Evidently surprised, the caller said, “But you are speaking Nepali!”
I laughed and said, “Because Nepal doesn’t have a law that foreigners cannot speak the language.” I explained that I had learned the language when I was in Haiti and was the US contact person for the Nepalese contingent in a UN multinational force.
The caller then complimented me on my accent and said, “I work at the Home Ministry. Why don’t you drop in some day and have a cup of tea with me? Please let me know if I can be of help any time. My name is Khadka.”
I might have forgotten about the exchange, except for what happened three weeks later. I was scrutinizing visa applications, when my secretary reported that a young couple was waiting in the hall and the wife was visibly distraught and in tears. I asked the couple in.
Passing her one day, Clara gave her a candy. The next day, the girl, possibly trying to get Clara’s attention, was playing in front of her home. She got another candy. Then on she got a candy or cookie each day. A week later Clara was in a local bazaar and saw a girl’s dress and bought it, as it cost next to nothing. The next day she was about to replace the girl’s tattered frock, when she realized how dirty she was, living on the street. She called her in, gave her a bath and then put the dress on. Clearly the girl was pleased and surprised in equal measure, wearing the only new dress she had ever worn. From then on the girl – her name was Maya – imperceptibly became a part of Clara and Craig’s village life.
Two years later, when the project ended and the time came for them to return to the US, they realized to their surprise that they could not leave without Maya. They came to Kathmandu, went to the Home Ministry and applied for adoption, expecting no glitches, since she was an orphan, with no relations to claim her. Then they came up against a legal wall: Craig could not adopt, for under Nepal’s law a person could not adopt a child unless one was at least thirty years of age, and Craig was nine months short. Clara was even younger. They were despondent and had turned to me as a last recourse.
Unfortunately I had no reassuring answer for them. I could not contend against a well-intentioned law designed to protect children. Then I thought of Khadka, who, I had found out, was the Deputy Minister. I called and said I would indeed like to join him for tea. He was friendly and gracious, and said I could come right away.
I took Craig and Clara with me, but advised them to sit in the waiting room and not say a word. Khadka was a sun-tanned, heavy-browed man, squat but nimble, in an elegant Asian jacket. He greeted me with great warmth, but I knew from his face that he guessed I had come with a purpose. I decided to be candid.
“I want to show you a photo,” I said, and pulled out a picture of Maya.
“I see it is a very young girl,” he responded, with a questioning look.
“You will also notice that it is an ordinary girl. She isn’t pretty at all.” I added bluntly.
“Now I want you to take a look at her medical file.” I pushed a file toward him, “You will notice she has a large number of health problems: of eyes, ears, skin, stomach and general health.”
I proceeded, “That isn’t surprising. She is an orphan and has lived most of her life on the street, eating scraps and spoiled food neighbors have thrown out. Nobody has cared for her, nobody wanted her.”
Khadka listened intently.
“Now a miracle has happened. Somebody loves her and wants to adopt her. It is the first and possibly the only break in her miserable life. But the couple who want to take her are less than thirty years, and the law stands in the way. I have no way to solve that problem. So I am asking for your help.”
I added, “Because the couple is American, I am pleading their case. But, believe me, I am pleading even more for a little girl who has this one chance for a better life. Your life and mine will go on as before if the adoption doesn’t go through; even this couple will eventually reconcile to their loss. It is only Maya who would have lost her one opportunity to not be just another waif on the street.”
The secretary had brought the tea, and Khadka asked him for Maya’s adoption application file. He signaled me to drink the tea while he studied the file. He quickly reached the last page and started writing.
When he had finished, he gave me the file to read. Invoking the appropriate section and subsection of the law, Khadka had written that he was granting a humanitarian exception to the law and the adoption would be allowed to proceed.
I thanked Khadka, saying that Nepalese tea had never tasted better, and left. In the waiting room, when I had the explained the outcome, Craig hugged me and Clara wept some more.
I know I had said something wrong to the Nepalese minister. Every Christmas Craig and Clara send me a family photo, and this year I looked carefully at their adolescent daughter. I had told Khadka that Maya was an ordinary girl, not pretty at all. I was wrong. She is beautiful.