A Drink of Water

August 1, 1837
Jumla

What shall we do, Baba? Where shall we go? Nepal? Muglan?

Don’t know yet, son. Let me mull it over. If we go to Nepal, we will be cut. The Pandeys are screaming for Thapa blood right now.

Jung Bahadur had grown up in the presence of his father’s quiet dignity, something that seemed to come naturally to the hereditary Kaji. But after the family lost everything in the wake of Bhimsen Thapa’s fall, Jung Bahadur had seen his father rapidly dissolve into a broken man: shoulders slumped, eyes staring at the ground, wide and lost. Jung Bahadur’s mercury suddenly shot up.

Baba, what happened to all of your selfless service to the Palace? You cut Sher Bahadur Shahi and avenged Rana Bahadur’s death. That was not loyalty to the Thapas. That was loyalty to the Palace. Shouldn’t that count? Why are we being dragged down with the Thapas? Where is the King when we need him? Where is God? What good was all of your “merit earning”? The bridge you built at Pashupati…the four hours of worship every day…the feeding of beggars along Bagmati…All that and now look at us! Look at you!

Calm down, son. This Palace has a short memory. Right now, they just see us as extended Thapa clan. We rose with the Thapas, and now we must fall with them. In the end, the only winner in Nepal is the Palace. No matter how strong or weak it is. Look at your great-uncle Bhimsen. He was the most powerful man in all of Nepal for a while. Even the King dared not speak against him…yet he died like a dog in the end. We, on the other hand, are servants of servants. After your great-uncle’s fall, I have come to realize that no matter how piously I try to live my life, no matter how confidently we call ourselves Bhaardaars and show our historic ties to the Palace, we are gnats. It is written in our karma: we are gnats and we will always remain gnats. Never forget that. We are gnats.

∫∫∫

March 28, 1876
Deurali (a small village between Bhimphedi and Kulekhani on the southern route to Nepal)

Jung Bahadur jerked the reins of his horse, turned back and said to Khadga Singh Gurung:

My water-skin is empty. Get me some water.

Khadga Singh looked back, fidgeted.

Maharaaj, the minders seem to have fallen behind. I will immediately send someone to fetch them. In the meantime…Maharaaj…we appear to be out of…

Jung Bahadur shot him an incinerating look. But the ensuing words were soft.

Let it be. I will find some on my own.

Leaving the devastated Khadga Singh behind, Jung Bahadur whipped his horse leftward and off the main path into a small, almost invisible trail. Just as he disappeared into the thicket, Dhir Shamsher and the rest of the elite hunting party galloped up behind Khadga Singh.

What happened? Where is Maharaja? Dhir asked briskly.

He went alone….Maharaja wanted some water…the minders were not here…his water skin was empty…

OK, OK, Dhir stopped the semi-coherent blabber from Khadga Singh.

Go after him, fast. Take the rest of the Aath Pahariya bodyguards with you. The rest of the party, stay here with me.

Dhir Shamsher was not going to go running after his brother. Not any more.

Jung Bahadur swooshed out his Wikishan sword and deftly sliced off the shrubs and branches that came in his way. He was looking for  a stream, but soon he saw through the thicket a thatched rooftop, smells of human habitation, and cow-dung. He set his horse on amble. As Jung Bahadur approached the homestead, the smell of cow-dung grew strong. The wood smoke in the air make it almost tolerable. The miserably small hut now fully in view was slightly tilted to one side. Mud plaster on the walls had peeled off in many places exposing sickly smallpox scars. On top of that, straw bundles from within the walls had broken through the smallpox holes into radiant fragments exploding out at various lengths and awkward angles. The entire facade thus had a wounded and defeated appearance.  Looking down, Jung Bahadur noticed  a thin trench that ran out from a hole on the side of the hut towards the courtyard, made a turn, passed through where he stood, and drained off into the hillside. It was obviously meant to be a sewer around the courtyard, but done so halfheartedly that it resembled a child’s running of a stick through dirt in play. A fly buzzed past and settled on Jung Bahadur’s neck. It did not bother him.

…gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat

Jung Bahadur noticed that Khadga Singh had scurried हस्याँङ् फस्याँङ् to the scene, and now lay motionless immediately behind him, trying to subdue his outofbreath panting.

There were two wretched children playing in the courtyard. They had short, dirty tunics on their bodies, and tattered trousers.They were completely covered in filth and looked more animal than human. Jung Bahadur was disgusted. One appeared to be a boy of around six, the other perhaps his younger sister, perhaps three. The older boy played, and the little girl followed him around. Sometimes the boy did stop to play with the girl: she looked happiest at these times. Suddenly the boy, who was facing away from Jung Bahadur, bent over to grab a pebble. His butt-cheeks, dusty and scarred, now peeked through two large holes in his trousers directly towards Jung Bahadur. Jung Bahadur violently looked away, twitched his torso, and jerked his shoulders to adjust his epaulettes. The epaulettes suddenly felt heavy on his shoulders.

A man came out of the smallpox hut with a bored look of curiosity, meaning to check on the new arrival in his courtyard.  Khadga Singh ran over and whispered something into the man’s ear. The man’s face broke into a wide smile of joy. Head cocked slightly forward and to the left, he raised his right hand and absently started scratching the back of his head in the manner so familiar to us Nepalis. But he did it through a dirty, tattered and ridiculously small cap that was sort of in the way. The end effect was that the cap clumsily moved around as he scratched back and forth. The cap finally ended up in such an awkward angle that it make him look more pitiable than comical.

Just then, Jung Bahadur’s bodyguards broke in loudly through the thicket, swords swishing metal on metal armor scraping and lined up neatly behind Jung Bahadur, all looking severe. By this time, the import of what was transpiring had partially and vaguely sunk  into the man’s head. His face froze into a tortured contortion of pain, fear and the grin from earlier that didn’t quite go away.

Khadga Singh whispered something else into the man’s ear. Still in coma, the man looked to the left, to the right, then to the left again with dazed eyes, and managed to point weakly to a homemade chair of sorts in the nearby shed. Khadga Singh grabbed it, and squeezing out every bit of dignity he had trained for in the Palace, rushed to Jung Bahadur and seated him upon it.

Khadga Singh hurried back to the man. More whispering ensued. An ankhora was procured from within the hut. Khadga Singh filled Jung Bahadur’s water-skin to the best of his abilities with the contents of the ankhora. Jung Bahadur took a deep draught of water. The cool, freshmineral taste was good. But it did not make him feel any better. As he drank, Jung Bahadur heard some bustling from inside the smallpox hut. A clang of pots and pans mixed in with other kitchen sounds. Soon a trail of water trickled through the hole in the wall, and inched along like a scared earthworm through the ridiculous sewer circling the courtyard. Jung Bahadur tried to pay no attention and looked straight ahead towards the man. As the trickle of water advanced and passed through Jung Bahadur’s chair, it riled up the half-rotten grains that had accumulated in the sewer from previous days. The distinctive sick-sweet smell of rotting grains rose up directly into Jung Bahadur’s nose. Instinctively Jung Bahadur looked down. He expected to see rotting rice grains. Instead he saw rotting millet. They eat dhindo here! 

The recent death of Siddhiman Singh… the eight balls of opium last night… and now the goddamn dhindo… all this addled Jung Bahadur’s head…

… gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat

Jung Bahadur shot up from the chair and with one move, mounted his horse. Everyone around him snapped to attention. Khadga Singh knew that there was going to be one of those episodes now.

You! Come here! Jung Bahadur thundered at the man.

Jung Bahadur was shaking with rage. To stabilize himself, he tightened the reins of his horse with one hand, and grabbed the hilt of his Wikishan sword with the other.

The man slithered towards Jung Bahadur, his hand still scratching his head, face still grotesquely fixed with the grin, more dead than alive. He had heard mythical tales of Jung Bahadur cutting the heads of many, many people in Nepal, all of them very much more important than himself.

When the man was a few hands away from the horse, he looked up.

Fill up those holes with mud and cow-dung!

Thus screamed Jung Bahadur, face red with rage, a shaking finger pointing unsteadily at the smallpox marks on the hut.

With that, Jung Bahadur whipped his horse around and galloped off. Only a cloud of dust remained.

The man realized that he really did not understand any of what had transpired on his courtyard that day.

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