If you went early, it was foggy. I liked that. Women and men, with woolen shawls wrapped tightly, heads bent slightly, scarves covering their heads, moved in quick, small steps. Even dogs moved differently in the morning fog, running, nose to the ground, sniffing jettisoned garbage before the street sweepers could get to it with their grass brooms and dokos.
I went down the path, past the neighbors, admiring their sleek water buffalo (the last two in Lainchaur) and the few remaining banana trees--broad leaves open to the morning sun. The sound of pressure cookers and kerosene stoves sent up earthy songs from the rooftops and from deep in the center of windowless kitchens.
A bit further down, I passed the elementary school, where children in uniform (hand me downs, a hundred times over) leaned out of the glassless windows and gleefully shouted the alphabet. Then over the soccer field, muddy in monsoon, but hard as a rock then.
Finally round the last corner, where an ancient bougainvillaea lay heavy over a tall concrete wall with broken glass along the top. The green gate. Then the Swiss Dairy, where fresh yogurt was served daily, in low-fire mud bowls. Very fine with fresh bananas from India.
You could cross the street there. I never knew the name of that busy thoroughfare–though it had one, painted in foot-high Devanagri letters on a big sign. I only knew if you went left and up the hill, you’d pass the palace, and if you crossed the street, darting daringly between diesel-belching auto rickshaws, maniac motorcycle drivers and the occasional slithering black Mercedes state car, you could make it to the gate with the big sign that said, “Malla Hotel.”
Even this early, just as the sun was piercing the fog, the sweepers had cleared the driveway of every leaf and every errant scrap of paper. A thin and solemn man in a grey uniform and a black topi swung open the heavy wood and glass door, and whispered, “Namaste,” as if he was telling me a secret.
Sometimes groups of well-stuffed, rosey cheeked, German tourists crowded around the front desk, anxiously awaiting the Jeeps that would take them to a trail head or to the airport. They wore fine sweaters and sensible shoes, but they never said hello.
The dining room was upstairs and compared to the small rooms of my flat, it was palatial. Tall windows looked out over a few acres of garden. Not too much happened in that garden. Sometimes a woman, weary from shopping in the bazaar would lie on a chaise lounge and read a book. A couple of malis tended the pots of marigolds and green things. They never spoke, they only clipped and pruned.
I took a window table, always, at the insistence of the head waiter. He made a quiet flourish of seating me, though by this time, the room was nearly always empty. “Tea?” He asked, in perfect Dareeling English, though in 4 years, I think I only ordered coffee once.
He brought the tea in a heavy silver pot, worn from years of use and hand washing. He brought a small basket with croissant and small sweet biscuits. Sometimes he brought butter or marmalade. These things were a pleasant rest from rice and curry.
We made small talk. Every waiter came to try his English and when I replied in my mispoken Nepali, they all said, “Oh memsahib,” or “Oh sister,” “You speak perfectly.” Of course this was not true. I broke every rule of grammar and used only the past and future tense. I knew only a handful of honorifics and I’m sure my accent was unintelligible. Still, it helped to have waist length hair in a thick braid and a tiny diamond-centered gold flower in my nose. It helped to wear simple sandals on bare feet. It helped to wear the long style of colorful salwar kamij, the graceful dress, slit high over loosely fitting pants. It helped to laugh so much, quietly.
Each day I read the paper and wrote a letter and every day when I looked at my watch, the waiter would magically appear and say, “More?” I’d say, “No, I’ll take the ticket please.” Malaii ticket dinos. And he’d return with the bill on a small silver platter and a small napkin with an extra pastry inside. “Shhhhh,” he’d say and smile. I knew he was breaking the rules.
I left a small tip, though it was not the custom at the time.
Outside, the man in the grey uniform would smile ever so slightly, open the door, and bowing just a bit, whisper, “Namaste,”
– the diety in me recognizes the diety in you–
I think he meant it.