The other day, I was looking through my archived videos of Nepal, trying to decide what to delete to create space in my backup hard drive. I found this interview of Binod, a resident of Saptari district, a man who ran mad after his love affair with an upper caste girl came to an abrupt and violent end. I came upon him by sheer luck. While making Untouchable Love, I was visiting their home to interview his younger brother, Manoj, whose affair with Parbati, an upper caste girl, had led to a war in their village when I learned that that Binod too had been involved in an inter caste affair. I thought I had struck gold. Two dalit (untouchable) brothers fall in love with upper caste girls, causing a lot of trouble in the village, hmm, the kind of stuff every storyteller would jump at.
In their village, like everywhere else in Nepal, the different castes live together. The apartheid-like system that kept ‘untouchables’ in the outskirts of society no longer exists. Children from all castes mingle freely, attend the same school, play with in the same balls, grow up together – the only thing that still exists is that they cannot enter each other’s houses, or eat from the same plate, or drink the same water. Or fall in love with each other.
The way the two brothers fell in love was very similar. Both upper caste girls were their neighbors. They went to school together and were in the same classes. Binod, being older, was first to become romantically involved with (I do not remember him mentioning her name, so I will call her) Sita. As it is with love affairs in rural Nepal, the issue of marriage came in very early in the relationship. In that country, you do not date for fun, and Binod was so serious about his girl that he went to her parents to ask for her hand in marriage.
A very foolish thing, but very brave. Of course he knew about the taboos in the society. He knew that being a Mandal (or Khanga as they are sometimes called) it was unthinkable for him to marry a girl with the name of Raut. Still, their respective families were amiable to each other. He thought he could talk to her parents, they seemed like a nice lot, more liberal in comparison to other Rauts. So he dressed in his Sunday best and paid them a visit. Her father gave him a big smile and told him he will think about it. However, hardly had Binod left their compound than the old man pounced on Sita, and beat her up thoroughly. She was imprisoned in a room for several days and tortured until she denounced her love. Then they arranged for her to marry another man, an upper caste old widower whose teeth were black and rotten from eating paan, whose saliva was now permanently a bloody red from eating paan. This was the only way her parents thought they could restore the family honor.
Binod and one of his brother’s children.
Binod was devastated. He ran mad. Totally bonkers. I do not know exactly what he did that proved how mad he was, but all the wires in his head were broken. He ended up in a mental hospital in India. He spent there several months. Whatever treatment he got seemed to work very well. He came back to Nepal a sane man. The first thing he did was burn up all the photographs of Sita, along with all the love letters she sent him. It was the only way he could fully recover his sanity. To help him fully recover, his parents arranged for him to marry another girl.
He despises his wife. He kept referring to her as ‘uneducated’ and ‘foolish’. I could discern that deep inside he still moaned for his lost love. He apparently is still in a fragile state, although eight years have passed. When his parents heard him talking about Sita, they became afraid. And very angry with me. They thought memories of Sita would make him run mad again. They ordered to stop talking about her, and threatened to throw us out of their home if we insisted on asking him about her. I was sad to let it go, but I had to agree to their demands. We spent three days with them family, and I never saw Binod again. They must have sent him away to live somewhere else, to make sure he did not talk about Sita again. His younger brother Manoj told me the rest of the story.
Parbati prepares to apply sindoor on her forehead. It is part of the daily make up for a married woman.
Binod and Manoj’s mother with sindoor prominent on her head a proud symbol of her marital status.
Now sisters. Binod’s wife in green, from an arranged marriage. Parbati on the left, from a love marriage.
About one year after Binod’s affair ended in tragedy, Manoj fell in love with another Raut girl, called Parbati. Manoj was wiser. He kept his affair a total secret. Only a few friends knew about it. When they decided to get married, they did not bother telling their parents. They told no one. They simply sneaked away to a temple in Rajbiraj town, with a couple of friends as witnesses. He applied sindoor on her head and bingo, they were husband and wife. Sindoor is that red thing that you see in the parting of hair just above the forehead. It symbolizes virginity. I was told that you can rape a girl by simply applying that thing on her forehead. Well, it is like the ring in Western weddings. Once a boy applies it on a girl, it means he has deflowered her, and owns her forever. No priests needed, no fancy ceremony. Simply rub the stuff on her forehead and you are married. But they had to take a photo to prove that he had put sindooron her, that they were now married.
After the wedding, they could not go back to their homes. They went to live with Manoj’s uncle’s in a neighboring district. They thought they were safe. I won’t tell you their story because I already did in the documentary, Untouchable Love. They are the lead characters. All I’ll say is after their elopement, war broke out in the village. Ethnic cleansing. The upper caste people were fed up of the untouchables snatching away their girls, and so they decided to chase all the dalits from the village. It was violent and bloody.
Good old Nepal, with so many stories. I cannot believe I lived there for only two years, because I came back with enough stories to last a life time. Strangely, though I’ve lived in Uganda all my life and I often fail to find what to write about. I should soon again travel again to someplace to collect more stories.
When the year begun, I was broke. I had spent much of last year finishing The Felistas Fable, and had not earned much during that time. I felt low, for it is not possible to quickly make a profit from selling a film. Sometimes you have to wait a whole year. I felt depressed in frustration. Then, out of the gloom, I got shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I had a reason to smile. I had waited for this kind of news for twenty years, since I became obsessed with writing at the age of fifteen. The frustration of not making it compelled me to branch out into film making in 2006. Shortly after that, I got nominated for the Million Writers Award, in 2008, which was a sign that I should stick to writing. But by that time, I already had one leg in both places. when the Commonwealth shortlist came, it was more than just a sign. It was a reminder that I should return to my roots, or rather that I should concentrate less on film and throw more energy onto writing. Winning the prize would be the best thing to happen to my career.
Everyday, I prayed to let me win. At least it would alleviate the brokenness (and maybe it’s because I was thinking more of the cash than the prize that God didn’t let me win 😮 ). I got the bad news last week, just before I set off for Nairobi. At first, when I saw the email from JB of the Commonwealth, I thought it would tell me I was a winner. But I had a bad feeling. I had not gone to church the previous Sunday. In my superstitious mind, I thought God would punish me for it. Indeed, it was a regrets email, but JB added an encouraging note that my story had been in contention right up to the very last minute (I guess s/he told every other contestant the same thing). The depression returned, and with it the lack of confidence, the fear that I will never make it.
But then, as I sat in the bus to Nairobi, I got a revelation, a sign that good things are to come.
This story that got shortlisted, A Killing in the Sun, is a ghost story. I wrote it in 2001 or 2002, I cannot remember, but it was shortly after I saw a photograph in the front pages of The New Vision. It was the picture of one of the two soldiers sentenced to death for killing a priest in Karamoja, taken a few moments before he was shot by firing squad. As I looked at that photo, at the expression on the man’s face, at his unzipped pants exposing a pair of clean white boxers, the story fell in.
Well, I had actually thought of the story for many years before that. You see, I had a nightmare when I was about twelve, or thirteen, and in the dream three cloaked hags with pockmarked faces and long bony fingers were grinning at me. Their yellow teeth looked more like shards of bones. They wanted to eat me.
Two works of art that I know influenced this story were the short story by Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and the 1990 horror film by Adrian Lyne, Jacob’s Ladder.
After I wrote the story, I never tried to sell it. It sat in my computer for ten years, ignored, until I submitted it for discussion to a writer’s group, which is organized and run by Beatrice Lamwaka, who was shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize. The reaction of fellow writers to this story made me think that I was sitting on a masterpiece. They told me it’s the kind of story that will win international prizes. I was encouraged to send it to the Commonwealth competition, and was pleased when it got shortlisted. I was depressed when it did not win, just as I get depressed each time I get a rejection letter.
But last Thursday, as I sat in the bus heading to Nairobi, something happened that lifted my moods. Something that every writer needs every now and then to keep their spirits out. The seat next to me was empty. I did wonder about it, for this was Queens Coach, a popular bus that never fails to sell all its seats. But I did not give it much thought. I was too sleepy. I had not slept much for nearly a week. I dozed off shortly after the bus took off.
Suddenly, a woman woke me up with a very friendly “Hello.” I opened my eyes, and at once noticed we were in Jinja. Then I got angry. Couldn’t this woman see I was sleeping? Why did she have to wake me up? Being the gentleman my mother raised, I swallowed my irritation and replied with a smile and a hello. Turned out to be a bad idea. She was a chatter box. She at once started telling me the story of her life, as though we were old friends who had not seen each other for a very long time. Her openness shocked and amused me. Her determination to tell her story irritated me. I wanted her to shut up so I could get some sleep, but she just would not keep quiet. Finally, I told her I wanted to sleep, and she said, ‘Okay’, and I dozed off for a few seconds. But the moment I woke up, she plunged into her life story.
Out of politeness, I forced myself to keep awake and listen. Sometimes, I would fail, and would sleep off, but she would not notice and keep talking.She gave me a blow by blow account of how she developed some medical condition, how she was in an operation theater for twenty four hours, how the doctors removed her large intestines to save her life and so she could not poo like everyone else. She needed colostomy to help her pass out shit. She told me about a bunch of other conditions that threatened her life, and that if she was not a Scottish citizen with access to free, good quality medical treatment, she might have died. She is a Ugandan whose husband, a Ugandan as well, joined the British Navy and now they live in Scotland. I soon discovered the reason she was telling me all this. She simply wanted to warn me that in the event I heard a bad smell, I shouldn’t laugh, or make her feel uncomfortable, for because the lack of a large intestine makes her susceptible to passing out stool uncontrollably. Poor woman.
After talking about this for two hours, all the way from Jinja to Malaba, the topic somehow shifted to ghost tales. I did not hear of anything else but ghosts for the rest of the night, until we reached Nairobi. She is a university graduate, works with an international NGO as a consultant, and is a very strong Catholic, but I was not surprised by her belief in spirits. Anyone who has gone through a near-death-experience will believe in the supernatural. However, her endless encounters with creatures from the other world that made me raise an eyebrow.
The one I remember vividly is how an angel of death visited her. She said that she woke up one night and noticed there was a man in her room. She could not imagine how he got in. She was about to scream when he told her, ‘You are going to die tomorrow in a car accident.’ She replied, ‘No, I will not die.’ The man insisted, ‘You will die.’ So she said a prayer (or maybe she threw a bible at him, I was dozing and did not get this detail properly) and he vanished. She went to her mother’s bedroom, and told her mother about this strange man. But her mother simply said, ‘You had a bad dream, my dear. Go back to sleep.’ The next day, she avoided vehicles. She traveled in boda boda motorcycles, and at the end of the day, as she was heading back home, just when she thought she had eluded the prophecy, the man reappeared. She saw a motorcycle in the bush. She at once knew something was wrong about this bike, for it was in the middle of a bush. Not in the road! Then she saw the man straddling it, and her blood froze. It was the same man who visited her room in the night. He kicked started his motorcycle, and it out of the bush into the rode. It sped towards her, to crash into the motorcycle she was on. Luckily, her boda rider was an expert. He dodged it. They skidded and nearly crashed, but managed to stop without injury. People were screaming at the ghost rider, which means they could see him and he was not a figment of her imagination. He rode away and vanished as some people tried to intercept him. She fell on her knees and thanked God for sparing her life.
That was just one of the ghost tales she told me. There were about twelve others, some of which I remember, like the one about her cousin, a little girl who could not walk. A catholic exorcist told the mother, ‘A demon is sitting on her leg. But I cannot drive it out of the girl without injuring her. I have to send it into you. Do you agree?’ The mother nodded. She wanted her little girl to walk. So the exorcist, called Vincent, I think, drove the demon out of the girl into the mother. The girl begun to walk. The mother ran mad. A few days later the exorcist drove the demon out of the mother. Now the family is fine.
When I reached Nairobi, I no longer felt bad about losing out on the Commonwealth prize. It had to be a sign from the supernatural creator that I shared a seat with a woman who talked about nothing but ghosts on the day I received a rejection letter about my ghost story. Like another friend of mine, Beverly, said, ‘Coming second is as good as a win. Do not lose heart. A great door has been opened for you.’
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Retired. Relaxing. Is he enjoying the labor of his youth? A grandfather passes the time in Nakapinyi, Mukono district.
It’s the day when we remember workers of the world. I do not know what made me look through my scrap folder, but I found this poem, which I wrote in October of 2009, shortly before I went to Nepal. I cannot remember why I wrote it, what the ‘inspiration’ was, but it is clearly about a vegetable seller struggling to make ends meet, and failing to impress his wife. I dedicate it to all working men out there who are going through tough times, who cannot seem to fill their pockets with happiness, however much they try. I normally don’t publish poems, though I have written quiet a tidy pile of them, but I do hope you enjoy this one.
He collapses as he pushes the cart to the market
He lies burnt out on the pile of unsold cabbages
Though his weight and sweat ruin the stock.
she hates the necklaces I buy at clearance sales
so I wonder if I married a princess.
The hat rests on his nose
To shield his face from passing eyes
That shine like suns in hollow skulls.
she serves me bread without any butter
so I wonder if I married my mother
His battered body yearns for the balm in a smoke.
He takes a crumpled cigarette from his pocket
But his palms, wet with sweat, ruin the matches.
she makes love to me in autopilot
so I wonder if I married a harlot.
He smashes the hat onto the unsold cabbages
Then the cigarette that he failed to light.
Rage in his feet. He stomps it all into the dirt.
The poem is dated 4th October 2009. I cannot think of what I was doing on that day that I wrote this poem, but does it capture the mood of a frustrated worker?
A fruit seller waits for customers in Lainchor, Kathmandu, Nepal
Salute women for their ability to multi-task. Here is a hair dresser, vegetable seller and baby sitter.
An egg hawker in Lazimpart, Kathmandu, Nepal
Unrecognized labor. A boy hawks firewood in Soroti, Uganda.
Fruits of labor. Sorghum harvest in Katakwi, Uganda.
I should be particularly on for this labor day. Normally, writers are not considered as laborers. People always think of a worker as someone who has a boss, and earns a regularly salary. But I think I am a worker too, though I mostly idle around the house farting and hoping for a big break — I think it is coming soon. Finally, after a long struggle, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I was shortlisted for the prestigious Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2013, for a short story I wrote way back in 2002 but has never been published. You can read about it here. I do hope this short list opens doors for me, and puts me on the path to becoming a writer who earns a living from his fantasies 🙂
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