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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Learning by Cucumber

 

It had been a long day for both of us: me at school, Aamaa cutting grass for the buffalo all afternoon in the heat. We convened in the kitchen as the sun was going down. Both of us were too tired to bother with rice, so Aamaa began putting wheat rotis in a pan for us to eat for dinner with some iskus left over from this morning. Iskus is my favorite vegetable, a slightly sweet gourd that’s plentiful at the end of summer. I was just about to bite in to a little scoop of it I had carefully placed on a nice hot roti, when shouting began outside.

So listen, my language skills are pretty good for someone who’s lived in Nepal for a total of a few months, but at the end of the day, I can no more decode haphazard shouting outside the door than I can follow a parliamentary debate. And since I can’t understand the words, it took me longer to notice the sound at all…and to be honest, I was really focused on my roti and my little pile of vegetables. So Aamaa was the first to jump up and run outside, leaving me in a momentary cognitive stall-out after a wearying day of trying to think in another language.

What about my roti? I thought, looking longingly at the little pile of carefully placed iskus. And then I snapped alive to the world outside, where my attention fully redirected to the ruckus coming through the door. Not wanting to miss any action, I put my down roti untouched, leapt up, and followed Aamaa outside.

It was dark and Aamaa had already taken off with the light. Our mountain alcove was thick with nighttime, but shouting was coming from all around, and leaping from squares of yellow light and vaulting off the terraces and bouncing maniacally about in the huge darkness.

I scrambled half-blind over the path from our house to the edge of the terrace, which drops off to the next field below. There, Aamaa stood at attention on the terrace edge, listening to the tempest of voices. Without warning, she let go an unbridled screech and submitted her own opinion to the fray.

There were no further clues as to what anyone was yelling about. I wanted to ask, but I was afraid to interrupt the flow.

Abruptly, Aamaa took off again. Now to the left, and down over the terrace, past where the buffalo stay in the winter; a patch of field that now, in late summer, is a wet leafy carpet. The Ritz Carleton for leeches. Determined to be a full participant, I ran after her, jumping over the terrace ledge, and plunging heedlessly through the soft plants to where she was standing with a flashlight, now yelling again. Two small girls had appeared out of literally nowhere; and logically, given the leech situation, they stayed perched on the ledge over my head.

“WHAT HAPPENED?” I asked Aamaa breathlessly, my feet absorbing moisture from the buzzing ground. I was rewarded with more incomprehensible shouting coming from everywhere.

Finally, without averting her gaze from the inscrutable darkness, Aamaa said something about a cucumber, which I couldn’t quite catch, except for “cucumber.” And then she was promptly too distracted to tell me any more.

I thought about the leeches. Fine. I returned to the base of the ledge, resolved to climb back up. While doing so, my sandal fell off. The two mystery girls wanted to to help me up, but on principle I fixed my sandal and got myself up the ledge. Still utterly baffled, I returned to our house with the two girls, and a minute later, Aamaa followed. The yelling wafted along behind us, still unattached to any source or story.

The girls had brought us what I now know was belaunti, a cheese-like, crumbly, slightly sweet milk product that comes from a buffalo that has just calved. It is packed with both nutrition and luck; birth, after all, is a dangerous and miraculous thing, and belaunti is treated with the respect any auspicious gift of the universe is due. But in that moment, all I knew was that we’d gone from the inexplicable cucumber crisis outside to an equally illogical and randomly-timed cottage cheese situation inside, which unfolded as follows: Aamaa put a bit on her forehead and then started eating it. Then she asked if I wanted some, so I said yes, and I was about to eat it when she told me to put some on my head first.

Alas, I’d started out tired, and my mental state was only becoming more fragile as the number of things that made no sense accumulated.

Just as I was trying to work out why the two mysterious girls had brought over cottage cheese while people were shouting about the cucumber, and why we had interrupted that serious event to put the cheese on our foreheads, Aamaa offered the girls some roti. I’d nearly forgotten about my once-important roti. And I forgot again, because in the half second it took the girls to refuse the roti, Aamaa had gone back outside to shout about the cucumber.

Not to be outwitted, I dashed back in to our yard, where now I found our neighbor Saano Didi and her three boys. They were standing as if squinting with their bodies, leaning slightly forward in to the darkness, watching the invisible shouting. I pleaded with Saano Didi to explain what in God’s name was going on. I just wanted to be in on the cucumber issue. I just wanted to play with everyone.

What followed was an extended five-way exchange that involved a fantastic amount of explaining and re-explaining, handwaving, pointing, and acting, in which I tried to piece together the story of the cucumber emergency based on comprehension of only one out of every fifteen words. At first I believed that somehow a cucumber plant had fallen over–I was not focused right then on the fact that our cucumber plant is most decidedly a vine–and I became very worried that somebody had been injured by a falling cucumber tree. But Saano Didi and her boys kept mentioning boys and girls; apparently the cucumber tree had fallen when too many boys and girls were climbing it, and a mystery man appeared–wait, no, the cucumbers were stolen! The tree fell over and the boys and girls were stealing all the cucumbers from it! Oh–no–a man came and stole all the cucumbers–but not from a tree, he went around to people’s homes and asked for cucumbers, and didn’t tell anyone else that he was exploiting cucumber generosity from them all–no, he didn’t ask, the man was just stealing cucumbers from each person’s house! And then he was CAUGHT! Ah, this was beginning to make sense–but wait, how did the man go running from house to house with a growing collection of cucumbers? Hold on, he was eating them as he collected them.

Yes, this surely explained the excitement! A man had been caught–well, seen, but escaped–while sneaking from house to house eating cucumbers. And now he had got away, despite the dazzling mountain-sized net of female screeching through which nobody could possibly run freely and un-apprehended, even without an untold number of cucumbers to carry.

Saano Didi invited me over to her house. Aamaa was clearly indisposed with the cucumber crime, so I wasn’t to get any further intel any time soon, and I’d forgotten about my roti, so I went and sat by the fire in Saano Didi’s house and drank some hot buffalo milk. Then she produced a cucumber.

Which turned out to be the most enormous vegetable I’d ever laid eyes on. It could easily have crushed a cricket bat. It was of a stature that unequivocally qualified its seeds to be harvested for next year’s cucumber crop. This new evidence threw the cucumber fraud situation in to chaos all over again. It was hopeless. I would never solve it. Saano Didi cut the Gozillacumber in to massive, dripping hunks of flesh, and we sat slurping, crunching and dripping in cucumber juice, while somewhere unknown, some cucumber lover was apparently reclined in the dark recesses of his home, totally immobile.

*

Aamaa with a Godzillacumber

 

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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