The Kindness of Strangers

I arrived back at my base in the Tarai this morning after a long-ish period of absence and was lucky enough to receive not one but two dinner invitations for the evening.

One was an invitation to a big Thanksgiving party being held by American missionaries expatriates in Dharan, from a church friend that I ran into on the plane in the morning. There were promises of turkey (flown in specially from Kathmandu), pumpkin pie and the company of other foreigners. I told my friend I’d find out if I could get out of the office on time and call.

The second invitation came from SH, who runs a small shoe shop in the bazaar where I once bought a pair of sparkly chappals big enough for my foreign-sized feet. SH and his wife said that they had been meaning to invite me over during Eid, and had wondered where I had been. SH is Muslim and had been delighted when he found out that the Ajnabee speaks a bit of Urdu. This is not exactly the first language of most Tarai Muslims, but most of them can read and speak it. It had become our custom to exchange pleasantries and small pieces of news every time I passed his shop. When his son had been in hospital for a stomach operation he even got out the x-rays specially to show me. SH tells me I look like his third daughter, who is now married to a Suzuki motorbike dealer across the border in Bihar and rarely gets the chance to visit home.

Can you guess which invitation I accepted?

I put on my most voluminous and luridly-coloured salwaar kameez for the occasion and set out to meet SH at his shop after work. I was struck by some doubts on the way; I had exhausted all of the Urdu phrases that I knew and wondered if I’d be able to converse with the family at all beyond nodding and smiling. Then I wondered whether it was it really a good idea to go off into the back streets of the town during a power outage with a man that, apart from a few conversations, was a total stranger to me. However, I was in a trusting mood this morning, so I went on gut feeling and accepted.

We criss-crossed the backstreets of the town, behind the vegetable bazaar and the mosque and over a stinking canal until we reached SH’s family home. The begum was there to welcome us at the door. She had been cooking by torchlight in the kitchen, and the whole house smelled delicious. One of their children brought glasses of sprite and candles and SH showed me his daughters’ wedding photos (including those of daughter #3). Mrs SH had prepared a feast; fragrant pilau, cauliflower pakoras, mutter paneer and a variety of pickles including one made with mangoes from their backyard. It was the best meal that I have ever eaten in the Tarai, although I did have to beg her to stop heaping food on to my plate. I was even able to make reasonable conversation (looks like all those crappy Bollywood films I’ve been watching recently have paid off). I went off into the night happy and sated after many invitations to come to visit  again.

The kindness of strangers never ceases to amaze me in Nepal. KhushiyaN!

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