The next morning we cycled to Pathan, in better times known as Lalitpur, "the city of beauty". Six months into the journey, our hope of finding a place that would be magic", "undefiled" and "different", was as clear as ever. But as we negotiated our way through littered alleyways, trying to avoid chickens, dogs and piles of excrement, it began to dawn on us that our expectations were once again on a collision course with reality. Pathan was a provincial market town of open sewers and crumbling facades, its ancient beauty buried under the pungent layer of Himalayan squalor.
We dismounted near a cluster of food stalls on a tiny square.
We looked around for a place to leave our borrowed bicycles, so we could go for a stroll. Their owner in Kathmandu had warned us to remember that Nepalese people not at all like to walk. As we stood there wondering what to do, a barefoot urchin detached himself from a group of children nearby. Hesitantly, he sauntered towards us. His runny nose was badly in need of a handkerchief. His round, discolored cap was tilted to one side, making him look like something of a rogue. As he came closer he greeted us with a courageous smile.
"Grrr, grrr," he said, quickly adding, "ga, ga, grrrr, brrr, ek, ek, bhhrrr." Seeing our puzzled faces, he took another step towards us and repeated, "Grrr, brrr, ek, bbbhhhrrrggrrr!"
Whatever language that was—and it sounded like a mixture of half a dozen—the boy was obviously trying to tell us something. He took hold of the handlebars and began to pull the bicycle away from me. He rushed to the wall of the nearby building and tapped it repeatedly with his fingers.
"Grrr, brrr, ek, grrrr," he insisted.
Of course! The boy had seen our predicament and approached to offer advice. He was suggesting that we lean our bicycles against the wall, where, judging by the expression on his face, they would be perfectly safe. In the absence of any alternatives, we did just that. This encouraged him to offer more help. As I bent down to secure the bike with an old fashioned chain, his face suddenly popped up between my legs.
"Ggrrr, grrr," he muttered and tugged at my trousers. He snatched the key from my hand and engaged in a brief struggle with the rusty lock. The job completed, he assaulted the lock on Margaret’s bicycle. That took a bit longer, but he was determined to finish what he had started.
"Grrr, brrrr," he proclaimed, glowing with pride. As I reached for the keys, the boy shook his head and hid them behind his back. Then he rushed towards me and skillfully dropped them into my trouser pocket. Finally he stepped back and, looking from one to the other, waited for a sign of approval.
I smiled and tickled him under the chin. First there was an audible sigh of relief, then a gurgle of happy laughter, which was followed by half a dozen leaps in the air.
"What’s your name?" I asked him when he calmed down.
He failed to respond; he was too busy showing us off to his friends who had rushed over to see what was happening. I repeated the question, but again there was no response. It was Margaret who realized that the boy was deaf as well as dumb.
Moving my lips very slowly, I repeated, "What is your name?"
His eyes clouded over. Unable to understand me, he wouldn’t be able to please me he seemed terrified at the prospect. He turned to his chums, but they were at as much of a loss as he was.
One clever little girl suddenly understood. "Uki," she shouted, pointing at our snottynosed little friend, "Uki!"
The boy, greatly relieved, gurgled with laughter and added, "Grrr, grrrr, ek, ek!" Grabbing hold of my hand, he began to pull me across the square. He had decided to show us the sights. Excitedly, he drew pictures in the air of pagodas, carvings, statues, or so it seemed. Jumping about in front of us like a rabbit, he led us down a side alley and round a corner into the main square. The square was surrounded by exquisite temples, finer and more elaborate than any we had seen in Nepal. The view was breathtaking. The "city of beauty" had come alive.
"Grrr, grrr, brrr, ek," the boy explained, suddenly somber and self important. This was his town, those were his temples, he owned all that beauty. And he was giving it all to us as a present.
We followed him round the square, from building to building, pausing to let him point out pillars and spires, and to draw our attention to particularly interesting carvings.
"Grrr, grrrr, brrrr, ek, ek, brrrr," he gurgled happily, basking in his role.
Afraid that we might get bored, he stole an occasional glance at our faces. Every time he noticed the slightest sign of growing disinterest, he slapped his forehead as if he had remembered that just round the corner there was another architectural wonder. To make him happy, we expressed appreciation of whatever he chose to point out, even if it was only a crumbling wall.
Somehow, we had acquired this unusual guide. It soon became obvious that Uki’s eagerness was not entirely selfless he was hoping that at the end of the guided tour he would gain himself a rupee or two. Dressed as he was, in a thin shortsleeved shirt and a pair of bedraggled old trousers, he could certainly win the sympathy of even the stingiest foreigner.
We entered the courtyard of the royal bathhouse, which was guarded by a solitary soldier. He and Uki were obviously friends.
"Grrr, brrrr," said the boy as we entered. He paused in front of the soldier, snapped to attention and saluted. The soldier, little more than a boy himself, gave him a friendly grin and saluted back. After a brief tour of the bathhouse we decided to take a rest. We sat down on an exposed beam near the entrance. A little earlier Margaret had bought some bananas, and now she offered one to Uki.
He wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. He laughed, became serious, laughed again.
"Grrrr, brrrr, brrrr," he explained finally and pushed the banana behind the string that held up his trousers. With an apologetic smile he indicated that he had decided to save it for later. Margaret immediately gave him one more. This confused him. At first he tried to push the second one behind the string as well, but then he changed his mind. Or so it seemed, because the next moment he was again unsure what to do.
Margaret pulled the banana out of his hands, peeled it, broke it in two and placed the two halves back in his hands. Now he had no choice. Holding one half in each hand, he proceeded to eat it with undisguised pleasure, taking bites off each half in turn. When he finished, he spent another joyful minute licking his fingers. Then he pulled the first banana from behind the string and contemplated it with a blissful smile.
Finally, pushing it back, he announced, "Grrr, grrrr, ek, ek, brrrr," which probably meant that one must also think of the future.
As we got up to leave, the banana slipped into his trousers, slid down the inside of his trouser leg and ended up at his feet. Margaret and I couldn’t help laughing. After a brief hesitation he joined in and laughed with complete abandon, grateful for an opportunity to take part in a joyful occasion.
He picked up the banana and turned to the soldier. "Grrr, brrr, ek, ek?" he asked, pointing across the courtyard.
As soon as the soldier nodded approval, Uki rushed to the far corner and hid the banana behind a piece of timber. Then he rushed back, grabbed hold of our hands and began to pull us towards the exit.
The soldier suddenly spoke. "No parents," he said. "The house burned down. They died. Together with Uki’s brother. And two little sisters."
"Where does he live?" asked Margaret.
"Everywhere," the soldier replied. "Sometimes, if it isn’t too cold, he spends the night here. He sleeps in temples. under stalls in the market."
We left to continue sightseeing. But it soon became obvious that we had seen most of what there was to see. The boy’s eagerness, too, was evaporating. He looked tired and bored. He was waiting for his reward so he could return to his chums. Unable to find any coins, we gave him a ten rupee note. He grew pale, his whole body shook. He held the note up to our eyes and anxiously enquired,
"Grrrr, brrrr, ek?"
Yes, we nodded, the banknote was his. He still couldn’t bring himself to believe it. Yes, we insisted, he could keep the money, it was his. And to convince him that we meant it, we gave him one more tenrupee note.
"Grrr, brrrr, grrrr?" he repeated, now completely confused.
Yes, we said, they were both his. His face exploded in a mixture of joy and gratitude. Holding one note in each hand he raised them high and danced off across the square. He showed the trophy to his astonished friends. Milling around him, they followed him down the road, screaming and laughing, proudly explaining to everybody who cared to listen how much money Uki had earned. People smiled and patted the lucky boy on the head. He kept readjusting his cap so it wouldn’t fall off.
Quietly, we mounted our bicycles and set off. About a mile out of town, halfway up a steep slope, we ran out of breath and dismounted. Ten minutes later, at the top of the hill, we turned round to take a parting look at Pathan. Standing in the middle of the road a few yards behind us, exhausted, his face flushed with guilt and defiance, was the little deaf mute. He kept looking from one to the other, waiting to see if our disbelief would turn to delight or anger. He produced a gurgle of insecure laughter.
"Grrrr, grrrr, ga ga, ek, brrrr," he tried to explain. The entreating look in his eyes slowly gave way to sadness. He was exhausted, the curls sticking out from under his cap were soaked with sweat. Using every gesture we could think of, we tried to persuade him to return to Pathan. Kathmandu was too big, we said he would get lost. We were leaving for India, and wouldn’t be able to look after him. All he could understand was that we were sending him back, rejecting him.
Suddenly his face lit up. He rushed towards me, took off his cap and, using it as a duster, started to clean my shoes. Then, crouching in front of Margaret, he proceeded to clean her sandals. Finally, turning the cap inside out, he began to polish the chrome parts of our bicycles.
"Sorry," we said. "You must go back." We leapt on our bikes and rode off. The relentless patter of little feet behind us finally softened our hearts. The boy must have known this would happen. We waited for him to catch up. As he did so, his legs gave way under him and he collapsed in the dust. He had no strength left, except to gurgle happily, "Grrrr, brrrr, ek."
I lifted him on to the crossbar and we set off towards Kathmandu. He swivelled his head round to look at me. His eyes were filled with relief and gratitude, but also with something that shocked me: something close to pure, unadulterated love. Once again he produced a gurgle of happy laughter. Our intention was to take him to Kathmandu, show him the sights, buy him lunch and then, towards the evening, take him back to Pathan. But his joy at being in a big city was so great that we decided to let him stay the night. We took him to our hotel. We ran a bath for him, removed his clothes and lifted him into the tub. At first he was frightened and made a frantic attempt to climb out, but then he slowly calmed down and began to enjoy the new experience. Before long he was screaming with joy and splashing water all over the bathroom. We took him to the nearest market and bought him a new shirt, a pair of trousers and soft leather sandals. His face assumed an expression of solemn dignity, his posture became rigid, unnatural. He felt a stranger to himself in his new outfit. As the shop owner flung his old clothes onto a heap of rubbish in the corner, Uki objected with a vehement "Grrrr, brrrr, ek, ek."
He rolled his old shirt and trousers into a bundle and firmly pressed them against his chest. "Ga, ga, brrrr, grrrrr," he muttered.
The miraculous world in which he had so unexpectedly found himself was beginning to frighten him. His old clothes were the only link with his past, the only reminder of the familiar world he had left behind. Towards the evening we took him to a Chinese restaurant. At first he refused to believe that the steaming dishes placed in front of us were real; he carefully prodded each with his fingers. And as Margaret and I began to eat, he remained convinced that the dishes had been put there for us alone it was only after Margaret piled some food onto his plate that he found enough courage to pick up his spoon. Once he started to eat, however, there was no stopping him. Awkwardly holding the unwieldy spoon the way one normally holds a knife, he carried the food from the plate to his mouth in a zig-zag fashion, with his mouth an elusive target that he missed more often than not. It wasn’t long before he had noodles and gravy stuck all over his face, new shirt and trousers. Halfway through his third helping he suddenly became tired. His head sank onto the table. Without letting go of the spoon, he fell asleep. We carried him to the hotel, took off his clothes, washed his face and hands, and put him to bed. He slept like a log. In the middle of the night he woke up. "Ga, ga, grrr, grrrr, ek," he said, deeply alarmed. He had no idea where he was. His little fingers began to explore the surroundings. As they encountered my arm, they paused for a moment, then carried on. They found my wrist, my palm, my forefinger, my thumb. After some hesitation, they wrapped themselves firmly round the thumb. His face moved closer, I could feel his warm breath, still smelling of Chinese dinner. "Ek, ek, grrrr, grrr," he muttered into my ear, relieved.
In the morning we took him sightseeing. We showed him the royal palace. Three garishly decorated elephants waddled out through the main gate and were led down the road. Uki screamed with delight. We had to follow the elephants for ten minutes. As we strolled through the centre of Kathmandu, he rushed about as if possessed, jumping up and down, throwing his arms in the air, pointing out this and that, laughing, explaining, wondering. In no time at all it was he who was showing us the sights of Kathmandu.
We hired a rickshaw. As the driver boldly maneuvered his garish vehicle through the crowd, Uki shouted and egged him on; he jerked and thrashed about as if having a fit, it was hard work trying to keep him from falling off. He gurgled, wheezed and laughed the world, the wonderful world revolved around him like a magic roundabout. He was the happiest boy alive.
He stayed another night. The following morning we cycled out of town to visit the Monkey Temple. The golden dome of the temple impressed him so deeply that he fell silent, gazing at it for almost ten minutes. He found the monkeys amusing, but as soon as one slipped away from the group and scuttled towards him, he screamed and flew into my arms. He was glad when we reached the bicycles we had left at the foot of the hill.
"Grrr, brrr, ek," he said as I lifted him onto the crossbar.
Skirting Kathmandu, we reached a dusty road leading south. There was no sign from Uki that he recognized it, or that he knew we were taking him back to Pathan. It was only when we entered the narrow alleyways that he began to recognize familiar landmarks. He seemed surprised, and delighted, that the old world was still there, unchanged. As we reached the market square, he spotted a group of his friends.
"Grrr, brrrr, ek!" he exploded, frantically waving his arms. The children recognized him and rushed towards us, screaming a joyous welcome.
By the time we dismounted, we were completely surrounded. The children wanted to touch Uki’s new shirt and trousers, to stroke his sandals. I was reminded of Uki’s behavior in the Chinese restaurant; he, too, had to touch the dishes before he could believe they were real. He was pleased by his friends’ admiration. Written all over his face was pride, a deep sense of achievement. But there wasn’t a shade of conceit in his manner, he remained friendly and warm.
Then, with a sense of urgency, he embarked on a lengthy explanation. "Grrrr, brrrr, ek, ek, brrrr," he burbled in an endless stream. He waved his arms about as if trying to draw in the air all the wonders he had seen, elephants, monkeys, palaces, everything, everything…
Cautiously, we mounted our bikes and pedaled off across the square. We were stopped by a heartrending cry. A moment later Uki was at my side, tugging at my trousers, trying to make me dismount. He stared at me with complete disbelief. He rushed to Margaret and tried to pull her off the bike. He returned to me, gripped the handlebars and deftly pulled himself up onto the crossbar. He wanted to stay with us, go with us back to Kathmandu, anywhere.
"Ek, brrrr grrrr grrrr," he pleaded.
I tried to dislodge him, but he refused to let go the strength of his little fingers appeared to be trembling. I finally managed to wrest one of his hands off the handlebars, but no sooner did I start with one and the first one was back, gripping the handlebars even harder.
Then, unexpectedly, he subsided like a taut football suddenly going soft. He fell silent and his hands slipped off the handlebars. He did not object when I put him down on the ground. For a while he stood there, surrounded by his puzzled friends, and stared at his feet. Then, slowly, he raised his head and looked me straight in the eyes.
Was this really the end?
As soon as he knew that it was, he lowered his head again, turned and walked across the square towards the wall of the nearest building. When he reached it, he sat down next to it and, leaning his head against the wall, turned his face away from us. There he remained, motionless.
Margaret walked to the nearest stall and bought a bunch of bananas. She took them over to Uki and placed them into his lap. He opened his eyes and uttered a tired, unwilling "Grrrr, brrrr, ga ga, ek." Then he closed his eyes again.
I reached down and pressed a hundred rupee note into his hand. He looked at it without interest. His hand remained lifeless, the banknote slid to the ground. He closed his eyes again.
I tickled him under the chin. I wanted to cheer him up, see him smile. He refused to look at me.
As we rode off, great bitterness welled up in our hearts. Just before we left the square I looked back. The boy had not moved. Half sitting on the ground and half leaning against the wall he looked like a hostage executed by a firing squad.