Published in the Utne Reader, 1997
Walking down the street from Putalisadak, on the side of the
busiest road in Kathmandu, I see a white-haired woman, dressed in a
patuka and choli, putting big green leaves that she is taking out of
her basket onto the ground. I, walking down with my New Yorkian
stride, almost fail to notice them, and have to jump over them at the
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't see," I say, and am walking by when I
realise the rudeness. I walk back. "What is it for?" I ask. "It's for
the birth of a son." she explains, beaming. "It's for a son." Did you
get him, then? I ask. Yes, she replies, beaming some more. Yes we did.
That's wonderful news, I say. Congratulations. And what are you doing
with the food, I say, noticing now that the leaves are filled with
tiny portions of food. "The children," she explains. "Children will
come and get them."
I feel a sudden kindness towards this happy grandmother who seems not
to have noticed that her home has become surrounded by one of the
busiest streets of an urban metropolis, filled with the hootings of a
thousand vehicles, and where the children have begun to wear Doc
Marten boots and mini-skirts and would blush before they picked up a
leaf-plate of food from the sidewalk. She seems unaware of this as she
busily puts down the leaves, waiting for a horde of homely children to
come and pick them up.
"Oh," I say, and hesitate. Would I count as one of her mythical
children, entitled to pick up one of the leaves off the asphalt? I am
walking away when I turn again. "You can have one," she says, putting
out one towards me, a little embarassedly, as if she is aware of the
incongruity of standing in the middle of Putalisadak handing out
leaves filled with food, and yet still hoping that the children of her
past would come and take them.
"Thank you so much." She smiles at me almost as gratefully as I smile
at her, thankful to find at least one child to receive her offering
with the expected glee at an unexpected bounty. I walk off, muching on
chiura and choela, beaten rice and spicy buffalo meat, and the tiniest
portions of spiced radishes, small puddles of radish paste, and beans
of all descriptions. It reminds me of all the food that I ate in my
childhood, even though I never tasted Newari food before I was
sixteen, and buffalo meat had been a scrupulously avoided abomination
in our Bhrahmin household that I had gotten to taste only in the homes
of Newari friends.
The taste is a taste that comes only from old hands. I am surprised
to be reminded that there are still people left who can cook like
that. People who have fed a dozen people twice a day for half a
century, and sometimes fed four hundred at a time. It's a taste that I
haven't tasted since I went to a Bhoj in Sachi's house seven years
ago. The taste rises, mingled with a time and place that I had almost
forgotten, long autumn mornings filled with the drone of dragonflies,
waiting for the monsoon clouds to lift from the mountains, waiting for
the guavas to ripen, waiting for the festival season of Dashain and
Tihar to begin.
People stare at the leaf in my hand, and then at me as they walk by.
I cannot help smiling as I eat. Would I still have picked this leaf
off the sidewalk and eaten the food with as much enjoyment if I had
never left the country, never lost my memories, never lost that
connection to ritual, myth, ceremony? It wasn't so long ago when I was
about five and I too went around the streets, munching on halwa and
bara from leaf plates from my grandmother's uncountable rituals and
ceremonies. What has happened since that interval? Had something
happened to make to forget why I did not go around eating food off a
leaf on the streets anymore? Was it because there were no more old
women to put out the leaves on the sidewalk?
How could I refuse to celebrate, even though it was the birth of a
son? How could I say: No, nobody eats food off the street anymore,
can't you see the world has changed, haven't you heard all the ads on
tv which tell you that boys and girls should be treated the same,
don't you see that it is women like you who have made the lives of
other women a misery, haven't you seen people riding around in their
nice new cars, people who cannot believe women like you are still
alive, even though you are? How could I not celebrate, not just the
birth of that son but also the resurrection of my own dead memories,
of regaining a sense of a lost time and place when the streets were
smaller and perhaps kinder, and women put out food on the streets for
the children when it was time to celebrate? How could I not celebrate
the return of my own instincts for celebration?
Maybe if I was still living in Kathmandu, trying to live my life as a
young woman who was still expected to dress modestly, marry well and
bear a son, I might have glared at the woman as I walked by. As it
was, I could afford to pick and choose my traditions and its meanings,
and not have to live with the consequences. I could, as befitted a
part-time New Yorker, afford a little nostalgia.