The Angel Gabriel is a Sherpa woman carrying a sack, the shepherds are Tamang hill folk doing hip hop and the Kings – with a bevy of Queens – sweep in with a Bollywood dance. It is our Nepali Nativity at the school where the boys and I have been based for the past two months. Kathmandu International Study Centre has about a hundred students from nearly thirty different countries and a vibrant, committed staff. Bidur, in accounts, was with the school from its first day twenty-five years ago, as was Christine, seventy-something, who combines maths teaching here with training in Nepali schools across the country. For our Nativity she’s in charge of props and does a crowd-pleasing whirl in the Bollywood number. I taught here for two years from ’97 to ‘2001 and it’s been intense and rewarding to be back.
When I volunteered to help out for a term I was asked to do two things. The first was to teach a Year 10 English Literature class, involving a personal revival of Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”. I had directed it at KISC thirteen years ago and can testify that it’s much more fun working on characterisation and stage make-up than marking essays, but the class and I still had a good time. The highlight was our last day when we watched a BBC TV version of the play and shared “Afternoon Tea” complete with cucumber sandwiches, muffins and cake. A giant American lad who excels at basketball brought his own home-baked cinnamon rolls, still warm.
My second task, however, proved to be far more dramatic and demanding, though ultimately rewarding. It was the Christmas Service. In the warm and well fed glow after our Annapurna trek in October, I sipped peppermint tea with the KISC Principal at the Moondance Café in Pokhara, and casually suggested a Nepali Nativity. Seemed like a good idea at the time. (Most of mine do.) What followed was nine weeks of sheer madness as I met the eight girls in the Drama Elective (Right, who’s going to play Joseph?), researched and wrote the script (Which of Nepal’s 70+ ethnic groups will Jesus be?), dragooned helpers for everything from costumes to choreography (Neetu in the office’s a great dancer!) and roped in the entire Primary School, half of High School and any members of staff who had the misfortune of standing still for long enough.
How would the story look if Jesus had been born in Nepal? Culturally, it fits very well. People here still plough, sow and harvest by hand. Their priests offer animal sacrifices and their communities are bound by strong traditions and strict rules. Dreams and stars give important signs and kings were, until recently, considered gods. It is still common in rural areas for girls to be married in their early teens and still a disgrace if they fall pregnant before that. And it is still typical to give birth in a cattle shed. Thus, our Mary & Joseph became Maya (love) and Jiwan (life) and King David was Devanand (the joy of God). We erected a thatched-roof stable, built a haystack and hung prayer flags from the trees bearing doves, crowns and stars. An art teacher designed a ‘rangoli’ design on the ground with a cross, vine, fish and Star of David leading from school entrance to the manger.
The Service is always in the school courtyard, which also seems a lovely idea until you try rehearsing there and realise the entire staff and student body has to walk right across your stage at least four times a day. It also means nothing can be heard unless it’s amplified, and the sound system only arrives on the day of the event, replete with technicians whose English is even worse than my Nepali. And the power goes out in the middle of setting the lights, and half the head mikes don’t work and a vital side entrance is locked so a janitor has to run across stage in the middle of the performance with keys and it seems like everything possible is going wrong… except that it isn’t. I turn around to look at the audience and realise something quite extraordinary is happening. They’re singing lustily and laughing and whooping and clapping and a light is in their faces. Here, this night, despite the roughness of our offering, an old and beloved story is told in a new way; a far away Messiah takes Nepali birth; a ‘foreign’ belief is right at home.
Our Team is heading to Australia now for Christmas with family. Wherever in the world you are, we wish you joyous reunions and meaningful re-tellings of the story.
PS If you’re wondering why cricket doesn’t feature in this post, it’s because I could not find any historical reference, whatsoever, to Jesus playing cricket. In Palestine or Nepal. No doubt a textual omission.