Life in Kathmandu was a world away from the UK

Reporter Megan Titley tells of her childhood being brought up by her charity-worker parents in Nepal.

Friday, 20th January 2017, 11:47 am
Updated Friday, 20th January 2017, 11:52 am
Reporter Megan Titley was born and brought up in Kathmandu

I came screaming into this world in May 1985 as a stateless citizen.

My mum was born in Kashmir to missionary doctors and my dad in Nigeria, the son of a Royal Navy officer.

As a second-generation child born outside of the UK I did not have the automatic right to a British passport. In order for me to be accepted for UK Citizenship my parents had to prove that my grandfather was living in Britain at the time of his appointment to the UK’s Colonial Civil Service.

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Reporter Megan Titley was born and brought up in Kathmandu

To do this my parents had to show his original appointment letter from 1948, which he fortunately still had.

Fast forward past my babyhood to what I can remember of growing up and everyday memories include cycling round Kathmandu’s ring road. The orbital is to Kathmandu what the M25 is to London.

At the time there were barely a handful of vehicles on it although these days it is heaving with traffic.

A huge treat which my sister Bridget, brother Douglas and I always anticipated with great excitement was going to the nearby Corner Cafe where we could choose a selection of momos, or spiced dumplings.

Reporter Megan Titley was born and brought up in Kathmandu

Veg, chicken or buffalo were all on offer - no beef as killing a cow in Nepal was deemed a greater offence than killing a woman at the time.

In another favourite food-related activity coming home from school, my friends and I would often pick up makai or a corn on the cob which had been roasted on a road-side fire. It is possibly Nepal’s equivalent to Britain’s fish and chips, partly because it was always served in a scrap of newspaper.

We went to British Primary School, one of the few international schools in the city, which all the foreign children went to.

I remember catching the green bus from our house to school and staring at the posters of the Hindu gods on the windows, slightly afraid of their multiple arms and heads.

Our house, a bungalow, had bougainvillea climbing up its walls and a door with netting to keep the mosquitoes out. We ate a lot of Dal Bhat Tarkari, which is rice and lentils with curried vegetables as it is a staple.

My mum, a midwife at Patan Hospital where I was born, was constantly trying to get our mali or gardener Gunga to pull out the weeds in the garden instead of the flowers. Dad was a leather craftsman and he was often in the surrounding hill villages sharing his knowledge with Sarkis, a sub set of the Dalit caste group - the lowest in the Hindu caste system.

Sarkis are traditionally cobblers or tanners and because the market for leathergoods was dwindling my dad came up with designs for bags and helped open up the market again. Now his bag designs are sold in Kathmandu’s tourist hub, Thamel.

I cannot recall my upbringing in Nepal without mentioning festivals.

During Changa Chet, the kite fighting festival, everyone would try to fell their opponent’s kites from each other’s roofs.

My dad used to take us children to the roof and teach us how to fly paper kites. Various tactics were used to cut the string of your neighbour’s kite including dipping the string in a floury paste which had been mixed in ground glass to make it sharper.

I never developed much aptitude at flying kites but loved gazing up at all the colours climbing, diving and floating in the clouds above me.

My all-time favourite festival, however, was Holi. Holi officially ushers in the spring and it involved filling water balloons with water and colourful dye and throwing the balloons at your friends.

It was and remains the most fun festival in my opinion and I never tire of it.

During the school holidays we would always go on a trek as a family.

Pony trekking to Jomsom was a highlight. The ponies were tough beasts though, trying to stay on, clinging to their sturdy necks, legs flapping as they raced each other round mountain bends with precipitous drops was a challenge to say the least.

Douglas, the youngest of us three, found himself falling off a number of times.

On one particularly brutal occasion the pony trotted through a small doorway and after Douglas’ face met the wall he was pushed off the animal and landed flat on his back. He was okay, but there were shocking events which took place too.

I keenly remember my best friend at the time, Ayesha, getting bitten in her neck by a guard dog. The image of her clutching her throat as it bled is seared into my memory. Thankfully, after stitches and a booster rabies jab she was fine.

Our pets occasionally met grizley ends. Our black cat Sprite, for instance, was beheaded with a Khukuri, or Gurkha knife, because it crossed a puja or worship line. Our Hindu neighbours were superstitious and regarded it as a very bad omen.

Another time our beloved mongrel Tufty was eaten by a leopard.

Animals were sometimes also slaughtered for festivals.

One year Bridget, Douglas and I begged my parents to allow us to watch an adult goat get its head chopped off for Dashain, the longest and the most auspicious festival in Nepal.

Our neighbour doing the deed flicked water on the goat’s head and when it shook its head, a sign that meant it wanted to be sacrificed to the gods, the Khukuri came down with one fell swoop.

I only saw the aftermath - the goat’s head on the floor and it still standing - I had lost my nerve and ducked behind the wall beforehand.

Life in Kathmandu was exciting and varied, I always woke up eager for the day ahead because I never knew what was going to happen.

Happy things took place all the time, a wedding band might come dancing down the street carrying a bride on a palanquin dressed up to the nines in a red sari and dripping in gold jewellry or the elephant from the zoo would amble past a chiya pasal or tea shop I was in.

Life in the UK feels dull and clinical in comparison and it always takes me a while to adjust to the routine and comfort.

Throughout my entire childhood, as well as the steady presence of my family and friends one particular woman stands out.

Shortly after I was born my parents took on Sanomaya to help clean the house and look after my sister, brother and I while they worked.

She became very much a part of the family over the 10 years she spent with us and I cannot look back without thinking of her.

Bridget, Douglas and I called her didi, or big sister, and she was like a second mother, friend and accomplice to us. Married as a teenager, according to the culture, she had to deal with being beaten by her husband when he came home drunk.

She later discovered he was schizophrenic and has spent her life as the main breadwinner of the family despite never being taught to read and write.

She was a pillar of strength in my eyes and her courage and good humour still inspires me to this day.

Leaving home in Kathmandu as an 11-year-old and moving to the UK, my passport country, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

My peers at my new school in Surrey did not understand the strange foreign creature in their midst and I was largely ostracised and bullied during my teenage years.

It was a far cry from the friendly, warm faces that I knew so well in Kathmandu and it took until my adulthood before I could begin to appreciate what the UK had to offer.