Question Man by Kathryn Stam

Triten Norbutse Bön Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal. (July 2018)

I am at a mediocre hotel that advertises services and rooms that they clearly do not actually have. The hotel is in Thamel, in the busy backpacker neighborhood. I order an early breakfast called East meets West, and it comes with rice, potatoes, scrambled eggs, and sliced banana, and a weak cappuccino. It’s the rainy season, so the only other person staying at the guest house is a Peace Corps volunteer with a chronic Nepal cough, who is writing in his journal under the tin roof of the outdoor restaurant. A kitten with no name plays with a string that hangs off my bag. The air is heavy but clearer than usual because of last night’s rain, but by evening Kathmandu will be a pollution storm, the masks will come out, and people will hold hands crossing the streets as they squint and dance between buses and honking taxis.

I think I can see the Triten Norbutse Bön Buddhist Temple tucked on the side of a mountain from my corner room, but there are other temples and buildings with water containers on the rooftops in the way. I was trying not to have expectations about visiting this special Tibetan temple of magic and mystery. I showed a picture of the temple from Google images and then a map to the cab driver. I pointed it out on the hillside. He said he didn’t know it but would try.

We drove past Swayambhunath, the monkey temple, and I remembered walking there along this same colorful and hectic route with my Thai ex-husband Suthin during our last trip eight years before. We had left our sleepy teen at the hotel and walked the 40 minutes to get there, through narrow streets with food vendors in their shops calling out to us as we went. We giggled at the names of the shops, like “You Beauty Salon,” and the funny drawings of Western foods such as hot dogs, pancakes, and espresso, in the smudged and opaque windows. The car horns and busy traffic in the street made it hard to talk and hear, so Suthin paused in front of a butcher shop and signed back to me, making faces like the dead pigs, and pointing at the dead goats splayed out like a biology lab frog mid-dissection. Suthin asked me if I wanted anything at the bakery, but I knew he was just kidding because he would never have bought the street food there, nervous about the flies and impure water. Suthin wasn’t picky about food in his hometown, where there eat frogs, eels, dried meats and sausages, but he was concerned about hygiene wherever we traveled. He had pointed at the roti sellers and gestured as if he had a spatula in his hand, flipping the crispy treats covered in evaporated milk and butter. It was a mild and sunny Kathmandu day in February, and we took our time— there were no proper sidewalks and the store fronts were a mangle of steps, cracks, and ramps dripping with water of unknown origins. Suthin had walked ahead of me and then given me his hand when we reached anything slimy, rocky, or difficult to navigate. We had dodged workmen with heavy loads on their heads and narrowly missed a cart carrying a large mirror.  We had crossed the street to avoid a drunk who was having a fight with a garbage can. We were startled by how quickly the taxi cabs drove by and how close they came to our bodies. Suthin sent a toddler in pigtails back inside the open front of her house. The child’s mother had thanked him in Nepali while he explained to her in Thai that he was nervous, and then we went on our way.

Now that Suthin is dead, I remember our last trip so vividly. At the steps up to Swayambu, a woman statue vendor had called to us. “Come, Look. I have Shiva. I have Buddha.” Suthin had smiled and mimicked her to me, “I have Shiva.” Suthin had stopped to talk with her about Shiva— both of them using a combination of their broken English and native languages, and laughing. The steps up the hill were steep, uneven, and gritty.  As usual, Suthin was my spotter. Both out of shape, we had breathed heavily. Towards the top, there was an entry point that charged admission only to foreigners, and I had taken out enough money for two from a zippered pocket in my bag.  Then Suthin casually walked by the Admissions gate without causing any of the three guards to blink and avoiding the $3 charge. For Suthin, this place was holy and he wanted to make merit, to build up good karma for the judgment day. He also wanted to take a picture of this famous and auspicious place to show to the abbot of the temple where he stayed back in Thailand. I, on the other hand, mostly wanted a picture for my Facebook profile. We couldn’t see the screen well because of the bright sun. There at one of the most spiritual places in the valley, and the world, we checked and rechecked my one-inch viewfinder to see the neverending series of pictures of ourselves. But it is now eight years later, and I am in Nepal on my own. Suthin would have loved this trip. I dodge questions about why he didn’t come and then reluctantly tell people he is dead, and then they think I am a widow.

Today, I am driving up another hill to arrive at the Bön temple. I ask the driver if he has time to wait for me. Ramesh says, “No problem. However much time it takes you is how much time I have.”

There is a tall, decorated entryway over the stairs that lead up to the heavens. I see a man wearing a maroon down vest and try to talk, but he rushes into an office and closes the gate behind him. There is a sign hanging lopsided from the gate, but I can’t read it. I go up past a tea shop and a woman says “Namaste” and asks me “how are you?” I tell her it is warm but I am good. She agrees it is warm. I go up further, holding my skirt up so it will not get wet in the shallow, grey puddles on the uneven stone steps. I pass a building that has a left-facing swastika (Bön yungdrung) design on the silver-painted gate. I get up to the main temple building, which is perfectly maintained in maroon and gold. And there is no one there. It could not be quieter. Not a soul. There is no one chanting. There is no one cooking or cleaning. I walk around the courtyard where I have seen videos of monks practicing their dialectic techniques, shouting and clapping their hands together as they make a logical argument. And where the ceremonial mask dances happen to the heavy thump of drums and thighbone trumpets. I see a bald man in maroon looking out from a far upstairs window but he moves behind the rich golden curtain when I catch his eye.

The air is clear from a recent rain and a tourist helicopter is also admiring the view of the golden monkey temple Swayambunath with its “sublime trees.” I see the rooftops of homes of six million people, some of whom have returned home for the rice harvest. Like me, they will return.  Two male workers in straw hats are napping under a tarp by an enormous clump of bamboo. I sit and breathe deeply for a few minutes and head back down. I get to the tea shop, and there is a Bön monk. He’s wearing a maroon tank top and sweatpants, and is fidgeting with mala beads in his hands. There are five people standing around and talking with him, girls and boys in their early twenties.

“Namaste! How are you?” I say.

“Fine,” one says, and they all look at me for a long time without a word.

“Why it is so quiet?”

“Monks sleeping now,” says a girl, and her friend laughs to hear her speak English. The girl hits her friend on the arm.

“Now breaktime. The best time to come is at 5:00, when the monks are memorizing things.”

“Memorizing things?” I ask.

“Yes, they walk up and down these steps to chant and memorize.” There is a pause. There is always a pause in Nepali conversations.

“Ok. I will come back another day. Is morning good?”

“No, monks are very busy in morning. Come at evening and you will see monks going here and there and there.”

I have three weeks left in my trip, but I may have already gotten what I was seeking- a window into the Bön Buddhist world. On my own overlooking this earthy and disordered city, and there is no one else here. At least no one who is rushing out to talk to me. Only silence. I have only set eyes upon two Bön monks and neither one had a word to say to me. And it’s all too easy to wrap it up and run back to the taxi, and the hotel’s watery cappuccino with the heart design and the waiter who says, “Sorry today ma’am, not much foam…How were your adventures?”

I take a few more steep steps down, careful not to trip in my wet sandals. There is a young man standing in the tea shop, just a few feet away from me on the step. I can see that he has a tattoo of a question mark on his calf, about 8 inches tall, in fresh indigo. His girlfriend, who is eating noodles laughs at him and then covers her face with her hand. He starts to speak softly, over the distant city sounds of construction and honking. I can’t tell if he is speaking English or Nepali.

“Your tattoo,” I say. “I like it very much.”

“Thank you. See?” he says, “It is a man.”

“What man is that? Do you know him?”

“No. That is just a man. See him? He has a nose, mouth, like that.” He traces the profile with his finger, slowly.

“Is he you?”

“No”.

“Who is he?” I ask.

“He helps me.”

“What does he help you with?”

“I am like this, down, (he leans his head down towards his knee) and then I see him and I am up here, like this.” He raises his chest high.

“Does he protect you?”

“Protect? No. He makes me energy. I feel”….(he breathes in deeply)….

I smile and the girlfriend laughs, snorting and choking on her Coke. At first I think she is making fun of her boyfriend but then I wonder if she might be making fun of me, and by “me”, I mean all foreigners in their dragging and wet Indian skirts, coming to the temple to find something they can’t name and don’t know where or when it is.

“And what about the question mark?” I ask.

“It is like that.”

“Like what?” I ask.

“Like it is all out in the open.” (His arms go up and out.)

“What is like that, all out in the open?” I don’t understand.

His eyebrows furrow and there is that long pause that is so common when talking with Nepalis. The girlfriend looks at me, serious for the first time, listening quietly.

“Do you mean life is a question?” I ask.

“Maybe,” he responds, nodding his head side to side in the way South Asians do so you don’t know if the answer means yes or no. “It means Question Man,” he replies finally.

BIO: Kathryn Stam is a professor of cultural anthropology, a mother, a daughter, a writer, and a huge fan of all things Himalayan.

The last two photos:  1. The Flying Horse Nepal comes across as strange and wonderful at first, and continues to do so no matter how many times you visit. This is a horse riding academy that I would not have believed had I not seen it with my own eyes.  2. Stam- Khadka family. The author has been friends with a Nepali family in Dhapakhel, Nepal for over thirty years since she studied abroad there in 1986. This is Pashupatinath Khadka, his wife, and their grandson during a recent trip.