JEMIMA DIKI SHERPA
There are things that happen when you are an upper-middle class girl from Kathmandu.
There is the autumn sun, which takes the chill off the morning and raises a haze of moisture from the prickly grass. There are carpets and blankets and mattresses spread out to air and dry. You lie down on one, your back warming gently, your stomach pressed against musty foam and cotton. It is Dasain, the sky blue dotted with warring kites, and he emerges from the house you are visiting. He is older, but in your eleven-year-old eyes you do not know how much; maybe five years, maybe eight, maybe more. He too lies belly-down, plucking at the spikes of grass, the outside of his elbow bumping yours. He sits up abruptly, his thigh pushing into your side. He takes off his thin jacket and shifts so that his head is resting against the small of your back, his lean body perpendicular to yours, his torso and his jeans on the even green grass. The sun is too warm now, and so is the nape of his neck on the curve of your waist, and you are afraid to move. He shifts slightly, and you feel his fingers creeping up underneath your shirt, caressing the curve of your still-forming breast, and gliding up to the crook of your underarm. “There’s not even any hair,” he says, amusement in his voice as his hand explores. You have frozen, and his head against your back feels like the heaviest thing in the world. There is a clank at the metal gate, and suddenly he is gone.
There is the neighbourhood shopfront where a glass window has gone up inside the blue shutter, advertising internet, phone calling and cheap DVDs in streaky enamel paint. It is late spring and the pre-monsoon clouds hang heavy over a city that wishes for nothing more than rain. The shop, elevated three feet above the street by uneven concrete steps, has become the local hangout for bored young men. Every day they sit on these steps, all blue jeans and cheap motorcycles, laughing and swearing. You pass, your fourteen-year-old body straining against you thirteen-and-a-half year old clothes, and they suddenly fall silent, and you can feel their eyes as your shoulders hunch forward, face down and your steps quicken. “Kyaaa cha yaar!” the witty one yells, and they laugh, maybe three of them today, maybe ten, and you wish you could live somewhere, anywhere that you didn’t have to walk past this.
There is the awful afternoon where you get off a tempo at Sundhara, seventeen years old and still in your uniform, shapeless pants and pin striped shirt. You hand the too-young conductor a fistful of change, notes worn cloth-soft and coins that leave a metallic tang on your fingertips, and you step down into the chaos. Earlier purple-grey clouds have poured fat raindrops on the streets, and mud squelches beneath your shoes as you join the mass of humanity making its way past Dharahara. It is nearly evening, and you move as part of the crowd, step for step, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder, a river of faces. Sensibly, you cradle your bag, clasping it tight against your side. Then there is the touch among the many touches, the push amidst the jostling from all sides, the slow, deliberate movement of body against your body. You turn, and the man smiles strangely, his eyes fixed on your face in a look of triumph. His dark blue pants are unzipped, and for the longest seconds you glimpse the angry flesh of his cock straining in his hand and the line he drew with it along your ass moments earlier burns like a brand.
Then there are the things you hear.
There is the whispered confidence of a barely-teen friend about a crowded night car ride where her father’s friend suggests she sit on his lap, and holds her there as his hand surreptitiously strokes along her thigh. Later there are other whispers, about another girl who is abruptly married young, so very young, to a man she does not know. ‘Kastari ruyo, bichari,’ say the select few invited.
There is the childish afternoon at the city zoo where between the monkey enclosure and the cramped pacing leopard, a woman in a green kurtha lets out a shriek and claws at a man, screaming as other people try to drag her off. “This is him, this is the one!” she yells, and you grasp your brother’s hand. “Why is she angry?” he asks, trusting you to know, so you reply, “I think he stole something from her.” But you know that’s not quite right, and the words ijjat lutyo bury themselves in your mind until, suddenly, when you’re older, you understand.
There is the man who you call uncle, splashing hot water into peg after peg of whiskey, his deep cigarette laugh infectious. With impeccable comic timing he sketches travelling the Nepal from before the Nepal we know; and he says, “and then we’d chase those girls into the jungle, and have some fun! Nai nai bhanthyo, of course, but hamro jasto hoina, tyeta arkai cha…” and you realise what he means, and the laugh dies on your lips.
Then there are the things you feel.
There’s the group of male friends, joking over coffee, and you take it as an honour when they start talking like you’re just one of the guys, until you listen to what they’re saying and who they’re saying it about, and you feel the flash of shame as you sit, quiet. There’s the lump rising in your throat as you’re rattling home along quiet streets and your taxi driver brakes and another man jumps in the front seat, and they laugh at the note of panic in your voice and assure you it’s fine, they’re friends, just giving him a ride bahini, of course we’re still going east. There’s the moment when the boy you’re stealing kisses with pulls you closer and you pull back and say stop, please, and for an instant he won’t, and you realise just how much stronger he is than you; then he groans and lets you go, and relief comes and you hate yourself for doubting he is one of the good ones.
And then, every day, there is what you know as an upper-middle class Kathmandu girl.
You know that your privileges are your shield, your educated voice, your parent’s names, the walls and dogs that guard you, the quality of the clothing you wear and the company you keep. You know that these are the things that have saved you countless times from the ‘bad’ being the ‘or worse’, because these give you an imperfect measure of protection by making you a difficult and unpredictable target, the kind of girl who could cause a fuss and someone would take notice.
And you know, always, always, that you have just been lucky; that these men that surround the many unlucky women in the newspapers and the far-too-many others whose stories never make the pages, these are the same men that surround you too.