Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

“Reader, I myself am the subject [here] is not reasonable that you employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and vain. Therefore, Farewell” – Montaigne

Socrates never wrote anything in his life. It was Plato who wrote about him or rather Socrates was one of the main speakers in his early writings. Socrates thought the writings were static and could be misinterpreted by readers. He preferred direct communication over writing. So, he went to town and engaged himself with his students in dialogues. He argued against sophists, for whom there was no truth or universal knowledge and everything was relative. He encouraged his students to seek true knowledge and was always asking “What is it?” questions. He focused his dialogues or questions on the ethical questions, virtues, and the true knowledge. One can only live one’s life virtuously when one learns the truth. He was executed for spoiling the youth of Athens.

Plato studied from Socrates and wrote on every subject of philosophy. No wonder, Alfred North Whitehead said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” He combined and transformed all the previous teachings of Greek thought. He agreed with Sophists that knowledge of appearance is impossible, with Socrates, the genuine knowledge is concepts, with Heraclitus, the world of appearance is in constant change, with Eleatics, the world of ideas is unchanging, with Atomists, the being is plural (ideas), and with Anaxagora, the mind is distinct. The Pythagorean philosophy influenced him greatly. He took many ideas from it. Just like Pythagoreans, he believed in the human soul to be immortal and, as a result, attaining moral virtue was far more important than any material. He took the ideas of forms from Pythagoreans’s numbers (arche), which are ideal. Plato said that the sense perception does not reveal the true reality of things. Genuine knowledge can only be gained from reasoning. He is a rationalist. He said one can’t learn anything new (how can one learn anything — if he knows something, then there is no need for learning. If he doesn’t know, then he would never know if something he is learning is true or false). Hence, he thought that learning is remembering because all the truths lie embedded in our soul and when we learn, we are recalling those ideas or principles. All knowledge is reminiscence and all learning is a reawakening. Hence soul must have existed before its union with the body. The soul becomes possessed with a desire for the world of sense. It originally belonged to Star. If it had resisted the desire in celestial life, it would have occupied itself in transcendent existence, with the contemplation of ideas. As it is, it is condemned to pass through a stage of purification. The release of the soul from the body and the contemplation of the beautiful world of ideas is the ultimate end of life.

Man is just when he is wise (reason rules over impulses), brave (spirited past holds fast through pain and pleasure), and temperate (submit to authority or reason). For a man, a life of virtue, not pleasure, is the highest good. 

The mission of the state is to achieve virtue and happiness for its citizens. The state should be ruled by the philosophers and oppose private property. 

Aristotle, a student of Plato, wrote on several subjects. He is the first philosopher to divide the inquiry into distinct subjects such as mathematics, biology, zoology, political science, ethics, and so on. He rejects the idea of transcendency of Plato and claims that the form and the matter are not separate, but eternally together. According to him, our world of experience is the real world and the general knowledge is not only the facts but their causes or grounds. Without the experience, the truth would never be known and without being implicit in reason, they would not be certain. He tried to reconcile empiricism and rationalism. He explained the matter as the principle of possibility, whereas form is the principle of actuality or reality. The idea of the form is the mover and the matter the thing moved. Since form and matter are together eternally, the motion too is eternal. This notion presupposes an eternal unmoved mover. He claims the first mover to be the absolute spirit or the God, which religious thinkers borrowed heavily to prove the existence of God. For Aristotle, God has no moral virtues i.e., he is not generous or loving or just; he is pure intelligence. God is free from pain and passion and is supremely happy. He is everything that a philosopher longs to be. Aristotle claims that the man, who poses the reason, is the final goal of nature. The highest good for man is to manifest its peculiar essence. The eudaimonia or the pursuit of happiness, for him, is the primary objective of a man and the highest form of happiness comes from contemplation. He believed an ethical man has the faculties of intellect, wisdom, insight, temperance, courage, and liberality. He advocated for the golden mean: courage between foolhardiness and cowardice, liberality between extravagance and avarice, modesty between boastfulness and shamelessness, and so on. The justice, for him, is giving each man his due. Society’s role is to make man virtuous and happy and the state is the goal of the evolution of human life.

“You will have to go home. We will call you back when the job market gets better,” the messenger said.

“We just had a baby. It’s not that easy to leave everything, ” I replied.

“Sorry, I can’t help you there.”

“What if I decide to stay here?”

“In that case, we will have to cancel your work visa. You will be out of status.”

I knew I was going to lose the argument. The messenger must have been told not to use emotions, but the prepared script when dealing with me or my situation and he was doing it pretty well. What would I do if they canceled my H1B visa? I couldn’t stay without the status. I would have to then leave the country. Oh, how unfair! I had everything — home, family, friends, job and I left everyone and everything and came here thinking I would work at some great companies, learn from the pioneers, and return home with some knowledge. My dreams suddenly became murky and unreachable. Everything had changed after September 11. The booming industry of the dot-coms collapsed and so was the company I was involved with. Reena was lying down next to our three-month-old daughter. Mom and sister were outside in the living room, perhaps hoping something good might come out of the phone conversation.

I will report you to the authorities if you threaten me. But I didn’t utter those words.

“Give me some time to prepare.”

I hung up the phone.

“What happened?” Reena asked.

“I am going for a walk,” I said.

I put a jacket on and left the room. Mom looked at me, expecting some news. My sister avoided the gaze and busied herself in the kitchen.

“I am going out for a walk,” I repeated.

I went to my car, opened the trunk, lifted the cover, and pulled out the cigarette packet under the spare wheel, and put it in my pocket. I looked up to make sure Mom was not looking at me. I walked to the main street and turned left on Brook Street. The air was crisp and chilly. The sky was clear and the streets were flooded with the sunlight. I kept walking the narrow roads, engrossed in my thoughts. The conversation with my employer kept coming back. I have to find a way out. I was already out of the project for 3 months and I can’t expect them to keep sending me paychecks. How sometimes I wished they would forget about my existence, but their payroll would keep sending me the paychecks. How can I leave the country? I turned right on Dewing Avenue. How would I tell my family that we all are going back? No, I can’t do that. What would all my friends and relatives say or think when they see me back home? Probably they would laugh at me and take solace at my failure. I turned left on Mt. Diablo Boulevard. I can’t return as a loser. I lit a cigarette. Oh, how good the first puff is! I dragged another puff. I looked back to make sure Mom was not following me. I checked my pocket for gum and finding the packet there, I went back to my thoughts. Further ahead, I made a left turn followed the Shore trail, and arrived at the Lafayette Reservoir parking. It was early morning and there were no cars in the lot. It was quiet. I sat on the pavement and lit another cigarette. I looked around and there were trees everywhere. Perhaps a trail starts from somewhere, but I had no desire to explore the area. If only I could find a job…I would give everything, I would work 10-12 hours per day, even on weekends if necessary. But with this job market, the chances are so slim to find even an opening. There are perhaps thousands of engineers looking for a job. Why would they hire me? They would rather hire their citizen or someone with a green card. I don’t even speak English well. But I can work hard and with less money. I need to buy a lottery. If I won the lottery, I would apply for a green card as a businessman and buy a house here in Lafayette. Why not? It’s a beautiful town with so much greenery. People are so friendly here. I crushed my cigarette and pulled the gum out of my pocket. I walked home ruminating on the possible solutions.

In the afternoon, I called Sarju and asked if he could talk to his employer. Sarju called me later in the evening with exciting news. His employer had asked for my resume. I immediately sent my resume to his employer, thanking him for the opportunity. All day long, I kept checking my email expecting a response. I did the same the next day. In the evening, I asked Sarju if he had any news for me. I sent another email to his employer asking them to contact me if they had any questions. There were no responses. The silence was ominous, but I kept telling myself to have patience. Finally, I got a call and found out that they were no longer interested in me.

I went out for a walk. From the reservoir parking, I called Prajesh and asked if he could talk to his employer in Texas. Later in the afternoon, he called me back saying that the employer was interested in meeting me in person first. I was ecstatic. I called Suresh, who was living in the Dallas area, and told him that I would be visiting the area soon. He sounded excited and said that he would be looking forward to my visit. In the evening, when we sat for dinner, I announced the good news.

“But I have to travel to Texas first for an interview. They will transfer my visa and then find a client for me. I may have to stay in Texas until they find a client. I think it would be easy if you all went to Nepal and stayed there for some time. I will call you immediately after I find some project.”

The next day, I called a travel agency to book flights. We applied for a passport for Shrija. The day before their departure, a few of my friends came over and together we stored our bed, mattresses, dining table, chairs, sofa, computer desk, TV, VCR, crib, and stroller in the Public Storage bin, leaving only some utensils and blankets for the night. The next day, I drove them to the SFO airport. I could see the worries in their eyes, but I didn’t have time to think about them or their worries. Once they went in through the security gates, I left the building asked someone for a cigarette, and started smoking. I didn’t have to worry about anyone seeing me smoking, I thought.

I drove back to Lafayette. I had to put the remaining few items in the storage unit, leave the apartment key to the manager, and get the security deposit. As I hit the highway, I pressed the play button and it started U2’s latest song — “It’s a Beautiful Day…”. As I drove, a flurry of sensations came over and overwhelmed me. I didn’t know for how long I would be alone driving from place to place. Probably my employer would soon be cancelling my visa and I would be out of status. The worried faces of mom, sister, and Reena came back to me. When would I be able to play with Shrija again? I found tears flowing down my cheeks. How did I end up here? Why me? I had never felt so sorry for myself in my entire life. I was sobbing. I looked sideways to make sure no drivers were looking at me. I wiped my tears with my sleeve, but the tears kept flowing. I looked at my face in the rare view mirror. The whole face seemed puffed up.

When I arrived at the apartment, I put the blankets, plates and pots, computer, books, a bag with my clothes, a pillow, and a sleeping bag in my car. I washed my face and went to see the manager and gave her the key. How lucky she and her family are, I thought. Her daughter’s head appeared sideways from her back. I waved at them and left. I sat in the car and looked at the apartment building one last time before leaving for the public storage.

Later I drove to San Jose to Kiran’s place. In the evening, I printed out the route from MapQuest and spent the evening chatting with friends, who came over to see me off. The next morning, I left for Texas. After 4-5 hours of driving, I stopped somewhere near Bakersfield, sat on the roadside, and ate the fried rice Upasana had handed me the previous evening. As I ate, I thought about the friends I had left in San Jose. I kept driving till late afternoon and stopped somewhere in Arizona when I saw the Motel 6 board. I went to the town and ate something at the fast food restaurant before going to the motel. I left the motel early morning in the dark.

During the drive, I would listen to music and keep my prized CD collections nearby in the passenger seat. Now and then I would switch the CD. I would drive three to four hundred miles before lunch. After lunch, I would drive another few hundred miles and stop at Motel 6. On the third day around the afternoon, I reached Dallas, Texas.

I drove straight to Suresh’s apartment. The excitement to see him was uncontainable. He came out of his apartment and we hugged each other. When I saw him, I forgot about all my worries. It was a single-bedroom apartment. Udaya and his roommate slept in the bedroom, while Suresh slept on the sofa in the living room. We chatted for a while. Later I called Prajesh and fixed a time for the next day with his employer. We spent the evening with more talking and drinking beer. I lay down on the floor, next to the sofa, on my sleeping bag, and continued talking with Suresh till late at night. The next day, I went to meet Prajesh’s employer, who asked about my background, work experience, and skills. After talking for about 30 minutes, they agreed to sponsor my work visa. It was such a relief. I didn’t have to worry, at least, about my status, I thought. We both agreed to look for projects. Later in the evening, I called home and shared the good news. After 2 weeks, I got a call from a company from Oakland. They had interviewed me in the past. They didn’t hire me then but kept me on the list in case new positions would open. When they called me, I was so happy. I flew to San Jose, borrowed Sarju’s car, and drove to Oakland for an interview. I met the team and talked about what they did on their regular hours. Everyone was friendly and kind. How lucky I am, I thought. In the end, the manager came to meet me. She had a blank face and I worried. She said she had bad news, which only reached her that morning. The budget for the new position had been stalled. I didn’t know how to react. She seemed sorry to make me drive to the office. She didn’t know that I flew from Dallas. I was thinking about what to tell Sarju and Suresh. I was feeling sweaty and had a slight headache when I went to the parking lot.

As I drove the car, I felt something was wrong. Was it because of what happened in the interview or was something wrong with the car? I stopped the car and came out to survey the situation. I saw a flat tire. How did that happen? Oh, where would I go to fix it? I called Sarju and told him what had happened to his car. I took out the tools, spare tire, and manual out from the trunk and started reading the manual. Using the wrench from the toolbox, I tried to unscrew the bolts. They were too tight for my hands. I cursed and pushed hard. I finally unscrewed all the bolts. By the time I unscrewed my head was about to explode from the headache. I drove around the neighborhood and asked someone for the tire shop. The street, with abandoned cars and trash, didn’t look safe. Finally, I spotted a tire shop. It was a relief to see some Indians running the shop. Later when I was back in Dallas, the manager called me again and apologized for making me drive to the office. This time, I told her that I had flown from Dallas. She asked me to submit the receipt for the reimbursement.

After about a month, Suresh and Udaya suggested I work at the convenience store until I could find a real job. Perhaps they thought I could make some money while I was looking around. I was well aware of my limited funds, but I couldn’t for a moment imagine myself sitting behind the counter and selling beers, cigarettes, chips, or lotteries. I sensed my time had come to move on. I had been in contact with Amrit, who was living in Denver and had asked me to stay at his place multiple times. So, I informed Suresh and Udaya about my plan and with a heavy heart left for Denver.

I drove on I-35 to Oklahoma City, then to Wichita, and, taking I-135, to I-70 to Denver. The drive was long, about 880 miles. No sights lured me to stop, except the signs of fast-food restaurants. Due to detours and several wrong turns, it was already late night when I arrived at my destination. I was tired but felt warm and cozy to finally be at Amrit’s home. I took refuge in their guest room.

In Denver, my daily routine changed. Once Amrit left for work, I would go to his home office, log in to job hunting sites, search for the positions, fine-tune my resume and cover letter, and apply for a few selected positions. Bhauju would call me around noon to eat lunch. After lunch, I read books or articles on the technologies or skills the jobs were asking for until I heard Amrit's car in the garage. Then I would close my books or computer and join Amrit’s family. Soon, I started receiving responses and requests for interviews. I would prepare for the interview and join the call. Sometimes I would know right away, even during the interview, that I had messed it up. I would hate myself for not knowing the language. After every call, I would reflect on what went well and what didn’t. Whenever I got depressed, I often went to my books; they were my refuge. I also walked in the neighborhoods softly repeating the answers to the common interview questions. There would be 2-3 interviews every week and that gave me some hope.

In the evenings or weekends, Amrit would take me to places to cheer me up. Sometimes, I would go with Amrit to pick up his son from school. He would buy him kids-meal at McDonald's. His son would play with the toy leaving the food untouched. How Sunita and Reena were excited when I took them to McDonald's for the first time. How we filled our cups with coke when we learned that the refills were free.

Then came the call from a company in LA. After the phone interview, they wanted to meet me in person. In the evening, I told Amrit about the possible opportunity in LA and my plan to leave the very next day. Amrit asked me to come back if things didn’t go well. I knew I wouldn’t be coming back, but I nodded. How did I get so lucky to have a friend like Amrit? The next day early in the morning, I left Denver.

The freeway was empty and the night was still lingering on. The city was quiet, its residents still in their beds, dreaming. Soon they would be waking up indolently with the sound of their alarms, their shower taps first sputtering, then producing a pitter-patter sound, their coffee machines gurgling and hissing, their garage doors squeaking and shaking as they rolled up, their cars coming alive with the sound of the engine and leaving the small clouds up in the air as they leave the driveway, finally disappearing into the freeway.

Was this ordeal necessary? Did I enjoy it even a bit? Did it do any good to me? My answer back then was no to all of these questions. Years later when I looked back, only then I understood its meaning and significance. It’s always during the hardship, that one experiences moments of kindness, which alone makes the journey worthwhile. It’s like the memory of an old grandma I met on the train on the way to Lviv. She was watching me for a while before calling me and handing me over a bundle, what looked like some food, wrapped in a newspaper. I was surprised. How did she know that I hadn’t eaten anything since the previous day? I was telling her that I was fine and my station was next. But she would not listen and I had to sit next to her. As I opened the bundle, the oily paper revealed a piece of roasted chicken. I don’t know how much she thought about it afterward. It was a long time ago and she is probably dead by now. But I just couldn’t forget it. The torments I went through when I found out that there was no restaurant on the train and the constant thought of hunger that kept me awake till late at night were too much to bear. The only thought that kept me going at the time was the idea of eating as much pizza as I could at the pizzeria outside the train station once I arrived in Lviv. If I hadn’t been hungry, I wouldn’t have met the grandma. Would I rather go through the torments just to receive her kindness? Why not? The torments are long gone, but the memory of her kindness has been with me all this time, comforting me now and then.

As I passed the downtown and came to the suburb of Denver City, the buildings gave way to the plains and the prairies. It was spring already and the trees in the distance looked green, their stems probably filled with new coming buds. The animals in the prairies probably are coming out from their hibernation and the bugs and the insects from their diapause, some from underground, some from burrows or tree bark, and some from the eggs left by their parents in the previous year. The migratory birds must be flying home from the south, filling the air above with their song of spring. I rolled down the window, and stretched my hand out, sensing the cold air in my palm, the sleeve of my jacket fluttering and sending the cold spring air to my face first and then through my nostrils to my lungs, from my lungs to my entire body. The orange sky appeared on the rearview mirror, signaling the dawn of a new day.

Humans must have thought about the world and our role in it for a long time. For most of history, their curiosity about the objects they saw on earth, in the sky, about the natural events, about birth and death, and about the afterlife were answered by stories or myths. When one’s life is consumed with staying alive, searching for food, and saving your clan from predators, there is not much time left to ruminate on the universe. One satisfies oneself with the answers one finds in the rituals or in the mythology. One such is offered by Hesiod, a poet and myth-creator, in Theogony written in 700 BC. According to him, it was Muses, the goddess of inspiration, who inspired him to outline the creation of the universe. There was chaos first and from it came the night, and the day and the earth, and so on. Hesiod, a rationalist, thought the human mind was too weak to understand the world.

Thales was the first Western philosopher. He gave an answer, which is not based on a myth, to the question of being and becoming. He claimed that the world can be perceived through our senses and the single arche (substance) that the world is made out of is water. He reasoned that water can be in solid (ice), liquid (water), and gas (steam) states and it is this transformative property of water that gives rise to various lives and objects we see in nature.

Anaximander, a pupil of Thales, looked around and couldn’t believe that water alone could be the arche of the whole world. How is a stone made out of water? He said the world is made out of an infinite number of eternal substances, as many objects as we see in nature. He also floated the idea of evolution and claimed that humans evolved from the fishes.

Anaximenes, a student of Anaximander, stated that there can not be an infinite number of elements. The number has to be finite. Per his account, the arche is air and the motion of air is responsible for becoming or changing (of matter). The soul is air, the fire (Sun and stars) is a rarefied air, the water a condensed air, and it is further condensed, it takes the form of the earth.

Xenophanes, a theologian rather than a philosopher, claimed that everything is made from God. The God is one, omnipresent, and permanent. It doesn’t move but makes everything move. God and the world are the same thing.

Pythagoras delved into form and relations. He too believed in Thales and Anaximenes in that the arche is finite. For him, it’s the number. Numbers can be applied to anything. It can be applied to any object — dot is 1, line 2, figure 3, solid 4, and so on. The numbers are finite and determinate and are the candidates of the primordial substance. He believed that thought or intuition is superior to sense or observation. “Thought is nobler than sense…Objects of thought more real than those of sense-perception…Mathematics is… the chief source of the belief in eternal and exact truth”.

The subsequent philosophers started to doubt whether both being and becoming are possible. For Heraclitus, there is no being, but only becoming. The objects we observe in nature are an illusion. There is no single arche as Thales or Pythagoras has suggested. Everything around us is changing constantly. He wrote in short aphorisms. To him, the only permanent is the law that defines the movements, changes, and opposition.

Parmenides opposed Heraclitus’s idea and eliminated the concept of becoming. A rationalist, he reasoned that in the process of becoming, something must arise either from being or non-being. A non-being can’t become a being. If it’s a being, then it is not possible for that being to change into something else. We can not think of nothing. Non-beings are not possible to think of. The being and the thought are the same thing. What is not present, can’t be thought and what can’t be thought, doesn’t exist. The change we observe in nature suggests that something must change to another or something must come from nothing, but our reason doesn’t support that. The change we see in the world, hence, is an illusion; everything is permanent, and fixed.

The next philosophers tried to reconcile the ideas of Heraclitus and Parmenides, the riddle of permanence and change, and the question of static and dynamic. According to those philosophers, there are no absolute changes, but only relative changes. Empedocles claimed that the universe is made of earth, water, air, and fire, and love (attraction) and hate (repulsion) are the causes of change. He talks about the transmigration of souls. Anaxagoras came up with the idea of seeds. He looked at his own body and thought about how the same element could be blood, nails, hair, skin. There are as many seeds as objects. The mind outside of the element plays the role of change. The atomists, Leucippus and Democritus, declared that everything is made of atoms and they are indivisible, impenetrable, and invisible different only in form, weight, and size. The empty space is the non-being. All bodies are composed of atoms and empty spaces. The origin of any object is through union and the destruction through separation.

Athens was a prosperous city and its citizens enjoyed the free-speech and the democratic society it offered. The sophists, the traveling teachers, came to the city and taught Athenian citizens how to win arguments and become successful in politics. They were humanists and for them, “Human being is the measure of all things”. They didn’t think about the world or its nature. They thought it was beyond them to understand. They were relativists and they put their efforts into teaching rhetorics, the art of speaking well.

He thought he had always been a dog lover. It was always he who had asked for a puppy. It was always he who had played with his puppy. It was always he who had taken his puppy to the vet. And, it was always he who had cried when his puppy died.

He was 10 years old when his father brought home a Himalayan sheepdog, and they called him Bhote. One day, when he came home from school, the home felt quieter than usual. He left his school bag in his room and went upstairs looking for Bhote. Not finding him in his usual hideouts, he went downstairs and out in the courtyard, calling his name. The ensuing silence worried him. Had he gone out in the street and got lost or, worse, killed? He went inside the house and ran to his mom. She came towards him, and he didn’t like what he saw in her gloomy eyes.

“Your uncle needs him more than us,” she said. “He will be guarding his farm animals and the house. You can meet him when you visit your uncle’s house in your winter vacation.”

He ran to the toilet and locked the door from inside. Tears flowed from his eyes. How would Bhote feel when he can’t find him? Who would he play with? Who would take him to the vet when he gets sick? Would Bhote remember him when he visits his uncle?

Later, he would ask everyone who had been to his uncle’s farmhouse about Bhote and just like any proud parents, listen to Bhote’s stories and how he hadn’t allowed anyone to enter his uncle’s house. He would imagine Bhote, standing at the gate, defiantly, barking at the entire village and chasing every wild animal away. He would never see his Bhote; one morning outside his uncle’s house, he was found dead.

Fast forward 25 years. When his mother told him over the phone, with a sob in her voice, that their dog Hanuman had died, his reaction was a mere shrug. He didn’t feel anything as if she were talking about someone else’s dog. Without Hanuman on her side, she would be lonely, he thought and felt sorry for her.

It was a present from one of my patients, his brother-in-law had told him when he carefully pulled out a brown puppy from a toiletry bag and handed it to him. He held the tiny creature carefully with both hands, sensing the warmth from his body. They would name him Hanuman, after a loyal companion of lord Rama. He would follow him around the house, teach him to climb the stairs, play with him on the balcony, and laugh when he made high-pitched barks frolicking back and forth. He would hold him tight with his left hand and feed milk with his right hand as if he were his baby. He made him a bed next to his. He would wake up at night to feed him and play with him. In due course, he would take him to the vet to get all the necessary shots. In a few months, he would get a job and their lives would take different turns.

He would leave for the office in the morning and come back home late in the evening. He would eat his dinner and go back to his room and read the books he had brought from his work. There is so much to learn, he would say. Even on Saturdays or holidays, he would shut himself in his room, typing on his computer or reading the books from work. Hanuman would spend most of his time sleeping on the balcony and following his mom when it was his meal time. He would go to the balcony to pee or poop. He got used to being around in the house alone. When he reached adolescence in 8–9 months, he displayed higher energy and became rebellious. In the presence of young kids, he would be intolerable. He would hold their knee and perform the act of humping. These acts disgusted him. Whenever he caught Hanuman in the act, he would grab him by his neck and drag him outside to punish him for his unpardonable sin. He would hold him tight, his face pressed against the floor, and hit the slipper continuously on the floor near his face producing a loud pattering sound, letting him go only when he was tired. Hanuman would run away and hide under the table.

When it was time to bathe Hanuman, he would be the one to hold the leash. Hanuman neither liked water nor the leash. Hanuman would be furious and attempt to bite him. How dare you, he would scream. He would hold the leash tight, making Hanuman uncomfortable, while they poured cold water over him. Almost every interaction with Hanuman involved a punishment. They avoided each other.

Every once in a while, he would think of Hanuman and go upstairs looking for him. Hanuman would be sleeping on a floor and, as the footsteps neared, he would raise his head, looking suspiciously at him, and finally closing his eyes, letting his head fall off slowly to the floor.

He would get married and leave home with his wife. He would have two kids. He busied himself looking after his family. When he called home, he seldom asked about Hanuman as if even the traces of Hanuman were erased from his memory.

Now that his kids have grown up, he is not needed at home as in the past. He goes for long walks and says hi to others on the trail. Some come with their dogs. Sometimes they stop and talk about the weather, the trail, or their dogs. With COVID, more and more of his friends adopt pets. He congratulates them on their new family member. When they meet, they talk about their new companions as if they were talking about their kids. The lack of memories of his pet in the past keeps him quiet and torments him when he is alone.

He goes online and reads about the various dog breeds. During dinner, he floats the idea of getting a pet. His children get excited, but his wife opposes the idea. They first try to convince her with reasons; they beg her; they kowtow to her and finally; she gives in. They draft roles and responsibilities documents assigning each of them some responsibility. They look for a puppy online. They call and leave messages to various kennels. A breeder from Paris, a two-hour drive from their home, responds positively, and they immediately send her the payment as an advance and fix a date to pick up their puppy. They go online and read “How to prepare your home for a new puppy”. They order crates, beds, bowls, treats, food, toys, leashes, collars, toothbrushes, and training clickers. The day before the pickup, he assembles the crate and the playpen. On that day, all of them drive to Paris, meet the breeder, and pick a puppy. They take some pictures together and drive back home, excited. He picks the name Leo after his favorite soccer player. They spend the whole afternoon and evening playing with Leo. He sleeps on the sofa next to Leo for the next two months. In the beginning, he wakes up a few times at night to change his pee pad, feed him, and play with him. He takes him to the vet regularly. When he works from home, he comes out from his office room a few times a day to play with him. Sometimes he takes Leo out in the backyard and throws the ball for Leo to fetch. Sometimes Leo runs with a toy around the house and he runs after him, shouting, pretending to be chasing him. When Leo is 4–5 months old, he takes him for a walk in the morning and in the evening. Leo loves going out, sniffing every grass blade, and leaving his marks everywhere. Leo would wait for him at the bottom of the stairs in the morning or sit next to the main gate peering outside through the glass pane when he came home from work or sitting outside his office room when he worked from home. When he comes out from his office room, Leo runs to get his toy and comes to him with a toy in his mouth.

It is a spring morning, and the sky is clear and blue. He goes to the backyard to read his book and Leo, as usual, follows him and lies down next to him, touching his leg. He reads a few lines, but something distracts him. He looks at Leo’s youthful body, lying next to his feet, soaking up all the sunlight. He scratches Leo’s back gently, which awakes Leo, who then turns his head lazily and stares at him, exposing his belly as if inviting to scratch it. How peaceful and calm Leo is of any events of today or tomorrow, he thinks. He probably doesn’t even realize one day he will get old and weak. He won’t be able to follow me, go out on our morning and evening walks, won’t even care to sniff the grass, leave his marks, or about the neighborhood dogs. He may lose his memory and not even recognize me, this house, this backyard, and the neighborhood. He may suffer from pain and groan all night, unable to sleep, his sorrowful eyes begging to ease his suffering. I may have to take him to the vet to put him down. What will be his last passing thoughts? Will he be in peace knowing he was beloved all his life? I hope he does. I really hope he does. How I will look at Leo’s lifeless body, whose entire life, from childhood through adolescence and into old age, has unfolded right in front of my eyes? How will my kids and wife cope with the grief? The void he will leave will be too pervasive to escape, the silence too deafening to avoid. I will need to learn to live with the void, with the silence. But this time I will have memories, the memories of Leo, our story of tears and laughter, the summation of my salvation.

“Do you have any plans for the evening?” Sailendra asked.

“I am meeting Raamesh. Just the two of us,” I responded.

As he sped his motorbike on a semi-circle road next to Shahid Gate, my mind veered off into the thought of my meeting with Raamesh. I wondered if he had finished working on his new book, a draft of which he emailed me to read a year ago. Would we talk about it, and if we did, should I be telling him how I felt when I read it? Would we finally talk about our families, about his daughter, about my daughters, about his relations with Poonam or mine with Reena, about the new things we have explored and learned to enjoy? Would we have time to reflect on the lives we’ve lived so far, or would we dwell in the past, as we have always done in the last 10–15 years?

As we passed the New Road gate, the sight of the Educational Enterprise bookstore right below the Mahankal temple brought back memories of past visits to the store. I suppressed my sudden urge to enter the store. Ah, Tundikhel, my refuge of the past! I used to come here after school every day, run barefoot, forgetting about everything — the school, the (bad) grades, the homework, the scoldings, and the only thing I cared about was how to trick an opponent and score a goal. There, the bus stop — where a bus would come every morning, seize us, and hand us over to the school.

“Without water, Ranipokhari looked like a landfill last time I visited Nepal,” I remarked to start the conversation, to which Sailendra grunted a few words in reply. Soon, we passed Bahadur Bhawan (now the Election Committee office) as I knew it as a kid. How Raju, the rich kid, Surya, and I used to skip classes in school and come here for a horse ride. Raju would be riding mostly, and Surya and I would be sitting on the grass waiting for our turns. Soon we arrived in Thamel, and Saroj was already there waiting for us. We went to a cafe and ordered some coffee. Saroj asked us if we were free to join him for drinks afterward.

“I am catching up with Raamesh in the evening,” I said. “It’s just the two of us meeting today.”

I don’t know why I kept saying that last sentence.

Just when we finished jotting down our plan for the backpacking trip, I got a call. It was Raamesh. I asked him when and where to meet. He mentioned that he would be going to join his friends at a bar and proposed to meet after my trip. Did I just get ditched? How can he do this? I lifted my head and saw Saroj staring at me. He probably read my face and even heard what was said on the phone. To hide my expression, I turned around. All I could say to Raamesh was okay, fine, okay. How I wish I were alone so that I didn’t have to confront Sailendra and Saroj. I hung up the phone, and before anyone said anything, I announced that our meeting was postponed for another day. I kept staring blankly at my phone to avoid their gazes. While leaving the cafe, Saroj inquired about the call.

“I was not a priority,” I replied and tried to regain my composure.

A part of me wanted to call Raamesh and tell him what he did was hurting. But I also didn’t want him to see my suffering. On the way home, I called all the other close friends I knew from Lviv. Their caring voices soothed me to some extent. I was still bitter when I got home.

Whenever my mind drifted to the faraway land called Lviv and the memory of youth tormented me, I often thought about the time I spent with Raamesh. The first time I saw him was at the train station in Berlin. He was with a few other guys. When a friend of ours approached them asking if they would consider exchanging their US dollars for his German marks, it was he who rejected the proposal. He was loud, confident, and brave — everything I was not.

The next time, I saw him was at the train station in Lviv. We were at the station to receive students from Makhachkala, and he stormed out of the compartment door. He came to Lviv to study medicine and I to study computer science. I used to visit Pramod, my roommate from the prep course in Kharkiv, who lived in the same hostel as Raamesh. Soon I noticed they became close friends. Pramod would come to us with him, and when I went to him, they would be together. I liked how they were carefree and enjoying their days. I envied their lifestyles.

Soon, we started to hang out together, and I too became close to him. We both had a predilection for music, movies, cigarettes, and strong black coffee. He used to have a cassette recorder, and we would record any album we could get our hands on. Soon his classmates, Miguel and Dennis from the Philippines, and Masud from Bangladesh, started to invite me to their parties. My friends, mostly from India, from my hostel too started inviting him whenever they held parties. We would be seen together smoking cigarettes, drinking beer at parties or in the park, making spicy fish curry and eating with rice, listening to country music, practicing guitar, or, when drunk, standing in the corridor and singing continuously the same song repeatedly until we got bored with our acts.

The ride to the Carpathian mountain on an open metal chair hung from the thin wire with a metal rod, the whole transport setup looking as old as my grandma’s dowry, was still preserved in my memory as vivid as if it were from last year. The sky was gray and dark, the air crisp, and the ground white from snow. As I ascended the mountain, the alpine trees flowed slowly under my feet. The front view was obscured by the fog, and the only sound audible was the squeaking and screeching of the grandma’s chair with occasional screams from the riders ahead and back.

On our way to our cabin, we ran to warm our bodies. We spent the evening drinking Georgian wine in a cozy, warm dimly lit bar. We liked both the taste and the effect of wine so much that when we left the bar late at night; we bought the whole 3-liter wine bottle. Only when we were out on the street, we realized we were too drunk to carry it. We rolled the bottle on the ice and sometimes threw it in the snow. It was during those acts I mistook the bottle and shouted in ecstasy, “I found a camera.”

The trip to Baltic countries was equally memorable. We planned to walk around the city all day long, eat at expensive restaurants, and take the night train to travel to the next city. Our first stop was Riga. I don’t remember much about Riga except the feeling that I was walking in a beautiful and historic city. Next, we headed to Vilnius. In Vilnius, after the city walk, we went to watch a movie. When we came out of the theater, the sight of an absolutely stunning young lady bewitched us. She was with her friends to watch the same movie we had just watched. We followed her as if we were worker bees following their queen, stood in line behind them, bought the tickets, and went in to rewatch the movie with the hope that she might throw a glance at us. Her power over us was so overwhelming that none of us dared to go near her. We left Vilnius with a souvenir of her face imprinted in our hearts. In Tallinn, we ate our lunch at the Maharaja Indian restaurant and later in the evening went to the beach and saw flickering lights coming out from the tiny houses on the shores of Finland.

Our trip to the lake house to celebrate Dennis’s birthday ended disastrously. In the beginning, everything was going well. Some of us were drinking beer, and watching the lake, and some were barbecuing. Dennis got drunk and went to a cabin to take a nap. We saw a lady running towards us shrieking and crying. We learned from her that a fistfight had broken out with the locals in the cabin we rented for the night when Miguel hit a local’s head with a beer bottle when asked to lower the volume of the music he was listening to. When we arrived at the scene, a man with his face smeared in blood dripping from his head was leading a Ukrainian mob to our cabin. We hid Miguel in one of our cabins and tried to calm the situation. To our dismay, the bodies flew in various directions, the walls of the cabin creaked and fell, and the bottles flew in the air. I saw a guest of ours, an ex-army from South America, come running with barbecue skewers still in his hand, and he started to fling them at the mob, lacerating someone and leaving a large X sign on his chest. Some of us were still confident that we could calm the crowd and were standing not far from the mob. That’s when the lights went out, and everything became pitch dark. Pramod standing next to me whispered in my ear not to do anything, and I wondered what could I possibly do when I couldn’t even see anything. Slowly, the vision came back, and I felt a pain in my jaw. The blackout, as it turned out, was the result of the blow to my left jaw. One by one, we dispersed and went to hide in the unused cabins with lights turned off. At night, we left the cabins quietly and went to the woods, where Dennis’s girlfriend’s brother was waiting in his car to haul us to our homes. I heard later that when they woke up Dennis to leave the cabin; he was still drunk, oblivious of the incident, and unwilling to leave without celebrating his birthday party. For a few weeks, we avoided going to the city for fear of encountering the mob.

After finishing undergrad, I decided to spend my last month watching the World Cup football with my close friends. In our revelry, there were 15 of us camped in 2 rooms, each with a TV. Each one of us contributed $5 to the fund, earmarked for barbecue and beer for the final game. We would start our day at 3–4 pm, eat our food around 6 pm, and talk about our teams or past results until the games started. We’d watch games, eat dinner around midnight, watch games till 3–4 am, and sleep for 10–12 hours. Once Argentina, my team, lost in the round of 16, and Germany, Raamesh’s team, lost in the quarter-finals to Bulgaria, neither of us cared which team would win the title. On the day of the final match, some of us went to the bazaar to buy meat and some to the park and stores looking for beer. In the evening, we started drinking beer while having a barbecue. By the time the final game started, we were so drunk that we spent the entire time shouting and more drinking. The next day, hungover from all the drinking and screaming, quietly we sat and watched the game from the recorder, ending our last month with a whimper.

I left for Nepal in the summer of 1994, and he did in the summer of 1995. In Nepal, we were occupied with our work and family. We rarely met. After getting married, I came to the US. Whenever I visited Nepal, he used to visit our home. Later, we would meet with common friends from Lviv at a restaurant. We would eat and drink, recall the funny moments from the past, laugh, get drunk, and then `say goodbye. We didn’t ask how each of us really has been or about our daughters, or about our relations with our wives, or about the persons we have become. I felt we were slowly drifting away from each other. We only knew who the other was in the past; we didn’t fully know who the other had become. What if one of us got bored talking about the past? Would we still meet? If so, what would we talk about? A few years ago, when I was in Nepal, I expressed my concern in passing. I was elated when he called me this time and fixed the date for our meeting.

The postponement of our meeting left a bitter taste. He did call me a few times afterward, but each time I was with either my friends or relatives. I couldn’t tell if he was calling me just to say hi or to see if I was free in the evening. And I couldn’t muster up the courage to ask. As my departure date came closer, the prospect of meeting with him was getting slimmer. I wondered if our relationship too would get stale, not because we did anything bad to each other, but because we did nothing.

Perhaps we both felt the call from each other. Two weeks before my return, he called me again, except this time, without any lingering hesitation, we set a date and venue for our meeting. He was waiting at the bar when I arrived. We shook hands, hugged, shook hands again, and looked at each other, brimming with joy. He shouted for beer. As we gulped down Barhasinghe beer, we started our conversation on his recent book, then moved to literature, to our kids, our lives, our new interests, our retirements — the phase we both looked forward to. We kept ordering more beer. We talked about the girls we had crushes on or about the girls who had crushes on us, about our past loves, what we have gained, and what we have lost. We shared our secrets and our regrets. The waitress kept bringing beer. We would have continued if only we didn’t have to go to our cocoon, but it was getting late, and, unlike in our past lives, we had to go our separate ways. As I sat in a cab, I wondered if I would still have liked him as my friend if we hadn’t met in Lviv, and my face lit up with joy.

They handed each of us three roubles and put us on a train bound for Kharkiv. When I heard the name Kharkiv the first time earlier that day, it gave rise to an image of a snow-covered suburbia with grim factories, each exhaling dark smoke under the gloomy sky — a scene I might have burrowed from an old Soviet movie I had watched in the Russian Cultural Center in Putalisadak. “The Nepali community there will soon find you a bride,” a senior remarked when I told him where I was going (only later I would learn the political motives in encouraging or discouraging the newcomers going into certain cities). Sanjeeb, my only traveling companion and a good friend, had left for Kyiv that evening. Hari, Shankar, Pramod, the other three newcomers, and soon-to-be my roommates, and I shared the compartment on the train. As the city of Moscow and its outskirts flowed further away, I vowed to stay single and focus on my study.

It was my first time away from home. I didn’t know how to interact with the outside world. I looked and behaved like a schoolboy. I was born and raised in the same house my dad and his forefathers owned. I hung out with the friends befriended a long time ago. In our neighborhoods, no locals went looking for new friends and it was always outsiders who stretched their lands and said, “Parichaya pauna?” (Can I have your introduction?). I became that outsider then and needed to learn that craft.

We arrived in Kharkiv the next morning. A lady from Kharkiv State University was at the station to take us to the hostel. The air was damp and cold even though it was only September. I found the city wet. It must have been raining all night. The roads were wide and clean and the buildings tall and identical. She took us to the hostel. Once inside (the hostel), we went to the fifth floor and checked into our room. It had 4 narrow spring beds on 4 corners of the room and a side table (tumbuchka) next to each bed and a common armoire. There was a small speaker hooked to the ceiling and, when powered on, always played classical music. In the front, there was a big window overlooking the woodland on the backside of the hostel. I opened the window to let the fresh air in. As cold air hit my face, I surveyed the lot. The ground was wet and blanketed by brown and yellow leaves, fallen from the surrounding trees, then bare and soaked by the rainwater, their tiny branches and twigs shivering in the cold wind. I wondered where and how my friends were and if they too missed me. I would move to Kyiv next year, I concluded.

Each hostel floor had a long corridor with rooms on opposite sides, one common kitchen and study room in the middle, and two restrooms — one for boys and another for girls on the opposite end of the corridor. The shower (douche) and the laundry rooms were on the first floor. There were students from South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South America, from Eastern and even Western Europe (Portugal and Greece). In the evening, the corridor was where all the actions took place. One could hear languages and music from every corner of the world, see the colorful dresses of African tribes, smell and taste the exotic cuisines from the Arab world, and witness the hospitality and culture of the faraway lands one had never heard of. It was our mini world, where we shared our stories and dreams using more with our hands and expressions than with our limited (Russian) vocabulary. We were both participants and observers of the Soviet experiment.

The first year was to prepare us for the university by teaching the Russian language. In my class, the other students were from Ethiopia, Sudan, and Congo. They assigned my roommates a different teacher. In the room opposite us, lived 3 Greek students and one of them was Tchamis. He was charming and always greeted me with a smile. He went to the same class as my roommates. He used to come to our room to consult on his homework with my roommates and I couldn’t help but stared at him listening to every word that came from his mouth and would interject a remark whenever possible. Sometimes I made tea for him so that he would stay longer with us. Who doesn’t like attention with affection? Soon, we became friends and he would come to our room to chat with me. I would be in his room for hours. We talked about our days, about our family back home, and about the life, we had left. He learned some good and some bad Nepali words, and I Greek. He taught me a Greek song that I would sing softly at night many years later to lull Shrija and Cloe to sleep. In the morning, we would go to university together and in the afternoon we would wait for each other outside our classes to come home together. We were inseparable. If only life were so simple…

The winter came. The days became shorter and darker. The snow covered the streets, the buildings, and the parks. One evening, I met him with a girl in the corridor. “My girlfriend from Greece,” he said. I had seen her before. She lived in the same hostel and had a loud voice. He was proud when she hold his hand. After the event, he disappeared for a few days. When he reappeared, she was with him always as if glued firmly. I went to his room a few times, but, in her presence, I felt awkward. His visits to our room became infrequent. I started going to university with my roommates and came home alone. I would see them at the university or on the bus and they would smile and wave to me. When bored, I would visit my classmates from Ethiopia or Sudan and often found myself lost in thought. I would leave the room wishing their affair to end.

Hari missed his family and the comfortable life he had with his family. He used to regret coming to study at his age. The love letters that came from Kathmandu used to lift Shankar’s mood for a few days. On Friday evenings, he would go to the study room with empty sheets and come out after a few hours, drained, with pages smeared with his heart’s contents in red. Pramod would call in sick, lie down in bed wrapped in a warm blanket until our departure to the university, and then wake up leisurely, dress up and leave the hostel. He would go to the center (city) and walk all day visiting stores and buying anything he found useful. As the competition grew in my class, I focused on my studies, mostly to remain my teacher’s favorite. Each of us was learning to live without the people we loved.

The summer was approaching. The snow had melted. The days were getting brighter and longer. With green buds on the branches, the trees became alive again. The children played in the park. The babushkas came out to sit on the benches. I learned to cook rice and curry and wash cups and plates without breaking them. To study further, Pramod and I were going to Lviv, Hari and Shankar were staying in Kharkiv, and Tchamis was going to Kyiv.

It was the last day of our preparatory year. The results of our finals were already out. Everyone was excited about the upcoming vacation and most of the students were going home. It was time to celebrate our friendship. Of some I had photos, and the rest were only in our memories. In the evening, we opened a bottle of vodka. I went to every familiar room to say goodbye and in return, I got a drink and a hug. As I came out from one room to went into another, my legs became unsteadier, my vision blurrier, my attitude more outgoing, and my memory of the event scantier and sparser until it went all dark.

The next morning, I found myself sleeping on the floor. My bed was broken from, what looked like, an accident (Later I learned from my roommates that it was from my incessant jumping. Did I?) The events from last night slowly emerged. I remembered going to the Afghani room, Sudanese room, Ethiopian room, Congolese room, and Greek room. I remember entering Tchamis’s room, he and his friends sitting on the beds, open suitcases on the floor, me talking about his unfair treatment, how I used to love and care for him and how he ignored me sticking with his girlfriend as if she were a glue, his friends avoiding my angry gaze. Oh, what did I do? My face became hot and my head hurt. The memory agonized me, but it was too late. I couldn’t take those words back. Maybe it served him right. Didn’t he deserve to know what he had done to me? Now that he had seen what he had done to his once best friend, I was confident he would come, shake my hands, promise to stay in touch, and hug me. I too would apologize for last night’s ranting and would tell him that the most beautiful thing that had ever happened to me during the last year was his friendship and I would always be grateful. I stayed in my room waiting for the knock. Every sound of an approaching footstep would perk up my ears. Shame and guilt stopped me from going to his room. I walked into the corridor making him easier to find me and went back to my room leaving the door open. The knock never came. Tormented, I lay down on my broken bed and stared at the ceiling. Hari, in passing, mentioned that Tchamis had left for Greece early that morning. I turned my head to face the wall.

After hiking religiously in Southern California, mostly on short trails, for several years, it was time to try something different. Just in the stories we often read, I wanted to be alone in nature, free from alarms and reminders, from books and magazines, from news and social media, to sit idly, watch some bugs crawl by, take a nap under the rustling leaves, or lie down in the dirt after a long day of the walk and watch the night sky, or wake up in the morning with the sounds of birds singing. Along the way, if I am lucky, I would meet new people from the new world, listen to their stories, laugh with them, peek at the world through their eyes, and come home with some everlasting memories.

Having come from Nepal, I always look for opportunities to explore its remote regions. With two-thirds of its land covered in mountains and hills, it offers many breathtaking trails. After reading about popular trekking routes, I decided on the Annapurna Circuit. The trail connects landscapes ranging from the tropical (760 meters) to the arctic (5416 meters), gaining almost 5000-meter elevation, while crossing tribal communities with unique cultures and traditions. The whole circuit takes about 18 days, but those pressed for time take the popular 10-day route from Besisahar to Jomsom and then fly back to Pokhara. I could take a month break in October, fly out to Kathmandu, celebrate the two most popular festivals Dashain and Tihar with my folks, and squeeze in a hiking trip in between. I informed about the plan to my close friends and relatives, expecting none to join me. Then came Covid-19 and with it the travel restrictions. The trip had to wait.

The vaccines came out in late 2020 and vacation pictures appeared on social media. I booked the flight to Nepal for October 1, 2021. A few weeks before my trip, Dipesh, a good friend of mine from SoCal, and a regular hiker showed interest to join me. After sharing each other’s plans, we agreed to meet in Kathmandu for further planning. He was going to spend some time with his folks in Biratnagar, then join me in Kathmandu before the trip. Once in Nepal, Saroj, my nephew, and a long-time college friend Sailendra also joined our team. We set October 20 as our start date for the trip. Dipesh booked his flight to Kathmandu for October 19. I arranged a guide and a porter and Saroj booked transport to travel from Kathmandu to Besisahar, the trailhead of our trip. As part of the preparation, we did three short hikes in and around Kathmandu valley. I also played soccer a few times. During the last game, I bumped my knee with another player and the pain stayed for 4–5 days.

A few days before our trip, the weather changed. The blue sky first became grey, then dark, and wet. The murky clouds enveloped not only the valley but also the various regions of Nepal. There were reports of downpours, followed by the news of landslides in the eastern and western parts of Nepal. I avoided the news the same way kids avoid the incoming object by closing their eyes. When I opened my eyes, the rain was still there, only with greater destruction. When my phone buzzed with calls and messages to reconsider my trip, I worried and sought more information. I called our guide thinking he might know someone who had been to the trail recently. He calmly suggested taking the dirt road, which went all the way from Besisahar to Mustang. The idea brought relief. On Oct 19, none of the flights were taking off from the Biratnagar Airport. Dipesh sat at home all afternoon with his cell phone in his hand, his backpack on the side, ready, waiting for a phone call from the airport staff. He even devised a plan to take a night bus to Kathmandu in case his flight got canceled. In Kathmandu, we were thinking to delay our trip by a few days. Finally, his flight took off late in the afternoon and came straight to my house from the airport. We raised our glasses filled with beer in celebration.

The morning of October 20 was clear and bright. Saroj came on Mahindra Scorpio, our transport to Besisahar, picking everyone on the way. After eating breakfast, six of us left Kathmandu. I prayed silently for the clear weather. On our way, we stopped for tea and lunch and arrived at Besisahar around 5 pm. The town was small with bustling streets and was at the base of hills with patches of hamlets on both sides. In the evening, we went out to see the market and bought flashlights, an extra battery, and some plastic sheets to cover our boots and backpacks in case of rain. We also looked for a ride to Chame, a village about 40 miles north of Besisahar, and got some numbers. We came to the hotel, had our dinner, and went to bed early.

On the way to Bahundada

I woke up at night a few times and heard the rain outside. Was the rain signaling me something? I got up around 5 am and I left the room with my camera. Once outside, I sat on a chair, soaked in the lush vistas. I greedily took pictures of my surroundings. Soon everyone came out. Saroj called a driver and fixed the price for a ride to Chame. We ate breakfast and loaded our backpacks in our new transport. When we were about to leave, a phone rang and the driver picked up the call. The driver told us about the last night’s landslide in a nearby village which destroyed the section of the road but offered to drive us about 2–3 miles north. We asked him to drive us as far as possible. After 15 minutes of driving, the driver dropped us on the side of the road. Ahead was the collapsed dirt road, sunken from the ground, broken into multiple pieces with a pile of debris on one side. One by one, we crossed it on foot. Once on the other side, we rode a bus to Bhulbhule.

Our trekking started from Bhulbhule. Each of us with 20–30 lbs of backpacks on our backs walked on the dirt road along the Marshyangdi river. The road sometimes disappeared, and we walked on the banks of the river. Early in the walk, we hit the wet pathway filled with knee-deep mud. Some of us walked around it, but Dipesh took his boots off and trudged thru’ it, and came out with minor scratches on his legs. The waterfall on the right greeted us with its loud high-pitched sound. We took some pictures and moved on. On the way, there was a restaurant with a well-maintained flower garden. We went in and had tea and biscuits. On the way out, we washed our mud-stained boots. With clean boots and fresh vigor, we headed north sharing each other’s past. After a steep hike, we reached Bahundada in the early afternoon and stopped for a lunch. The village was on a pass and offered a gorgeous view of surrounding hills and villages. We ate locally grown guavas while waiting for lunch. The food was fresh. After taking a short rest, we descended the narrow and slippery trail. I felt discomfort in my left knee. As we kept walking, the discomfort grew into pain. I borrowed a knee cap from Saroj, but the pain did not wane. In the late afternoon, we were tired and looking for clean and comfortable rooms to stay in for the night. I cursed myself silently for playing soccer before the trip. I poured out my frustration at Saroj when he decided to walk further ahead to Shirchaur. After crossing several villages on the way, we arrived at Shirchaur. I was exhausted, more from the negative thoughts racing through my mind than anything else. I was not ready to return home yet. I stretched my leg and put a cold pack on my knee while sipping Advil. Saroj and Sailendra were spraying Move on their backs. I wondered if I could reach the summit.

In the morning, I took a few Advil before we left the hotel. Soon we arrived at Jagat. The sky was clear and the air crisp. The sun had showered the village with its warm rays. The jovial and friendly behaviors of locals sitting outside of their houses painted in bright colors produced a much-needed reinvigorating effect. We stayed at Dharapani that night. I took my Advil and Saroj applied the spray on his back. Sailendra was feeling better.

As we walked towards Chame along the banks of the river the next morning, we saw the abandoned houses, once homes to locals, without roofs or walls, naked for everyone to see their bare and basic possessions. We walked in sadness. We arrived at Chame around 2 pm. The air was cold. The hotel was clean and the staff friendly. Saroj and Dipesh lay down on the benches to give rest to their backs. We sat next to the heater for several hours drinking tea. When I went to our bedroom upstairs, my knee felt light to my disbelief. The heat did it! Unable to contain my excitement, I ran up and down the stairs to confirm what I was experiencing. In the evening, I sat next to the heater again while others negotiated with a driver to take us to the Lower Pisang.

The next morning, the driver didn’t show up. We instead made a deal with a tractor driver — he would take our backpacks to Dhukkurpokhari and we would have lunch at his restaurant. Without the backpacks, our backs and legs got a much-needed break. We stopped by the famous apple farm in Bhratang and tried local delicacies. We arrived at Dhukkurpokhari in the early afternoon. The village had about 7–8 houses painted in bright colors. The sun was high, and we sat on the terrace to eat our lunch. The hotel owner arranged a ride for us to Manang. As we drove off through the open steppe, I recalled all the hurdles we faced and, for the first time, saw the possibility of crossing Thorong La pass. The driver took us to the local lake before dropping us at Manang. A Bollywood movie was being shot in Manang and the village was busy hosting the movie crew. We stayed at Hotel Yak. We spent our evening in the dining room talking to the cyclists, who were also planning to cross the Thorong La on their bicycles.

The next morning, I got up before sunrise and went to the terrace to take pictures of the mountains. The whole Annapurna range stood before me as if posing for a picture. Later, we went out looking for a coffee and bumped into Anupam Kher and Boman Irani, two popular Bollywood actors. Someone in the crowd mentioned that Parineeti Chopra, a movie actress was leaving the village, and we sprinted to the bus station to have a glance at her. She was already inside the vehicle and all we saw was her driver and the bodyguard sitting in the front row. In the afternoon, we hiked the local trail and stayed in Manang to acclimatize.


During these long walks, we touched on many topics — philosophy, religion, science, literature, and music. We talked about our weaknesses and strengths, our likes and dislikes, and things that make us happy, sad, angry, ashamed, envious, and content. We shared our ideas on how to make Nepal a better country. Some of us wrote and recited poetry. We dwelled on century-old questions about God and ourselves. To explain the purposes of our existence, some people turned to faith and others to science. We shared our deepest thoughts and confided our fancies and sorrows. Saroj and I had heated arguments a few times on topics no one cared about. We would not apologize to each other, but our eyes would. He is someone I could get mad at without the fear of ever losing him. He kept recording our activities, interviewing us now and then; he was going to produce a vlog.

The next morning, we left Manang and stopped at Leather for lunch. While waiting for lunch, we played carrom board. After lunch, we took a brief rest before heading to Yak Khadka. We reached our destination around 4 pm. The village had only 4–5 houses. The terrain was quiet and remote. After a short hike, we sat next to the heater and sang old songs of Narayan Gopal. Our audience for the evening was a couple from Colorado. At night, snowflakes drifted in the air.

The next day we left for Phedi. The landscape was barren and rocky. We walked listening to the music. The blue sheep were grazing on the slope full of scree. We walked carefully, watching out for falling stones. We arrived at Phedi in the afternoon. The trail from Phedi to High Camp was steep and treacherous. We arrived at High Camp in the afternoon. The air was thin and cold. Everything was white. Some mountains were below us. Later we went for a hike but returned almost immediately as it was too cold. We were tired. Saroj and Dipesh still had back pain. The rooms were dark and small. We ate Tibetan bread with garlic soup at 6 pm. I got hot water in the pouch and took it inside my sleeping bag. I used it to heat my knee and every part that was shivering from cold.

Upper Camp

Where is this yearning, this restless itching to hike in the remote and unfamiliar terrain for days, putting oneself through psychological and physical pain, sometimes even risking one’s own life, come from? I used to think only a fool would leave the comfort of his soft and warm bed for a cold plank. Once, when we were still young, Sailendra told me about his 4-hour one-way solo hike to Manakamana and I felt pity for him. Is it an act roused by peer pressure from social media? Is it for the rush of adrenaline, the pure bliss that gets released while walking on a narrow steep ridge filled with slippery scree, or reaching the summit after a treacherous trek? Is it to recreate the youth, one without routines and responsibilities, whose loss I have yet to recover from? Or is it to create a legacy for others to see long after I am gone? The night seemed to drag on forever. An unknown fear was tormenting me.

At 4 am, the alarm woke us up. I was tired and light-headed. I put multiple layers from top to the bottom. After packing our bags, we went to eat breakfast in the tea-house, which was already crowded with morning hikers preparing to leave for the summit. We ate what we could. It was still dark when we left for the summit. The snow covered the trail. We turned our headlamps on and followed our guide in silence. We needed to climb about 1500 feet to the summit before noon. I surveyed every footprint left on the trail by the earlier hikers before putting my foot on it. We walked listening to the crunching sound of the snow. Only my feet and head were warm, everything in between was cold. Now and then, I would cover my lower face with the headscarf. For a while, I would feel the warmth from my exhaled breath, but soon I would feel suffocated and remove the scarf to let the air flow in. I thought about all my warm and thermal hiking clothes and wondered whether to laugh or feel pity for myself for leaving them at home. I remembered my mom, who despite my objection thrust a warm fleece beanie into my backpack, and the same beanie was keeping my head warm. In the darkness, the mountains, visible only as faint silhouettes, gave the impression of ominous monsters, creeping up on us from every direction, and the howling sound of the wind their whispers picking their next prey. In every step, I saw only traps. I was on the enemy lines with no ammunition at my disposal and there was no way to turn back. It was only a matter of time before I would crumble to the ground. Why didn’t I believe in you, God?

As dawn broke, the surroundings became visible. I turned back to look where the other folks were. The sun was rising above the mountain peak, revealing the grandeurs of the Annapurna mountain range. The mountains were so close, that I could touch them if only I stretched my hands. All around us, there were mountains, defiant yet tranquil, older than any sages or scriptures, offering the wisdom of the land to those who are ready to receive. I took out my phone and started recording, imagining the reactions from Reena, Shrija, and Cloe when they would watch the recording. Sailendra, who only did three short hikes with me in Kathmandu, was walking steadily with no complaints. Dipesh and Saroj, who suffered from back pain since the start of the trip, were carrying their load and walking quietly along with our guide. On the way, there were resting huts, and we would go inside to rest and recharge. We also met the cyclists on the trail. In LA, I would ascend quickly bringing my BPM level to 170–180 just to show the cyclists that I am not their weaker sibling, but here their act of bravery only humbled me.

“There it is!” cried Saroj.

I raised my head. A shack was standing on the left. I almost dismissed it thinking it was just another resting hut on the trail, but something on the right pulled my attention. There it was! The shrine, the sanctuary, the Thorong La Pass spreading its invisible limbs wrapped in the colorful Tibetan praying flags, ready to embrace me. The sight immediately restored me and I became a new man. I took out my phone, pressed the record button, and approached it. The site was beaming in the bright sunlight against the backdrop of the snow. As I came close, I felt a lump in my throat and my eyes became moist. Was it a tear of joy for achieving what once looked unthinkable? Or was it a tear of sorrow, knowing that our adventure was ending and that soon we would disappear into thin air?

Saroj appeared holding his phone and asked, “How do you feel?”

“Mission accomplished! I fulfilled the dream I had for 2 years!” To hide my tears, I went to the hut, where the locals were selling tea.

Despite the long and difficult walk, everyone’s faces were lit up with a smile. Those who came to the summit earlier congratulated the newcomers. There were cheers, hugs, and high-fives. We were the spectators and the players, the givers and the takers of the attentions, the praises, and the encouragements we all sought. The comradery we felt during those moments was communal. After tea, we took individual and group photos in front of the Thorong La sign. As the adrenaline wore off, we prepared to head south, to Muktinath. The Sun was high and warm. On our descent, we found the trail mostly dry. On the horizon, tiny man-made structures appeared as dots. The mountains, now farther and taller, were serenely waving at us. Slowly, the tiny dots took shape. We were heading back to civilization, to those shapes, to hide in our cocoons.

Music transcends time and space. You only need to close your eyes and the ride to your imaginary world, with your imaginary companions and script, becomes so smooth and real that you forget the existence of the world that lies behind your closed eyelids. It can also take you on a ride to every nook and cranny of your memory revealing the images of people, things, or situations and the sentiments associated with them.

Sometimes an old song re-surfaces out of nowhere bringing along a kaleidoscope of memories attached to it and lingers on for days as if it were my old friend reminding me of my childhood, my bygone years. I whisper the song in the passage, in the kitchen while making coffee, and in the bathroom while taking a shower. I google it and save the lyrics on my phone. I look at the words and understand the song for the first time. I wonder how I never saw the meaning of these words, I’ve whispered hundreds of times. Sometimes I look for chords, tune my guitar covered in dust, and try to make it sing along with me. As always, it lacks the soft and sweet tone the song demands, and when it realizes its tempo can’t keep up with mine; it crawls back to its stand feeling dejected. My vanity makes me record my singing, but the perfectionist deletes the recording. After noticing the lack of attention, the song slips out of my mind with no formal announcements or adieu. When I listen to these songs from my childhood, they always evoke memories weaved out of multiple events, some hazy as dreams and others as distinct as if from yesterday. I see a boy of 10 on his way home from school crossing Kamalachi street, an old and busy corner, famous for its bicycle store. For his tiny legs, it would take a 10–12-minute walk to get home. He would pass the store glancing at the shiny bicycles placed outside the store. He, like every other kid of his age, would imagine coming to this store one day and leaving proudly with a brand-new Chinese bicycle. As he walked, he would hear a song playing on the radio and would hum along with the music. As he turned left, he would pass a few adjacent bicycle repair stores, presumably once owned and run by a single person, but then split between two brothers after their father had become too frail to run the business. He would see the sons on their blue jumpsuits stained with soot and their darkened hands fixing a punctured tube or hitting a fender constantly producing a loud hammering noise to otherwise a quiet milieu. Next to the store, some old and rusty bicycles, long neglected by their owners, without rims, saddles, and handles would lean against the wall. It would be one of these repair stores, which would take his dad’s old bicycle and transform it into a shiny green Indian bicycle, his first bicycle. But that he couldn’t have guessed back then. The same song would come out from the general store on the left and he would continue to mumble the song to himself. He would switch lanes to avoid the heat and glare of the mid-afternoon Sun. A little further down on the left, he would cross a rectangular square with houses on the three sides, but open to the road resembling an open theater. The square had a well in the middle and next to it stood a tube well. If only he would look in that direction, he would see some women washing their clothes, others with sticks in their hands guarding the dry food spread on the floor, few children, too young to attend school, playing with sticks and throwing rocks at stray dogs, and a new mother with her oily face sitting next to her baby, asleep oblivious to the surroundings. But he had seen that every day everywhere. He would instead dwell on the song blaring out from one of the houses. He would move on. By the time he reaches the crossing, the song would end and the commercials would begin. He wouldn’t mind those commercials if they include catchy jingles. He would wait for the next song. He would turn right, leaving behind the hustle-bustle of the vegetable (Ason) market. Soon his eyes would land on one particular shop on the right side. The store was barely 10 feet wide, but this was where his world lived. He would get closer and scans all the postcards of movie actors and actresses hanging outside on the wall. He would take his time and even read the headlines printed on the front pages of Mayapuri, Filmfare, and Stardust. Sometimes he would hang out until the storekeeping would cry out to leave. The new song would play on the radio and with his tight lips, he would sing to himself. Soon he would pass the electric store that also sold milk in the early morning. Now he would only have to walk a few minutes. His legs would move faster. His go-to store that sold Pustakari (local sweets) would greet him. He could now see his house and if he would run, he could get there in a single breath. It’s been 40 years since then. I live on the opposite side of the globe. Most of the singers from that era have passed away. There are several FM radio stations playing every sort of music. The majority stream the music of their choice from the Internet. With the passage of time, people change, and so do the surroundings they live in. Most of the old homes have been replaced by concrete buildings covered with commercial billboards. TV and mobile phones have taken the place of the radio. When I visit the town, it feels like visiting an old relative, now aged and living with her grown-up children and grandkids, whom I have never seen or met before. We look at each other and amaze at how the other has changed. I want to tell her children that this town was and is mine too, but something stops me. She notices my hesitation and smiles at me serenely as if to free me from my guilt. I keep walking on those alleys and courtyards quietly looking for familiar sights. With a heavy heart, I leave her promising to come back. But, I rarely visit her. And, it is in these songs, when the images of our youth start to re-appear, a boy of 10 emerges and takes me for a stroll.

May 18, 2020.

The past always seems gayer and richer than they are. – Anton Chekhov

What is he going to do with himself in the city?, I thought. It was in one of our phone conversations, my mom informed me that my uncle, her younger brother, had decided to leave Balwa, their ancestral village, and would move to Kathmandu. “It’s not safe out there anymore,” my mom justified his decision referring to the recent riots between Madhesi (southerners) and Pahade (northerners) in several southern parts of Nepal.

A relief came over me knowing that my uncle, aunt, and grandma would be far from the disturbances and my mom could see them often. While my mom talked about their search of a new house in Kathmandu, my mind escaped the conversation, leaving me with my mom, and sprinted off to our grandparent’s old house overlooking a pond in the front, to its rooms, through the corridors out to the courtyard with the fruit tree in the middle, where we used to climb the tree, sit on the top of the wall and play unnamed games, to its guest house originally built for visiting dignitaries from the city, but now vacant and neglected and left for the children to include in their plays, and to its stable, where the cattle and their herders lived side by side breathing the air mixed with the odor of cattle, their manure, and the hay. And, suddenly I became aware of my plan to take our children to the village and re-live those moments of my past in future melting away; I realized I might never see the village ever again.

The last time I was in the village was in March 2000, the year I got married. After spending a night at my aunt’s house in Jaleshwor, Reena and I, a newlywed couple, left for Balwa in my uncle’s car. He had sent a driver to pick us up earlier that morning. We were on our honeymoon visiting town after town, and Balwa was our last destination. The distance to Balwa was 18 km, and soon we arrived at the village, driving first on the concrete, then on gravel, followed by an earthen road. We pushed people, rickshaws, and oxcarts over to the sides of the road, showering anything that came our way with dust. Upon our arrival, a large almost barren field opened its arm and embraced the muddy road we were on. Through the windshield, I surveyed every scene and sound, comparing them with what I have preserved from the past. The village bazaar first came in sight revealing its market on the left lined with eateries and general stores with tables and chairs in the front, dry and uneven road indistinguishable from the field heading straight to the buildings further up, possibly high school, and open pasture on the right. The air was sultry and the local delicacies on display gave it a unique flavor. A storekeeper was lazily fanning away flies with a rag, stirring swarms of flies to swirl off, only to return and light on the sweets again. Some young men, presumably the school teachers, in shirts and pants were sitting outside on the wooden chairs chatting with each other while drinking tea. A kid in ragged clothes was picking up the empty plates and glasses from the adjacent table. There were others, possibly farmers, squatting on the floor, smoking Bidi that once lay behind their ears, wearing only Lungi revealing lean torsos with the color that of the mud, burned and darkened by the Sun and the dust, their thin dark faces riddled with wrinkles, revealing black teeth every time they opened their mouth. On the right, traders, probably from neighboring villages, were looking at every passerby hoping to sell ice-creams or the soft drinks they had carried on their cart since early that morning. Far-off, boys in school uniforms were running around in the field while girls were sitting under the tree forming a circle. After driving a little further, we took a right turn, headed straight leaving stores on the left behind. Young kids, some naked, sprang upon the sideways as if to welcome us. When I saw the well, the one I have seen many times when I was a kid, on the corner before the last turn, my face turned bright, partly because I still remembered it and partly it was still standing there. Once we made a slight right, the house and the pond came in view and I couldn’t believe what I saw as if I had always doubted their existence. “This is real!” I told myself. The house looked as elegant as before, but the water in the pond was murky. Formless rubble was lying where once the guest house stood. The inside pond was mostly covered with green algae. The car stopped in front of the house, and our uncle, aunt, and grandma with their radiant faces showed up at the gate and embraced us. They took us to the recently built concrete house. Our uncle and grandma sat with us while our aunt went to the kitchen to prepare the chicken that the driver brought from Jaleshwor. Our grandma kept going to the kitchen to check if the food was ready. After lunch, when I was about to leave for a stroll, my aunt warned me, “Don’t go upstairs. It’s unsafe.” I walked around in the courtyards and found nothing but a dull silence. The old house which looked fine at first glance revealed its cracks in proximity. The old kitchen had transformed into a relic, with its roof missing, and walls overgrown with moss. The neighboring houses had their doors locked. I stepped out and approached the stable where a lone cow raised its head and stared at me. I went to the back of the stable and gazed at the vast open field, where we children often went to empty our bowels.

Word has it that Jog Narsingh Mathema, my mom’s great-great-grandfather, lost his property in Kathmandu after refusing to apologize for his certain action to the authorities presumably during the second half of the last century[¹]. Disgruntled, he left the city for Balwa, a rural village about 236 km south of Kathmandu, and busied himself in farming. He had two wives. Jog Kumar Mathema, his only son from his second wife, took over the estate in Balwa and devoted himself to the welfare of the local community by building schools, clinic, temple, and Dharmashala. My grandfather’s family, the descendants of Jog Narsingh’s first wife, was settled in Bhokara, another southern village about 55 km west of Balwa. Jog Kumar and my grandfather were contemporaries and close to each other. Perhaps that is why when he invited my grandfather to join him, he left his residence in Bhokhara and moved to Balwa for good. He later brought his sisters and his youngest brother to live with him. They together built houses next to each other forming a commune-like community.

One day while visiting Birgunj, my grandfather saw a quiet girl, my grandmother, in a house where he was spending a night as a guest. She was from Lubu, Bhaktapur, a town next to Kathmandu, but was then living in Birgunj with her uncle. He asked her uncle for her hand, and soon they got married, and he took her to Balwa. Together they had 9 children, but only 6 survived beyond their infancy. My mom, the eldest, grew up in a crowded house, playing with her siblings, cousins, and neighbors’ kids in the courtyards of their houses. Her father was strict and didn’t let his children, especially daughters, to go anywhere alone. The only place she was allowed to go by herself was to her school, but she preferred to be at home playing with her neighbors and cousins. Who could blame her for her longing when she was the only female student in her class? They had two ponds: the left one hidden from the outside world was for women and the front one accessible to everyone was for men. She would jump to the pond with a large banana leaf under her arms, flap her arms, and kick her legs out like the elders. Once she mastered the skill, she would go swimming every day after school. Now and then, she would join her aunts and siblings to watch plays based on religious scripts performed by traveling (drama) troupe in the neighboring villages. Once she along with her aunts went on a 15-day pilgrimage to Janakpur, the birthplace of goddess Sita, hopping from one village to another on foot, performing religious rites every evening, and arriving the destination on the 15th day — the feat she still remembers fondly when she recollects her childhood. One day her uncle from the city asked her to come out so he could take pictures of her. She put on her favorite dress and went out to the garden and found a young man standing next to her uncle casting glances at her. She stood lowering her head out of shyness and only raised it when her uncle tricked her to look at the flying plane. She soon learned that the young man was her future husband. She was eighteen when they married her off to my dad. She left her village to live with my dad in Kathmandu. One by one, all my aunts, after getting married, left the village. Only my uncle stayed looking after the ancestral property and the farmlands.

Until I was 9, my mom would take my sister, me, and my brother to her parents’ house in Balwa for 2 months during the winter vacation. On the night before the departure, I would lie on my bed imagining every adventure that could take place during the trip and taking pleasure from those escapades. After a while, I would run out of ideas and the realization to get a rest before the long journey would bring me back to my bed. I would shift my position turning left or right and try to put my thoughts to rest. Whenever I would hear a rustle of a blanket, I would whisper, “Are you awake?” wishing to get a response from either my sister or brother. At a certain point, sleep would have pity on me and take me to the world where my mind would continue its excursion and I would become its passive traveling companion. I would get up early the next morning feeling tired and groggy. My mom and sister would already be awake making tea and preparing snacks for the road. I remember one time when I had to get up before dawn while the city was still asleep, go out in the dark, sit-in in the tailor’s shop, and wait while the tailor prepared our new clothes. Yawning, I sat on a stool and watched him work under the florescent light on his USHA sewing machine with his head bowed to the cloth-plate, his right hand occasionally applying brakes to the small driving-wheel attached to the shaft, and his feet pushing the treadle swiftly up and down causing the needle bar move with a thick clattering noise. Occasionally, I would glance at the posters hung on the wall or at the pictures from the old and thick clothing catalog lying on the desk. I left the store with a soft bundle, picturing myself in my new blue shirt and pants.

We would leave our house before sunrise. The city would still be covered by the morning fog and the air cold enough to see our breath. Few vegetable hawkers with Kharpans (carrying case) on their shoulders would already be on their way to the Asan vegetable market. A group of people would be standing next to a fire pit warming their body. We would call for a rickshaw driver and one of them would turn and come to us. After the bargain, he would take us to the bus-stop. On the way, we would pass the same vegetable hawkers. The milk store would already be open and we could hear the Bhajan (religious psalm) from their radio. The rickshaw driver would honk to women, each carrying a tray, and as we pass them, we would catch a whiff of sweet incense from their tray.

By the time we leave the city, the Sun would be rising on the horizon and the city getting ready to start its day. The bus ride usually took about 10–12 hours. The Byroad, the old highway, was narrow, risky, and winding, resembling a snake’s long passage. The groaning sound of the engine and the smell of smoke would make us sick. We would long for the tea-stops to go out in the fresh air and stretch our legs. Once we crossed the hilly region and reached the Hetauda, the road would get wide and straight, and the air warmer. We would then cross the Charkoshe Jhadi, then the largest and the densest forest of Nepal. What I liked about Tarai is there were no hills, no mountains to block my view; I could turn any direction and see everything all the way to the horizon. In the evening, I could even see the sun being swallowed up by the earth. We would arrive Janakpur in the evening and take a rickshaw to one of our relative’s home where we would spend a night. The next morning, we would head for our Neverland.

Usually, my grandfather would send an oxcart to pick us up from Janakpur, but sometimes he would send a tractor. When we traveled on a tractor, I would sit next to a driver, on a seat made on top of the large wheels, while others would sit on an open-trailer in the back. Every time we crossed any village, small boys would run barefoot after the tractor. They would follow for 200–300 meters and then disappear one at a time behind the cloud of dust. When we rode to the village in an oxcart, I would sit close to the driver and now and then ask him to drive faster. He would thrust his legs between bulls’ hind legs and the bulls would run for a spell causing the cart to rattle louder and faster. It would bring a smile to my face. Whenever we crossed a shallow stream, I enjoyed peering at the flowing water underneath or watch the oxen drinking water their fill.

Soon we would reach the home, and the entire village would come out to greet us. There would be hugs, cries out of joy, an exchange of pleasantries in the large guest room on the ground floor. The room would soon get crowded with the entire neighborhood and the house servants would stand outside the door watching the drama unfold. “He has become taller.” “Isn’t he Padma didi’s son? Hey there, do you recognize me?” “Which grade are you in?” “How many of you want tea? 1…2…3……12 cups!” “No, you will get milk.” “Come over, let’s check your height. Remember this mark from last year?” “Stop bothering me. Go play outside.” Finally, someone would ask, “Do you want to go for a buffalo ride?” He would then call a herder and I would follow him leaving the crowd behind.

Later my sister would tell me that kids were organizing a picnic the next day and we would be going with them. I would beg my mom to ask our uncle for a buffalo so that I could go to the picnic riding on one. I would be given a buffalo to ride and a herder to watch over me. While the other kids walked carrying the picnic supplies, I, hunched, placing my palms on the buffalo’s withers for balance, wishing for a solid handle, followed them with a herder holding the short reins tied to the buffalo’s nose. The buffalo ride isn’t as smooth as it seems from the ground. During the picnic, the girls would prepare food, and I would ask the herder to take me to the surrounding areas. After eating the snacks, we would come home to tell our stories.

My mom used to tell me how I stopped crying every time they would put me on the back of an elephant. I don’t remember any of that, but I remember riding on it and visiting the market. My grandfather had a white horse with a bell hung on its neck. Whenever I heard the bell in the evening, I would run out to meet him, wait impatiently for his dismount, and ride on his horse to the stable. Sometimes I would go with my uncle to our grandparent’s farm in Saranchai. We would till the large fields on a tractor and he would put me on his lap and allow me to hold the steering wheel.

Saraswati (the goddess of knowledge and wisdom) Puja is one of the most celebrated festivals in the Tarai region. During the festival, the entire village joins in the ceremonial street procession behind the colorful statue of Saraswati. One time they put me on an oxcart next to the statue and I watched the devotees marching behind us singing, dancing, and shouting with joy from the bazaar all the way to the river where they carried the statue on their hand and immersed it in the water.

Out of boredom, we would wander around the village, visit the school and watch school children repeating lessons in unison. On the way to the school, there was a hut where lived a witch. We were told that she was so mean that even if she saw someone passing her hut, she would put a curse on them and there was no remedy to her curses. Whenever we got close to her hut, we would crawl on the ground. I don’t recall ever seeing her.

Sometimes I would find myself with a pretty girl in the altar and the elder kids in front of us playing the wedding game. I and the girl would be told to sit quietly and put garlands around each other's neck.

I enjoyed sitting in a gazebo next to the pond watching the village kids run and plunge to the water causing splashes, wishing to have the courage to jump with them. Sometime I would go to the other side of the pond and watch the herders taking the buffalos into the water.

I would go to the stable in the morning to watch young calves. Who wouldn’t enjoy the sight of young calves jumping and running? It was pure joy. A house servant would separate them from their mothers and bring them outside and we would run behind them mimicking their moves. Holding an imaginary steering wheel, we used to ride on the wooden carts, the carts in which herders used to prepare and carry cattle feed, while other kids pushed it from behind. Sometimes we would go inside the stable to watch the house servant milking cows and buffalos by hand. We once witnessed a cow giving birth to a calf. We had seen nothing like that before and we watched it intently. But when the mother started to lick her baby covered in transparent fluid, our eyes squinted and nose wrinkled in disgust.

One of my uncles used to run a general store in the village. I caught sight of a blue sparkling fountain pen in the showcase and fell in love with it. I somehow let him know about my love affair. After spending some hours chatting with him, he handed me the pen. I kept it with me safe during my trip. Later it was stolen the very first day I took it to school. I knew who stole it, but, out of fear, I didn’t do anything and let him keep my pen.

Lokendar, a Figaro figure in our grandparent’s household, was always cheerful and his cheerfulness was contagious. He was loyal to elders and kind to kids. He would be everywhere doing everything: he would be in the house taking orders from my uncle and aunts, in the stable asking oxcart driver to harness the oxen, or in the farm tilling the field or collecting the crops. One day we were preparing to leave for another village, but the tractor wasn’t starting up. While my uncle sat behind the wheel, he along with house servants pushed the tractor and one of the large wheels caught his right foot. I was sitting on my top seat and saw it happening from above. There was a sudden commotion and his foot started to swell. Soon we left the village, taking with me the image of him lying on the ground, writhing in pain.

There was no electricity in the village. In the evening, the housekeepers would bring the lanterns in the room and we carried one with us whenever we left the room. The kitchen was on the other end of the courtyard and a long corridor connected it with our bedrooms. There was a house with few cats on the right side and the cats would loiter around the corridor all the time. There was a rumor that they belonged to a witch. Their presence didn’t bother me in the daytime, but at night they had an immense power to scare all of us children. During dinner time, I wouldn’t dare to walk the corridor alone; I always looked for a company and, if I had to, I always ran.

On the day of our return, we would meet every one of our family members. They would tell us to study hard and come back again next year. My grandfather would put his big hand on his large pocket of his Kurta, pull out coins, and put it to my tiny hands. “When will I see you all again?”, my grandmother would repeat it several times. One could see that she had been crying all morning quietly. Our aunts with their swollen eyes would hug and kiss us. My mom and her family members would exchange their last farewells and we would leave the village slowly in the oxcart. The friends I have made during the last 2 months would wave their hands. Some of our relatives would hold our hands, follow us for a few steps and then stop and wipe tears from their faces with the tip of their Saris. I instead would be excited to be heading home. They would stay outside and continue to wave at us until we could see each other. Perhaps they would linger a bit outside and then go in to face the silence and the void we had left.

My uncle and aunt have bought a house in Kathmandu close to where my parents live. They live with their son (my grandmother has passed away 3 years ago). Their daughter also lives in Kathmandu with her husband and a son. When I am in the city, I visit them. My uncle is in his 70s and he doesn’t engage himself in the conversation, but only asks “When did you arrive?” or “How long are you going to stay?” and sits quietly on a sofa, lost. My aunt slips out to the kitchen and occasionally shows her face to ask, “Suman babu, you still eat Buniya or Fin, right?”. She sits on a chair now and then and complains about her weak knees. Their son, my cousin, bows to me, sits next to us smiling and answers questions mostly in monosyllables. I look at my uncle and he is staring at the window and beyond. I leave him to his thoughts and join my aunt in the kitchen to talk about her mischievous grandson.

[¹]: The current year in Nepal is 2077 BS.

Mallory, when asked, the reason for climbing Mt. Everest, retorted, “because it is there”.

I never fathomed the magnitude of hardship, determination, and discipline that one requires climbing a mountain and return home alive until I read “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer. The book is about the 1996 Everest disaster that claimed 9 lives. It is about two rival consulting companies — Madness Mountain and Adventure Consulting — and their race to win the market. It is also about those brave mountaineers, both guides and clients, whose lives were trapped or lost in that race. It is an eye-opening book and Jon’s writing is so evocative, it gave me almost first-hand experience. The book, like any other excellent book, whetted me to seek more about Everest climbing. I read another fantastic memoir, rather a rebuttal to Jon Krakauer’s allegations made in “Into Thin Air”, “The Climb” co-authored by Anatoly Boukreev, and watched few mountaineering documentary movies. Now, that I am can envision the passion that drives these brave men and women to mountains, the torments each of them go through in achieving their goals, and the joy they get in the reward when they reach the peak and view the world underneath them, my paradigm for mountaineering has shifted completely.

In March 1996, Jon Krakauer, the staff of the Outside magazine, lands in Kathmandu to climb Mt. Everest and write a report on Everest climbing and on private mountaineering consulting companies mushrooming in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. He is one of the 8 clients that Adventure Consulting has secured for that season. After spending a few days in Kathmandu, he along with other members of the team leaves for Mt. Everest base camp. Once in the base camp, to acclimatize with the high altitude, they go through rigorous training, which includes trekking to camp I, camp II, and camp III in multiple iterations until they are certain of their acclimatization.

Later in the day on May 9th, they along with three other groups (Madness Mountain, Taiwanese, and South African) leave the camp IV with an aim to reach the summit by 1 pm. Only Jon and few climbers reach the summit by 1 pm. They stay at the summit for 5–10 minutes, try to feel/enjoy the moment and start to descent. Jon notices the other members of his team and the Madness Mountain team are behind the schedule. He sees climbers lining up at the Hillary steep and, because of an excessive number of climbers, the traffic delay. He notices guides helping their clients climb even when they would not be at the summit by or around 1 pm, the agreed-upon time. As a result, climbers reach the summit as late as 5 pm.

Later in the afternoon, the storm hits. Powerful wind effaces the track and blinds the descending climbers. Unable to see, move, and think, some climbers remain in the mountain and pray for the storm to die down. Some climbers, tumbling, and heaving, continue to descend. Some cringe together offering consolation and hope to each other. A group of 5–6 climbers get disoriented and stay out in the cold and dark for few hours only to discover later that they were only a few hundred meters away from their tents. Those few climbers who have descended safely to their camp are too exhausted to go out and look for missing climbers. Yet some brave hearts risk their lives and go out to look for missing climbers. They find a few and bring them one by one to the camp. The others remain in the cold mountain; only death comes to end their sufferings. On that night, 9 climbers, including guides, lose their life.

It was a deadly game played by Adventure Consulting and Madness Mountain with no rule and a referee. Adventure Consulting hasn’t had a successful climb for some time and, as Madness Mountain loomed it saw Madness Mountain as a rival. To gain publicity, Madness Mountain even took a socialite as its client. And, both groups pushed hard ignoring the basic rules of the game to take their every client to the summit as if reaching the top, not returning alive, was the goal. As a result, head guides of both companies along with a few other guides and clients died, and those who survived went through the deadly experience.

The author outlines some vital factors contributing to the accident, and I outline here some –

  • The government should compensate a climber if he or she cannot make it to the top. Everest climbing is expensive and for some it’s a lifetime saving; they can’t imagine going back and saving it all over again.
  • There is no process to vet climbers both physically and mentally before they embark on the journey. The current process allows even a meek, but financially capable, enthusiast gets a climbing license. Mountain climbing is a joint-effort; the team is as strong as its weakest member.
  • On any day, they should allow only a certain number of climbers to climb. It will not only avoid clogs or traffic jams but also minimizes the risk and eases the rescue process.
  • In mountaineering, descending is as important as ascending. To make the overall trip safe and successful, a set of rules should be enforced strictly. A climber must return to the camp (no matter how close he or she is to the summit) if (a) a climber can’t reach the top by a certain time, (b) the weather condition deteriorates, and © the health of a climber declines.

If any member of a group doesn’t follow the rules, the government should penalize the company, owning the group.

We have yet to learn and understand fully the psychology or the passion of climbers who leave all the luxury and throw themselves in the hands of nature. Perhaps it’s ego or a long rivalry with nature or the closeness to the death that attracts these men and women to the mountain. But, only if we learn and respect our nature, prepare ourselves better and, above all, play by the rules, there will be less tragic and more cheerful stories to share.

May 09, 2010.

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