How Many

 

The List finally arrived in my inbox on Jan 29. Two lists, actually: one from two years ago, and one from last year. The title of the List, which Laxu picked up from the Foreign Employment Office, is Assistance Decision Made From (Date) to (Date). It’s a record of insurance payments managed by the government that’s as close as I’ve been able to get to a list of migrant laborers who’ve died abroad.

The first question I needed to answer was How Many. It seems as if everyone knows there is a flow of bodies arriving home to Nepal from overseas, but nobody is quite sure what the scale of the tide is. I’ve noticed that people I’ve interviewed usually shrug off the question How Many a few times, and then give me a sudden, precise answer that measures their own anxiety over the problem.

From April 2012 to April 2013, there are 727 names on the List. The following year, ending in April 2014, lists 24 women and 856 men—and average of nearly three laborers per day.

In reality, How Many is a more complicated number than three per day. A certain number of laborers go abroad off the books, or over the border seasonally to India. Study abroad has also become hugely popular, and waves of luckier young people to exodus to foreign countries (although I would guess that most of the boys in Kaskikot, given the choice, would still opt for labor over study).  While about 300,000 laborers per year leave Nepal through manpower companies, the total migration rate is a lot higher – closer to 800,000 annually.

All of which is to say, the airlines officer and security guard may not have been all that far off when they estimated the number of bodies or insurance claims they receive daily. Some estimates put the body count around five per day.  But I’m mainly concerned with young men, and occasionally women, who sign up with labor companies.

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When I opened the List for the first time, I felt like an intruder. To see a list of names in a place of reverence is one thing. But the black and white letters under Assistance Decision Made from (Date) to (Date) are simply data: eight hundred and eighty statistics.

Besides, each name was listed with only a spouse name, village and ward number (there are no house addresses in rural Nepal), and a date of death. It’s 42 pages long.  I had no idea how I would locate or speak with any of these families.

I closed the List and it was a few weeks before I opened it again. Then, yesterday, I was in Kaskikot, filling up our tin jugs at the water tap, when Madu walked by.

“Hey Madu,” I said. “Remember the project I told you about?” I said I was looking for the family of a young man who’d died abroad. After all that work, I was back where I’d started, having talked to Madu three months ago when I first arrived.  Honestly, I hoped Madu could help me circumvent the List.

As we were talking, Sher dai, another neighbor, walked by and joined our conversation.  He offered to do some inquiry on my behalf in Kaskikot, but then I mentioned that I had a List already at my house.  He followed me back home, where I set down the basket and took out the water jug. I pulled up a low stool in the yard and took at my laptop.

We reopened the list.  I searched “Kaski.” Sher dai and I started copying and pasting a short list of names in to fresh document.  Many were from Pokhara or surrounding Kaski villages that I know well: Leknath, Syangia, Hemja.  And then we came upon Dirgharaj Adhikari, Kaskikot-08.

“Sher dai, this boy is from Kaskikot.  Where is ward number 8?”

Sher dai said said he would look into our short list and get back to me. To my surprise, he came back not two hours later.

Dirgharaj Adhikari’s house is just half an hour up the road. It’s likely that, at some point in the past, I ran in to him in a bus or shop or at Kalika School, where he studied. He died last spring in Qatar. He was 22 years old.

“Shall we go?” Sher dai asked.

It was only 11 am.  Just a few hours earlier it had been a month since I’d faced the matter at all.  I’d assumed before I even began this project that I wouldn’t have to look far to find the bereaved family of a young male laborer.  But it was still unnerving to be so flatly correct.

I pulled my microphone and camera out of the back of the dresser and put them in my bag.  I got on the back of Sher dai’s motorcycle and we left for Dirgharaj’s house.  Within minutes, we turned off the main dirt road on to a small motor path that lead to a lone house, perched high up on the hillside. As we approached, I could see the yard was full of people.  A leather-thin man with clear green eyes emerged from the yard to greet us a respectful distance from the entry way. He was Dirgharaj’s father.

We had arrived exactly on the day of sarad, the annual puja that marks the anniversary of a death.  The entire family was there to honor Dirgharaj.  He died exactly one year ago today.

“Hello sir…may we come in?” I asked. “We’d like to hear about your son.”

*

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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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Shooting Lights at the Sky

 

Didi, Pascal and Aidan and I left for the New Year’s street festival right around dusk. It was already jammed with people and food stalls, a challenge for us because, while Pascal carefully soberly dodges people’s legs and ponders over his food options, Aidan absolutely doesn’t care where he’s going, and he’s only about 3.5 feet tall, and he wants to eat everything he sees, and he can’t take his eyes off anything.  We got some ice cream, and some hot dogs, and some cotton candy.

At 9pm the Gaky’s Light Fellows showed up with arms locked in a blob. It was such a fantastic moment – they were all dressed up and so excited to be there together, and then they practically mowed me down in the street in a mob of happiness.  On the corner a crowd of people was dancing to some impromptu devotional drumming and singing.  So that’s how I ended up on New Years spinning around with Aidan on my shoulders and Pascal on my leg and our fellows clinging to my hands while we all danced in the street to a bajan.

The street crowd grew so thick that it became river.  I left Didi and the boys and waded in with our fellows – we were literally all holding on to each other and being carried down the street by a massive crowd.  Every once and a while someone would pick the person right in front of them and, just for fun, shout: “SANDIP IS LOST!” or “SOMEONE HOLD ON TO PABITRA, SHE’S SMALL AND WILL GET LOST!”  Samundra, our program director, had a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck.  “SAMUNDRA’S NECK IS LOST!” I cried.

Eventually, we got lost.  There were just too many people, our group was cleaved, and I ended up swimming along with Sabina and Asmita and Anju.  All the phone networks were jammed and we couldn’t get through to any of the others.  We were finally catapulted through a gate to the fair – I mean washed over the threshold while clutching each others jackets, past a wall of police trying to look for tickets. We came tumbling out next to a ferris wheel like Alice in Wonderland.

We dusted our selves off and looked around.  It was 10:30pm.  There were lights and huge objects everywhere, surreal and dizzying.  The four of us stood locked together so we wouldn’t be separated in the hectic sea of people, until we boarded a boat that swings back and forth on a pendulum.  We let people in line pass us until we could get a spot all the way at the tip of the boat, where we had the highest view, where all the strange fair lights streak across the sky and the top of the ferris wheel is right there, and you can’t ignore the moment the boat reverses direction and you’re suspended for an instant in mid-air with nothing under you.

By this morning, Pokhara looked like the day after the worst frat party you’ve ever seen.  Trash, tables askew, dejected looking tents, all kinds of equipment and decorative paraphernalia sagging with a January 1st hangover.  Even the sunrise seemed weary.  But it was pretty worth it while it was happening.  Welcome to 2015, World.

Which reminds me of something.  When we’d left for the street festival, Aidan had been begging for a new light.  Throughout the festival they’ve been selling slingshot lights with wings that sail way up in the air and then slowly float down, so the night was full of beautiful falling blue lights.  Pascal, like me, is enthralled with the light but cautious of losing it, and kept his slingshot safe in his pocket most of the time.  Aidan on the other hand is completely reckless.  He’s too excited about shooting the light up in to the air to worry about what happens to it, and we had rescued his flying toy from more than one rooftop on tuesday night.  Each time it got lost he was utterly dejected, and then we’d retrieve it, and he would go right back to catapulting it at the night with unbridled enthusiasm.

“Laura auntie,” Aidan explained to me as we walked in to the street again on New Year’s Eve, “when you shoot the light, it goes up toward the sky like this.”  His put his hands over his head and pointed his little fingers toward his palm, in an angled T-shape, to show the way a light sails toward the sky.  “But then just when it’s about to touch the sky…” his eyes got big and his palm drifted up “…the sky MOVES, Laura auntie!  The sky MOVES!”

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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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Homecoming

 

Mahendra and Madu are two of the first boys I ever met in Kaskikot. They grew up in the houses on either side of us, and when I first arrived in 2002, Mahendra was about 13 and Madu was 11.

Mahendra, '06Mahendra has the chiseled features and doe eyes of a movie star and the athletic, wiry frame of a boy who is too restless for his environment. As a teenager, when all the kids built swings for the festival of Dashain, Mahendra would climb a towering stalk of bamboo like a monkey and fix the rope at the top while hanging horizontally, high above the ground. If Mahendra had grown up in the U.S., he would have been the star of the high school soccer team who smokes pot and can be counted on for a party when the parents are out. He’d always hated being born poor in this bottomed out village, even from the time he was very young. It bored the hell out if him and insulted his power. He was meant to be dangerous and to cut his teeth on anything but here.

Madu on the other hand was a gentle, slender boy with a soft voice and midnight skin. I often used to sit in his house in the evenings while his mother brewed moonshine to sell for a few dollars. Like Mahendra, Madu dropped out of high school before he graduated, and signed up with a manpower company when he was about 16. Before he left, Mahendra married and left behind a pregnant wife. Madu’s older brother Jivan left; then Madu left.

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So many of the boys in this village are like Madu and Mahendra. For the first few years I was coming to Kaskikot, we spent a lot of time together working in the fields, carrying loads, pounding and climbing and chopping and joking in the yard over tea. There was a posse of them that used to wander out at dusk after the work was done, to play soccer or roam or plan the future. Sometimes I would hear Barat playing his flute on the other side of the hill, where the posse used to hang out in his yard.

Then they started disappearing. Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai. Madu’s house gained a TV and a new room, and Mahendra’s mud house, like many others, was rebuilt with cinderblocks. Large swaths of the hillside turned year by year from fertile to uncultivated land. One home after another became inhabited only by old people.

Last Monday night I arrived in Kaskikot for the twelfth year in a row. The next morning when I got up, Madu came over and sat in the yard talking with me for half an hour. He was wearing a faux-leather jacket and shoes. He has been working at a noodle factory in Malaysia for three years, first sealing spice packets, then as a line manager. It started off bad: the overtime they were promised not paid, the meals they were promised not provided, the roommate who ate dinner, went to bed, and then didn’t wake up the next morning for a reason nobody knows. Everyone was afraid to touch him, this body that at home would have been sacred. Once Madu got promoted, his salary doubled and it was better. Most of them, he admitted, don’t promoted.

I went to fetch water at the tap. I passed Barat’s yard and the whole posse was there. All home from their various countries this winter. Most of them married. Leaning carelessly against the wall, sitting with an arm angled across a knee, laughing at a private amusement, hair greased and shining in the morning sun. Mahendra looked as glamorously bored as ever, but he did light up – to the extent he does – to see me.

I asked what they’re all doing now. The answer: waiting for new visas.

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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

Dubai

IMG_4085My layover in Dubai was eight hours.  Long enough to trek back and forth many times along the glaring fluorescent strip of duty free shops betwen terminals one and two.  It was daytime in Dubai, but for me it was the no-time that happens during a trip from one hemisphere to another.

I wandered in to one of the bathrooms and soon found myself looking for an earring that had dropped.  A young employee who’d been sitting idly when I walked in came over to help me.  As I was shuffling through my belongings she noticed a coin.

“This is from Nepal,” she said.  “Have you been?”

Yes, I said, I’d been.  We got to talking in Nepali right away.  I wasn’t surprised to find out
that Mandira is 26 years old with a 1-year old baby she left in Nepal with her in-laws and her husband, who is also waiting for a visa to travel abroad.  When I asked what she’d paid a manpower company to broker her position in the Dubai Airport bathroom, I already knew roughly what the answer would be: about 10,000 dinars.  Her salary: 900 dinars per month.  It would take her a year to pay off her loan to the company before she started earning anything to send back to her family. It will be a few more years more before she can afford the 3.5 hour flight home to see her then four-year-old child.

It’s a typical story but it’s still amazing to see it in action without having to try. This kind of position has become so preferable to looking for local employment in Nepal that I don’t even have to leave the duty free section of the airport to find Mandira.

The flight from Dubai to Kathmandu is a special kind of cultural experience.  You step out of a hip multinational terminal in to a waiting area where almost everybody who isn’t a white person wearing hiking boots and tie-dye is a Nepali person returning home from a labor contract.  For many it is the second flight of their entire lives.  A large percentage of passengers have none of the practiced movement that comes with routine air travel.  There’s a lot of helping each other find seats, opening and closing latches to see what they do, gazing out the window at baggage trucks, calling to one another across the rows to look at this or that.  It’s about as close as you can get to walking out of an airport and getting on a city bus in Kathmandu that launches in to the air.

On the plane I immediately leaned against the window and tried to sleep.  I’d been traveling for 20 hours.  The young man next to me was quiet and stared straight ahead, and I assumed that he, too, was an amateur passenger just surviving the journey.  After an hour of half-sleeping, I sat up, and as I jostled my position, we exchanged a few words.

“My father just died,” he said.

I drew in my breath.  “I’m so sorry,” I said.

“I came straight from duty.  I don’t have a bag with me or anything.  I came straight to the airport and bought a ticket.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“He was in the U.K.  I work at a hotel in Dubai.  My family just got back to Nepal with his body.  After we land I have to take a 10 hour bus ride home, because they are waiting for me to start the rites.”  He stared ahead. “I usually talk to him quite often, but we hadn’t talked in about three days.  I don’t know why.”

The snack cart came along.

“Can I get you something?” he asked.  I declined, but he asked a few more times, and I declined again.  He bought a sandwich for himself. He asked the boy in the aisle seat – who didn’t look any older than 18 – what he wanted.

“Many of the new ones are scared,” he explained softly.  “So we help them out.”  He bought the boy a cup of tea.  “Are you sure you don’t want anything?”

“I’m really okay,” I said.

He opened and closed his sandwich.  “I’m not supposed to be eating this food,” he said.  “We have traditions – it’s called kriya.

I know about this of course.  It’s not just the sandwich.  The death of this young man’s father should have immediately been followed by 13 days of eating food cooked as part of a series of rituals, without salt, and by wearing only white clothes with no seams, and by sleeping on the ground, and by drinking special water, and by not touching any other people, and by daily pujas and bathing. He should have shaved his head.  But he was crammed next to me on a floating bus.

He took a bite of the sandwich.  “I haven’t had anything to eat or drink since yesterday,” he said.  “Actually, I haven’t talked to anyone.  Now I’m talking to you.”

“I can’t imagine how hard it must be in this strange situation,” I offered.  “It will be good to be in the right place with your family where you can do…all the things.”

“Are you sure you don’t want any of this sandwich?”

“I’m sure.  Thank you.”

“I usually talk to him often.  I don’t know why we hadn’t talked the last few days,” he repeated.

He gazed over the sandwich again to the back of the next seat.  “There’s no point in being sad now.”  He ate a chip.  “I can’t think of what to do.”  He offered me more of the sandwich.

I asked after the details of how he’d get from the airport to a friend’s house to the bus to his house.  It seemed like the only relevant thing to discuss.  Everything else was either too small or too big.

“So you will be with your mother and siblings by morning,” I said. I told myself that things would make more sense then. I wanted to believe that it would be better when he knew what to do.

“Yes.”  He gave the rest of his sandwich to the trash pick-up.  “But when I get there, you know…it will be real.”

 

 

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.