The Yellow Leaf

She looked at him from across the gallery; tall, athletic, light eyes and dark hair, well-kept but not overly so. He looked like the type that was probably here with an INGO or a government agency working to address the problems her country faced. While she was attracted to him she felt a repulsion for what he stood for. A well intentioned man who would probably cause more harm than good in the name of developmental progress. She watched him meander his way across the gallery towards her, pretending to take an interest in each painting as if it held a precious pearl of wisdom.

He noticed her before any of the paintings in the gallery; short, elegant, tiger's eyes and onyx hair, eye catching in a subtle way. The bright yellow dress she wore stood out like a wildflower against the muted eggshell walls. His heart fluttered and he tried to immediately forget her. He walked up to the closest painting and tried to lose his mind in it. It was of a yellow leaf falling from a tree to a puddle. He could see the grace in which the leaf had floated down and his mind was already back to the leaf fluttering across the room. She stayed still as he moved around the gallery. He felt them draw purposely closer like a rock waiting to strike a branch as it floated down a river.

She waited for him to make the first move as she knew he would. "Tapaaiko bichar yo painting kasto cha?"

She stared at the painting in front of her while his decent attempt to speak Nepali echoed off the gallery walls and her head. Her eyes worked their way down the jagged Himalayan peaks, to the lush broad leafed forest spotted with rhododendrons, to the old buwa tilling his field alone. She had an opinion long before, but let the moment stale. In her perfect English she replied, "I think it shows the sad state my country is in."

He tried to shake off the unease that turned inside him and glanced again at the painting. He was overwhelmed by the natural beauty the painting impressed upon him. The stoic and raw Himalayas that he had so loved to stare at while trekking, the brilliant blush of the rhododendrons that he had picked and the old buwa who reminded him of all the hard working and loving people he had met during field work.
He took a few extra seconds to construct a response in Nepali, making sure he arranged each word correctly. "Mero bichar yo painting ekdamn sundar cha, kinabone, esto reality ho?"

She liked the unease of his response, lightly indulging in it. "Exactly, it shows the depravity the people of my country are living in. How they must daily toil in the fields to produce enough food to survive while rich foreigners spend money they will never see to enjoy the natural beauty behind them."

Knowing his basic Nepali had run out and seeing how it did not have the charming effect it usually did, he switched to English. "Sure there are still many challenges the people of Nepal are facing, but there has been so much progress in the last twenty years. If we keep working in the right direction the quality of life will continue to increase and economic prosperity will rise."


He always doubted the actual impact and value of his actions, but believed in the end that real progress could be achieved if outside organizations collaborated and integrated with locals. "Well yes ‘we'. The global economic system is structurally unfair and creates inequalities that need to be addressed. A lot of development has been harmful, some would even say a new form of colonialism, but there is still an impetus for larger powers to provide resources to those that have been marginalized around the world."

She hated how rehearsed he sounded, like a politician preaching from a cue card. "That's mighty generous of you and the high powers to do. Please let me know in what form of servitude you would like your payment. Would political alliance suffice?"

She saw his eyes drop a little too far. Maybe she had been too harsh. Softening her tone she added, "I'm sure the rulers of the world are not looking for anything from Nepal. Even though we are between China and India it's near impossible to transport anything across Nepal, that's why the British never colonized us. Also our only real profitable resource is the natural beauty that does bring in tourists from around the world."
Hesitating he looked for a response. "Have you ever seen the rhododendrons bloom?"

"Not since I was a small child living in Jalpa."

They both stared off into the painting.

He knew right then she had never smelled tilled earth in the morning. She had never seen earth and sky become one as the stars formed constellations with the lights on the hills. She had never felt the little licking cuts from weeding rice, tasted green mangos that had just fallen, or heard the musical banter flow from chiya pasal to chiya pasal. He wished she could feel his host family's unrelenting generosity and affection, his students' electric excitement, the honestly of the farmers whose hands had become part of the earth.

She longed to see her country the way he did, cast in a romantic and rosy light. To forgive the child marriage, isolation of menstruating women, caste discrimination, political violence and widespread corruption. She wanted to drop truth into his world and let it bitter his reality. She turned and saw him soaking up the wisdom from the painting.

He felt his mind come back down to earth. He opened his eyes and turned to ask her, but there was only one fluttering yellow leaf.