Chinese Sonnet

My heart is buried in thy lovely yard
As ornament of my passion to thee,
Of which was carved a brave and armoured guard,
Defending thy cute palace thou couldst see;
Affection for thee in my eyes doth shine,
Thy beauty’s mirrored, making roses blush;
My eyes as guests whom it doth wine and dine;
The noisy crickets are amazed; they hush.
Feed flowers with endlessly warm blood,
And thou contract’st to scent of gaudy rose.
There I shall be undying in thy bud;
When bend’st thine head and smell’st, thou now art close.
Thy field where all my dedication doth lie,
Lasting with time, my love would never die.

 

The above sonnet, if you can believe it, was written by a young student of mine by the name of 余浩 (Yu Hao).

He handed it in towards the end of the semester, and I’m glad I had not seen it before then, because if I had known what he was writing, I probably would have dissuaded him from attempting this kind of Elizabethan style. As it was, I at first wondered if he had really written it. The Early Modern English grammar is flawless. But there are small imperfections that demonstrate its authenticity as a work by a non-English speaker- the incongruous use of ‘cute’, for example, or the more modern idiom ‘wine and dine’.

As it is, it is extraordinary to consider that this was crafted by a young man whose English is by no means perfect. I’ve since told 余浩 that he really ought to continue writing, as he clearly has a talent, certainly for poetry and also, it seems, for mimicry of style. He is ambivalent about this, though; apparently it took days of considerable effort to perfect this and the one other poem he submitted.

Nonetheless, receiving the product of those efforts is among my prouder moments as a teacher. It is not every profession that gives one the opportunity of discovering gifts in other people that neither you nor they knew or suspected might exist.

God & Guns

I was reading an article recently about the increasingly common trend in American churches of having armed security guards at worship services, and some extreme examples of people (parishioners & sometimes pastors) bringing their own guns to church and sporting them proudly. I wrote this in response. Imagine it as an impassioned apologetic by some American Christian to my kneejerk ‘That’s crazy!’ (or possibly ‘You’re crazy!’, depending on how polite I was feeling that day).

 

We need security in churches, though,
To guard the pastor…..oh, I mean, the flock.
The crazies sometimes come to church, you know;
I trust in God but also in my glock.
Remember Thomas Beckett, if you will-
A saint whose life had only halfway run
When soldiers came to church, intent to kill;
If he killed first, what more could he have done?
And Jesus said to Peter, ‘Buy some swords,’
And showed his pleasure when the swords were shown.
So we as Christians must obey His words-
And Revelation says He has His own!
So Jesus shows that Christians should be tough;
(Of course, that week He did some other stuff…..)

A Winter Sonnet

Note: Been scarce for a while. Maybe you noticed. Circumstances, two in particular, have prevented me from writing much. The first is the rapidly approaching exams. The second was the theft of my computer in late October (the thief somehow managed to climb up a narrow drainpipe to my flat on the fourth floor and get in through the kitchen window in the small hours of the morning! Impressive….. but wrong). That necessitated the purchase of a new laptop, and also the complete rewriting (as far as memory serves) of the rest of my Nepal account, which had been sitting half-finished on the hard drive at the time. In the meantime, though, I’ve been teaching, among many other things, a class on poetry again this semester, and thought I’d throw up on the blog over the next week or so a couple of the jottings I’ve created along the way, for your delectation. Before the New Year I may also put up, with proper citation, some of the students’ own poems. One young fellow in particular has shown quite an impressive talent for composition and deserves a wider audience.

 

The weather changes; T-shirts disappear,
Scarves and anoraks become the norm,
Adopting, as they walk to classes, drear
Oppressed expressions- cats caught in a storm.
Pools accumulate near Xinxilou,
The green is drowned by constant falling rain,
And when the weather clears, the rainclouds go,
But, wet or dry, the wind and chill remain.
Like battle-hardened soldiers, home from wars,
The cold-shocked students rush to dorms to find
A warmer place, but huddling indoors,
The cold remains. It can’t be left behind.
Until the Uni Admin can afford
Heating, winter cannot be ignored.

Sojourn in Nepal – Part 2

Day 1

Nagarkot

The next morning, I did not awake before 5am. Indeed, I didn’t wake up until about 5:40 or so, and it was already light outside, albeit a barely pre-dawn kind of light. Outside the square was coming to life. Through the alcove window, whose finely carved woodwork I admired anew, across the way I could see what looked like a very old building indeed; built in the fashion of the others, with three storeys, portico and wooden pillars on the first, latticework on the upper windows and a slanted and tile-covered roof. The tiles were covered with a kind of green moss, which made the building seem somewhat run-down, but in an agreeably historical way, giving the whole a veneer of mystery and undiscovered (at least by me) significance, as though important things had happened there and maybe would again.

Purna was already moving about.

Actually, this seems as good a time as any to introduce Purna to you properly. I first came to know him as one of a small group of Nepalese working at my university when I started working here. The other two were both medical professionals and teachers, but Purna’s job was to oversee and manage the Foreign Food Canteen, which catered to the foreign students. And by foreign students, I mean Pakistanis. There are a fair number of these at our university, and I have yet to meet a foreign student not from Pakistan. Indeed, a Chinese education seems like a popular choice for a lot of young Pakistanis. A taxi driver in Xi’an once told me that the universities up their way were full of folks from that part of the world.

Most of what Purna cooks (when he cooks- he’s the overseer or, I suppose one might say, head chef) is subcontinental fare, curries and the like, but he is equally adept at Chinese cuisine, and I have enjoyed several excellent Chinese meals cooked by him. Now the other two teachers have moved on (one back to Nepal, the other taking up a position at a university in the Caribbean, of all places) so Purna is, as far as I know, the only Nepalese currently on staff these days. Which doesn’t faze him in the slightest, not least because, after five years working in China, his Chinese is, to all intents and purposes, fluent.

The other notable characteristic that Purna exhibits is a shrewd entrepreneurial sense. In addition to his overseeing the canteen kitchen, he has established at different times, and maintains a finger in, several small business ventures. The details of these I am very vague about (having, by contrast, absolutely no head for business whatsoever) but they give him a steady income on the side. Moreover, he is always on the lookout for new and potential business opportunities, sizing up demands where there is no supply or supply where there is little demand and drawing possible connections in his mind. He exhibited this propensity several times during our travels around Kathmandu, and may return to Wuhan with a few more minor business ventures coming to boil.

Regarding family, Purna comes from a broken home, alas, and has little good to say about his father. But he has maintained a good relationship with his mother, who lives in a town a good distance from Kathmandu. He also has a particularly close relationship with his uncle and aunt and their children. All of these latter I had the good fortune to meet, as you will see.

‘It’s 5:40. Are we going to be able to see the sunrise?’ I asked.

‘We’ve already missed it. You seemed tired, so I let you sleep.’

‘Oh. Thanks.’ Actually, I was genuinely grateful. A sunrise is nice, but it’s no good if you’re too tired to appreciate it. ‘So what’s the plan for the day then?’

‘This morning, I will take you to Nagarkot. Then we will come back and have lunch with my wife.’

‘Cool. Wait a minute, your wife? Did I miss something? When did you get married?’

‘No, no, not married yet. On the 21st, we will have our engagement ceremony. Then we will get married next year.’

‘Ah, so she’s your fiancée then. Good-o. And the temple? When can we see the temple?’

‘When we get back from Nagarkot.’

As Purna set about getting his things in order, I went to the window and got my first real glimpse of Nepal in daylight. The building I had seen across the way was typical of the others, though most were less run-down. But a fair number had, in like fashion, some evidence of moss on their tiled roofs. None of these buildings were particularly new.

The square, despite the early hour, had come to vibrant life. Hawkers, merchants and farmers were coming to occupy the shops or set up a space for their wares and produce around the edges of the square. Nepal falls within the cultural orbit of India and the subcontinent and, for the first time, this now became evident to me; indeed such was my prior ignorance that I had not known this before and it came as a surprise. The men that milled about were dressed for the most part in Western clothes- long trousers or jeans, T-shirts and the like- but some wore baggy trousers of cotton or some other natural fibre with a kameez, a short tunic that comes down past the waist with a small slit at either side, over the top. The women, very few of whom wore anything approximating Western styles, wore sarees or salwar kameez, baggy trousers and short tunic like the men (but looking far more elegant in them) with a silk scarf draped to form a U across their front, the ends of which hung halfway down the back.

My first view of Nepal

My first view of Nepal

As I watched, a slow trickle of young people, wearing an assortment of identical clothes, made their way in twos and threes from one side to the other and down the street directly below us. Were these students? They were evidently wearing some kind of uniform, but the styles were quite disparate. Two in particular stood out. One group’s comprised a yellow polo top and light blue shorts. The other was a striped blue button down shirt with navy trousers and tie. In both cases, boys and girls wore identical outfits. In the case of the latter uniform, this looked particularly odd. Groups of five or six girls all arrayed in trousers and ties- the fancy came to my mind of a cross-dressing convention somewhere in town to which they were all going.

‘Who are they?’ I asked Purna.

‘Students,’ said he.

‘I thought so. There must be quite a few schools in the area. But they’re going awfully early. What time does school start?’

‘Seven.’

‘Seven?! That’s going to be a long day.’

‘Not so long. They finish at 11:30.’

‘For lunch, or is that the end of it?’

‘That’s the end.’

‘Oh, I see. So it’s like summer school. Well, that makes sense, given the time of year.’

I would have liked to stay, watching from that window, seeing Nepalese life pass by. But we had a schedule to keep (apparently), even if sunrise had beaten us to the punch. We left our things (we would be back to pick them up later before moving on) and made our way downstairs, where Purna retook possession of his bike, and we were on our way.

The streets of Bhaktapur were now awash with humanity and, consequently, there was a lot of swerving. I was glad I had left my rucksack behind- it would have played havoc with the bike’s balance at such times. From that square (whose name I later learned was Taumadhi Tol) we zipped, swerved and dodged our way down several narrow red brick streets before emerging into another square, smaller than Taumadhi Tol. Then, plunging back into the labyrinth of narrow streets, where no car could ever hope to go, we presently passed through an old gate and emerged onto a bitumen road. This would take us to Nagarkot.

At this point, I didn’t really have a clear idea (as probably you also do not yet) of what exactly Nagarkot was. But I didn’t bother to ask- I would find out soon enough anyway- and was content merely to observe our surroundings and enjoy the journey. ‘To travel hopefully is better than to arrive,’ said Robert Louis Stevenson and, though I’m not sure I agree with him, to travel hopefully is certainly at least as good as arriving. So it was in this case.

Before long we had moved into what appeared to be countryside. Like China, Nepal seems to have no recognisable suburbia. There is an area beyond town which might, by some definitions, be regarded as suburbs, but it certainly would not be recognised as such by most Westerners. In such areas, houses are plentiful and so is land. But the houses are tall and narrow, mostly three storeys high, and may house more than one family (or in some cases, one family and a shop or some kind of business on the lower level). In between the houses is often a fair quantity of land, depending on their location, too small to be farmland (though some things may be grown on it), too big to be a frontyard/backyard. Sometimes the houses are grouped together, side by side, along the edge of the road or a little way back for a hundred metres or more. Other times, they may be in small clusters, not necessarily near the main road at all. Other times they are scattered across the landscape, lone houses each occupying their little patch. Not a recognisable suburbia, but not exactly countryside either. And indeed, quite similar to the outskirts of town here in China in many ways. Here, unlike in Bhaktapur, I began to feel on slightly more familiar ground.

The outskirts of Khathmandu

The outskirts of Khathmandu

But appearances can be deceiving. At one point, we passed a large military compound, and I saw soldiers moving about inside it. We saw several more of these before we reached our destination; training grounds where young men could be seen exercising, large gates with guards and barbed wire fences to either side. Later, labouring up the mountain, we came upon a contingent, 50 strong or more, out for their morning march.

Nepal is in many ways much like Switzerland, and not just because of its small size and mountainous landscape. Militarily, it has, like its European cousin, presented itself as a bastion of neutrality in the region, refusing for the last century or so to get involved in international squabbles (eg. between India and China, its two largest and most powerful neighbours, both of whom it depends upon economically and neither of whom particularly like each other). Like Switzerland, Nepal’s military are some of the best in the world- their air force particularly adept, not surprising given the terrain. It is from Nepal that the famous Ghurkas come, many of whom have made names for themselves in the British Army and the SAS (more about them later). But unlike Switzerland, though no invading army has menaced their borders in more than 100 years, Nepal has seen plenty of civil turmoil, which has continued until very recently. Until 2008, to be precise.

Before then, the Communist Party was militant, and Maoists (their own name for themselves) roamed the land, their armies holding a large portion of the western half of the country. Between the massacre of King Birendra and his family in 2001 and the stepping down of the loathsome King Gyanendra in 2008, a civil war in all but name prevailed. The flow of tourists slowed to a trickle, the economy grew moribund. Mostly, tourists were not harmed, though there are stories of trekkers and mountain climbers being stopped by armed bands of Communists demanding a ‘donation’ to their cause. Still, no one wants to go for a holiday in a country in such turmoil. Kathmandu was even laid siege to on one occasion.

Now, of course, the economy is not really any better, but the troubles are mostly over (or replaced by other troubles, I suppose) since the Communists have joined the political process and taken their place in a multi-party republican system. In which, as it happens, they currently enjoy a parliamentary majority. It remains to be seen for how long the system will remain stable. It is barely five years old, after all.

It occurred to me, as I watched these soldiers do their exercises in the yard and march up and down the mountain roads, that almost all of them would have seen action very recently. Indeed, that many of these men had been all that stood between what had become a very imperfect monarchy and a full-blown Communist revolution. In the end, there was compromise. There was no revolutionary government take-over like in Russia or China; but neither was there a total victory over the revolutionaries, like in Spain in the 30s. Still, a compromise solution is better than defeat, and many of these soldiers were responsible for the fact that Nepal experienced the former rather than the latter.

As we began to leave behind the Kathmandu Valley, the scenery began to change dramatically. Around the Valley, there are what would in any other country be called mountains, but what in a country that includes Mt Everest might be better termed hills. Moving out of the city, they quickly become visible- looming green bulks with no gap between. Their slopes are steep, but not craggy or rocky, and they wear a coat of many-hued greenery; their sides thick with trees in places, conifers and pines for the most part, but in others dozens of terraces create steps on the slopes filled with rice or corn (I was not expecting corn but evidently it’s a popular crop). Here and there are houses, but these are few. The road snaked up the sides of one particular hill, following its contours for the most part, though some sections reminded me heavily of Old Bathurst Road. And these hills were at least twice the height of the Blue Mountains, if not higher (indeed Nagarkot, where we were going, is about the same height as Mt Kosciusko).

The foliage that we passed surprised me. Moving up into the hills, the atmosphere reminded me of a rainforest or jungle. Large ferns hung down over the road, moss-covered rocks and boulders could be seen here and there to either side, and the higher we went, the denser the trees became, so that all was bathed in a greenish-tinged light, as though it were a mountain from the Matrix. It isn’t often acknowledged, what with Nepal enjoying titles like ‘The Roof of the World’ and the like, but the country is just barely north of the Tropic of Cancer.

Looking up, I could see that the tops of the hills were wreathed in mist. I breathed deeply. The air was deliciously fresh, fragrant with the scent of greenery and life, but pure and clean. And cool. I hadn’t brought a jumper or jacket and began to wonder if this had been a mistake (it turned out it wasn’t once the sun got a little higher).

At last, after about an hour and a half of driving, we arrived at a touristy space just short of the summit of Nagarkot, which I now realised was the name of the mountain we had been climbing. There were a couple of stalls there, and a small parking area. We availed ourselves of this latter and dismounted. My legs, I discovered, were terribly stiff, though a bit of shaking and jumping got the blood flowing again. I wonder if folks who ride on motorcycles regularly and for substantial lengths of time get bow-legged, like horsemen used to do. Racking my brain, I tried to recall if I had ever seen a bow-legged bikie, but couldn’t be sure.

Leaving behind the stalls (which mostly sold snacks and drinks, neither of which we needed at this time, especially given that we had not yet breakfasted), we made our way up towards the summit of Nagarkot. A flight of concrete steps led there, through some trees and out onto the peak. Tied to the trees were lines of string, hanging from which were multi-coloured squares of cloth, each with writing on them. They looked rather like clothes on a lot of clotheslines. An odd kind of washing day. I asked Purna what they were.

IMG_7324

‘They’re Buddhist,’ he said.

‘Buddhist what? Prayers? Scriptures?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘But you’re Buddhist!’

‘They’re written in Sanskrit. I can’t read it. The monks can, but I can’t. When we go to Swayambahu, maybe we can find a monk who can tell you more.’

Indeed, I did get some answers later, though not so much about the writing (we couldn’t exactly take a copy with us) but I did learn a little of the symbolism of the colours, which apparently represent the elements.

Reaching the top of the steps, I found to my surprise that I was incredibly out of breath suddenly. That’s odd, I thought, I’m unfit, but not that unfit. Then I realised: Ah, the altitude. We were high up now, and the air was thinner. Indeed, folks back in China had warned me about the dangers of altitude sickness, and this was my first taste. Also, fortunately, my only taste this trip, seeing as we did no mountaineering or trekking to speak of.

At the top of Nagarkot, there is a small area in the centre of which is a tower. A tower of metal. Or not even a tower, really, but a metal framework with a lookout erected on top. It was not old at all, though it did look rundown. I never did work out what its purpose was. Directly beneath its centre was a concrete monument, a tiny obelisk that came to chest-level, on two sides bearing a plaque in Nepali. Purna translated this for me- it seems it was erected by King Mahendra (Birendra’s father) about 40 years before.

What is notable about Nagarkot, however, is not what is on top of it, but what can be seen from it. The summit gave a full 360 degree view of the surrounding country. Looking about, I could see for the first time, off to the north, the terrible and majestic Himalayas. Snow-capped, scraping the heavens, they towered before and above us, and indeed they were a sight to behold. They must still have been a hundred or more miles away, but their height made up for the distance and, like objects in a rear view mirror, they appeared closer than they were. Peak after peak poked through the clouds, and it occurred to me that we have been unjust in rendering such fame to Everest. There are dozens of peaks all along that range that are barely shorter and equal Everest in magnificence if not in height.

First glimpse of the Himalayas

First glimpse of the Himalayas

In fact, it was not my fate to see Everest itself on this occasion (though I would before I returned home)- the eastern Himalaya were shrouded by thick cloud, and nothing could be seen of them. But several other of the western-lying mountains could, and I began to learn their names for the first time- Ganesh Himal, named for the elephant-headed god, whom it resembles; the almost conical Dorje Lakpa; the double-peaked Gauri Shankar, named for Shiva, the god of destruction, and his consort; and Melungtse, just north of the border in China, which was not successfully climbed until a couple of Slovenians finally succeeded in 1992.

Purna & I pose in front of the Himalayas atop Nagarkot. Behind can be seen Dorje-Lakpa &  Phurbi-Ghyachu.

Purna & I pose in front of the Himalayas atop Nagarkot. Behind can be seen Dorje-Lakpa & Phurbi-Ghyachu.

Actually, we were not alone on top of Nagarkot. There was another group there, a dozen or so travellers from Thailand, with a Nepali guide. They seemed mostly in their 40s and 50s or older, but were very good-natured and friendly, and Purna and their guide conversed freely. Despite their mean age, they seemed possessed of an almost child-like glee at being there, chattering excitedly in Thai. One man, who was at least 50 and maybe older, got the bright idea to climb the tower. Planting a foot halfway up King Mahendra’s monument, he enacted an impressive feat of gymnastics to get himself onto the lowest rung of the metal framework (which was at least 3 or 4 metres above the ground), then climbed easily up to stand in the lookout. It was a breathtaking act of childishness, stupidity and foolhardiness. Given the fellow’s evident age, I couldn’t help but be impressed. A couple of the other Thais soon followed suit, though how they planned to get down again I’ve no idea.

‘Mr Glenn, why don’t you go up?’ suggested Purna.

And maybe a few years ago, I might have. But, whether because I’m more sensible or more cowardly than I used to be, I chose to stay put.

After about twenty minutes, I was feeling peckish, so we decided to descend. The Thais who had climbed up were still in the lookout when we left, and I never did discover how they got down, or whether they did so uninjured.

Back on the motorcycle, I prevailed upon Purna to find us somewhere for breakfast. The stalls at the top of Nagarkot had nothing that would fit the bill.

The paucity of customers provokes storekeepers below Nagarkot's summit to resort to a badminton game to pass the time.

The paucity of customers provokes storekeepers below Nagarkot’s summit to resort to a badminton game to pass the time.

Besides which, I was hungry for a proper sit-down breakfast, if possible, not something on the go. And indeed we eventually found exactly that. Somewhere mid-way down Nagarkot’s side, we found a village which had several small inns and restaurants. It apparently catered mostly for trekkers and backpackers, though how many of those it gets these days I don’t know (we saw a single group of foreigners during about an hour spent there- there were three of them). Having ducked into at least one other place and been dissatisfied by what they offered, we settled on a small wooden house a little way from the main road with a couple of short tables out front. Purna parked his bike and we inspected their menu which, fortunately for me, was in English.

The place was owned by a family with two children. The boy, who seemed in his mid-teens, appeared to take our order. The girl, who must have been about 3, was terribly cute but also shy, and spent most of her time holding onto her mother or peering at us round the wooden columns that held up the house. The fare seemed varied and mostly geared towards the tastes of foreigners- if ‘foreigners’ includes Chinese and Indians.

‘I like the sound of this cheese omelette,’ I mused, inspecting the items, ‘That would go down splendidly right now. But what is typical here? What do Nepalese eat for breakfast? Most of this looks foreign.’

‘Usually we will have dudh [it sounded like ‘dut’ but with an almost-voiced ‘t’]. It’s a hot milk drink,’ explained Purna.

‘That sounds great. Let’s have that, then,’ said I. ‘Is that all, though? You usually just have a drink?’

‘No, we also have wai-wai. It has noodles and soup and some vegetables. This is traditional breakfast. I can make it.’

‘Ok, well, if we can have that, so much the better. And maybe sometime later you can make it for me yourself.’

‘I can make it for you myself now.’

‘What? How? It’s their kitchen. You can’t just commandeer somebody else’s kitchen!’

‘Yes, I can,’ he said, and disappeared into the house. He reappeared fifteen minutes later with two large bowls full of the wai-wai he had described. Shortly on the heels of these came two glasses of dudh and an omelette with toast that I hadn’t realised I had ordered but evidently had.

‘They didn’t mind?’ I asked Purna incredulously.

‘Of course not,’ he said, as though going into a restaurant and asking for the use of their facilities to cook one’s own meal were the most normal thing in the world. Which, it would seem, in some parts of the world perhaps it is.

The whole meal was completely wonderful and reminded me of breakfasts I had enjoyed back in England- diverse, delicious and completely satisfying. The dudh in particular was superb, to the extent that in the days to come it became my drink of choice, such that if I found myself in a Nepalese home or restaurant and was offered a drink, dudh was what I asked for. At first, I had assumed that it was prepared in some particular way; but I later discovered that it was simply boiling milk. Nonetheless, it tasted different to any other milk I have ever tasted, slightly sweeter perhaps, a more full-bodied taste. I can think of two possible reasons for this, though I’ve no way of knowing which, if either, of them is correct. On the one hand, it may be because the milk is straight from a cow, without having been pasteurised or processed in any way. Never having spent much time on farms, I don’t know, but it may be that all unprocessed milk has this singular taste. On the other hand, it may be because of Nepalese cows. As in India, Nepalese cows are sacred. They wander the streets and roads and fields and do pretty much as they wish wherever they go. Accordingly, and out of reverence for them, the Nepalese do not engage in any kind of selective breeding of cattle. If the cows want to reproduce, they reproduce. I’ve read some outside authorities deplore this apparent negligence and the resulting inferior quality in all cow-related products that results therefrom. And it may be due to this laissez-faire approach to bovine posterity that the milk tastes different. If so, kudos to the Hindus (and a sidethought- if the cows of other nations ever did rise up against their masters and mount a revolution, the people of India and Nepal would be sitting pretty because there’s no way their cows would ever have any desire to overthrow them!).

 

Bhaktapur

When we had finished our breakfast, it was back on the motorcycle and down the way we had come. The chill rainforest-like ambience of the hills gave way to the dry air and open spaces of the valley, which in turn gave way to the bustle and crowded streets of the Kathmandu outskirts, and before long we were back on the red brick roads of Bhaktapur. These were even more lively than when we had left and, looking at my watch, I was surprised to note that it was still well before 10am. We still had the whole day ahead of us.

Pulling up before the establishment where we had spent the night, I discovered why the corridor that led in from the street had seemed so narrow and cave-like the previous evening. It was flanked by two shops, run by (it seemed) relatives of the proprietors, and the entrance to the inn was buried in the small bit of space that lay between them. Its narrowness was illusory, since the shop fronts let onto it as well as onto the street- they were very open- but the previous night everything had been closed up, which gave it that singularly unwelcoming (and indeed almost invisible) appearance. Now everything was open, and the contrast was marked.

The two shops were quite specific in their wares. The one to the left of the inn’s entrance was owned by a gentleman who seemed to be well acquainted with Purna, though I never did learn their history. He was an artisan, an artist and painter who worked with cloth, making images of mandalas, chakras, boddhisatvas and Hindu deities. He seemed to have some acquaintance with metalwork as well since a number of these had gold-leaf worked into them. Naturally, these tended to be grander and more expensive than the others. I was taken with many of these, the bright colours, the exquisite designs, but was reticent about buying them, for religious reasons. As pretty as it is, I can’t really justify hanging a picture of Krishna on my wall. But I did purchase from this gentleman a beautiful and wonderfully detailed cloth wall-hanging depicting the life story of the Buddha.

The shop on the right of the inn’s entrance dealt in items of wood. Some of these were magnificent; huge and intricate statues of Ganesh or Vishnu, or of the one-horned rhinoceros, a unique animal of Nepal of which they are extremely proud. Here I bought for myself a plate with some wonderful carvings which I think will serve nicely as a cheese platter, a jewellery box for my mother and, strangest of all the items in the shop, a wooden tie, which I can’t wait to take for a spin once the Wuhan weather grows cool enough for tie-wearing.

I also had a number of questions for the proprietors. The wood shop was run by a woman, also apparently a relative of those who ran the inn, and her English was good. Given the many religious statues in the place and my growing awareness of the extent of my ignorance on that subject, I put some questions to her.

‘This is Shiva?’

‘No, this is Vishnu. That one there,’ she said, pointing, ‘is Shiva.’

‘What’s the difference?’

‘Vishnu is the sustainer. He keeps everything going. He represents life and order and stability. Shiva is the destroyer. He is the, how to say, agent of change. He makes things new by destroying them and clearing the way for what will come. There is also Brahma, the Creator. But we don’t worship him.’

‘Why not?’

‘A long time ago, he told a lie to Shiva. So we don’t worship him.’

‘Harsh. What about this one?’

‘That is Avalokiteshvara.’

‘Oh. I know that name. A boddhisatva, right? That’s the one the Chinese call Guanyin. But in China it’s female. This one’s a man. Or depicted as one.’

‘Yes.’

‘Why do they have many arms? Is that supposed to be literal, or symbolic of something?’

‘Many arms or many heads or different coloured skin- this is not normal. So when we show the gods like this, it means they are beyond nature.’

‘I see. Tell me something. I’ve been hearing about the Newari religion, but I’m not really clear what it is. Can you tell me something about it?’

‘Newari is the people who were here in Nepal since long ago.’

‘So it’s a native religion, like Bon in Tibet. Or….wait, is it different from Hinduism or Buddhism, or is it a subset of one of those?’

‘Newari is Buddhist and Hindu. Some of the gods are boddhisatvas. Some of the boddhisatvas are gods. We worship them all.’

‘So you also are Newari, then?’

‘No. But many people here are like this. There is not such a separation.’ The truth of that statement I was to discover more and more as my sojourn continued.

Now the time had come to see Bhaktapur properly. To be honest, I am disappointed looking back on the next hour or two- not at what I saw but at what I discerned, or failed to. My ignorance was such that the following must necessarily be limited to first impressions, though I will interject a few titbits of information that I managed to pick up later where possible.

The first port of call was the temple I had glimpsed last night. Alas, we couldn’t go inside it, but we didn’t need to. A contrast that Professor John Hale often points out is that, architecturally, pagan temples are always eye-catching and awe-inspiring on the outside but mostly plain on the inside, whereas Christian churches are plain on the outside but eye-catching and awe-inspiring on the inside.  This has to do with the fact that only priests are supposed to go inside pagan temples, whereas churches are intended to admit the masses. This principle certainly obtained in this case. Indeed, it looked like the inside of the temple would be so small that with two or three people it would feel cramped, especially if there’s an altar or an image of the god inside. I guess it only requires one priest, as a rule.

The name of the temple, I later found out, is Nyatopola. It was erected by one of the Malla kings back in the eighteenth century (a certain Bhupatindra) in honour of Lakshmi, the consort of (or, alternatively, the feminine aspect of) Vishnu. It is the highest and grandest in Bhaktapur. The architecture of the structure is quite interesting. It is vertically symmetrical. The base is a kind of step pyramid, with five massive steps leading up to the main body of the temple. Above that, the roof is also arranged in five tiers- or, indeed, one might say there are five roofs, one on top of the other, each smaller than the last. So the roof and base mirror each other, with the temple itself nestled between the two.

On each level of the base, there are statues, and these flank the steps leading up to the door of the temple. Each of these statues is significant: it is said that each pair is ten times stronger than the pair below it. Thus, on the lowest level, are two famous wrestlers (or, at least, they were famous when the temple was built 300-odd years ago). Above them are two elephants, above them two lions (I guess they figured lions can kill elephants, so the elephant isn’t really the stronger), then two gryphons and finally two minor goddesses, Baghini and Singhini. I suppose Lakshmi, who is technically on the next level up, is the strongest of all, or at least that’s the idea.

Nyatapola Temple

Nyatapola Temple

Moving on from Nyatopola and Taumadhi Tol, Purna and I began inspecting the narrow streets of Bhaktapur at a more leisurely pace than had been possible astride a motorcycle. Every street seemed filled with shops, restaurants and the like with no obvious residences, and I began wondering if this historical city of Bhaktapur might not be rather like Venice, which becomes practically deserted at night because almost no one actually lives there anymore. But then, I think, a good number of people in Bhaktapur live above their places of commerce, and there are certainly enough upper-storey levels to accommodate them. So it is far from a tourist relic yet.

While we were inspecting some of the street merchants and their wares, I felt a pull on my arm. I turned to find a young girl of about 7 or 8 in dirty clothes, holding a boy of even younger years. She was soon joined by a friend in similar condition, also holding a toddler. It was clear they wanted money.

To be honest, I was not quite sure how to react to them. I’ve gotten to know a few beggars in my time; but they were all adults. These were children. We beneficiaries of the welfare state tend to romanticise and idealise the concept of the street urchin. Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger, Gavroche. They find a permanent place in our hearts and our literature. But there’s nothing so glamourous about the reality. I had never met one before, not one in a country without any kind of dole or child welfare system. And I was at a loss. What are the demands of justice in this situation?

One of the street merchants, a dear old woman in a green saree, saw them hanging around and shooed them away. But they were persistent and they caught up with us when we moved on to a different street. I decided not to give them any money (not least because Purna was very firm on the issue), but my curiosity about them, about what their lives must be like, got the better of me, and I tried to engage them in conversation a little since they were following us around anyway. Their English, in fact, turned out to be sufficient to allow a certain level of communication, in the event, a fact which pleasantly surprised me and shocked Purna.

‘Where are your parents?’

‘In Kathmandu.’

‘Um, ok. What about school? You both seem very intelligent. Do you go to school?’

‘We can.’

‘Why not today?’

‘Holiday. Tomorrow we go.[After a little prompting from her friend in Nepali] No, tomorrow tomorrow we go.’

‘Sunday?’

‘Yes.’

There was more than that, but amidst various communication problems and misunderstandings, this was what the conversation essentially boiled down to.

The sun was now getting higher in the sky and the weather was turning hot. Not as intolerable as in Wuhan, but hot enough to be uncomfortable if one was in an open space without shade. We stopped at a small shop to get a drink, while admiring the large prints of the mountains which this shop also happened to sell.

‘Would you like a drink? I’ll buy you a drink, if you like,’ I offered our tagalong street urchins, but they shook their heads. What kind of beggar refuses the offer of a free drink? But no, they only wanted money (‘for schoolbooks,’ they were now saying). Odd.

Eventually we passed into another square. There was a temple in this one too, smaller than Nyatopola, about which I never did learn very much. Not even its name, alas. What drew our attention more immediately was at one side of the square where, on mats, there were arrayed in an at least 20mᵌ area a host of handmade pots, jars, basins and bowls.

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To the left of these was a series of two or three small huts, one of which was filled floor to ceiling in clay. It was a potter’s. A couple of them, in fact. And we could see every step of the process being demonstrated before us. One fellow was mixing the clay. Another had a great mass of the stuff, black and soft and wet, and was massaging it and moulding it back and forth to get the impurities out of it and prepare it for working. We stopped to watch, and he invited us to have a go ourselves but, not knowing when I would next visit a washing machine or where the nearest shower was, I politely refused (at some point during this exchange, our street urchins decided they had better ways to spend their time, and I never saw them again).

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Purna observes the clay-making process

In the last hut was a much younger fellow, and he seemed to specialise in the last step of the whole process- using the potters’ wheel to sculpt and create the final products. His hut was quite small and on every side there were shelves. Ranged along the shelves were hundreds of designs- simple ones like small cups and pots, or more decorative ones like tiny statues of Ganesh or of the one-horned rhinoceros. At the front of the hut was his potter’s wheel, and he was kind enough to offer us a couple of stools and give a demonstration of the device.

He and Purna got along very well indeed-. he was a cheery, amiable lad, and I think Purna smelt a business opportunity.

‘Do you see these designs, Mr Glenn?’ he said, ‘Handmade. Back in China, these could sell for a lot. Many people would want to buy them.’

Purna was even more happy when he noticed, in the back of the hut, lying on top of some jars, a Chinese textbook.

‘That’s the textbook I used to use!’ he said excitedly.

It turned out the young potter was hoping to do some study in China sometime in the future. He told us he had interrupted his schooling to begin work in the family business (apparently it was his father moulding the clay outside), but wanted to take it up again in some way in the future if he could, so he was studying Chinese on the side. Purna told him that this was excellent and to stay in touch with him. They exchanged details.

‘If you come, you can be successful,’ he said, ‘Few Chinese can do what you do.’

The young potter was very happy to hear this, and he and Purna stayed there chatting in Nepali for several minutes. When we finally took our leave, he offered us a small one-nosed rhinoceros each as a gift.

Our potter friend gives a demonstration. Behind him are his workmanship of the previous couple of days.

Our potter friend gives a demonstration. Behind him are his workmanship of the previous couple of days.

 

Lunch with Tara

It was time now for lunch, or getting close to it, so Purna and I made our way back to Taumadhi Tol and collected our bags from the inn. Then, back on the motorcycle and we were away.

Lunch was to be with Purna’s fiancée, and this seems a good time to introduce her. Her name is Tara, but again the Nepalese fashion seems to be to close the distance between voiced and unvoiced consonants, so to me it always sounded more like Dara (or perhaps Dhara). Purna explained to me on the way a little of the history of their relationship.

They had met nine years earlier. At the time, she was studying English at university and he was an apprentice chef. They had had a relationship at that time but had decided that, given their respective stations in life, it would be better to call it off and wait until they were more established and secure financially. Subsequently, they had lost touch.

They had only gotten back in touch recently, I think with some help from modern social networking fads. They found each other quite well established and financially secure (each had recently bought some land, as it happened- Tara was already building a house on hers, while Purna was still preparing to do so on his) and the subject of marriage came up pretty early. The way Purna told it, the conversation went something like this:

‘Do you want to get married?’

‘Ok.’

It seems the Nepalese share with the Chinese a certain ruthless pragmatism when it comes to romance.

Tara currently works for the airline ‘Buddha Air’ as an air hostess, a pretty well-paid job which has the pleasant side effect (the airline being a domestic one) of not taking her away from home for days at a time. Indeed, Nepal is so small that sometimes she does two flights in a day and can still be back in Kathmandu for a late lunch.

Though the engagement had not yet been officially announced (that would happen on the 21st, coincidentally the same day as my departure), it had been unofficially announced, at least to the respective families, and these had had markedly different reactions. Tara’s family was perfectly happy with the match. Indeed, I had the pleasure of meeting some of them later, and they all got on with Purna famously. But Purna’s family was not so keen. The reason: Tara and Purna are from different castes. As in India, the caste system rules and organises Nepalese society. Purna, it turns out, is from the Tamang caste, a mid-level one. Tara is a Chetri, which is just below the Brahmins- i.e. quite high. The matter surprised me- not the caste issues but the source of the objections. Surely, one would think, a lower caste boy marrying a higher caste girl would be seen as a good catch? The girl’s family perhaps might have reason to protest, since she’s marrying below herself, but the boy’s family ought to rejoice, oughtn’t they? I found the disparity in reactions quite inexplicable. Not what I would have expected in the least. But, curious as I was, I didn’t pry any further. It was a sensitive subject, after all.

Presently, we reached Tara’s house. It was a large blue structure, narrow and tall with a fence around it, perched on the outskirts of town where the countryside met the quasi-suburbia. Tara came to meet us at the door (and what a door! Such magnificent woodwork- later I snuck out to take photos of it) and I had my first brush with a recurring nuisance that would raise its head regularly during my travels- untying and removing my shoes at every house I entered. It now became clear why everyone in Nepal wears sandals. And why do I tie such ridiculously complicated knots?

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The view from Tara’s house

A door of special magnificence

A door of special magnificence

The inside of Tara’s house was pleasantly domestic. Indeed, she didn’t occupy the whole house, but just the second floor. I think the other floors may have belonged to other members of her family, but I was never completely clear on that. Her section of the building had two bedrooms at one end, a kitchen at the other, and a large sitting room in between. Lunch was about ready (we’d made splendid time getting there) and so we sat down to eat almost immediately.

The meal comprised several dishes, most of which I didn’t recognise. I picked and chose and found a few things I liked and a few things I didn’t, largely by trial and error, and took large helpings of the former. There was a delicious potato dish, and a pork curry that was not too spicy. And tea. Sweet milk tea. I’ve developed a taste for the Chinese teas while I’ve been here, the pots and cups filled with leaves and flowers and what-have-you, but this- tea with milk and sugar, brewed to perfection- tasted like home. I sipped it, sat back and smiled.

I was also keen to pick Tara’s brain while we were there. From my experiences that morning, the weight of my own ignorance weighed heavy upon me, and I was eager to alleviate it with knowledge. Tara was able to tell me a little about the Newari religion and the instinctive syncretism that is the Nepalese religious status quo. But our most interesting discussion concerned politics, and it contained some unexpected surprises.

‘What did you think of the King?’ I asked casually at one point.

‘King Birendra was good. We loved him very much. Hearing that he was killed, it was …..terrible.’ There was emotion in her voice when she said it. I sat up.

‘But you got rid of the King?’

‘We got rid of Gyanendra. He was a very bad King. He couldn’t rule. His sons were involved with the Mafia. And he couldn’t win against the Maoists. He was no good at all.’

‘So the people deposed him.’

‘He stepped down.’

‘And now you have a republic.’

‘Yes, now we have a republic. There will be an election in November. If all of the parties agree to participate. But it doesn’t make much difference.’

‘But, hang on, I thought…so you were never opposed to the monarchy?’

‘No.’

‘And what about other Nepalese? How did the people in general feel?’

‘Everybody loved the King.’

‘By which you mean King Birendra.’

‘King Birendra, and King Mahendra, his father. And those that came before.’

‘So…. why is there a republic now? I assumed people wanted it. Didn’t you want a republic?’

‘We wanted democracy. But we never wanted to get rid of the King.’

‘Ok, I’m trying to understand this. Nobody wanted Gyanendra to be King, right? But equally, nobody wanted to abolish the monarchy. That’s what you’re telling me. So, why not simply install another King when Gyanendra stepped down?’

‘There was nobody left! Mr Glenn, you have to understand something. When King Birendra was killed, so was his whole family. It was a grand dinner. Everyone was there. The only person who was not there was Gyanendra. And it was a massacre. Everyone- his wife, his sons and daughters, uncles, aunts and cousins, nephews and nieces- everyone was slaughtered. We are still reeling from the shock of it. When Gyanendra stepped down, there was truly no one else. By that time, all we wanted was peace. But there was no one who could sit on our throne anymore.’

‘So you had no choice but to become a republic?’

‘We had no choice.’

I found this all very difficult to take in. I had read some of the history in the weeks leading up to my arrival and had a basic grasp of the outlines of Nepal’s modern history. But I had not seen into the heart of Nepal’s people. Now I had. And I found there a deep sadness and resignation. The royal massacre of 2001 traumatised the country beyond description and all the time since has been picking up the pieces. I expect they will be picking up the pieces for decades yet, even if this experiment in republicanism holds. If it does not, it will take even longer.

After lunch, we continued talking, and there was more tea, but I suddenly found myself feeling terribly drowsy. The long waking hours and concomitant lack of sleep of the past two days were catching up with me. Sheepishly, I excused myself and asked if there were somewhere I could lie down for a spell. There was a kind of setee in the sitting room to which Purna and Tara directed me. Fortunately siestas are de rigeur in this part of the world (as they are also in Wuhan, particularly during the summer months) so my request was seen as perfectly normal. I settled myself down for a quick power nap, after which Purna had promised to take me around some of the temples in Kathmandu proper.

So much for a power nap. When I awoke, it was almost 5pm. I had slept for three or four hours. A little embarrassed, I went into the kitchen and found Purna and Tara talking conspiratorially. Engagement and wedding talk, I surmised.

‘Ah, you’re awake,’ said Purna, turning to me.

‘Yeah. Sorry. I suppose it’s a bit late to see much of Kathmandu now?’

‘没关系,没关系. We will go tomorrow. 别担心. Now I should take you to your hotel.’

So I grabbed my bags, and down the steps and out the door we trotted. Tara waved us off, and I thanked her for her hospitality and understanding (I felt terribly embarrassed about the nap) and expressed my hope that I would see her again before my departure. And indeed I would.

A happy couple

A happy couple

 

An Evening in Thamel

Back on the motorcycle, it was not long before we found ourselves in the busy streets of Kathmandu. This was, actually, the first time that I had gotten a proper sense of Kathmandu, or indeed seen it in daylight. For a city without skyscrapers, it seemed as busy and thriving as any other. The ratio of motorcycles to cars was interesting. The former clearly outnumbered the latter, and that by a wide margin. Where in Western countries motorcycles and scooters are a lifestyle choice, in Kathmandu, as in most cities of China, they are all but a necessity. The density of the population demands it. I expect that Western countries will have to follow this trend sooner or later, if for none but environmental reasons, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they don’t do it without a lot of kicking and screaming. We do love our cars.

At some point in our foray into Nepal’s most urban of urban centres, we found ourselves in a quarter quite unlike the others. The streets were narrow- too narrow for cars (barely one could pass comfortably, even if there were no pedestrians, of which there invariably were many)- and filled with potholes. Some parts made me think the name ‘road’ was barely justified as the potholes outnumbered the patches of bitumen. On all sides were shops, and of quite specific kinds- mountaineering and hiking shops, selling all sorts of gear and specialised equipment, bookshops, small restaurants catering for particular nationalities (but no fast food, thankfully), shops of various popular handicrafts, woodcarvings, cloth bags and shawls, necklaces made from seeds of the Bodhi tree, and clothes shops selling traditional styles for those who wanted to look the part. This was Thamel, the de facto tourist quarter of Kathmandu.

Looking around at the foreigners walking these streets (and almost all of them were), I began to notice something that ongoing experience would continue to reinforce. There were not so many Westerners here (indeed, I never met a single New Zealander!). Oh, there were some. We saw some Germans at one point and even happened by a French couple whom I gleefully eavesdropped on. And inevitably there were some Americans here and there, sticking out like Swiss Guards at a KKK meeting. But these were dwarfed by the numbers of Indians and Chinese. After all the troubles, it seems folks from the West are reluctant to see Nepal as a choice travel destination. The Indians and Chinese, on the other hand, have no such reticence, and are coming in droves. This, I discovered, has had an effect on quite a few people’s livelihoods. Some are hoping the Westerners will come back eventually, and they can pick up where they left off; others are taking advantage and doing what they can to get a competitive edge in the new environment.

As we drove through these streets, I began to become cognizant that Purna was not going anywhere in particular. When he had said ‘your hotel’, I had assumed he had one in mind, and maybe had even made a reservation. Apparently not. We stopped in front of a few hotels to make enquiries, but each of them was full up. Finally we found one that wasn’t.

It was a large establishment by the name of泰山酒店, with a large courtyard and fountain in front, flanked by a small youth hostel on one side (the cheaper option for those who couldn’t afford the hotel) and a couple of tour agents/shops on the other, where travel arrangements and activity packages could be organised. The whole stood behind a large gate that opened onto one of the narrow roads (I use the term loosely) of Thamel, this overseen by a security guard who got to know the sight of me pretty quickly (being neither Nepalese or Chinese, I stuck out) and got into the habit of saluting me whenever I entered or exited the place.

This hotel and its environs was perhaps the most overt evidence of the present extent of Chinese tourism in Nepal that I had yet seen. The hotel and the commercial barnacles that clung to it were all geared to service the needs of the Chinese traveller, and there were plenty who took advantage. Signs and advertisements were in Chinese, and there were a handful of Chinese staff in addition to the native Nepalis.

This suited me fine; indeed, it felt comparatively familiar, all things considered. It struck me too: tourism is a funny industry. You can liken it to a mass of bubbles all floating in the one direction yet never touching. If you go to a tourist-heavy destination (especially on a package tour), you’re likely to stay in your own bubble, set apart by language and cultural background markers. There are lots of other bubbles, other tourist groups, but you have little contact with them. You’re all discovering the same new place, seeing the same new sights, but cut off from each other. At this point, and at several others during my sojourn, I felt the odd sensation of having crossed over into someone else’s bubble. Experiencing Nepal through a Chinese filter.

Purna, as luck would have it, was acquainted with one of the Chinese employees behind the counter and was able to get me a discounted price on a room. 关系 is a beautiful thing. It was a nice room too, though I didn’t spend very much time in it on this occasion. No, our first port of call was dinner.

Out we stepped into the bustle of Thamel, leaving the motorcycle behind this time. The streets were lined with merchants, selling all manner of things. But our primary concern at this time was food.

‘What do you want to eat?’ asked Purna.

‘Something Nepalese,’ said I. The novelty factor was still strong.

Such possibilities were ample. Purna led me to an upstairs restaurant bearing the name ‘Himalayan Thakali’. We paid little attention to the menu; Purna already knew what we would order. After we had washed our hands in a basin in a small alcove off to the side, there were brought out for us two large silver platters. In the middle of each platter was a mid-sized pyramid of rice; arrayed around it were smaller helpings of various dishes. The largest of these was a kind of meat in a kind of sauce. I think it was mutton. There was also some kind of thin green vegetable with the shape of an asparagus but the leafy texture of a brussel sprout; achar, which is a pickled tomato (I got the impression this was very popular in some quarters), some lentils,  and a couple of other bits and pieces that I recall less clearly. All of these were designed to be mixed into the rice and eaten together. The meat and rice together is known asdaal bhaat and, by all accounts, appears to be a Nepalese staple. This is what the poor and the rural farmers eat for dinner.

When the platter was brought, after inspecting the food, it came to my notice that there was no cutlery.

‘There’s no cutlery,’ I said to Purna, ‘Should I call them back? Or do we have to go get it from somewhere?’

‘No, no, this is normal. You eat it with your fingers.’

‘Oh.’

I was aware that the folk of the subcontinent eat with their fingers as a rule- indeed I have seen Kiran do it on more than one occasion- but I had never done it myself. Oh well, I thought, how hard can it be? I just have to get over my culturally-ingrained ick factor. No different than eating apple slices or finger food at a cocktail party (not that I have ever been to a cocktail party or, for that matter, know anyone who throws them).

I was wrong. Eating apple slices or finger food is one thing. Eating rice, or rice with sauce, or rice with meat in sauce, or rice and lentils and sauce, is another thing entirely. Dilemmas I had not imagined raised their heads. How am I supposed to pick this up? Do I use my fingers like a shovel or spoon and scoop it into my mouth? Or do I gather it and eat it out of the palm of my hand? Or do I pick it up in small chunks between my fingers? How did Kiran used to do it? I can’t remember. Argh, the stuff won’t stick together! It’s going everywhere! Now what do I do? I wonder, is it bad manners to lick my fingers? What’s the etiquette here? Oh, how I wish I had a pair of chopsticks!

Despite my difficulties with the mode of eating, the food itself was quite nice. I avoided anything remotely spicy (especially theachar), so a couple of the side dishes were left, but most of it was perfectly delectable.

Having filled our bellies and washed our hands (mine particularly thoroughly and with soap- they had not acquitted themselves well), we headed back out into the street. The night was still young, and Purna was keen to browse some of the shops. It seemed some folks of his acquaintance had businesses in the area, and he wanted to drop in to see them. Me, I was keen to poke around in the bookshops. Which is always the case, but on this occasion I was after something particular. Specifically, something that could tell me about the various Hindu gods and goddesses, and how to recognise them. I was still feeling exceptionally behind the curve on that subject.

By a considerable stroke of luck, the second bookshop we entered had exactly what I was looking for: the heavily-illustrated Gods, Goddesses & Religious Symbols of Hinduism, Buddhism and Tantrism (including Tibetan Deities) by one Trilok Majupurias. It was ideal for my needs. In addition, and at Purna’s suggestion, I also grabbed The Rough Guide’s guidebook to Nepal. Part of me was reluctant, wanting to discover Nepal without preconceptions, but it proved an invaluable asset over the next couple of days. I also happened to pick up From Goddess to Mortal, a book written by a former Kumari. It sounded intriguing. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this latter would turn out to be one of the great finds of the trip, and I am very glad of the whim that caused me to grab it.

Before leaving, we chatted with the bookshop owner briefly. It was interesting to hear what he had to say: how the number of tourists had diminished and how that had affected business, how he’d had to move the shop to a cheaper and less prime location a couple of years ago for this reason, and his observations about the changing face of Thamel. One titbit that I was interested to learn: it hadn’t been that long ago that the roads were excellent, but with all of the troubles, no one in any of the various governments of the past 15 years had forked out the money necessary to maintain them. Thus, what with the frequent rain and the nature of the clay soil beneath, they had been reduced to their current condition. It makes the frequent road works that obtain in Sydney seem a small price to pay, when you think about it (also makes you miss the Romans a little bit).

Our next stop was a cramped little shop called F. Star Handicrafts (I still don’t know what the F was supposed to stand for) that sold some woodcarved items but mostly what I came to know as 菩提子. These were necklaces (for the most part, though there were bracelets and other such adornments too) made from the large seeds of the Bodhi tree (I believe in English it’s more commonly called Linden, but it’s also the species of tree the Buddha was sitting under when he became enlightened, hence the other name). There were different sizes and shapes, some small and manageable, some so large one wondered if they might not cause neck-ache in the wearer. It was a lucrative business, though. These items seemed especially popular with the Chinese tourists and, whether through design or luck, the small shop was not very far from the 泰山酒店.

Purna was known to the chap who ran the place, and he introduced me when we got in there, but the fellow, oddly, seemed very laissez-faire in his business practices. This may be because his Chinese was poor. But possibly it was just his native attitude. Many people came into his shop, but he didn’t make much of an effort to make a pitch to any of them or explain his wares. So the potential customers were mostly left to their own devices, and fell to speculating with each other on the merits or drawbacks of the different items.

I discovered this through eavesdropping. One couple in particular was on the horns of a dilemma regarding different styles of 菩提子and the two of them were debating vigorously back and forth. I was gratified to find my Chinese good enough to understand much of what they were saying, but had no knowledge of the pros or cons of either group and so had to be satisfied with some extended listening practice and nothing more. Purna, on the other hand, in an unintentionally amusing turn, heard them as well, and took it upon himself to undertake some salesmanship, since his friend clearly wasn’t going to. While the other fellow looked on, then, Purna introduced himself to the couple and began explaining all sorts of things such as the age or subspecies of the tree for each different kind of seed, how to tell the better quality ones (I learned that the best quality ones are quite hollow, and you can tell this by rattling them gently). After they’d gotten over the initial shock of suddenly being confronted with a Nepali who can speak fluent Chinese, they began firing questions at him, each of which he answered ably. Occasionally, I would toss a glance back to the proprietor. He was watching the whole affair with an air of apathy and incomprehension. Me, I would have felt put out, if I were in that position. But then, if he doesn’t want to make the effort to understand his clientele, his business will pay for it sooner or later. I found it curious that, given the impression of economic uncertainty I had received from others (and would hear more about again before the trip was over) someone could act so indifferently where his livelihood was concerned.

When the young Chinese couple finally made their decision and took the two steps to the counter to make their purchase (it really was a ridiculously tiny shop!), they were surprised to discover that Purna was not the owner. The time had come for us to leave too, so when they were done paying, we followed them out of the shop.

‘So this is not your shop?’ asked the gentleman of the couple (who seemed to do most of the talking now that we were outside; his lady hung back a bit, waiting for him).

‘No, no, it’s my friend’s. I was just dropping in to visit him.’

‘Well, thank you for your help. Your Chinese is excellent. Do you work around here?’

‘No, In Hubei.’

‘In Hubei? You live in China?’

‘Yes.’

‘What about you two?’ I interjected, ‘I heard you say before you’d come from Tibet. Is that where you live?’

‘Oh, you speak Chinese too. No, we came through Tibet to get here. But we’re actually from Sichuan.’

‘Oh, you like spicy food, then?’

‘Sichuan food is only a little spicy [yeah, right, I thought, I’ve heard that one before]. But it’s very nice. Have you been to Sichuan?’

‘Not yet,’ I said tactfully.

‘So where do you work in Hubei?’ he turned back to Purna.

‘Oh, we work together,’ said Purna, indicating the both of us, ‘It’s in Wuhan. We work in a university.’

‘Which one?’

‘湖北中医药大学.’

‘You’re doctors?!’

‘No, no, I’m a manager [经理, which I explained earlier]; he’s a professor.’

Purna gave them his card. ‘If you’re ever in Wuhan, come visit us,’ he said.

‘Thanks. And thanks again for your help.’

After this, we made our way back to the 泰山酒店; I to turn in for the night and Purna to pick up his motorcycle. Purna would be staying with his aunt and uncle across town and would pick me up in the morning. As for me, after I’d gone upstairs to the room, changed and said my prayers, I settled in to read up on the Hindu gods and goddesses who, for all their fascination, soon sent me to sleep.

A Sojourn in Nepal – Part 1

Just when you think I’m gone forever, I crop up again! I am much like bathroom mold in that respect.

I had the good fortune during the summer of visiting Nepal, at the invitation of a good friend of mine whose homeland it is. Since I got back, I’ve been working on and off at writing up some kind of an account of the trip (which was only 5 days long, but despite that was at least as action-packed as any Michael Bay film you care to think of, albeit with fewer explosions). I’ve been sending each iteration off as emails to family and relations, but thought I might throw them up on the blog as well for the delectation of those who frequent the place. Also because the emails didn’t include photos, and I just today succeeded, after some struggle, in wresting these from the secret depths of the camera I took along, which had hidden them away in some dark corner of its memory (this installment won’t feature much in photography, but the subsequent ones will).

Warning: the account is as yet unfinished and the semester grows constantly busier. There may be weeks between installments.

What follows then is an account, as best I can remember it, of my going into Nepal and what I found there.

 

Prelude

The 24-hours before I stepped out of the airport in Kathmandu were singularly stressful. Mostly, this was my own choice, and it belies a spiritual problem. When we sense things are out of our hands, or are slipping out of our hands, we desperately try to reassert control over our circumstances. Our inability to do this results in stress, and it is a futile and pathetic response. There were a number of things that cropped up as potential problems (no actual problems, only potential ones) and I responded the same to each of them. Mea culpa.

The first was a matter of money. My friend Purna, who is Nepalese and whom I was travelling to visit, had told me I should give him Y10,000 and that he would give me the equivalent in Nepalese rupees when I arrived. This was a better course, he said, given that it was cheaper than getting it exchanged.

How to give it, then? Of course, I could just get out the cash and take it with me. But Y10,000 is a lot of money, and I would be justly nervous about walking around with that much on me.

A bank transfer, then? Perfect. In fact, I had gone through some rigmarole earlier in the year to apply for internet banking capabilities (you have to apply for that over here- it’s not automatically available to anyone with a bank account) in the hopes of transferring some money back to my Australian account, only to discover, once I had it all set up, I could only transfer between accounts in domestic Chinese banks. I guess I should have checked that first. But anyway, Purna has an account in the same Chinese bank as I do, so (thought I) this time it should be fairly straightforward to transfer money across.

This could not have been further from the truth. Finding the page on the website where one could make transfers, there was nowhere to input the payee’s account details. Only a selection button which had prior payees. How to register a new payee account? I searched the website in vain. Becoming more agitated, I prevailed via QQ (China’s answer to Facebook/Skype/Googlechat, etc.) upon my friend and liaison in the Foreign Office, Mr Ding, for assistance. Despite detailed questions, screen captures and pleas of increasing desperation, Mr Ding was unable to help me. Indeed, I fear I made rather a nuisance of myself. In the end, he had to let me go, not least because he was under considerable stress himself. The university was sending him and some colleagues on a business trip to Thailand the next day but their visas had not been finalised. I was aware of this, but chose to ignore it in my desperation. Funny how fretting makes us selfish.

I also tried to get in touch with Purna via QQ, but to no avail. Eventually, I decided that I would have to just get the cash out and take it with me, despite the risks. So off to the ATM at the southern end of the campus I marched. But it would not give me Y10,000. Or Y8000. Or Y6000. The most it would spit out was Y3000. Oh well. I’d just have to pay Purna the rest when we were both back in China next semester.

Indeed, as it happened, the Y3000 lasted me right up to my penultimate day in Nepal, despite my buying quite a few more things than I ordinarily do while travelling (and not just books, either!). So, though I currently owe Purna a bit, it’s nowhere near the Y7000 I (and perhaps he) was expecting.

The next morning I got up early, said my prayers, had a shower, fixed breakfast, smashed the almost-empty honey jar on the kitchen floor while trying to get the lid off, swept up the resulting glass, ate my oats and milk without honey (bland but edible), washed the dishes, grabbed my bags and raced out the door. My bags comprised a rucksack and my, for want of a better word, briefcase (it’s actually more of a shoulder-bag, but made from black leather with a pleasingly professional appearance- if I carry it by the handle rather than the shoulder-strap, it could almost pass for a briefcase). These being more portable than a suitcase, I had decided to take the bus to the airport. Two buses, to be exact. One from the campus to the train station, the other from the bus terminal (next door to the station) to the airport.

The first leg of this first part of my journey was straightforward enough. The buses, at least in this part of Wuhan, are usually not too full during the summer (certainly during the day) due to the sudden vacuum of students. I got off at the station and made my way to the bus terminal.

The buses at this terminal are not the local ones. Most of them are intra-provincial, semi-long distance. They will take you to most medium-sized towns within Hubei, though preferring those closer (for the ones farthest from Wuhan, trains are the preferred option for most people). And to the airport. I bought a ticket for the latter and, once past security, found a seat in the waiting area.

I looked at the ticket. Hmmm. The bus leaves at 8:15. It usually takes about an hour from here to the airport. My plane leaves at 10:20. It’s a domestic flight (I would change flights in Guangzhou), so I need to check in an hour before. Ok, we might be cutting it close, but it should be fine.

Such was my rational appraisal of the situation. But an irrational pinprick of worry began forming in me again, and it did not get smaller.

My worry, however, was interrupted by a mute, smiling face. The face belonged to a girl, young (perhaps early 20’s), clad in black, round-headed, short-haired. She was squatting in front of me, in the way Chinese do when there are no chairs around, and holding before my face an A5 printed notice attached to a folded red card.

Her presence confused me. Who was she? What did she want? We have beggars in China, and we have solicitors, and I know how to handle both, but she didn’t seem like either of these. She had come to me directly, which solicitors don’t do. Beggars do- they assume I have more money than regular Chinese people (which may have been true a few years ago but probably isn’t now)- but they don’t have printed signs with official red stamps on them, nor places for you to write your name and how much you’ve given, nor do they show their ID cards, which this girl was now doing. Was she collecting for a charity perhaps?

‘这是什么?’ I asked, ‘你要我给你钱吧?’ She never spoke, but a small crease at the corners of her mouth indicated that, yes, she was hoping for money. I frowned. I don’t like giving to causes on a whim, and certainly not when I don’t have a clear idea what that cause is in which I’m investing. Nor could I really be bothered taking the time to read what was written on her red card (and why was she showing me her ID? So I would trust that she was legit? But everyone in China has an ID card!). I decided to brush her off. Oh, but she was stubborn. I don’t know if she was really mute or if it was part of her job description, whatever job it was, not to speak under any circumstances, but her face was wonderfully expressive, and she would not let me break eye contact with her, no matter where I looked. Maybe she was collecting money for some kind of deaf/mute foundation? She seemed to understand when I spoke (even softly)- could she hear me, or perhaps read my lips? And there’s a thought- how on earth do lip readers in China deal with the tones? I suppose they have to just judge from context, but it must be devilishly difficult.

‘我不给你钱。问别的人。你看,有很多。去问他们。’ Which was perhaps a bit rude. But my Chinese isn’t good enough yet to be anything other than blunt. She pouted, and made the most affecting puppy-dog eyes you have ever seen, but I remained firm. Eventually, she gave up, and moved into a different area of the terminal.

But my encounters with mute girls were far from over. After a few minutes, another girl approached me. A different one this time, in slightly more colourful clothes, armed like the first with a red card with a printed message on it, stamped and signed by some appropriate authority figure. Puzzled by who these people were and what exactly they wanted money for (but not so curious as to actually go out of my way to find out), I treated her like the girl before. But this one had more arrows in her quiver than the first. While telling her I was not interested and to ask someone else, she took out a small hand-made trinket, attached it to a red thread of the kind that are often used in Chinese handicrafts, and tied it to the handle of my shoulder-bag. ‘Oh, no, don’t do that,’ I said in English, half to myself, in the same resigned fashion as the Dude watching his rug being defaced. But it was already done.

Well, there was nothing for it now. If I pulled the thing off and handed it back, both the girl and I would lose face. I would have to give her money now. So, as long as I had to, I might as well know why. Probably my face betrayed my very uncharitable feelings at this moment, but I motioned her for the card and set about reading it as best I could. There were still a number of words there that were unfamiliar to me, but it did indeed seem to be a charity of some kind. One of the first sentences was ‘I am a (something I couldn’t read)’ and I wondered if the unknown word meant deaf-mute or something of that nature. I resolved to look it up later. It seemed whatever charity it was was looking for quite specific amounts of money from people, either Y10 or Y20, which is a piddling amount when it comes down to it. Sure, why not.

I rummaged around in my sporran and found a Y20 note. When I handed it to her and wrote my name on her card (my Chinese name, so no one could track me down, on the off chance something legally binding was going on; there were about a dozen names already there, each with an amount next to them), her face lit up like a light bulb. She stood, pressed her hands together to say thank you, then made a heart symbol with her hands, then pressed them together a second time, grinning broadly all the while. I guess she had not had much luck in her collecting hitherto.

After that, two more girls approached me, about ten minutes apart. Feeling increasingly awkward (how many of these girls are there?), I gave one Y10, and one Y5. The latter seemed distressed and kept giving the Y5 note back, pointing mutely at her card where it asked for Y10 or Y20. ‘我只有5块.’ I kept telling her, and in the end she accepted it, but she gave me no trinket in return and did not require my name to be written on her card.

Finally, about five minutes before the bus arrived, the first girl I had met came back. Probably she would not have approached me again, but she spied the two red cords tied round the handle of my shoulder-bag. This was really awkward. Scandal was written over every inch of her face, coupled with pathos and disappointment. She looked at me, extending her card, but I had no more notes on me. Feeling like the worst miser in the world, I shook my head. Her face seemed to scream at me, ‘But… why?!’ She looked at the two red cords that had not been there when she had come to me at first, then back up to me. I shook my head again. She pointed to the trinkets, then held up two fingers and looked at me, as if to say, ‘You gave to two of my sisters- two!- but you didn’t give anything to me before, and you won’t give anything to me now. I don’t understand!’ ‘我真对不起,’ I said, ‘我不会给每个人钱。我没有足够的。我真抱歉。’ I felt really bad for that girl. I was as apologetic as I could be, but I sincerely wished that I had taken the trouble to read her card that first time, rather than being manipulated into it by the second girl. She seemed nice, and was actually the least pushy of the four- which unfortunately worked against her, I guess. There’s probably an indictment on human nature in that somewhere.

At 8:15, the bus arrived. Which, I had foolishly assumed, would also be the time when it left. Idiot. The ticket inspector motioned me and three others outside, pointing us in the direction of the bus. It was a coach, which was wonderful because it meant air conditioning (in Wuhan during the summer, some people go shopping in boutiques, not to buy anything but just because they have A/C whereas most homes don’t). It was stationary, and parked parallel to the platform outside the waiting area but about 25 metres away, and the door was closed. We looked around for the driver but he was nowhere to be seen. The three others waiting with me were a couple in their mid-40s with their young son (or was it a girl? Gah, curse my sieve-like memory!).

‘You’re going to the airport too?’ I asked, to make conversation, but also because I was second-guessing whether I was in the right place (despite the fact the side of the bus clearly proclaimed 天河机场客运公车). ‘Yes, yes. We’re flying back home to Hebei.’

‘Oh, up north.’

‘Yes. What about you? Where are you flying to?’

‘To Guangzhou, then on to Nepal. I’m going to visit a friend there.’

‘Your Chinese is good.’

‘Flattery, flattery!’

‘No, it’s true. How long have you been in China?’

‘Almost two and a half years. But I have a long way to go.’

A lot of my conversations with randoms in China seem to follow this pattern. Which is handy, because I always know what to say. It’s when they start asking about more obscure topics that my vocabulary gives way and I get tongue-tied. Actually, it took me a while to get used to not saying ‘thank you’ when receiving a compliment. This is considered rude (though I occasionally still slip and say thank you when I shouldn’t, but less frequently now than at first). One should always deflect the compliment with expressions that would translate to, ‘What are you talking about?’ or ‘Flattery, flattery!’ or simply ‘No, it’s not.’ The only aspect of this practice I still find disconcerting is when someone deflects a compliment on behalf of someone else. One sees this with parents most often. A person will say, ‘Oh, your son is so well behaved,’ and the mother will reply, ‘No, he’s a terrible rascal,’ or someone will say, ‘Your daughter is so beautiful,’ and her father will reply, ‘No, she’s very ugly,’ even if he’s perfectly aware that that’s not the case at all. Such is the cult of modesty in China. Me, I have no problem doing this with my language ability, since I know all too well that just because I can engage in small talk with you about your family, job, etc. doesn’t mean I could engage you in small talk about anything else, eg. what your job actually entails or what your plans are for the evening. So in my case, the deflection is simply the brute truth.

Eventually, the driver turned up and we climbed aboard, but by this time it was 8:30. That pinprick of worry was beginning to grow. It grew more as the bus set off and began to display a propensity for finding the worst routes through Wuhan’s chaotic traffic.

To distract myself, I made conversation with the young fellow sitting next to me. His name, alas, I have forgotten (as you will find with too many of the interesting personages you will meet along my journey, I fear). An IT major, he had only recently graduated from university, and had secured for himself a position with some IT company or other in Shanghai, which is where he was going. I was curious to find out more about what he had studied and what kind of job he was going to, but my Chinese didn’t stretch as far as my curiosity. Nonetheless, he seemed an interesting fellow, and we chatted easily for much of the trip.

When we reached the domestic terminal, it was just after 9:30. My newfound acquaintance got off with me, and we went to seek out our respective check-in desks. His flight was about 40 minutes behind mine, but I was nervous. As it turned out, though, I had wasted a good worry (not the first in that 24-hour period, nor was it the last)- the check-in desk was not closed and the lines were not long. The young IT graduate was going on the same airline (China Southern) but had to go to a different desk, so we parted ways and, after this, everything went more or less smoothly. It had been a while since I had found myself in the Wuhan Domestic Terminal, and the way the toy shop (I guess they get a lot of children passing through) employs people solely to play with the remote controlled cars and helicopters never ceases to make me smile as I pass by. The people are many and the jobs scarce in China, so shops tend to employ a superfluity of staff. Perhaps they dignify this particular job with a title like Remote Controlled Device Demonstration Expert or the equivalent in Chinese.

A couple of hours and several hundred miles later, I found myself in Guangzhou (or, if you prefer its more colonial/local name, Canton).

Some airports give the impression of being in the middle of nowhere. There is wilderness or mountains or desert or fields all around (or even, as in Hong Kong, mountains on one side and ocean on the other) but no city to be seen. If one wants to go into the city whose name the airport bears, one has to drive for anything from a minute or so up to half an hour before the city makes itself apparent. Sydney Airport, on the other hand, is right in the city, and so, I discovered, is Guangzhou. What I was less prepared for was how tropical the place was. Even more so than Hong Kong or Macau, which are farther south. Looking out the windows to the taxi pick-up area or the roads leading in or across the tarmac, there were palm trees everywhere. I was surprised. I hadn’t expected Guangzhou to feel like a tropical island. But it did. Moreover, there was a storm blowing in.

As it happened, I could have explored Guangzhou a little if I had wanted. The Domestic-International Transfer was something of a misnomer (though there were plenty of signs for it) since it just led into the main entrance area of the airport, from whence one had to find one’s way to International. I had arrived shortly after noon and my connecting flight wasn’t until 7:40 in the evening, so I had a little time to spare, and it occurred to me that I could just walk out of the airport and onto the streets of Guangzhou to explore, if I wanted. But the time was not so extensive (not like the 12 hours I once spent in Hong Kong airport), the people of Guangzhou speak Cantonese- which I can read but not speak- and I had no idea of Guangzhou’s layout, so I decided against that particular adventure. Also, my stomach was telling me a meal would be nice. On to International, then.

Another surprise. Guangzhou customs is remarkably strict. Not as strict as Sydney, perhaps (is there anything as strict as Australian Customs?) but about on the level of Heathrow. Which is still quite strict. They even made me take my shoes off and put them through the security machine. Maybe they thought they had metal toes. The difference between Sydney and Guangzhou was more than simply the level of strictness, mind you. In Sydney, they’re afraid of things coming into the country. Getting out is fairly straightforward. In Guangzhou, it was the opposite. I was on my way out. Something significant there, perhaps.

After passing through several security checks (there were about three or four), the International Terminal beckoned and, more specifically, the couple of restaurants that obtained there. I found one that looked somewhat inviting, and began to peruse their menu.

It was a syncretistic establishment, with the usual Chinese fare in addition to hamburgers, pasta dishes and other stereotypically Western cuisine. The chairs were particularly comfortable, and formed at least a quarter of my rationale for choosing to eat there. The other three quarters was one particular dish. 扬州炒饭。Yangzhou fried rice.

I had first had this dish once many years ago on my first visit to Hong Kong. It was in a dinky little restaurant where the waitress insisted on keeping our teacups filled all the time (if we took one sip, across she’d come to refill them!) and the order had been a case of ‘I wonder what that is. I’ll try that.’ I’ve loved the stuff ever since, but it is not available in Wuhan- seems to be a particular dish of the south-east- so I rarely have the opportunity to enjoy it. When I saw it on the menu, I knew immediately what my order would be. So Yangzhou rice it was, and a tall glass of watermelon juice on the rocks. Such was my dinner.

The menu was bilingual (Chinese and English), but I had ordered in Chinese. This seemed odd enough that, while I was waiting for my meal, the waitress who had taken my order came over to chat with me.

‘Your Chinese is good.’

‘Flattery, flattery!’

‘How long are you visiting China?’

‘Hahaha. Not visiting. Actually, I live here. Well, not here. In Wuhan, Hubei. ‘

‘Oh. Wuhan. It’s so hot there!’

‘Yes, I know. The heat and the humidity- it’s terrible.’

‘How long have you lived here?’

‘Almost two and a half years.’

‘Such a short time! Your Chinese is very good then.’

‘It really isn’t. Simple sentences I can understand, but anything complex I don’t understand at all.’

‘And you can read? You read the menu before.’

‘Only about 900 characters, give or take.’

‘You should keep studying. Are you going home now?’

‘No. I’m going to visit a friend of mine in Nepal for a few days, then I’ll come back.’

At this point, she was called away by other duties. She seemed a pleasant lass, though, judging from her accent, not a native of Guangzhou. It would have been nice to ask her some questions of my own, but she was working. Still, every conversation in Chinese is good practice. Only thus do the synapses make their connections and the vocabulary and sentence structures become impressed on the mind. Plus, it’s fun meeting new people.

After my dinner (which was absurdly expensive, but that’s the nature of airports), I found my gate and settled down to wait for boarding time, listening to a bit of Live, Queen and Isabelle Boulay while the raindrops streaked down the high windows overlooking the tarmac. 7:40 came….and went. Inevitably, the storm had delayed the flight.

Now my third unfounded worry of the day began to take hold of me. This one had to do with my visa. I had been informed that I could purchase a temporary visa upon arrival in Nepal before leaving the airport. This was not completely unknown territory- I had had to do the same thing in Egypt. But on that occasion, there had been a fair amount of rigmarole, having to do with finding the appropriate desk, waking the attendant from his nap and handing over an acceptable currency. On this occasion, I had no Nepalese currency (nor American, for that matter- and, privately, it irritates me that those indistinguishable yellow and green notes are the world’s argentum francum, to coin a phrase, but then that’s just my own prejudice showing); moreover, my plane was scheduled to arrive at 10:15 at night. Would the visa office even be open at that hour? Or later, given that we would almost certainly be running late? My mind began to be awash with contingencies. Ok, I have no way to get in touch with Purna once I’m there, apart from actually meeting him. If the visa office is closed, I’ll have to spend the night in the airport. I wonder what the facilities are like (better than Egypt, I hope)? Then get the visa next morning. That’s a worst-case scenario. Oh, but hang on, how do I get in touch with Purna the next day? I can get into Kathmandu easily enough- they’ll speak English, most of them- but I have no idea where he lives. Hmmm. Ok, that’s a worse worst-case scenario. Yeah, not sure what to do in that event.

In the end, I just resigned myself to whatever would transpire, which is what I should have done from the start. We humans are suckers for pointless worrying. Like flies to honey. Fortunately, I never had to find out what to do in that event after all.

Having finally done the sensible thing and left the immediate future in the Hands of Providence, where I should have left it all along, I could settle down and appreciate the last leg of the journey. Or this initial part of it at least.

Eventually, we boarded, and the plane began taxiing. Over the loudspeaker, the pilot made his accustomed announcement about the conditions. For frequent flyers, these can easily become simply a part of the background noise, along with the safety announcement, or even a source of irritation when the pilot launches into absurd levels of detail about the route, altitude and weather (Jerry Seinfeld has an amusing take on this when he reverses the conditions so it is the passenger announcing to the pilot: ‘I’m going to have one of the peanuts now, raising it to my mouth and experiencing a certain level of saltiness. But I’m not going to eat them all at once- they will be consumed at regular intervals, since there are just so many of them.’); however on this occasion I was gratified to find I had understood the announcement in Chinese before it was given in English. Well, maybe not every word. But I heard ‘台风’ and thought, ‘I bet that means typhoon,’ and, sure enough, it did.

Yes, there was a typhoon on the way. The pilot informed us that we would be obliged to divert our course and fly around it. Yes, we would indeed be late.

Actually, in the end, we were not nearly as late as I would have thought, given that announcement. Nonetheless, for whatever reason, the flight seemed inordinately long. It was supposed to be four hours, but it felt much longer than that. Psychology, no doubt, was more responsible than anything else. Expectations are funny things.

Night had long since fallen, and the view outside as we flew was all but pitch black. But as we made our way over Tibet and the Himalayas, the blackness was not uniform. The clouds outside manifested innumerable shades of the colour, from grey to ebony, pitch to obsidian, charcoal to jet. Far off to the south, the sky was intermittently lit up by great crashes of lightning. Though we couldn’t hear them from the plane, they lit up the sky like fireworks and, for a split second, it was possible to see the whole panoply of the typhoon thrashing and churning up the heavens. We were in no immediate danger- the pilot kept the typhoon always to south of us- but it never seemed to go anywhere. Always there it was off to the south, moving west with us, as though it were escorting us all the way to the Kathmandu Valley.

At some point it must have left us, though I did not notice it, because our eventual descent was relatively smooth, and when we finally disembarked from the aircraft (an Airbus A319, for those who are interested in such things, though don’t ask me why I remember that), there was no rain. Perhaps the typhoon had hit the southern peaks of the Himalayas and been unable to get over them. Whereas we had successfully cleared them and descended into the great Valley of Kathmandu on the other side.

 

Arriving in Nepal

The airport in Kathmandu was a curious bit of airport architecture. Rather than the sanitised and specialised (indeed aloof) appearance of most international airports, Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport could easily have been any number of other buildings. Its walls seemed mostly made of bricks and wood. It was all ground level. Indeed it felt rather like an old train station.

Now, the matter of the visa. It seemed I was not the only one wondering about this point- the plane had had its share of foreign tourists, among whom were a handful of Caucasians, and even one or two English speakers. None of them had arranged a visa beforehand. Fortunately, unlike in Egypt, the process was rather streamlined and, despite the lateness of the hour, the appropriate desks (two of them!) were manned. I had fortunately had the foresight to bring with me a passport photo of myself, though there were facilities for taking these if required. After that, there was only a form (a large A4 one at that) to be filled out and money to be handed across. I hoped against hope that Chinese RMB would be acceptable (and was ready to have a bit of a rant if it was not, given that China and Nepal share a border- ‘You’ll accept American money but not Chinese?! America is thousands of miles away! That is utterly nonsensical!!’- fortunately it did not come to that). As it happened, despite its absence on the notice of acceptable currencies, the gentleman behind the desk accepted my Chinese money without a second thought. He did, however, give me back US$2 in change. So now I have 2 American dollars floating around. I have no idea if I shall ever have cause to use them.

Having passed through customs and now legally, as well as geographically, in Nepal, I stepped out of the airport and into the relatively cool night air. The air was heavy with humidity- oh, but it was fresh! And I didn’t break out in a sweat immediately upon stepping outside. How nice to be away from the weather of Wuhan!

The area outside the entrance was small for an international airport, and there were relatively few cars around, but it was crammed- crammed!- with people. Some of these were waiting for folks, but a large number were taxi drivers and hotel touts. Hmmm, where is Purna? I scanned the crowd. No sign. I might have missed him, but it was unlikely he had missed me. I am, as a rule, difficult to miss. Still, no one emerged from the crowd to greet me.

I stood and scanned the crowd again, then went walkabout a bit in the hopes of locating my friend. This lack of evident purposefulness had the unfortunate side effect of attracting the attention of a large number of the aforementioned taxi drivers.

‘Taxi?’ they shouted, ‘You need a taxi?’

‘No, I’m waiting for my friend.’

‘Maybe he has not come. Where are you staying?’

‘I’m staying with my friend. I don’t need a taxi, thank you.’

‘I can take you to him. Where does he live?’

‘I don’t know. He will come. By the way, do you have the time?’

This change of subject caught this particular fellow off guard a little. He checked his watch. ‘It’s 10:45.’

10:45? I thought, checking my own watch. It read 12:30. That’s weird. Is that fellow’s watch wrong, or is Nepal 2 hours and 15 minutes behind China? 15 minutes? Why 15 minutes’ difference? 30 I suppose I could understand, but 15?! Is it some weird daylight saving thing or something? Indeed, I never did find out why that was, though now that I’m back I suppose I could look it up easily enough. But I couldn’t be bothered right now. Perhaps one of you would like to, and let me know what you find out.

‘Mr Glenn, Mr Glenn!’

The call came from my right. I turned and, sure enough, there was Purna. We embraced.

‘Welcome to my country,’ he said.

The concerns in my heart and head subsided. I had arrived safely and I knew that I was in good hands now and for the rest of the trip.

Purna led me to another area of the parking lot.

‘Do you mind going by motorcycle or would you prefer taxi?’ he asked.

‘Hmm. Well, let me think about that. Really, there’s no question. It’s always been my dream to go zipping around Kathmandu, Nepal, on the back of a motorcycle. Actually, that’s not quite true. But if it had ever occurred to me to consider the possibility of zipping around Kathmandu, Nepal, on the back of a motorcycle, I would definitely have made that my dream. LET’S SADDLE UP!!’

At least, that’s what I would have said if I were in any way articulate or able to express truly and succinctly my most genuine and heartfelt sentiments. But I’m not and I can’t, so what I actually said was, ‘The motorbike is ok.’

To the motorbike we went, therefore. There was, it seemed, a special parking area at the airport (and a large area at that) specially set aside for motorcycles. Indeed, motorcycles are, I soon discovered, far more numerous on the streets of Kathmandu than regular cars. Partly this is due to the nature of the streets. But I’ll get to that.

Purna’s motorcycle, unlike his one in Wuhan, was petrol-powered rather than electric. It was mostly black, with some red designs here and there, including an image of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, on the front. I think it had pretty good fuel consumption too. Given my position during the next few days, I found myself frequently looking over Purna’s shoulder and the fuel gauge by the end of my time was still well above half. Given the amount of driving we did on that machine, this was quite surprising.

Off we went, then, roaring out of the carpark and through the airport gates. Kathmandu airport, like Guangzhou’s and Sydney’s, is also not far removed from the city, and we found ourselves driving through its streets almost immediately. At first, I didn’t realise this, since Kathmandu has no skyscrapers, and hardly any buildings taller than four storeys.

‘How far to the city?’ I asked Purna, over the roar of the engine.

‘You’re in it. This is Kathmandu.’

‘This is it? Huh. I don’t know what I was expecting. I take it it doesn’t have much in the way of corporate commerce then.’

‘No.’

‘What are its largest industries? Are there factories or something around here somewhere?’

‘Not really.’

‘Well, why is there a city here then? There must be some reason people come here from the countryside. Job opportunities of some sort.’

‘There’s a river. Bagmati River. And we’re in a big valley. So people have lived here for a long time.’

‘Well, I can’t argue with tradition, I guess.’

The roads were pretty quiet at this hour. It was now past 11pm. But the air was wonderfully fresh. I breathed deeply of it as we sped along. Such a refreshing change of atmosphere. It was dark, and the houses and buildings around were not well distinguishable in the darkness. Most of them seemed to be about three storeys high, narrow, and packed tightly together. Shops and houses did not seem well differentiated from each other and, as I found out later, many of the buildings functioned as both.

We proceeded along at a good clip, about 40 mph or so. The road here was broad and empty and, I soon found out, not the norm in the city. I held onto my hat with one hand, paranoid that I would lose it, while attempting to maintain balance on the back of the bike with the other, something made more difficult by the weight of my rucksack. Though I almost never let go of my hat that particular night, in the days that followed I became quite adept at working out when to hold onto it and when this was not necessary. I learned quickly that I could judge from the amount and direction of the wind in my face and the angle of the brim whether I was likely to lose it any time soon; and I am pleased to announce that, though I held onto it less and less, not once did it come off my head during all the hours of motorcycling during the next few days.

After about half an hour, we reached a different area, and the scenery began to change. I didn’t know it at the time, but we had left behind Kathmandu and were venturing into its sister-city (really more of a suburb these days, but it used to be an independent city with its own king up until 300-odd years ago) Bhaktapur. The streets grew narrower and, looking down, I noticed they were made from red brick. Hmmm. A red brick road. Or lots of them, for the whole district seemed to be the same. The buildings were packed together more tightly, and their architecture was different too. All three storeys high, they too seemed to be built of the same red brick. The one exception was on the first floor of a large number of them, where the front door was set in a few feet from the street and, below the overhang of the second storey floor, a kind of porch or portico had been carved out. This section of the second storey floor was held up, not by brick but, in contrast to the rest of the building, finely carved wooden columns, four or five of them. The designs carved into these columns were exquisite, though we mostly sped past too quickly for me to get a close look. But the woodwork was truly beautiful, even when glimpsed for just a second or so. Not all of the buildings were designed along these lines, but enough of them were to make me suspect I was looking at typical (and perhaps traditional) Nepali architecture. Looking around at these brick streets and the red brick houses with their meticulously carved wood columns, I began to feel like I had really come to a new place, somewhere the like of which I had not seen before.

After several minutes, we emerged from these narrow streets into a broad square. At one end was a raised platform, upon which sat a group of half a dozen men, smoking and relaxing. In a Western country, I would have been rather nervous around such a group, given the lateness of the hour, and would have given them a wide berth, but we stopped just short of them as Purna turned the bike around (we’d entered the square at a funny angle) and they didn’t bother us in the slightest, nor give any indication that they would have wanted to. It occurred to me that, had I been able to speak Nepali, I could probably have wandered over and joined the group, and they wouldn’t have bat an eye.

On the other side of the square stood a pyramid, a temple, about five storeys high, with steps leading up to its summit. I couldn’t see it well in the dark, and had no idea of its significance or even who or what was worshipped there, but it cut an impressive figure, and was clearly that for which the square existed. I resolved to find out about it on the morrow, if I could.

Assuming of course that I would be staying nearby which, it quickly became apparent, I was. We drove past the temple to a set of buildings off to the side. All of these were closed and shuttered. It was here Purna eased off on the accelerator and brought the bike to a stop. We having both dismounted, Purna then climbed the couple of steps to the main door of one of these buildings and rapped on it. Presently, the door opened to reveal a young Nepalese fellow in his early 20s. Purna seemed to know him, and left me with him while he took care of the motorcycle.

This young fellow led me through the door down a long and very narrow corridor. At its end was a rather enclosed flight of stairs and at the foot of them a desk. Purna’s friend took his place behind the desk and, just as I was wondering what exactly I was supposed to do next, Purna suddenly appeared from a door across from the stairs that I hadn’t noticed before. He had been parking his bike behind this building, presumably in some kind of secure area, though I never got a look at it.

Purna’s appearance was something of a relief. I had little idea where we were or who the young fellow was, though I guessed accommodation of some kind was being organised. After a brief exchange in Nepali, Purna took a key from the desk and we proceeded up the stairs.

So this was some kind of hotel then? It seemed so, albeit a really, really small one. It can’t have had more than four or five rooms at most. Up one flight of steps and down a slightly less claustrophobic corridor brought us to the door of our room. As we entered it, I could see, attached to the lintel of the doorframe, a small hand-size broom with a peacock feather worked into it. I wondered at this, but everything was so strange it, along with so many other things, I filed away for future inquiry. Indeed, I discovered later it was a thing designed to ward off evil spirits. I have to wonder what the efficiency rate is of such devices, and how one would test it.

The room itself was quite spacious. Everything was of wood, the beds, the coffee table (not that the Nepalese drink coffee, but it was that kind of table). In one corner stood a man-sized wooden apparatus, carved from a single tree, with a thick trunk and two solid arms at right angles to it, all bearing the same exquisite wood-carved designs I had seen before. It reminded me somewhat of a totem pole. Having no idea of its actual intended purpose, I hung my hat on it.

Like so.

Like so.

We even had something of a balcony, though not exactly what one pictures when one thinks of a balcony. It was an area behind the beds that stuck out from the main part of the building. Completely enclosed and entirely of wood- floor, walls and ceiling- it had at intervals along its length small, arc-shaped, carved windows that looked out onto the square outside.

‘Oh, this will do very nicely,’ I said.

‘You should sleep now, Mr Glenn,’ said Purna, ‘Tomorrow we will leave at 5 o’clock.’

‘What? Why?’ I felt exhausted. My watch said it was after 2am (I hadn’t changed it yet from Chinese time) and I had gotten up at 4:30 that morning. It had been a very long day.

‘Tomorrow we will go to Nagarkot and see the sunrise. It is very beautiful, but we have to get up early. So I will wake you before 5 o’clock.’

‘Will I be able to visit that temple outside? It looks very interesting.’

‘Yes, we will have time for that too. But first the sunrise.’

So, I said my prayers and settled in for the night. If a short sleep was the price to pay, I would gladly pay it. I had seen but a glimpse of Nepal, but my taste was whetted and my curiosity piqued. I was eager for whatever the next day would bring.

Grappling with The Life of Pi – Part 2

Life-of-Pi2 (1)

The puzzle of The Life of Pi rests on its two stories and the relationship between them. Which is true and which is not? What do they mean, and what does it mean if we find one more preferable or more plausible than the other? In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I haven’t read the book, and it may be that there is more clarity provided to such questions therein. But whatever the answers to those questions, it seems to me that the interplay between these two stories, and our initial reactions to them, are revealing in themselves, whatever their deeper meaning might be.

Whichever story one prefers, I think most would agree that the second story is the more grim of the two. It may or may not be more realistic (personally, I thought the tiger was perfectly realistic- my credibility only became a bit strained when it came to the floating island of meerkats). But grim certainly. Those who prefer it seem to have a less than idealistic view of humanity (odd why this should be seen- which it is for many people – as necessarily coupled with a non-religious view. As I recall, plenty of the sceptics and agnostics of days past had exactly the opposite view, seeing religion as needlessly negative, holding humanity back; but I digress). It is worth considering why the second story should seem the grimmer of the two. In fact, apart from the floating island, the essentials of the stories are exactly the same. If the tiger story is seen as allegory, then there is precisely no difference between the two tales, save that in one the actors are beasts and in the other they are humans. The actions and events are, in other respects, identical. But, for some reason, we naturally see the two stories, not as arbitrarily different, but as essentially different.  Why?

It seems the film does more than reveal to the viewer something of his ideas about religion and God. It reveals to him, if the viewer is willing to dig a bit into the reasons behind his reactions to the film, something about his views on ethics and anthropology. What (and why) is morality? What is a human being? If there is no essential difference between humans and other animals, there is no reason why we should see the second story as any more grim than the first. The fact that we do, regardless of our religious views (or lack thereof) tells us something.

On the subject of morality, our initial reaction gives the lie to several popular ethical theories. Pi says several times during his recounting of the second tale that the cook was a very practical and resourceful man. He even goes so far as to say that, without the cook, none of them would have survived very long. If survival is the goal of morality (be it survival of the individual or the group), the cook acted morally. What he did  to the sailor was positively good. But, when we hear the tale the first time, this is not anyone’s initial thought.

Or perhaps we can talk about morality as securing ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. In his actions towards the crippled sailor, the cook was certainly doing that. But we are still not inclined to characterise the cook’s actions as positively good. Expedient, perhaps, even necessary. But not positively good. The same goes for Pi’s action in killing the cook. We understand it. We feel he was in a desperate situation, and we sympathise. “You did what you had to do,” we might say, but we would be unlikely to say, “What you did was good and right,”. So none of these will do.

Consequentialism? The cook ought to be blameless according to such a scheme. But we don’t think he is. Deontology? He certainly performed his duty, and his intention was towards a good end (ensuring the survival of all on the boat who might reasonably survive). But still we instinctively recoil at his actions, as though according to a moral reflex.

In fact, any talk of morality as a social construct or contract is going to founder here. On a boat with four people in the middle of the Pacific, there’s not much society to speak of, and law (be it maritime or otherwise) is absent. If those are the foundations of morality, then this situation of isolated desperation ought to render the people on the same level as the animals. But, whatever our pre-formed views on the matter, it doesn’t. We see the second story as grim and the first as, if not grimless (to coin a word), at least much less so. We do not blame the hyena for killing the zebra and orangutan or the tiger for killing the hyena, but we do blame the cook, and we do blame, however reluctantly, Pi.

Now perhaps, like Pi, we would kind of prefer if the animals on the boat were more like Disneyfied caricatures, huge walking and singing plush toys, or at least more prone to eat vegetables than each other, as some fundamentalist Christians believe they did before the Fall. But we recognise that this is a distortion, a caricature, of what real animals are like, something less than the reality. Tigers don’t eat grass. If they did, they wouldn’t be tigers.

disneyvsreality

Hakuna Matata=no worries. Perhaps in practice a more nihilistic philosophy than you were expecting.

By contrast, the humans, when they engage in the same actions, seem to be the distortion. Humans aren’t supposed to kill each other, even when it’s the killing of an injured man who can, by his death, provide food for others. What seems natural in the animals seems unnatural and offensive in humans. That tells us something. It  forces us to recognise something we instinctually, through these two stories, acknowledge- that humans and animals are different, not just in their accidents but in their essence; and part of that is the capacity for morality. Moreover, the contrast between the two stories also draws attention to some of the inadequacies of many popular contemporary ways of thinking about right and wrong. The benefits to society, rules and duty, a good intention or a good goal: these, we recognise instinctually, are important but insufficient for judging the morality of an action. Our reflexive moral judgements seem to be based on something else, which may include those things but is not reducible to them.

The Life of Pi may or may not make you believe in God. But it ought to make you reflect on what you believe about humans.

Grappling with The Life of Pi – Part 1

life_of_pi A couple of weeks ago, I sat down and watched The Life of Pi. I had heard good things about it – it was among the last films Roger Ebert reviewed before his death three months ago – and, intriguingly, I caught one of my students reading the book on which the film is based in class earlier this semester. Not a book I would have expected to find a Chinese student reading, and even less so now that I have some acquaintance with its content. As the film finished and the credits rolled up the screen, I sat and thought about what I had just watched, turning it over in my mind, the ideas, the images, trying to come to some understanding of what it all meant. I continued thus, sitting and thinking, for about an hour afterwards. It’s that kind of film.

The Life of Pi is a koan disguised as a movie. It concerns (Warning: Ahead lie spoilers, and this film should be seen unspoiled) a survival tale told by a syncretist. America, mercifully, is nowhere in sight. The aforementioned syncretist and our protagonist is an Indian from French Pondicherry who lives in Canada. He characterises himself as a Catholic Muslim Hindu (who, as it happens, also teaches a course on the Kabbalah at the local university). The first part of the film describes his fascination with religion, and his introduction to each of the major ones as a child. “None of us knows God until someone introduces us,” he says. But at no point does he want to give up anything he has discovered, so he just adds the new to what came before, metaphysical contradictions be damned. We are treated to the sight of Pi performing Salah, then making the sign of the cross during grace shortly thereafter. He prays things like, ‘Krishna, thankyou for introducing me to Christ.’

The whole thing irritates his father, an atheist zookeeper, who tells him he must choose a particular path, that believing in everything is the same as believing in nothing. His mother, a Hindu, seems largely content to let Pi work this out on his own as he grows up (though it appears he never does- as he tells his story, he is about mid-40s and is still as syncretistic as he was at 12). All of this is by way of introduction. We are about to hear, we are told, a story that will make us believe in God. Pi hasn’t said as much directly, but others have said it about his tale, and the audience surrogate (who I assume is meant to be Yann Martel, the author of the book) meets the claim with what might be characterised as open-minded scepticism (or sceptical open-mindedness) with a faint soupçon of irony. In the story that follows, Pi becomes the sole survivor of a trans-Pacific sinking to which all of his family (and Gerard Depardieu, in case the movie wasn’t random enough for you yet) fall victim, finding himself trapped on a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger. These animals are animals, not Disneyfied caricatures, and they act in accordance with their natures. The difference is underlined in an earlier sequence when the boy Pi decides to feed the tiger through the bars at the zoo and his father, who snatches him away in the nick of time, forces the boy to watch as a live goat is brought in and the tiger stalks, attacks and eats it as the goat bleats in desperation. “It is an animal, not a playmate,” says his father, “When you look into its eyes, you are only seeing your own emotions reflected back at you.” Accordingly, first the zebra, then the orangutan, then the hyena are dispensed with, until only the boy and tiger remain, floating on an endless ocean. There is a constant undercurrent of peril, and Pi must be creative in order to stay out of the tiger’s reach. His later attempts to tame it are by no means an unequivocal success and, even when they have been at sea for weeks and both are weak and emaciated, we still half-suspect the tiger could pounce and break Pi’s neck in its jaws if he gets too close. life-of-pi-post-6 So far the viewer is with this unorthodox narrator. But when the young Pi and tiger arrive at a floating mangrove island populated by meerkats whose waters are toxic, a doubt slips in. Our willing suspension of disbelief has been stretched just a mite too far. An anomaly? Perhaps.

When Pi and the tiger make landfall, starved, weak and desperate after more than two months at sea, on the shores of Mexico, the tiger, consistent with his animal nature, runs into the trees without looking back, leaving Pi near inconsolable. Even now, in spite of all his experiences, he wants the beast to be something more than it is. But, as he recovers in hospital, the Japanese businessmen who owned the ship that foundered find his tale of survival unbelievable. So he tells them a quite different story. A story in which there are no animals on the boat, but only people – his mother, a sailor and a ship’s cook. A story in which the cook kills the sailor, who has a broken leg, so his body can be used as bait for fishing; in which Pi’s mother gets into a struggle with the cook to protect her son and is thereupon killed and thrown to the sharks;  and a story in which Pi, to avenge his mother, takes a knife and cuts the cook’s throat. There is no visual to go with this story, unlike the other one with its magnificent cinematography; only Pi, in his hospital bed in Mexico, talking, with every indication of full sincerity, while the two Japanese businessmen exchange shocked looks as the horrific tale unfolds. And the audience surrogate, and we the audience, begin to perceive that the first tale, which has held us spellbound and taken up most of the film’s running time, is actually quite unlikely, and could easily be simply an allegory for this more realistic story. The animals are the other people. And the tiger is Pi, or perhaps his more bestial side. Pi concludes his narration thus: “I’ve told you two stories about what happened out on the ocean. Neither explains what caused the sinking of the ship, and no one can prove which story is true and which is not. In both stories, the ship sinks, my family dies, and I suffer. So which story do you prefer?”

The audience surrogate thinks for a moment and says, “The one with the tiger. That’s the better story.” Pi regards him with an expression at once friendly and grave, and says, “Thankyou. And so it goes with God.” …………..

Yeah, that was my first reaction too.

Yeah, that was my first reaction too.

What does he mean? Does he mean that God is a better story? That believing in God makes life less onerous? Is Pi making an apologia for an ‘opiate of the masses’ view of religion? That would be marketably inoffensive, but then the film doesn’t permit us to derive from it so simple a moral. The tiger story is not whitewashed. It’s not sanitised, Disneyfied family viewing with no artificial colours or sweeteners. It has teeth, figuratively and literally.

Maybe Pi means that (assuming the tiger story is indeed an allegory of what really happened, which may or may not be the case) that first story expresses a deeper truth, one that simply narrating the facts of what happened would fail to get at and indeed might obscure (but if so, what is that deeper truth?).

 

And what about Ang Lee’s decision to allow the viewer to experience the tiger story, with all the tricks of immersion that the cinema offers, but to allow us only to hear the other story at second-hand, minus any visuals beyond a boy talking and two men listening? Is he suggesting that the former enjoys all the advantages of human creativity and imagination (and, by extension perhaps, so does religion) whereas the latter is simply the hard unadorned reality, or is he using our modern culture’s predisposition towards visual rather than verbal stimulation to nudge us into lending more weight and, possibly, credence to the former?

Perhaps, like some of the best art, rather than revealing very much about its creator, The Life of Pi reveals the viewer to himself. It gives back to us what we bring to it. This thought occurred to me when, after sitting and pondering the film for about an hour, I began to trawl the comments of film review sites, curious to see what other people had made of it. Interestingly, it seemed that many people who were not religious saw the film as anti-religion. Religious people, on the other hand, tended to see it as pro-religion.

A koan of a film indeed. And so one could leave it, content at this revelation of the complexity of the human mind and the multi-valency of this well-crafted movie. Or one could dig yet deeper….

复活节快乐!

resurrection2

 

Χριστός ἀνέστη! He is risen! 他复活了!哈利路亚!哈利路亚!

Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη! He is risen indeed! 他真的复活了!哈利路亚!哈利路亚!

Gleanings From Recent Readings…That Somehow Morphed into a Good Friday Reflection

What is man that You are mindful of him; mortal man that You keep him in mind? (Psalm 8:4)

 

This question preoccupied the immediate successors of Confucius, and considerable disagreement and dispute arose. Earliest was Gaozi, who wrote,

性猶湍水也,決諸東方則東流,決諸西方則西流。人性之無分於善不善也,猶水之無分於東西也。Human nature is like flowing water. If you lead it eastward, it flows eastward; if you lead it westward, it flows westward. The way that human nature cannot be categorised as good or not good is just like the way that water cannot be categorised as flowing eastward or westward.

Thus, man has the capacity for good or evil. But which is he at his core? Gaozi thinks that is the wrong question to ask. Humanity is intrinsically neither good nor evil.

Later thinkers begged to differ. Mencius, in his great tome of the same name, quotes Gaozi so as to refute him.

水信無分於東西。無分於上下乎?人性之善也,猶水之就下也。人無有不善,水無有不下。今夫水,搏而躍之,可使過顙;激而行之,可使在山。是豈水之性哉?其勢則然也。人之可使為不善,其性亦猶是也。It is true that water may flow either east or west, but does it not distinguish between flowing up and down? The goodness of human nature is like the tendency of water to flow downward. There are no people who are not good, just as there is no water that does not flow downward. Now if you slap at water and splash it, you can make it go higher than your head, and if your force it along, you can make it go up a mountain. But how is this the nature of water? It does this because you force it to. The way you can make people do things that are not good is just like this.

So human nature, argues Mencius, is inherently good. It naturally tends towards goodness. Goodness is its natural state. An Aristotelian would recognise here the notion of telos (as usual, Aristotle turns up where you least expect him, even in pre-imperial China; wherever you want to go, he’s already been there!). Moral goodness is the final cause of human nature.

But how then to explain the great evils perpetrated by humanity throughout its history? How, more urgently, to explain the tendency within my own heart to desire and pursue that which is wrong, that which is false, that which is ugly and base?

On the eve of the Qin dynasty (not coincidentally, perhaps), Xunzi believed he had an answer. But it was in direct opposition to Mencius’ idea.

人之性惡,其善者偽也。今人之性,生而有好利焉,順是,故爭奪生而辭讓亡焉;生而有疾惡焉,順是,故殘賊生而忠信亡焉;生而有耳目之欲,有好聲色焉,順是,故淫亂生而禮義文理亡焉。然則從人之性,順人之情,必出於爭奪,合於犯分亂理,而歸於暴。故必將有師法之化,禮義之道,然後出於辭讓,合於文理,而歸於治。用此觀之,人之性惡明矣,其善者偽也。Human nature is ugly; anything good in it is artificial. Human nature is such that, from birth, we love [our own] advantage. Following this gives rise to strife and competition, and causes an end to deference and humility. From birth we are jealous and hateful. If we let these qualities go unchecked, thieves and robbers will abound and loyalty and trustworthiness will decline. From birth we have the desires of ear and eye, the love of sounds and beauty. If we follow these desires, lust and disorder will arise, and decorum, righteousness, civility and reason will perish. Thus if we follow human nature and go along with human feelings, starting from strife, we will inevitably go against civility, throw reason into confusion, and return to violence. Therefore we must make use of the transforming power of teachers and laws, and the Way of decorum and righteousness, and then starting from deference and humility, we will join with civility and reason and return to order. Looking at it this way, it is clear that human nature is ugly, and that anything good in it is artificial.

But then if Xunzi is right, why should we desire goodness and virtue and choose to cultivate them, even artificially? Why is goodness inherently attractive if the core of our being is only ugly?

Here is a paradox- the greatness and wretchedness of man. How to resolve this paradox? How to adequately explain all the data?

Centuries later, Zhu Xi tackled the question and came up with a response. 理 (Li), the rational principle of the universe (comparable to the Greek logos?) is good and only good. In the metaphysical ordering of each being is 理. But the particularity of each being, the psychophysical stuff (as I have seen it translated) that comprises them, is 氣 (Qi), and this may be obscured, clouded or tainted. Zhu Xi agreed firmly with Mencius that at its core human nature is good. But in this way, he was able to offer an explanation for the ubiquity of evil in human experience and in the human heart. The pursuit of virtue is, from the perspective of Zhu Xi’s metaphysics, an attempt to clarify or polish the 氣 of one’s being.

To what extent is Zhu Xi’s metaphysics in accordance on this point with reality? I don’t presume to say, not least because I am still a long way from having fully grasped his ideas. Going back to the source, though, Confucius, despite not having an elaborate metaphysic to hand, manages to strike a realistic balance.

我未見好仁者,惡不仁者… 有能一日用其力於仁矣乎?我未見力不足者。蓋有之矣,我未之見也。I have neither seen a man who truly loves goodness, nor a man who truly hates that which is not good….Is there anyone who is willing to devote himself to goodness for a single day? Though I could find no one who does not possess the capability, yet I have never seen such a man who has devoted himself to it. Perhaps there is such a man, but I have not yet met him.

 

The tension is excruciating. Such goodness, such evil, and both flow from the same source. On the one hand, man is a marvel. Immortal soul or not, our ability for abstraction and language transcends anything of which the other animals are capable, and our modern technological societies have achieved a level of complexity that they have almost become organisms, in a sense, in their own right. Goodness and virtue do not always feel so unachievable, and when we find them, we rejoice and are filled with delight. Confucius had the Duke of Zhou (周公); recently we’ve had Pope Francis, who has elicited praise and admiration from many who would otherwise find little to love about the Church of which he is the earthly head.

And yet…

The rankest depravity and violence characterise the most civilised of societies, from the dawn of human civilisation to now. Bombs continue to be dropped on Yemen and Pakistan, babies continue to be slaughtered in the womb, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen and otherwise pious people continue to repulse those around them with their self-righteousness, legalism and pettiness. And my own heart chases after what cannot last and feels irrationally self-satisfied when I’ve done nothing particularly heinous for a week or so. And all of these things have their defenders. Including that last.

We humans are the kind of creature that speaks vile hatreds, eloquent lies and profound, beautiful truths with the same mouth. We’re the kind of creature that participates in the Stanford Prison Experiment and makes its findings so unsettling, and we’re the kind of creature that allows the Stanford Prison Experiment to continue longer than it had any right to, for the sake of science.

But Xunzi was, for all his pessimism, wrong and Mencius is tantalisingly incomplete. Confucius has the balance, and it is echoed in the West by Pascal:

Il est dangereux de trop faire voir à l’homme combien il est égal aux bêtes, sans lui montrer sa grandeur. Il est encore dangereux de lui trop faire voir sa grandeur sans sa bassesse. Il est encore plus dangereux de lui laisser ignorer l’un et l’autre. Mais il est très avantageux de lui représenter l’un et l’autre. Il ne faut pas que l’homme croie qu’il est égal aux bêtes, ni aux anges, ni qu’il ignore l’un et l’autre, mais qu’il sache l’un et l’autre.

It is dangerous to explain too clearly  to man how like he is to the animals without pointing out his greatness. It is also dangerous to make too much of his greatness without his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both, but it is most valuable to represent both to him. Man must not be allowed to believe that he is equal either to animals or to angels, nor to be ignorant of either, but he must know both.

Confucius was not wrong. In his time, there was no man who could devote himself to goodness for a single day. But five hundred years later, there was. And in His presence we see our wretchedness and our greatness writ large. For He asks us, at this time in particular, two fearful questions:

“Who do you say that I am?”

“Why do you come against me as though I were a robber, with swords and clubs?”

If Xunzi was right, and mankind is only and always ugly, God could never (contra the Calvinists) have become human. Looking at Christ, we see a man- the first man- who was fully human; who lived out fully what it means to be, in the Jewish phrase, made in the image of God; whose water, as Mencius would say, always flowed downward.

Yet what do we do when such a man comes to us? We come out against Him with swords and clubs. We see Him lying scourged and beaten and decide it might be a lark to ram a crown of thorns down on His head. Because it’s funny.

The Calvinists can go on about ‘penal substitution’ and the New Atheists go on decrying ‘divine child abuse’ in reaction against them, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t the Father who killed the Son. God didn’t kill Himself. We killed Him. We humans did that.

Deicide- mankind doesn’t get much uglier than that; the water’s gone into orbit, as it were. We look at the crucifix and wonder why such a sacrifice was necessary. Well, wonder no more. For that is the kind of creature we are. Wondrous, brilliant and amazing, capable of acts of heart-breaking kindness and beauty, little less than a god- yet when we find the God walking amongst us, we’ll kill Him, given half the chance, and enjoy it too.

Thanks be to God, then, that that very blackest of black acts is the very thing He used and is using to restore to its true and always intended form our downward-and-upward-flowing human nature. God knows, it’s more than we deserve.

On Receiving Momentous News

The slow throb of my beating heart
I take for granted most of life,
But moments come- such moments! – when
New-conscious of it I become:
Some news has reached me. Looking up,
I see (as if I’ve not before)
The sky, a tree I’m standing by -
It seems the strangest thing I’ve seen,
Though every day I’ve seen it there;
And deep within my chest I feel
The slow throb of my beating heart
Which I have never been without
But seldom noticed until now.

On Finishing a Good Book

Many years ago, I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. I remember quite vividly the experience of reading the first few pages, and equally vividly the experience of reading the last page.

gandalf

The first few pages I read in the passenger seat of our car. I had mere minutes earlier purchased the book (or, what is more accurate, had it purchased for me- I was about 13 at the time and was in the habit of receiving $1 a week as pocket money in return for the performance of various home chores, a sum that would have been sufficient for perhaps 2 or 3 book purchases per year- hardly enough for my voracious appetite; consequently I was, at that age, largely dependent on combinations of charm, persuasion, pleading, birthdays and Christmas to keep sated my desire for reading material). Now I cracked open the paperback cover. The pages had a wonderfully musty smell, suggesting hidden mysteries and secrets. I read the Preface first, since it came first, sniggering ironically at Tolkien’s admission that the book’s sole fault lay in its being too short (it was certainly the longest book I had read up to that point) then commencing at Chapter 1: A Long-Expected Party.

DescenttoRivendell

Within a week I had finished the first volume and within a couple of months (I had to wait on Christmas for ‘The Two Towers’ and a birthday for ‘The Return of the King’), I had made it to the last page of the last volume where, about halfway down the page, I read the words, “‘Well,’ said Sam, ‘I’m home.’”

There wasn’t anymore. The rest of the page was blank. It was the end of the story. I was sitting on one of the couches in our living room. Through the doorway a few feet away from me, my mother could be heard pottering around in the kitchen. I closed the book slowly and put it down. It was about 4pm on a Saturday afternoon. The feeling of deep satisfaction from having read a remarkable piece of literature, of having been caught up in a story epic in scope and profound in emotional resonance, suddenly gave way to a feeling of utter bewilderment and confusion.

I’ve just finished ‘The Lord of the Rings! What on earth am I going to do now?

nausicaa4

I was reminded of this experience because a short while ago it happened again. At the beginning of this year, I began and, in the space of a couple of weeks, finished reading Hayao Miyazaki’s manga masterpiece “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”. To date, I have not seen the movie, though I have heard rumours that it butchers the book quite badly, which I can well believe. I think this book would be near impossible to film (even with animation), though perhaps a TV drama could do it justice.

nausicaa2

Reading “Nausicaa”, I was enthralled. Its sense of place and culture is amazing- a consummate piece of worldbuilding- enhanced considerably by the visual aspect. We recognise members of the various cultures of this world immediately by their clothing, by their architecture or by the design of their ships, and none of these readily fit the kind of crypto-historical cultures beloved of Star Trek or Stargate (look, a planet of ROMANS! a planet of MEDIEVAL EUROPEANS!, etc.). The story unfolds organically, but there is precious little status quo and from one chapter to the next I was never quite sure where the whole thing would end up. Unpredictable and, in that way and many others, very unlike the products of American pop culture. Indeed, I’m still digesting the whole thing and I think I will have to read it again before I’ll feel like I have any kind of handle on its meaning. Eventually – far too soon, in fact- I reached the end, and hit head-on exactly that sense of disorientation and confusion I had experienced putting down LOTR.

Wow! I’ve just finished reading “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”. What on earth am I going to do now?

nausicaa3

Walker Percy refers to this sensation as the difficulty of re-entry. It springs, he says, from our capacity for language, which enables us to abstract and, thus, transcend. But, being part-animal and part-angel, we cannot maintain our transcendence. We have to come back down- to eat, if nothing else. The necessity of adjusting to our sudden non-transcendence is what results in the aforementioned disorientation- the greater the transcendence, the greater the disorientation. According to Percy, it is scientists and artists who have the worst time dealing with re-entry because transcendence is their stock in trade.   The problem for artists in particular, he says,

comes from the transience of the salvation of art, both for the maker of the sign (the artist) and for the receiver of the sign. The self in its predicament is exhilarated in both the making and the receiving of a sign—for a while. After a while, both the artist and the self which receives the sign are back in the same fix or worse —because both have had a taste of transcendence and community. If poets often commit suicide, it is not because their poems are bad but because they are good. Whoever heard of a bad poet committing suicide? The reader is only a little better off. The exhilaration of a good poem lasts twenty minutes, an hour at most.

But then, if this is a problem, what is the solution? To remain constantly transcending is impossible because bodily needs have to be attended to sooner or later and we have to, at one time or another, deal with other selves, other people, if only to get our material published or buy the art through which we achieve transcendence. On the other hand, we could eschew any kind of transcendence, but that would mean remaining ever immanent, just a passive consumer beholden to habit and necessity and not much else.

But is there really a problem? Percy is, for the most part, merely descriptive in his diagnosis, prescribing nothing. The unnerving experience of re-entry merely highlights a fact of our nature. Language has, for good or ill, elevated us from creatures in an environment to selves in a world, giving us the exhilarating possibility of transcendence, whether that be through reading an engrossing book or collating data readouts from the Large Hadron Collider. Yet we haven’t transcended (nor could we) our creaturely-ness or our environment. We still need to use the loo, the kitchen, and blankets in winter.

Not being a suicidal poet, I don’t experience that displacement as dangerous to my health (though admittedly a good book has occasionally caused me to forget to have lunch). If nothing else then, the experience of re-entry, be it rare or common, prompts me to recognise the kind of thing I am; in the words of the Delphic Oracle, to know myself. And that can’t be a bad thing. Especially when prompted by great literature.

Are We Developing a Taste for a Certain Cold Dish?

(I should mention, here be spoilers)

quentintarantino 

I worry about Quentin Tarantino.

Which is not to say I don’t enjoy his films. In fact, I find them consistently entertaining, and have watched most of them more than once. One of their strengths is a creative use of violence (a feature which many decry- but I find other elements more objectionable, to which I shall turn anon). There seem to be three kinds of violence in Tarantino films. The first is action violence, not dissimilar to the kind of violence most at home in 80s action movies, with lots of guns, explosions and high body counts, to which cocktail Tarantino adds ample blood. This first kind can also be played to comedic effect, as in the death of Marvin in ‘Pulp Fiction’, or rendered cartoonish and stylised by ramping it up to absurd levels, as in many sequences in ‘Kill Bill’. The second is dramatic violence, which plays on the emotions and makes the protagonists and their actions sympathetic. The opening scene of ‘Kill Bill’ would fit into that category. The third could be a sub-category of the second, which I’ll call invisible violence. When Tarantino really wants the violence to have an impact on his audience, he cuts the camera away and instead shows the expressions on the faces of the people who are watching it. The OD scene in ‘Pulp Fiction’ is brilliantly effective because of this technique and Tarantino has used it again since then- in his latest film, ‘Django Unchained’, I counted at least three instances of it.

None of this bothers me, nor do I find any of it necessarily objectionable. What does bother me lies on a more thematic level.

Quentin Tarantino is a man preoccupied with vengeance. It is an idea with which his early films toyed and with which his more recent films are obsessed. Many of the objects of his vengeance (anti-Semitism, slavery & racial prejudice) are understandable and, arguably, justified, and along parts of that road I am quite willing to follow, at least as far as willingness to be entertained goes. But not all the way.

Yesterday, I saw ‘Django Unchained’. It concerns a deliciously articulate dentist-turned-bounty hunter, Schutz, and an ex-slave, Django, whom the former buys, then frees, then trains in his line of work.

djangounchained

This dentist-turned-bounty hunter has excellent fashion sense. I want that coat!

The theme of vengeance features from the first scene, in which Schutz comes upon the slavers who are transporting Django and his compatriots, kills one, debilitates the other, purchases Django (making sure to fill out a valid receipt), then gives the remaining slaves a choice- free the remaining slaver and go on to be purchased in the slave market to which they were heading, or free themselves and head north. The slaves choose the latter option, and we see them for the last time as they walk slowly and deliberately towards the increasingly terrified slaver, who has been pinned beneath his fallen horse. We are meant to sympathise with the slaves as they take their revenge, and we do. Their actions are understandable. We might easily do the same. So far Tarantino has us in hand.

One of Django and Schutz’s first bounties together is three wanted slave owners whom Django served under. The lead-up to his vengeance-taking features flashbacks of one of these three giving Django’s wife the lash while he begs for mercy towards her as her cries and screams fill the air. To emphasise the point, when Django finds two of these brothers, one of them is dragging away yet another woman to be beaten. This is effective. Again, we sympathise with Django. Anger and indignation stir within us. We do not begrudge Django his vengeance.

At some point, however, a line is crossed. When precisely the crossing takes place is difficult to pinpoint. It might be when, on another bounty, Schutz urges Django to shoot a man plowing a field with his young son by telling him of this man’s crimes, and Django does so (though, through Django’s hesitation, it seems clear Tarantino doesn’t intend us to feel entirely comfortable about this). It might be when Django stops Schutz from buying a slave who is about to be mauled to death by his owner’s dogs, because it might blow their cover. By the end of the film, though, it is clear that Django (and Tarantino) has crossed a line somewhere. The slave owner who had owned Django’s wife, played by Leonardo DiCaprio (the slave owner, that is, not the wife) has been killed (by Schutz, earlier in the film) and his family is returning from the funeral. Django stands at the top of the stairs with gun in hand. The white men he kills first. We have already seen them maltreating both Django and his wife, so this is not surprising. But then he kills the older sister of the man, whom we have so far not seen guilty of anything more than the racial prejudice one would expect of a white person in the pre-Civil War South. This is played for comedic effect. After this, Django shoots out the kneecaps of the elderly black man, played very well by Samuel L. Jackson, who served as butler and confidante to DiCaprio’s slave owner. This man we have seen guilty of remarkable cruelty, but then he is also old and black. Perhaps we expected some kind of redemption for him? But there is only redemption through violence here. Django has fitted the mansion with dynamite and, after it blows up, taking Samuel L. Jackson with it, we see Django walking in slow motion out of the smoke and towards the camera. It is a hero walk, but in what way is what he has just done heroic? His wife, waiting on a horse outside the gates of the mansion, is clapping delightedly. I’m feeling a little ill.

I think back to earlier parts of the film, with slave owners whipping women or putting them in metal boxes in the sun, and wonder if, by the time the credits roll, Django is much different from those people. Of course it may be that Tarantino is trying to say something about the nature of revenge. But I don’t think he is. All the hero tropes are in place. The camera effects and cinematography leave us in no doubt for whom we are supposed to be cheering. But strip away the effects, zooms, cuts and camera angles, and the protagonist and antagonists look pretty similar.

Tarantino’s previous film, ‘Inglorious Basterds’, was even more stark in this regard. At its climax, Jews have locked Hitler and many top Nazi officals inside a cinema, which is subsequently set on fire.

inglouriousbasterdsfire

As Nazis desperately try to escape from this death-trap, running about, stampeding each other, trying to find an exit, my mind ran to the Jews in the gas chambers who reacted in exactly the same way when faced with their deaths, and with a flash of epiphany I realised, “These Jewish characters have become their persecutors” The pigs had stood up. In that scene, as in ‘Django Unchained’, there is little nuance. It is intended that I should identify with the Jews of the film, as I was yesterday supposed to identify with Django, all the way to the closing credits. I couldn’t do it. What bothers me is that I think Tarantino could (not to mention one or two of the folks with whom I saw the film).

His films were not always thus. ‘Kill Bill’ was a revenge flick through and through. But there was a certain stoicism, a certain resignation to the proceedings. Beatrix is driven by a sense of duty and obligation as much as by passion. Bill, who starts out as a faceless malice, is, by the end, a very ambiguous villain. When Beatrix discovers her daughter is not only alive but has been raised by Bill in her absence, there is very little visceral rage left in her.

I wonder if any of her other dates have ended this way?

I wonder if any of her other dates have ended this way?

When she does kill Bill, it seems almost fated, as though it could not have been otherwise even if Beatrix had wanted it so; it is a duel between equals, and there is an air of the tragic in his final five steps. Her tears afterwards are more cathartic than the killing itself.

Going further back, ‘Pulp Fiction’ has something almost akin to mercy. When Ving Rhames chases Bruce Willis down the street with murderous intent, both of them fall into the clutches of a store-owning BDSM enthusiast. Bruce Willis has a chance to escape, but decides to go back and save Rhames. After Rhames has had his revenge on their captors, he renounces his grudge against Willis, and the two go their separate ways. Here there is, if not forgiveness or reconcilation per se, at least a union of former enemies against a greater and more immediate foe, and a wiping away of former debts.

pulpfictionwillisrhames

These latter two examples have nuance. Those seeking vengeance escape with their humanity intact. We can even sometimes see two sides to the dispute. But Django and the Jews of ‘Inglourious Basterds’ are victims who have become monsters. The only thing that keeps us from noticing the transformation is Tarantino’s complete mastery of style. He knows how to handle his audience.

Exiting the cinema yesterday, I was thinking on these things, wondering if I should feel worse for having enjoyed most of the movie, feeling irritated that some of my companions didn’t understand why I hadn’t enjoyed all of it, and speculating about the reasons behind Quentin Tarantino’s apparent moral slippage over the past few years. And I recalled a curious juxtaposition which suddenly struck me as pertinent- before the film began, I and my companions sat through not one but two (slightly different) previews of the imminently opening ‘Zero Dark Thirty’.

Now ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a movie I would not pay to see on principle, for the same reason I wouldn’t have paid to see one of Leni Riefenstahl’s films, and I suspect it is a film which will be studied by future generations for many of the same reasons current generations study Riefenstahl’s oeuvre. And, though I have not seen it, I know enough about it to know that it is also a revenge flick, albeit one based on actual events. And that makes me wonder.

In ‘Django Unchained’ and ‘Inglourious Basterds’, there is no redemption save through violence. And I can’t help but wonder if many of us suspect, and certainly many of our leaders suspect, that that is a statement of hard but unsentimental and uncompromising reality. Faced with a singularly tragic attack by a singularly determined enemy, the greatest empire of modern history extended every means at its disposal to kill a single man.  Not to detain him or try him (a dignity they at least went through the motions of allowing that other implacable foe, Saddam Hussein), nor even, as in an age at once more barbarous and more civilised, parading him through the streets of the capital in chains, but simply to kill him.

Which they eventually did, in a foreign country, under the noses but without the knowledge of that country’s duly elected government, and with the information afforded by offering fake immunisation injections to sick children. He was not a very nice man, there seems little doubt. Neither were the slave owners of the pre-Civil War South or Hitler and the Nazis. There would be few in the West or East who regret his passing. And maybe there will be a hero walk or two in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. But there will also be chickens coming home to roost for a long time yet, chickens that would otherwise have stayed quite happily in the yard. The greatest empire of the modern age cannot, like Django, have its cathartic vengeance and ride hero-like into the sunset as the credits roll.

What do I mean by connecting these things? Am I suggesting there is a link, causal or otherwise, between the trajectory of America’s foreign policy and the trajectory of Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking? Not really. But there is a parallel instinct, a correlating moral sense, that is unsettling. What bothered me slightly more than the film itself yesterday was that, chatting to people afterwards, I seemed to be in a distinct minority in finding anything about it objectionable. That may be more indicative  of my fellow cinema patrons on that occasion, but I suspect that many (though not all) of the folks who would indeed be uncomfortable seeing such a movie, would be decidedly more comfortable with an identical plot but less blood. I daresay too many politicians would fit into that category. If you doubt that, I’d like to submit ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ as Exhibit A.

I wonder, have our nations inadvertently adopted the logic of a Tarantinian revenge flick? And are we as uncomfortable with that as perhaps we should be?

学生写的诗

Recently the last semester of 2012 came to an end, (along with 2012 itself- turns out the Mayans were wrong and a lot of superstitious people are now feeling very foolish, which is fun!) and this included classes such as the one I’ve been teaching on poetry. The assessment for this class included writing a piece of poetry oneself, and I was pleasantly surprised by some of the submissions, several of which were fair-to-decent first attempts at the poetic form, especially given that they were written by folks for whom it is their second language. I thought my readers  might be interested therefore to read a couple of the best of these. Here are two:

If Winter Comes, Can Spring Be Far Behind

I was heading for dormitory quickly on foot in the noon after class,
But unluckily wind is not lovely and soaring in white;
I can see lots of snow, much more ice and no sunshine through glass;
It’s too cold, all the livings are lazy, mosquitoes don’t bite;
When we walk on the street, our whole necks are all rounded with scarf,
Because parents do warn us diseases occur when we’re old;
In my youth I was worrying those necks that are long like giraffe-
If their necks unprotected should feel bitter chill from the cold.
As they hiberante, folks are all staying at home when at night,
But the Spring is to come and will bring us both hope and the light.

                                                                         – 杨婷婷

Notice not only the rhyming pattern but also that the metre is consistently anapaestic. I am particularly proud of 杨婷婷 for this piece.

My Second Sonnet

Standing at crossing still, and wind’s not nice,
Chilly and gloomy day, what are you waiting for?
Your dove-eyes do not help with melting ice;
Maybe there awaits a storm, and downfall summons Thor.
The leaves had gone, the flowers we lose,
Nothing can change. No sad cause destines fate.
No one will care them, only when they fit your blues;
Be death or life, the nonsense not deserves your wait.
“I think each plain and good complete the earth,
Though silent lasting deaths are helpful too.
Only the blind can’t see the worthy thing,
Neither can hopeless people create the new.
I’m waiting mood of spring to back my heart;
Until it springs up blooms, surmounts the dark.

                                                 – 苏炜丹

 

Not as metrically consistent, perhaps, but a pretty decent stab at a sonnet, I think you’ll agree. These are the times I feel pretty good about my vocational choice.

Some Winter Sonnets

It’s been a while since I posted any poetry (actually, it’s been a while since I posted anything, but let’s not split hairs), which is ironic since I’ve been teaching a poetry class this semester. In one of our classes, I had the students make a first attempt at writing a sonnet, on the assigned subject of “Winter”, and I happened to jot a couple down myself as well. Here they are.

Frosty tendrils now extend their hold
On Nature, and the yearly trial starts;
All movement is lethargic, and the cold
Embraces with new might our limbs and hearts.
The rain, like bullets, cuts uncovered skin
And then it freezes, lingering for days.
The wind blows. Thickest clothes seem still too thin,
Too small protection ‘gainst its strong essays.
But even in the midst of winter chills,
When all the world’s a place unwelcoming,
And ice hangs stubbornly on window sills,
A rumour does the rounds: “Soon comes the Spring”.
So Death, despite its strength can never last;
The worst of times shall, soon or late, be past.
 
 
 
Over a porcelain bowl of meager rice
Slow bends the winkled face of farmer old;
He pulls a little tighter ‘gainst the ice
And snow his coat which hardly keeps out cold.
What could I say to such a man, so poor,
Whose life’s short length has reached its winter grim?
Who fears that only death now lies in store?-
Hear now the words I found to say to him:
“O blessed man, enduring so this dark
Which saps all strength, such bitter chill and grey,
Within you still is life and warmth. O mark
The time, for this shall soon have passed away.
Not long, the dawn shall rise, so warm and clean,
And winter’s branches shall burst forth in green.”
 

(Actually, this story is not true. If it were, it would be a quite unfeeling thing to do. I’d like to think if I did meet such a man, I would do more for him than just talk in high-sounding and self-righteous fashion [not least because my Chinese is a long way from eloquent]. But I think it works well enough for the poem)

 
About my neck is none too tightly held
The python coils of my long-suff’ring scarf,
Flapping in the never-to-be quelled
Cold biting breeze, too powerful by half.
Oh, what I wouldn’t give for summer heat,
When I would ne’er avoid a trip outside,
When beds are made with but a single sheet –
But if I said I liked those things, I lied.
I know in summer I complain as much
As now I do in wintertime. The grass
My neighbor has is green and full and such.
Complaints all change according as times pass.
Such fickle-mindedness has gotten old;
I think I’ll smilingly endure the cold.