Pradeep Thapa bounded off the plane clutching his seven books and his journalistic credentials, his heart filled with anticipation and pride.
So when immigration officers at Newark Liberty International Airport refused Thapa entry, slapped him in handcuffs and shackles and locked him in a prison-like building with 300 other immigrants, he assumed it was all a huge mistake.
This was Thapa's third visit to America and the 31-year-old Nepalese poet had won wide acclaim for his writings about his country's politics and culture. His passport and visa were in order. He hadn't committed any crime. He had friends and a place to stay.
If anything, Thapa submitted to handcuffs and donned the drab gray prison uniform with a swelling sense of pride. So this was the other face of America, he thought, where they imprison writers just like authorities did during the civil war in Nepal. He figured he would be released soon enough and then he would write about his experience. What were a few nights behind bars for the biggest scoop of his life?
Weeks turned into months
But as nights turned into weeks and weeks into months, the loneliness, monotony and monstrous sense of injustice began to wear the poet down. Immigration officials accused him of violating his visitor visa by planning to sell his books — something Thapa says never crossed his mind. And so he waited for his case to be decided, pining for his family, his books, for fresh air — to be addressed by his own name, not just his bunk number.
It was as if he didn't exist, Thapa thought, as if all his accomplishments did not exist.
And then, after seven months of imprisonment, he began to exist like never before.
A woman walked into his life. She had short white hair and soft white skin and blue eyes that sparkled with intelligence and mirth. She wore colorful skirts and blouses and jewelry. She brought bouquets of roses from her garden. She laughed and she sang and her joyful presence lit up the cold, sterile visitors room, where a grimy glass partition separates the imprisoned from the free and the only communication between the two is by phone.
Though he couldn't smell her flowers or touch her hand, though cameras bored down from every corner recording every movement, though their conversations were monitored by guards, the prisoner poet and his unlikely visitor fell deeply, impossibly in love.
Romance was the last thing on her mind
Romance was the last thing on Margaret Carne's mind when she drove to the Elizabeth detention center in January 2002. Long divorced, her two sons raised, she embraced her busy life in her restored Victorian row house in Jersey City. With her thriving psychotherapy practice, a wide circle of friends, her Quaker meetings, her books, her singing lessons and her garden, the sixty-something Carne felt comfortable and fulfilled.
She knew of the detention center — part of a sprawling network of lockups around the country, where asylum seekers and illegal immigrants are held while the government decides their fate. She had even toured it once as part of a human rights advocacy group. So when a social worker friend told her about a visitation program, and about one unusual detainee, Carne agreed to go.
"He's a writer and poet and he really needs someone to talk to," Carne's friend said. "He's in bad shape."
She spotted him as soon as she entered the room, a small, slender man with milk-chocolate colored skin and serious brown eyes, his dark hair pulled back in a pony tail. He seemed so sensitive, she thought, and so sad.
Gently she asked him about his family, his work, his country.
It was the first time since his imprisonment that anyone had shown a genuine interest in him. Thapa broke down and cried.
That night, he sat on his bunk and wrote a letter thanking her for the visit. "Dear Madam ... ," he began.
Visiting several times a week
She came again the following week, and again, and soon his Dear Madam was visiting several times a week.
He told her stories about growing up in a two-roomed house in the mountainside village of Thumka. He described his father, a former Gurkha officer in the British Army and a chieftain in the village. He told her of walking two hours each way to school, sometimes carrying his younger brother on his back; about the tiger that once ate the family's calves; about the prizes he won for his essays, about college in Katmandu and his later life as a journalist there.
She told him about growing up in Cornwall, England, how as a small child she was evacuated to live with her grandparents in New Jersey during World War II. She regaled him with stories about the legendary King Arthur — said to have been born in Cornwall — and with descriptions of Cornish castles. She showed him photographs of the Jersey City house she had spent years restoring, with its peach-colored walls and lavender moldings, spacious kitchen and beautiful marble mantels.
He wrote her love poems, the first poetry he had ever written in English.
"O my dear
this is not just a letter
every time it liberates me
My heart. My spirit.
And my mind
no longer locked up
it slips through the words
that I'm writing you."
She gathered flowers from her garden — bleeding hearts and clematis — and pressed them between the pages of the letters to "My Sweet Poet."
Impediments to their love
None of it made sense. There seemed so many impediments to their love: the age difference, the cultural differences, the fact that that Thapa would probably be deported. An immigration judge had ordered his removal, saying she didn't believe the reasons for his visit. Though he was fighting the order with the help of a lawyer, they knew from the growing volume of deportations that his appeal was likely to fail.
By now, Thapa genuinely feared returning to Nepal. There had been a royal massacre in June 2001 and journalists were being targeted and killed.
The tension added urgency to their letters, to their love.
Dear Madam soon became Dear Margaret and then Dearest Margaret and finally Dearest Meri, the pet name that Thapa bestowed upon her. Meri, he explained, means "my own" in Nepalese.
Carne wrote in long, flowing cursive, sometimes copying the old Quaker "plain talk" that her Father had used in letters to her when she was a child: "Thee has been bountiful in thy writing and continue to touch the deeper places in my heart."
When she wasn't writing or working or thinking about him, Carne was knocking on doors, appealing for help from human rights groups, asking embassies from all over the world if their countries would accept Thapa.
Only Jamaica agreed. But immigration officials refused to allow Thapa to leave Elizabeth. He could only be deported to the country from which he had come.
Passed the days writing poems
In detention, Thapa spent his days writing poems and interviewing other detainees and reading a battered Bible, the Quran and the Bagva Gita. But mostly he just anticipated Carne's visits, dreaming of when he would see her again, feeling such lightness of spirit that at times he almost forgot he was imprisoned.
"Only my bare hands remain handcuffed
only my flesh endures locked up
but my thoughts and dreams roam freely
when I post the letters."
A marriage proposal
"Marry me, Pradeep."
On a sweltering day in August, over the phone, in the steamy visiting room of the Middlesex County Jail, Carne proposed. She was trembling and she was scared, but she was sure.
Carne had been on vacation in Cornwall when Thapa was transferred to the jail because of overcrowding at Elizabeth. She was horrified by the thought of her poet among hardened criminals. And she could see that his will to continue fighting imprisonment was broken. Thapa told her that he was going to agree to voluntary deportation.
Carne understood. She wanted him free more than anything, but she also wanted to be with him.
Thapa's heart and head were in turmoil. He loved his Meri more than anything, had never felt so certain of his feelings. But he had nothing to offer. He had no money, no job. If he was deported, he might end up in jail in Nepal. He hadn't even courted her properly. They had managed one fumbled hug during a prison "contact" visit, with the guards yelling "no touching, no touching" the whole time.
He wanted to marry her the right way. He wanted to follow his village custom and seek advice from his family. He wanted to bring his bride home for a traditional Nepalese wedding with ceremonies and dayslong feasts.
And so Thapa shook his head. It was impossible, he said. She would always be his best friend, but he didn't want to cause her more suffering.
"I will suffer more if you say no," she said.
Asked for time to think
So he asked for a week to think about it.
In place of the counsel of his family, he sought that of other detainees. Behind bars they assembled to comfort the poet. And they offered this advice.
"Marry for love," said his friend from India, who was about to be deported. "Come to India and my wife and I will arrange your wedding."
And that is what he decided to do.
Shaking with nerves, Carne picked up the phone.
Have you made a decision?
Thapa nodded. Ever so slowly, he whispered, "Yes."
A week later he was deported.
Two months later they wed.
Cozy home filled with photos
The couple's cozy home on York Street is filled with photographs of their wedding, along with albums, mementos — and of course, memories. Of Thapa meeting Carne at Delhi airport and shyly greeting her with a bunch of red roses. Of their first night in a mouse-infested motel in a room that he had spent hours scrubbing clean before her arrival. Of his horror at her array of vitamin pills and face creams — was he about to marry a drug addict?
Of holding each other for the first time and savoring their extraordinary journey, realizing that it was really just beginning.
Thapa's detainee Indian friend was as good as his word, and organized a spectacular wedding ceremony in a Hindu temple in Punjab. Carne looked radiant in her flowing orange-and-red robes, her hands painted in the traditional "mendhi," garlands of marigolds and jasmine around her neck. Thapa was the handsome, happy groom.
Darker memories too
But there are darker memories too. Traumatized by detention and his chaotic deportation — he was flown first to Japan and then Thailand and finally to India — Thapa could hardly function in those first few weeks of freedom. He holed up in a cheap motel, barely able to move or sleep or eat. Carne had frantically wired him money so that he could buy a ticket to India at a layover in Thailand, instead of being forced on to Nepal. She wired him more money to live. And she wrote letters every day.
"Hurry up and come," he wrote back. "I cannot live without you."
Even after their wedding, life was not easy. Though he was married to an American and therefore was eligible for a green card, Thapa first had to have his deportation order overturned — a process that dragged on for more than four years. He spent the time enrolling in computer courses, setting up Web sites, researching his books on Nepal. Carne visited frequently. They bought a flat in Pune and used it as a base to tour India.
"There are times," Carne said recently, sitting on her sofa poring over the letters and photographs, "I still can't believe that we did it."
Carne has yet to visit Nepal, and Thapa hopes one day to set foot in her beloved Cornwall.
Adjusting to married life in Jersey City
But for now, they are adjusting to life as a married couple in Jersey City, where Carne counsels patients downstairs and Thapa runs a Nepalese news portal from his "newsroom" upstairs.
They marvel at how their love has tempered over time, how the normal vexations, obligations and expectations of daily life have challenged it in ways they could never have imagined back when Thapa was imprisoned and all that mattered was love and letters and dreams of being free.
She frets that he works too hard. He sighs and says he has to make up for 16 lost months.
At first Thapa tried to erase the memories of those months. He wanted to forget the horrors of the detention center, which he condemns in his poems as a place where liberties are seized and spirits broken. He wanted to erase the ache that wells in his heart when he remembered those long, lonely days in Elizabeth.
But he found it was impossible to do. For how could he erase the memories of that "dark abstract part of my life" when it was also one of the brightest. Without it, he might never have found his Meri.
"Those wise eyes are my skies
where I can fly
That kind heart is my kingdom
where I can find freedom
And her love and faith
are my rewards and redemption."