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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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

Between Worlds

Read this series here.

IMG_2479Over the years, I have witnessed many passages in Nepal.  Marriages, coming of age ceremonies, births of animals and people, and deaths of many kinds. The weather itself has a careless drama about it, demanding reverence for the seasons and relentless passage of time…when it is hot, it’s time to plant millet; when there is a full moon, it’s time to fast; when a distant glacier becomes heavy, it’s time for it to break apart, time for the river it lands in to overflow in a torrent, time for an entire village to be swept away.  When it is morning, it’s time to get up and cook breakfast.

The intimate relationship between people and cycles in this part of the world is one of its most moving qualities.  I think it is a hard thing to see if you have always been inside it. But I am outside of it.  And peering in, I am endlessly preoccupied with how a single human existence can be subtly accepted as a grand and meaningless expression of a larger constellation of forces and relations and nature, awesome because it is small, not because it is unique.  I only notice this because I learned to see myself as separate from the moment I came in to the world.  In the West we gain power, intelligence and purpose from our individuality.  But it’s something I can’t explain to Aamaa.  There simply isn’t a vocabulary to say that my life possesses a greater idea than the idea of the universe itself.

I know I’ll never be comfortable with this fact.  Instead, I am perpetually drawn to these rites of passage, which integrate our small lives with those of our ancestors, with the cosmos, with God and with the future.  Perhaps it’s like continually trickling cool water into a wound that will always burn.

This winter I’ve decided to start a project that has been some time in the making. Since I first began coming to Nepal in 2002, young men have flooded out of the country for migrant labor in gulf countries; last year, over 300,000 people left for that purpose alone.  A surprisingly large number of these young men die abroad, and when they do, normal mourning rituals are turned completely upside-down.  Many of the essential features of customary mourning become impossible.  My project will document the way that families have adapted ritual grieving when their sons die overseas.

Nepal’s funerary customs in the weeks that immediately follow a death are called kriya.  There is great intelligence and beauty in these rituals, which provide a structured role for the community and extended family in sharing grief, reaffirming ties, and placing the life and death of the deceased in to a coherent cosmic story.  Many aspects of kriya are austere and demanding, putting physical and mental purification above comfort, and imposing isolation as a sanctuary for the emptiness that follows loss.  When the kriya period ends, other rituals last weeks, years, and in some cases, forever.  Aamaa, a widow since age 23, hasn’t worn red in 35 years.  Anyone who meets her can immediately know without a word that she is widowed – if they are attuned to this custom.

Stories of grief and loss in other places have immense importance for us. Ritual grieving in American culture is increasingly short-lived and mainly the private domain of the bereaved.  Death as a matter of politics or policy or violence is in our media every day.  But mourning, the outward expressions by which we integrate death in to the un-ended lives of the living, seems to be on the periphery of our inquiry, at best.  In some ways, mourning is treated as an obstacle to our collective concern with affirming and carrying out our individual significance.

But mourning is a choice we make to ascribe meaning to our grief. It is a willful sanctification of our mortality.  We hope for the grace to extract from this some kind of redemption, something beautiful about life.  Or perhaps simply the courage to keep living.

In the course of this series, I hope to honor the beauty of Nepal’s kriya traditions, as well as a generation of young people caught in the ambiguous place between a world that has shattered and one that does not yet exist—at the threshold, in that empty uncertainty, where we are reinvented.

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Read this series here.