Ghats

1964 Discovering life in Kathmandu published in Clockhouse Volume 7, 2019

I’m racing down Kalimati Road heading for the bazaar, what we call downtown back in America. A chicken surprises itself and me by running into my bike’s front tire. A man yells over the chicken’s squawks but I pump hard and don’t look back. My cycling has improved since moving to Kathmandu. 

I swerve around a toddler at the road’s edge, swerve again to avoid a porter hunched under his bulging basket. Neck of steelcalves of iron I write in my head. I’m thinking about my article due tomorrow for the school newspaper. The porter turns his head and spits a streak of betel juice, red flecks sticking to my sneaker.

Detouring through Himalaya Heights, the ex-pat community where most families live, I’m on the lookout for one of my friends to go to town. When we first moved into Round House I complained, wanting to be in the American development. Now I like our house, which is circular and white and tall like a three-layer birthday cake. We live in half the cake, our apartment three floors top to bottom. Dad likes to joke how he can never corner my mother. 

The Cathys aren’t home; no other kids are outside playing. Leaving the Heights, I call namaste to the chokidar at his usual post sitting on a stool guarding the gate and turn left, almost hitting two little boys squirting their dicks in the dirt, reminding me of my brother trying to spell his name and soaking his pants. These kids have no pants on to wet. The outdoors here is a wide-open bathroom. Mom doesn’t let us go barefoot in our yard and nags me to stop biting my fingernails: “It’s unsanitary!” All our water has to be boiled and filtered, our vegetables washed in that cleaned water.

Wobbling in recovery mode, I smile at a woman watching from the baked-brick house that leans into the road. A girl squats while stirring a pot on a fire, rice or lentils for dahl. I half-wave steering around a cow sprawled on the asphalt, serene in the knowledge no one will hit her. She’s holy, not even milked like the Holsteins back home on my grandparents’ dairy farm. 

I cruise around a tole, remembering to stay left until I exit from the circle of traffic onto to the main road. I’m almost to the center of the bazaar and about to turn back home, when I smell meat grilling¾it smells like a barbeque. I wonder if Nepalis are celebrating another holy day, offering rice or flowers along with a prayer at the god’s shrine, and having a cookout with relatives like Americans do on 4th of July or on Labor Day.

American Christians pay attention to God maybe once a week and at Christmas and Easter, but Nepalis celebrate their religion all the time. There are tons of Hindu gods, their images displayed everywhere in statues and carvings¾smiling and dancing or fierce with weapons, showing bare bosoms and way more. 

I’m partial to Ganesh, a boy god with the head of a little elephant. His dad, chief god Shiva, lost his temper and lopped his kid’s head off with a sword. In remorse, Shiva grabbed a head from the nearest living thing he saw and stuck it on his son. I wonder what Ganesh did to enrage his father or whether he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time¾the consequence changed everything.

This starts me thinking about being in that taxi in Amman when I was nine, squashed between my dad and a stranger. I’d been in the wrong place. The man smelled like cigarettes, his kaffiyeh hiding his face. I leaned away when his hand pressed against my leg but his fingers kept going, under my skirt, between my legs, even though I clamped them shut. I froze. I think about that a lot. Why didn’t I tell my dad right then and there, or at least my mom afterward. What stopped me? 

Curiosity moves me on, my nose following the scent of cooking hamburger. I keep thinking about the taxi, and Ganesh. I dodge two pi-dogs fighting over something gross-looking and lurch by a slow-moving rickshaw. Maybe Ganesh’s story means dads, even a chief god, do the best they can. Although doing his best didn’t work out for poor Ganesh. How did the boy deal with waking up with the giant nose and ears? At least Ganesh remained a god. I guess I remained me, a little different inside, but nothing obvious like new ears.

My mouth watering, I pedal across one of the small bridges that connects the Bagmati’s banks throughout town; Pashupatinath temple looms, its wide steps leading into a murky river. Sweat beads under my bangs. Like my body knows something I don’t. I hesitate and think about turning back; I never meant to come this far.

A small crowd spools ahead of me. People shuffle to a stop and I put a foot down balancing my bike. The smell shifts, less like hamburgers now that I’m in the smoke. Most Nepalis aren’t much taller than me and I peer around people’s heads and see the burning platforms, the ghats, dotting the river’s edge. Blackened human feet poke out beneath flames. 

I remember about cremation and the stories about Hindu wives, some only girls like me, joining their dead husbands on funeral pyres. When I first read about the tradition I thought it was romantic, dying for one’s true love, but now I’m twelve and think more about what things mean, like why that man would want to do that to me, and what does that mean about other men, and how would it feel to go up in flames? 

Ahead, two men step out of the crowd carrying a body wrapped in white, festooned with garlands of marigolds. They head towards the ghats. Swallowing, I back away from the stink, the fires, the temple, ignoring the grumbles when I shove through people.   

I’m home in record time, not stopping to walk my bike up the steep part, calling out sorry, I’m sorry when a man gesticulates at me over that suicidal chicken still pecking in the road. I yell sorry again so loud I surprise myself. The chicken hesitates, and so does the man. 

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