, opposite the Nepalese. The four camps represented the four estates of Frank's universe. Based as he was in the UN office in Kathmandu, and with diplomatic status to boot, he should have identified with his UN expatriate colleagues. But he was a volunteer, and shared with the other volunteers their disdain for the attitudes and life-style of the wealthy expatriate community that set them apart from the local community. They, particularly those of them who had acquired local lovers, felt at one with the Nepalese; and surely their relative poverty qualified them to stand beside them? But they deluded themselves in thinking that the locals saw things that way. As for the Tibetans, they were, by virtue of his friendship with Lakpa, also, superficially at least, part of his life.
The four estates observed each other over the low tables, but remained resolutely apart. Frank tried to encourage some mixing, but failed.
Sunita arrived late, and, glancing at Frank, seated herself with the Nepalese contingent, next to the two song-birds, Tashi and Sujeev. Tashi was clearly delighted and tried to catch her attention with his jokes and stories. Frank was pleased to see that he didn't have much success. She did not have a high opinion of bhotiyas
like him and, of course, his Tibetan friends. Frank caught her eye briefly, but she was aware that Messrs Pradhan and Malla were observing her closely, and so she quickly turned to talk to them.
When the young Tibetan boys started to serve the food, under Lakpa's excited direction, Frank chose to sit with the volunteers next to Hamish. Earning as he did an expatriate salary, Hamish did not, strictly speaking, belong to the volunteer estate, but not being a UN employee, he felt more comfortable with them. He looked over at Sunita. “Robertson!” he said, addressing Frank by his surname. “You’re a lucky man. She's gorgeous. Christ!” he said in a flattering mixture of jealousy and admiration. Frank felt proud that she had chosen him and grateful that she had stuck with him in spite of his errant behaviour while she was out of the country. To think that he’d nearly lost her. Hamish, Simon and Dick were sharing the intelligence around the group that the beautiful girl across the room was his girl-friend, and the male volunteers were discreetly looking at her and then turning to each other with wide eyes and open mouths.
When the momos
had been eaten, and the dishes cleared away, Tashi fetched his harmonium and Sujeev his tabla drums, and they entertained the company with their songs. Frank had not asked them to do it, but he was delighted and grateful that they had taken it upon themselves to enhance the proceedings with music. He noted, however, that Sunita's former disdain for Tashi had given way to interest. As Tashi often boasted, music really was an infallible way of pulling the girls. Frank caught her gazing at him unaware that a broad smile had crept up on her face, and he felt a sudden pang of jealousy. The chang
was still flowing and lowering inhibitions. Alex Papadopoulos, the office manager, became even louder than normal, and his raucous laughter became a topic of sniggers and whispered gossip discreetly screened by hands. Messrs Pradhan and Malla were looking the worse for wear, and were standing on their dignity with increasing difficulty. Mr Pradhan suddenly stood up, inclined his body respectfully towards Mr Al Fulan and his wife, and in front of the assembled guests dramatically begged their permission to continue drinking chang
. Permission was given with an embarrassed wave of a hand. This produced a ripple of giggles around the room. Jenny was chatting with untypical animation. Unable to understand the alluring words of the songs, she was, nevertheless, captivated by the music, and Tashi. Jegan seemed unmoved by the proceedings, and kept looking at his watch.
The Al Falan's excused themselves at around 10pm, and the UN contingent rose as one to follow them out. Jenny thanked Frank animatedly. She made a point of going up to the seated Tashi and Sujeev and congratulating them on their singing. Frank noticed that she was addressing Tashi rather than Sujeev. What was his secret? An unsmiling Jegan walked majestically by with nothing more than a nod and a formal 'thank you for a most interesting evening'. Sunita's hand brushed against his as she politely thanked him for an enjoyable evening. She left in the company of her Newari colleagues.
The volunteers stayed on, and Tashi and Sujeev sang on for them and his Tibetan friends for another half hour:
Please don't ask me where the wound is!
I am fine in spite of it.
Please don't disturb me.
Leave the candle in the darkness.
Please don't light it.
In my life there’s always this sadness.
I've managed to survive without smiling,
But my one wish is that you should smile.
You are my wound.
It hurts when you don't smile
And so I beg you
Please smile always.
They could linger no later for fear of missing the last taxis. Lakpa presented him with a large paper bag full of pieces of kapsio,
hard Tibetan biscuits. “Very good food for mountains,” he said. Frank was touched, and tears came close to the surface as he took possession of the bag. Lakpa placed a white ceremonial scarf over his shoulders, to mark his departure, and Frank thanked them all for their kindness and efforts on his behalf, and handed over the money for the event to Lakpa's father.
“I'll visit you before I leave Kathmandu,” Frank promised.
Taxis were scarce at that hour and Tashi, Sujeev and Frank had a long walk back to the centre of town, lugging the harmonium and drum between them, before they could find one willing to take them out to Tashi's neighbourhood. Sujeev was dropped off at his flat, where Frank had suffered a few uncomfortable and unwanted hours in his close company one night a few months ago, and a sleepy Kalpana opened the gates of the compound for them.
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