Living in Public

You certainly have heard of all this noise people are making about the internet ripping away all our privacy and making us live in some Big Brother’s House? Well, if you come to Nepal, you’ll get a feeling of what it is to live in public. For this is a country where they (in some places) don’t have bathrooms. Rather, you take your bath right by the roadside (but this subject deserves more attention. I’ll write about it shortly)

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It’s the height of the dry season (I still can’t get to calling it summer, for in Africa, we call it the dry season. But they should call this one the “oven season”!) and I can’t keep my clothes on. Especially when I’m inside my bedroom. But then, I have to keep the windows open as well, and draw the curtains to maximize airflow. In so doing, I treat my neighbors to a free show! That’s the one thing about Nepali culture that I find so irritating, the total disregard for privacy. If they see an open window, they will peep in. And if they find it closed, they will open it and peep in to find out why it’s closed.
This afternoon, I woke up from a catnap to find three faces peering into my room, jostling each other for a better view. I rushed for the towel and covered my private parts, hoping that this panicky gesture would embarrass them enough –

A girl climbing over a wall fence. Asian woman. Dhangadi. Nepal
This girl never uses the gate. She always goes over the wall fence of the house I lived in, Dhangadhi, Nepal

“What’s he doing?” one of them said. “Is he inside?”

“I think he wants to bathe,” another one said. She had her face pressed onto the mosquito mesh, and so she had the view of what was inside the room.

In anger, I swung the wooden shutter closed. The mosquito mesh makes it impossible to open the window outwards, and you have to open it inwards, otherwise you’d need a hole in the mesh to use to open the shutters. The mesh then acts as a safeguard, like a weak one-way mirror of some kind, for someone outside has trouble seeing inside, it being quite dark inside, though someone inside has a good view of the bright sunny outside.

However, when I slammed the window shut, I sort of activated their curiosity.

“Why has he shut the window?” one asked.

I fumbled about for a pair of trousers. Panicky. I should have closed all the windows to this room, not just the one they were peeping in, for two walls of the room have windows on them. Soon enough, a face showed up on the other window.

Women staring at me through a window. One had to take a photograph of me trying to dress up!

Close up of three Asian women at a window. Staring.
Women staring at me through a window. One had to take a photograph!

“Yes,” she said. “I see him. He is not going to bathe. He is dressing up.”

And another at once appeared besides her.

These were elderly women. I still can’t place the ages of Asian women, for a thirty year old looks no different from a fifty year old, but these looked like they had given birth to many children. I would place them in their late forties, or maybe even fifties. Though they might have been 30something and just looked so old.

They come into my compound everyday to farm their micro-gardens. They plant vegetables in my front and backyard, without my permission, of course. When I rented the place, the came the next day and started digging, and I asked them what they were doing, and they said they are planting vegetables. I wanted to tell them that I now rent the place and they can’t come and go as they please, but they were to far gone in their gardening that I simply walked away to work. A good thing, for in exchange they keep the compound clean. Maybe they are landless people.

They rarely talk to me, apart from a gentle ‘namaste’ in greeting, whenever we run into each other. And they have never done this kind of peeping before. So I was very surprised that they were doing this, very aggressively peeping into room.

“Get out of there!” I shouted at them, in English, so they didn’t understand what I was saying. I wanted to tell them in Nepali, but whatever little Nepali I know couldn’t come to my head at that moment. And my trousers were playing hard to get into my legs. I hopped about in the room, trying to make them fit, but somehow, I managed to get both legs into one trouser leg –

A woman in a red dress harvesting vegetables. Seen through a window.
One of the women harvesting vegetables in my yard.

“Is he talking?” another woman said.

“Yes. He’s speaking in English. He can’t wear his trouser.”

“So he is inside?” a voice that wasn’t peeping said.

“Yes, he’s inside. The trouser is too small for him.”

By this time, I was nearly exploding in shame, for it wasn’t only my trousers that were too small. There’s something else that is too small – but I won’t mention it here for someone might think of this as a pornographic blog.

Just then, the doorbell rang. Persistently. Five times. Maybe six. And I heard the voice of “Didi”, the eldest of them all, who is probably some kind of matriarch for she

runs the homestead next door. Or seems to be, they are Tharus, and I don’t know much about how they run their families. Whether women can rule. She seems to be the one in charge though.

And she was yelling at me to open the door, calling me ‘kancho’, which means ‘youngest son.’ Which probably explains why they weren’t ashamed to peep into my room while I was stark naked.

Somehow, I managed to get dressed, though I discovered too late that I had the trouser back to front. I threw on a large t-shirt, which covered up this mistake, and opened the door. There were about six women out there, all looking at me as if I was some kind of talking buffalo. I’ve been with them for nearly twenty months,

 but each time they look at me, they have this expression which tells me that they are wondering what kind of species I am.

But now that they had seen me stark naked, I couldn’t help feeling that they were also wondering why I had a very small rope inside my pants.

“Someone is here from the municipality. They are doing a population census and she wants to ask you some questions,” Didi finally told me.

Two nepali women, one in yellow pants, harvest rice at the roadside

So that’s what all the trouble was about. I had a visitor. The women gathered around as the municipality official asked me all sorts of questions. What is your name. age? Country? What is your caste? I told her I have no caste, and she couldn’t believe it. She was at a loss of words, for to her, everyone must have a caste. It’s like saying you have no sex. So I told her that I’m of the male caste, for in my country, there is only two castes, male and female. She still didn’t buy that for an answer, and scribbled something under the column for caste, I don’t know what she wrote.

When they were gone, and I had a semblance of peace in my bedroom again, I started to wonder very much about it all. What privacy means in Nepal. And I think I’ll try to gather my thoughts and write about it tomorrow.

(PS: I did write about it. Here is the article: Bathing at the Roadside

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5 thoughts on “Living in Public”

  1. excellent blog post, Dilman. That's hilarious. You described it so well. The Nepalese sound quite like the Chinese who would actually join you at the dinner table in the restaurant just to peer at what the funny white lady was eating. Amusing for a holiday. V. annoying if you live there.

    The Japanese on the other hand were the opposite way. When I first moved into my house there, I didn't realise that the neighbours could see through my window. I got a series of handwritten notes outlining the problem, followed by a number of missives telling me exactly how my clothes should be stored in the wardrobe.

    The perils of living abroad. Other people.

  2. ha, ha, ha I had a good laugh. Your story is very refreshing and full of intrigues. Well, those women you did not like obviously had a huge interest in you and you should show off your body and pretend you did not notice them. Maybe then they will leave as soon as possible ashamed seeing you arrogantly walking like Adam in the room without even putting a shirt. He, he, good post.

    Come to visit, I have a new post too


  3. Facebook comments

    Anand Gurung
    Dilman, my friend, i can understand the "cultural shock" you may have gone through in rural Nepal and the utter rage at the lack of sense and banality of the people there including their irritating stares. I am utterly sorry for what you have gone through in a country which prides itself in being high tolerant and whose people “treat guests as gods” . And especially being a black man from Africa would definitely invite special curiosity because of the skin color (and maybe admiration because of the strong physique that you guys are blessed with ) that would even degrade to racial tendencies. But you also have to understand that most of these people you meet there are poor, illiterate people who remain in a state of nature; and even if they are educated, they have so little exposure to the outside world. That means their behavior is often instinctive and natural human inquisitiveness looking at anything foreign rather than a conscious prejudice.
    Yes, Nepali people have poor sense of personal space, and this is more pronounced in rural areas. This is something that is very hard to grasp for someone from the west or western background. Nepal is a poor country, the conditions here could be similar to many African countries or even worse. I ask you to be a good, observing writer that you are and try to just understand the people and the rural surrounding and nature, and come down the plateau that western education and influences that drag us down. And, I could be wrong in my surmise and hope you have a pleasant stay and come up with more marvelous stories and documentaries about Nepal and bridge the divide. Anand
    June 24 at 10:02am · Unlike · 2 people

    Dilman Dila
    Hi Anand, sorry if you felt offended with the article, or with my comments about Nepal. Actually, Uganda and Nepal aren't different, in terms of economics and illiteracy, and some white people who travel to rural Uganda experience something similar to what I go through here, though not as bad! But like you've pointed out, being black offers a totally different experience of Nepal. What I write here, are not even a tenth of what I experience everyday. Once I was in Biratnagar, with my cameraman, who is a Nepali, and he was outraged with the way some women were treating me that he nearly started to fight them. I hope you don't think I'm only looking at negative things about Nepali culture, maybe if after you see the documentary I'm making about Mina and Sristi Kc,​isti.TheDancingPoet, which are different from the one about inter caste marriage, you'll know that on leaving Nepal I will present a much more fairly balanced view of the country than most foreigners ever do. And yes, I've had some really good times in Nepal, and I have written about this as well http://dilmandila.blogspot​.com/2010/06/kusum.html and I will write a lot more about it later, in this novel that is forming in my head, for Nepali people are as hospitable and friendly as Ugandans!
    June 24 at 1:38pm · Like

  4. Anand Gurung
    These bloody Nepalis :). But never generalise. I am not offended by your article. You were writing the truth. Was just putting things into perspective. Why they do what they do. Why they behave the way they behave. We have a strange fascination with the white skin and a abhorrence towards the black. That's why the same people who treat you badly because you are black are the people who go to shameful length to appease any second rate white tourist.
    June 24 at 3:42pm · Like

    Anand Gurung
    plus Many people in our country (and the whole of South Asia) who are dark or shallow complexioned face the same kind of mocking look and discrimination in our society. That's why you see the overabundance of Indian fairness creams for women (and now even for men) that promise to lighten the skin. Our fascination with fair complexion is infact our inability to accept ourselves as we are. Fair skinned people are considered to be noble, of high-birth, good-natured and even beautiful in the country and dark skinned just the opposite. Maybe that would be a possible subject for your next documentary. we should meet for drinks when you in ktm . A
    June 24 at 3:52pm · Like

  5. A definite eye opener–and a cultural lesson for many of us who value privacy. I've never thought of what it might be like to live in a place where there was no value placed on privacy.

    Thanks for sharing this post! Jenn


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