Of a sudden I find myself transported to a cottage of my own, an hour from Pokhara, a dusty, longish bus from Kathmandu. Not taking the plane and consciously armed with the stump of a pencil I jagged my impressions of the highway towns, popping out of the frozen misty valley to a panorama then down to Khanikhola, Naubise, Galchi, Malekhu, Manakamana, Mugling, Abukhaireni, Dumre and Pokhara, stopping at lean-tos for tea, sel, dāl, bhāt.
Along the Siddhartha Highway south of the lake city, I strove to see how Syangja differs from districts around it. But it’s just more mountains, differently named and similarly abled, with the bare Bhaludanda leering over an Andhi Khola attenuated by the winter as much as the gravel diggers. And a five-minute burst up steep stone from Jadkhola here I am, in K’s perfectly appointed one-bed cottage 100 feet from his parents’ house, garlic and rāyo sāg on three tiers, just-denuded orange trees framing a view of Annapurnas IV, II and Lamjung Himal. It’s gorgeous. Other cottages can be espied through the trees above, and the road is audible, but tolerable. The chunter of village voices, the constant call of birds in the hills and valleys, a throaty cough, dogs barking, the glorious sun. I turned in just past 10, thinking of the stars sparkling outside, a reminder that you don’t have to go on a trek to see them, you just need to get the hell out of the city.
I kept waking, and finally roused myself just after 6, while it was well dark outside. After working diligently for almost 2 hours, K and I went for a walk up the new road that adjoins his farm, the main course to the homestead here. We talked oranges and apples. Did he know England has six thousand varieties of apples, and that the fruit originated in the wild forests of the Tien Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan? Did I know orange trees could live for a hundred years, and that grafts are quicker to fruit but less hardy than those grown from pips? What book knowledge I could offer K on the effect of the moon on sap, and thus pruning seasons (from Roger Deakin’s Wildwood) he corroborated as traditional knowledge in Nepal as much as in England. As K busied himself with pruning the orange trees and removing the dried-up twigs of a failed experiment with kiwi fruit, a bold kingfisher that had set up shop on an stretch of wiring demonstrated how easily he could snap up a dozy dragonfly.
This morning a birdy racket in one of the larger orange trees spurred me to grab my binoculars and sidle past K’s father and the stable, from whence the large, ashen buffalo rolled her eyes at me. ‘She doesn’t recognize me,’ I said rather sheepishly to Uncle, and was embarrassed to discover mere mynahs as the authors of the alternately crackling and melodious tweets in the brances; it seemed to me that they never sound this wonderful in their urban avatars.
Much of today passed eating oranges, drinking milk tea, and shooting the shit. Or rather, listening to Syangjalis spinning yarns. J and B were visiting from Kathmandu, the latter, like me, a city slicker looking to sketch out pastoral dreams. The couple were are scoping out a possible location next to J’s parents’ large, whitewashed semi-traditional home in a fold below the highway. ‘There’s hi-tension wires here, and there,’ K pointed out disapprovingly. ‘You can’t build below them, they’ll drive you crazy. When I lived by some wires like that in Lainchaur years back I kept getting into fights with my sisters for no reason.’ Later, we helped them transport sacks of oranges to J’s blue Honda ‘Amaze’, which looked startled to be left on the muddy road in the middle of the jungle. Roads are everywhere, and the villagers plot to have them wind slipping and sliding right up to their front yards. You can’t blame ‘em. Who likes walking? I took the steep stride back up to K’s and boasted about it to his 70-year-old father, who a couple of days later shrugged off a full cylinder of gas he’d carted up the same way, a pound for every year he’s lived.
I mixed some paints, executed some cursory line drawings of the garden, and identified a warbler and a spectacled whatnot. Meaning to say I found the page in the book where these tiny twitterers belong, indistinguishable to me from a dozen other cousins. Still, if I want to find birds I will have to look for them beyond the homestead. The mynahs dominate this particular patch with their extraordinary array of clucks, screeches and whistles. I will go for a walk to the top of the hill, past K’s farm and up, where he says there is a yojanā to build a paragliding site. Syangjalis are enterprising, if the stereotype is anything to go by (‘All the Syangjalis have moved to Dhapasi, and you are going from Dhapasi to Syangja,’ my mother laughed), and yojana are the order of the day. The latest I hear is a plan to bore a tunnel from Pokhara to the highway, cutting the 35 kilometre-trip to a mere 8. Pokhara in half an hour! We could milk the buffalo and go down to Phewa for a beer, K laughs.
I tried to break free of the too-early dalbhats by declaring I would cook my own aglio e olio, but K’s folks countered with millet roti with bitter home honey, ghee and mahi, topped with an orphaned orange I plucked off a tree. Bliss, and that’s not even looking at the Annapurnas.
K has commissioned a bulldozer to extend the road to his back yard. He doesn’t shy away from work, be it writing plays and novels or getting his hands dirty. He returned today with an ax slung over his shoulder, having dispatched of two trees to make way for the extension.
After a coffee at the Roadside Cafe, down by the highway, with K and his young sidekicks, we trudged up to view the dozer at play. A cluster of rather excited villagers were watching the monster eat into Maila Dai’s terraces. A beautiful young simal will also have to go (though it’s illegal to fell them), and I fantasized about transplanting its ramrod straight 40-foot trunk and high, spreading crown directly to Dhapasi, like some kind of rural, sculpted skyscraper, to tower over my father’s twee garden with its ornamental trees and bushes and pots of bougainvillea. Then again, I’ve been refused permission to even plant a pot-bound banyan.
The onlookers admired the ‘perfect-for-oranges’ soil pouring out of the dozer’s jaws with every ravenous bite, commented on the disappearance of ban pidālu, and wondered at the power of the machine, clawing out out entire tree roots and dispatching them down the hill (‘That would make a great wood sculpture’, K noted, as the wreck tumbled away out of sight). And when I turned to make my way back over the crumbling trail everyone else has been using the women shrieked, don’t go that way, you won’t be able to!
K leaves today, and my stay will turn introverted. Less talking, more walking, more reading, writing. A last meal with my host, and a spot of shiitake picking. Wonderful things, sprouting out of a wigwam of dark katus along the shady eaves of the house. It boggles the mind that everyone doesn’t get around to some such husbandry. At Rs 300 wholesale, and Rs 1000 retail, these are well worth the trouble, and that’s without a taste of their juicy, earthy caps fried in mustard oil.
Oranges, green garlic, bougainvillea, mint, basil, guavas, bananas, spinach, chilaune, katus, millet straw, shiitake, aloe vera, chrysanthemum, bamboo, is what I can see from my perch in front of the cottage. The forests cloaking the hills, the river at my feet, the mountains on my horizon, Syangja awaits.