I came home to find Bishnu and Aamaa painting the house in preparation for the festival of Dashain. Aamaa had a pot in one hand, and in the other, a rag dripping with goop that she was slapping and smearing over the walls. Next door, Saano didi was doing the same thing – in fact, all over the village this week, women are standing on their roofs, sticking up like chimneys and shouting to each other across the open space.
Now, and this house-painting business is an interesting topic. Because it’s something I really want to be a part of: the annual re-making of our house, renewing and refreshing the walls that shelter us. It is both an extremely practical and very beautiful tradition, which we in our brick-and-plaster, carpeted houses are denied. It a special opportunity to want to share in restoring the house and strengthening it for the coming year.
Unfortunately, the house is made of mud and buffalo shit.
See, I have this problem with shit. I’ve really made some serious efforts to get over it. I accepted Didi standing knee deep in a mound of shit and hacking at it with an axe, sending little bits of buffalo turd flying everywhere. I accepted Aamaa walking into the house with an enormous heap of poop in her hands and cooking it in a vegetable pot in the kitchen and then putting it on Bishnu’s sprained ankle and then putting Bishnu in bed with me. I’ve accepted that the hands that carry buffalo shit around the house are dark with grit beneath the nails and also cook the food that keeps me alive. I even carried some shit in a basket hanging on my back and swung it bravely over my head to make it land in a tidy basket-sized pile of fertilizer in the wheat field.
But I cannot put my hands directly and purposefully on shit. I can’t do it.
I know that the house is made of shit. I know that I walk around in bare feet in the house made of shit; I eat off a plate on the floor of the house made of shit; I know that the wall that I lean on next to the bed is made of shit. This is all perfectly okay with me. But it is not okay with me to sink both hands into a pile of shit, mush it around with water and mud, and smear it against the wall. I simply cannot touch shit in pure shit form. It needs to at least be disguised as part of a house.
So instead of helping to paint the house, I took a nap inside, stewing in guilt and regret that could not quite defeat this final barrier in my relationship with shit. And much later on, when Bishnu and Aamaa had come in for the day, and the ladder to the attic had been put back inside, and the mud and shit mixture was still drying on the rungs and I kept putting my hands in it and then washing them with soap and water, and our various water jugs—used both inside and out, for washing, cooking, and occasionally for giving liquid to the animal family members—had had the soupy brown water washed out of them, but had not been sterilized with hospital antiseptic, and everyone was going about the evening business of sitting around and cooking rice…even then, I still felt bad that I hadn’t helped paint the house. But I felt worse that I’m afraid to just up and pick up a wad of shit—and worst of all, that I still didn’t want to.
And the conclusion that I came to is that I’m simply never going to want touch shit before I do it. If I’m going to do it at all, and if I’m going to use my own two hands to renew the house for the new year, I’m just going to have to touch buffalo shit before I’ve decided that it’s okay with me.