|This story is fictional, inspired by this photo
of the love of my life.
In spite of the thermal underwear, the cold dug into his bones and froze him in a bleak mood. The sun tried to smile from beyond the mountains, but her frigid rays could not cheer him up. He longed for Africa, where the sun shone all year with the sweet warmth of a lover.
He decided to go back home immediately after searching the last temple. The whole trip had turned out to be a complete waste of time and money. A friend had deceived him that the temples of Kathmandu were littered with golden statues. It would be an easy job. Sneak in. Steal a few. Flee back home a millionaire. How foolish he felt when he discovered that the golden statues were not made of gold. Still, he hoped that the last item on his list, the Chandeswori temple had a roof of pure gold as one book claimed. So he ignored the cold and hurried to this temple.
On the way, in ancient streets of Old Banepa, he saw her.
He rubbed his eyes in disbelief. She sat stark naked in the street, fondling a sarangi, which hid her nakedness from his view. Her smile made her face to sparkle like a million stars. It warmed him in a way the sun failed to. He could not breathe. He swayed in a drunken swoon. Why is she sitting in the street with only a musical instrument to cloth her? Can’t she feel the cold?
Her hair fell over her face so that he could see only one eye, which glistened with the smile on her mouth as she looked right back at him. Heat gushed through his veins with such speed that his heart beat with the wild rhythm of Acholi war drums.
“Do you like her?” a voice shattered his reverie.
He jumped with a frightened squeal and turned to face a man whose clothes were splotched with paint. He might have been a painter. He had come out of a tea shop.
|African tourists in Chandeswori temple in Banepa.
Legend has it that once upon a time, the roof was
made of pure gold.
“Hi!” the African screeched with embarrassment.
“Do you like her?”
“You can have her for eight thousand only.”
Eight thousand? So little for so beautiful a girl! The African dashed into his pockets for the rupees, but he stopped, realizing something wrong with the girl. She sat so still, like a picture, and even the breeze didn’t ruffle her long hair. Is she some kind of religious freak in meditation? Is she a painting?
The realization hit him with such force that his stupidity became as clear as the smile on her face. He ran over to her, touched her cold skin of canvas, and nodded to acknowledge the work of a genius artist.
“Did you paint her?”
His heart still beat. Though she was merely a picture, he was in love. He wanted to take her home and kiss – maybe, as it happened in fairy tales, his kiss would turn her into a real person.
More paintings, of mountains and rural landscapes, hang inside the tea shop. All ordinary work. He wanted this girl. But why pay eight thousand rupees when he could return at night and take her for free? Maybe he will sell her in Paris for a million dollars. Isn’t she equal to Monalisa? Maybe his gods led him to Nepal, not to steal golden statues but this girl.
He licked his lips, still feeling dizzy like a drunk. He could not take his eyes off her smile, her smooth skin, her sarangi – it reminded him of Toni Braxton’s Spanish Guitar, and so he named the painting ‘Nepali Sarangi’. He loved the way her hair fell over her face to hide one eye, the way only four teeth showed in her smile. Her enchanting smile.
“Did you just imagine her, or is she a real person? Maybe your sister, ugh?”
“Yes what? Is she imaginary?”
“No! Imaginary no. Real. Look!”
The artist showed him a photo in a mobile phone. If he had looked carefully, he might have noticed that it was a photo of a very old photo, but the veil of love fell over his eyes. He had to meet her, to marry her, to take her back home.
“You like her?”
The African smiled like a bewitched prince. He knew that in Nepali culture, people preferred arranged marriages. No dating, no love, no fooling around with the heart. The bride and groom meet for the first time on their wedding day.
“E-e!” the artist giggled like a teenage girl. “You like her very much!”
“Is she – maybe – married?”
“She? No. No. Not married. Are you married?”
“Me? No. Never.”
“Do you want to marry with her?”
The African could not believe his good luck. It was like Juliet’s father placing a hand over Romeo’s shoulders and asking, ‘do you want to marry her? We can arrange it now!’
|A Nepali bride in Chandeswori temple|
“Can you arrange it?”
“Yes! Yes! No problem! I talk her! She agree! No problem!”
“Just like that?”
“Yes! She my mother.”
“No. Not real mother. My mother’s sister, but I call her mother.”
“How old is she?”
The artist laughed, but did not answer that question. “Where are you from?”
“America,” the African said without hesitation. He wanted them to not only think that he was very rich, but once he took her home, they would never hear from him again, or see their pretty girl. “I’m from USA. Obama is my uncle.”
“O-hoo!” the artist’s mouth became round in shock. When he had recovered, he added, “In your country, first love, then marriage. Here, first marriage, then love. She very faithful. She never leave you.”
The African could hear the girl playing the sarangi, a tune so sweet that he floated in the clouds. But she is just a picture. First, he had to meet her, study her, and then decide whether to marry her. Yet he had no time. He could not afford to stay in Nepal for another week. And this girl was a better prize than all the golden statues of the world.
“She widow,” the artist said. “Two day after marriage, her husband go to fight. You know Gurkha? He soldier. She play for him sarangi before he go. It is last time they together. In our culture, woman cannot marry two times. She very sad. She want marry to another man her but no man take her.”
“Stupid Nepali men.”
“But you bidesh, hoina? You habsi. You take her! No problem.”
For two days, he stayed in the artist’s home as they arranged for the wedding. He promised the artist a lot of money, so the artist ran around to make it happen in two days. Luckily, it was the wedding month.
The day came. He endured so many Hindu rituals like a zombie. They spoke to him in a strange language. The artist was not always available to interpret, so he did whatever they gestured at him to do. At one point, he found himself sitting beside a grandmother dressed up as a bride.
He thought it funny.
A grandmother so old she had no teeth, all dressed up like a bride. She sat beside him, smiling. He knew that smile for he had seen it on the girl. Maybe this is her grandmother.
He thought they were doing something similar to the kwanjula ceremony back home, where the bride’s family parade many girls for the groom to pick, but the groom has to reject all until they reveal the real bride. So maybe this grandmother is a customary surrogate until the time is right for the bride to appear.
Time passed. The bride did not show up. He grew impatient. Night came. The dancing started. Though he did not understand what was happening, he knew people dance only after the marriage. But where is his bride? Nervous, he asked the artist.
“What you mean?” the artist said.
“I want to see the girl?”
“Eh!” the artist seemed truly shocked. “You not seen her?” He pointed at the grandmother. “Her?”
The African looked at the old woman, at the toothless and wrinkled smile that in the picture had set him alight with a fire of a thousand suns.
“I paint her photo – old, old photo, what she look like when still young.”
The African felt a bitter dryness in his mouth as he discovered he was a character in a badly written joke. A corny joke that nevertheless knocked him out with the sheer force of its obviousness.
“What’s the problem?” the grandmother asked the artist. “Why is he troubled?”
“Nothing,” the artist said.
“Is he worried that I did it?”
“Tell him I didn’t.”
“I have never done it! Tell him!”
So the artist turned to the African with a big smile and said, “Good news for you, my friend. She say her husband die before they – you know. She’s still a virgin.”
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