I first met her while trekking to Gosainkunda. My friends and I had walked up to her village with an old man who was headed home, a village a bit farther down on the trail to the sacred lake.
When he stopped at this ramshackle place for a bowl of chhyang, we decided to join him. Thus we entered the lair of the teller of some of the tallest tales I have ever heard in Nepal.
She introduced herself as ‘Jiddé Budi.’
Jiddé was her husband’s name, so her name was short for Jiddé ko Budi (Jiddé’s Wife). Her hut had the look of something between a permanent dwelling and a temporary camp. There was no attempt at décor. Two benches flanked a table. A bamboo cut into a cup served as an ashtray. There were no decorations on the walls. Strips of meat hung from rafters directly above the hearth. That was her specialty—stir-fried smoked meat. And chhyang.
As Jiddé Budi shuffled around to ladle out corn chhyang into aluminum bowls, a man sipping the thick spirit asked us where we were headed.
“Gosainkunda,” we told him. The drunk’s expression turned pensive. “There is an evil serpent that lives near the lake,” he said. Like drunks, he didn’t wait for permission or invitation. Without anyone so much as having uttered a word, he went into the storyteller mode.
The story was about a shaman who lived long, long ago. The shaman travelled to Nag Kunda, the lake where the serpent lived, to challenge him to a duel. Before he dived into the lake, the shaman instructed his wife to beat his drum and to keep doing so no matter what.
A long duel ensued underwater. Outside, the shaman’s wife beat the drum. The shaman eventually triumphed and surfaced with the vanquished snake draped over his shoulders. Seeing the macabre creature on her husband’s shoulders, the wife lost her wits and, throwing the drum away, fled.
Without the drum’s beating, the shaman was powerless. He became the serpent’s meal. This story, our drunken folklorist, concluded was proof not to ever trust women. Not stopping for a second what she was doing, our hostess shot back, “Men always blame women.”
Maybe because she feared another misogynistic tale was forthcoming or simply to tell a better tale, our hostess took on the storyteller’s role with a round of stories. She told a story about Birbal, the witty minister in the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court. Though nobody asked for it, she did an encore. She certainly relished telling stories. When she told stories she enacted them, delivering lines like a theatre actor.
That was the first time I had been in Chisapani, a small village through which one passes if trekking to Gosainkunda from Sundarijal in Kathmandu. I have returned several times after that visit, making it a point to stop at Jiddé Budi’s to hear more of her outlandish yet irresistible tales.
The second time that I visited her, I was with a Chinese friend. As soon as she learned my companion was from China, out came a story that even the most jingoistic Chinese would have trouble believing.
“They say that the Kathmandu Valley is a dowry from the Chinese emperor. He said to his son-in-law, ‘Here, take it. grow chilies in it.’”
That particular serving, although without a grain of truth in it, was the best example of how she managed to run her inn as much on lore and legends as on food and drinks.
Another time she told me the story of when her father took her down to Kathmandu for the first time. They arrived in Tundikhel and saw Tibetan refugees camped there. The men were wild, with matted hair and clad in rough gowns. “From time to time they reached into their gowns and fished out black hunks. They bit off mouthfuls, stowed away the pieces in the gowns, and chewed. I asked my father what it was that they were eating and he told me that it was dried yak meat.”
Those stories – outlandish, intriguing, historical – now seem the only link between her village before the 2015 earthquake and today.
Jiddé Budi’s house, like so many others in Chisapani, was razed. Hers was a wooden hut, so was easy to rebuild, though their larger house, down in another village, needs proper rebuilding. For now, she is back in her hut. Meat hangs from the rafters again; the bamboo ashtray is on the table (she gave me one as a souvenir).
Music plays on the radio.
There is chhyang.
And, oh, for anyone willing to stop at the nondescript hut and give her the slightest pretext, stories.