Saturday, September 26, 2009

Happy Dashain 2066

I wish you all a very happy Dashain 2066. Below is a memoir I wrote for The Kathmandu Post on Saturday on celebrating Dashain in Dubai a decade ago :

A Middle-Eastern Dashain

Celebrating Dashain as a migrant worker meant watery-thin tikas, Filipino friends mouthing swear words and seeking out liquor in an Islamic state

Deepak Adhikari

Dashain usually brings back the most pleasant memories of my life. I grew up in eastern Nepal and spent my childhood shuttling around the three districts of Panchthar, Taplejung and Morang--we had our ancestral home in Taplejung, we tilled land in Rajghat, a dusty village in Morang, while my father taught Nepali in a government school in the almost-town Phidim, Panchthar. Life seemed to revolve around these three places as a child. I grew up mostly in Phidim in the late 1980s. Every Dashain, we would pack our bags and head to Thumbedin, a hamlet on the banks of Kabeli River in Taplejung.

Dashain meant the bamboo swings; new, shiny, Rs. 1, 2 and 5 notes compiled from dakshina; and an abundance of food especially home-cooked goat meat. It also meant a long-awaited holiday of kite-flying and other fun-filled activities.

But the Dashain of 1999 was totally different. That was the worst period of my life: my fledgling-career in a weekly Kathmandu tabloid was threatening to die out with an editor-cum-publisher who demanded a lot of work but paid a meager salary, and the hard times that my family was going through. Unsurprisingly, I did what most Nepalis do--I sought a job abroad. To my family’s delight and my journalist friends’ surprise, in the autumn of 1998, I boarded a Qatar Airways flight to United Arab Emirates (UAE). I landed in Dubai to work--where else?--in a McDonald’s restaurant (we called it a store). The whole process was nearly free: I didn’t have to pay for the visa, for the air tickets or for the sundry payments to the labour agency agents. A village boy from the margins of the eastern corner of Nepal, and someone who hadn’t travelled much beyond Kathmandu--I grabbed the moment as a golden opportunity.

There were three of us Nepalis who were sent to Al Ain, a small desert town in Abu Dhabi, capital of the seven emirates that make up UAE, to work as a crew at one of McDonald’s dozen stores in the whole of UAE. The first memories of that dusty desert town are the many lonely moments wondering if we were the first and only Nepalis there. We were delighted on the rarity of our tribe, but also feared the claustrophobia it entailed.

A year later, I was transferred to Sharjah, where the cricket stadium nearly brought a slice of homely reminder, though I was never a cricket fan--but more than that, it was a gaggle of Nepali friends that seemed to make life easier in Sharjah. There were also the amicable, even effeminate, Filipinos who because of their Mongolian features reminded me of my Limbu friends in Phidim. The sturdy South Indian colleagues who followed Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, were in contrast to them. It was hard for me to maintain a delicate balance between these two sets of people who were often at odds with each other.

But the Dashain of 1999 changed it all. We turned our accommodation into a hub of festivities, bought chicken from the nearby grocery, and cooked Nepali dishes. As if that was not enough, we also asked a few Filipino friends to join us. Prem Gurung, a very jovial fellow from Tanahu, managed to conjure the tika--which was not as dark red and thick as in Nepal, but the best that we could manage in the alien desert. We also convinced our Filipino and Syrian managers that Dashain was akin to Christmas or Ramadan and to give us the day off--and then, went to a coastal bazaar called Rolla. Boats were anchored; but the area also reeked of fish and slaughtered animals. But on the roadside and near the shopping mall, it was surprisingly green--a temptation to believe we were not in a sandy desert town, and instead, at a so-called Arabian oasis.

Eric was a lean Filipino and even a just-arrived-from-home Nepali could have mistaken him for a mate because of his fluent Nepali. Of course, the fact that he was taught the choicest of Nepali swear words didn’t help much--he often mouthed them liberally and embarrassing us in front of a few Nepali female colleagues at times. Like the Nepali language that he had mastered, he relished the dal-bhat-tarkari. We had smuggled very-sour tasting liquor from the neighbouring emirate of Ajman (alcohol was not allowed in Sharjah). A few pegs down, I was gripped by nostalgia, with the recollections of good times back home flooding my mind. Then, someone began belting out Nepali numbers from the DVD player that almost every Nepali working at McDonald’s possessed. We danced to the Dohori tunes, our bodies sweating in the sweltering heat. We did our best but most of our moves were awkward--the pictures can prove that.

The next morning, we ventured out to Dubai to visit a Hindu temple near a creek. We boarded a boat and were mesmerized by the sight of the never-ending Arabian Sea. Across the creek, Indians who easily outnumbered other expats thronged the temple. The area had an air of a busy Tarai bazaar in Nepal. And after blessings from the South Indian pujari, we returned to the drudgery of McDonald's.

Dashain ecard courtesy: Ujjwal Acharya.

1 comment:

Krishna K. Bista said...

at least you wrote what many of us felt in an alien land.

Krishna Bista
Denver, Colorado