Conversations with the Gardener

by Thomas Heaton

An expat in Kathmandu and his Nepali gardener try to bridge culture and language gaps in the face of Covid-19.

Knees creaking, ankles cracking, I slouch up the stairs for my daily workout. It would be considered a series of sprawls and slumps by anyone’s standards, but it’s enough to coax beads of sweat from my brow and induce enough body odour to convince anyone otherwise.

My laboured ascent is interrupted by the gardener, who’s been living on the rental property’s site since we were locked down.  “Namaskar, Thomas sir,” he lets out with a grin as he levers himself up from sweeping.

He learned my name about a month ago, after I moved back in with my father, just before Corona virus’s bells tolled for Nepal. Sometime during the lockdown, I learned his name is Dahmur (I’m not exactly sure how to spell his name). Dahmur goes on to say more, which is rather unusual. What he asks is rather alarming—it isn’t “Sanchai, sir?”, “Ke cha?”, or any pleasantries he has grown accustomed to me understanding. He’s an extremely nice man, with kind eyes; inquisitive and chirpy. He has an inconsistent centre of gravity—like the drum he’s perhaps named after, one that you sway side to side, its small beads hitting each faces’ skin. He’s not a voracious drinker; he’s just the type who wrings his hands when talking. His eyes are still warm, but they’re slightly worried, tired even.  

Translating my fractured understanding of Nepali, he asks how long until the “banda” will come to an end. My answer to him, if my Nepali tongue didn’t betray me entirely, would be something comparing the lockdown’s protractions to that of a piece of string. My elementary language allows me no wit or sarcasm, though. Instead, I tell him what I know: 10 more days, my friend, “das din, maybe”.

The lock-down is due to end on the 27th of this month, April, but who knows. At this stage, there’s at least another week of sauntering up the stairs and scuttling down for feigned physical activity. The country seems to be following India’s suit, and it seems it will continue to do so. The number of cases continues to inch upward, one by one, and more recently they doubled in a single day. Luckily, people are healing.

The reason my friend’s question is alarmingly is because I don’t have a real answer for him. Nor do the newspapers, yet, and it seems the real uncertainty lies with the government. The government has been suffering at the hands of its own indecision and bureaucracy. And when decisions are made, they seem not to be disseminated or dealt with properly. With federalism, perhaps like in the United States, it seems the central nervous system feigns function, but its synapses are shooting blanks. The limbs want to move, but there’s not enough energy to make it happen.

All things considered, the lockdown seems to be working in my area. There are reports of police being physically harsh in other areas, where perhaps those synapses translate into violent spasms, but it seems to be working. I’m not sure I want to get out of my own bubble to find out.  

So as my knees continue to squeak up the stairs, I look out to the Himalayas once more. They are the craggy upper-frame to the bizarre picture of Covid-Kathmandu. Some days they’re clear, projecting permanence on the horizon, thanks to the fact there’s not a cram of cars and truck and bikes and scooters filling lanes five-by-five throughout the city.  But the unfaltering brick kilns still belch smoke, and there still seems to be some pollution drifting up from the south, settling in the valley that surrounds Kathmandu.

More recently, forks of lightning have been jabbing the bowl as water fills it, heralding the monsoon. The monsoon is an annual harbinger for a number of problems—right now, perhaps a whole lot more food insecurity than usual.

But everything seems to be uncertain, and like Dahmur, it would be fair to assume the entire country’s insecure about what might happen tomorrow, let alone within the next month. For now, it will be bouts of slouching, sleeping, scarfing, sweating, and existential crises.

Laying out a rubber mat to soak up my isolation sins, procrastinating as I look up at the sky, I understand I am far more fortunate than many during this pandemic. There are people within this one kilometre vicinity who have it far tougher than I; even Damhur does. So, I resolve to resolve to seek contentment.

I lever myself up and crouch over my knees. I look up, and the Himalayas peek through the pollutants. “Namaskar,” I think to myself before slumping back.

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