Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Weekend in Gothatar

I was able to spend the weekend with a family who lives in Gothatar, a village just outside the bounds of Kathmandu. My family has known them for about 15 years now. The son, Ashok, was one of my dad’s patients. He has an inherited genetic disorder called Wilson disease, where his body cannot process copper. Without treatment, it builds up within his body, eventually causing vital organs like the liver, or systems like the nervous system, to shut down. My dad was one of the doctors who were able to diagnose Ashok’s condition and prescribe treatment. As a result, Ashok is on medicine and a semi-restricted diet for the rest of his life to combat the copper build-up in his body. He’s done really well, has finished secondary school and is currently studying to be an accountant. Through this situation, my family developed a close relationship with his family. Most of the time, my family would travel out to their place, but we had them over to our house several times as well. They were often there to see my family off to the States at the airport (since their place is so close to it), and they kindly met me at there when I arrived in the country last year.

I had the opportunity to visit them for four days over this past weekend. They have always urged my family to come out during Dashain or Tihar—the two largest Hindu festivals of the year—and stay for a few days at their house. This was difficult for us to do. My dad was often on call during this season, to allow Nepali doctors and staff time off to spend with their families, and my family of four staying at their place would have made for some cramped quarters. Since I was just one person, and I unexpectedly had an extra day off for the Tihar holiday, I asked if it would be possible to visit for a few days. They were excited to have me.

While I’d been out several times, this trip held some new experiences for me. I was introduced to the family’s daily routine—Kanchi, the wife, waking up at 5AM to milk the cow and take the product into Kathmandu to be sold, having tea and plain biscuits (cookies) for breakfast and the main meal of rice and lentils at 10AM, then 8PM—as well as things pertaining to the festival being celebrated. For example, I came downstairs at 7AM my first day to find the goat purchased the day before butchered, cleaned and being divided up amongst extended family members on the front porch. Talk about having a productive morning!

Tihar includes about four days of festivities. Several animals are honored—crows, dogs, and cows—as messengers of death, guardians to heaven, and the vehicle of Laxmi, goddess of wealth, respectively. The holiday culminates with bhai tikka—when sisters will worship, or rather honor and protect, their brothers against misfortune in the coming year. Laxmi Puja is perhaps the most anticipated night of Tihar. Families will mud paths from the street to their door, often decorated with footprints, oil lamps, vermillion powder and flower petals, for this goddess of wealth to follow to bless their house with material wealth in the coming year. They also make ciel, a sweet, fried donut made of rice flour, whose fragrance the goddess is supposed to like, to entice her to enter. In this age of electricity, there are electric lights placed alongside the oil lamps. Children also go caroling from house to house, and set off firecrackers in the streets. The whole event looks and sounds very festive. One American friend commented recently, “it’s a strange combination of Christmas and the Fourth of July!” which I find to be an apt description.

I spent time helping Ashok put together marigold and purple flower garlands to be used for ghai tikka and bhai tikka, and lighting and feeding the oil lamps scattered along the windowsills at night. Kanchi spent one afternoon doing nothing but making ciel over a small wood stove in the kitchen. These she took to her brothers on the day of bhai tikka, but also distributed to the children who came caroling in the evening, making them dance for her first. We had everyone from a troop of four girls, bedecked in red and gold outfits who sang and danced a set routine, to groups of pre-adolescent and adolescent boys serenading us boisterously until they were given money, ciel, or some kind of reward before moving to the next house. The most popular song sung was a choral-response one. While the words differed from group to group, one of the standard stanzas seemed to be the following:

Hey, red mud (dyosu- re!)
Hey, slippery road (dyosu-re!)
Slipping and sliding (dyosu-re!)
We have come (dyosu-re!)
Hey, you’re my brother (dyosu-re!)

I was in the awkward position of being known to the entire network of extended family who live around them, but having a fuzzy memory concerning how these people were related to Ashok and his family. Most of them just appear as part of the sea of faces from childhood escapades of chasing goats and dogs along village roads, or weddings my family attended. This made for some interesting situations. For example, on the morning of bhai tikka, Ashok took the milk to Kathmandu, and Kanchi had left to go see her brothers in a neighboring town. Krishna, the father, was nowhere to be seen, so I was left (happily) reading a book on the front porch, waiting for their return. A young woman, obviously married from her outfit, came up to the house looking for Ashok. “He’s taken the milk to town,” I told her.
“Oh, you must be the doctor’s daughter!” she exclaimed. “Would you like tea?”
“Umm…ok,” I replied.
She waltzed into the kitchen, warmed up the tea left over from the early morning, and poured two glasses. We chatted briefly about how she was now married, had two young children and was living not too far from Gothatar, what I was doing in Nepal and for how long, when I would be married, how my family in the States was doing, whether or not they were planning to come back to Nepal, and if so, when. She mentioned that I was to come with Ashok to her house when he received his tikka later. It was only when we arrived at her place later that I was able to place her—she was his cousin, the daughter of his father’s eldest brother, whose family lived next door. Her sister, who I also recognized, is now married and has children as well. They had come back to give tikka to their own brother as well as Ashok—who received tikka from no less than three of his female cousins; he was busy all morning going from house to house to get their blessings.

Being away for so long made the changes that have come to Gothatar over the past ten years stark for me. For example, in between the traditional two-story wood and adobe houses rise homes made of cement that are three or more stories high. Families who have lived in the village for years build some of them but people recently moved to the area inhabit others. A bus now comes directly to the town’s main crossroads from Kathmandu; before, my family would take a bus to the airport or an adjoining area and walk into the village through rice fields. Of course, people have changed too. I had conversations with Ashok and his neighbor, Raju (visiting from medical school), concerning everything from the Nepal medical school curriculum to how the country has changed over the course of the Maoist conflict, to a somewhat charged conversation about the best way to handle stress, depression and hardship in life.

Between the new and the old, my time there seemed spun together by webs of memories. It was most interesting to hear what people remembered of my family, most of them surrounding food—Raju’s father remembered the tea and roti my mom served him when he visited our house, my dad had always been free with his compliments about food, etc. The funniest comment however was Kanchi’s concerning my brother. In Nepal, it’s traditional to eat with your right hand (the left is considered unclean to eat with), and there’s a specific technique used to scoop and shovel the food into your mouth. Kanchi reminisced: “When you’re brother came,” she said, “he ate with BOTH hands, like this!” she demonstrated by alternating putting her palms to her mouth, smiling broadly. “He’s probably learned how to eat correctly now, hasn’t he?”