Monday, June 10, 2013

Deadly Onions

Before I left Dang in April, Khopi’s family was harvesting their onions. Sabita would bring baskets full of these from the bhari (field), carried on her head, and dump the contents either in the back yard or entryway. There, Kuntul—Khopi’s younger sister with Down syndrome—sat with a hasya (sickle) cutting off the green tops and fibrous roots, and throwing the bulbs into a pile to be stored.

The pile of onion bulbs grew steadily throughout my three weeks there. I asked Sabita if this was enough for the year? She said it was more than enough; it looked like they would be able to sell some in the bazaar this year. Extra cash was always welcome.

My last day there in April, I had nothing better to do, so despite Sabita’s protests, I pulled onions from the bhari and carted them to the house, and when I was tired of that, found an extra hasya and joined Kuntul in cutting off the roots and shoots. I held the handle of the hasya steady under my foot, with the blade curving toward me. To cut the onion, I employed a movement away from me and down the blade. The onions were strong; my eyes watered as I busied about this work for about two hours. The fibrous roots were put in a pile separate from the green tops; Grandmother later went through the tops cutting off the dead and dried parts and using the green tops to flavor vegetables when she cooked.

When I came back in May, the onions had all been put away. Sabita and Khopi were instead storing wood; they had cut down one of their trees to repair the gote (stable). But May is a scarce time for vegetables in the village. In April, we had eaten green beans, cauliflower, and cabbage, in addition to potatoes and sinki (fermented and dried radish leaves). Now, we had onions with potatoes—a rather strong dish for me to stomach. All during May, I visited community groups started by HS-Nepal (Khopi’s work place). At each place, the community group gave me a gift of a kaTahar—a jackfruit. In Nepal, these are cooked and eaten as vegetables, the consistency of the fruit being similar to meat. According to one of Khopi’s relatives living nearby, the jackfruits are not quite ripe at the moment; in about a month, they’ll taste much better. Nevertheless, villagers have already started picking the fruits off of trees in the villages. After I brought home a kaTahar for four days straight, Sabita laughed—but, she said, as long as I came bearing vegetables, she was happy.

One morning, Sabita left early to go bring mud from the riverbank before the sun got too hot; she would be re-mudding the house in the coming week. She had cooked food before she left; she told me to eat when I was hungry and leave for work when I was ready. About 8AM, after I had eaten, I was in the outside bathroom when I heard strange sounds coming from inside—almost as if someone was choking. When I came back into the house, I found Kuntul bent over with one hand on her throat, and the other one on the stairs, doing her best to cough. Her plate of food was on the floor, next to the bheri (straw mat) on which she had been sitting—as was a hasya and a half-cut onion. After slapping her sharply between her shoulder blades and performing the Heimlich (much to Kuntul’s disgust), whatever was in her windpipe seemed to become semi-dislodged; she was at least wheezing. Nevertheless, her eyes began to glaze over. As Grandfather had already had his morning dose of jaar (a kind of home-made alcohol) and was sitting rather oblivious to the whole incident in the adjoining room, I left her braced against the staircase and ran to the neighbors to get help.

All I could think of on the way was, upon his return from Nepalgunj, where Grandmother was having hip surgery, Khopi would not only discover that his eldest son, Sahil, had been sick with a fever most of the week, but learn that his sister had choked to death on her food as well.

“Uh…didi (older sister)!” I called to the women in the yard. I had only met her once, at a party hosted at her house for two family members who were returning to work abroad. There, the party had sung the maghauta for my recorder. She acknowledged me. My Nepali left me, and all that came out of my mouth was “Kuntul is sick [Kuntul bhirami bhayo]!” The woman came running with me, while I explained—food had gone into her throat and she didn’t have enough breath. “Oh, so she’s not sick!” the woman laughed, but kept running all the same.

Once we arrived in the kitchen, we found Kuntul sitting, continuing her meal. She held up a small sliver of onion—that had been in her throat. The woman laughed: “Ahile na khanne! [Now, don’t eat that!]”

After that scare, I left for work. I passed Sabita coming back from the river with her neighborhood friends, each carrying a pan of mud on her head. “Janne, bahini? [Going now, little sister?”] I answered affirmative.

When I got back that evening, the house was quiet. I found Sabita and Kuntul out back, Kuntul cutting onions and Sabita cutting potatoes for the evening meal.