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.

Advertisements

Waiting

It’s always difficult to wait, and lately it’s been wearing me down.

One thing the we’re waiting for is the one year mark of Tri’s mom’s death. Last weekend was the shradda for the eleventh month, so the one year mark is only a few weeks away. I guess it’s sort of like the final funeral for Mamu. There’s going to be a priest, a puja, and family members and friends will be over at the house. We’ve been waiting for this day for the last eleven months, waiting for the mourning period to end, waiting for things to go on. As the year has inched by, things have progressively gotten better. Tri’s dad is definitely doing better, and so are Tri and his brother. Things feels less overwhelming and more normal. But as we move closer to this one year marker, I’m feeling more and more anxious. I just want it to be over with, and waiting has gotten under my skin.

The other thing that we’re waiting for is more news about our return to the US.

When we came here last summer, we weren’t really sure how long we’d stay. We knew we had to be here at least until the one year date of Mamu’s death, but beyond that, we had nothing telling us to stay or to go. We considered the possibility of settling in Nepal, but a few months after moving here, I decided I didn’t want to make Nepal our home base. There are so many amazing things about being in Nepal, but there have been some real challenges too. So a few months into our stay, Tri and I talked about when we wanted to go back. I knew that I wanted to start grad school in fall of 2013, but before that, we were free to be where we wanted. At first, we thought we’d stay here for a year; then we moved it to two years, then a year and half. We kept changing our minds. But now it seems like we’ll be going back sooner than we had planned. I won’t say more about it until I have more details, but our return to the US is definitely on the horizon.

A few weeks ago, I started to look at some pictures that Tri took of my parents’ house and backyard right before we came to Nepal last summer. He had bought a DSLR for his uncle, and was testing it out before we packed it into our suitcase. Here are some of the picures

Upstairs hallway

Flowers in the backyard

More flowers

Stone face on a wall

While I was looking at pictures, I felt a wave of longing to be back in the US. For the last eight months, I’ve been swallowing feelings about my family, kind of ignoring how much I miss them. I knew I wouldn’t see them for a long time, so I had put the idea of being with them out of my head. But once there was some indication that I’d get to see them sooner than I thought, I really started to miss them.

So for now, I wait. When I have free time, I try to keep myself occupied. Reading, writing, a little bit of cooking, and yesterday I did a deep cleaning of our room, which definitely made me feel better!

Understanding Grief

Yesterday morning, I woke up and went downstairs to have breakfast while Tri stayed in our room to check his email. When I got back upstairs, he called me over to the computer and showed me an email from my mom saying that my grandmother died early Friday morning.

My maternal grandmother had been sick for about 3 years. She was diagnosed with cancer back when I was a Sophomore in college, and she’s been battling it ever since. At certain points, she seemed like she had really gotten rid of it, but there have been many times when we thought she would die.

Before Tri and I left for Nepal last summer, we stayed with the rest of my family at a beach house in North Carolina, something we’ve done every year for a long time. Before we moved to Nepal, I knew that my grandmother was likely to die this year, so I tried my hardest to say my goodbyes and spend time with her during that week.

Despite having tried to prepare myself for her death, I was shocked and saddened into tears when I read that email from my mom yesterday.

This is the third death this year of someone close to us. The first, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, was Tri’s mom’s death. She passed away suddenly last April. The second death was also sudden, the death of a friend of Tri’s from his school days (I’ll call him A).

Last spring, right after Tri and I got the horrible call that his mom was in the hospital, Tri booked his flight to Nepal. He left that evening. His mom had been put on a ventilator, to keep her heart beating so that Tri could see her one last time. Once she was officially dead, he, his dad, and his brother went into the 13 day mourning period required for Nepali Hindus.

For the first few days, I had no way to contact him because he wasn’t allowed to use his computer, but then I was able to talk with him on gchat during parts of the day. About a week and a half after his mom died, while we were on gchat, Tri told me that the remains of A’s body had been found in India along the side of a cliff. This friend had gone to visit another of their friends in India, and at one point, he went hiking on his own. When he didn’t return, his family called the police. A’s family went down to India to help look for A, hoping that he had just gone off with another friend and had failed to contact them. After looking for about 10 days, they found the remains. Apparently A had been hiking and, as far as they could tell, just slipped and fell.

These three different deaths were each been different and hearbreaking in their own way. Tri’s mom’s death was sudden. It made me sick to my stomach, completely knocked the wind out of me. Although she had been sick for many years, we never expected her to die so suddenly and so soon. She was only 47.

A’s death was quite different. It was sudden, like Mamu’s, but more tragic in a way. When Tri told me about his friend’s death, I burst into tears. Some of the tears, I’m sure, were renewed grief for Mamu and some of them for A and for the way that he died. He was so young, only 25 and perfectly healthy. A’s death helped me put Mamu’s death into perspective. Although she was young too, she lived a full life, had an incredibly loving husband, and raised two sons to adulthood. A had barely made it to adulthood.

Now, as I start mourning for my grandmother, although I am sad, I don’t feel as bad as I might. Partly because I knew her death was coming, but also because Mamu and A’s death have put my grandmother’s death into perspective. It’s still really painful. I can’t go home and mourn with my family, and I can’t support my mom, aunts and grandfather as they mourn the loss of their mother and wife. But I know that my grandmother lived a long, full life and had a large supportive family that really loved and still loves her.

Living in Nepal has also given me some perspective on death. People die here all the time and very suddenly. Just last night I heard of a bus that crashed in far Western Nepal, killing at least 16 people. At least once a month, I hear about someone being hit and killed by a motorcycle, car, or bus. We hear about incidents like that all the time, plane crashes, bus accidents. People here also die of dysentery and other, often treatable diseases, that don’t kill in the West. Of course people die in the US too, but I think their deaths are often less sudden or maybe less tragic; there seem to be fewer death caused by accident and fewer early deaths from disease. Being around all this death in Nepal hasn’t helped me to understand the phenomenon any better but has helped me to accept death as a fact of life.

A few weeks ago, I tried to start reading a book called The Year of Magical Thinking, written by Joan Didion, a woman whose husband died suddenly while her daughter was sick in the hospital. Her daughter then died a year later. The book was way too sad for me to continue, so I put it down after a few pages. But one thing I got out of the part I did read was that grief comes in waves.

And this really rang true to me. As I’ve been grieving for Tri’s mom these past 8 months, I’ll have a span of days where I won’t think about her death at all. Everything will seem normal and okay, but then I’ll miss her suddenly, all at once. These times of intense grief come when I see her picture or cook Nepali chiya (tea), something she taught me how to do, or when I see Tri’s dad looking teary-eyed and know that he’s thinking about her. But these waves of grief have lessened in frequency and intensity with time.

I’m still waiting for a greater understanding of death grief to come. People say that when faced with diffficult situations, you’re supposed to gain wisdom and understanding, but somehow I just feel like a deer caught in the headlights, still in shock and unbelieving of what’s happened.

Thoughts on the Concept of Impurity in Nepali Culture

I’ve hesitated to write about this topic because it’s complex, and I’m still working to understand all of its nuances. Notions about and rules concerning impurity are prevalent in many aspects of Nepali culture, from traditions surrounding mourning to menstruation to the caste-system. Some of the rules are practical, but some of them have been very hard for me to come to terms with.

Jutho is the Nepali word for “impure.” In Nepal, we eat with our hands, and once I touch the food on my plate to my mouth, my hand and the whole plate of food are considered jutho. I can’t reach for the serving spoon to take a second serving for myself because it would contaminate the non-jutho food. In Nepali culture, the left hand is also considered impure. Because it is the one used for wiping, touching others, handing them things, or serving with the left hand is impolite. These rules reduce the spread of germs and are, in that way, very practical.

The concept of jhutho extends way beyond the hands, though. As I’ve mentioned in some of my other posts, this year, because Tri’s mom died, we can’t celebrate any holidays. This is because we’re considered jutho. I still don’t understand exactly why we’re considered jutho (I’m still investigating this one), but I do understand some of the reasoning behind this rule. It forces the mourners to really mourn and remember the one they lost. It also frees them from performing some of the social obligations involved with Nepali festivals at a time when they’re feeling bad. On the other hand, a year is a long time to be restricted from any kind of celebration, and it can be painful and lonely.

Although I don’t understand all of the traditions behind these rules about impurity as they relate to mourning, I respect and accept them. I struggle more to accept impurity in other contexts, especially as it affects women.

When a woman is menstruating, she is considered jutho. She cannot touch other people or their things; she cannot go in the kitchen, cook, or touch others’ food or water.

When I was studying abroad, I lived with a fairly conservative host family that followed traditional rules about jutho, and the first time I had my period in their house, I was shocked. My host aamaa was very strict and wouldn’t let me come in the kitchen. I had to sit in a separate room while eating, and I couldn’t serve myself; she had to serve me.

There was a teenager who used to work in their house as a domestic helper. One day, when I had my period, we were outside washing clothing. Before we started, he filled a bucket with water and then went inside the house to get some soap. I thought I would help him by bringing the bucket over to the dirty clothes. As I was lugging the water across the patio, he came back outside looking really mad. “Why did you touch the water?” he yelled at me in Nepali. He then took the bucket, dumped out the precious water and refilled it before washing the clothing.

There is some positive that comes out of the rules about jutho as they relate to menstruation. For women in Nepal who work hard from before day break to sunset, that time of the month is a time to relax. The men often cook the meals, and women are off the hook. On the other hand, for women to get a break from work, why do they have to be considered “impure”?

Thankfully my immediate Nepali family members don’t believe in that type of jutho, so it’s never been an issue in our house. One of the interesting outcomes of the tradition is that periods are less taboo here than in the US. If I can’t enter the kitchen, then everyone in the family knows when I have my period. In the American culture I grew up with, people didn’t talk about periods and definitely didn’t want others to know about them.

I still struggle with the rules about menstruation, but it was something that I dealt more with as a study abroad student, living with a host family. The jutho that I’ve been struggling with recently has to do with how I fit into the caste system in Nepal, something I’ll leave for tomorrow’s post.

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.

Remembering Mamu

As many of you know, Tri’s family must remain in mourning for a year. He cannot celebrate holidays, go to weddings, or do anything religious. Last week, Tri and I were invited to the wedding of one of his high school classmates, and we were hoping to go to the non-religious part of the celebration. Tri’s dad said that even that is not allowed, that they probably wouldn’t want Tri to be there because it’s bad luck.

There’s an interesting Newar festival going on today called Gai Jatra that addresses death and loss. Those who have lost a loved one in the last year must lead a cow in a procession around the city. It’s also a time when people dress in costume, tease, joke, and laugh. It was started by a Newar king when his wife couldn’t move past the death of their son. Tri told me that the king then ordered those in mourning to process around the city to show the queen that she was not alone in her grief, but Wikipedia says that the king also promised to reward anyone who could make her laugh. Either way, both the tradition of processing and laughing are still practiced today. Not only does this holiday remind those who are grieving that they are not alone, but it also promotes them to forget their troubles for a while by joining in the joking. Tri’s family is not Newar, so they aren’t going to the Gai Jatra celebrations, but I really like the idea behind this holiday.

Before I left for Nepal, my family and I were talking about this year-long period of mourning, and how, although it’s limitations are frustrating, they are also good for the mourners. This year is set aside to mourn and remember the person who died, but after the year is up, you have to move on. Anyway, I’ve been really thinking about Mamu (what we called Tri’s mom) lately. I was looking through some old photo albums and found some pictures of her as a young woman…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.