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Sport 14: Autumn 1995

Roof of the World

Roof of the World

Three are five families living in the house where he lives in the highest village in the world and they argue about who should pay the electricity bill. No one does and finally the electricity is turned off. His brother rewires the house and joins it up to the one next door and the lights go on again.

When she met his parents his mother was so shy she had to leave the room. A mixed marriage is problematic–something no one of her generation is able to acknowledge–this blonde daughter-in-law entering the dark house with her son. This blonde daughter-in-law entering the dark house through the heavy, carved wooden doors.

They speak of other things. At times an uneasy silence descends as Nicole’s Nepali deserts her and this topic lies on the table between them. The house grows dim at that hour because of the curfew on electricity. There is also a curfew on water and everyone must take their showers between certain hours. This is one of the driest countries on earth.

She wrote me on the back of a black and white photograph which shows her thinner than I remember. Her eyes are closed and her hands clasped around her knees–pale against the batik print fabric of her dress. She makes drawings in pen and ink of a temple. Two enormous lions crouch at the entrance and in the background are mountains. She feels as if she’s perched on the roof of the world–the steep, tiled roof of a temple. Antlers or maybe the branches of a tree dipped in gold grow from the roof. Her room overlooks the Kathmandu Valley and she can see snow even though the village is below the snow-line.

She travels over the mountains to Leh by bus and there is so little oxygen she finds it difficult to breathe. Her head feels as if it’s going to explode and each time the bus stops she has to walk a long way to find the shelter of a tree or a bush to squat behind. The driver seems not be paying attention. He combs his hair, gazing into the mirror as he drives over the spine of the precipitous mountains into the valley that is Leh.

The bus is filled with convicts on their way to the Leh jail. No one is supposed to drive over the pass at night and the police pull them up and force them to spend the night in a large tent. Raju lies stiff with rage beside her as the men speak in Hindi about the Nepalese man and the white page 104 woman—what he will do to her, what they would like to do to her. She understands nothing of what is said. The next morning she remembers an entire train journey in India spent camped beneath her shawl—eating and sleeping inside its folds to escape the men who had somehow found their way into the women’s compartment.

She sees a woman in the street cup her hands to catch a cow’s yellow stream—drinking it as if it’s holy water—the purest stream poured forth into the street from God’s urn. She takes a photograph of the rough sketch of an elephant beneath a shrine. ‘You see them everywhere—these shrines,’ she says. There are buffalo lying down in the street and their hides have the dull, purple bloom of grapes. Raju’s eyes also have the bloom of grapes, the bloom of the buffalo’s hide only darker, with a slight opacity. His hair is glossy black, the expression on his face beatific like the sadhu in the photograph. He tells her a sadhu is just someone who has grown his hair long and painted his face and body. ‘Like me,’ he says with a wry smile and gestures to his own hair pulled back from his face, falling between his shoulder blades. ‘That is all,’ he says, refusing a cosmic explanation.

‘Death is not a calamity in Nepal,’ she says. ‘When someone dies no one is upset for long—unless it’s someone young. Death is not the calamity we think it here. The bereaved wears white for a year afterwards. Some of my students wore white for their parents. In the extended family an uncle plays the role of a second father.’

She draws cities in Rajasthan. Cities separated by desert. She travels for days on the back of a camel. The cities are painted the colours of the earth and each one is a different colour. Warm pinks, ochres, greys. One of them is a surprising bright blue—the colour of the desert sky. Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. In some of her photographs the rippled sand of the desert resembles water.

Raju makes a small box with drawings on the side. One of the drawings is a famous Tibetan temple, another is a view of the city of Kathmandu, the third is a pair of carved, wooden doors. The box contains a silver brooch depicting the sun and the moon. The sun is a smiling face cradled by the moon. Just below his thumb is a tattoo of a tiny moon, on the other hand is the sun. ‘Don’t you miss Nepal?’ she asks him. ‘But it’s only been a month,’ he says and smiles his dull, grape smile. The form of a Hindu God stands proud from the carnelian on her left finger.

We eat pizzas in Sydney and she shows me a leather-bound diary filled with sketches, each one titled in her small, untidy handwriting: ‘Woman page 105 from a hill tribe,’ ‘Sadhu,’ ‘View from Raju’s Window.’ She has pasted a newspaper article about dowry murders into the diary. ‘The signs to look out for,’ says the article. ‘Many of these murders can be prevented.’ There is a picture of a bride.

She tells me an Indian woman was burned because her family refused to buy her husband’s family a scooter. When the woman’s family turned up to collect their daughter’s ashes—the husband refused to give them a cloth to wrap the ashes in. ‘Wives are not for burning,’ said the slogan in Delhi.