For Mary

I haven’t posted in this series on mourning for a while, but today I only have one thing worth writing about. My beloved friend Mary passed away early yesterday morning in New York – my 3:23 in the afternoon in Nepal.

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I understand that Mary’s death was not a huge surprise, except that every death is a surprise in its finalness. She was 71 and she’d already beat the odds many times. The doctors were always saying she might die. I never tired of hearing about all the times she had, in fact, died. She always chose to come back – from the promise of an easier place, from her father beckoning at the foot of the bed, to this world, to this body, to the blue couch in her living room that we sat on for many long afternoons. Where, in addition to other topics, I plied her for every possible detail about dying.

But I can’t imagine my life without her.

We texted often – she was the queen of the multiple exclamation point with a space preceding it !!! – and talked on the phone like champions. She’d say she only had a minute and then we’d talk for no less than an hour or three. Our longest conversation was 4 hours and 11 minutes and it began at 10:03 pm. For the last fifteen minutes or so, we talked about the record we’d set, and how late it was, and how we should hang up, but how we could never seem to hang up.

Once, after we had talked late in to the night about this choosing and coming back, I was lying on my bed thinking about injustice and heartbreak. If souls choose their destiny, what is the point of all these violent and cruel games? I can’t understand why our souls would choose to create this world out of all the choices. I told Mary that I believe in balance, not kindness or purpose. She said I was really smart, that I had a special gift with words. We discussed it until two am, and when we hung up, I felt smart, and Mary still had kindness and purpose. She never minded that I would throw stones at God and then come back to her to get organized.

Mary was never in a hurry to finish a story. She’d say she had to quickly tell me one more story really fast and then the story would take twenty minutes to tell and then we’d analyze it and think of all the other stories it reminded us of and all the life lessons it offered for another forty minutes.

She called me “kid” or “you turkey” so I called her “kid” or “you turkey.”

One time I trimmed her hair with office scissors in the staff bathroom.

I met Mary when I came to the clinic as a patient in 2006. The fact that she became one of my best friends in the history of ever, and that I would talk with her on the phone for hours and hours late in to the night, makes my story completely like almost everyone’s story of Mary. She became one of my mom’s best friends. I became friends with the other patients Mary became friends with. I listened and re-listened to stories of best friends she’d kept since kindergarten.

I never felt that the army of best friends Mary had diminished my best-friendness with her even a little. This is one of the important things about the nature of the universe that Mary taught me without ever explaining it. I just understood with her that there was enough love for an infinite amount for everybody.

I wanted to record so many of her stories. But I never recorded the story about how she got her finger stuck in her friends’ designer bowling ball and ended up in the emergency room attached to the bowling ball. I never recorded the story about how she fixed up her sister with the doctor who tended to her during her first heart surgery forty years ago, or the story about the proud old woman Mary insisted get into her car on a steep hill one day, and how Mary said, “Don’t you just want to cry?” and then cried with the old woman in the car because the hill was so steep and it was so hot. I never recorded the story about the hour she spent chasing down a lost purse in a store for a complete stranger who had left on a bus, and how the bag turned out to have a precious bundle of cash in it, bringing the owner to tears. I never recorded the last story she told me, the night before her surgery, about how the residential suites at NY Presbyterian Hospital are only for VIPs, so she got the mayor of Wallingford to write a letter about all the Very Important things she’d done in Wallingford, and then she mailed it to Angela upstairs, who promptly arranged a residential room for her dear Bill and Colleen. (When the mayor sent the letter to her house, he threw in an edible arrangement.)

Mary, I know you would say it’s totally unimportant that I never recorded these stories. That’s because I’m always trying to keep the past with me, scraping at it with my fingers and toes and arms and legs and everything, and you found all that hassle extremely pointless. You weren’t much for books or movies and I love books and movies. Your living was people. You said books were disconnected from people and took you out of the moment when you could be talking to someone. All this documenting and remembering that consumes me was always, to you, a distraction from the wonderous, fleeting present.

When Mary told me stories about her grandkids and kids, or about dating gentle Bill, or about the best friend she lost when she was sixteen, it was never boring or self-indulgent. Her family brought her so much joy, you couldn’t not be happy with her. I listened to the same stories and looked at the same pictures and read the same poems many times, and I always felt lucky to be in her delight and gratitude.

I spent more time talking with Mary about God than anyone else I’ve known or ever will know. We talked about everybody’s dying. Hers, mine, our friends’, her mother’s, the relatives – we relived and examined all of them, past and future, death in the abstract, the question of choosing, the question – or lack thereof – of God.

Mary said she didn’t want any fanfare after her passing, and I told her I was showing up anyway, even if it was by myself in the rain (which would be impossible anyway, given the legions of best friends). I said if I got hit by a bus and went first, she better freaking show up on my day. I didn’t care if that made me less enlightened. She told me there could be a hurricane on the day of my funeral and nobody would come, and that I had to come to a place in my heart where that was okay with me. I said that was the most awful thing I’d ever heard.

Mary didn’t “believe” in God. She just experienced God. She let me argue with her about God and wear myself out, so that I could rest on her experience. Mary helped me make a tenuous peace with the fact that life is easier and fuller and more magical with God, and you can’t win the argument either way. So you might as well be with God. All her dying gave her cred with me in the God department. She knew things I don’t know. She wasn’t afraid of anything except for the pain her death would cause her family. That was no secret – it was a wisdom and fear she offered freely.

Mary was the very first person I ever spoke to about IMT, which eventually healed my body, brought me irreplaceable teachers and friends, and changed my life. She was the person whose arm I curled up under on a fluffy couch during the scary and uncertain week I first moved to Connecticut. She was the person who I sat with at parties and funerals, and who had time to talk to me almost every single day for an hour or two about big wide things, during a period of my life where I felt unmoored and panicked for long, terrifying hours at a stretch. She was the person who, during a moment of lingering emptiness or need for contact, I could always text or call without feeling like I was imposing. She appreciated every last fiber of human connection that this life offered her. My search for meaning was as beautiful and important to her as it is to me, and she was never too much older or wiser to include me in her journey too.

The last time I should have seen Mary was just before I left for Nepal six weeks ago. I was giving a talk at the Hartford library about the earthquake, and it was unfortunately on Mother’s Day. I was feeling sad and disconnected because nobody was around, and I was preparing to return to an unknown Nepal suffering new destruction and loss. I hoped I might get lucky and see some familiar faces in the crowd. There was a small audience of about fifteen people, two of whom were my parents and two were my good friends Steve and Jackie. I put on my bravest face and did the talk, which actually went pretty well.

Later that evening, I got a text from Mary. “Well, we tried !!!” she said. I wrote back to say it meant everything to me that she’d wanted to be there; her text finally brought a little bit of lightness in to my heart.

“No, we WERE there !!! ” she replied. Turns out that Bill and Mary had delayed their Mother’s Day plans with their son Billy, drove an hour to Hartford to surprise me, and arrived 10 minutes after my talk had started. And Mary, being Mary, said it would be rude to enter after the start of the talk, so they sat outside the closed library door. The one I was staring at the whole time during my presentation, with no idea they were right on the other side.

Mary told me later that she was listening to my presentation, but I know she wasn’t concerned with the details. She was there to provide her presence, not to learn about Nepal. They waited and waited, but when the program went much later than planned, they had to leave to go to Billy’s house. So I never saw her. I never snuggled my nose on to her shoulder and got wrapped in her hug, which was the one thing I wished for so much that afternoon, and the one thing she came there to offer. But she was there the whole time.

She was there the whole time.

This is the enduring image I am left to wrestle with of you, my beautiful Mary. Maybe it was your higher wisdom at work, because that was our last meeting. I know that my task is to take comfort in the idea that you are just there on the other side of the door, where I can’t see you, waiting for me to be done with all these cumbersome details, bearing witness to my story so that I can indulge in my own relevance until I find my way out of the room. But today, this is too close to how I actually feel. You are just where I can’t get to you, and I only want to jump in to your arms. It is too soon to appreciate your nearness when I am enraged by the door.

I love you, Mary. I will never be able to quantify your impact on my life. I think this is all new, and you are still basking in the glory of the kingdom where you have finally arrived. I know that with time you will find your way to us, and we will find your way to you. I know impatience won’t help me, and you know I will be impatient anyway. I know you are not afraid, and you know I have borrowed your courage and will have to find a way forward now with my own. I miss you so much. Your last text to me says: !! Drive safely !!! You know perfectly well you sent that to me in reference to a tractor I was preparing to ride on for 12 hours, delivering tin roofs in the hills of Nepal on ridiculous jeep roads. You turkey.

I wish I had at least recorded the story about the bowling ball.

I really should go now. This has gone on much longer than planned and nobody is going to read it to the end. But it always takes so long to hang up, and these aren’t the kinds of things that can be rushed. This is what happens every time. I know you will read it to the end and that’s all that matters.

Ok then—see you in the morning, kid.

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A New World

It was nighttime as we flew in yesterday, so I couldn’t watch the terraced hills coming in closer and giving way to Kathmandu’s gritty buildings. Staring at the city lights flickering in the vast darkness below, I felt a wave of sadness. I couldn’t shake the feeling of arriving in a foreign land and it made me feel like a foreigner to myself.

The normally quiet tarmac at the airport was scattered with a handful of helicopters and few gigantic cargo planes with their hatches open. And in a way that only Nepal can do, it seemed that someone had made an effort to spruce up the airport for an onslaught of international visitors: a new routing through the arrival area, which wound past a recently installed station where a vinyl banner reading HEALTH DESK had been mounted. A large sign announced that anyone having recently come from Africa was required to stop at the Health Desk for processing, and behind it, an airport official was tinkering with his iPhone. We all shuffled past him, to the main arrival terminal, where the computers weren’t working.

IMG_4863I was one of only about five foreigners waiting for a visa, which was new. And the baggage scanner that was previously set up at the airport exit was gone, probably to make way for a more official exit procedure. But to either side of the revised exit procedure were piles and piles of packages. I took a photo of a stack of boxes addressed to a hospital; it did not look anyone was in much of a hurry to get these parcels distributed.

Following Tuesday’s second earthquake, everyone is taking precautions again. On the cab ride from the airport, I didn’t see many damaged buildings, but people everywhere had tents up outside along the road. I stayed with a friend and the whole family slept on mattresses in the living room, right by the front door, which was left unlatched.  That’s where we are again tonight.

IMG_8714Today I spent the day getting a taste of local relief efforts, and it validated my early suspicion that the energy and creativity of locals can’t be dismissed. My friend Dr. Kiran Awasthi, who has trained all our dental technicians through his organization, has been furiously working with a group of high school classmates to distribute sanitation materials that will help prevent disease outbreaks. His connections through the private sector and health ministry have allowed his group to become a trustworthy distributor of hard-to-find supplies. They’ve also researched, designed and built a temporary housing unit in just two weeks, and they’ve tried it out in some areas already. Obviously the government will ultimately have to take the lead on a large scale, but groups like this are doing a huge amount to help get there more quickly.

My second stop was with a group called Women for Human Rights. Before the earthquake, I had planned to visit them on this trip to do an interview for a radio story I am producing about young widows in Nepal (as part of a series on migrant labor called Between Worlds…but that’s another story!). Like everyone, Women for Human Rights is also doing what they can towards relief, in this case for women especially. So I interviewed their founder about their aid efforts, and then went to a shelter they’ve set up for young mothers and children. It is a large canopy at one of the tent cities in Narayanchaur, at the center of a gigantic grassy mound in the middle of a traffic circle. I interviewed a 22 year old girl whose baby was three weeks old when the earthquake struck. When I asked the kids what they thought of spending their days lounging and playing in the hot sun at the camp, a twelve year old girl chirped: “It’s fun!”

I know that the government and army are making major efforts, and personally I believe very strongly that the government should be viewed with high expectations, tasked with responsibility, and held accountable.  But that said, there is huge distrust among the people of Nepal and the international community about the government’s ability to distribute aid, much less rebuilding, quickly or equitably.  There are still swaths of the hillsides where people have lost everything, suffered injuries and death, and received NO AID.  I couldn’t help noticing that when I walked past the police station, about two dozen officers were hard at work breaking, organizing and laying bricks – rebuilding the wall of their own compound.

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So that was a pretty long day. I already have hours of tape to sort through and tomorrow will bring a whole new chapter of stories before I fly to Pokhara at 3:00. I’ll be glad to get out of Kathmandu – about 70,000 people have left the city since the second earthquake on Tuesday.

Nepal has always shown me a graceful, practical relationship with nature and its whims. But everything feels wrong. Twice today I was in the middle of a conversation with someone who suddenly stopped and said, “Is that an aftershock?” and I couldn’t even feel any shaking. Everyone is on a razor’s edge. People keep telling me, “Things were getting back to normal,” when talking about the second earthquake, which really tells you something, because things were definitely not normal last Tuesday morning. But the second time seems to have redefined “not normal.” It’s as if now the injury of this event is not yet quantified – the sensation isn’t that something terrible happened, but that it is happening, and the final damage is unknown.   As long as the cost remains pending, the reckoning is impossible. You can’t mourn much less rebuild something that is still breaking apart. Everyone is just waiting, even as they run around providing aid to each other.

I will be glad to get to Pokhara tomorrow, but I think this month is going to be as strange and unsettling as expected. My mind is racing with ideas for how to make the best possible use of the $14,000+ we raised for aid, and it is good know that we have the ability to do something, or to provide significant support to someone doing something effective and under-funded. One idea I’m thinking about is collaborating with Kiran or a similar group working on temporary housing. Tomorrow, I am going to get an overview of how the big aid is working.

But I will write about that tomorrow!

How Many

 

The List finally arrived in my inbox on Jan 29. Two lists, actually: one from two years ago, and one from last year. The title of the List, which Laxu picked up from the Foreign Employment Office, is Assistance Decision Made From (Date) to (Date). It’s a record of insurance payments managed by the government that’s as close as I’ve been able to get to a list of migrant laborers who’ve died abroad.

The first question I needed to answer was How Many. It seems as if everyone knows there is a flow of bodies arriving home to Nepal from overseas, but nobody is quite sure what the scale of the tide is. I’ve noticed that people I’ve interviewed usually shrug off the question How Many a few times, and then give me a sudden, precise answer that measures their own anxiety over the problem.

From April 2012 to April 2013, there are 727 names on the List. The following year, ending in April 2014, lists 24 women and 856 men—and average of nearly three laborers per day.

In reality, How Many is a more complicated number than three per day. A certain number of laborers go abroad off the books, or over the border seasonally to India. Study abroad has also become hugely popular, and waves of luckier young people to exodus to foreign countries (although I would guess that most of the boys in Kaskikot, given the choice, would still opt for labor over study).  While about 300,000 laborers per year leave Nepal through manpower companies, the total migration rate is a lot higher – closer to 800,000 annually.

All of which is to say, the airlines officer and security guard may not have been all that far off when they estimated the number of bodies or insurance claims they receive daily. Some estimates put the body count around five per day.  But I’m mainly concerned with young men, and occasionally women, who sign up with labor companies.

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When I opened the List for the first time, I felt like an intruder. To see a list of names in a place of reverence is one thing. But the black and white letters under Assistance Decision Made from (Date) to (Date) are simply data: eight hundred and eighty statistics.

Besides, each name was listed with only a spouse name, village and ward number (there are no house addresses in rural Nepal), and a date of death. It’s 42 pages long.  I had no idea how I would locate or speak with any of these families.

I closed the List and it was a few weeks before I opened it again. Then, yesterday, I was in Kaskikot, filling up our tin jugs at the water tap, when Madu walked by.

“Hey Madu,” I said. “Remember the project I told you about?” I said I was looking for the family of a young man who’d died abroad. After all that work, I was back where I’d started, having talked to Madu three months ago when I first arrived.  Honestly, I hoped Madu could help me circumvent the List.

As we were talking, Sher dai, another neighbor, walked by and joined our conversation.  He offered to do some inquiry on my behalf in Kaskikot, but then I mentioned that I had a List already at my house.  He followed me back home, where I set down the basket and took out the water jug. I pulled up a low stool in the yard and took at my laptop.

We reopened the list.  I searched “Kaski.” Sher dai and I started copying and pasting a short list of names in to fresh document.  Many were from Pokhara or surrounding Kaski villages that I know well: Leknath, Syangia, Hemja.  And then we came upon Dirgharaj Adhikari, Kaskikot-08.

“Sher dai, this boy is from Kaskikot.  Where is ward number 8?”

Sher dai said said he would look into our short list and get back to me. To my surprise, he came back not two hours later.

Dirgharaj Adhikari’s house is just half an hour up the road. It’s likely that, at some point in the past, I ran in to him in a bus or shop or at Kalika School, where he studied. He died last spring in Qatar. He was 22 years old.

“Shall we go?” Sher dai asked.

It was only 11 am.  Just a few hours earlier it had been a month since I’d faced the matter at all.  I’d assumed before I even began this project that I wouldn’t have to look far to find the bereaved family of a young male laborer.  But it was still unnerving to be so flatly correct.

I pulled my microphone and camera out of the back of the dresser and put them in my bag.  I got on the back of Sher dai’s motorcycle and we left for Dirgharaj’s house.  Within minutes, we turned off the main dirt road on to a small motor path that lead to a lone house, perched high up on the hillside. As we approached, I could see the yard was full of people.  A leather-thin man with clear green eyes emerged from the yard to greet us a respectful distance from the entry way. He was Dirgharaj’s father.

We had arrived exactly on the day of sarad, the annual puja that marks the anniversary of a death.  The entire family was there to honor Dirgharaj.  He died exactly one year ago today.

“Hello sir…may we come in?” I asked. “We’d like to hear about your son.”

*

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The List


Since the day I arrived in Nepal, I have been trying to get a list of migrant laborers who have died abroad. Partly this is so that I can find a family willing to tell me about their son’s life. And partly it’s because everybody has a different opinion on how common it is for migrant laborers to die abroad.

The night I landed in Kathmandu’s national airport back in December, I spoke with an airlines agent, who told me that bodies arrive at the airport daily. Someone else milling about the office said they receive a body every few months. When I asked for a record to sort it out, they said each airline keeps a separate list, and to get a combined total of bodies received, I’d have to go to customs.

A few days later I went to customs, which eventually sent me to the cargo office, which eventually sent me to an insurance company, all in search of this List. Our cousin Laxu, who was helping me, agreed to go to the insurance company while I was back in Pokhara. He texted me later saying that the insurance company had sent him to the government’s Foreign Employment Office, where families of the deceased to go pick up renumeration.

On an afternoon in early January, a month after my first night at the airlines office in Tribhuvan Airport, Laxu and I went to the Foreign Employment Office. We arrived to find it closed for a holiday. There was nobody there except for a guard standing outside.

The elusive List still beyond our reach, I asked the guard what he’d noticed about families coming to deal with the legalities of a loved one who’d died abroad. He said the families are easy to recognize. They come regularly.

Who, I asked, is “they?”

Usually, the guard told us, the immediate family of the deceased arrives with someone who can help navigate the system and explain things. This is something I’ve heard a lot. The families of many migrant laborers are minimally educated and have little experience outside their home villages or communities. Handling the logistics of a death is complicated under the best of circumstances, and for many of these families, it is impossible without someone to help with things as simple as travel and reading.

I asked how people normally transport the body of their loved one home to perform rites. This is one of the central my questions of this project, because transporting bodies around is so starkly incompatible with the traditional ritual treatment of the sacred dead body.  And, it’s expensive. It’s important to understand who pays to make kriya possible by getting everyone in the right place. Is the labor industry involved in supporting the families of workers who die overseas? Is it the government of Nepal? Do poor families have to sort this out themselves?

“It’s the government that pays for transport back to villages, not the manpower companies,” the guard told us. Everyone I’ve talked to so far flatly disagrees on this point, so the truth is, it probably varies from company to company.

“Why would anyone go through a manpower company?” I demanded, suddenly gripped by a wave of frustration. “The first year of salary goes back to loans and is basically free work. All the risk seems to be on the laborers. Why does anyone do it?”

“If you don’t go through a manpower company, it’s very difficult to work abroad,” the guard replied. “Very difficult. How many people are simply left abroad, in hospitals?”

He went on to explain in general terms that when laborers arrange their own jobs abroad, they are unaccounted for – even by the Nepali government. If anything unfortunate happens, it is much harder for freelance laborers to get home, or even for them to be identified. Their families, in all likelihood, would have no way to trace them. So the only way to do it is through a manpower company, because stacked insurance is a lot better than none.

It was clear that Laxu was going to have to come back another day to get The List. Before we left, I asked the guard how many families he thinks come to the Foreign Employment Office each day to receive insurance payments.

Eh, they come, he said, they come. We went back and forth a few times; I thought he was being vague because it wasn’t all that often, and our conversation was overdue to end. Then he looked straight at me.

“Every day,” he said. “Ten to fifteen per day.”

*

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Bitter Medicine

 

The last day of kriya for Malika’s father has been moved to Tuesday night, because the morning of the thirteenth day has fallen on a Wednesday, when it is inauspicious to end kriya. I ask Aamaa and Didi why, and they say, Wednesdays are inauspicious for many things.

“It’s tradition. It has been this way for a long time, “ Didi explains.

So after dark on Tuesday night, Kanchaa and I walk down to Malika’s house, where tonight, everyone will drink gaunut—cow urine. As we pass the water tap, Kanchaa explains to me that gaunut has tremendous medicinal cleansing properties. He says that he had jaundice when he was fourteen, and for six months he didn’t eat salt, and every single day he took a shot of cow urine, and he completely recovered from the jaundice.

The priest is preparing the puja on the porch and neighbors are milling about in the yard. The atmosphere is anticipatory and almost festive. After two weeks of austerity, life seems to be rushing back in to this house with inexorable force.  There is a vacuum.

I’m inside when I hear Kanchaa call my name. It’s my turn to drink cow urine. I squeeze my eyes closed and throw it back. The gaunut is thin and bitter.

IMG_6425Everything looks mysterious and beautiful because of the nighttime. Kanchaa tells me I can take photos, but I’m worried that’s inappropriate, especially if I have to use a flash. At my bidding, he asks Malika’s brothers if they mind the camera, and reports back that they don’t mind. Unconvinced, I ask them myself. It’s really fine, they say.

So when the puja starts, I fiddle with my camera, testing different settings to see what works at night. I find a setting that I can use without the flash, and am clicking away at the tilting shadows on the wall when all of a sudden I hear Krishna dai’s voice cut exuberantly through the reverent stillness:

“So many photos – somebody is going to make a lot of money!”

I feel like I have been struck by lightening. Everything is silent; everyone is staring at me.

“Come over here!” Krishna dai cries. “This is the best view!”

Slowly I lower my camera. “Please, dai,” I say softly. He is supposed to be my friend.

“Come come come!” Krishna dai bellows. “Take some photos from here.”

“Please dai, I’m embarrassed,” I whisper, frozen.

“Don’t be embarrassed! No problem!” he shouts.

I hear murmuring behind me. What am I doing taking photos where a man has died?

For a few minutes I literally can’t move, even to go put my camera away. Eventually I slide in to the shadows and find my camera bag. It’s a few more minutes before I get the courage to find Kanchaa, who is tending a fire. I tell him what happened.

“I’m sorry Laura didi, don’t mind Krishna dai. Some people just don’t understand.”

“I feel awful. I said I wouldn’t if—“

“It’s not a problem Laura didi. Some people have this concept that foreigners sell photos of them. Krishna dai doesn’t understand. Nobody else minds. You can take pictures.”

But of course I can’t bring myself to take out my camera again. I knew when I began this project how easy it would be for it to become voyeuristic or exploitative. Before this evening, I spent twelve years in Nepal, learned the language, and have known the daughter of this house for that long. On two evenings I paid respects without so much as a pencil in my hand. I have been conscientious of placing myself discreetly out of the way with my recorder or camera, and have chosen to use only photos of Malika’s family where their faces are obscured, not because they asked, but because it seems right.

But at the end of the day, I am still an outsider looking in on their pain. And what’s more, I can’t promise that, if given the opportunity to publish this work and be paid, I wouldn’t do it, because, of course, I would.

I tell myself that to bear witness is to honor someone’s experience. But only when we don’t impose anything or expect anything back. Do I meet that standard? Maybe Krishna dai is right.  Maybe more than right; photos are hardly the point. Perhaps I am deceiving myself of a much more basic indulgence.

I will worry about that for the entirety of this project. But in the end, I know I will be drawn back every time, and Krishna dai will never see it as honorable. I can’t change who either of us are. It is bitter medicine, but it will keep me honest.

It is about an hour later when I find myself sitting next to Malika’s eldest sister and apologize profusely. But it is no problem, she insists once more, for me to take photos. After multiple reassurances, the seeker in me wins out. Which was predictable.

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So I have my camera discreetly in my hands while five separate cooking fires are lit, mountains of vegetables are sliced, huge pots of oil heated, and vats of tea are brewed. The hushed tones of the last two weeks have blossomed in to busy conversations. Gigantic heaps of celebratory cel roti begin to pile up as the puja comes to an end.

I have my camera when it is time to say goodbye. A brand new bed has been set up in the yard. Malika’s father’s picture is at the head, and the bed is covered with gifts for the afterlife. At the foot of the bed, as per tradition, is the walking stick that he carried.

 

A candle is lit in the middle of the bed, and the family members circle it, touching their foreheads to it, the way one shows respect at the feet of a senior family member in life. The bed is so life-like, with the walking stick leaning against its side, that it is impossible not to feel the presence and the absence of the man.

For a moment the camera hangs around my neck, and I am still. And then, shielded by shadows, I pick it up. Sharing this moment is my way of paying tribute, so I put that thought in my heart and offer gratitude.  It is stunningly beautiful.

Tomorrow morning, the bed and its gifts will be taken from the house forever.

11:30pm. At last, it is time to eat.

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A Kilogram of Sugar

 

Yesterday Kanchaa and I were at Malika’s house most of the afternoon. It was 1:00 by the time Malika’s brothers had finished washing, praying, cooking, and eating their daily salt-less meal off banana leaves. We accompanied them back to the house and I noticed Malika a fastidiously maintained log of contributions in a school notebook: name, donation, location of house. People streamed in with gifts of incense, ghee, money and tea. In the morning I’d discreetly placed some oranges and bananas in a donation basket.

On the fifth day of kriya a priest begins a daily reading at the house. It’s in Sanskrit, which nobody can understand, so at intervals the priest translates and reflects on the reading.

IMG_6359A king from early times was walking through the forest, thirsty. In the woods, he encountered a spirit who blocked his way to the river. The spirit told the king that he was caught between worlds, unsatiated because his kriya had not been properly observed.

“Honor my kriya,” the spirit said, “and observe my annual ‘sarad’ on the anniversary of my death.” Then he let the king go to the river to drink. When the king returned home, he paid kriya respects, observing all the necessary rituals. And at last, the spirit was at rest.

Tonight I Kanchaa and Neru and I went back to the house after dinner again. I hadn’t remembered until I got home yesterday that while oranges and apples are a central part of the fasting diet, bananas are off limits during kriya. We stopped and Shiva dai’s house and I bought a kilogram of sugar and some incense. We turned on our flashlights and followed the stone path down to Rotepani, past the concrete shelter, past the tap, to the dimly lit house.

The crowd of women was gathered around the fire again, and Malika’s mother sleeping on the floor again, the brothers already asleep on their beds of straw outside. Malika looked weary. She and her sisters are still sleeping on mats on the floor, and it’s cold.

I took off my sandals and handed her my gifts, along with 200 rupees. She took out the school notebook, placed it on a low stool and bent over it with a pencil.

Laura Spero. Incense, 200 rupees, one kilogram of sugar. She paused and looked up.

“America,” she said. “I’m going to write ‘America,’ ok?”

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Kriya

 

Thursday was the seventh day of kriya for Malika’s father. Kanchaa and I arrived around 11am, long after Malika and her sisters had repainted the floors with a new layer of mud, gone to bathe at the tap, and returned home.

The sons’ turn to bathe comes at mid-day. We leave for the water tap with an entourage of men who bring along firewood and a basket of cooking supplies. Malika’s brothers carry only a special set of water vessels. They are not to touch any of the other items directly – not even the basket.

IMG_5955A tarp has been put up a respectable distance away from the water tap, and we set everything down. Just on the other side of the spring there is a sizeable concrete shelter for kriya mourners that was built with funds raised from the community. This gives you an idea of the deference paid to these customs.

Malika’s brothers leave for the water tap. Some of the other men get a cooking fire going, and the rest sit on the edge of the terrace having a rollicking conversation about politics. I can see Malika’s brothers from far away, through a haze of bamboo stalks and leaves. They go through a series of rituals with the water vessels, washing their white linens, and bathing in the discreet way that everyone learns to do in public. Their brother in law stands guard at the edge of the tap, but nobody approaching would be confused. They will wait.

When the brothers return, the youngest sets to cooking their daily meal over the fire that’s been started. The elder brother begins a puja over a small mound of dirt.

I spend a good bit of time gazing at the mound of dirt. It is about a foot wide. When we arrived it was protected with a branch lying over it. Malika’s brother smooths mud around its sides. It makes a rough, wet sound under his palms. A series of other rituals unfold, and each time he needs a new object – leaf, water, jug – one of the other men places it on the ground for him, careful that the two people do not touch anything at the same time.IMG_5950

The mound of dirt symbolizes his father’s body. On the tenth day of kriya, the oldest son will destroy
the dirt body with the crown of his head, and for the last three days of kriya, his puja will move to a different piece of ground, a few feet away. Where there is nothing.

The physicality and deliberateness of this performance is beautiful to me. When we lose someone, there is something missing between our hands, between our minutes, between our thoughts. No matter how long the process of departure takes, there is a moment of disappearance…and then emptiness.

Kriya is an unremitting physical process. Sitting around the edge of the terrace, we bear witness to the externalization of that mercilessly intangible absence. And this seems very important. Observers can carry the baskets, light the fires, put the prayer objects in reach. But they cannot inhabit these things. We are not naked, cold, untouchable; the body has not disappeared from our houses; we are only there to make this reality manifest. But we must be there. Otherwise the process is impossible to complete.

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If I Can’t Say Namaste

 

Last Saturday evening I came home with a fresh bundle of vegetables from the market, but Aamaa said we’d be cooking without salt. A man at the house near the water tap in Rotepani passed away yesterday. Aamaa and I ate plain rice with ghee for dinner.

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized I knew the one of the bereaved daughters. “Malika,” Aamaa said, “Don’t you know Malika?” Of course. I remember her hanging around with Didi and Bishnu back when we were all in our early 20s, before anyone was married. “The really skinny one?” I asked. Yes, that Malika. Her father, in his sixties, had been ill for about a month.

This has given me an opportunity to pay respects during a traditional period of kriya, when a man with grown children has lived an honorable life and passed away at an age that, in these parts, is considered decent.

On the sixth evening of kriya, after Aamaa and I had eaten dinner, I rounded up Neru and Kanchaa from next door. Lighting our way with flashlights down the stone path toward Rotepani, we left for Malika’s house.

As we approached the house, a warm mist of voices bubbled up in the cold black night. We found a tarp stretched out over the yard from the edge of the roof, to shelter the stream of visitors from sun during the day and provide some warmth at night.

Three men were sitting on the mud-smoothed porch, leaning against the wall of the house. I recognized Krishna dai, who I’ve known since the first week I came to Kaskikot twelve years ago.

“Namaste,” I said, raising my hands.

“We don’t say Namaste now,” Krishna dai said.

“Sorry.” I looked down.  I had trouble figuring out where to replace my hands.  Lesson one, of many.

Malika’s brothers were peering through the door of an attached room on the small house – I’m guessing that at some point it was used for goats – sitting on the ground with white blankets wrapped around them, like bowling pins. Until the thirteenth day they will only wear new white clothes with no seams, and they’ll wash these clothes daily.

We talked quietly with Krishna dai and the other men outside for about ten minutes. They are all friends and relatives of the deceased. Their role is to sleep on mats on the porch and guard the door of the house, because the sons are not to touch anyone or anything during kriya.

“For example, if a chicken comes by,” Krishna dai said, “we shoo it away. So it won’t touch them.”  This seemed awful and gorgeous.

Krishna dai asked about our mourning traditions in the United States. I said they vary a lot according to religion and habit, but that I am Jewish, and our rules mandate a quick burial – strictly speaking, we don’t cremate. I explained how we have a gathering where people stand up and tell stories about the life of the person who has died, so that everyone can share and honor these memories in one place. The sons leaned in closely by the door of the goat room to listen to me. I said we bury our dead in a special place that’s marked with a stone, where we can return to do puja and be with our loved one. That we return from the cemetery and wash our hands and fill our stomachs with food, and people stream through our houses with flowers and food while we sit shiva – a mourning period when we keep our homes full of life, because we must keep living. By contrast, kriya imposes strict and challenging rules on almost every movement of the bereaved: fasting, washing, praying, isolation, burning. In some ways, everyone has died.

It occurs to me now how little I know about the orthodox dictates of Judiasm and mourning. Is there a period of purification? I have no idea. I could look it up easily for this post. But it’s more interesting that I have no idea.  So I’ll look it up afterwards.

As we were talking, a slight woman with her uncombed hair falling over her shoulders came out of the house. Malika and I haven’t seen each other in about eight years, but she heard my voice from inside the house. Despite the circumstances, it was a really lovely moment. There wasn’t a lot that needed saying, other than, “I heard.”

We entered the small house. Malika’s widowed mother was sleeping by herself on a bed of straw – she too must observe kriya for thirteen days. “Say ‘Aamaa,’” Malika said.

“But what do I say if I can’t say Namaste?” I asked.

“Just say ‘Aamaa,'” Malika said.  So I softly said, “Aamaa,” and her mother sat up.  There wasn’t really much more to add after that.

But just on the other side of a low wall, a crowd of women was gathered around a fire, where a kettle of tea was brewing for all the visitors. Mourning customs for daughters are lighter than for sons and wives: Malika and her two sisters observed kriya for four days, and on the fifth day, they added salt to their food and were allowed to touch other people.  Their straw beds, upgraded now to straw mats, are still arranged on the floor of the house. They’ll sleep there together and continue cooking their own food and eating only once a day for thirteen days. Their hair will stay uncombed until then.

Neru and I sat by the fire for about an hour. Between other chatter, the huddle of women asked me all kinds of things about death rites in the U.S., and also about my family and what I’ve been up to. There was lots of quiet laughing. We spent a long time on the topic of marriage, which, in these parts, is almost always arranged by parents. People here are endlessly enthralled by the concept that I am tasked with finding my own spouse.

“Love marriage,” I said by way of explanation.  Here the phrase has an illicit undertone, like eloping. “That’s our culture.”

An old lady next to me was having trouble following. The expectation she’s always known is that you are paired with a spouse who is astrologically compatible with you and socially compatible with your family, and then you sign up for a life together, and then you go from there. A younger auntie jumped in to help out.

“Love,” the auntie said, looking up at us from her seat by the fire. “When two people make things work between them—that’s love, right?”

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