What have you let go of? How do you let go of things?
In 2008 I used to volunteer at a small orphanage in Kathmandu. It was, and still is, called the "Freedom Children's Welfare Center" (FCWC). That name always gets me. There were around 20 children who lived there while I was volunteering, from 18 months old to around 16 years old. Ages, medical histories and background information were often vague with these kids. 10 years of civil war in a developing country will do that.
My first day there I could see that it was a good place. I was looking for paid work, but I wanted to be useful and I had hours to spare. I'd seen a lot of places that were bad. Warehousing kids to attract well meaning foreign donations was a growing industry at the time.
During one interview with an oily man in a suit and an offensively expensive office it was suggested to me within the first twenty minutes that I might be interested in, for example, taking a group of around fifteen children swimming. A group of vulnerable kids, walking through the chaos of Kathmandu to go swimming with an unvetted man they've never met. What could go wrong? I walked out of the meeting. I had turned 22 about a week earlier and it had been an effort of will to control my anger.
More than ten years later, I'm still angry about that and what it represents. What have you let go of? How do you let go of things?
I promise this is all getting us closer to the story of Kul Bahadur, one of the boys at the FCWC. This is a good, happy, story, and it helps that it all really happened.
I knew the FCWC was a good place. It was run by two amazing women who cared for the children. Kamala and Kumari. I hooked up with a small group of Belgian-Dutch (een engeltje de piest op ou tong!) volunteers who were staying at the same hotel as me. I starting accompanying them in the morning and afternoon to the orphanage and helping out with the kids. This bracketed my day of going to meetings, exploring and looking for work. They all got to know me, and I got to know them quite quickly. I remember being entrusted with the care of a new kid, called Prabin. He was just over a year old (we thought) and had no family left except us. He cried a lot. I will never forget the first time holding that little boy in my arms and the moment he looked up at me and stopped crying. I will never forget the day I shielded him with my body as the sound of three roadside bombs got closer, one after the other, incredible but true. He became my special little boy, for a while. He is in my heart forever.
The orphanage was a busy little compound of a long, low, kitchen/mess room, two sleeping rooms in one block, divided by gender, a very basic toilet/washroom on the ground floor of the sleeping block and another building with an admin room and a bedroom for Kumari and Kamala. There was a small courtyard for the kids to run around, some trees at the back. The kids were constantly playing, running in and out of the rooms, flying up the stairs to the roofs of the buildings, jumping from the trees. They've since updated it, and the place is more self sufficient for food - they have a separate bit of land with a small farm now.
One day, I was taking care of Prabin and I saw about four of the young boys sneak up onto the admin block roof together. These were tough, rough little kids and I wanted to go up and supervise them. I asked Kumari or Kamala to take Prabin so I could keep an eye on the roof, they pointed with their chins to one of the older boys who was standing alone in the courtyard, and told me that this boy, Kul Bahadur, could hold Prabin and look after him.
Brothers and sisters, the plot thickens.
I was in a slightly awkward position here. I'm a teacher, with some experience and a little training in what we currently call in the UK "Special Educational Needs". In my assessment at the time, Kul Bahadur was a male, about 15 years old, who clearly seemed to exhibit some kind of developmental disorder or disability, no diagnosis, no formal care plan. My first instinct after spending a little bit of time with this lad was that there's a moderate risk he could, for example, hold the baby perfectly well unless he gets some new stimuli or forgets what he's doing, then he could drop him. I've worked with kids with developmental issues who are fine, until they get triggered, then they can't easily moderate violent impulses. In short, I don't know if this is safe and I'm not comfortable handing the baby to another kid who I think could probably benefit from some help of his own.
However, on the other hand, I have a lot of trust and respect for Kumari and Kamala. Their judgement and knowledge of the context is far better than mine. I hand Prabin over. Kul Bahadur immediately lights up. Like, he's not staring blankly in the distance any more, he's supporting Prabin's head well, as he bounces him, rocks him, talks to him. Interesting, I remember thinking. Upstairs on the roof the kids are gambling with elastic bands that they steal from school. This is fine, but not on the roof, please, I've seen too many films and these games sometimes end badly.
I'd been volunteering with the FCWC for a few weeks. I'd found paid employment. I try to get down there after work a few evenings during the week, and I'm there every Saturday and Sunday for a few hours at a time. I start to develop a wonderful friendship with Kul Bahadur. He is not really interested in a lot of what's going on around him, but one thing I remember is that whenever another child was alone or upset he would kind of drift over to them and just sit near them, lean his body a little into theirs, or put his arm around them. He never wanted anything, he was never sad or angry, at least outwardly. Kumari and Kamala confirmed my impression, he was just a simple, gentle, kind boy. He wasn't very verbal, but he had a vocabulary in English and Nepali. He had one topic that he would focus on and get excited about. My oh my, he got excited. The range of emotion this boy could express in his slow gentle voice, with his alternately bright or pleading eyes was genuinely affecting. I see his face before me now as I write.
I knew that Kul Bahadur and me were friends, when one day he walked over to me, held my hand and led me over to the admin room, where there were some books for the children. He went inside and brought out The Book. He sat down on the concrete steps and made some space for me to sit beside him. He opened The Book and began to read. Except, he couldn't quite read. It was a children's picture book, in English, all about the early life and later teaching of the Buddha. If I had to guess I'd say it was 20 pages long.
Kul Bahadur wanted to tell me the story of the Buddha. He had memorised certain parts that he could summarise or explain for me, one page was "Buddha mother, Buddha born". Another page was, "Sick man, old man, dead man, Buddha sad", he would intone slowly and sadly. He would become animated and happy at "Buddha teaching the people! Deer park!". He would show me the important parts of the picture, and trace the words with his finger as he told me the story in his own way, and he would wait until I was ready before he turned the page. Sometimes I would try to get more out of him, sometimes I would just listen. I treasure the memory of sitting in the shade of that room with him and being touched by his generosity and sincerity in sharing this story with me. This is part of why I write, I don't ever want to let go of these memories. We read that book together a fair few times and it was never ever boring. Sometimes Kul Bahadur would point at my long nose, earlobes and shaved head and inform me in a serious tone, "Like Buddha". I had forgotten about that until this moment, there's something very beautiful but also very funny about that, anyway it happened.
One day we took the children on a trip to the local temple. We had asked Kumari and Kamala, now you have help, what can we do together that you couldn't do before? Kamala answered quickly - she wanted to take the kids to Swayambhunath. This is why I included the story of the oily hateful man earlier. You see, Kamala cared so much about these kids that even though it caused her pain to restrict them to the compound, she wouldn't take them a few miles down the road to a special place unless she had a good ratio of adults to kids.
I take a moment to remember Kumari and Kamala.
So we prepared and walked the miles to Swayambhu. Not long after we hit the main road we heard one small bomb go off in the distance. Worrying but not so unusual back then, sadly. At the sound and dust cloud of the second, I asked everyone to come with me into the central reservation of the big empty main road. This seemed safest, given where these bombs were usually placed. The second bomb went off, much closer, and I held Prabin close. I felt so close to that kid in that moment in a completely new way. I had a clear feeling that I would willingly take severe injury or worse to shield the child with my body. I looked over our group, everyone bunched together, hunched over. Somehow Kul Bahadur had read the situation and was holding two of the younger kids close to him, copying the adults. Very interesting. The third bomb was maybe 30 or 40 metres up the road from us. We waited in a huddle for a while and then continued down side roads. What to do in Kathmandu?
We arrived at Swayambhu. We had bought oranges for the kids. Memorably, I was handing one to one of the kids and a small macaque darted in and tried to steal it just at the moment I was handing it over, but we both held on and scared the monkey away with our bared teeth, saving the orange. Good times. We broke off into smaller groups. I lined up with the children to enter a tiny temple room where one of the head monks held our heads in his hands in turn and blessed us. He tied a thrice knotted red string around our necks as a symbol of the blessing. Mine came off in the shower about two years later, worn away. Without thinking twice I swallowed it, de la même manière que Mary Oliver and Tom Dancer's gift of a whitebark pine cone.
Kul Bahadur was the most alive anyone had ever seen him. He was leading us all around, explaining everything, excited, happy, but you could see him seem to stop in moments to take it all in calmly. I remember his dancing eyes. Even in his joy, he was not careless, he was exhilarated. He was focused in a way that was uncharacteristic of him except when he was with The Book. We were smiling and laughing with him and each other, amazed. If somebody had told us that one day Kul Bahadur would be able to step right into the pages of The Book and walk around inside it, this is how we all would have expected him to act. That is the best I can do to explain it. He was totally present and engaged. He seemed to understand the place quite well, at least the iconography. He pointed with his chin - "Vajra, kill demons, safe. Stupa, all world. Gompa, monks live, monks house, come here, come here". It was one of the highlights of one of the best days of my life to see him there. I have a picture from that day as we were ascending the steep stone staircase. Kul Bahadur is sitting at the front of the group, next to Kamala's feet, staring off to the side, totally uninterested or unaware of the photograph being taken. When we reached the temple at the top he lit up just like he had the day I passed his little brother to him to hold, except to a greater degree. When it was eventually time to go he accepted it gracefully.
Brother and sisters who have stayed with me so far, thank you. This plot will thicken yet again.
Eventually it became time for me to leave the country. I had shared almost a year with these kids. Every time I left the orphanage for the day, after I had transformed into my final form of TAKELE BOOM BOOM and chased and whirled them around before settling them and trying to give each of the kids some time, they would ask me as I left,
"Will you promise to come tomorrow?"
"No" With a smile. "Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow". It was our ritual, our game. It seemed important at the time to never let these kids down. If I came, I came, and I almost always did, but work, strikes, traffic jams, shortages, nothing was certain. Better not to promise. I never liked it when groups of volunteers would make a big deal about going back to their own country either. I only saw it happen a couple of times, but it was heartbreaking, the children would wail and beg. I understood the reasons behind saying goodbye, but I just didn't agree with it. When I left the orphanage for the last time, even I hadn't known. Better for them to forget me. Better for me to just not be there and for them to not have to watch me walk away from them, I thought. One day I told them that I wouldn't be back, and it happened to be true. It hurt me for years, still does. Some pain is not to be avoided.
I made a bundle of everything I could spare, clothes, books etc. I bought paper and pens and things I knew they needed and boxed it all up. I met a man who was one of the trustees of the orphanage to give him the stuff. He was a local councillor and a good man. We talked a little about what I was doing. He understood it, which I am grateful to him for. I hadn't seen him or anyone from the orphanage for a while. It was a difficult time, I had a lot of things to sort out and at that point I didn't even know where I was going next.
"Wait, you haven't spoken to anyone at the orphanage?"
"No, not for a few weeks"
"You don't know about Kul Bahadur?"
"No, I don't know anything. Is he OK?"
In the months that followed the visit to Swayambhu, Kul Bahadur had begun to ask from time to time when they would go back, to the temple, which he called "home". One day, he sat down with Kumari and Kamala and looked at them with his calm serious eyes and did something he had never really done before. He asked them for something. He asked them if he could go and live with the monks at the temple. When they told him that they didn't know, he asked them directly what they would need to do to find out and make it happen. They told him they would have to ask the monks, so he asked them to do that. Within a few days a small delegation had arrived at the orphanage from the temple. They interviewed Kul Bahadur and gave him the test. He picked out the personal possessions of a former head monk of the Swayambhu temple. He answered questions about his previous life, so I was told. The monks told Kul Bahadur's mothers that with their permission and at their convenience, they would like to bring him to the temple and for him to resume his former duties. There was no doubt in their minds that he was a "lama", a reincarnated great soul, and his place was with them. Kul Bahadur had no doubt that he wanted to leave and rejoin the monastery. Part of me, for the sake of balance, wonders what how many of the objects Kul Bahadur chose from had belonged to former monks. Could have been all of them, or none. Cui bono?
Kul Bahadur was brought to his new home at the temple. His brothers, sisters and mothers visit him when they can. I have been told that he is happy there and is an active member of their community. He is respected among his peers. He prays for the benefit of all beings. He teaches others. Imagine the life of this simple boy, who is now a man. Do you imagine that his mind may have found its worldline, a track for it to fit into? I don't know my own prejudices well enough to decide, maybe.
I was amazed when I heard what had happened, but not exactly surprised. It was impossible to know Kul Bahadur and be surprised by this. I asked the man what he thought and believed. We discussed our experiences with Kul Bahadur. I remember the man's expression of wonder as he seemed to realise as he spoke - "Of all the people I have ever met, maybe Kul Bahadur has the purest mind and the purest heart. I don't think he has ever done a bad thing in his life. He might be simpler than us, he might be better than us". I caught his meaning in a way that has to be felt.
I don't offer any interpretation as definitive. Philosophical or metaphysical considerations need not interfere with my report of the events as I perceived them. I invite you to make your own mind up about all of this. I am happy to have known and shared a piece of my life with Kul Bahadur and everyone I met through the FCWC. I am inexpressibly moved that he found, or maybe was found by, a place in this world where he can be useful, and have a project for his life he can find satisfaction in.
Thanks for reading and making it to the end. I hope you got something from it, let me know. Names have not been changed.
https://helpsilentvoices.ngo/portfolio/fcwc - You should be able to spot Kul Bahadur on this page.
https://vimeo.com/63088241 - See it for yourself.
http://saskiaevans.com/ - This woman can arrange it if you would like to help them, or you can talk to me. If you do get in touch with them or send anything, tell them Seán, AKA "Takele Boom Boom" from 2008 sent you. They might remember.