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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Night Watch

Bishnu and I were in the kitchen finishing dinner, one day after I’d moved in, when Bhim stuck his head through the door.

“Laura?” he inquired.  He asked me how I was doing.

Bhim seemed to have another world around him.  We’d been here as visitors less than two days earlier, and now I felt him observing me in my new habitat, going about my business, eating my food, interacting with the other family members.

I put two stools next to the sewing machine and we sat down. Bhim pointed to the low ceiling.  “Please be careful inside the house,” he said.  “You’ll have to stand up carefully and walk slowly to avoid hitting your head.”

This did appear to be true.

“And those straw mats on the bed must be uncomfortable.”  With the best of intentions, Bhim initiated an elaborate explanation of how I should put my inflatable camping mattress over the mats, and move my bag off the bed because the arrangement was cramped and unpleasant for sleeping.  When we’d dumped my things there, Didi had moved the rolled up camping mattress off the bed, not recognizing what it was, and I’d figured I didn’t need it.  I assured Bhim that the highly vocal chicken had overwhelmingly surpassed any disturbance caused by the straw mat.  But why hadn’t I used the mattress, Bhim insisted.  Later that evening I found everything on the bed reorganized.

I had arrived in the middle of the harvest, and the attic was full of rice.  For two nights, I slept downstairs because there was no room on the second floor, which was covered with baskets, tubs, homeless heaps and lost scatterings of unmilled pellets.  Downstairs I didn’t sleep very well.  Aamaa snored like a diesel engine.  Some new chicks were being housed in a box at the end of the bed, where they chirped and bustled around tirelessly.  But the real culprit was the chicken herself, who let loose at such a fearsome volume each morning that the mere sound was almost enough to send me through the ceiling and back up to the attic.

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After a few days, the attic was rearranged so I could sleep on the mats, and at night, it was absolutely, impenetrably dark.  When I woke at some unnamed hour, it was so dark that, for all I knew, I had actually woken in the middle of the day to find that someone had painted tar over my pupils. I had been dreaming about the lake where we used to row in New England.  Its dark smooth surface, the methodical sound of oarlocks turning.  Thunk.  Thunk.  Thunk.  I sat up and squinted out the slatted window and the other side was as dark and smooth as the lake.  A breeze blew softly through the bars.  I had to pee.

Cautiously I felt my way across the floor to the ladder.  Its smooth-worn wooden rungs creaked against their rope bindings while I climbed down as quietly as I could.  The darkness enhanced the gaping silence, and as one foot found the ground, I held my breath, clinging to my privacy, trying not to disturb Bishnu and Didi and Aamaa–or, God forbid, the chicken–in their sleep.  Their breathing ruffled the tranquil blackness.

One step, two steps toward the door, avoiding the wide wooden supports in the middle of the room.

A stirring on one of the cots.

BATTI!” Aamaa’s voice shattered the glassy stillness.  “BATTI!

If I had been able to see, I would have broken into a run.  What did batti mean?  In my dream-filled ears the incomprehensible sound reverberated cavernously.  Hand signals were useless, but there was not one suitable word—such as, “pee”—that I knew how to say.  I stretched out my palms, grasping for the door, willing an escape to come to my fingertips.

I heard Aamaa sitting up as my hands found the metal rod wedged across the inside of the door.  The rod provided our only nighttime security, and at the moment, it was securing me inside.  Slide the rod this way, then that way.  It was like trying to remain calm while diffusing a ticking bomb.

I was not fast enough.

BATTI KHULNU PARDAINA ESTO UNDERO MAA KASARI BAHIRA JANNEHOTANEEEE!”  It was a mystery how Aamaa could come out of a cold slumber and create that kind of volume.  The explosion of sound tore apart cobwebs of sleep and sections of my brain were impaled against flying knives of gibberish.  My hands fumbled as I tried to set myself free from the house.  The rod slid out of its hold and I pulled two wooden doors inward, ducked my chin, and fled outside into the night.

The toilet was at the other end of our terraced millet field, just below the hill leading up to the ridge.  I tottered along the edge of the field, which was almost invisible in the meager moonlight, and felt my way over to a rock that was sheltered by old mats and cut up rice sacks.  Inside, there was a bucket of water for washing, but I kept a plastic bag full of tissue that rustled with the slightest breeze, and even that disjointed noise seemed too loud.

After I came out of the toilet I stayed outside, halfway up the hill to the ridge.  The moon was upside down; it looked like a slender bowl, an offering.  I traced Orion and Cassiopeia.  About fifty yards away, the house slept under the expanse of sky, and the evening’s symphony of insect sounds had silenced.  The village stretched out like a frozen yawn to the base of the Kalika Hill, whose massive triangular silhouette thrust toward the stars.

I made my way back to the house, so blind under the clipping of moon that I had to crawl along the edge of the garden to avoid falling off into the cut millet stalks one terrace lower.  But this journey to the toilet was to become a nightly practice, and after a few weeks the moon fattened until it was full like a white balloon; then, the terraces and the path were so light that it looked like somebody had neglected to turn off the daytime.  Eventually, after watching the moon wax and wane and wax again, and the constellations rise and fall with the passing hours, I made a regular game out of emerging from a deep sleep and guessing the time with a quick look around.  I couldn’t have described what the sky actually looked like at each hour—sometimes I barely gave it a glance—but I was usually correct within five minutes.  The night possessed a quality of solitude so complete that, like the living house, nighttime was knowable in its own right.  Those sacred moments of nothingness were the only times I felt unwatched.

The next morning Aamaa waved her hands and exclaimed about batti.  I turned to Bishnu for help.  She picked up the flashlight by Aamaa’s cot.

Batti,” Bishnu said, “means light.

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