Monday, March 16, 2009
Whom to Blame?
Krishna was a real hustler. He knew all the craftsmen, and had taught himself English in the streets of Kathmandu. If you needed something, he could figure out where to get it and then negotiate the price for you. He was a wonderfully enthusiastic kid with a contagious smile. It didn't matter what the task was, he was ready to take it on. When I met him he was a 16 year old boy working for an importer from California. Because of his charm and usefulness. We, the importers, would treat him to evenings out at restaurants where the bill for the evening might be more than his family made in a month. Or we would allow him to join us on sightseeing trips and pay his way for everything. In return, he offered translation skills and cultural information.
His family lived in a crumbling 'house of a goddess' right on Bhaktapur Durbar Square. Nobody could remember when his family moved into the temple, generations had passed, so it was sort of 'their' temple, as he explained it to me. According to Krishna, the family had very little money and his father was an alcoholic who beat his mother.
In Nepal, if the family doesn't have money, children receive the bare minimum public education, and they only receive this education if they live in a city where there is a school. Krishna, as bright as he was, had only a 3rd grade education. I remember sitting at a roof top restaurant looking down on the square where women were winnowing the wheat and his brothers were selling masks and statues to tourists. Krishna and I were trying to have a discussion about the environmental trouble the world was in. He postulated that the rapid increase in the number of people on the earth had made the world too heavy and had slowed down the rotation of the earth. I had a hard time convincing him that there was problem with his theory.
When he was 17, Krishna's father passed away. There was anger in Krishna's eyes when he talked about his father. Although he wore the traditional 'white for a year,' he was glad that his father would no longer be around to torment his mother. Shortly after his father's death, Krishna began to talk about bringing a wife home to be a help to his mother. Her life was very hard. Laundry took his mother a whole day to finish. There was no washing machine or running water in the home. So she would carry the clothes to the public tap. Cooking was also a full time task. She had to collect wood or dung to fuel a fire before she could cook. Not only was there no pre-packaged food to buy, she was not able to store anything perishable without a refrigerator so she went shopping everyday. Because she was caring for a house of four unmarried boys, finding help for her was always on Krishna's mind.
At 18 Krishna fell in love. The girl was only 15 years old. He avoided traditional marriage arrangements by taking her to a temple and asking the god of the temple to witness and bless their marriage. Typically, marriages are arranged by the families and involve bands that parade from the groom's house to the bride's, but this wedding was not typical. It was my impression that the girl's family did not approve of the marriage. All I heard about it was that his mother was happy with the girl and that they had moved into Krishna's room together.
A few days after his marriage, Krishna came to visit me at my hotel. He had a big problem. He didn't know how to make babies and neither did his wife. This was not a question that either one of them felt they could ask their family about so he came to me. I took him to a quiet corner of the lobby and explained the details and sketched an instructional book for him with a lot of emphasis on hygiene and birth control and told him to promise not to tell anyone where he got the information. Within a year, Krishna had his first child.
The following year, Krishna lost his job working for the Californian importer. Sadly, while Krishna understood the English very well, he did not understand the expectations of those he worked for. He lost his relationship with the California importer because he was accepting payment from the importer as well as from the craftsmen, even when Krishna was not present for the transaction. He had negotiated kickbacks-for-life to himself, for every foreigner that he brought to any craftsman. That eventually made everyone mad at him. It made me more sad than mad. I had often tried to tell him to take a commission up front so that there would not be any misunderstanding. For some reason, he loathed the idea of being a 'commission guy.' I still don't know which of us misunderstood what a 'commission guy' was.
When his son was about 7, he came and asked me if I could get his son into a private school. Krishna's son was not doing well in school and was having trouble with bullies because he was a lower caste to them. Although I thought it was hopeless, I spent a day at St. Xavier's school with him trying to see what could be done. Nothing came of it. As I tried to explain to Krishna, his son needed to be doing well in school already to get into St. Xavier.
A few years later there was an effort to restore the deteriorating central square of Bhaktapur. Because Krishna's family was living in an historic building, they were given some money to build a new house, which they did. Perhaps it was because of the money that Krishna began to lose his way or maybe it had started long before I knew. He was drinking, and then using drugs. The tourist business was not going well, the importers didn't seek him out any longer, and most of the money was gone by the next year.
There is no happy ending to this story. Krishna's wife left, without their child. Krishna became an alcoholic much like his father, and his son is being raised by Krishna's mother. I stopped communicating with Krishna when he asked if I could supply him with Viagra to sell in Kathmandu. He didn't believe me when I told him that would not be legal. His son is now 14, and just as unprepared for the world as Krishna was at that age.
I wish that I could have made more of a difference in Krishna's life. I blame myself for treating him to expensive restaurant meals that included alcohol, trips, and luxuries of a lifestyle that he was not prepared for. I blame the caste system for not treating children equally. I blame the government for not providing adequate education. I blame Krishna's father for not parenting. And I blame Krishna for allowing himself to follow in his father's footsteps.
Note: Krishna's name and name of his home square have been changed to protect his identity.
Erica Jong - Take your life in your own hands and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.
Edmund Hillary - It is not the mountains that we conquer, but ourselves.