Courtesy of a special order via http://www.abebooks.com
Coming to you as the former property of the Cumbria Council Library in England
Non-fiction. An easy read that took me right back to my days in northern India, although it is about an English family’s adventures in southern Nepal. I loved this book and wanted to stay in its world forever.
MD Jane Wilson-Howarth and her water engineer husband Simon are living in Nepal as he works for Asia Bank. His job is to help improve irrigation in Nepal, and he’s based alternatively in Kathmandu and in very rural Rajapur, an island on the Indian border. Their small son Alexander is soon fluent in Nepali and Tharu. Trouble begins when Jane gives birth to a second son, David, who is born with all sorts of problems. David has two holes in his heart, only one kidney, an oversized head, and is missing the ganglia that normally connect the two halves of your brain. (Jane wonders if the pesticides and chemicals she was exposed to in Pakistan could have caused this.)
As a doctor, Jane knows that giving birth in the U.K., with its high-tech machines, high standards of cleanliness, and plentiful pain-relieving medications and antibiotics has probably saved her life, and the life of her son. (In Nepali hospitals, doctors and nurses will not deal with bodily fluids–it is beneath their high-caste status. And drugs are hard to come by.)
But soon Western medicine reaches the limits of what it can do for David. Doctors want to keep taking his blood and testing, testing, testing. Eventually Jane says “Is this going to improve David’s quality of life, or make him feel better? Can you stop him from vomiting all the time?” When they can’t tell her yes, she disconnects the tubes from her unhappy baby and flies back to Nepal.
Although Jane sees that Nepaliis don’t always treat the disabled well, she prefers their blunt straightforwardness to the awkward avoidance of Westerners, who stare at David but don’t interact with him. In Nepal, most people coo and ah over his baby cuteness and his curly blonde hair first, then ask why he isn’t standing up on his own legs yet or talking.
The family does a lot of trekking and taking David about in a basket, and he seems to enjoy the different sights and particularly the sounds. At one festival dedicated to the goddess Laxmi, where all sorts of fireworks are set off, Jane says that David is the only child who enjoys the noise.
There is a caste system in Nepal and it’s quite unfair (perhaps not as much if you believe in reincarnation). If you’re born an untouchable, you can only escape by converting to being a Christian or a Muslim, and even then, people will know. In the book we meet Simon’s coworkers, all of whom are upper castes and most of whom are very dismissive of the “ignorant” village people and especially the indigenous Tharus. Jane employs one Tharu lady to keep house for her and then ends up hiring her husband as a gardener and her daughters too. Because of this, the family is eventually able to buy themselves out of bondage to their Brahmin landlord and build their very own house on a narrow strip of land.
Throughout the book though, Jane is frustrated at not being able to make a medical difference to the people. Many Nepaliis of all castes come to her door looking for medical advice. Like people everywhere, many of them want a pill to solve their problems. Many of them are intestinal. Upon being told to stop smoking, stop chewing betel nuts or drinking alcohol, and avoid the spicy chilies Nepallis love, almost everyone ignores her advice and begs for an endoscopy, some pills, or an X-Ray.
Know-It-Alls are Annoying
I fell in love with charming baby David and bristled right along with his mother when she meets an obnoxious Indian medical professional who announces at once, “There is something wrong with your baby!” (As if she hadn’t noticed.) “He has some sort of…syndrome. He is severely mentally retarded!” It reminded me of the obnoxious Indian lawyer that we met while staying at a government bungalow between Delhi and Jaipur. He made pronouncements as if from on high, with no apparent realization that they were quite rude. For example, he told me: “There are 2 religions in America. Protestant and Catholic. Which are you?” Neither, is the answer!
In the book, “Dabid,” as the porters call him, cycles often from being well and thriving, to being sickly and not doing so well. Alexander achieves developmental milestones almost painfully in contrast and starts school. He is a sweet little boy who loves his little brother and his Nepalli friends and longs to grow up to be a driver, like the man called Moti who drives the family around. Endearingly, he calls David “Dawid.” Soon the family is joined by another baby boy, Sebastien. In an especially humorous bit, Jane is relieved to see David stealing Sebastien’s blanket on purpose, because he is not too damaged to feel–and act on–sibling rivalry. She says David thinks Sebastien is evil!
How Do We Know We’re In Nepal?
Another way in which Nepal is different from the West is that when one of the babies cries, all the Nepalii women urge Jane to “feed the baby” immediately. Everybody breast-feeds in public and it’s just fine. Nepal is a poor country, but it is rich in love, at least for children and babies. Women are often treated poorly, however, and Jane eventually takes on a servant girl named Ganga, whose own mother tried to sell her into prostitution in India. Ganga, however, ran away and was lucky enough to find Westerners (with money and a different outlook) who were willing to employ her. Eventually, despite Jane’s protests, Ganga becomes the second wife of a rich old Brahmin and bears him a child. To Jane, this existence seems appalling, all the more so because the first wife and the mother-in-law treat Ganga like dirt because she’s lower-class. But compared to the life she would have had as a prostitute? Yeah.
There are hints of unrest in the book–Maoist gangs–but little crime. And the wildlife is fantastic. At one point the family is trekking through the jungle on elephants and Simon and Alexander see not one, not two, but THREE tigers! I was so jealous. Julia and I and Gary, my British friends who worked with me in Japan, well, we heard a tiger coughing in the bush near Saristi, on a safari via Land Rover, but we never saw one.
Dr. Jane’s undergraduate degree is in zoology, so she is very interested in animals and in plants too. I loved reading her descriptions of them. Even the bits where she describes the scenery (which I usually skip) and the mountains, I devoured.
I wanted to stay in the world of the book, and this family, forever.
Rating: FIVE (hundred) stars in the clear mountain air of the Himals. (Yes, himals.)