Sundar – What a beautiful name, as beautiful is what it means. His mother was only 18 when she gave birth to Sundar in a field in the hills of Kathmandu Valley where she was working all on her own that morning 28 years ago. Wrapped in a piece of cloth she brought her newborn back to the village.
This is the story of Sundar, whose life has not always been as beautiful as his name but who up to this day didn’t lose his sense of humor and gentle heart. I met him when I stayed in the Guest House he works for in the historical town of Bhaktapur in Nepal. It’s Sundar’s voice that caught my attention first. It is hoarse and a little bit too high. That is why he doesn’t like to sing in front of other people as he tells me one day. But I heard him singing a couple of times when he was working in the kitchen of the guest house. I suppose he must have been in a happy mood then. His mood can also be read from his eyes. Sometimes they were shining and smiling with happiness and love. Other times they were filled with tears. But I never saw anger in them. I can hardly imagine Sundar being angry. He tells me that he is fighting with words rather than with fists when people come to the guest house looking for trouble (maybe I should mention that the guest house is a rather dodgy place with some dubious characters visiting for some even more obscure business… but it is cheap and the people are nice). Anyway Sundar claims he can shut up any trouble maker with words alone. I guess he must seduce them in a whispering tone cause his voice doesn’t allow him to speak loudly.
Sundar says he used to be a happy kid as his mother did everything not to let him and his siblings feel that they belong to a rather poor family. It was only later when he realised that there were different kind of people. The rich and the poor. And he learnt what it means to belong to the latter ones.
When Sundar was two years old his mother left the village with the kids and went to Kathmandu where her husband was working in a poultry farm. Even though Sundar loves the countryside he is glad that they moved to the city where he learnt how to write, read and speak in English (according to the CIA World Factbook 2011 only 57% of Nepalese people over 15 are literate) .
Soon Sundar and I become friends and we spend hours talking on the rooftop of the guesthouse. Twice he also accompanies me on trips to the countryside around Bhaktapur. Once we hike from Dhulikhel to Namo Buddha where the Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery is overlooking the hills of Kathmandu Valley. It is known as the place where Buddha, in his previous life as a prince, gave his own flesh to a starving tigress and her cubs. Another day we ride on the roof of a bus to Nepalthok and back. It is during these trips that I get to know bits and pieces of Sundar’s story. He points out his father’s village a little bit down the hill and shows me where one would have to take a left turn to reach Phulwari, the village where he was born. He picks his favourite fruits from trees that grow along the road and recounts the tales that scared him when he was a child. He also shows me the spot where he cried for his wife after she has left him about three years ago. Sundar first met her when he used to work for a poultry farm. He had some money in the pocket at that time and she was young, innocent and beautiful. They fell in love and got married. Her Brahmin family (highest cast) didn’t accept him and after only six months of marriage her mother came and took her home. Sundar has never seen or spoken to her ever since. But I know he still misses her when I see him quickly wipe some tears from his face.
There have been other strokes of fate in Sundar’s life. When he was 20 years old his dad, to whom he was very close, suddenly disappeared. Three months Sundar searched for him but neither he nor the police ever found any trace of his dad. Sundar thinks somebody murdered him. «My dad trusted people very easily. He must have trusted the wrong ones.». And about a year ago his younger brother had an accident that damaged his kidneys. Since then he has to go to dialysis every three days. For the first year the treatment is paid by the government. But soon the family has to come up for the costs themselves. His mother now tries to sell the little patch of land the family still owns in the countryside. But Sundar knows that this money won’t last forever. «My brother will eventually die», he says as a matter of fact.
During our hike to Namo Buddha we meet Sundar’s mother by coincidence when we take a break in a Dhaba (small and simple roadside restaurant). When Sundar spots her his body and face freeze. He is about to turn around when she sees us and nods her head to come over. I can feel that Sundar is uneasy being accompanied by a Western girl so I try to keep myself in the background while he and his mother talk about the latest state of his brother and the land selling. Later on Sundar tells me that he loves and admires his mother as much as he fears her. I can see why. Her face has a very warm expression but I guess that she must be very tough and strict or she would not have been able to bring forward the family on her own.
No matter how cruel life has been so far, Sundar never gave up. Once he also survived one week living on the street. Since then he rather works for free in order to get a safe place to sleep and food than spending another night outside. The first guesthouse he worked for in Bhaktapur was exactly that. Every day from early morning till late evening he cleaned dishes in exchange for some rice and a place to sleep in the corner of a room. In his present job he gets at least a small salary but it is often paid late and involves much fighting with the manager of the guesthouse. So he mainly depends on tips from guests. It is not the tourists who stay overnight that give the most but Nepalese people who hire a room (and a girl) for some hours only. I’m not surprised when he explains me how the business works. I have somewhat suspected it already. Sundar doesn’t like the shadow business of his boss and wants to leave the guesthouse. He dreams of becoming a business man himself. Therefore he puts aside as much money as possible. Once he has saved enough he will buy some chicken and start his own poultry farm cause this is the business he knows best. He wants to help his mother and his brother and he wants to show some of his uncles who became successful businessmen in the village that he too can achieve something.
Till then Sundar will keep on struggling and stumbling and getting up again. When Sundar was a child they had to walk for three or four days from Kathmandu to reach his mother’s native village. Nowadays a paved road sponsored by the Japanese government and regular bus services connect the two places and makes travel easy. While we ride on the roof of one of the buses we can still see the narrow path winding along the hill that Sundar and his mom used to take so many years ago. Nepal is changing. And so is Sundar’s life… hopefully.
PS: A few weeks after I left Nepal I got an e-mail from Sundar telling me that the guesthouse I stayed in has been closed down. Therefore Sundar lost his job and is now trying to start his own business. He is not complaining but writes: «My fate doesn’t work properly and life is getting hard»
Pictures from my excursions to Kathmandu Valley together with Sundar: