In 2015, Renaud Meysonnier set off on a trip from France to Asia. A few months later, at the border between India and Nepal, he was arrested for using counterfeit currency, and sentenced to a year in prison. Incarcerated during the holiday season, he tells us about the most surprising Christmas in his life, the one he spent in Kathmandu prison. ** This is his story.**
And I thought that my Christmas was going to be non-existent this year! I am surprised to find missionaries as far away as this place.
As Christmas approaches, the Three Kings come to read us psalms and teach us some catechism. The trio comprises a pastor, a police commissioner and a teacher who come to visit us. What do they have in common? They are all Christian. We are summoned into the yard. We set down some tarps and bring out the table. “Since the introduction of Christianity in South Korea, the prisons have been depopulated.”
Nonetheless, prison overcrowding exists in South Korea, still at 110%. These gentlemen will say that it is still lower than in Nepal, where the official rate is 155%. When they finish their prattling, the handful of Christian detainees forms a choir around Padam, who accompanies them on the guitar. The others, mostly Hindu, listen respectfully, seated on the tarps on the ground. Before leaving, the pastor donates a bible and 2,000 rupees to the library, so that we can organize a little party for the birth of Jesus. And I thought that my Christmas was going to be non-existent this year! I am surprised to find missionaries as far away as this place.
"I also pray to the Buddhist monastery, the Hindu temple, and Jesus is happy! No problem, only one God!"
Four days later, I am transferred to Kathmandu against my will. I will miss the holiday festivities in Bhairahawa, but they seem to be less than promising. Here, the preparations are more consequential. In the yard, we are treated to a concert with an orchestra brought in from the outside. I’m surprised to see that there is a woman in the group. Although she is not exactly young, I find it improbable that she would be in the midst of all these abstaining males. She must feel quite uncomfortable; in fact, she never strays far from the musicians’ security guards. When there is a woman inside the prison walls, the detainees are on their best behavior. No macho whistling or ogling. The prisons are so poverty-stricken that there are even some facilities where men and women must be housed together, as in the district of Udayapur.
The naike1 are cooking buffalo meat in huge pots. Portions are then distributed freely. We eat on tables set out for the occasion. Coming towards my table I see Hughes, the other French detainee, accused of pedophilia and awaiting judgment. He hobbles a bit because of a hernia he has developed. He wears a small wooden cross around his neck.
“Hello, Mister. Ach! I just got back from mass. It was a drag.”
-“Mass? There’s a church here?”
-“Yes, just over there. It’s a room in that building.”
He shows me a cellblock around the courtyard and adds, in his characteristic mixture of French and English, “I also pray to the Buddhist monastery, the Hindu temple, and Jesus is happy! No problem, only one God!”
One day, a prisoner who is also a priest tells me that there are probably between 200 and 300 Christians in the prison. It’s the third largest religion in the prison. Islam is fourth. This figure seems to be an exaggeration: on the outside, 4% of the population is Muslim and barely over 1% is Christian. But as I have observed from within the prison, they proselytize. The Christian community seems to be particularly active and well-organized. As for the Muslims, they have no place of worship consigned to them, and pray outside.
Naikes are inmates who double as guards, responsible for keeping order and dealing with the detainees. ↩
When the Nepalese who is obviously the cook lights the camp stove, long flames reach up to the crimson-colored beams...
Around 8:00 p.m., we are treated to another Christmas meal, but this time western style. We gather in one of the shanties that are crammed together along the north facade of Cellblock 7, pompously called “New Hotel”. It is a room of about 50 square feet (5 square meters) with a 6-foot-high ceiling. I have to bend down to get through the doorway. Inside, my head touches the ceiling. Seated at a small table is a large bald fellow who greets me with open arms and an Eastern European accent: “Welcome, my friend! Delighted to meet you!” He is the size of a bear. With his shiny bald pate, beard and ruddy complexion, he stands out among the slightly-built Nepalese. “Thank you, thank you. Are you the famous Alexei?” His arms quickly fall. “No, I’m Adam; I’m from Poland. Alex is the German here; he organized this get-together.”
He points to a much thinner, younger man standing by a camp stove. With his long hair, goatee and somewhat disappointed expression, he looks like some sort of prophet. He says, “Hi, I’m glad you came. I’ve heard a lot about you. Have you been here long?”
“And is everything OK? Is it going well?”
“It’s OK; I’m still in Cellblock 7. I guess you’re familiar with it. I didn’t come empty-handed. I have a present.”
“Oh, fine. Have a seat. Welcome.”
I sit down next to Adam. When the Nepalese who is obviously the cook lights the camp stove, long flames reach up to the crimson-colored beams. Then he sets onto the stove a dish shaped like an upside-down cone hat. Instantly a thick wave of smoke from burned oil blackens the walls.
We are all Christians, or like me, from a Christian culture
Bending down through the door, Hughes winces as he greets us. Despite the pain, he keeps his ‘joie de vivre’ – zest for life. One by one, the guests arrive. Joseph, a Nigerian. Guo, Chinese. Bishwa, a Nepalese who works as a teacher in the prison. We are all Christians, or like me, from a Christian culture. The place is so cramped that with six guests and two cooks, we are keeping ourselves warm.
Apart from the sixty-year-old Frenchman whom I already knew, I am meeting them for the first time at this Christmas party – not bad for a beginning. Nobody asked me about my case, and I suppose that the news got around like a trail of gunpowder, that Hughes or Anatoly already told them. By the way, the Ukrainian is not among us. Hughes explains that Anatoly is on bad terms with Alexei and Adam. Nik, the Dane, is not here either. From what Anatoly told me, Alexei was convicted of attempted rape and Joseph is in for drug trafficking. For the others I don’t know, but I am not the type to take offense about it. I don’t ask, because I can sense that it’s a taboo subject on this festive evening.
The presents are given out to each person, but we modestly put them in a corner so as to open them at the end.
Adam, wearing a red Santa Claus cap, places down eight pieces of paper on which he has written our names. We draw straws to receive the presents; I inherit Bishwa’s.
“You’re lucky”, Adam says with a wink. Alexei gets mine: a pocket mirror that I found left on a ledge one day when I was brushing my teeth. We do the best we can with the means we have.
The presents – some of which are wrapped in newspaper – are given out to each person, but we modestly put them in a corner so as to open them at the end. Everything occurs in a muffled yet overblown joy. Hypocritical smiles, chivalrous manners: this stereotype of the vidēśī [white guy] is disconcerting to the Nepalese.
I find a little islet of my civilization, a makeshift raft that is European in the middle of an Asian ocean.
It’s an atmosphere somewhat like the one which in a few hours will be in our homes, where the celebration is being prepared, under more northern skies. In Kathmandu, I have the good fortune to encounter the behavior and the mindset close to my own, making my life a little more comfortable, and getting me a step farther along the road to my ‘home sweet home’.
It’s a feast fit for a king compared to the past two months during which I ingested only the bland dal bhat – lentil-rice soup
For starters, bread and butter with shallots. It has been ages since I ate bread! Alexei has a half-sister in Kathmandu. After a visit, she smuggled in the bread and butter, non-existent in the prison. As there are no alcoholic beverages, we drink soda; there’s a store here that sells Coca-Cola, Sprite and Fanta. The main dish is potato salad and fish. The portions are large: 600 grams (1.3 lbs.) per person. After the buffalo this afternoon, already generous, I feel as if I am going to explode. It’s a feast fit for a king compared to the past two months during which I ingested only the bland dal bhat – lentil-rice soup.
We enjoy the meal in silence. Next to me, the rotund Pole grunts in satisfaction. Alexei taps him on the shoulder: “This is the last Christmas here for you! Soon it’s the light at the end of the tunnel; in 40 days you’re going through immigration!”
“Yes, but I’ve been paying for it for almost two years…” Adam got busted at the airport with five kilos of hash.
“Il ne va quand même pas me servir la tête! (He’s not going to serve me the head!)” interrupts Hughes in French as the cook takes it out of the dish and brings it towards his plate. Yes, because the Nepalese eat that too. They will tell you it’s the best part.
When I speak English with the others, Hughes doesn’t understand. I have to constantly turn to him and translate into French, and when he wants to say something, I have to interpret for that too. For dessert, the sixty-year-old pulls out of his hat the Austrian cake that the French Embassy brought him yesterday. To tell the truth, it is disgusting, as hard as wood. Several of us couldn’t even finish our portion.
Alexei reminds us that he got the food, rented the New Hotel and paid the cooks. We all owe him 450 rupees.
Finally, after dinner, we open our presents. For Alexei, it seems I hit home, because up to then he had only a tiny mirror sewn onto the back of his toiletry case. As for me, I got Bishwa’s thermos for keeping food warm. Even second-hand it is a precious thing to have here; we are all sort of camping out.
We go outside to have coffee and a smoke. Soon, this break for digesting our meal is interrupted by the call, “Oh number! Oh number!” Alexei swings his head back and forth wearily – pendulum-style, like an elephant in a cage. The naike come down from Cellblock 8 to remind us that we all have to go back to our dormitories. No respite from that. We empty our cups forthwith, stamp out our cigarettes, shake hands quickly. Alexei reminds us that he got the food, rented the New Hotel and paid the cooks. We all owe him 450 rupees. To your bunks, you rascals!
And so ends what will surely remain the strangest Christmas of my life.