Friday, February 18, 2005

Kathmandu, August 2003.

[This is something I had written ages ago, as a diary entry of sorts, when I worked as a sub in Kantipur TV.]

It is nine at night.

I lean in and stick my face in the window and ask the cabbie "chakrapath jane?", awkwardly aware that my syllables don't round and separate themselves, like they should, in Nepali. The cabbie nods. I get in, wave to my friend, then lose sight as the car wizzes down Thamel - the main tourist sub-district of kathmandu.

This is the first time I am alone in Kathmandu in a cab. At night. This trip has turned out to be restrictive. The ceasefire was called off within days of my arrival, ensuring that there was a curfew in many areas, after dark.

I peer into the dark, fast-emptying streets and notice I am one of very few women out. None are alone. But it doesnt matter. I recognize the street where I'm staying. Only 20 mins or so, I tell myself. Outside Thamel, the streets are empty, except for the sleepless Khate-bachha (street urchins) and the uniformed men with guns.

There are army fatigues every hundred yards or so. The men bunch together on the sidewalk or peer into the cars, as they slow down. Often, across the road, they place barricades, blocking the road. Red STOP signs with instructions for drivers - "When you are stopped, switch on the light inside the vehicle. Show identification...." so on.

My cab-driver has to switch on the light at least five times, while the policemen (or is it the army?) peek into the cab, looking for god-knows-what: Maoists, bombs, ammunition, kidnappers...?

It is annoying after the first two times; yet, each time, my heart skips a beat.
I do not know why.

Maybe that is how premonitions feel.

At Chakrapath, the driver turns to me, asking me where I want to go.
I say, "Maharajgunj".
"This is Maharajgunj."
"Oh! Er... which side is the new bus park?"
"That was the turn we missed."
"That's where I need to go."

We drive on in silence.

And then, once more, the police must check the cab. The driver switches on the light. They poke their heads in, through the window.

I stare back, silent, waiting for them to wave us on.
But, somehow, they do not.

A squat-faced, slightly oily-cheeked cop taps on the cabbie's door.
He barks rapidly in Nepali. I do not understand.

The cabbie says, "Maharajgunj."

The cop barks out another question and the cabbie turns to look at me. The cop now turns to me and repeats his question. I look helplessly at the cabbie.

He looks away, equally helpless.
The cop repeats his question, tapping at the window. Another cop joins him and a third strolls over, leaning against the bonnet.

Finally, I murmur, "Dai (elder brother), I do not understand Nepali."

The cop stares at me as if he did not understand Hindi. Then, he exchanges glances with his colleagues. "What are you then? Indian?"

I nod. He nods a few times, almost as if reaffirming some long-held belief to himself.

"Where are you going, all alone at this time?"
"I stay near here."
"Maharajgunj, Chakrapath."
"But you've left Maharajgunj behind."
"It's on the road where the bus park is."

The cabbie grows defensive. "That's what she said. She told me to move against the new bus park."

They turn to me. "So, where do u stay?"
"Close by."
"With whom?"
"A family."
"Why are you here? why did you come from India"
"I'm a journalist."
"This is the first time in Nepal?"

I wait. They do not wave us on, though. They stare at me.

"So what are you doing now?"
"I'm going home."
"Where's home?"
I swallow and remember that I do not have the exact lane or house number. "It's near a school. There are two schools and there's small lane off the main road... I recognize it, Dai."
"which school?"
"Academy Boarding High."
"Academy? Never heard of it."
"It's very small."
"So you live in the school? Are you a teacher?"
"No. I live near the school. I'm not a teacher. I'm a journalist."
"So then... what this about a school?"
I suspect these men are drunk, but I have to keep talking. "The area.. it has a few schools. There's also a Kantipur School close by."

The second cop mutters, "Ah. Yes, Kantipur school. I've heard of that."
The third cop too, "Yes, yes. But that's in the opposite direction. where do you think you're going?"
The first cop again. "Why don't you have anything... nothing written down?"

I swallow the knot of panic rising in my chest.
I am carrying no identification. No i-card. No passport. No letters. Nothing to show I'm not a Maoist or an illegal drug peddler.

The men bark at the cabbie. He shrugs and looks at me. I don't understand.

The second cop - I notice vaguely that he has a small moustache, the kind that's very rare in Nepal - speaks, "Why don't you get down and pay off the cab?"

I swallow hard. "But dai... how will I get home if I pay off the cab? There aren't any other cabs around here."

The first cop is belligerent. "You get down! We'll have you dropped."

It is the last thing I want to do. The cabbie looks helpless. Now, I'm sorry for him.

I try to talk my way out, "Dai... really. I can't come with you. I'll just take this same cab on."

"But you don't know where you stay. How will you? Come, get out now."

I take a deep breath and step out, still clinging to the cab-door like it was a life-saver. "Dai, I know where to go. I think we took a wrong turn but please let me go now."

"What are you doing here anyway? Why did you come to nepal?"

I am half-exhausted, half-irritable and very frightened.
"I work here, dai. I can find my way. Really."

"do you know the time?"

I realise I am not wearing a watch.
The cop shows me his steel dial. "Nine-thirty! In Kathmandu, girls don't stay out alone at this hour."

I can only whisper. "I realise that."
"This is Nepal."
"Yes, I know... I got delayed."
"We'll have you dropped later. Come with us now. Pay off this cab."
"Dai, really... you don't need to take the trouble. I'm fine in the cab."

The other cop leaning on the bonnet comes close, a fourth cop joins the group, all staring at me.

Hemmed in, I am beginning to struggle with my tears, "Dai, please let me go."
"And who will be responsible if something happens to you? How do we know, if something goes wrong... you're a foreigner, you know..."
"Yes, I understand that. But I will be ok... please dai, I'm getting very late. They're waiting for me at home."

The cops exchange a few brief words, a few gestures of the chins, and then, "How will we know if you're ok? Come with us to the police station; we'll drop you."

"Dai, Please let me go." I am practically in tears now. It is hard to speak without choking, and my eyes are swimmy.

More nods and low whispers flit round me.

"Give us your details."
"My details?"
"Name? Number? What's the number of the place you live?"

I fish out my diary, aware that they are aware that I don't have the number by heart. Inside my fingertips, there is a soft pounding that's turning into a tremble. I fumble with the diary, a very touristy thing with recycled paper and only one page filled with numbers.

I read out the address and number. The first cop asks me for paper. I begin to tear out a page from my diary but my fingers are trembling and I can't write clearly. He reaches out and snatches the diary from me.

He glances over it and then rips out half a page, taking the pen from my hand. Then he leans over and snatches my book to rest the paper on. while he writes.
"What is your name?"
"Your name?"

He writes down "Jedi."

I repeat the number. He takes it down and repeats it twice. I take my pen and diary back.
"And what's the name of the people you live with?"
"Jaiswal...can I go now?"
"I will call in fifteen minutes."

They turn to the cabbie. "What's your cab number.... ok, take her, and if you can't find her place, bring her back here within half an hour."

I slide back into the cab, almost falling in relief.

Then, the first cop leans inside and begins again, "What are you doing out alone? Come out, I will drop you back. Come with me."

But the third cop pats his arm and says, in Nepali, "Enough. Let her go."

He turns to the cabbie and waves him on. The cabbie turns the key in the ignition and I breathe.
Later, I am apologetic. "I'm sorry about the wrong turn."

The cabbie is silent. When I recognise the lane and ask him to turn, I notice the meter: a rocking five hundred rupees!

I sigh and empty my wallet. Just enough, thank God. I thank the cabbie and don't ask him for my change.

And I swear never, ever, to go out in Kathmandu alone, after dark.

Annie Zaidi, August, 2003.


anumita said...

Sending shivers down my spine reading this!

Anonymous said...

are you that mysterious reporter that morquendi swears filed reports from kantipur just after the takeover? The phrasing sounds the same.

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