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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