Bending toward Birta

For fourteen months in 1993-1994 I lived in a small district town on Nepal’s terai (plains).  The main feature of the town was a chowk (cross roads) in the middle of a shabby bazar. The road that led east ran towards the Indian border, less than an hour away. If you turned north at the chowk you climbed into the Himalayan foothills where the slopes were given over to tea plantations and the main trading centre is a big village called Ilam. Head south from the roundabout and you’d soon find yourself at the Bangladeshi border.  The western branch of the road took you to a major industrial city, Biratnagar (another gateway to India) and on towards Kathmandu.

The name of this little hub of human activity was Birtamod. In Nepali that translates to ‘the Birta turn’, as in the place where the road turns toward Birta. Seven refugee camps, which were home to tens of thousands Bhutanese refugees of Nepali or indeterminate origin, nestled in the lush paddy and forest lands around Birtamod and its sister bazar town, Dhamak, an hour to the west. I was responsible for managing a large public health program in the camps for an English charity, and during my short time there fell in love with that section of South Asia.

Other than work long hours there was little to do in Birtamod. We read  lot of books and English newspapers flown in (a couple weeks late) by the agency. Once in a while we watched an Indian film in a makeshift cinema set up in a field behind the main highway. We got a satellite dish half way through the year and were able to watch old MASH reruns on Star TV, when the electricity was working.  

When it came time to eating out there was really one choice, a busy restaurant called (I think) the Calcutta Sweet House. It was open to the dust and smoke from the highway but served up excellent fresh vegetarian food. The highlight of the menu and something we indulged in a couple times a week was the a loo paratha (potato pancake, for want of a better word). Simply glorious. Crisp on the outside, thick, piping hot and filled with spicy yellow curried potatoes and peas!!!! A bit of yoghurt on the side followed by a cup of tea and you had a filling and delicious meal.

If you wanted to do some shopping the situation was truly bleak. Unless you wanted a cheap sari or some equally cheesy jewellery.  There were no souvenir or antique or department stores. Just tire fixing joints, smelly dark bars, grain wholesalers, petrol pumps and auto workshops.  I once needed to find a birthday present for my wife (then fiancé) and began to panic.  The day was fast approaching. Where was I to find something to present?

I headed north from the chowk on my cycle. At last, after twenty minutes of fruitless searching I pulled up to a hardware dealer. He displayed his wares outside and I suppose it was the hoops of  brightly coloured PVC piping that suggested there might be something within.  Well,other than boxes of nails, hammers and door latches of all sizes and designs I found nothing.  Depressed, I headed out of the shop.

Just as I was mounting my bike I caught the sight of a bunch of brass bells out of the corner of my eye.  I walked over and lifted them up. Wow! Pure brass. They weighed heavy in my hands and clanged loudly when I swung them slightly.  Exactly the sort that hangs at the entrance to a temple and alerts the gods to your arrival.

I picked out two. When presented to Yvonne they were well received (whew!). 

They remain part of the household yet 18 years on.


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