My Friend is a Prostitute

This is a goodbye Nepal post. It’s been almost twenty hectic months. Now, three documentaries later, I’m finally going home. Today, I have a screening of one of the three docs, a feature length – my first feature length piece of work – Untouchable Love. Read about it here and follow the cause on facebook

This documentary is the reason I came to Nepal. Late in 2008, I had rashly quit a day job to try and make a living in film making. Within two months, I discovered I had committed suicide. And then the girl I was eyeing then, who all along was tagging along with me to the movies and lunch dates, started growing cold feet. I tried to make it work by taking her to guitar classes, for she loved the guitar, but instead, she started eyeing the guitar instructor. And I felt very bad that Christmas. So unloved. So lonely. A major disappointment to everyone who had ever believed in me.

But up until this time, I had never had a real girlfriend, mostly because of this maddening ambition to be a writer (and later the more lucrative filmmaker). It meant I would stay indoors for days, phone off, email off, hammering away at the keyboard, dreaming up stories that no one would ever read. I became sort of a loner, and now age was catching up with me, reminding me that it was time I got a girlfriend and settled down into a family. I was nearly 30 (or already 30 :O ) and I had never had a real girlfriend. Only imaginary ones, and temporary ones, and flings. So I started to question the meaning of love – why do people fall in love? what is true love?

Naturally, being an internet freak, I turned to google for answers. Soon, I heard about the fate of lovers in Hindu societies, who cannot marry outside their caste, but who endure all sorts of torture and bloodshed to stay in love. And I thought, ‘Wow, isn’t that a story worth telling?’

So I started to look for ways to go to India (I was following the advice of Yann Martel, author of “The Life of Pi”, whose word to struggling writers is, “Go to India, you’ll find salvation”, or something to that effect.) However, I couldn’t find a way into India. Instead, I got a volunteer job in Nepal, and I saw that it had the stories I was looking for. So I came late in 2009.

And twenty months later, after learning the language, so much so that now I have a Nepali accent, according to my girlfriend (yes, I did find love finally), I am proud to show the film tonight. It has been a terribly tough twenty months. I cannot say I enjoyed Nepal, mostly because I was a six foot tall ‘original’ African living in a rural place where the average height is five feet, where they have never seen a person with a shade of dark like mine! The one you can say is ‘original African’. Pure black.

I suffered loads of staring (I will find time to post this), and loads of discrimination. I was treated as an untouchable most of the time, especially when they discovered I was working for a dalit organization. So I have not enjoyed my stay here, and I could not wait to get out of the country! I just can’t wait for my flight on Sunday night. If I had been based in the city, I might have loved the country. I might have enjoyed my stay. But sadly, I was placed in a very conservative, rural district.

cheeky cheeky friend

Well, on the positive side, I made some friends. A lot of friends. Some of them I’ll never see again, or even communicate with again, since they have no access to phones or internet. Like this woman in my town, who many people say is a ‘prostitute’. I regularly got food at her shop. She offered to cook me rice at a time when you can’t find rice in any restaurant (I’ll be writing about this too soon.) I’ll miss her momo and chowchow and veg khana set.

People call her a prostitute because she got married twice. She is a low caste dalit. Her first husband died, and then she remarried outside her caste, with a Tharu man. That ruined her reputation. In Hinduism, widows are not allowed to remarry. Once your husband dies, that’s it for your love life. You remain single for the rest of your life, even if you are only eighteen years old. In the past times, the widow had to commit suicide by jumping into the funeral fire of her late husband. But this practice ended maybe a hundred years ago. And what remained was a stigmatization of widows. Those who dare to remarry are branded prostitutes.

Some of them, like this friend of mine, end up selling themselves because of public opinion. The men in the town force them into sex, and throw money at them. Especially after they get remarried, they are constantly harassed by other men, for they are considered to be ‘characterless’.

One time, I was in a plane to Kathmandu. I shared a seat with a man who turned out to be a pimp in one of the casinos in the city. He told me about Sweta (name changed), my friend, and his exact words were, “there is ‘one’ in Dhangadi, but she says that these days she doesn’t do it. But if you want, I can talk to her.”

My favorite snack, momo!

Honestly, Sweta once offered to have sex with me for money. I turned her down and gave her a lecture on AIDS. She never mentioned it again. She said I was a good man. Soon after, her husband started insisting that I marry her. He thought I turned her down because she was already married. He wanted me to take her to Uganda, so she can get work and send him money. I avoided their restaurant/shop for a few months and when I showed up again, he never mentioned it again.

Making Momo in her restaurant, which turns into a bar in the night.

And I did find a few prostitutes hanging about in her shop a few times. One time I found a fourteen year old girl there (which drew another long lecture from me!).

A few months ago, Sweta complained of stomach pains. They had been bothering her for more than six months, and she was using local herbal medicine. I suggested she gets herself omeprazole, and within a few weeks, she was fine. It was mild ulcers after all. She thanked me with a really big meal.

I will miss eating in her shop – especially her momo. And when I go back to Uganda, I will miss these friends that I made while in Nepal.

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PS: I joined a Blog Tour about the ‘treasures of my life’, and while I treasure my ambitions and writing, below are links to blogs with what people treasure most! In the hunt I found a blog which I fell in love with, written by Debbie.

Here are the blogs on the tour.


The Magic Song

When my girlfriend mentioned that Nepal is a heaven for men, she had no idea that it actually is a paradise, mostly because of this Nepali song that if you sing to a girl, she automatically falls in love with you 🙂 Or, whoever hears you singing it will offer you a bride.

The lyrics go like this, “Maya ke hola/socheko/timi nai/ho mero/behuli” (What is the meaning of love/I am thinking/that you will be/my/bride) Here is the song on YouTube.

My Nepali language teacher, a twenty-four-year-old Newari beauty, taught me to sing it. She giggled in a flirty mischief throughout the lesson, and I could not understand why. She refused to tell me, but she made me sing it to her so often and at that time I thought she was only trying to be a good teacher

where I spent warm nights

A month later, I spent two weeks in a village in Dulikel, a lovely place with great views of the Himalayas. I lived with a Tamang family—and wasn’t it quite an experience! They had four beautiful daughters. The eldest, whose job it was to look after me, cook my snacks, and wash my clothes, was sadly already married. The others were all below fourteen. But I became friends with the youngest, a cheeky eight-year-old who loved to wear flowers on her hair. (Call her Susma)

One afternoon, she asked me to sing for her a song from my country. I couldn’t think of any, so I sang this magic song. But no sooner had I started than she fled from the room, crying. I was surprised. I wondered what I had done wrong. Maybe my voice was too horrible.

That evening, as we ate supper in the warmth of the kitchen, her mother asked me what song I sang to her daughter. I became defensive. I said something about not knowing any Ugandan songs, but the mother cut me short. She said, “It’s okay, you can take her with you to Uganda.” Now, at this time, I did not understand what she was talking about. I could not say no, for that would be considered rude, so I said, “She has to finish her university education first.” This being twelve years away, the mother understood it was a no. And then she said, “Sushma is still too young. I don’t know why she is thinking of marriage.”

main street of the village

Nobody said anything after this, and I did not either, for I was totally confused at this time. I had read somewhere about child marriages in Hinduism, in a ritual called ‘kanyadan’, which means gift of a virgin. Apparently, parents whose daughters lose their virginity before marriage go to hell (or something like that) so the parents are eager to give away their children as early as possible. But I also knew child marriage was a thing of the past. This conversation was so disturbing. I quickly started talking about a dead dog I had seen earlier, and luckily, they all fell into this topic with a vigor.

Sushma avoided me since then. Luckily, I left the village after two days, so it was easy for us to avoid each other. I bought her a storybook as a gift. I hope she enjoyed it.

The day before I left, there was a function in the village, a meeting of the savings and credit association that everyone belonged to. They invited me to attend, and like any such function in Nepal, there was a lot of singing and dancing. You might have thought it was a party, not a business meeting. Everyone encouraged me to sing, and I stupidly, eagerly, sang the magic song, ‘Maya ke hola’.

a Newari bride

A sudden silence descended upon the villagers. They stared at me as if I was a goat that had started to sing. I thought they would start crying and run away like Susma, but they did not.

A few hours later, as I sat in one of the tea shops, chatting with a bunch of men, trying not to breathe for cigarette smoke hung thick in the air, an old man came in and offered me his daughter. The surprise of the offer nearly knocked me off the chair. You might have thought he was offering me a glass of tea.

“I’m not looking for a bride,” I said.

And he got very angry. “If you are not looking for a bride, why did you sing that song?”

Apparently, he had organized a “bride viewing ceremony,” for me to look at his daughter that evening, and he wasn’t pleased that I had turned him down.”When you sing that song, it means you are looking for a bride. I honored your plea. I am offering you a bride. Why do you refuse? Is my daughter ugly?”

I tried to argue that I did not know the meaning of the song. “I learnt it during my language lessons.”

a Nepali bride

One of the men asked me; “The person who taught you that song, was it a woman?” I said yes, and he said, “She wanted you to marry her. Didn’t she?” Oh yes she had. The first woman to ever ask me to marry her. I did write a bit about it sometime last year, here.

I was in a fix. I did not know how to get myself out of it. Here was an old man offering me his daughter as a gift, and he was greatly offended that I turned him down. “I have to go to the toilet,” I said. I abandoned my tea on the table and hurried out, but the old man followed me, talking rapidly in his anger. I did not understand what he was saying, but it was something about his daughter and other relatives waiting for me.

He did not stop talking all the while I was inside the toilet. He stood out there, yelling at the toilet door, alternately praising his daughter and scolding me for turning down his gift. Ten minutes of this passed, and I was wondering how I would get out of the toilet when my dai, Susma’s father, rescued me. The two men argued briefly, but the old man gave in and went away, still quarreling about the ungrateful habsi (black man).

I sang that song three months later, to a pretty Tharu girl. She said yes before I finished singing it, and she was the first Nepali beauty I kissed!

So don’t be surprised when you hear it in my documentary, Untouchable Love. I had to make it the soundtrack. :-))

Follow me on to watch my films.

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My Favourite Inter-racial Movies

“Mississippi Masala” (1991) I like this one very much. It’s a beautiful story, makes you believe in love, and many say it’s the first time that Denzel Washington undressed and kissed in a movie! I put it at the top of my favorite inter-racial movies partly because it deals with a Ugandan family (and I’m Ugandan) – but mostly because it’s a relationship between a black man (me) and an Asian woman (my girlfriend) 😮 The other thing is that the director, Mira Nair, founded a film training school in Uganda, and through this school I learnt a lot about filmmaking.

It’s a while since I saw it, but after my experiences in Nepal, I’m curious to see it again. I wonder if Mira, an Indian, tackled the caste system in this film. I do not remember her mentioning caste in the film, in spite of the fact that Denzel played a toilet cleaner – and toilet cleaners are Dalits (untouchables) at the bottom of the caste system, the worst of the lot. They are called manual ‘scavengers’. Read more. and

I remember Meena’s (Sarita Choudhury) father expressing contempt towards Demetrius’s (Denzel Washington’s) job, but I don’t remember if they put it in the scheme of the caste system. Maybe Mira wanted it to be more of an inter-racial movie, without contaminating it with issues of caste, but I think since the girl’s family were of Indian origin, caste must have played a big role.

In December 2010, I ran into a Ugandan-Indian in Nepal. I asked her if she remembers issues of caste among the Indians in Uganda, but she did not for she left the country when she was very young, about eight years old, though she remembers not being allowed to enter the kitchen of a certain family, which is an indication that they practiced the system.

 “Jungle Fever” (1991) After “Do The Right Thing”, this is the only other film of Spike Lee that I totally enjoyed. I think he is at his best when he explores black vs white issues. He is basically a political artist, and he can’t entertain unless he puts in something about race relations in his movies. Some of his films, like The Inside Man, were great, but I wouldn’t watch them twice.
Jungle Fever is hot, steamy, and very provocative, some would call it the best inter-racial movie ever made and I wouldn’t blame them for that.

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) Lovely film. It grabbed me by the throat right from the first minute and didn’t let go until the very end. Splendid script. A brat of a white girl goes to Hawaii, meets a black man fourteen years her senior, but who has a long list of honors in the medical field, falls madly in love with him within twenty minutes. Hmmm!Eleven days later, she shows up at her parents home and gives them an ultimatum, “You have up to night to decide if you approve of our marriage.”

It’s a thriller, a liberal family facing hard decisions, and having to make up their mind whether to accept the marriage or not, and the clock is ticking. It gets complicated when the boy’s family show up for the dinner, and they have only an hour to decide whether they want their son to marry a white girl!

Watching this film reminded me so much of the plight of inter-caste marriage couples in Nepal. You hardly find a Nepali who openly supports the caste system. In fact, most of them now share water with Dalits (untouchables), and allow them to worship in temples, the two biggest symbols of caste-based apartheid. But like the Drayton couple in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, when their daughter decides to marry an untouchable, they begin to doubt their liberalness. They say to each other, “We never thought it would happen to us.” And though they might be willing to grant their daughter freedom to marry her love, the society at large will frown upon the marriage, and will force the family to commit atrocities against the couple, including torture, jail and murder. You will see all this in my documentary, Untouchable Love, coming soon. ‘Like’ this page on facebook to stay updated.

What amazes me is this paradox. Individuals make up a society. If all individuals in the society think yellow is beautiful, then the society thinks yellow is beautiful. But in Nepal, (and South Asia), individuals are against the caste system, yet the society cannot accept inter-caste marriages! When their daughter announces that she will marry a low caste man, the liberal parents, who have been teaching their daughter that all are equal, will say, “that is against our culture. You can’t marry him. If you do, you are dead to us.” Mind boggling.

 Driving Miss Daisy (1989) Have you ever seen Morgan Freeman as a young man? I went into this film thinking I would finally see a younger version of one of my favorites. But I was surprised to discover he was already an old man with gray hair in 1989! Doesn’t he age? Is he some kind of wizard who stays old and never ages? 🙂 But he is likeable, it’s easy to see why fans fell in love with him. Just as this Jewish woman in the film, Miss Daisy, fell in love with him.

I thought it would be a hot romance, but it’s a film about two old people meeting and falling in love, and because of their age, they don’t even get to kiss. They only feed each other some kind of sweet. You get the feeling that if they had met 70 years earlier, it might have been a hot and steamy and violently romantic affair 🙂

 “Fools Rush In” (1997)
This movie made me fall in love with Salma Hayek. Before this, Jennifer Lopez was my girl. I had a huge poster of her in my university room. Then I saw this, and I thought, “Wow, such beautiful eyes! Such a lovely dancer!” My best sexual fantasies involve dancing women, and the dance Salma gave in her kitchen was simply incredible.

It’s one between a white man and a Latino woman – okay, I’ve talked a bit about these cases below, when a ‘high class’ man marries a ‘low class’ woman – and it’s a film that introduced me to Friends as well, for I hadn’t seen Mathew Perry before.

The Bodyguard” (1992) The worst of the lot. A very bad film. I guess they made for only to sell Whitney Houston’s rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” – wasn’t that her only contribution to the film? But I talk about it because it’s the only one I’ve seen between a white man and a black woman – or you can say, a ‘high class man’, and a ‘low class woman’. It makes me wonder, why is it that the women are always from the ‘upper class’?

There are numerous stories of kings, and presidents, (and this world bank, Strauss-Khan, who raped a maid) impregnating their slaves, falling in love with their maids, but never owning the responsibility. Instead, they send the girls away, force them to abort, and do other horrible things.

In Nepal, all the cases I came across were of high caste women marrying low caste (untouchable) men. Those of low caste women and high caste men were very few indeed, and the explanation I got had something to do with patriarchy, gender questions, women being oppressed whether they are high caste or low, and marry the low caste men as a rebellion against the men of their class who oppress them. Prem Chowdhry, author of “Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples”, tended to have this view. She also suggested it’s very hard for a high caste man to marry a dalit (untouchable) woman because of wealth distribution. Men inherit property. Women don’t. But if a high caste man marries a low caste, the property he inherits will be shared with the untouchables, which is something the high caste people do not want to happen.

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Bathing at the Roadside

Every morning, as I walk to work, I pass by the bathrooms of my neighbors. Well, not really bathrooms, for there are no walls, no tiles, no sink, no taps, no mirrors and showers, just a water pump in the front yard. And it’s not that they cannot afford to construct a proper shelter. I think it has something to do with the construction of the society, where nothing is private. Not even your body. Nor your marriage or sex life, that’s why they take their baths out in the open where anybody can see them.

During our cultural training, they advised us not to look at anyone bathing. You are expected to look away, but I find this very hard. How can I look away when there is a very pretty woman taking a bath by the roadside?Of course they aren’t stark naked, the way you would be in a proper bathroom, but they are considered naked. The women in the terrai (plain areas) wrap a sari around them, or some cloth, and those from the hills wear what they call a lungi (I might have got it wrong, but well, they have some special cloth they wear while taking a bath). Men wear shorts. So when they are in these costumes, they are considered to be totally naked, and you aren’t supposed to look at them. Yet, even while they are in these special clothes, they publicly reach into their privates parts and wash, and scratch off all the dirt or however it is that they do the washing. Both women and men do this.What puzzles me is why they don’t put these water pumps in the backyards, hidden away from the public. Why do they put them right by the roadside? I guess it has a lot to do with the living in public characteristic of their society.The whole family bathes from here, but to avoid clashes, for in some areas several families share a water pump, the men bathe in the afternoon, and the women in the morning. Which means I get treated to the sight every time I walk to work.

I was warned to look away, to take an interest in the trees and the flowers, and the buffaloes, to look any place but not at the bathing women. But that is something that beats my understanding, for these are pretty and young women, and some of them, when they see you coming by, start to rub soap into their breasts in a manner that is only meant to provoke you into staring. How can I not look?

I guess if I had grown up in this country, I might have learnt the technique of not looking, for this is a place with no sense of privacy at all. Doors and windows don’t mean a thing, they are more ceremonial than anything. I’ve visited several families, and I’ve been surprised to be hosted in their bedrooms – even in the master bedrooms – as if they were hosting me in the living rooms. Or the verandah.

A friend of mine got married last year, and he told me it took him three months before he managed to sleep with his wife. Every time they wanted to do it, someone interfered, for though he was thirty years old, with a good job, he couldn’t rent a place of his own. He had to live in the family house, along with his younger brothers and parents and uncles. And even after he got married, he continued to share the room with his two younger brothers. How could he have private time with his wife? (but his story deserves a lot more attention! I’ll certainly tell you about it later 😀 ) Finally, he did it only because he asked me for help, and I helped him out, but will tell you more later. :-))

Yet his case made me see the depth of the lack of privacy in Nepal. When my girlfriend came over, the way they stared at me stunned her. I tried to tell her that they stare because they don’t think it’s rude, because to them, nothing should be hidden, everything is public, every body lives in a fish bowl, and so standing right in your path and studying you as if you are a statue isn’t rude, or wrong (well, this too deserves another post!)

The funny thing about it is the women who take baths by the road side stare at me as I pass by, and they expect me not to stare back? Not to oogle? No way.

Talk about culture shock, baby. I had started to write something about living in public, but living in Nepal these two years has given me a peek of what life will be like when we lose privacy, due to the Internet, or government policy. Scary, ugh? Imagine not being able to make love because there is a camera of some sort hooked onto the Internet and pointing at every bed you take your girl to.







Update on 27th July: Yesterday I talked to my boss, a forty something lady, about this habit of bathing in public. She is Nepali, but has lived in Kathmandu city for so long that she has lost touch with the lifestyle in the rural areas. She couldn’t believe that people in rural Nepal still bathe at the roadside, but she said the culture came about as a result of the need for safety. This is what her grandmother told her. That in the terrai, where there are snakes and scorpions in abundance, where all kinds of creatures find their way into your house (I wrote about it here in this blog post called “House Mates”) , damp places are considered unsafe. Breeding grounds for all kinds of bugs. Also, no one can rape you while you are bathing out in the public :-)) But over the years, it evolved into a kind of culture, or habit, or whatever it is. Though, in the City and in the big towns, it rarely happens. Only poor people still bathe at the roadside, most of the rich, well off, urbanized have proper bathrooms.

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