One of the most beautiful smiles in Nepal lives on Rahul’s face. You can find that smile, rain or shine, heat or cold, just inside the Lumbini village garden gate.
That smile calls out “Hello,” in at least 13 languages, maybe more. And the smile will often ask you if you want tea. If you stop, Rahul will treat you and anyone else in the vicinity to tea and cookies.
I’ve often sat with Rahul, chatting and sipping tea, while pilgrims to the Buddha’s birthplace pass to and fro. Lumbini village garden contains ancient Buddhist archeological ruins and is a world heritage site. Pilgrims often give us strange looks and some seem downright nervous. Some take our photo. There are those who quickly snap a picture and run off without a word. Others stand and stare before running away.
Why? Because all they see is a white girl sitting beside someone with a twisted body who seems to be a beggar. If, however, a pilgrim engages with Rahul, his smile and cheerfulness are infectious and they will find themselves smiling and drinking tea.
Rahul Patel grew up in Vishnu Pura village in southern Nepal. His family was not rich, but life was good and he got to go to school. Disaster struck when he was in Grade 5. Rahul contracted polio. He went home and was nursed by his mother. Surely the sickness wouldn’t last long. Surely life would soon go back to normal.
But life didn’t go back to normal. Fever and sickness wracked his body and mind. He describes himself as “sleeping” one year after the next. Consciousness came and went, days came and went, as his limbs contorted and head altered. Day after day, week after week, and year after year, his mother nursed him and fed him. After three years he awoke to a different body.
What would he do now? He was almost an adult and his limbs would never allow him to do physical labour or farming as is common in the area. Indeed, he would have to depend on others for assistance if he was to survive. He would need a sedentary occupation.
Rahul became a Hindu holy man, a sadhu. For seven years he was a sadhu, singing bajans (holy songs) and inspiring local devotees.
He then moved to Lumbini village garden and converted to Buddhism. Rahul has no earth-shattering story of religious conversion. The walls of his room are plastered with pictures of both Hindu and Buddhist saints. For the past 10 years, he has called himself a Buddhist sadhu.
He sits by the Lumbini garden gate turning his prayer wheel, saying mantras, smiling, and chatting. Pilgrims sometimes stop and offer him a donation and, indeed, I have given Rahul money. Occasionally, Rahul will call out and request a donation. This is how he makes ends meet. Mostly, however, you will only see Rahul’s friendly face smiling and cheerily calling, “Hello!”
Rahul’s daily schedule begins quite early. He is up by about 5 or 5:30 every morning and at the Mayadevi temple (the spot of Buddha’s birth). After saying mantras and greeting tourists for a while, he stops by Siddartha Restaurant for tea and a chapatti (flat bread) and then sits himself by the Lumbini village garden main gate for the rest of the day.
Rahul always seems to be helping people. Recently, when I had a headache, he rummaged through his bag to produce a miniature bottle of ointment that worked wonders. More than once he has had just the right balm when my mother was in pain.
He won’t let you use a bit and pass it back either. No, you must accept the entire container as a gift. At other times he has found a bicycle for hire when there were none to be found. I’ve often been sitting with him when a local comes up and borrows money. Rahul is a source of information, too. He always seems to know where people are and what is happening in Lumbini.
A few weeks ago, when I was sipping Sprite and chatting with Rahul about his life, a friend of Rahul’s realized my bike tire was flat. Local men crowded around my bike and before I knew what was happening, Rahul had everything organized. One fellow disappeared with my bicycle as Rahul told me “not to worry.” Half an hour later my bicycle rematerialized, completely fixed. I was still pulling out my wallet when I realized Rahul had already paid and was waving me to put my money away.
Recently, Rahul invited my mother and me for lunch. After we ate, he insisted it was his treat and only narrowly did we manage to get the bill. Then there are the times he has acted as mediator for local disagreements. And the way in which he will assist confused and frightened tourists by finding taxis and rickshaws, even going as far as bargaining for a fair price.
So, how is it that someone with so little can be so helpful and generous? I’ve never met a westerner, or anyone else for that matter, who treated every willing stranger to a cup of tea and cookies. Have you?
Perhaps depending on others has taught Rahul about true generosity and helpfulness. I don’t know. What I do know is that we need more Rahuls smiling, greeting people and offering tea. The world would be a much better place.
Rosemarie Briggs is a Whitehorse resident and co-founder of Hands of Hope, a non-profit that has provided books and basics for schoolchildren in India and Nepal since 2007. For more information, call her at 668-7082.