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It’s been awfully quiet at Eighty Wickets recently. No family adventures or tales of derring-do; no hi-jinks on Indian trains, no Himalayan quick-step, no Aussie surf or South African safari. Nothing. Not even any cricket.
Perhaps, like me, you had been lulled into a false sense of security. The whole travelling-with-bat thing is over and we can all heave a huge sigh of relief and get on with normal life.
Sorry. It would seem not.
In the past few days, some very suspicious parcels have been arriving at my door. Some long, some squishy. There are no birthdays coming up and it’s way too early for Christmas, but the packaging says things like “The Toy Store” and “Just4Sports” and… oh no!… “Upfront Cricket”. It’s not over! That quiet, apparently, was just an interlude, a bit of time-out for the team to do some cross-training (hill runs, shinty, mountain biking) and re-group a little. Time for the Spin Doc to hatch his next plan.
For these parcels, you see, are all his doing. The on-line shopping trail reveals it. I’m sure it is no coincidence that they are arriving in precisely the week he has slipped away for a few days, no doubt allowing me to get the wails of protest out before he re-appears, grinning. Because he certainly has not given up on cricket, and nor – it would seem – can I.
But now? I hear you cry. (Or is it just me?) At the start of the Scottish winter?! This is madness. That has never stopped us before, but this time there is a little method in it. All this new equipment is for indoor cricket. Yes, such a thing exists, with dedicated rules and special kit (like softer balls, for a start) and my husband can think of nothing better for a Sunday afternoon than descending on the local sports hall with a bunch of pals and whacking sixes into the walls.
So, if you’re within striking distance of the Badenoch Centre, Kingussie in the coming months and would like to join this silly scheme, give us a yell. We’re back on the pitch…
Back by popular demand, The Spin Doc writes about a game he’ll never forget:
The title conjures up images of a swathe of green, punts on the water, cold beer and warm pies for afternoon tea. But it’s the middle of December, not a day for cricket usually. Here in Kathmandu the sun is shining and a hazy row of snow peaks looks down as I cycle up to EKTA Educational Palace. Among the rows of cheaply bound classics, copies of Time magazine and self-help books, I know I can buy a cricket bat for about £2.
Purchase in rucksack I head downhill, riding over a confetti of chicken feet outside the butcher’s and holding my breath through plumes of lorry smog. I cross the sacred Bagmati river, a putrid grey emulsion of human and chemical waste. Rafting Nepal, the bible of kayaking and rafting, describes this as Nepal’s “most dangerous river descent”, not on account of any towering rapids but rather the toxic welcome of her waters.
On the banks of the Bagmati. I enter a rag-tag town of tarpaulins, old pallets and bits of ply board. This is one of Kathmandu’s few slums and it’s here I have come to chat and play cricket. I walk past a small shop made of breeze block and plastic fertilizer bags, washing hanging in the sun and mothers relaxing with babies in the mid afternoon glow. A whole family squats beside their stall of odd-looking catfish. They assure me, miraculously, that these can be caught in the river and we talk about fishing methods that centre around sticks of dynamite. Children in sky blue shirts arrive home from school. They have something most Kathmandu children do not: a place to play. On the floodplain behind the houses is a good space with trees and an open patch of dirt big enough for an invigorating run around. A dad arrives back from work and shares his concern that they may be moved on by the government this week. I ask about the people in the slum. “Ordinary people with nowhere to live,” he answers, and I see just how true this is.
Ashish is one of the first boys to join me. He hits out with joy but little technique and retrieves the ball from thicket and undergrowth with enthusiasm and a grin. Other boys arrive and the game becomes more competitive as the bowling speeds rise. Ashish moves to a cameo role of ball finder and fielder, never losing his grin. We play for an hour till I have proven that being a caucasian adult does not carry a genetic cricket advantage.
As the light fades the boys gather round and I explain that I am leaving the bat with them as a Christmas present. The condition is that they form a Cricket Club and that the bat, available to all, will be kept by the team captain. I think about a phrase I heard recently about young people in developed countries having “ everything to live with and nothing to live for” and how different it feels here.
I cross the Bagmati bridge, squinting through the orange orb of sun, and look to my left to see the blue shirted boys still bowling leg breaks and shrieking their pleasure. Ordinary people with nowhere to live. Only tonight, as the December sun dips low over the river, Ashish is no ordinary person. He’s Captain of the Riverside Cricket Club.
We are finally here, at the MCG, the Mecca of Victorian cricket and one of the most legendary stadiums in the world. But instead of falling on his knees in awe, young Swing King is inspecting the statues of sports heroes outside and suggesting improvements for their batting position, kicking technique or sprint start. Such a shame these greats never had the benefit of his advice. One of their number, however, cannot be faulted. Sir Donald Bradman, widely regarded as the greatest batsman of all time, stands grinning on his plinth above his unrivalled test average of 99.94 runs. Even I know that is good and my Australian heart swells with pride.
Inside, we follow a distinguished member of the Melbourne Cricket Club for a tour of the stadium. The club, which currently has a fifteen year waiting list, began in 1838, just three years after white settlement in Victoria, and moved through several sites. One was a field that routinely flooded, forcing the club more than once to advertise for the return of its dressing shed! It moved to the current ground in 1853 where some of the highlights include hosting the world’s first Test match, between Australia and England in 1877 where (cue more heart swelling) the Aussies won. Cricket’s first century was also achieved here, by Charles Bannerman, and the world’s first one-day match, in 1971.
But the MCG is not just the home of cricket, but also Aussie Rules Football, a kind of cross between soccer, rugby and the Roman circus. Holding religious sway over most Melbournians, the game draws a bigger crowd and spills significantly more blood, sweat and tears, and that’s just in the stands. Beyond these, the MCG has also hosted everything from baseball to lacrosse as well as the 1956 Olympics and the 2006 Commonwealth Games in which an iconic Melbourne tram was a centrepiece of the opening ceremony. And way back in 1876 it boasted “the best skittles facility in the colonies.” (I’m wondering how long the waiting list is for the Melbourne Skittles Club…)
Apart from sport, the MCG has played stage to other cultural events, such as Royal appearances, rock concerts for the likes of David Bowie (in the pouring rain), the Rolling Stones, and Madonna (who pulled the biggest audience.) Even bigger than her, though, was Mother Theresa, part of the catholic Eucharistic Congress in 1973 that had crowds of over 100,000. The biggest numbers, however, go to Billy Graham, who packed the stadium to a record 130,000 at his crusade event in 1959.
Today, the stands are empty and the field is full of children on a holiday cricket camp, ensuringAustralia’s ongoing success. (Either that or they were exceptionally naughty last term.) We go inside to the hush of the library, established in 1876 and the largest sports library in the world. Ahh, books and leather armchairs, I sigh. This is looking more like my kind of thing. Better still, we wander past the bar where there is a gathering of the Club’s Food and Wine Society! Now I really can see my future in cricket.
It’s 32 degrees in the noon day sun here at Elwood, one of Melbourne’s bay beaches, but we are not cooling off in the water or lolling under the welcome shade of an umbrella. No, no, that’s the sort of thing normal people do. We, can you believe it, are playing cricket. Slathered in sun cream and sweat, we are pounding up and down the nets at Wattie Watson’s oval, practicing batting and bowling with my old friend Mark and his son, Dylan. When I say ‘we’ I mean it in the royal sense of course. Trying to keep sweat to sun cream ratios at an acceptable level, I am standing primly on the sidelines taking photos and gushing at the right moments. I tell Mark his bowling is positively balletic, but I’m not sure this is good news. He has been playing since childhood and is still with the local club he joined in his twenties, earning Batsman of the Year last year, at the ripe young age of 51. Following in his footsteps, ten-yr-old Dylan is very impressive and, I suspect, quietly relieved to discover that his fears about our cricket prowess were completely unfounded. In our family, enthusiasm far outstrips ability.
Right at this moment, however, even my enthusiasm is withering in the heat and I take off to find Anne, who has sensibly retired to a tree to lay out our picnic. The boys soon follow and there is conversation and feasting and the day begins to take a far more civilised turn. Best of all, we join the normal people and have a swim and lounge on the sand eating ice creams. (It’s exceptionally tough, I know, but we’re bearing up.)
In all this socializing, sight-seeing and serious relaxation, I am getting the uneasy feeling that my search for the Cricket Holy Grail (i.e. What’s the Point?) is beginning to lose it’s edge. I haven’t attended any full-length games, let alone five-day tests – (five days?), haven’t begun to fathom all the fielding positions, or managed to hit the ball more often than I miss it, or worked out the scoring system or the umpire’s silly hand gestures. And, quite frankly, (as I adjust my position on my beach towel) I’m struggling to even care. This is rather alarming. We’re half way through the journey, and by now I should have developed a ferocious passion for the sport, a mean bowling swing and a fund of cricket trivia with which to bore you for ever after. (Some of you may be relieved at the lack of progress.) I, however, am feeling something of a fraud and believe I must do something self-improving at once.
Where else to start, but tomorrow at the Melbourne Museum of Sport on the hallowed soil of the Melbourne Cricket Ground? Prepare for a born again cricketer! (Run for the hills. There is still time…)
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.
Back by popular demand, a post from The Spin Doc:
“But this is a present to the People of China from the People of Britain,” pleads my friend Paul. “We’ve come all the way from Scotland to present this.” We are standing on the Nepal end of the Friendship Bridge to Tibet and doing our best to improve international relations. Not heeding stories of angry gun-toting Chinese guards we are determined to present them with a two-hundred-and-forty rupee cricket bat in the hope this might bring the calm of a Sunday afternoon village game to China and end our differences on Iran. Maybe even prevent a nuclear war. It’s the least we can do. We can see the guards, and their guns, only 30 yards across the bridge, flanked by a massive building with “Peoples Republic of China” emblazoned in large gold letters.
“No, the border is closed,” insist the Nepali guards at this side. “They don’t understand English, or cricket, they get angry easily, and you must not take pictures.”
But my Scouse companion is not taking no for an answer and an impromptu game of cricket starts between the Nepali guards and ourselves. Perhaps the Chinese will see the fun and come over, a bit like footie on Christmas day in the trenches.
To keep with the “Best of Britain” theme, Paul and I have roared, spat, popped and crackled our way from Kathmandu on Enfield Bullet Motorcycles. The Bullet was originally part of Britain’s fine manufacturing history. “Made like a gun, goes like a bullet” was the strap line. Certainly Paul’s seems to be firing something impressive from its exhaust, with alarming noises like gunshot and sparks leaping out when he throttles down. The owner had told us it “popped a bit”, and that “this is the style”. We didn’t argue, and if it comes to an international confrontation, the exhaust note will probably persuade the Chinese that Nepal has superior weapons and back off.
There are more of these bikes in South Asia now than Britain. In 1955, when India was looking for a rugged motorcycle for their border police, they chose the Enfield Bullet and ordered 800. Well known for its build quality, the 350cc single cylinder motorcycle was initially assembled in India from British parts. By 1962, however, the whole bike was manufactured there and when the British company dissolved in 1971, India kept on making them. Now having the longest production run of any motorcycle in the world, Bullets are still cherished for their strong engines, off-road ability and, er, exhaust note. It is difficult when riding one of these fantastic machines not to come behind respectable people on silky smooth Hondas, open up the throttle and single-handedly re-establish the might of British 20th Century manufacturing!
Upholding their reputation, our bikes faithfully negotiated landslides, streams, potholes and Kathmandu traffic as we brought our precious gift of peace to the border. We were thinking a game lasting five days and involving chocolate cake and beer might slow down China’s march to world domination, or at least soften its stance on human rights.
And we seem close to a breakthrough. “Come back in the morning and give it to them then,” say the Nepali guards. We can’t, because we have to head home now, but we agree to a compromise. The now smiling guards promise to give the bat to the Chinese for us “on behalf of the people of Britain.” I wish we could be there!
We turn away from the Friendship Bridge and kick the Enfields into life. The border guards momentarily duck behind concrete bunkers as Paul’s exhaust spits a volley of friendly fire in the direction of the new Peoples Republic of Cricket.
These were the words Tony Blair used to set out his priorities when he campaigned for office in 1997. He would have been popular here. A cursory glance around the streets of Kathmandu reveals nothing short of a national obsession. The advertisement hoardings for schools, colleges, courses and private tuition outnumber Bollywood films and Bajaj scooters a hundred to one. It’s big business and for a big reason: education buys a future. Some are aiming for top jobs in law, medicine and technology, but many just want something better than carrying loads or breaking rocks. Every educational increment makes a difference and families are highly motivated to get their children as far up the ladder as possible. The government system, providing free primary education across the country, was established in the 1950s on an archaic western model with questionable relevance to the Nepali context. Classrooms are crowded, teachers ill-equipped and resources extremely limited with most village schools having little more than bench seats, a blackboard and a stack of dog-eared textbooks. The system is Nepali medium, and urbanised Nepalis know that English is the language of power and are prepared to pay for it. Hence the proliferation of “English-medium” private schools, though few boast staff with adequate language for conversation let alone instruction. The schools come with charming (and sometimes misleading) names: Little Angels, Bright Stars, Joy Bells, Toto’s World Happy Children Pre-school, Ideal Model International English Medium Boarding School.
The pressure to succeed means children are enrolled early. I saw one school poster proclaiming that “Two is the age to begin!” (And they won’t be in a sand-pit; they’ll be at desks and given homework.) The students start early in the morning, too, with many attending 6am classes. (The majority trooping past our bedroom window…) And whether city or village, all schools have a uniform and it’s not shabby sweatshirts either, but smart blazers and pleated skirts, often in cheerful colours like lavender or canary yellow. Even children emerging from dusty hovels look clean and neatly pressed, the girls with bright ribbons, all with big bags. School matters here.
But sadly, it often fails to measure up. Even the ‘private’ schools tend to run along the government model and teacher training is still in its infancy, with most staff employing outmoded methods such as rote learning, amassing information without application, and a teacher-is-god approach. There are a growing number of notable exceptions and several inspirational programmes providing on-site and relevant training. One is EQUIP, an organisation linked to the international school where I’m currently volunteering. (KISC) A couple of friends of mine are involved, one who walks for days to reach her target schools and uses drama and corn-stalk yaks as teaching aids. The other is in her seventies and has an OBE for services to education in Nepal.
But where does it all lead? What’s at the top of the ladder? For many, it’s simply The West. And there’s the rub. Is that a good goal for Nepal’s education system, to be sending its qualified citizens overseas? It depends on your perspective. Many involved in development and education here are dismayed at the brain drain. But for Nepalis, it has become an increasingly vital source of income. Last year, nearly 60% of households received money from family abroad (including India) – both skilled and un-skilled workers – and the Nepali government actively supports it. But some Nepalis do not. The leader of the Maoist Teacher’s Union believes the education system here has been deliberately engineered by the UN, the World Bank and ‘developed’ countries to provide the West with cheap labour. The level of truth in that assertion I don’t know, but one thing is clear: education holds untold power and potential for this country and some of the best educated have stayed.
Some fifty years ago, the United Mission to Nepal opened the Amar Jyoti High School in the village of Luitel in Gorkha district, ancestral home of the famous Gurkha soldiers. Two boys in the year of 1970 excelled in their final exams, gaining the top two places in the country, a feat unheard of in a rural school. The second place holder, Upendra Devkota, went on to become Nepal’s first neurosurgeon and later health minister. The top boy, Baburam Bhattarai, grew up to mastermind Nepal’s Maoist People’s War, ultimately helping to topple the monarchy in 2008 and make the country a republic. He is now the Prime Minister.
This week’s blog is brought to you by guest writer, travelling companion and cricket enthusiast, the Spin Doctor.
We’re bicycling down the road at top speed, dodging potholes, dogs and Maruti taxis as if our life depends on it. Swing King is close behind me on a diminutive bike made of cast iron. We are sharing a helmet. Our life does not depend on it, it’s more important than that. Today is the first day of cricket club at the British School in Kathmandu. We pass the cavalcade of four-wheel drives and negotiate the triple barriers, looking for the coach, whom we’re told is English. We imagine a Home Counties sort of chap with buck teeth and a cream cricket jersey; a worthy gentleman for whom a “crèche” is a collision between cars and “sex” is what you put potatoes in.
He’s nothing of the sort.
“Eh up lad! ‘As thee come to join crikkit club?” Freddy hails us with a voice full of warmth and Lancastrian welcome. “That’s great lad! Not from Oztraylier are thee?”
Swing admits to Australian blood but is forgiven immediately and introduced to some of the other players. Freddy’s certainly not from Australia either. Fed up with curries, over-crowding and civil unrest, he left Bolton and came here six years ago. I second-guess that he might have played rugby league for Wigan and could recommend a great hot pie shop. It loops me back to my roots where my Lancastrian grandfather saved his family from 12 hour shifts in the woollen mills by starting up a pie business. I decide that I like Freddy already.
He introduces Swing to some of the players. “This is Aswin, and he’s a VERY naughty lad,” he says, patting the shoulder of a grinning Nepali boy. I help Freddy across to the netted Astroturf with the gear. He wheels a vast hold-all with “England Under-19 Cricket Squad” on it, out of which spill pads, bats and a dozen shiny new balls like red apples. I sense Swing King is about to make his third request for relocation of school since we started travelling!
I offer help but am told to “Go ‘ave a nice coffee” and come back in an hour. I drink a lime soda looking at a sweep of the Himalayas and return to a tense game of limited overs. The ball is clipped to midwicket where a slightly half-hearted attempt to stop it results in two runs.
“Get over here, ya big Jessie!” Freddy re-structures the field with a Lancastrian frankness which I know disguises certain affection. “Frame thee sel’ lad! … Catch that! … Eee lad, reactions of a dead frog! … Watch the ball the whole time when we’re playing wi ‘ard ball, lad! … Dead frog fails again!”
The boys, South-Asians and Koreans, Brits and (ahem) Australians, are hanging onto every word till the final long hop is bowled and the match declared over. There’s something about this approach – warm, direct and jovial – that really works. I decide to give it a go.
The pads are off and we’re racing back home, Swing King’s legs whirling around as he attempts to keep the iron horse on the tail of the 1980s aluminium race bike I found on the roof here. I brake hard to avoid an oncoming motorcycle, the driver’s full-face helmet undone and perched on the top of his head like a bearskin hat. Something heavy shunts me up the back.
“Sorry Dad, brakes not too good.”
“Frame thee sel’ lad!” I bray, in my best Freddy voice. “Reactions of a dead frog!”
While in Kathmandu, we are fortunate to be sub-letting from a gracious family who are on home leave at the moment. At first glance, this place is luxury. Stretching over three floors, it’s bigger than our house in Scotland with four bathrooms, multiple balconies, three TVs, internet, cable and DVD player, nice furniture and tasteful decoration. It also comes with no fewer than four members of staff: two house-helpers, one night guard and one ‘yard boy’. And an enormous German Shepherd dog.
But like most properties in Kathmandu, it has its underbelly. As well as the night guard and the dog, there is a lock on the high metal gate, a lock on the sliding metal grille around the porch and another lock on the front door. I also noticed a heavy wooden stick lying ominously beside our bed. Break-ins are a frequent reality here (we experienced several when we lived in Kathmandu before) but the extensive security measures are a little wearing. Especially when the Spin Doc accidentally forgot to put the gate lock on the top loop (where it can be reached from either side) and put it on the lower outside loop – inaccessible from within! I had to ask a man on the street to release me, explaining that my husband had locked me in, and then realising how bad that sounded. Fortunately, he thought it was funny.
The street in question is little more than a narrow dusty lane and gives no indication – in the mid-afternoon, when we moved in – that it is a major thoroughfare. Especially at 5am. People here get up and on with life ridiculously early and in unaccountably high spirits. I don’t know many Brits with anything worth saying to each other before 7, but here the entire community seems to be bursting with songs, jokes, chatter and general merriment well before sun-up and right under our window. This is partly because several schools in the vicinity run early classes and a great number of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youngsters attend them. Shopkeepers are equally industrious, hauling up their heavy metal shutters well before I have hauled up my eyelids, while just about everyone performs dawn puja, involving the ringing of many little bells. Unable to beat them, or sleep, I decided to go for a pre-breakfast run. There wasn’t space. Dodging and diving to avoid motorbikes, cycles, buffaloes, taxis, vegetable carts, goats, school children, housewives, dogs, students and temple-goers, my usual plodding jog was beginning to resemble a work of highly experimental contemporary dance.
I could adopt the early starts (though perhaps not the bon homie) if only I’d slept well through the night. Alas, such luxury is proving elusive, mainly because of the vigilance (or the vengeance) of the dogs. Our own resident canine is particularly proud of her vocal chords and determined not to let any other mutt get the last word. In our first week here I could have cheerfully murdered her. She is settling down, though – or perhaps that’s just her cowering after my 2am tongue-lashing – and by day is charming and devoted.
As for the house itself, just living in it takes energy and resourcefulness. Two of the four showers don’t work and two of the four toilet seats career off to the side. None of them have the plumbing to cope with toilet paper, so this is deposited into an adjacent bin. Yes. You read that correctly. There is also chronic water shortage in Kathmandu, so you save used shower water and only flush when things are, should we say, critical. The resulting fragrance should be enough to fend off any intruder. We ran out of water yesterday, so the Doc had the pleasure of getting up at 4.45 to welcome the water tanker for a refill. (I told you they start early.) The truck says “Drinking water” on the side, but don’t be taken in. All water must be treated to be drinkable and this creates endless tasks: running the filter to fill bottles, deploying them to bathrooms for cleaning teeth, rinsing all dishes in boiling water and shouting “Don’t drink that!” at the children. Milk must be boiled and all fruit and veg soaked in iodine solution to kill bugs, and because of the high levels of dust from un-metalled roads, the house needs regular dusting and mopping. Hence the house-helpers.
All the mod-cons have their complications, too. Running more than one electrical appliance in the kitchen can blow a fuse, and plugs often have to be rammed in or dangled at jaunty angles to work. Several rooms have a spaghetti junction of cables, sockets without switches and banks of switches with no function. The night guard is also handy man, and his evening begins with a tour of the house noting the latest batch of light bulbs that have blown, pipes that leak and appliances that are broken. He is eager to help but uncomfortably deferential, calling me “Mam” and bowing. (Perhaps the dog has told him about me…) I tend to press my hands together and bow back, but that just makes us look like a pair of Sumo wrestlers squaring off.
As for back-garden cricket, there is none. This house has, in fact, been built in the front garden of the house behind, a trend repeated across the city where every available patch of ground is being filled, increasingly with multi-storey blocks, which seems downright criminal in this earthquake-prone region. As a result there are very few parks or open spaces. We’ve tried a small dirt area nearby, but the fence is not quite high enough and the local lads prefer football. The good news, though, is that our boys have been invited to join the cricket club at the nearby British School, so next Thursday, Swing King’s hoping for a six. Personally, I don’t really give a toss about the cricket. All I want is that many hours of unbroken sleep.
Here in the dusty streets of Kathmandu, young lads are letting off their remaining fire crackers as the festival of Tihar draws to a close. Lasting five days, it incorporates the Hindu festival of Diwali and the New Year of one of Nepal’s calendars. (There are several.) A little like our Christmas, it is a time of family gatherings, gifts, feasting, lights, decorations and a fair bit of excess. Unlike our Christmas, it involves the worship of various animals. (Although, I grant you, the cult of Rudolph is getting close…)
On the first day, Kag Puja, crows are worshipped by leaving sweets for them on rooftops. In Hindu mythology, their cawing speaks of grief and death, and the offerings are intended to avert such misery from one’s home. Alas, the crows in our street got a little over-excited and ransacked the neighbour’s rubbish bags, strewing the contents over our front yard. (Not a lot of crow worship happening in this house!)
Day two is Kukur Puja, the day for worshipping dogs. There is no small irony in seeing the poor mutts bedecked with garlands, as they are amongst the most neglected and abused creatures in the city. The majority are strays, mangy and scrawny, some covered with scabs, some wounded, some with rabies. Those that are owned are generally kept as guard dogs and rarely, if ever taken for a walk, spending most of their lives in a tiny yard or even a cage. Little wonder they wreak their collective revenge by barking through the night. I’m not convinced a string of marigolds and a plate of goodies once a year appeases them.
Gai Puja is day three, when cows are worshipped and homes are decorated and lit to welcome Laxmi, goddess of wealth, who visits at midnight. People make rangoli patterns in colourful powder on the ground outside their doors, with a line leading into the home to guide the goddess. Traditionally her way was lit by tiny clay lamps, but these are giving way to electric versions, just as the old music groups that went door to door singing are being run off the road by rock bands in their vans. One lot were practising next door and I rather hope for their sakes that the goddess is more tolerant than me. On day four, depending on your ethnic group or caste, you might worship oxen, cow dung or yourself. I can’t say I’ve tried the first two, but the third is very popular in the West.
The fifth and final day is Bhai Tika when women place garlands and tikas on their brothers in thanks for protection, and they, in turn, are supposed to give gifts. But one old woman we met that day told another side of the story. Of her four brothers, three have died of alcohol abuse and the fourth is going the same way. “All he has to offer me is beating,” she says, “so no, I’m not worshipping him.” Quite. Tellingly, she is also unmarried.
We spend that day walking through villages of the Newar community on the edge of the Kathmandu valley. Despite the festival, most of the women are hard at work winnowing and drying rice. The men, on the other hand, are sitting around playing cards, though this is deemed a legitimate privilege on Bhai Tika. Whilst I am taken by the old courtyards and the intricately carved windows and the beautiful rangoli designs, young Chappals is primarily interested in the motorbikes. How many horse-power is it? Is this leather or vinyl? Does it run on diesel or petrol, or could it run on magnetic force-fields? Any minute now he’s going to sling a garland of marigolds round some handle-bars and declare today Honda Puja.
PS I’m sorry, but there is absolutely no way of getting a game of cricket into Tihar so I didn’t even try. And as for India’s Payback Tour – well, that was pretty spectacular wasn’t it? Or embarrassing, depending on your perspective. I noticed the males of the household got very focused on rugby for a while… (Well done, Kiwis.) And well done India! Jai Hind!
PPS My radio play “Immaculate” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday 2 November at 2.15pm. It lasts 45 minutes and you can listen to it on-line from then and for seven days. Here’s the link: