‘We go now to collect the eyes of a dead man”. The voice on the phone was blunt, the message chilling. I’d been waiting for it. I drained my beer and ran into the swarming street reflecting on how I’d come to join this gruesome scavenger hunt.
I was helping out at Kathmandu’s Tilganga Eye Hospital where corneal implants restore eyesight – no charge – to queues of dirt-poor cataract-impacted Nepalese. I’m an Australian Singapore-based advertising writer and my client, the Fred Hollows Foundation, manufactures each year several hundred thousand tiny plastic replacement corneas in the hospital’s sterile basement. I take my work seriously and to understand the subject I’d already visited on my way to Nepal the sister clinic in Da Nang. There, with my Australian feet protruding from the biggest flip-flops the diminuitive Vietnamese staff could find, I stood beside the surgeon as he sliced a scalpel into clouded eyes and slipped in contact lens-like implants. Within minutes the bandaged patient wobbled out the door – next day to welcome colours of the world she’d not seen for years.
Now I was in Kathmandu where, recognising that there is no substitute for human tissue, in severe cataract cases surgeons transplant corneas from the dead.
I was travelling solo, staying at the Kathmandu Guest House, the iconic labyrinth of rooms built into an old palace in the bustling Thamel district and made famous in the 60s when The Beatles stayed there while tripping on LSD and taking guidance from the Maharishi. Back then it became a magnet for hippies. During my current stay latter-day hippies still living the dream occupied KGH, along with heavy-booted trekkers, Everest climbers with granite chins and distant eyes, and a few spaced-out dudes who should have gone home long ago.
I was recovering from a stomach bug – welcome to Nepal – that I’d picked up while trekking down a Himalayan trail to the city of Bhaktapur. I should have known better than to eat that buffalo curry in an otherwise deserted tea house. Or was it the water in the home-stay where I had to clamber through locals crowding the entrance selling stacked melons and tethered goats? Who knows? Either way I’d spent a few days in misery and was relieved to get back to the capital and to sip a bowl of chicken soup with some confidence it might remain within.
Nurse Sophia, she of the phone call, snapped me out of my musings as she appeared and without breaking stride hauled me down a side street. Her black eyes flashed and sari trailed in her wake as I struggled to keep up. She carried a briefcase which I knew contained cold packs, scalpels, tiny containers for corneas, bigger ones for whole eyeballs kept for research.
We hurried through a clutter of rickshaws, hash dealers, sherpas, soldiers armed and alert for Maoists, and street-sweepers immaculate in pastel saris despite clouds of dust stirred by their witches’ brooms.
“We must get to the river quickly; the eyes are only good for a short time,” shouted Sophia. “But first we ask the Kumari for success.” And she stopped in front of a leaning terrace house, its ornate timber façade faded to grey.
To explain. The Kumari, Kathmandu’s living goddess, is a young girl, perhaps just four or five, chosen after fulfilling a bizarre set of tests. She must never have shed blood. She must remain calm while kept in a darkened room lined with freshly severed buffalo heads and being taunted by men wearing scary masks. After all, goddesses must be fearless.
The Kumari lives a revered, solitary life. She must never touch the ground. Once a year she is paraded through the city in a massive chariot, at which time she blesses the king by placing a bindi mark on his forehead.
The tenure of Kumaris can be short, as a cut, loss of a tooth or menstruation brings blood that ends their goddess-like status. They are then retired on a modest pension and uncertainty of marriage as Kumari husbands traditionally die young. No, I don’t know why.
The mystical mantra “om” issued from somewhere in the house as we watched a second floor window. From time to time the Kumari can be seen there. (She has to be black-eyed, with lashes like a cow.) Sophia and I stood waiting for a glimpse. Not today.
So we continued on to our destination, the Bagmati River, a tributary feeding the Ganges and a place of great holiness for Nepalese Hindus. Near the river the crowd grew: flower sellers, families, beggars, sadhus: dreadlocked, holy rascals smeared with ashes and wearing red loincloths – if anything at all – striding through the scene muttering and leaving trails of cannabis smoke, and the ubiquitous sacred cows ambling undisturbed, splattering excrement to add to the layers of odours dominated by one acrid whiff – burning human flesh.
For this was Pashupatinath, the place of cremations.
Here, stone temples loom over a terrace beside steps leading down to the river. Banyan trees clutch ancient foundations in their talons, sadhus lurk in the shadows and monkeys taunt mourners and the dark, spidery men stacking the firewood.
Sophia ran to a group gathered on the terrace around the corpse of a man lying on a wooden bier. Intense discussion followed. Finally a consensus seemed to be reached. Sophia and I bent down to examine the body. I did not have to be a doctor to know that those eyes would never see again. We were too late.
The family carried on with little emotion. In a rather haphazard ceremony the dead man’s feet, protruding from the bier now decked in flowers, were dipped into the river while workers nearby stacked split logs into a waist-high pyre.
The deceased was a high-ranking soldier, which explained the platoon lined up on the terrace: Ghurkas in battle-dress and slouch hats, bayonets fixed to their AK-47s, each with the curved kukri dagger strapped to his belt, a reminder of their savage reputation as fighters.
A priest reached in among the flowers to strip the body of clothes – Hindus believe we should leave the world as naked as we entered it – and flung them into the river where they were collected by unfussy types scrambling a short distance downstream.
Then the bier was placed on its pyre. The man’s oldest son twisted a plug of spirit-soaked gauze into his father’s mouth and touched it with a blazing brand. In the dry heat the flames flared instantly. The crowd groaned. The body, a stark black silhouette in the inferno, was quickly consumed. Soon enough the priest tossed all remaining bits into the river – also collected by locals downstream.
I was walking away through Hindu symbols of creation, a cluster of room-sized temples each containing a stone phallus rising from the circular symbol of a vagina, when Sophia whistled loudly. She was standing with a group of mourners stacking flowers around the body of a teenage girl. “Come, paradeshi, we have work to do,” she called. I hurried across the terrace. Sophia snapped on a pair of surgical gloves, peeled back cold eyelids, looked at me with shining eyes and nodded.