Giraffes and the Costs of Leaving

I’m sitting in the international terminal of O’Hare airport right now, in transit to Nepal, and while I have been looking forward for weeks to being able to be back to the country I love so much, right now I am mostly thinking about the costs of being gone.

Mostly, I am thinking about my son. He only just turned three, and I have never been away from him for remotely this long. I have been working to prepare him (and myself) for my trip for about as long as I knew I would be going — I set up a calendar with stickers for him to count the days until I left and then until I get back, and I even ordered him a little pillow with my photo on it in case he got lonely and needed a mommy-hug, and I know Daddy is going to take excellent care of him — but it still felt terrible this morning to go.

What I think has helped, though, is that we have been reading a lovely book called Meet Me At The Moon, about an elephant mother who has to leave her elephant baby. The mother talks all the way through how much she loves Little One, and how he can feel loved when he can’t see her, and then they reunite at the end and snuggle. So night after night, we have been saying together, over and over, “You are in my most secret heart, Little One,” and “I love you like the sun loves the earth. Whenever you feel the warmth of the sun, you will know that I am loving you from where I am.”

So I’ve been thinking a lot about how fiction can help you rehearse feelings before you’ve had the experience — how thinking about a wise mother elephant walking to the mountain has helped me practice feeling like a human mommy getting onto an airplane, and how hearing about a baby elephant missing its mommy will (hopefully) have helped my human kid watch me go.

I think the best way that my son has rehearsed our separation, though — the most constructive lesson he has drawn from our book-reading — has been that when the mommy elephant leaves, all the giraffes come to nuzzle the baby elephant and help him feel better. Every time we turn to that page (the page where Mama walks away), he invariably points out the giraffes.

So even though, by his own prediction, my son is “prolly gonna cry” while I’m gone (because of course there is no one quite like mommy when you’re little), I know he’s prepared himself to see not just his daddy elephant but the many wonderful and loving giraffes in his life.

I just hope I have enough giraffes to hep me through on my end.

Love Letter to Mangal Bazaar

Note: In fact, I visited Mangal Bazaar in July 2015, several weeks after writing this, and determined that in fact it had survived the earthquake completely fine. The information I had received (that had prompted this writing) had been inaccurate: I had been told that there was near total destruction “in the area around the Machhindranath temple” — but I later discovered that the person had meant “the Machhindranath temple in Bungamati,” not Patan.

In other words, the reflections below are based upon a misapprehension of the situation — but I have decided to let the post stand, because I think it continues to convey my initial feelings trying to comprehend and process the earthquake from a distance.   — AM


TO: Mangal Bazaar, Patan, Lalitpur District, NEPAL

Dear Mangal Bazaar,

I know it’s been a few years since I last saw you, so I’m not sure if you even remember me, but I wanted to write to tell you how much I love you.

I was so sorry to hear about the devastation you have suffered from the earthquakes that have rocked Nepal over the past month. A friend told me that some 70% of the buildings from your neighborhood have been damaged or destroyed. I can hardly even imagine what you now look like.

I don’t know if I ever told you before that you are one of my favorite places in Nepal. You are the street that always I go out of my way to walk down, one of the places that I feel most deeply immersed in the world. I love that, even though you brush right by Durbar Square, you are not a tourist attraction: you are not there for me or for people who look like me, you are not putting yourself on display, you are not trying to be what outsiders want you to be. You are just you, unselfconscious and unapologetic.

Street scene

What you have to realize is that I come from a country where space doesn’t mean much. In America, buildings are new and our spaces sprawl. We cover acre upon acre with grass or parking lots, and we stick big-box multinational businesses in soulless strips of concrete. But you, Mangal Bazaar, have lived into every inch of your space — and you have lived into that space over centuries. Every step feels dense, lived in, shaped by the people who have walked your street and inhabited your buildings. Your stone-carved tap, slowly sinking into layers of asphalt, was probably commissioned by the local king four or five centuries ago, but it isn’t behind glass or or ropes or marked with a self-important sign: it is used or simply walked past by your community. Your businesses aren’t glaring, antiseptic warehouses, they are each idiosyncratic and human-sized: shop-fronts that are just enough room for two people and some merchandise, ‘shops’ full of vegetables or spices that are just an upturned basket or a cart or a tarp spread upon the ground.


You know those backpack merchants that hang out along your route down closer to Lagankhel? They are exactly what fascinates me about life in Nepal. When there’s never quite enough capital, infrastructure, or technology to quite go around, people get endlessly inventive. Nepal is the country where people carry refrigerators and couches on their backs, panes of glass or potted trees or entire families on motorcycles, full busloads of passengers in a minivan. If your backpack sellers lack the capital to purchase a store-front or even a pushcart, they use their own bodies as display-racks, and stand month after month, year after year, presenting their wares.

backpack salesmen

Do you still have the shops where the local Newar silversmiths and goldsmiths sit on box-stools behind a single counter? It seemed like there have been fewer of those over the years, but I hope they never disappear. I come from a country where massive jewelry stores promise inventories of bazillions of items, with shiny salespeople who will instantly present whatever your heart desires. It’s a relief sometimes to go into a tiny closet of a shop, where the glass case sometimes has only ten or twenty items out for sale, and you have to drink tea with the proprietor before you can seriously talk prices for any of them. Do you know the long, low shop with a green-painted door, the one that’s owned by a friend of Dinesh’s cousin? I bought my and my husband’s wedding rings there in 2003, and the proprietor’s brother made each ring by hand.

Do you remember that time back in 2001 when I came to Mangal Bazaar looking for a shawl, back when I could barely speak Nepali and hadn’t really gotten the hang of shopping in a fluid-price, haggling economy (and was thus constantly getting overcharged for everything)? I just stumbled into the sari shop near the spice- and fish-merchants, and the proprietor Sunil sold me a red wool shawl that he basically refused to haggle over. I was initially incensed that he wouldn’t lower what I was sure was the inevitably outrageous foreigner-price, but when I got back home, my host family was impressed that he had sold it to me for such an eminently reasonable amount of money. Do you know that I have continued to shop there for years, out of loyalty to the man who didn’t take advantage of my foreignness and inexperience? I went back for my red Tihar sari and my rust-colored spangled kurta; I bought the blue sari that I wore for my son’s first rice feeding ceremony there. When my mother and my sister came to visit me in 2010, I took them to Sunil to pick material for kurta suruwals.

I think I might even have been wearing my very first red wool shawl that morning when I woke up at sunrise to head to Mangal Bazaar to film the morning puja at I Bahi for the class I was going to be teaching the next semester. Do you recall? I remember how crisp the air felt as I peeked into the wood-carved doorway flanked by two lion statues, and that there was a random dog barking persistently as I stepped into in the courtyard. I wanted to be able to show my students the rituals performed there every morning — to the Buddha images behind the lattice doors, to the little chaitya, to all the other sacred images around the courtyard — by the priest who comes on his motorcycle. I wanted to record how the priest’s sacred bell mingles with the bells of other pujas around the neighborhood, Hindu and Buddhist, at homes and at temples. I felt awkward to be there, even though I’d asked permission to come the week before, but the handful of people who were there that morning were so nice to me. They just couldn’t understand why I would ever want to take a video at such a minor temple of something so profoundly ordinary:

Puja to all images

Where I come from, it’s rare for religion to be just an ordinary part of the day or the year in quite the same way as it is in Nepal, and certainly it’s hard to imagine having the enormous chariot of Rato Machhindranath lumbers down a street in America the way it comes annual to Mangal Bazaar. It seems such a patently impractical idea to pull a six-story-tall bamboo tower on wooden wheels through a narrow lane tangled with electrical wires, and Americans would probably get just as worked up about the permits and perimeters as about the idea of a religious display in public. In Patan, though, Rato Machhindranath’s chariot has been tracing this same route (from Pulchowk to Sundara to Mangal Bazaar to Lagankhel to Jawalakhel) since at least 1600 if not far longer, and neither electrical wires nor the possibility of someone getting run over by the chariot stand in the way of taking a god on tour through the streets of the city.

machindranath rath

It is hard to say whether the chariot will make it to you this year, Mangal Bazaar, or if so, when. It was already on its way when the earthquake struck on April 26, but it hasn’t been pulled past where it stands at Sainbu since. The streets were cracked and filled with debris, the people have been busy seeking safety; the god’s two home temples have been destroyed, and last I heard the bhoto that gets displayed at the end of the chariot procession was lost in the rubble.

If the chariot does make it to you, what will it find? Will it roll past broken, empty husks of buildings, or piles of debris, or empty holes where buildings once stood? Does I Bahi still exist, and is there still a buddha image behind a metal lattice door? What has happened to the stone tap and the jeweler’s shop with the green-painted door? Is there still a jeweler to serve tea to his customers, a sari-seller prepared to deal honestly, a backpack seller wearing his stock?

Are you still my beloved Mangal Bazaar after the earthquake?