One Year Ago…

One year ago Tri and I got a horrible phone call in the night. It was his cousin. “You’re mom’s in the hospital,” he said to Tri. “Come to Nepal now.”

Tri booked the earliest flight that he could and left for the airport alone. I kissed him goodbye, not knowing exactly what was going on, not knowing how long he’d be there, not knowing when I get to see him again. The next few days were lonely as hell for me. I felt lost and confused. I knew he would reach Nepal by Tuesday night while I was sleeping, and I was hoping that I would get news letting me know that he had made it to his family safely. When I woke up on Wednesday morning, groggy from a restless night, I checked my mail to find something from Tri’s friend: Tri had made it to Nepal, had his seen his mom one last time before the ventilator was turned off, and now she was dead.

Those few days of being alone and unsure and then the shock of finding out that Tri’s mom was dead were the worst days of my life, and I hope that as long as I live, I’ll never have to experience something so heart-wrenching.

Tri, his dad and his brother went immediately into the initial 13-day mourning period required of Hindus, but the next year was also part of that mourning process. This past year we’ve been considered jutho (discussed here and here), unable to partake in religious holidays, weddings, or pujas, except for the monthly shradda. Last week was the puja to mark the end of the year long period. It was a strange experience, both sad and uplifting, a big fat reminder of the nightmare that happened a year ago but also a time to enjoy family and friends.

The puja area with the fire in the middle. Tri, his dad, and his brother were sitting off to the right out of view

On the first day, the family priest came to our house and performed the usual shradda that has been happening every month. Tri and his brother fasted in the morning and participated in the puja. The next day, a similar puja took place at the house. Normally we would have gotten visitors for this puja, but there was a bandha in Kathmandu that day, so only a few people living close by could make it. The third day was the big puja. Eleven priests came to our house. They were required to recite the Mahabharat, a Hindu epic, but because it’s so long, each priest read a part of it so that the whole thing could be finished that day. A picture of Mamu was set in the middle of the puja area, and a fire was lit. Tri, his brother, and his dad were called over by the priests periodically to sit near them and perform certain rituals. I don’t know the meaning behind most of what was going on, but there were a lot of fruits, flowers, and water involved, and one of the priests kept pouring ghyu (clarified butter) into the fire.

This went on from morning into mid afternoon, all the while the fire burning strong. Towards the end, one of the priests went onto the balcony on the second floor of the house and unrolled a red cloth. Buwa grabbed onto it and then Tri, his brother, his dad, his aunt, and I all got under it as the priest poured water along the cloth and onto our heads. I assume it has something to do with purification.

Then a long string of dried leaves was hung across our house to keep the ghosts and bad spirits away. This was actually supposed to be hung up after we moved into our new house, but since we weren’t allow to then because we were jutho, the priest included it in this puja. Afterwards, the priests blessed us with tikka (our first in a year) and then tied red doro strings around our wrists.

Towards the afternoon, people started showing up, hanging around to watch the puja, and after everything was over, we all ate a big meal. Many people came by: neighbors, distant relatives, close ones, friends. In the evening, as fewer guests remained, we all moved into the living room, and although there was sadness, things felt a little festive with people joking and laughing. Mostly, I just felt relief. It feels like we’ve been given the go-ahead to live again, to continue with our lives.

Here are few more photos…

A diyo (candle) in our front hall that burned throughout the puja and into the evening

The remains of the fire lit during the puja

Ironically, the first day of puja fell on Easter. Tri wasn’t supposed to eat meat or eggs that day, so no Easter Eggs for us, but despite the clash in traditions, the two somehow felt similar. I’m a secular Christian more than anything else. I’ve always celebrated Easter but never attached any religious meaning to it. However, I do recognized it as a holiday of death and rebirth. According to Hindu beliefs, Mamu might be out there somewhere, experiencing a rebirth of her own. For us, this ceremony was kind of a renewal and and permission to move onto the next chapter of our lives.

Although we’ve been immobilized by grief and Hindu rules about mourning during this past year, I have to admit that this year has been filled with a lot of wonderful things too. I graduated from college; Tri and I got married. We learned a lot about each other and ourselves, and we moved across the world. I got to meet and know his family and friends better so that now they’re my family and friends too.

Despite the still tangible grief, life is looking pretty good. I recognize what has happened in the past and won’t forget it, but I feel excited for the future.

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An Afternoon in Ason Bazaar

On Sunday we went to Ason Bazaar, a market in the heart of the city. We went with Mama and Maijiu to begin buying things for the 1 year puja to mark Mamu’s death. I wrote about the Shradda ceremony a while ago in this post. It’s been happening every month for the last year, and during the puja that takes place, food is set out as an offering to Mamu. During the 1 year puja, the family needs to give offerings of clothing, jewelry, cookware, shoes, and other things that will supposedly reach her in heaven. I know that Tri was feeling a little bad about the whole thing because these items are quite expensive. After the ceremony, all of the items are given to the priest’s wife; we had to buy everything in her size. It’s a little difficult to swallow that a grieving family has to shell out so much money. If it was all donated to the poor, that might be one thing, but it’s going to the priest and his family. Some people are totally fine with this, and if they really believe that the items will reach their loved ones in heaven, then it certainly brings piece of mind. But for agnostics or nonbelievers I understand why it might make them feel uneasy.

I enjoyed going out, though. If you’re going to visit Kathmandu, you’ve got to go to Ason.

The crowds are suffocating and wonderful. It can be hard to walk through the throngs of people but exciting because there’s so much to see. You can get any and everything there. Clothing, spices, jewelry, shoes, stoves, street food, and the list goes on…

The Kasthamandap temple, for which Kathmandu was named

A smaller temple

Jewelry on display

As we were walking past one section of the bazaar, I remembered something suddenly. When I was here two years ago, I went to Ason with Mamu one time. I don’t remember why we went, what we were looking for, but on Sunday, I saw one of the paths that Mamu and I had been walking down. I remembered trotting along behind her, her out-reached hand guiding me through the crowd, past the stores around the beeping motorcycles…

Pote Shops

After walking for a while, we reached a tiny jewelry shop near Basantapur (a square with many temples in it). I literally had to crouch down to squeeze inside the shop. Mama and Maijiu bought a ring and a tilhari there before we headed over to the pote section of Ason. As I’ve mentioned before, pote are Nepali marriage beads. The tilhari that Mama and Maijiu bought is a big golden bead that is threaded onto the middle of the pote. After we brought the tilhari to a pote shop and Maijiu had picked out a good set of beads, the expert threader went to work.

Threading the pote

More pote

Thicker pote

The pote I bought

I sometimes wear pote. Recently I haven’t been doing it as much, but I do when the beads look good with the outfit I’m wearing. And since I only have one pote that I like, I thought I should get a couple more while we were in Ason. The one that I have already is a string of red beads with green beaded flowers around the necklace. Yesterday I chose another thin string of pink beads with gold beaded flowers and a slightly thicker one made of blue and gold beads. I just took a light blue sari to the tailor to be sewn, and I’m hoping the blue pote goes well with the sari fabric.

Japanese lunch, including tempura!

After our romp around Ason, I was tired and starving! So Tri and I went to the only Japanese restaurant that I know of in Kathmandu, a place called Koto. It really hit the spot.

Dogs on My Mind

A dog relaxing on the street

Where I’m from in the U.S., you almost never see animals roaming the streets except for squirrels. I guess I’ve seen a lost dog or two over the years, but it’s very unusual. In Kathmandu, there are always stray animals around. It can be really sad to see. Cows are sacred in Nepal, and it’s considered a sin to kill one by many Hindus. I think it was even illegal in Nepal for a long time (maybe still is?). Cows are very useful because they provide milk. While bulls are used to pull plows and for breeding, they’re not as valuable as cows. But people can’t kill them, so they often let the bulls out onto the street, where they hang out and cause traffic jams. Actually, I don’t really know what becomes of them. Are there NGO’s that take care of stray bulls? Besides cows/bulls, there are usually chickens pecking around the side streets and monkeys that hang around certain areas of Kathmandu, like Pashupatinath. And of course there are the dogs.

A dog in the mist one morning

When I was very small, we had cats at my house, but my brothers were allergic, so we had to get rid of them. I was quite bad to the cats anyway. I remember I loved to sneak up behind them and pull their tails, so it was probably good that we gave them away. We also had a variety of fish at different points in my childhood, hermit crabs, and even chickens for a while. But never a dog. I expressed interest in getting one when I was a kid, but my parents didn’t want to have to take care of it. I get it. Dogs are a big financial and emotional investment. I put the thought out of my mind for a long time until I met Tri. When he was five, he begged his parents to let him have a dog, and Buwa and Mamu agreed. The dog was something like a golden retriever, named Joni. Ever since we got together, he has talked about this dog. He’s told me countless stories about Joni’s love for chasing cats and scaring away the neighborhood kids. Strangely, he also liked to eat balloons and money. He was quite an unruly dog but very loved and really a member of their family. There’s actually an interesting NOVA episode about dogs and their relationship with humans that helps to explain why our species are so close.

Since Tri started to tell me these stories about Joni, I’ve developed this growing desire to get a dog, and coming to Nepal has really sealed the deal for me. I was never really around dogs while growing up, but now that I spot at least 15 dogs a day, I can’t get enough of them. They fight and cuddle and play with each other and the people around them. They’re so full of personality and life.

Puppies

And they can be so cute too! The cats we had when I was a kid were kind of cute, but none of the other animals we’ve had were even remotely cute. Dogs, though, especially puppies, are so adorable. Lately there have been a few puppies romping around the street outside of our house, and I just can’t help but sigh whenever I see one.

With all of these dogs around, Tri and I have been seriously talking about getting one ourselves. Since we’ll be going back to the US soonish, we can’t get one now, and even once we get there, we’ll have to wait a while because with me applying to grad school, we won’t know exactly where we’ll end up. But once we finally settle somewhere for a while, we’ll definitely get a dog 🙂 I can’t wait!

Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Nepal 2011: A Mixed Bag

Before the holidays started, I was surprised to learn that there are many Nepalis who celebrate Christmas in Nepal. There is a population of Nepali Christians who celebrate Christmas similar to the way I did growing up (with a Christmas tree and presents), but there are also a number of Nepali Hindus and Buddhists who celebrate without the tree and gifts.

A hotel all decked out for the holidays

The first Christmas tree I saw was at Bhatbateni, the grocery store. They had put out a few trees and thrown some light strings over their bushes, and as Christmas approached, I saw more and more hotels, restaurants, and stores putting out decorations. During Tihar, one of the holidays here, people cover (sometimes from roof to ground) their houses with lights, so many people have lights in store.

I asked some Hindus here why they celebrate Christmas, and a lot of them told me that it’s just for fun. One person said that she has special “Christmas friends” who she calls up every year to celebrate with. Another person told me that Christmas and New Year’s are just another excuse to drink!

After our Thanksgiving celebration, I was trying to think of ways to celebrate. And some people were debating wether or not I was even allowed to celebrate at all. Before my break started, I was sitting in the lunchroom at school talking with some of the people who work there, and we had kind of a funny conversation about celebrating. They were asking me about whether I was a Hindu or a Christian. After women marry in Nepal, they traditionally take on the caste and religion of their husbands, so some people assume that I’m Hindu because Tri is. But then they were trying to figure out if I could be both Hindu and Christian and therefore be allowed to celebrate Christmas. I would definitely say yes! I’m allowed to celebrate 🙂

But my plans pretty much amounted to nothing. Even though I wanted to celebrate this year, I was feeling both lazy and sad on Christmas Eve. I was really missing the US and sort of wallowing at home in the dark (because there was no electricity), thinking about how hard it is to celebrate a holiday without having others around to celebrate it with. It makes me all the more impressed with those people abroad who work so hard to organize Dashain parties and celebrations. But anyway, I started to feel better once the lights came back on, so Tri and I decided to make some cookies.

Roasting the Peanuts

Peanut Butter

One of the things I miss most from the US is good peanut butter. I used to slather it on bread, crackers, put it in my cereal. It was seriously a staple food for me. They have a few brands of peanut butter here, but they’re all incredibly sweet and have trans fats in them, something I try to avoid. So lately we’ve been making our own. There’s a little shop on the way to our house that sells different types of daal and nuts, and it’s convenient for us to get our peanuts from them. Once we get the peanuts to our kitchen, we roast them in a frying pan. We then throw them in a small food processor with some oil and honey, which results in some pretty darn good peanut butter.

Because we had made some peanut butter that day, we wanted to incorporate it into our cookies, so I looked for a recipe for peanut butter cookies. I found one online for cookies with peanut butter filling. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it again, but trust me, those cookies looked amazing. We decided to try it out, but I can get kind of lazy about following recipes, so I just winged it. I mixed a simple batter of butter, flour, and sugar and then rolled out little patties onto which we put peanut butter balls. We then sealed up the cookies and stuck them in the oven for a while.

You can imagine that without following the recipe, the cookies didn’t come out right, and surprise, surprise, that’s exactly what happened. They were far from fluffy with a gooey center, which is what the picture on the website insinuated we were going to get. In fact, they didn’t really taste like cookies at all. They were more like little dense buns.

So it wasn’t the Christmas cookie I was hoping for, but it wasn’t all that bad either.

For New Year’s Eve, because we hadn’t done much for Christmas, I wanted to actually put some effort into celebrating. That day we were trying to figure out what to do, and I suggested we try to go to the Chhauni museum. I know, I know, going to a museum is not necessarily the typical way to ring in the New Year, but I’ve heard this is a neat place with a collection of old Buddhist and Hindu statues, something I’ve always been interested in. I’ve been wanting to go for a while, so this would have been a real treat. But it closed too early for us to make it, so we scrapped that idea.

Toasting to the New Year

Then Tri called his friend, and she said that she could meet us in the afternoon. We drove over to Jhamsikel, where she works, and ate pizza and pasta at the Vespar Cafe. Then, since none of us had any other plans, we decided to stay in the area for the evening. We made our way over to Saleways to buy snacks and refreshments and then drove over to where she’s staying. We just hung out and talked and talked until late with a few of her friends. (late meaning about 9:30, which really is late in Nepal 🙂 ). No, we didn’t go to a big bash or stay up till midnight, but for the first time in a long time, I felt really relaxed. I miss being able to talk to people other than Tri in my own language (I talk to Tri in English all the time, but I don’t have deep conversations with anyone in English aside from him). I guess it kind of felt like college again.

Anyway, Happy New Year everybody!

A Trip Down South

We’re back! It was an intense trip that included meeting lots of new people, a visit to the birthplace of the Buddha, and a trip to the emergency room, but we all made it back in one piece.

We left Kathmandu on Sunday and arrived at about 5pm in Bhuttwal, a little city an hour’s drive from Lumbini. We stayed there with some friends of my father-in-law. Much of their family was gathered there for Tihar, and we brought along 9 people (including me, Tri, Tri’s brother and dad and a number of family friends). All together, including the staff in the house, we were 33 people. Although it was, at times, a little overwhelming, I loved it. There was always something to do, people to talk to, food to eat. I had never met these people before this week, but now they feel like family.

On Monday morning, we set out for Palpa, a hill station about an hour and a half out of Bhuttwal. It was a bit crazy getting out of the house because there were so many of us, but we finally made it for a picnic lunch.

On Tuesday, 10 of us went over to Lumbini to see the temples. Lumbini is in the Terai (the planes of Nepal), only about half an hour from the Indian border. Before coming to Nepal in 2009, I visited Delhi and Agra, and Lumbini really reminded me of what I saw there. In India, the land was flat and dry and the weather hot, very much like Lumbini. The people also looked more like the Indians I met in Agra and Delhi than the Nepalis I know in Kathmandu. Lumbini is a cluster of beautiful temples right in the middle of a vast expanse of farmland. Different countries have donated money to build temples to the Lord Buddha, many of them replicates of Budhhist temples from those places. Here’s the Thai one…

The Cambodian one was under construction, so we couldn’t go inside, but you can see the top of it here…

The German, supposedly one of the most elaborate ones, is built in a Nepali style. I love the ceiling…

Going to see the Buddha’s actual birthplace was the best. There are ruins in the middle of Lumbini supposedly from Siddhartha Gautam’s family palace. They also have the stone on which Siddhartha’s foot was imprinted after he was born. Of course I was a bit skeptical about the lumpy imprint on that stone being from the baby Buddha’s foot, but I didn’t mind extending my imagination a bit 🙂 There were tourists from all over, including a number of pilgrims from South India. You can see the ruins on the grass. The people in white are the pilgrims…

I started re-rereading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse when we were down there, a book I remember loving in high school. It’s a little slow but a good story. I can’t give a proper review of it because I haven’t read it in so long, but I would recommend it to anyone interested in religion in this area.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection between Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepal, partly because of one of Barani’s comment on this post about Buddhism having only a small influence in Nepal. Thulobaa (Tri’s uncle; literally means “big dad”) came with us on the trip down to Bhuttwal, and I asked him if there were any Buddhists in his family. Although I don’t think he would call himself a Buddhist, he said that he and many other Hindus practice Buddhism because they consider the Buddha to be a god. Similarly, there are a number of people in Nepal who would call themselves Buddhists but celebrate Hindu holidays. The fact that the Buddha can be worshiped and loved in what was once considered the only Hindu Kingdom on earth is only one example of the tolerance for diversity and difference that I see so often in Nepal.

Anyway, I’ll add some more photos to the photo page, and I’ll post a little about what we did for Tihar, in particular Laxmi Puja, soon.

Impurity, the Caste System, and How I Fit into It

Yesterday I started writing about my experiences with and reactions to the concept of jutho, translated as “impure” in English. In this post, I wanted to write a bit more about that concept as it relates to my place the caste system.

I’ve always found that members of the Baun, “Brahman” caste adhere most strictly to rules concerning jutho. Tri’s dad’s family is Baun, and Bua’s parents always followed rules about jutho. Bua told us that when he was little, his mom prohibited him from learning the English alphabet because it was considered a jutho language. Another family friend told us that when he was in the 13-day mourning period that happens right after a family member dies, a Baun neighbor told him not to speak English. During this period, people must eat a very simple diet, not touch others, and try to purify themselves. Because his neighbor thought of English as an impure language, she considered it inappropriate to speak it at a time when he was supposed to be purifying himself.

English is supposedly impure because it’s considered a gai khane bhasha, literally a “cow-eating language,” meaning a language spoken by people who eat cows. In Hindu culture, the cow is a god, and eating beef is a big no-no. Those who eat it are apparently impure and so is there language.

These rules about jutho are part of a Hindu tradition. Many members of ethnic minority groups in Nepal who are not Hindu pay no heed to these rules. When I lived with a Buddhist Sherpa host family, my host sister didn’t care one way or another whether or not I followed rules about jutho.

A few weeks ago, some older, distant relatives came over to visit. After arriving, the women started cooking in the kitchen. I try to learn about Nepali cooking whenever I can because I’m truly hopeless when it comes to cooking the local cuisine, so I went into the kitchen to observe. I immediately noticed that one of the women was uncomfortable, but I ignored it, thinking it had nothing to do with me. Then I started pointing to different foods, asking their names and how they were to be cooked. Although one of the women was responding to my questions, another of them pulled back away from me. She then said in Nepali, “You stay over there, okay?” while pointing to the opposite side of the kitchen.

When it was time to eat, I went over to get a spoon from the drawer. This woman was sitting by the drawer and looked very uncomfortable as I neared. Out of respect, I stopped and asked Tri to get the spoon for me because, at that point, I understood she didn’t want me to touch or come close to her.

After they left, I talked to Tri about what had happened. He explained that because I am a foreigner, they believe that I am and will always be jutho. Any food that I touch supposedly becomes impure as well. Most of this impurity apparently arises from the fact that I come from a country and a group of people who eat beef.

A few days later, I was talking to Maijiu (Tri’s Aunt) about the experience, and she asked me, timero man dukhyo? “Did your heart hurt”? I said no, trying to brush it off, but it hurt a little. I keep reminding myself that it’s just what they grew up with. I also realize that what I have to deal with pales in comparison to what others have to put up with. I know of some people who are not Baun but married into Baun families. They were treated in a similar way but much more frequently. I only have to put up with this attitude once in a while.

Although I don’t like how they treated me, I feel a little better about the whole thing. They came over again this past weekend and weren’t as harsh. Once they realized that I respect their culture and that I can speak Nepali, they eased up a bit. One of them even sat next to me, and we had a nice conversation about her daughter (whom I’ve met and really like). I also feel incredibly lucky that Tri’s dad is not this way. Although he comes from a conservative family, he has always been very open, accepting, and does not believe in these types of restrictions.

Shradda

Mamu’s shradda was on Thursday. After someone dies in the family, if you are Nepali Hindu, you have a priest perform puja (religious prayers and worship) for that person every month for a year. After a year is up, you must do it once a year, on the day he or she died. This is called shradda and is done to feed the deceased.

On Wednesday, the day before, Tri, his brother, and his dad had to refrain from eating meat and eggs and could only eat one meal of daalbhaat (rice and lentils). We weren’t sure if I was supposed to fast or not so to be on the safe side, I didn’t eat meat or eggs either. And I actually made a mistake that day. Usually we have rice in the morning and roti for dinner. Because I had eaten about 6 rotis for lunch (they were really good), I didn’t want to eat them for dinner, so I made myself some rice. After I started eating, Tri’s brother told me I wasn’t supposed to have more than one meal with rice the day before shradda.

On Thursday morning, Tri and his brother had to fast until the puja finished. All of this fasting has to do with purity. To partake in the puja on Thursday, Tri and his brother had to be pure. Neither I nor my father-in-law were part of the puja for my mother-in-law because only the sons of the deceased have to perform shradda, so we didn’t have to fast that morning.

After the priest came over, he arranged some flowers, fruit, and spices in pots specially used for puja and in bowls made from dried banyan leaves. After he finished getting ready, Tri and his brother went to the roof of the house, where the puja was taking place. The priest recited prayers, gave them some special water to drink, and gave them each a new sacred thread to wear. The long white string is worn like a sash inside of the clothing. Traditionally Hindu Baun (Brahman) men were supposed to wear this sacred thread all the time, but I don’t think it’s as common today. After the puja finished, we all sat down to have daalbhaat.
            On Friday, we had another shradda for 16 generations of my father-in-law’s ancestors. This puja occurs only once a year and is also done to feed the ancestors. It reminds me of a book I read by Lisa See called Peony in Love about a young girl in China during the 17th Century. I’m skipping over a bunch of the story, but from what I remember, the main character dies and becomes a ghost. However, because her funeral rites do not happen as they should and no one in her family sends her offerings, she starves in the afterlife. We were talking about this tradition in the context of Hinduism, and Tri made the point that if your ancestors have already been reincarnated, why would you need to feed them? I’ve learned a lot about Nepali Hinduism in the last few years, but I still have so many questions.