A Gift of Gaajal

April 19, 1843
Thapathali, Nepal

Ganesh Kumari came into the room slowly, balancing the large nanglo so that it would not topple over and spill all of what goes into making gaajal. She positioned herself directly in the path of the slanted rectangle of sun flooding the room, crouched down, gingerly placed the nanglo on the floor, and crouching further, eased herself onto the sukul, palm of left hand pivoting her movements. A soft thasssa escaped from her throat as she settled into a paleti. The sun was directly on her back. It was unclear whether the small victories up to that point annoyed her or satisfied her. With the same spirit, she arranged around her the spices and assortment from the nanglo, picked from different nooks of the kitchen. Directly in front of her she placed the large copper diyo.

Searching within the folds of her infinitely spacious patukaa she fished out a tear of white muslin and spreading it across her palm, deposited upon it one spoon fenugreek one spoon carom seeds one spoon Bhimsen camphor. Next a dribble of mustard oil to the point where it smothered the mixed concoction, but did not drip down through the muslin onto her hand. A gentle massage of the oilyglob with her fingers to ensure consistency. A gathering of the four ends of the muslin to form an imperfect turgid tube, a twirlywhirl of the cloth ends on the muslin-heavy side so it resembled a lamp wick, a placing of the entire lump onto the copper diyo so the tiwrlywick faced out, like the suffering end of a regular oil lamp. She is fully engrossed in her work. She transitions to the present.

Tongs fetch a glowing ember from the makal in the center of the room. The wick carefully touches the ember and encouraged with soft blows of air, catches fire. Excess oil already dripping from the wick now falls straight down in tiny blobs of flame and oil that end their lives as black splotches in the already dirty sukul.

Then comes another diyo, which when turned upside down and tilted almost completely covers the first one, but for a small opening away from the flame,  for obvious purposes.

The flame burns long, stilldrippingoil, but then grows quiet, and soon starts beating a subtle rhythm to the slow seeping supply of oil from the masala mixture forming the body of the turgid tube. The flame with each gentle waving deposits a waft of soot onto the overturned diyo, fed by flame, lifted by heat, a magical transformation from ethereal flame to dark smoke to black soot, floating gently into existence. The softest whiffs of something created out of nothing. The strands of soot grow. At least one ghadi passes.

Ganesh Kumari realizes that the salty warmth of the sun has slipped away from her back and is now gracing the sukul several hands away. She leans forward slightly, finds a pivot and twists her buttocks once, twice, thrice. Her back is in the sun again. What’s happening this year? Early Baisakh and the mornings have still not warmed up.

If she lets the soot collect unattended for long, it will come crashing down under its own weight and smother the flame. Every once in awhile, then, Ganesh Kumari gently lifts the top diyo, looks at its underbelly. When there is enough of the tangled mesh to collect, she scoops it out gently with her fingers and transferred it to a brass plate, careful not to let whiffs fly away in waste. 

When a sizeable pile of soot has collected in front of her, she quashes the flame, fishes out some butter and adds a dollop to the pile. She picks up a conch shell and with the smooth side rubs the mixture patiently into a fine black gaajal that occasionally shines like silver powder.

Someone is here. Her concentration broken, she slips out of the present.

She looked up as Jung Bahadur entered.

You’re here already, Babu.

I’m coming straight from the Resident’s. Mama took me and Kulman sasura along. We wanted to feel out the Resident.


It’s hard to read the Resident. He gave his standard answer of staying out of darbar affairs. But I know he is pleased to see Mama return.

What does Mathabar say? How is he?

Mama has already grown out his moustache to Prime-Minister-size. He gives out expensive gifts to just about anyone who comes by to visit. But he’s still living out of the hut in Kalanki…insists that he won’t move into Nepal proper until the Thapa name is cleared.

Mathabar said the right thing. Otherwise how is Bhimsen Bua’s troubled soul going to find peace? But when will all this end? When will Nepal go back to normal? Have they cleaned up Baag Darbar for him?

No. Mama can only occupy Baag Darbar after his property has been officially restored. He will live here with us in the meantime…that is, when he is ready to leave the hut. I am trying to work through Surendra to commit the Raja into making assurances for Mama.

The Pandes are shit scared. They will likely be all cut. Debi Bahadur is going to be cut with them. I will try to save him but it is too early to broach the topic with Mama.

That Debi Bahadur…Who had asked that idiot to open his mouth against Kanchi Rani? The backing of Jethi Rani made him careless then, and he will surely pay. Abhaagi mora…Do you best to save him.

Ganesh Kumari was layering fingerfuls of the gaajal into a small surmadani that Jung Bahadur’s father had bought in Kashi.

Here, give this to Mathabar tomorrow. Tell him it is for his newborn. Will cure eye sores and reduce chipra.

Why hurry? I will give it when all is settled. It’s not like Mama’s household is starving for gaajal.

Ganesh Kumari wiped away the gaajal in her hands. Her son’s rude responses to ordinary questions. The instinctive twitching of his torso when annoyed. Signatures of her first-born, so dear to her since his childhood for its innocent impatience and bristling bravado. She noted with sadness that they were now increasingly tinged with arrogance and a little bit of cynicism.

Look Babu. You are already a Kaji. You are manager of Kumari Adda! …

Ganesh Kumari realized that a tone of admiration was suddenly creeping into her voice despite herself. She dialed it back.

…You know how to play power a lot better than this old woman. But listen. Money your Mama has lots of from his timber contracts. Followers he has lots of as you saw already. What he needs is afno maanche. In good times and bad. Never forget his goon to you. Let him call you Jangey if it pleases him. It is only a name…he says it with love. Always make sure he sees that you are his blood. If you do that, he will never betray you. And you can rise with him. This gaajal is not chakari. It is a gift for family. Blood, after all, is blood.


Epilogue: Exactly two years and one month later, Mathabar Singh Thapa was shot dead by his nephew Jung Bahadur, under orders from King Rajendra.

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