Namaste | Ascent
A different kind of close call in Nepal.
They say that truth is in the detail. Is it any wonder that’s where the Devil is to be found?
I was in the market square and walking past a stall, then stopped to try on a garment I liked. I had my rucksack with me and I put it down beside me where I could keep an eye on it. As I tried the garment on, a man came up to me on my left—the rucksack was on my right—and tried to sell me something, but I didn’t want it. He showed me another thing but I didn’t want it either and I said, “Go away.” He went away but when I looked around I saw my rucksack had gone, and when I looked up I could see it on someone’s back in the crowd, running away. I’m almost certain the person with them was the man who tried to sell me something. I tried to run after them, but they ducked into a side street and I lost them. Yes. That’s exactly how it was. Oh, then I looked at my watch. It was exactly five to three.
That sounds about right.
Kathmandu afternoons. I wasn’t sure if I liked or hated them. I lay on my back in the easy cool of my hotel room as outside another day raged by. The sounds of the streets came through the open window: the two-strokes, the markets, the shoe menders, the carpet sellers, the melon pushers, the tiger-balm hawkers. Too bored to read, I left my book open and face down at the usual page as my right hand gently tickled the spine.
It was that space between lunch and mid-afternoon snack and as I stared at the ceiling my mind occupied itself by running over the options for the snack: I could go to the Video Bar, where fuzzy showings of recent releases made up for the food and darkness; the Everest, whose main plus point was that it sold cornflakes in the afternoon; or the Himal, where the rooftop terrace and collection of fronds made me feel Colonial and where in my mind I referred to the waiter as Boy.
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Footsteps in the corridor announced the approach of Jenny. Her key clawed sharp on the metal keyhole—I can’t remember why but we always locked it, even if one of us were in—and she came exhausted through the door carrying a plastic shopping bag and her other canvas bag. She closed the door, locked it, placed the bags on the floor and dropped onto her back on her single bed to my left. There we both lay, both looking, for all I knew, at the same fly doing its pointless polygon around the light fitting.
“Namaste,” I said, with limp irony.
She kicked off her sandals and I looked over to see her street-black toes. I heard her sigh, just to put the effort of the outside world behind her.
“Where you been?”
“Busy busy busy,” she replied after a pause. “I had to send a letter home and the queue in the post office was mental.”
Her words were coming out in slow sentences, unrushed and unmotivated. Perhaps she wanted to sleep, but I was feeling chatty. I asked her about the shopping bag.
“That? I got a present for my brother.”
“What did you get him?”
“One of those T-shirts with the eyes of Buddha on it. The one with Tin Tin on the back. Then I went and found out about busses out to the temple—we can get there by 12 if we leave by 10:30—and had something to eat in the Video Bar.”
Earlier, I had been sure she said she would come back and get me first and we would go together. Like we always did. I thought about reminding her.
“Was it busy?” I asked to cover my disappointment.
“Usual. I was going to come and get you first but I didn’t think you’d like the film.”
“What was on?”
I was still watching one particular fly orbit the unlit light shade. I thought about standing up and trying to kill it. I’d like to see Midnight Express, I thought.
“What a film,” she said.
“Are you just coming from there now?”
“No. I was going to come on back but then decided I’d go down
to the police station and get my certificate while I was on my feet, and get all my chores nailed today.”
“What certificate’s that?”
“For my insurance claim. You have to get something from the local police listing what was stolen from you.”
“What! You’ve been robbed?”
I sat up on my left elbow to hear what happened, but her eyes continued to look towards the ceiling.
“Well, no. I told you before, didn’t I? Not really. It’s for my insurance claim.”
“No, you didn’t tell me.” Did she tell me?
“You go to the cops, tell them you were robbed and get a certificate listing what you lost and how much it cost. They stamp it for you, then when you get home you make a claim.”
“You would do that?”
“I do every year. It’s just a way of paying for the trip. Really, it’s no problem.”
A quickening in her speech and a rise in tone told me she was getting agitated, whether with my probing or just because she was fatigued I didn’t know, but I wanted to find out about this.
“Look, I’ve given them enough money over the years. I’m not going to shed any tears. Have you ever dealt with insurance companies? Well I do, every year, and I can tell you they’re a bunch of robbing bastards.”
“Do you think?”
“Of course they are. Excess this, depreciation that, receipts, proof. It’s institutionalized stealing. Anyway, when did you come over all moral, Mister stealing-books-from-the-hotel-library?”
Jenny had lifted the bottom of her T-shirt and unzipped the pouch of her canvas money belt. She took out a crinkly sheet of thin yellow paper and unfolded it.
“Is that your certificate?” She hummed a yes.
“Don’t they interrogate you, the cops?”
“Are you kidding? It’s the Kathmandu police. They’re really sweet. And anyway, what do they care? Just tell them a few things, they write it down and stamp it. You just need the crime number. It’s a blank check.”
“What did you say you lost?”
“Those things,” she said, pointing the yellow page to the dresser. On it were her camera and lenses, some jewelry, a watch and a pair of sunglasses. I had seen her looking at them that morning after breakfast.
“I told them my bag was lifted when I was on the bus.” “And you’ll get that money back when you go home?” “Most of it. Haven’t you got travel insurance?”
“Well, you ought to do it, too.”
“But it must be risky, if the cops catch you out or something, isn’t it?”
“No, really, it’s no problem.”
“I’m not sure, Jenny. I mean, yeah, it’s a big company and all that, but still, in some way, it is stealing. And there’s always the risk of premeditated lying to the police. That’s First Degree lying, isn’t it? I think it might be. And not just the getting-caught thing but you know, morally. It’s wrong. Are you sure it really isn’t any problem?”
I looked at her for an answer but saw that her eyes were closed and a rhythmic breathing told me that she was fast asleep.
I turned back to the fly, but more absentmindedly now. I had stopped thinking about afternoon snacks and thought instead about insurance. It would never have crossed my mind to try this. Lying to the police and this sort of premeditated stealing seemed a bit serious. But Jenny was not a criminal. She was normal. She phoned home every week.
She was nice.
I had met Jenny in the Himalaya the previous month. I was there to climb mountains. She “wanted to see how far I can get in three weeks.” We had walked together, gone our separate ways once or twice, and always managed to hook up again. I liked her because she was friendly to me yet seemed to dislike everyone else we met along the way. We had traveled around India for a bit then returned to Kathmandu near the end of our respective trips and got a hotel room together just off the main street. The question of double beds never came up, and we felt relaxed in the other’s company. I trusted her.
Perhaps, as she said, it just wasn’t a problem.
I decided to go for afternoon snack. I packed my light bag, unlocked, passed through, and relocked the door. I descended the gloom of the concrete stairway, with its clamped-down coolness, and stepped squinting into the explosion of Kathmandu.
It was hot. The full afternoon sun poured down onto me with all its heat and light. An unimaginable mixture of noises and smells swirled about. Petrol fumes, hammering, rotting vegetables, sweet perfumes, car horns, pots and pans, meatcooking, flybuzzing, foodchopping, dogbarking, marketstallshouting, beggingpleasepleaseplease. I had been here for 10 days, and I still marveled at it all. Steeling myself, I turned to dance between the oncoming throngs. For no reason I took four turns—left right left right—and went to the Everest Garden and ordered scrambled eggs and muffins and coffee.
As usual when I ate alone, I pulled out One Hundred Years of Solitude but looked at the page without reading. I weighed the moral rights and wrongs. I had heard of people doing this before, and had been told how no one really suffers. I hadn’t understood before but now Jenny had explained it I could see it wasn’t real stealing, was it?
A blank check, she had said. That would be nice. I’d like a blank check. And all I had to do for this is go to the police and say I had my bag stolen on the bus. But what could I say I lost? I pictured Jenny’s little spread of valuables. I had no valuables but I did have my mountaineering equipment, which was spewed over my side of the hotel room, a rattlebag of tattered nylon and blunt metal.
That’s what I could say was stolen. Just out of curiosity I got a pen from my bag and made a list of it in a blank page near the back of my book: tent, mat, waterproofs, Swiss Army Knife, crampons, ice axes, plastic boots, ropes, carabiners. Was that worth much? Beside each object I now added their value. I had been given most of it by friends—obsolete or worn out surplus taking up room in somebody’s cupboard, but I ascribed to each object the price I had seen for them in the shop when new. At the bottom I drew a line and wrote the word TOTAL.
Holy cow, I thought, when I added it up and looked at this figure. That’s a lot of money. I checked my addition and I was right. I’d never had that amount of cash before. That would be very useful when I got back home. I felt my face tingle looking at the figure and began to do a bit of mental shopping, suddenly feeling the thrill of what it must be like to have disposable money. A good stereo system? A small car? No more busses for me. A guitar? I could learn music. A really good computer system could help with my education.
The waiter brought my food and as he placed it on the table in front of me I noticed that I was in a tremendous mood. I pictured myself going to the police station, telling them about the robbery on the bus and getting my blank check. Coming back to the hotel and showing it to Jenny and going out to celebrate that night.
As I ate, I thought about my story. Jenny had already said she was robbed on the bus. Better think of something else. I’ll say I lost it in the market. I put it down to do something, walked away for a bit, then when I came back it was gone. Someone had taken it. Genius. To ensure I got it right in case I had to repeat it, I wrote it down on a page opposite my price list. But then I scored it out. Idiot. They probably don’t pay up if I just lose it through my own negligence. It had better be stolen. I thought again over sips of coffee and started writing again. This time I was coming home at night—last night— carrying my rucksack and all my equipment, and two men came up to me and one had a knife and said to give over my money and equipment. So I did. But hang on, that all sounds a bit too criminal. I don’t want to start some major investigation into knife robberies. That could get complicated. I scored it out.
That’s when I came up with the story where I was in the market with my rucksack, and it was stolen as I tried something on. I would have to take my rucksack off for that. I thought long and hard, but the story seemed perfect. But why did I have everything with me? In case someone stole it from the hotel room. It was an innocent enough crime. Nobody got hurt, not too serious, one that must happen all the time. That’s exactly how it happened. I wrote it out, and it looked flawless. I smiled.
I remembered an episode of “Columbo” where the TV detective explained why he had suspected that the criminal’s alibi was untrue. It was too vague. When dreaming up the alibi, the liar had constructed a perfectly acceptable sequence of events. But in reality, things don’t happen like that. Odd things with no direct relevance happen. You’ll see something, remember some small, insignificant detail. Just to make sure my story aroused no suspicions, I noted an insignificant detail.
Just after the robbers disappeared I looked at my watch. It was exactly five to 3:00.
I finished up, paid and, feeling flush, left a five-rupee tip. I went down to the street and hailed a rickshaw toward the police headquarters.
A new camera, that’s what I’ll get, and some nice lenses. I’ve always wanted that. And a decent television. And I would give some to charity, I decided. Having paid the driver, I turned toward the police HQ. It was a fine, solid building, with large square steps radiating from heavy doors. Smartly dressed Nepali policemen left and entered the building. I admired their slender propriety, crisp blue shirts, navy trousers tucked reassuringly into white puttees. Exaggerated, starch-stiff kepis and gleaming leather boots. I was suddenly conscious of being scruffy so I tucked my T-shirt into the waist band of my shorts, pulled the laces of my trainers very tight and tied them in a big bow. I felt cocky as I approached the entrance. I said, “Namaste” to a policeman and, ever friendly, he returned the gesture. I took the steps two at a time and entered the building with a respectful swagger. I wanted to be sure I radiated decency and confidence, that I had nothing to hide.
At the front desk I said a polite hello and, with measured distress, told the clerk that I had been the victim of a robbery and wished to report it. Without returning the hello the clerk looked down and pulled a pad of pink paper toward himself. He tore off a sheet and without turning his eyes back toward me reached the sheet out for me to take.
I reached for it but as I took it the clerk didn’t release it right away and for a moment it was taut between our fingers. This took me by surprise. He looked up, only enough so his eyes could see mine, and then released his grip.
I found a chair in the corner and pulled a pen and my passport from my small bag. I inserted details of nationality, passport number, age, gender, local address. For nature of incident I wrote “Robbery of mountaineering equipment in local market.” I dated and signed it. I returned the filled-in page to the clerk, and once again was acknowledged only by a brief glance, which told me once again to resume my seat. He looked at the information and picked up his telephone and spoke a few brief words into it.
He’s not very polite, I thought. No wonder he’s only a desk clerk.
A few moments later another policeman entered the room from deeper within the building. His arrival was preceded by the sharp strikes of his military-style heels on the hard floor. The clerk didn’t stand up, but a rapid movement of his eyes toward the door revealed deference to the approaching policeman.
The clerk handed him my papers and spoke to the officer in Nepali. The officer looked across and down at me. I smiled back, and resisted the temptation to stand up and shake his hand. I couldn’t help saying namaste all the same. He turned from me without answer, swung on his heels and I heard their sharp clips receding down
a corridor. A few moments later the clerk’s phone rang and I was instructed to follow down the hall to the last door on the right.
I entered a room with a wooden table and two chairs. The officer was there and he asked me to sit down. I did and on the table in front of me was my signed paper.
“There has been a crime, sir.”
“Yes, there was. A robbery. I was robbed.”
He pulled a stack of blank papers from a drawer in the table and slid them toward me.
“Do you have a pen?”
“Would you please write a description of this robbery here together with a description of what was stolen from you?”
I nodded and pulled the papers toward me. My blank check. The officer left the room by another door. I wrote out the description of my robbery, minus a few details that I would give if he questioned me. Then I filled in the list of objects and values. Finished, I sat back in my chair and awaited the officer’s return. Over 15 minutes passed and I began to wonder why he was taking so long. It would be time to eat again soon. Would it be rude of me to knock on the door? In order to show that I was not worried, was innocent, I took my book from my bag and opened it. I didn’t read, but it felt nice to be doing something. Finally, he returned. I placed my book on the table and said hello again. This time he smiled. He sat down opposite me, turned the statement and scanned it.
This article appeared in Ascent 2011