Monday, March 16, 2009

Whom to Blame?

Durbar Square

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.


  1. I don't think it's in any way fair for you to blame yourself, though of course I understand why it makes you so sad to think about Krisna. He would certainly tell you that his destiny is laid out before him, that his karma follows him and that no one person can change his culture, history, and create possibilities within a culture that does not allow for social change.

    It's a beautiful, sad story. Reminds me how lucky I am to live in a place where anything can happen to anyone. Thank you!

  2. Yes. I know you're right. But still I carry the guilt of the poverty that I passed through and left unchanged. I promise that I will also tell the stories about the people that I have been able to help.

  3. I can understand that you feel sadness about Krishna's fate, but would not cast the blame on you for a system that makes it almost impossible to escape the poverty. Denying children an education which would prepare them for a different life is a crime to humanity. I am saddened that Nepal unfortunately is not the only country where this still happens. I am comforted by the thought that there are people and international organizations out there who try to help bring about change. Unless the change also comes from within, though, destinies like Krishna's will repeat itself again and again. What a waste of human life it is!

  4. This is a deeply moving story and so easy, sadly, to understand.
    We have befriended people in different parts of the world and really tried to help them. Mostly, I think we did help. Sometimes I wonder.
    Our driver on our recent trip to Rajasthan was so lovely and invited us to spend Holi with his family.
    He was a most intelligent charming man who adores his 3 children. Eldest daughter in college. He is so proud of her. She is 18.
    His wife is only 32.
    We met all their various relatives and drank lots of tea and ate lots of homemade food.
    The family live in one room.
    He said the tour company would ask for a cut of his tip. I hope he hid some of it.
    All best wishes.

  5. Somehow, in all this story, it is the mother I feel for - she has seen and felt so much - nobody deserves such disappointments at every turn.Circumstances keep changing her parameters. Life must be hard.

  6. This story breaks my heart. Every mother wants the best for her child, the basics of food, shelter,education and loving family.I think you acted like a mother to him. You did the best you could with what you had at the time. I would have done the same. I don't have any answers.
    I'm glad to have read this, and all of the comments too. Thank you for sharing.
    x lori

  7. I read this post and couldn't find the words to comment. I thought that if I took some time to think about it something would 'come to me'...but....
    All the comments by the lovely people above have said part of what I feel. It makes me realize more how much we should take charge of our own lives. We are our own responsibilities, and really shouldn't blame others about our own lives. Like Pam says above, I can't help but think about what Krishna's mother is thinking as she watches her family fall apart.

    I used to know a guy who tore himself from his family in Nepal and came to Japan for a "better life". He married a nice Japanese woman and they opened a restaurant together... some of the most amazing food I've ever had.
    It takes a lot of courage to derail yourself from the life expected of you by family, society, and government.

    I am in much better circumstances than many people, but I still feel obligations. I am now at a turning point in my life, and I must say that this "story" has helped me look at my own life with a different pair of glasses.

    You may think you were not able to help Krishna as much as you may have wanted to, but you have helped an unexpected blogger in more ways than you can imagine. Thank you!

  8. This is such a sad story, it's difficult to imagine that even nowadays there are places in the world where children don't get education just because they deserve it. Thank you for this story, it made me look at my life with a different pair of glasses as well, I complain way too much...

  9. This is a sad story, but a powerful one. It really shows how our surroundings can mold us. It is very hard to break out of our societies molds, but if we are able to make that leap, we can transcend many very challenging lessons. I know in cultures like Krishna's it is hard to break free from the same cycles, but when ever I hear a story like this I am endlessly grateful for the molds I have managed to break free from.

    I am sorry to hear that Krishna fell into the same mold as his father, and most likely his son will follow also. Maybe someone in their family line will have the sense to change even just the smallest of details.

  10. I would agree with Merisi that it is 'the system that makes us impossible to avoid this' vicious cycle.
    This blame game looks good with statements of politicians and parties, not you. This is a story that we Nepalese are familiar with. We just don' know how to get our fellow country-men out of this. The obvious suggestion from any sane mind would be education but then with poverty, education is not viable. People do not go to school with empty stomachs, they go to work.

  11. Thank you all for the wonderful comments. I was not sure why I felt compelled to write this, but my offering has already yielded more than my expectation. It is a good discussion.

  12. If I were in your shoes, I would feel very similar. Sad and angry at myself, the system and with Krishna. But bigger than that, I feel you did your best, you were kind, generous, had intelligent conversations. All the while you were considering all you could think to consider. I ask you to be gentle with yourself. To trust that maybe there is a bigger picture that you can not see, or perhaps your tale will inspire each one of us in a new way that will serve humanity with more heart, more wisdom. Thank you for sharing this story with us.

  13. I think Krisna wanted to make a good life and then there were things that came in his way, like misunderstanding with the payments system for his work, having to move house sy, and all within the context of a rigid society. The caste system allows for some considerable social injustices and it is hard to fight it alone. I guess alcohol and drugs are a way out from their pain for for alot of people, unfortunately also a way to fall down too. I wonder if you would write a longer version of the story one day, to me it's a fascinating and thought-provoking story & it's wonderful you are sharing with us!

  14. What a wonderful story, Butternut, I also have had some difficulities trying to help but in my case it's homeless people here in Puerto Rico. Addiction makes people behave in inconsistent ways. Should you help with money, the money goes to the habit. Should you help an organization, the money goes to administrators or never arrives to those in need. I'm still looking for ways to uplift people.
    Thanks for the insight. Oh, and please come over to Oasis to collect your award. (another one!) <3

  15. Thanks, Butternut, for this story. It brings home my feeling that what we are going through in this country is timely. We really do need to learn. Your blog helps all of us learn about Nepal, and people who are just trying to get through another day, with hopes and dreams. What you did was generous, what he did with his life is his responsibility. Just as all of our lives are our responsibility.

  16. Sadly, stories like this are all too common. Those of us who live in the west are brought up with images that every story is supposed to have a happy ending. Our society prefers to hide what is uncomfortable to see. Although we have people all around us with similar sadness, we prefer not to look as it might make us feel guilty about our own comfortable lives. We just choose to ignore it.

    The political and social structures of many under developed countries doom people like Krishna. They are exploited until they no longer serve a purpose to those exploiting them and then are simply discarded. It is one of the harsh realities of life.

    You tried to make a difference but are left to accept that no one person can save the world. There may come a time, I hope so, that the kindness and example you set will spark something that will make him set himself on a different path. The deck is stacked against him but it is a possibility.

    We have to stay hopeful and not let these realities harden us to the point where we give up. The world has done enough of that on its own.

    Bless you for trying.


  17. So sad. Sometimes we do our very best to help and it comes to nothing, eh? Hard not to be overcome by apathy. The best we can do is refuse to give in to the darkness.

  18. I came here from Woman In a Window. It is a sad story but not an unusual story. I have no solutions but I do have a good recommendation, a book by Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. This book deals with addictions and how they echo through the generations.