Sunday, April 13, 2008

Lessons from Nepal

I've been thinking a lot, trying to figure out how I can synthesize everything I learned in Nepal into one piece of writing that makes sense if it is read all together. But the fact of the matter was, the way I was spending my days and the way I was spending my nights was so completely different, that I don't know that it makes sense to write about as one experience.

On the one hand, I had the experience that I've been writing about here. The heartache, the healing-- the emotional journey that I've been on for the last two years came to an end. In Nepal, I was able to wrap up such a messy relationship into a nice neat box for me to put in the corner of my heart and the corner of my mind, where it can collect dust. I'll store it in a place where I can take it out and look at it with curiosity and detachment when it suits me; a place that's far enough to remain unseen, but close enough to not be forgotten. Yes, Nepal gave me closure.

And then there was everything else in Nepal. The everything that made me fall in love with a country, a place and a time that was exciting, intellectually stimulating, spiritual, nurturing, fun... But how do you pluck a story or an experience out of thin air and get it right, make it meaningful without telling the entire story? How could I begin to write about the time Pratit took me to his grandfather's house in this little Gurung village in the foothills of the Annapurnas without explaining my relationship to Pratit, his mother, or how his family defies traditional family structure in Nepal, or about how his grandfather's life is ruled by ritual and routine (is there a difference?); I would have to write about what the house looked like, how the white capped mountains hovered so close I thought I could understand why people believe in god... I would have to write all of that for anyone to understand the feeling I got as we sat eating daal bhat inside his old mud and brick house under a single light bulb, our eyes stinging from the smokey cook-fire; We sat there eating and he, his grandfather (who kept giving us sly looks as he cooked dinner) was not eating, but praying, making an offering to the small shrine he had in the corner of the house next to his bed, next to the cook-fire, which was next to me. How can I write all that and still not tell the story?

And then there was Saobin, a young man from the Terai who worked at the hotel I was staying. My first day there, the owner of the hotel, Devendra, said to me: "Look how he walks. So slow. Like a rhino." We laughed. And I watched. Saobin did all of the work of the hotel. He cleaned the rooms, he ran errands, washed laundry, made tea, took care of the garden... Devendra did nothing. He played cards, talked, gave orders. I watched. Saobin was shy. He had a sweet smile and he twitched a lot. He worked hard. I took to calling him 'babu', which I guess means baby or child, but I wasn't making fun- I really felt motherly towards him. I noticed there was something wrong. The last day, I asked about it. I was told that he used to live in a village in the jungle. He was a hunter. One day as he was hunting, he came across some Nepalese soldiers. They accused him of being a Maoist. He had a gun. They beat him senseless. Now he has trouble communicating. And now by telling that story, I've cheated Saobin because I've left out the context. The details. The other players. It's not complete.

To tell my story in Nepal I have to tell the stories of at least 10 others. I have to tell the story of a country in the midst of change, a hopeful time not only for Nepali people, but for myself as well. Because in the end I guess I learned that we can be reborn through our struggles and that my story depends not on myself, but on who tells it. And that we should never be careless with that power.


Random Thinker said...

Wow, you happened to be at Nepal during its most transformational historical days - almost like being at Bastille during the French revoltion. As in the French Revolution, the monarch's head may roll in Nepal too. It was interesting to read your people level observations.

Julie said...

Have you ever read any of Anne Lamott's work? She writes short stories - of people, events, stuff that happens. I saw her speak this last weekend and someone asked her about her writing process. She talked about how she allows herself to write terrible awful overdrawn nasty first drafts. She said that in the first draft she always has too much context, too much back story, too many side anecdotes that seemed funny at the time. But that when she comes back to them a second and third time, she is able to edit them to be just what she needs to capture the moment. And, she always does - she always seems to give you just what you need so as to participate in the heart of her experience.

So write it. Write it all. Write it long and sloppy. Add too much detail. Tell too much of someone else's story. Give it flare and drama and sappiness. Then come back to it and see what happens.

I look forward to hearing more about your trip and your journey.