“Caroling in Nepal?” Yes, Christmas caroling in Nepal. Its something my family does every year with great anticipation. Each night of this week, caroling will take place at a different family member’s house, in different parts of town. Neighbors will gather, either in the square or on their roofs, to hear us sing, see us dance, and hear the reason for Christmas spoken through every song.
Yesterday, we went into Mangal Bazaar, the dense marketplace of Patan. As Carly and LeAnna—who are currently visiting me from the States—have found out, Patan is a maze of alleyways, back roads and courtyards that open to more courtyards, many containing small (or large) Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas. We were a merry party going to the home—a bunch of youths carrying a guitar, a madal (double-headed drum), and tambourines, women carrying small children, guys bringing up the rear, and a few young boys scampering around Carly, the one carrying a camera with a fancy zoom lens they all enjoyed playing with. We made a circle in the middle of the courtyard, lit candles and set them in the middle of the circle for light (since there was no electricity that night) and started to sing. “Bhajan number 35,” is passed from ear to ear. Some people open their words-only hymnbooks, but many people have it memorized. Sunil starts the song off with a typical (and danceable) madal rhythm, and we begin to sing.
Look at the sky, see the star’s brightness, don’t be late to greet the newborn king…
One elderly lady comes into the circle and begins to dance. Everyone punctuates the lines of the song with sounds of encouragement. Later, when we begin to sing “oho, what a pleasant, happy day has come, God’s salvation has been born in Bethlehem,” Sangita didiis pushed forward. During the break between songs, she comes up to me, “Tori, you should dance!”
“Oh, no, I’m not going to dance!”
“Yes, come on! You can do it!”
“Ok, but only if I dance with you!”
Sangita didi smiles, and as everyone begins to sing “tell the world with laughter and play, salvation has been born to take the world’s load, salvation has been born in a poor stable,” I follow Sangita didi into the circle. She winks and smiles at me, and begins to mover her hips and shoulders to the madal rhythm, and tell the story of Christ’s birth with her hands. I see Radhe dai beam at me, and several people shout their encouragement. I do my best to mimic Sangita didi’s movements, perhaps coming in a second late. At one point she whispers to me, “switch sides, switch sides,” and I exchange sides of the circle with her.
When the song is over, I return to my point of safety in the surrounding crowd, and thank the lady who held my purse for me. After Amos dai finishes sharing the meaning of Christmas, and Amit dai has given a benediction, we all begin to file into the house for food. “You danced well,” one lady told me as we went in. Sangita didi heard that and smiled. “I taught her how to move like that,” she announced to the small crowd of women. She smiled and winked at me again. I smiled inside—in practicing the choreography of the group dance for the Christmas program, I sometimes think I'm the bane of her existence. What other student can't move their hips right, flick their wrists correctly, or has trouble moving forwards them backwards? I'm an adult, had no one taught me how to dance? These movements weren’t difficult, she assured me. My body testified otherwise. Her invitation and instance that I dance that night came as a complete, and pleasant, surprise to me.
Upstairs, Carly and LeAnna experience paneer achar, buffalo meat, and chura (beaten rice) for the first time. Having eaten before coming, they are unable to finish their plates. Our host becomes worried. I assure him that the food is good, but its not their habit to eat hot food (green chilis permete the achar), and that we had eaten before coming. “Should I make them a plain omelet instead?” he asks. “No, that’s not necessary, don’t worry about it,” I tell him.
We walk home with Anish, Sunil, Ashish, and another young man who I had seen at church recently. “Here, you walk beside your friends,” Anish tells me, moving to my other side.
“Its ok,” I tell him, “you can walk here.”
“Oh, no, I’m too shy, I’ll start sweating,” he said.
Ashish and his friend lag behind and get lost in the bazaar crowd. Sunil and Anish begin to pour forth the usual questions: how is your family? When are they coming back to Nepal? Does Robert dai want to come back too? Which do you like better, Nepal or America? Then what are you going to do, settle in America or Nepal? I know, you should have twins, and put one in Nepal and one in the States, and just live in between. But in between is an ocean, I say, and they just laugh with boyish, brotherly giggles. At some point, Ashish and his friend catch up, and rejoin our group.
We part close to Jawalekhel, Ashish and his friend going on to Pulchowk, we veering off to go toward Ekantakuna. “Ok, good-night,” Ashish tells everyone, and boldly shakes Carly and LeAnna’s hands. Anish freezes up and puts his nose in his scarf. “My hands are cold,” he mumbles as he shakes my American friend’s hands, following suite with everyone else, even though we’re still traveling together. He then turns around, and bends down to talk directly in my ear—it amazes me how tall both he and Sunil are; Ramesh and Niran, though older, are still just my height—“is it ok to shake a girl’s hand in your culture?”
“Oh, yes,” I assure him. “Everyone shakes hands.”
“What about hugs?”
This question surprises me. “We do hug, between guy and girl friends too. Its ok.”
“Oh, its not ok in Nepal,” he says quickly.
They wave us off when we cross the street to go behind the zoo. Carly and LeAnna drop me off at my place, stay a while to check email and chat with my hostel mates before going on to their guesthouse for the night. After taking a shower, I decide to call Ramesh. Radhe dai had given me his mobile number weeks ago, but I had not had time to call him between work and dance practice. I had keenly felt his absence that night. Away at medical school, he would not have enough time off to come back to celebrate Christmas either. I decided this may be a good opportunity to call him.
His phone rang, and he picked up. “Hello?”
“Hello, Ramesh? Do you recognize my voice?”
“Yes, I do. How are you?”
We talk for a good fifteen minutes, mainly in Nepali, but I cheat and throw in few English sentences. He inserts a word or two of English in his Nepali sentences where he feels I may not know the Nepali term. “So, I hear you’re dancing on Christmas?” So my family had told on me. He laughts. “I never dance. I'm too shy, and I'm not good. You should have it videotaped, and have Ashish put it on Facebook. Are you on Facebook? Ok, I’ll find you’re name, and send you a request.”
“Hey, thanks for calling,” he says to sign off. “Its been pleasant, and made me happy. Its best to call after 10PM, I’m usually free-er then.”
I go to bed happy: my stomach is full of Nepali food, and soul fed on fellowship with Nepali and American friends. I looked forward to what tomorrow’s caroling would bring.