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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Ten to Fifteen Minutes

 

The night I arrived in Kathmandu from the U.S., I recorded a midnight interview with an airlines agent. When the interview ended, Laxu and I asked for a record of bodies received at the airport, for two reasons: one, we need a better estimate of numbers, and two, I am looking for a family I can spend some time getting to know. The agent told us each airline keeps separate lists of bodies it receives, so if we wanted a combined list, we’d have to go to the customs office.

Two days later, Laxu and I returned to the airport to visit the customs office. A police officer outside told us we needed permission from customer information to enter the airport. Customer information sent us back to the police officer. We went back and forth until the officer took us inside, where four guards told us we could not talk to customs without permission from the government, and then said the list we were looking for was in the cargo office, not the customs office. We hailed a cab to the cargo office.

A security guard looked at my ID, told me not to record or take any photos, and opened the gate to the cargo office.

At last, Laxu and I entered a cavernous hangar filled with endless towering stacks of packages and containers. I was alarmed to find myself scanning the warehouse for casket-sized boxes, and willed myself to stop, but I couldn’t help it.

It seemed the search for The List, which had started so simply in the airlines office, would never end. Laxu and I wound our way from office to office in the cargo hangar, being bounced from one official to another. At last we entered a third-floor room at the end of of a long hall, lined with rows and rows of dusty files, harboring a single employee who looked like he did not often get visits.

Being in this room of papers felt oddly momentous. Somewhere in these weary stacks was a document that would turn this warehouse into a list of people who had lives, families, stories, names.

Nope.  The single employee informed us that before he could give us any records, we would have to get permission from “The Chief.” He sent us down another hallway.

Outside The Chief’s office, Laxu and I sat in a gigantic waiting room that contained nothing but one desk, somewhat reminiscent of the Oval Office, and two women sitting on a low windowsill, starting absently out at the parking lot. An empty teacup sat on the windowsill. The women told us to wait, so we waited.  And waited.

“If you’re able to get permission,” one of the women said during a random moment of waiting, “it will still take quite some time to get The List.” But why? I whispered to Laxu. We had just been in a room with nothing but lists and a person who seemed to have very little to do.

We entered The Chief’s office.  Sitting before him like children summoned before the school principal, we asked permission to go back to the first room and get The List.

The Chief replied that the cargo office doesn’t keep a separate list of laborers. It records all bodies that arrive from overseas each day, on average three to four, he estimated, including people who die overseas for any variety of reasons. To get a list of laborers, he suggested we go to the insurance office. Wherever that was.

For a moment we simply sat there.  It had been such an effort to arrive, this seemed like too short an answer.

I suddenly thought to ask if The Chief would mind telling us: what happens when bodies arrive in this cargo hangar?

“Everyone,” said The Chief, “is processed in ten to fifteen minutes. Maximum.He repeated “maximum” a few times.

I asked if I could record our conversation, and The Chief said, absolutely not. However, he added, leaning back in to his chair, he had recently done an hour-long interview on an important radio program.

Could he tell us, then, who comes to retrieve people who have died abroad here at the cargo office? What clothes are the families wearing? What kind of transport do they use? And where do they go when they leave here? After all, there are no provisions for this situation—bodies are not meant to be in airports.

Some families, The Chief said, have a long way to go back to their villages to conduct rites, and they come in plain clothes with a hearse. But some do the rites here in Kathmandu at Pashupathi or Boudanath or Swayambhu, and they might arrive in a procession. I looked out the window at the same parking lot the women in the waiting room had been staring at and thought of it filled with a funeral procession. Oddly enough, weeks after this interview, it’s the view of the parking lot from the Chief’s office that still floats in unbidden into my thoughts.

“We don’t enforce a rigid protocol,” the Chief said, which, I’ve thought since, was a strange and pregnant detail.

I tried to press for more particulars. What has he noticed about which of the deceased are treated in what way?

“Look,” The Chief finally said, “there’s no difference to us. You want to know who is who or how many of a certain kind of people or something. There’s just a process. Big shots and laborers are all managed the same way.”

Ten to fifteen minutes. Maximum.

In the West we’re accustomed to the idea of bodies being transported around for and by people who know what to do with them. But what about the white curtain that covered Shaula dai? Or the night I sat at Pashupathi Nath and watched a son put fire in the sacred mouth of his parent? Or when our neighbor Maina bouju passed away in Kaskikot, and Bishnu and I went to her house and sat with her family as they kept vigil over her head and feet until morning, when her sons dressed her and lifted her on to a bamboo gurney balanced on their shoulders, and I was transfixed by how Maina bouju’s covered head was so close to her son’s face that they brushed against each other as he carried her all the way down from the ridge to the river in his white clothes. What about that?

“When there is nobody to accompany the body home,” The Chief said, “it comes through as cargo and arrives here. If there is a friend to fly along, it is treated as baggage.”

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Pashupathi Nath

Midnight Confessions

 

Last night I arrived in Nepal on a flight from Dubai. It was nearly 11pm by the time I got through immigration and came out of the airport to meet our cousin Laxu. IMG_3894

As the baggage came bouncing on to the conveyer belt, dozens of televisions swirled by.  It was a funny moment, something like hearing my own song on the radio, because in the last ten years I’ve watched televisions appearing in one house after another Kaskikot. Next door at Saano Didi’s house, where Jivan and Madu have been working abroad for a few years now, they now have TWO televisions.  It is the single most reliable status symbol of a household with a family member working abroad, and for some reason it strikes me as funny that people actually bring the televisions back with them, rather than just purchasing TVs in Nepal after they get home.  Like many aspects of this whole system, it’s a thing.  It’s the ritual.

Before I left the airport, I decided should try to get a phone number for the baggage office. The purpose of this project is to look at how traditional death rites are altered when migrant laborers die abroad, which means, first of all, talking with someone who processes bodies that are shipped home to this very airport. Since it’s unclear how I’d explain this on the phone, it seemed like a good idea to get a name and phone number for the baggage office while I was already there.

I started at the baggage desk, where an agent gave me a cell phone number and a name and sent me to the airlines office building, which, oddly enough, was still open at 11pm. Laxu and I left my bags outside with his friend, and then waded through a series of muddled conversations about why we were there: with a police officer, a secretary, other people who had unclear reasons for being in the front hall of the airlines building so late at night. Eventually, we were led in to a narrow back cubicle, where we sat down at an empty desk, across from a clock that read 11:30pm. I had a feeling we’d be there a while, and probably with no result.

We waited.

What happened next was the typical Nepal phenomenon where nothing is happening for a long time, and just when you are certain your plan hasn’t worked, something appears out of nowhere.

The something was an airlines agent who did not want to be identified, but was very eager to talk to us about what it is like for him to receive and process bodies from abroad. He listed all the documents that come with bodies when they are shipped home, and the procedures for releasing them. He said it is “terrible scene” to deal with the families. He kept repeating “terrible scene.” As the clock ticked on, I was increasingly aware of the late hour and the hush outside the airport as everyone who’d been on my flight departed.

The agent was especially intent on explaining the travesty of the labor system to me. Every time I directed our conversation back to the baggage procedures that in this dreadful and bizarre situation have essentially usurped sacred death rituals, the agent would find his way back to condemning the exploitative labor trade.

I noticed that he insisted that the families he sees coming to retrieve their loved ones are “very poor,” “low caste,” and “uneducated.” I know this not to be true; almost every household in Kaskikot, like in so much of rural Nepal, has a young male family member abroad, and almost all of them, while poor, are educated (and high caste, while we’re at it). It’s the country that, in a global context, is colossally poor.

I wondered about this trenchant misconception later. It’s easy, after all, to deplore a system that preys on wholly ignorant people. But my impression is the vast majority of Nepali laborers, while disenfranchised, are nevertheless aware of the general inequity of the migrant labor system. Like Mandira, they make the bargain with their eyes open, usually multiple times. It’s too simplistic to assume that half a million people per year are too naive to realize what a high price they are paying, and doing so avoids the more complex question: Why is it worth it? What is in it for these youth and their families?  Hundreds of thousands of them?

By the end of my interview in the airlines office, it was after midnight, and a crowd of employees—inexplicably still at work—had crowded in to the office to listen. Our topic had obviously struck a cord. I turned off my recorder. Laxu and I dispersed in to the eerie, deserted airport parking lot, and caught a cab home.

And so it starts.

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Kathmandu Airport

Kathmandu Airport, Home from Dubai