“Maybe you are a dragon,” says M.
She wants to know what Mi-malaa in Newa translates to. I say, it is a fire-breathing dragon. And I immediately slide into a ramble about dragons, which is when she says she thinks that I might be a dragon.
I am five, sickly, forever dodging all kinds of arrows life darts at me, throwing me into fits of cough that cause asthma. It means I am not as athletic as my cousins or my classmates. I am the youngest in class and the littlest of all cousins. I am the runt of the pack. My oldest cousin sister, whenever it rains, lifts her frock over my head like a broken umbrella.
Stay in bed! I am told that a lot by everyone. Baa brings me Read-it-Yourself Ladybird classics.
One very dry day in March, Yaama, decides I must join the other children for Malaa ja— the feast of the dragon. Maa is not entirely sure but she helps me put on my pretty pink frock that has a bunch of dolls embroidered to the front. Yaama leads me to the street before the Taleju temple where wicker mats have been spread out and children are seated in rows, like some picnic is underway.
My heart thumps at the sight. I am assigned a spot.
Men and women appear in a file, walking past us, leaving treats, ranging from cookies to cakes to fruits, on the leafy plates set before each one of us. The girl next to me asks me if she can have some of my sweets and I say yes. Drink your juice, she says.
I feel as though I am part of something important, even though I have no appetite.
Yaama brings me home when the feast is over. Maa asks me how it went. I tell her everything. She explains how in the past, it would have been a proper feast of rice and daal and goodies and that the event was a prayer sent out to the dragon to protect the children from itself– March being a month of storms and strong winds and contagious diseases. Hence, Malaa Ja.
Maa has always owned a pendant with a dragon on it. In fact, all her sisters have one, a family tradition of carving the serpentine mythical creature with fins, scales and fire onto little slabs of metal.
While I still had a penchant for jewelry, I used to ask Maa if she would give it to me someday. I would ask her why the pendant has a dragon. “My birthchart warns me against the Malaa. I am supposed to wear the pendant so a dragon can protect me against dragons.”
Whenever it rained, Maa’s elder sister would rush to her rescue with an umbrella and shove her into the house. Stay indoors! She would make her watch the rain from the window. She was not allowed to be outdoors during storms. And so my mother learned to watch the rain from the window and read her books.
And across the sky, she would see the dragons flashing to the background score of thunder, spreading as far as the horizon in its colours, claws, scales and fins– the sudden outburst of lightning sending shudders through her heart.
“On the main entrance of our old home were two massive, colourful dragons. They were beautiful,” Maa recalls. “The house had little attic windows and I would look at the mountains from those windows.”
When they pulled the house down to build a new one, the dragons came off the walls in broken bricks.
Maa has no idea who painted the dragons, but they were a symbol of the great creatures that would protect the house and its dwellers.
We have four kinds of dragons, says Deepak Bajracharya Gurju. They are: Mi Malaa, Bajra Malaa, Gongaa Mall, Pa Malaa, each named after their shape and impact.
“A Malaa is truth, but also an illusion,” he says. “It is as elusive as it is omnipresent.” And he shares anecdotes.
In one instance, a Malaa had drowned in a pot of brew and turned to stone. But when the woman who discovered it tried to hold it, the stone quickly transformed into its ethereal form and flew away.
In some instances, Guruju says, when the sky suddenly darkens, rumbles and the lighting strikes, we believe that a Malaa has flown away.
They have been forgotten over the years, he explains, but they are still present in symbols around us. We have seen them carved on to temple struts, to door knobs, painted on walls of old buildings, written by healers on bodies when people fall sick and sometimes inked on the skin. Sometimes, their form stares at us from the ruins of a house struck by lightning.
Dragons, Maa says, are representative of who we are as individuals. They are who we aspire to be — fierce, cold as serpentine scales but bursting with flames that can burn everything to cinders.
She says, there is always that epiphany whenever the Malaa shows across our skies — the idea of regenerative possibility all humans are. Of how we reinvent and reappear just as dragons do. That was the original hope every parent carried for their children — that they be like dragons and they protect themselves from other dragons.
Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people (with some names changed) in Pratibha’s life.