Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In the Shadow of Other Anthropologists

It was my first night in the village of Sukrawar. I had just arrived at my host’s house, and was sitting on a beri—a circular woven mat—on the adobe floor of the first room in the house. I was kept company by my host’s friend, a man who had come back to the village to visit his parents for a few days. He worked construction in town. As he enjoyed my host’s hospitality—a brass bowl fill with about four shots of home-brewed liquor—he asked me why I had come. I said that I worked with an office in Kathmandu affiliated with my host’s office, but I had come to Dang to do research on Tharu music. This neighbor said something in reply; I didn’t understand what he had said so I asked him to repeat it. He was giving me an English name—Christian McDonaugh. The anthropologist? I asked. Yes, he had come and done research in Sukrawar years ago, when this neighbor was just a boy. He had lived with his uncle. He had lived with them, eaten with them, even drank with them. He spoke really fluent Tharu; he in fact was Tharu. Did I speak Tharu? Well, I should learn. Did I drink raksi [alcohol]? No? Why not? Oh, do Christians in your country not drink alcohol either? He commented that Christians here in Nepal don’t drink alcohol at all.

My host had work to do at the District Development Office—did I want to come and meet Dr. Govinda Acharya? This music scholar cum government employee worked there. Well, of course I did. Govinda was sitting with a few of his fellow office workers, passing the last hour or so before they were allowed to return home with kura kani [conversation]. I introduced myself. Yes, Lochan—a mutual friend—had called and told him that I would be coming to do research on Tharu music. He had just arrived back from Kathmandu himself; he had wanted to meet me, but he had been so busy, and a little unwell, so he did not contact me. He was glad to see me in his office. Would I have tea? I declined, since I would not be staying long, and sat down across from his desk as indicated. Where was I staying? Sukrawar? Oh, had I read Christian McDonaugh’s work? I replied that I had not been able to obtain a copy of it, though I was very aware of it. No worries, he would contact another friend, Ashok Tharu, who could obtain a copy for me. He assured me that I would find it very helpful.

He then started going on about a relative of his, a young man who was a really good flutist. He had married a foreign researcher who been looking at dohori git—did I know dohori git [duet songs]?--anyway, what was her name? How about “Anna,” I offered. Yes! Anna! Did I know her? No, I replied, but I had read her dissertation…

I met Ashok Tharu at a community meeting concerning the current status of the guruwa institution—traditional Tharu healers. Ashok was excited to meet me. A mutual friend of ours, Ed, had called him several weeks ago and said I was coming out to Dang; he was so pleased that someone was coming to study Tharu music. He had worked as research assistant to the anthropologist Giselle Krauskopff back in the seventies; had I read her dissertation? I replied that I was aware of it, but it was in French, and I had been unable to find an English translation. He had an English translation; he would make a copy of it and give it to me. I would find it very helpful, he was sure.

Later, when I stayed two days at his house, found out that Ashok had not only worked with Giselle, but at least three other prominent anthropologists who had done work on the Dangaura Tharu (which, there aren’t that many foreign anthropologists who have looked at the Tharu anyway). I asked him what he thought of all these foreigners coming to study his culture. He replied that it was a good thing—it made people in other countries aware of the Tharu, and stirred up the Tharu to look at their own culture as well. Take him for example—he had been a school teacher before meeting Giselle; he found research so interesting that he quit his job to work with her. Now, he was a prominent folkloricist and cultural activist—one person had even likened him to Salman Rushdie.

He then mentioned that he was writing his autobiography; he had a chapter for each foreign researcher he had worked with. Now, he would get to add a new chapter—one about the American scholar who had come to look at Tharu music.

These instances spaced throughout my three weeks in Dang humbled me considerably. Yet, as much as Dang seemed combed over by foreign researchers, whose presence was still alive in the memory of several people, I was a “first contact” for others. Durga—a Pahadi (non-Tharu) woman—invited me to her maiti [parent’s home] one day, to introduce me to her family. As we sat outside eating beloti [guavas] from the tree in front of the house, her father began to ask her what I ate. Did I eat rice? Vegetables? Yoghurt? Meat? Yes, Durga replied, I ate all those things. I had eaten dinner at her house last night; she had witnessed me eat herself. He commented that was all very good.

My mind turned to the article by Vivieros I had read in one of my anthropology courses: When the Europeans began to come to the New World, the Indians were checking out the Spaniards to see if they were human or not just as the Spaniards were checking out the Indians for the same reason. Their inquiries took different forms: the Spaniards wondered if the Indians had souls, the Indians wondered if the Spaniard’s bodies putrified like theirs upon death or not. The Spaniards took to converting the Indians to Christianity, attempting to save their souls primarily by ascetic means; the Indians killed a few Spaniards and threw their bodies into a lake to see if their bodies would putrify. While I was here to check out Tharu music, I in turn was being checked out by the community. At least their tests weren’t as deadly as the Indians’…

Amused by this conversation, I asked Durga if she had ever spoken to foreigners before. She laughed and shook her head—she had seen white foreigners in the bazaar, but had been really afraid of them. I was the first foreigner she had ever spoken to.

On the way back to Kathmandu, the bus stopped at a roadside teashop for a meal. After using the restroom and washing my hands, the bus driver cornered me—did I speak Nepali? Yes? Well, did I want to eat? I sat at a table with two women who had been seated at the front of the bus (I, being the last person to buy my ticket, had been given the very rear seat of the bus). The women intermittently asked questions as we ate—where was I from? What work was I doing in Nepal? Not wanting to go into detail about my research, I just told them I worked for an NGO and our branch office was in Dang. One of the women commented on how good my Nepali was; the other woman and said, “remember that foreign girl who sang with Kamala [Oli—a well known commercial dohori singer]? Her Nepali was really good.”  

How many more shadows will I walk across in my time here? And what shadows will I leave once my current phase of research is done?