I knew I couldn’t leave Nepal when I started weeping in front of a stranger. Well, not really a stranger — after all, Rocky bhai knew things about me that no one else did. He knew exactly which shades of blue, yellow, pink, and white I liked and also that my left shoulder was a whole inch shorter than my right. And in this moment, he suddenly knew something that maybe he wasn’t supposed to know. How torn I was; how I was not quite a friend, nor quite a stranger; not intimate enough for a hug, and not distant enough for a nod; and so when he awkwardly but tenderly grabbed my elbow and held on, the gesture made me smile despite how embarrassed I was to be choking on words.
“During the earthquake, I was just so far. In Paris, thousands of miles away from my parents and there was nothing I could do to help them. I didn’t know what was happening and they wouldn’t tell me everything. If I leave now, it will be the same thing. I’ll be leaving and abandoning them to forces I have no control over.”
Rocky bhai nodded. He knew all too well how scary the earthquake was. He had been there, in his prettily set up pashmina store in Lazimpat as it quivered along with all the other little stores on the little lane leading up to the red bricks of Radisson Hotel. When he ran out, he tells me, the ground seemed to be made of rubber; entire streets rising up and down like jilted snakes ready to strike. For nights on end, he and his family were scared to sleep inside. But then time passed, and things went back to normal and — “Excuse me, how much?” Two middle-aged Italian women have just stepped into the store, grim-faced and clearly ready for a fight.
It’s mid-March and the coronavirus was killing people in Europe, but Nepal had no deaths, and very few cases, leading to much speculation.
That’s because there is no accountability!
Maybe turmeric does work.
You should really drink warm water — that will kill the virus. Gargle in the morning and the evening with salt.
Pranayam is the answer!
Over a Zoom call with a mama in Australia, another in San Diego, an aunt and uncle in Boston, my sister in New York, a cousin in Louisiana, and my husband in Dublin, we exchanged ideas and rumours, dispelling and hypothesising as we were each stuck on screens, our space reduced to a small square.
By this point I’d become a nutzoid, a real coronavirus warrior, much more lethal than when I arrived from abroad, from Dublin, in February. I was enforcing a strict sanitary regime at home, even though no one else seemed bothered by it. My poor dad endured my histrionic meltdowns, well-contained in public, but unapologetically unleashed at home, over his sharing of mugs with his friends or not disinfecting his phone as soon as he came home. Mom saw me turn from a gentle soul into a bully, chasing her into bathrooms to make sure she washed her hands properly or that she didn’t step out of the house without wearing a mask. Knowing that I was in Nepal for only a limited amount of time of three weeks, I needed to make sure, like my one very practical friend said, that I left with a clear conscience, and that meant ensuring my parents would be safe.
So I created a plan and put it into action.
Armed with big shopping bags, I made my way to a Big Mart, the one next to the Radisson at the corner of the lane and the mainstreet in Lazimpat, where I stocked up on huge vats of Dettol, Lysol, gloves, and hand sanitiser. As they were already running in short supply, I headed out to whatever was open.
That’s how I came across a store that stood elevated from all the rest, on a block of cement, on the other side of the mainstreet. As soon as I stepped in, the bright eyes and warm smile of an older man sitting by the window behind a cramped desk greeted me. In this small space, all the shelves were packed with chips, rice, dal, biscuits. Soaps and detergents lay in netted red bags in a pile at the bottom of one of the shelves, strangely untouched. I grabbed a couple when I remembered what my mom had asked for.
“Hajur ko ma brown rice cha? (Do you have brown rice?)”
He got up, revealing a limp in his step, for which I felt immediately guilty.
“Oh please never mind, please sit down,” I said, but he brushed it away, saying he got this from an accident and had just come back from the chiropractor.
As we stood there, scouring the shelves, I was struck by how much he reminded me of my older mama, the one in San Diego. His slanted brown eyes and dark lips were just like his, but his Newari lilt was more like that of my grandmother’s sister. A total stranger, and yet so familiar. So much so that I felt comfortable enough to ask him how he felt under the circumstances. He said he’d been up all night, crying.
“How can we think that we will survive this when countries like Italy are filled with dying people?”
I stood there, nodding, half hoping that he would also say that it would be ok. But he didn’t.
But when he said, “ I don’t want to die, maiya,” it became impossible for me to contain my tears.
So I told him I was scared too. For my parents. That this would be the last time I saw them. That I didn’t want to be so far away. He nodded knowingly. Some of his own children were far away too, in New York City. He’d visited them and been taken around to see everything he wanted, but he’d never wanted to live there. Nepal was his home.
We spoke for a while on life and how things used to be. When I bid him farewell, my heart felt heavy but also, strangely, glad. Glad to have met him, this man with whom I shared a special moment, like we had known each other forever.
But Rocky bhai was much more optimistic.
“Corona won’t come to Nepal. We just have to be careful. Spend time with family and friends. Be safe. Take it easy, enjoy.”
That’s what he does on days when business is slow anyway: shuts his store and rides his bike up into the mountains with his friends. That day for him was just one of those pointless days where business wouldn’t take off, leaving the next day to start over and for him to try again.
But for me, it was a singular day. I was supposed to fly out the next day via Delhi to Dublin, on a flight that I had already changed in order to stay back ten more days. This was the second flight that was meant to take me back to my Francois, my best friend, my loving husband, with whom I’d jumped continents, to settle down this time in cute, green, funny Dublin, with its creamy Guinness, delicious English and riotous pubs filled with song and story. We were hoping to settle down as both of us have been nomads our whole lives. And yet, it never was clear to me how to settle down in a land so far away from my parents, who had chosen Nepal to be their base. And this time, it was even less clear how I was supposed to leave, when I knew that the coronavirus would hit it like a tornado, an image I’d gathered from a doctor a few days earlier.
I’d come in to check for a sore throat and was taken to the empty intensive-care unit that had been set up for Covid patients. Even though I couldn’t see the doctor’s face because it was hidden behind his mask, there was an air of quiet resignation about him that troubled me enough to ask how prepared he felt for when the virus would arrive. When his eyes met mine, his voice could not have been more matter-of-fact.
“It’s going to be a total disaster. There is no way to prepare. Many will die.”
Back at home, I dutifully packed my bags but inside, doing so felt wrong. Despite my desire to be reunited with my husband and begin my life in Dublin, I realised there was an ache I could not shake, a hollow in the pit of my stomach that refused to subside. A feeling I imagine that so many who live in between worlds, separated from their families, know well. The sense that one is never fully connected, or at least, cannot be connected for as long as one wishes or needs to. Separated, torn, broken. And so it was with a strange sense of relief that I greeted the news, on the day of my flight that Nepal was about to enter a nationwide lockdown, and with an even greater sense of relief when I learned that those who were abroad would no longer be allowed in. Selfishly, I was glad because knowing that I couldn’t return if anything happened to my parents, made the decision for me.
But when I told my husband, the relief I felt was replaced by guilt, and a different ache. His words were too true.
“What if we don’t see each other again?”
The comfort of lockdown
But life under lockdown, gave me a sense of control that I desperately wanted. Holed up at home, with both my parents under my wing, I immersed myself in monitoring and sanitising all food deliveries, all light switches, door knobs, phones, tables, floors. Cleaning, clearing, repeating. Although it started slow, with hours that seemed to be dragging forever, suddenly within a week, like in a puzzle, the pieces fell into place and our routine made time whizz by.
The morning was filled with cleaning, meditation, yoga, and pranayam, followed by a full breakfast with omelette made of cauliflower bits and yak cheese. A bit of news from around the world, and then time to sit and study. Me, Nepali; dad, Nepal’s districts; mom, Nepal’s current affairs via YouTube. As our backs stiffened, we proceeded to practice steps of a Nepali dance we’d gathered from a dancer called Bibek on YouTube and then, in the evenings, I would record Dad’s life story, asking him all the questions I’d never had a chance to ask him before.
I kept trying to create a safe environment, where nothing bad could happen, rushing to disinfect everything, from the floors to the packaging each time our food was delivered. But although that did give me a sense of focus and purpose to be doing so, the absurdity and unfairness of the lockdown was something I couldn’t quite stomach.
My didi, who’d taken care of me when I was ill, was living in one room with her two kids and her husband, unable to work, unable to earn any money, exposed to the virus by virtue of sharing one bathroom in a very busy area with others. When she called to ask for money, I felt so angry that she had to be reduced to that state of asking. Seeing migrant workers walking days and even dying to reach their villages because the government had not made any effort at providing transportation; hearing that doctors were being mistreated and even kicked out of their homes out of a fear of the virus, and that over four million Nepali citizens were stuck abroad, with no money, away from their families and no scope of being able to return home anytime soon, made me feel guilty of my privilege, and the way I was living so much in this little bubble while millions were suffering because of a system of corruption that felt impossible to dismantle. In my position, I knew I could donate money, and that’s what I did, but the knowledge of how big a problem the country was facing kept making me feel frustrated and helpless.
So for a while, I decided to stop reading the news and focus instead on being and spending real time with my parents, doing all the things I’d always wanted to do but never got to do before. Like that, a month went by, and then another and on May 4, we spent my 34th birthday together for the first time since I was 18. I realised with shock just how much time had passed and how much of it had been spent with us being apart, with them wishing me over the phone, and how little time we may have together compared to what we used to have. When my mom prepared eight eggs for me, and asked me to imagine them displayed in the shape of the number 8, before explaining that I should imagine a beautiful light coming in between the two entwining circles, “cutting the umbilical cord,” I cried with the knowledge that I was so far away from being 18, that I was married and therefore apart, separate, and would only be more apart from here onwards.
Meanwhile, isolated in a new apartment I had barely lived in, all the way in Dublin, my husband was preparing pasta in the kitchen. For the first time, I could see him in a wide shot, where I was hit by how alone he was and suddenly saw that here, too, was a place I was meant to be and wondered how I’d not paid attention to the fact that there were nine chartered flights that had taken place in the interim, each of which could have taken me back to him. Perhaps I hadn’t been ready then to see options to go back. And he had, as he always does, never made it a big deal. Never made it about him. Never tried to influence me in any way. Always been so kind and understanding. But this time, I finally understood it was for me to see, and understand. And so I started looking for flights, only to be told that there were none, despite this time, around May 11, being a time of general easing.
Perhaps it was the intensity of my fear that had pushed me to do everything I could to be in control, but strangely, my anxiety for my parents had begun to ease too. And so I watched in surprise as the comfort of control gave way to restlessness and I found myself letting dad and mom step out into the world.
I also ventured out, ready to capture this world where I had not set foot for over 50 days, armed with a broken phone attached to a selfie stick.
Returning to life
Even from the other side of the street, I could see Prajeena smiling at me, framed by the entrance of her little grocery store spilling with reds, greens, blues, like in a colourful painting. A giggly person, every time I tried to ask her a question, it is clear that she’s very intimidated by my selfie stick and asked that I wait for her father to come, because “he’s good at talking!”
Off the record though, she had a lot to say about the tiny store next to hers that was set up during the lockdown.
“They do know how to display whatever they have,” she admitted ruefully, “and that’s how they have been able to steal our business.”
That’s why she copied their technique of placing bread and sweets upfront so that eyes cannot but clap upon them. But despite her best efforts and even fights moderated by police, the tiny tea stall has won: people swarm in front of it as if it were a store with more than just bread and tea. Her store, which only started opening since the day before, had only had 2-3 people come in.
I can imagine how strange all this change must feel, especially when one’s own home, the one place that is meant to be a constant, has had to change radically: Prajeena and her family were born and raised in Lazimpat and nothing is the same. Her father, Raja Kumar Shahi, expressed it well when he said:
“Even Nepal’s borders! Look at where it has reached. No one cares. It’s very sad that our country has gone to another. The government has just been doing corruption and eating while citizens are the ones helping each other out.”
Further down the road, towards the Ambassador Hotel, a man wearing a blue mask introduced himself as Babu Kaji Maharjan and told me he had shut his store and was only keeping it open today in order to clean it. Unable to procure anything because everything had been closed, his store was bare, but it almost seemed like he preferred it that way.
“Even when people come to buy a few things from me, I am scared because the virus can spread through money too. So I keep washing my hands with sanitiser.”
When I asked him what could be done to allay his fears, his answer was at once so simple and yet has proven impossible to implement: “Whoever has been infected should be quarantined and cured and the border should be sealed so that checks are done from the outside.”
On the other side of the street, Jitender Jaspal stood in front of his fruit store efflorescent with colour, from the dark green watermelons to the red apples, yellow lemons and pale green skinned coconuts. Most of his face was covered with a black mask; and yet, his light brown eyes were warm and full of humour as he told me the name of his store that doesn’t have a sign or board: “Jitendra Fruit Centre Lazimpat. ”
Previously restricted to opening only two hours in the morning and the evening, Jitendra said he was relieved that the easing has happened so that his fruits, that come from India and China, won’t spoil.
Focused now on how I could leave in the least disruptive way, I found myself in a WhatsApp group filled with foreigners desperate to return. For three weeks, hundreds of people kept exchanging information on how to leave, only to come back to square one. There were no flights at a cost most could afford, with many scammers trying to lure each of us into their trap.
After three tries to get on flights and after three weeks of trying, I finally managed to find a flight to Dublin. And while I was relieved I had a flight out, I was equally torn at the thought of leaving my parents after building what felt like a life of its own here. I found myself telling my friends that I didn’t have enough time with them only to realise that I would never have enough time with them no matter how long I stayed.
As the countdown towards my flight began, each day felt intentional, and purposeful. The day before my flight, my mom, dad and I watched a family of deer run across the green expanse of Gokarna under thundering rain.
At the airport, masked up, we hugged quickly, tears streaming down my face, my heart a little broken as I shooed them so that they could be in their car, and away from the crowd.
In the waiting room, I ran into a friend of mine who was heading back, his face masked, his forehead anointed with a fresh red tikka, a huge red scarf around his neck. Despite the exorbitant price of the ticket, he had bought it, needing to take care of the business he ran with his wife, a Nepali restaurant called Nirvana Dream in a posh part of Paris that needed to open as France had finally relieved its nationwide lockdown. He was video chatting with his family when it struck me that I had never met him on his own. Whenever we met, his wife and son were around him, but this time he was leaving them in Nepal while heading back alone. I could sense his sadness as he told me he wasn’t used to carrying just one boarding pass.
That’s when I saw his passport. After a decade of living in France, a country he had fled to during the civil war in search of a better life, he was still holding on to the Nepali passport when he could easily have had the French passport. Why? I asked.
“This is home. This is my country. The more I think about it, the less I want to stay anywhere else. This is where I want to be, and I’ll always be Nepali. So will my wife and my France-born son.”
I wanted to argue but somehow I understood. I understood what he meant. Despite all my frustration at the corruption of Nepal’s government, how badly it treats its own people, and the chance of getting the French passport by virtue of being a spouse of a French citizen, I too have wondered time and time again whether I am ready to take on a different citizenship. And while I’m yet to find an answer, I know that no matter how imperfect and impossible, Nepal is home. And leaving home, no matter how many times I do it, always breaks my heart.
Now as I recollect myself in Dublin, in this new apartment where I am under quarantine for two weeks, and where I have arrived just in time to be there for my husband so that he is not alone celebrating his 32nd birthday, I am filled with a sense of deep joy and gratitude for having had the most precious gift of time to spend with my parents. I know more than ever how precious that is, and I’m hoping that all those returning from abroad can be with their families as soon as possible.