Gita had a particularly vivid dream one night, cocooned within the walls of the hospital room. Maybe it was because of all the medication she was on. She woke, her body criss-crossed with tubes, just as the morning sun slanted through the foggy window. She rubbed at her eyes. I could tell that she was in the liminal space between waking and sleep, the memory of her dream still lingering on the edge of her consciousness.
Beyond the limits of that tiny room the city busied itself, unfurling with the dawn. Phlegm was hacked gracelessly from throats and spat into gutters. Buses rumbled to life at the neighbouring Ratna Park bus station, vegetable sellers spread out their offerings on tattered cloths, snatches of conversation lingered in doorways. Oil was slicked over eager faces and pressed down upon thick black hair; crumpled collars made ready for school. Temple bells rang out, deities were invoked, and safe passage was granted. Roads were scurried across, rivers transgressed, paths taken.
‘Garam chai, garam chai.’ The cry of the chai wallah broke the through the yoke of my thoughts. He was doing the morning rounds of the ward, plastic cups of sickly-sweet tea exchanged for a few spare rupees. For a moment the routine of his monotonous chant was soothing. I held the milky tea scum in my mouth, letting it burn my tongue.
I swallowed my chai and waited for Gita to make the crossing from the dream world to reality. It was one of those fleeting moments that felt expansive. She would be okay. She would get out of this stifling hospital room, escape this city that was not her home. She would go to school, find a home, have a life.
‘Tell me about your dream?’
‘Ma biraalo thiyen.’ I was a cat.
‘I went home to Jhapa, to my village. Then I found my old house.’
I closed my eyes, stilling my mind so it could map out the expanse of her life — her family, her village, her losses, her hopes, her dreams. Would she ever go back home?
‘My dad was there so I curled up on his lap and he hugged me and told me how much he had missed me. I was so happy in that dream.’
I laughed. I could picture it perfectly — Gita as a small black cat, basking in the sunshine on her Father’s lap. In that moment I sensed the presence of something from the dream world, the spirit of her Father maybe, visiting her in her sleep to offer comfort.
The first time I met Gita was in the crumbling Kathmandu orphanage that she called home. It was a city of orphanages, if you knew where to look—they were scattered amongst the labyrinth laneways and fertile valley soil, like the that sprouted up when the rains rolled in from the mountains.
Back then I was a wide-eyed bideshi, a foreigner barely out of my teens. I was making a triumphant return to the orphanage as a volunteer laden with shiny gifts and treasured memories. I was back for an indefinite amount of time and would be living what I considered to be a dream come true — spending my mornings helping a bunch of cute kids get ready for school and the rest of the day helping the orphanage get organised to buy their own land. I would be joining two other returning volunteers, one from Australia and another from Switzerland. With their reappearance came the promise of the funds that they had managed to secure.
I had come into contact with the orphanage during my first visit to Nepal the year before. I had been filled with wonder as the city rushed up to meet me and the plane thudded onto the tarmac. Arriving in Kathmandu, I walked off the plane and into an airport nestled between lush green fields and the congested roads that snake their way into the heart of the city. Women worked the fields within the airport fence, cows wandered along the potholed roads and the constant shove of pushy taxi drivers assaulted my senses. I breathed it all in and was filled with a kind of peace. And because of my privilege, my youth, and my outsider status, I felt like I had come home.
The original plan had been to spend my university holidays living with a family on the outskirts of Kathmandu, in the pottery village of Thimi. During my stay I was to learn about the culture and the language and in return teach English classes at the local primary school. But soon after arriving, the brewing Maoist insurgency forced all the schools to shut down. The friend that I was travelling with got typhoid and returned home and I found myself back in the city with not a whole to do, apart from wandering around the markets and shrines during the day and hoping between bars at night. On one of my frequent café breaks I spotted a handmade flyer looking for volunteers at an orphanage within walking distance from the tourist hub of Thamel.
I sought the orphanage out, and soon my days consisted of scrubbing upturned faces, buttoning school shirts, learning to tie school ties and carrying school bags for the youngest children, who were barely four years old. My afternoons were spent helping the kids with their English homework as they copied lines and lines of rote learning along the smudged lines of their schoolbooks, simply called ‘copies’. I fell in love with the children, and with the simplicity of my daily routine. I knew that I would be back.
When I returned to Nepal a little over a year later, the real reckoning occurred. I had graduated from university and with no job prospects or creative projects to pursue, Asia lured me back. I spent a few months in India, travelling with two friends—on packed trains that coursed through the night, tucked into the backseat of rickshaws that tore through urban streets, wedged onto the back of motorbikes and perched on camels that crossed the desert. And then, finally, squeezed onto a bus that shuddered over the India-Nepal border and heaved up through the foothills of the Himalayas before descending into Kathmandu.
I emerged into Kathmandu’s stifling pre-monsoon heat, letting the city envelop me once again. At this time of year life in the Kathmandu valley slows down, then picks up again in an excited frenzy as its million or so inhabitants try to predict when the rains will finally arrive. The days seem longer and more tiring at this time of year—never enough water to go around, the streets dustier and drier than usual, kids sitting listlessly in their classrooms.
It was during this pre-monsoon daze that I met Gita. I staked out the familiar path to the orphanage along the banks of the Bishnumati River. As a popular Hindu cremation site, the river had once been the spiritual life blood for a largely rural community. Now it was nothing more than a polluted knot of debris that snaked its way through the city’s northern arc. The stench was so bad that the locals covered their faces with handkerchiefs as they crossed the bridge.
The rusty orphanage gate groaned on its hinges and I stood at the threshold. I noticed her straight away. Hunched in on herself, partially matted hair curtaining her face from the world. The staff told me she didn’t play or talk with the other kids. That she refused to eat or go to school. They told me that she was difficult and too proud for her own good. Her name was Gita.
Slowly she began to speak, and her story unravelled thread by thread. Born into a poor family in Jhapa, in the eastern cleave of Nepal, Gita was cast out when her mother married for the second time. Her father had already disappeared from her life — remarried, missing, dead — she didn’t know. At seven she climbed aboard a bus with a friend and hid under the seats. They ended up in Kathmandu eight hours later and a family onboard the bus offered to take her in. The next few years were hazy in her memory—that or they were years she wished to forget. She worked as a servant for the family from the bus, was taken to work in a hotel on the city’s northern limits before ending up homeless and sleeping under the watchful eyes of Buddha at the Swayambhunath temple. She didn’t know what happened to the friend that she got on the bus with.
She was barely surviving on the streets, like so many others in a country continually ranked amongst the world’s poorest. She had somehow escaped the cycle of trafficking, from domestic slave to hotel sex worker, when the orphanage director took her in. Gita’s life had already been one of deep sorrow. A dead father, a lost family, sexual abuse at the hands of the people she worked for. Battered, ostracised, forgotten. At the orphanage there was no respite: again she was abused and neglected. Her weight plummeted to below 30 kilograms, she was severely malnourished, and she suffered from night blindness, tuberculosis and a sexually transmitted infection. She was around 13 years old at the time.
When change came it was sudden. After unravelling her story and discovering the depth of the abuse that she was suffering at the orphanage, Gita was spirited away to a secret hotel room. Hospital appointments were made, police headquarters visited, and accusations of human trafficking were thrown in all directions. A police report was eventually filed: Gita was to be permanently removed from the orphanage and placed in the care of our motley group. She was admitted to hospital almost immediately hooked up to oxygen tanks, transfused with blood and forced to drink a cloying pink liquid.
Salvation seemed imminent.
But as many things in life, it wasn’t that simple. On the first day at the hospital Gita was angry. She was hungry, tired, and quite clearly, very sick. She didn’t want any tests done to her body or to be prodded by the doctors, who to her must have appeared as yet more strange men. When the hospital, charmingly called the Model Hospital, said that they were going to admit her, we were told that we needed to go and buy the medicines to treat her tuberculosis. The TB hospital was on the outer edge of the valley, in another town.
So, Gita was left in the hospital and the medicine was sought out. In the afternoon when the medicine was taken back to the hospital Gita was no longer there to take it. The staff seemed shocked: why would she be there, when none of us had stayed behind to make sure that she remained on the ward?
A mild panic set in. She had only been in our care for a short amount of time and already we had lost her. After a frantic search of the nearby area she was discovered at Kathmandu’s main bus station, which jutted out in front of the hospital.
‘Ke garne??’ we asked her. What happened?
She told us that she had seen a man that she knew and that he had asked her to follow her. He was at the hospital, she said, and he wanted to take her somewhere, so she went with him. She knew him from the hotel that she used to work at, the one where she had most likely been sexually abused. What the fuck, I remember thinking, this is going to be hard.
From then on, one of us always had to be with her at the hospital. We started to become aquatinted with the rhythms of life on the ward. We discovered that in Nepali hospitals, like I suspect happens in many other parts of the world, patients are not bathed or fed by the hospital staff. We divided up shifts between the three of us, so that one us was always there with her. To help her wash, to take her for a walk down to the canteen (which she often hated), to talk to the doctors when they did their rounds. She slept a lot during the day, so we slept with her or read. During the night we slept on a yoga mat on the floor next to her bed. Friends and partners visited during the day. There was a lot that Gita hated about being in that tiny room up on the third floor, but there was also a lot of laughter. There was a lot of love.
Yet in those lingering hospital afternoons I questioned my intentions. What was I doing? In a matter of months, I would be safely scooped up and deposited back to banality on the other side of the world. Gita would remain in Nepal. Alone, homeless, without roots that could be traced in any tangible way.
And then — just as suddenly as she came into my life, she was gone. After weeks hooked up to the oxygen tank in the hospital room, she was given the all clear. She left hospital in a triumph, ready to start her life in a new home and to finally realise that dream of trafficked children the world over: an education. Less than a month later she was dead.
The other volunteers had left—back to Australia and Switzerland. Gita was living in Thankot, on the rise that jutted slowly up and out of the valley. I was working and getting ready to study Nepali language at the local university, partly inspired by what Gita had taught me in those weeks spent within the confines of the hospital room.
Early one morning, much earlier than I liked to be awake, I was woken up by pounding on my apartment door. At the time I lived on the top two floors of a house in the twisting laneways that mirrored the slick of the Bishnumati River that lead down to the orphanage where I had first met Gita. The family that lived on the bottom two floors were usually up early and as this was an era before mobile phones, I used their land line as my number.
‘Didi, phone call!’ the voice at my door broke through the thin film of sleep.
I padded downstairs. In the loungeroom a cartoon was playing as the kids ate their breakfast. It flickered on the edge of my consciousness as I picked up the phone.
‘Hajur?’ I answered the phone respectfully, not sure who would be calling me so early.
It was Nabin, the language teacher and coordinator of the small children’s home where Gita had been living. He began to tell me a long story about Gita not being happy at the school—how she couldn’t keep up with the kids her age and so had been put in a class with the nursery kids. He told me that over the last few days she had stopped going to school and that she had been acting strangely at home. The neighbours had even said they saw her throwing her own shit out of the bathroom window. He told me that she had seemed depressed. He told me how she had gone to sleep the night before, in her single bed pushed up against the wall in the bedroom that she shared with the other eight children at the home. Then he told me that she hadn’t woken up that morning.
I was silent. I didn’t understand. Was she sick? Depressed? Just wake her up, I wanted to shout. Wake her up and take her to the fucking hospital. Before I could say anything, Nabin spoke.
‘She died this morning, Brooke. She died in her sleep. We can’t wake her up. I’m sorry, we did everything we could.’
I didn’t understand. I had seen her a week ago, on my day off. I had stayed at the home, in a tiny spare room on the roof terrace, and she had slept in the same room as me.
‘She’s dead. I’m so sorry.’
I wanted him to stop saying sorry. I wanted him to stop speaking. I didn’t want to know what I now knew. I also wished that he had told me straight away.
Looking back, I realise that must have been one of the hardest conversations that he ever had. But in that I moment I wanted nothing more than for him to stop talking. I wished that he had never made that phone call. I wanted to go back in time, to the time before I knew that there was a Gita shaped space in the world. With the cartoon still playing on the TV next to me, it was as if every shocking grief cliché rained down upon me: time stopped but felt expansive at the same time, my senses became magnified and I wanted to be either swallowed up by the universe or deposited somewhere else. Preferably back to a time of innocence. A time of innocence where kids didn’t just go to bed and never wake again.
Hands shaking, I called my boyfriend Sanjay. I think I must have asked the family if I could make the call from their phone. I think they must have seen the look on my face — frozen, stricken — and said yes, of course. I made the call in a daze. I can’t really remember what I said, trauma has blocked it from my memory. Did I tell him she was dead? Or just that something had happened and to come quickly? Either way the call was quick. I needed to get out of the family’s space. It’s not that they weren’t kind or sympathetic. I was scared that by talking about what had happened that I would be speaking it into existence. I would be admitting that it was real.
I went upstairs and laid down on my mattress. I had a flatmate, but she was in Tibet. I was grateful that I was alone for a moment.
I left the door to my apartment ajar, for when Sanjay arrived. When he got there, I was a mess.
‘We have to go to her right now.’ He had called Nabin on the way over to me and had the details of what happened. He spoke to the family downstairs and explained to them as well. As we walked out of the compound to his motorbike, I covered my face, not wanting anyone to see the horror of what I was feeling, of all that was wrong with the world right in that moment.
Because she was still considered a child she was buried, not cremated as is the norm in Hindu society. Bamboo was hacked from a nearby grove and a bier was made on the spot. I sat frozen outside the room. I wouldn’t look at anyone, even though I could feel the pain that this was causing. On the threshold to the bedroom I stood frozen, not wanting to look at her, but then found myself folded over her. She was still warm, still smelt the same. She had not left her body yet. I didn’t want to break the spell by letting them move her to the tomb that was to be dug freshly into the soil of the valley. The valley that wasn’t her home, that never was.
I was torn. Between the rage and injustice of the world, a world that would bury a child in the dirt hours after she died rather than try to work out how she died. But then in the same moment I was without hope. Taking her to the hospital or the morgue and demanding tests would never bring her back.
In the end there was nothing I could do. She was gone. On the same day that she died, Gita was carried from her bed down to a grassy spot by small bubbling stream. There were people working in the fields nearby. They came to stare at me, the crying bideshi who sat by the water with a body wrapped in white cloth next to her. The sun rose high in the sky, burning my skin, but I didn’t care.
Before she was given back to the earth, I took one of her red hair ribbons and collected some rocks from the riverbed. Cotton wool and a slicked wick were placed in her mouth and I was asked to light it. It was windy and I couldn’t keep it alight. The earth closed around her.
She was gone and I had no idea why or how.
The next few weeks passed in a fog of grief. At night I stayed at Sanjay’s house, sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor in his grandmother’s bedroom. During the day I visited an internet café and made long chocked up (and very public) phone calls home to my Mum. After initially hiding my grief, or rather hiding from it, it became very public. Sanjay tried to be supportive, but the cultural chasm in dealing with death was vast. He flailed and felt that he wasn’t doing enough, and his family grew suspicious of our relationship and wanted me out of the house.
I went to my friend Padma’s house in Thimi, to that same village on the rim of Kathmandu that I had stayed at when I first visited Nepal. At Padma’s I slept in her bed and she spooned me, offering a closeness that reminded me that I wasn’t alone. But I would always wake with a jolt, at some point through the night, and the grief would wash me clean. I would go downstairs, past the tiny kitchen with its lingering smells of ginger and mustard oil, to the tiny room near the front door. Here I would sit, alone and in the darkness of my grief, as the tears came.
My friend Padma worked for the Red Cross and was working on a campaign for tuberculosis awareness. Her job was to knock on the doors of the densely populated old quarter of Kathmandu, spreading information and advice.
Every morning we would walk down the steep hill from the village to China Road and hail a squat and packed bus that would take us to the capital. When we got to the wide central street of Kantipath we would jump off the bus. Padma would head one way into the densely packed streets, and I would head the other way, back to my apartment.
Those were days spent trying to find somewhere to cry that wasn’t public. It is often said that grief is like a foreign country. I was, at the age of 24 experiencing my first monumental loss whilst I lived in a foreign country and did my best to understand the differing cultural responses to death.
When I boarded my flight home, some four months later, I did so with a heavy heart as a winter chill slinked its way into the valley. I bid Gita and Kathmandu goodbye as the sun lit up the sky in a final glorious blaze. Her sudden death had cracked me right open to all of the pain, searing hope and fragility of life. It was like being handed a blank map with no point of reference.
This map would always lead me back to her. Years later, in another part of the city she had called home, I had her name pricked into my skin with a throbbing needle. I emerged from the tattoo parlour just as the storm clouds rolled in once again from the mountains. Now I would always carry her with me on the outside as well as the inside.
Here’s another version of this story: I was twenty years old the first time I went to Nepal. I was a halfway through a film degree. No skills to share apart from being a native English speaker. I did not leave the basin of the Kathmandu valley once during those first three months. I fell in love, with the children at the orphanage and also with a drummer in a covers band who beat out the rhythm to my nights spent in the tourist district of Thamel. To me, it was perfect.
I didn’t think about the attachments I formed with vulnerable children, about the legacy of attachment and abandonment that I was leaving behind when I stepped onto the tarmac and returned home at the end of the Nepali winter. I didn’t see myself as part of the problem. Besides, I didn’t have any money to give, instead preferring to spend my money on a plane ticket to then ‘give my time’ as a volunteer.
By now we are familiar with the stereotypes. The trope of the white saviour. The naïve teen on their gap yah. Voluntourism and its ill effects. Aid dependency and the particular ilk of poverty that it fosters. That was me.
And then the next year I was back: back to the drummer in the covers band, to those twisting streets and the path down by the stinking river that lead me to the orphanage. Back to where this story begins — the three returning volunteers meeting Gita and then piecing together her fractured story. And how as we did so, the story that the orphanage had so carefully spun us began to unravel.
Until then I had been blissfully unaware that the kids that spilled from the orphanage doors had been lured from their mountain homes and fed tales of false hope and bright city lights until their little bellies were full. Broken promises. Many of the kids spent their days being dutifully trotted out in front of the bright-eyed tourists who volunteered at and raised money for theses orphanages.
Like most stories, it is not only easy but also an act of self-preservation to lay blame at the feet of everyone but oneself. Especially after a death, even more so the death of a child. It was their fault: the orphanage — for taking kids from their families, from their homes, from their villages. It was their fault for what happened to Gita, and then for lying about it and turning us away, when we returned to see the other kids or speak to new volunteers.
But of course, we were all a part of it. This was a system that functioned because of the willingness of those volunteers — often young, often unqualified, usually Anglo. Transient, naïve, privileged. We were essential to the existence of the orphanages. If we were never there, that orphanage would not have existed, like so many others — it was a winning business model within the framework of the tourist industry. Take the tourists away, particularly that type of tourist — craving that white saviour rush — and the model is not so profitable anymore.
I don’t know what the answers are. During my time in Nepal, it ranked amongst the ten poorest nations on earth. In the spectacularly isolated Himalayas, the opportunity to send children to Kathmandu will always offer a gleam of hope on the horizon. In a recent Foreign Correspondent special, the stories of these families, many of them from the remote Humla district, were stark. One mother had seen 3 of her 6 children die. Sending her daughter to a children’s home in the capital was not just an issue of finances or education, it was a matter of survival. In that story, after the orphanage in question was raided and featured in Nepali media, the daughter was eventually returned to her mother. Watching mother and daughter trying to reconnect over the closing credits of the episode was heartbreaking.
I think about Gita all the time. I don’t think we did anything extra special or worthy, but we were there. We happened to be there at the right time. The thought of her dying in that first orphanage, without love or dignity makes me sick. Gita was Hindu and believed in reincarnation. She also believed that she would die young. She had visions of witches and the afterlife. She pointed out animals that had been sacrificed and said that will be me soon. She predicted that I would be the saddest of the volunteers when it was my time o say goodbye to her. And in the end, I was the only volunteer still in Nepal when she died.
It’s not that I think we were the only ones capable of seeing her suffering, it’s that we happened to be there and were able to help her get through the gates and past the gatekeeper. We believed in her and we believed that she mattered. We helped her untangle the web of her past and bore witness to her pain. At least in death she knew dignity and she knew love. She was free.
The last time I saw her alive she told me that one day I would have a little boy of my own. We were standing on the bare roof terrace where she lived when she turned to me and mapped out my future. The monsoon rain had licked the streets clean and below us the city slowly unfurled itself anew. As the night shadows stealthily enveloped us the world seemed full of possibility.
Fast forward fifteen years: I have one son, just as Gita predicted. I treasure my last living memory of her, that night on the roof terrace, as the mist rolled down from the hills. The recollections, stories and writing make it easier to go on living without her. That Gita shaped space still exists, but it’s filled with her memory.
Brooke Maddison is an emerging writer and editor living and working on unceded Turrbal and Yuggera land. She is currently completing a Masters of Writing, Editing and Publishing at the University of Queensland and her work has been published in Kill Your Darlings, Antithesis and Jacaranda, where she was awarded the 2019 prize for creative non-fiction. She is primarily interested in creative non-fiction, memoir and personal essay but she also writes literary fiction and YA. She likes exploring themes of identity, language and narrative and lives in Brisbane with her son.