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)
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 –
“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.
“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 –
“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.
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)