The ABC recently aired a story about “paper orphans” in Nepal. These are children who are orphans only on paper, their status “invented” by orphanages to attract money, or sponsors, from wealthy countries like Australia. According to the ABC, Australians are “still funding and volunteering at orphanages, unwittingly perpetuating a multi-billion-dollar global industry that exploits children for profit.”
I know something of this first-hand.
Kathmandu was my first overseas destination. I travelled there in May, 2004. My partner at the time, S, had already been there for a couple of months, and this was her second time in Nepal. She’d fallen in love with the place and wanted to go back and do some work in the orphanages. She had one in particular in mind and this was where she went when she returned. While she was there I was busy working in a factory. I’d graduated from university at the beginning of the year and took the factory job because I needed the money to travel. I wanted nothing else than to see S again in Kathmandu and help her in whatever way I could. And I was thrilled to be going overseas.
During my first few days in the city, reading the Kathmandu newspapers, I learned a great deal of the political situation at the time. In fact, I was shocked to discover that for the last seven or eight years there had been a civil war. More than ten thousand people had died in this conflict. There were political insurgencies, communities broken apart, and people fleeing their homes. I read of sixty teachers being abducted from schools in the district of Udayapur, in the east, and there were stories of children being taken by insurgent Maoist groups and trained in the ways of a “People’s War” against the urban bureaucrats.
This conflict was chiefly between the Maoists, who wanted a republican state, and the King and his royal army. Out in the streets I heard that Maoists were targeting trekkers for money. Later, when S and I were in Pokhara, the locals denied this. Maoists were bad for business, of course. But all the same, the stories were getting through. And the following year, by the time S and I were gone, the political situation would become much worse. There would be a coup. Not until 2008, with the establishment of a secular republic and the Maoists now part of the political process, would there be a peaceful resolution, and an end to the world’s only Hindu monarchy.
S had been doing some good work at the orphanage, which was located in Banasthal, a district in Kathmandu where the Bhachaa river runs. When I arrived the river was little more than a canal of filthy water and littered with garbage.
S had taken me there to meet the children and the two women running the place. There were other people behind the scenes but I could never figure out who was who. S and her friends, other tourists, one a Swiss national doing research for a PhD on international relations, knew far more about the place than I did, or ever would.
At the orphanage I saw how S was already quite attached to one of the children. Her name was Geeta. From overhearing conversations I discovered that Geeta was being mistreated and was sick. She had a terrible cough. It was sickening to have to listen to it. But Geeta had never been taken to the doctor. There was always a lot going on behind the scenes. S and her friends were constantly talking about the orphanage, making plans, coming up with ideas. I was on the outside, on the edge of all this. It was difficult for me to know what was happening between S and her friends and the orphanage. Nonetheless, I tried to keep up and trusted S. I supported her. I was in love with her.
Spending time with many of the children at the orphanage was a joy – “Sir sir, have a sweet dream” they would say when I waved goodbye in the evenings. One day S revealed that she was planning to relocate Geeta to another orphanage. But first we’d have to take her to the hospital for tests. We were all so worried for her health.
After a few long, exhausting days at the hospital, we finally received a diagnosis for Geeta. She was very sick and had tuberculosis and other related complications. The doctor who gave us this news was quite angry. Why hadn’t she been brought in for treatment sooner?
Over the next few weeks Geeta received care at the hospital. S stayed with her overnight. I would arrive in the morning and spend the day. When it was time to leave we all went to the new orphanage in Thankot, a village just beyond the city to the west.
I don’t know how long we were there at Thankot, how much time we spent with Geeta. But I do know that S and Geeta were inseparable. I do know that they loved each other. I do know that Geeta was happy and smiling and spoke more than ever before. S was like a mother to her. It worried me, actually, how attached to Geeta she’d become, but sometimes that just can’t be helped.
One day I travelled south by bus to Chitwan with M, the Swiss national, while S stayed behind to spend as much time as possible with Geeta. In Chitwan the river was flooded and the national park was closed. The rain didn’t let up. During the day there was a rhino on the loose and at night the rain got heavier and louder. The heat was sticky and oppressive. At one o’clock in the morning I was awoken by the hotel manager and told to leave the room because the floodwaters were so high. We waded out into the yard and slept on kitchen tables. The day we left we rode elephants to the bus shelter.
Back in Thankot, time passed quickly. How long we were there before we had to leave and fly back to Australia, I don’t know. It wasn’t long enough. Leaving was crushing for S. Saying goodbye was difficult and very sad. And then a month or so later, when I was in Japan alone, my mobile phone rang. It was S. Geeta had died. It was devastating news. The date was August 4.
S and I never knew if we would have a future. I went to Japan to teach and this had already been arranged before I went to Nepal. I was employed by the government to teach in a public high school. I’d already started my job when this terrible news came through. Before all this I didn’t know if S was ever going to come to Japan to be with me. It was all uncertain. I suppose I was ready to accept that it might have been over between us.
But then Geeta died and S was in Japan and in my apartment. She loved Geeta and Geeta had loved S. We remembered Geeta’s smile. I knew S had done the right thing in finding a new home for her. Geeta was happy. I knew the love was real for her.
But who was she? The whole time I never knew. I don’t think anyone did. I never heard her past being talked about, only that she might have come from a village in the far east of the country, that one day she got on a bus, the wrong bus, and ended up in the city wandering the streets and was later taken in by the orphanage. That’s what I heard, but over the years since, after reading much about Nepal in books and newspapers and watching news reports such as the one on the ABC, I don’t know what to believe. It seems to matter and I still think of her because the poor girl never had a chance to say who she was in this world, never had a chance to speak her own truth. After everything, the only thing I do know was her smile, and the love between her and S. That was real. That was true.
In keeping with customary funeral rites, Geeta’s body was cremated on the banks of the Bagmati River at an open temple in the Hindu Pashupatinath. Orange cloth, her favourite teddy, marigolds — these were all prepared and went up in flames with her. When it was over, when the smoke was gone, her ashes from the pyre would have been swept into the river and the concrete pillar on which she had lain washed clean. Soon after, another body would have been placed on the pillar. And then another. More ceremonies would have been held, more pyres lit. More smoke, more ashes, more washing the pillar clean.