Welcome to suburbiaMeet Jyoti, the leader of a group of children who live on the outskirts of Kathmandu
Her hair is up in a pony tail some days. Some days, she wears it in pigtails. I rarely get to see her face up-close, but watching her from my balcony I can tell that she is mostly laughing. Her eyes, if not her throat. She is called Jyoti.
I have known Jyoti for less than a year.
When we moved to Kathmandu’s suburbia, we came to a place packed with three-storey houses that had quickly replaced paddy fields. All houses here look similar. Each is two and a half-storey, mostly built on chaar-aana lands, with pointy rooftops, popularly known as ‘namaste’ in the local construction lingo.
The only thing that gives the houses some character is their colour. They come in the brightest hues you can imagine—from parrot green to fuchsia. This is the post-civil-war, new Kathmandu —stretching in whichever direction it can, both horizontally and vertically.
Even with the lockdown, new houses kept cropping up in our neighbourhood. They went up overnight, sometimes. Jyoti’s father is one of the realtors in the area. His job is to slice the fields into little plots, and find buyers for them.
Another of his jobs is to make sure Jyoti doesn’t go out to play with the neighbourhood boys. But the kids show up anyway, and often I overhear conversations like this one:
“What do you want?” Jyoti’s father puts his torso out the window and shouts at the boys standing below his window.
“We want to go play. With Jyoti,” they say.
“She isn’t here. Go away!”
“We want to play with her.”
“She isn’t here,” he tells the kids.
“Where is she?”
“She’s gone to the temple.”
“I know! I know!” says one of the boys. “It’s some festival today when all women go to the temple. Let’s go there and find her.”
“No need to go there. Go home!” The father shouts.
“I’m going to start fasting, too. Next year onwards,” shouts the first boy.
“How old are you?” asks the father.
“Nine. And he’s seven,” he says, pointing at the boy in his tow.
“And who told you that you would have to start fasting? Fasting is for women,” says Jyoti’s father.
“I know. But boys could do it as well. I am going to start fasting next year,” says the nine-year-old. They race off on their bikes.
Jyoti returns. She’s dressed in a red kurti and walks alongside her mother, who has donned a red sari. Just like the other women in the neighbourhood. She follows her mother obediently inside the gate and disappears.
“I told you boys to go away. She won’t be playing with you all anymore. Badmasharu!”
“Okay, we will come back for her later.”
Jyoti tries to wrench a pole from the roadside, employing all her strength.
“No!” the boy screams. “That pole is to keep the electricity wires from sagging. They’ll kill us.”
“Okay, but we need to find two poles to build us a badminton court,” says Jyoti. And they disappear in the neighbourhood, returning after a few hours with two poles, Jyoti dragging one of them.
“We need to build a kennel for the puppy. I shall get him a box from my house. It will be your job to dig up space, so we can build him a kennel,” says Jyoti.
The puppy, barely a few weeks old, cuddles in the warmth of Jyoti’s arms. Other children wait their turn to hold the puppy. When Jyoti’s hands tire, she hands the puppy to other children.
By the end of the day, a cardboard kennel has been built. One of the boys has brought a piece of foam to serve as the mattress.
“We will call this one Bruno,” announces Jyoti. No one contests it.
Bruno also has a bowl for milk now. They put him in the cardboard box and leave him in the open space in front of Jyoti’s house, before parting to return to their respective homes.
Bruno has gone missing.
The children confirm from some people in the neighbourhood that a woman was seen dragging the puppy towards the wasteland. The day is spent in search, but Bruno is nowhere to be found.
Next day, Jyoti deploys her team in different directions. They speed off on their bicycles. Some walk, interrogating random people in the village about Bruno. No one seems to have an idea.
On the third day, Jyoti and team interrogate the adult community dogs.
“Blink twice if you’ve seen Bruno,” orders Jyoti.
“Blink once if he went left. Blink thrice if he went right. DO NOT blink if you haven’t seen him.”
But the adult dogs stare at Jyoti and team, huff a little and lie down on the badminton court, turning their backs towards the sun.
Jyoti is sitting in front of her house with Mahi. They are sitting close and talking in whispers. When they walk by my house, I see that Jyoti is holding a kitten, wrapped in a scarf.
“You adopted a kitten,” I say.
“Yes,” she smiles. Then she asks, “You cut your hair?”
“Yes, I cut my own hair,” I say.
“It looks nice. I like it,” she says, smiles and then walks away with the kitten snuggled in her arms.
Jyoti is wearing a loose top and her hair is up in a pony like one of those girls from Korean dramas. She clings to her mother, who stands on the terrace, talking to a neighbour. She has not been allowed to leave the house for days. Neighbourhood kids show up asking for her and then leave, disappointed.
“Bring your bicycle up to the terrace and keep it there now. You’re a big girl. You can’t be riding around when you have your periods,” I hear Jyoti’s mother tell her.
Jyoti drags her bike up to the terrace, leans it against the kitchen wall, then grabs it and sits on it, astride.
Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people (with some names changed) in Pratibha’s life.