Holi

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Today was the festival of Holi. Weirdly enough, I’ve only been in Nepal once for Holi in twelve years, and that was back in 2004, when I was in Kaskikot and basically missed it. So this was the first time I’ve really seen all the action, and it was pretty much the awesomest holiday in the history of ever.

Holi is a Hindu festival that celebrates the equinox, the start of spring, the renewal of relationships, and most importantly, the triumph of good over evil. In a brilliant stroke of luck, this is done by having people throw colored dust and water on each other in the streets all day.  Water balloons are allowed.  Anyone is fair game. Dude taking out the trash? Fair game. Small child sucking their thumb on the curb? Fair game. Foreigner walking home with morning coffee and a laptop in her backpack? Especially fair game. Leave the laptop at home, idiot.

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For weeks leading up to Holi, white clothes were on sale in every version and size. I got myself an “I Heart Pokhara” t-shirt and a cheap pair of pants, and on the morning of Holi I picked up some squirt guns and packets of brightly colored powder for the kids. I returned to the children’s home with my stash and presented them to the kids. They just looked at me like: you only got one squirt gun? What’s wrong with you? Sanjay filled up an empty plastic water bottle and dumped a packet of purple powder in to it. Someone had the excellent idea to poke a hole in the cap, and this bottle was to become our most potent weapon.

When we ventured out in to the street around noon, people were walking around with super soakers. I mean that kind where you spray the entire jumbo water cartridge continuously until it is empty. Poor little Laxu was carrying the mini squirt gun I’d given him that had to be refilled every three minutes through a flubbering hole in the side. We quickly began looking for a good deal on six more squirt guns.

IMG_4611We walked the streets for two hours, and then our Gaky’s Light Fellows showed up and I went back in  for round two. For a culture that’s fairly concerned with propriety as a general matter, Holi is an unruly and joyous anarchy – all the best of the bright pandemonium that is Nepal. Clouds of yellow and pink and green puffing up in to the air over the crowded sidewalks while colored water sprays haphazardly on to soaked shirts and faces. Strangers running up to each other and smearing hot pink powder on each other’s cheeks. Hooting and yelling and rainbows exploding every which way. I was with a group of kids ranging from age 7 to 13, and everyone in the packed streets was acting just like them. It was magic.

I did learn a few critical pieces of wisdom that I hereby pass on to you.

  1. Keep your mouth closed. I realize that when someone is throwing a fistful of green powder on you or blasting your armpit with orange water, your instinct is going to be to squeeze your eyes an open your mouth in a gleeful expression of frolickness. But, your mouth is going to get full of green powder (that’s really bad) or orange water (which is just gross on principle). So frolic with your lips tightly sealed.
  2. IMG_4638Don’t be the douchebag who does the move where you grab someone else’s water bottle, bend it towards them, and spray them with their own water. Because first of all, I’m already wet, so you’re not as special as you think you are, and second of all, Sanjay made this water bottle and you’re ruining it, douchebag. Make your own water bottle and squirt me with that.
  3. Pay attention to the color distribution on your target’s shirt. Your target, if your target is me, wants to save this I Heart Pokhara shirt forever and ever, and it’s no fun if the entire thing just turns brown. Am I missing yellow? Would a splash of blue do well to bring out the hot pink? And aim for the empty areas, for Pete’s sake. I paid $3 for this t-shirt and I want it properly ruined with some sense of artistry.
  4. Hit me from ahead where I can see you. Because the first person to grab me from behind and putt purple powder on my face and up my nose will probably get away with it – partially because I’m not ready to drop my mini flubbering squirt gun to whoop your ass, since I’m holding on to it for this small kid I came here with. However, if you’re the second or third person, I reserve the right to take out a can of taekwondo on your poorly executed headlock, and that’s not going to work out well for you. I don’t like purple powder in my nose. Thanks.

Happy Holi, fools.

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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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Birth vs. Wedding

 

I’ve been in Nepal for a week now, and just yesterday I attended a shotgun wedding in the middle of the night at Vindivasini Temple.  The excitement started when I came home from the office and found Bhinaju with his knickers in a twist.  He was trying frantically to charge his cell phone, and something about the connection wasn’t working right, and every two seconds the phone was ringing, but the battery was almost dead.

Bhinaju’s nephew Bishnu is scheduled to be married this month, as are many other betrothed, because according to an array of astrological indicators, this is an auspicious time of year for weddings.  As per tradition, Bishnu’s marriage was recently arranged and the engagement confirmed by an exchange of tikka, the red dot you’ve seen Hindus wearing between their eyes. And once the tikka has been exchanged, there’s no going back. The deed must be done.

All this was already in the works when, yesterday afternoon, a pregnant relative of Bishnu’s went in to labor earlier than expected.  Custom dictates that if the relative has the baby, the entire extended family is banned for eleven days from various ritual activities—including, inconveniently, weddings. And – stay with me here – eleven days from now, we will be past the astrologically auspicious marriage window, which won’t come around again for another year, which, since Bishnu and his bride have already exchanged tikka, would just be a violation of the entire system of everything.

And this now brings us to the heart of the matter, which is me holding Bhinaju’s phone charger in the socket to suck out all the electricity it can muster, and then all of us tripping on our shoes as we run out the door to hail a taxi at 9pm, buy some oranges and flowers, and rush to Vindivasini Temple for Bishnu’s wedding before some baby, somewhere, is born.  It is now a matter of birth vs. marriage; we can’t take the risk of waiting till morning.

Vindivasini temple is usually crowded with people and priests and marriages and fruit, but at 9:30pm it is absolutely deserted, with nothing but two police officers and a cold breeze blowing over the laid stones.  Aidan and Pascal think this is the perfect place for me to teach them some taekwondo, and we pass the time running in circles and doing flying side kicks in front of the frozen statues.

Just as we’re losing interest in this adventure, Bishnu, his bride, and an entourage of people in puffy coats show up with the priest.  We all stand around shivering and trying to take iPhone pictures in the pitch dark (nobody had time to bring a real camera) as the priest rushes them through a series of rituals. I am struck as always by how abstract the bride and groom seem at these weddings, and this is even more apparent tonight: Bishnu and his bride are at the center of the marriage, but it is not about them at all.

Is it over? Is it over? Everyone is freezing. Bhinaju’s brother has a van. Everyone piles in to take the girl back to Bishnu’s house an hour away in Lumle, where the family will take turns “showing their faces” to the new wife. I almost never turn down a chance to be part of a face-showing ceremony in Nepal in the middle of the night, but this next phase is going to last till morning and I have nothing with me. I’m tired and I catch a ride back home.

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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