One Evening When the Lights Were Out

Ratna Lamichhane

“Don’t you ever feel lonely living all by yourself in this apartment?” my friends ask me constantly.

I reply, “Of course I do, during certain moments in time.” Why should I hide the truth by bravely pretending that I don’t ever feel lonely? Now that I have retired from my job and my grandchildren are all far away in a foreign land, I certainly do suffer from the void inside me. Nevertheless, I must face the consequences of my own actions. After all, every decision we make in life has two opposing sides to it. At least, I am enjoying the independence of my solitary life. And thus I console myself.

Over the past 10 or 12 years, I have been either relishing immensely or, in turn, brooding in melancholy over this solitude I call my life. I have no regrets for the past, and the future is in the hands of the Almighty. The present is mine and it is what I am trying to make use of in the best way I can.

I still don’t have a house I can call my own. But I have taken great pride in furnishing this apartment and making it my own. Almost everyone who visits me asks, “What a beautiful place, is it your own?” In turn, I reply, “This is not my house, but it is my home.”

My mind certainly feels elated whenever I return here after a tiring day, unlock the main door, make myself a cup of tea and then enjoy it while I look out the window at the beautiful flowers blooming in the garden. During those moments I do not feel deprived of anything. Yes, there is no doubt that I do intermittently feel the pangs of regret for not having a house to call my own. I have been told that when one dies in a rented apartment (I am now in my 67th year), the landlord almost always insists that the body of the departed soul be taken to the river banks for cremation almost immediately. To all those friends who have a house of their own, I often say in jest, “Do take me to your house when I am in my death-bed.” This kind of heartless culture does not exist in Darjeeling (the hill-town resort where I grew up as a child and matured into womanhood). Actually, my landlords are not the narrow-minded kind of people. One day, during our usual moment of making small-talk, Gopal Chitrakar, my landlord, said, “I am so fed up with the foul smell reeking out of the nearby Tukucha River that I want to sell this house and build a new one somewhere else. I shall then also build a small apartment for you, Didi (older sister).” Although this may have just been a mere topic for conversation, I was very moved by his concern for me. It also made me feel at ease to realize that I would at least not be required to leave this apartment unless and until I wanted to move out of it myself.

What I really want to write about is a completely different matter altogether. However, since the event that took place one evening is relevant to my family as well as to my loneliness, I felt it prudent to provide this prelude to my story.

As far as my loneliness is concerned, I find it most difficult on Monday evenings when the electricity was off due to load-shedding (brown-out) by the power company. During these times, I cannot read a book, listen to the radio, watch television, or converse with anyone. Then, these regular two hours of darkness feels like a massive and insurmountable mountain ahead of me and I begin to feel totally overwhelmed by it all. On some Mondays I visit my friends and acquaintances. Since it is usually supper time after I have spent some moments talking with them, I am almost always invited to join them for the meal. But there is a limit to my accepting such warm hospitality. I cannot help but feel embarrassed. To those who are sensitive to my discomfort, I frequently ask, “When will the waters of the Melamchi River ever get harnessed so that our existing shortage of electricity will finally get resolved?”

This small event also took place on a particular Monday evening when the lights were out.

The electricity had been shut off as usual. Since there was reasonably sufficient light until around 6:30 PM, I continued sewing the cross stitch I had begun some days earlier. However, it soon began to grow darker. And, as usual, I became restless. I started to think of what I could do next. Looking around the room I noticed that I had run out of fruits that I needed for my weekly fast the following day, i.e., Tuesday. I therefore decided to go out and buy the necessary fruits. I shouldered a tote bag, locked the main door, and walked out of the house. I planned to walk over to Nag Pokhari in Naxal via Gairidhara and spend some time there buying the fruits, assuming that it would be 7:30 or 7:45 PM by the time I returned home when, hopefully, the lights would have been back.

Since it only takes about twenty minutes to walk from Bhat Bhateni to Naxal, it was still not fully dark when I arrived there. I walked around the pond three times at a brisk pace. The exercise tired me somewhat. I began to look for an empty bench placed around the pond, and eventually found a bench in a corner where a man was sitting alone. I politely asked, “May I?” and sat myself down next to him with a smile. After a few moments, the man turned towards me and asked, “Are you from out of town?” I replied, “Kathmandu is actually not my place of birth, but I got married here and, since my son is now approaching fifty, how can I call myself an outsider?” He then asked me, “Have you come here for a walk?” I told him, “I always walk for about an hour and a half every morning. I have a problem with my cholesterol. But right now I am trying to bide my time while the electricity is out in my place.” Having said this, I gave the man a closer look. I guessed his age to be around 56 or 57. His face looked bright and healthy. Nevertheless, he had a walking stick next to him. He then said, “I suffered from a stroke five years ago. On the day my son was returning home after completing his studies in the Philippines. I had just returned home after buying goat meat for the occasion when I apparently lost consciousness and, when I next opened my eyes, I was lying on a bed in the hospital.

I asked, “How old are you?” He replied, “I have just completed 62 and am stepping on 63.” Surprised, I asked him, “You don’t look that old at all! I am myself about to be 67 and you happen to be younger than me.” I then added in a sympathetic tone, “As a stroke victim you should not be walking around by yourself. You should have brought your wife along.” I made this suggestion only because I have often seen couples in our age walking together.

The man replied, “Yes, my wife also has problems with her blood sugar. The doctor has repeatedly told her that the best cure for her ailment is to walk at least an hour a day. However, my wife is extremely strong-headed and simply refuses to listen. His speech had a distinct Newari accent and he also did not appear to be a very educated person.

It had grown dark by now and the only visible lights were coming out from the lamp-posts located around the pond. There we sat one elderly man and an even older woman, sitting on a bench placed around the Nag Pokhari pond. Our complicated lives reminded me of a plot I had seen in an episode of “Rishte”, a serial aired by Zee TV.

He began the conversation again, “You see, since I am not all that educated, I sent my younger son and daughter to school in Darjeeling. I then sent my son to be an architect in the Philippines. And, although he did return after completing his studies, he also came home with a Filipino daughter-in-law.”

I said, “What’s wrong with that? It is your son’s life. If he is happy with his life, we must also rejoice in it. My own daughter is also married to an American.”

“No, no, there is nothing regrettable in that. I too have traveled far and wide and am not a small-minded person. I eventually even succeeded in persuading my wife and actually celebrated my son’s wedding properly,” the old man replied.

He then continued in a sad note, “The sad thing is that our daughter-in-law has already spent five years here in Nepal but she cannot even speak in Nepali, let alone the Newari language. She can neither understand us nor are we able comprehend what she says. I have told my son so many times that since almost all the Americans, Japanese, and the Germans who come to live here learn to speak Nepali, he should also teach our daughter-in-law to speak the local language. But our son simply does not understand our predicament. By now, his stubbornness has become simply too impossible to overcome.”

This time I gave the old man a closer look. I realized how desperate he was in his need to share all the angst that was fomenting inside him.

He continued on with the conversation, “You see, my son returned home as an architect, but he does not work at all. No matter where he goes to work, he does not last there for long and it has now been over a year since he has simply been staying at home. Even if he did not earn the money, I tell him to go and work simply to gain some valuable experience in his chosen vocation. But I have given up now.”

I began to think to myself that there is no greater defeat for parents than the one where, after all the unwavering hard work they endure through life in order to make the money which they can invest on their offspring, their children , in turn, do not exhibit any sense of diligence or a focused goal in their own lives.

I opined, “Sons are like that nowadays because they never actually saw the struggles we had to face. We made it all too easy for them. Therefore, they do not possess the aptitude required to take on responsibilities and, additionally, do not show any inclination to do so.”

The old man took our conversation even further, “There is absolutely no harmony at home. My older son is somehow managing to grow in the photography business that I first began. Our elder daughter-in-law is from a Newar family, and she was married to our son at an early age. The entire running of our household has become her responsibility. I tell my wife that it is unfair on our elder daughter-in-law to have to manage all domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning as well as managing religious festivals and feasts. I suggest to my wife that she should also train the younger daughter-in-law so that she too can share these responsibilities. Sadly, my younger son, his wife, and my own wife are united. And, as such, my point of view is ignored and I feel very frustrated with the situation. I seem to have nothing in common with my wife. I even took her along in my travels to many foreign lands, hoping that she it would help broaden her mind. But she simply continues being more and more narrow-minded.”

It is said that when the offspring eventually grow up and leave their nests, a man and a wife become even closer as friends, sharing together their sorrows and joys, and spending the remaining days of their lives as a complement to one another. How sad it was that this old man had a house full of people and yet he was lonely.

I suggested, “Why don’t you divide your estate among your children? By doing so, your younger son will be compelled to at least take on the responsibilities of his own family.”

He replied, “How can I when all my fixed assets are in my wife and children’s name? My hands are completely tied.” To this, I was able to respond by saying “Oh, Lord!” and nothing else.

With added frustration, the old man said, “As far as our ancestral wealth is concerned, we had a house in Thahity. That was where I had a small photographic store. Later on, I opened another shop in New Road with a partner. By bicycling all over, I managed to make the business grow. It was around the 1970s and you could say I was the first person to introduce the Color Photo lab to Nepal. Oh, the difficulties I had to overcome, the challenges I had to face, all of them seem like a dream to me now.”

I agreed that all our contemporaries from middle-class backgrounds had progressed in life by means of this very same sense of hard-work and integrity.

The old man’s conversation was yet to come to an end.

“Today I own two houses, drive a car, and have an established trade. I have sons and daughter-in-laws, a wife and even grandchildren. Yet, even after being blessed with all that I could ever wish for, there is no peace in my mind. And this is what ails me now.”

His words felt heavy in my own heart. I replied, “Brother, in order to find inner peace you have to decide yourself where and how to search for it. Lord Buddha denounced worldly ties in his search for peace. We can obviously never imitate him. Whatever achievements you have made so far and all the struggles you’ve overcome in life, they alone should be something to be gratified about. Satisfaction can also bring peace and harmony to your inner self.”

It is easier to give advice to others, even though the same counseling can sometimes be difficult to apply in one’s own personal life. The conversation had gone on for so long that I didn’t even realize it was almost 8:00 PM. I told him, “Brother, since you have to walk with the aid of your stick and I am myself just recovering from a fractured ankle, I think it is now time to part and go our own ways.” I got up from the bench. The old man also stood up saying, “Let’s hope we meet again when we come here in the future.” I agreed with him and began to walk back towards my own home.

I cannot remember his face now, nor did I ever bother to ask him his name. I had also not felt it necessary to ask for his address. On my way home that evening, I was plagued by two persistent thoughts. If peace of mind is in fact our ultimate goal in life, are we then actually heading towards the right direction? Next is the idea of loneliness. Because I live by myself, I certainly do intermittently feel depressed and even complain about it. But that man had his entire family around him and was a lonely person nevertheless. When it was not possible to share his feelings of joy and sorrow with anyone at home, that man was lonely even though his house was full of other human beings.

My Swiss friend Elizabeth used to say, “Ratna, you can feel lonely even in the middle of a large crowd of people. This loneliness will be yours alone and if you can move ahead with it in tow, you shall never be unhappy.” That evening, when the lights were out, it suddenly became very clear to me how deeply meaningful and profoundly true her words were.

[Published in the Nepali Monthly, Madhuparka, in May 2000. Translated by Deep Lamichhane, son of Shankar and Ratna Lamichhane]