Friday, November 1, 2013

"Auntie--are you going to carry dhan too?"

Coming downstairs, I intercepted Sabita. She had a hasya (sickle) in her hand, and a water bottle in the other. She was on her way out to cut the dhan—rice—now ready for harvest in the fields behind the house. “Can I cut dhan too?” I asked. Sabita laughed, “Randinus, bahini! [Oh, stop!] Its not necessary.” I said that I didn’t want to do my own work (which would consist of reading newspaper articles in Nepali on various Tharu songs and dances I was researching, written by a local cultural activist), and, while I knew that the work was hard, it would be a new experience for me. Sabita relinquished.

Upon arrival to the field, where “Banja” (nephew) and Kuntul were sitting, Banja gave his aunt an easily read look: “What?! Auntie is going to cut dhan? You have GOT to be kidding me!!!” He gave me more "you crazy white woman" looks in those two days than he ever had before. Sabita handed me a hasya—the blade between five and seven inches in length—and I asked her, “So…how do I do this?” As she sharpened her hasya on a rock, she replied, “Aba sikae dinchu [Now, I will teach you].”

The dhan was planted in clumps. Sabita showed me how to grasp a clump with my left hand, and cut close to the ground with the hasya—ripping the blade toward me. I was to lay this clump behind me, in rows, to dry in the sun. The four of us worked side-by-side in the paddy, cutting from south to north, laying the dhan behind us. I cut steadily on my haunches, cutting two or three clumps then laying them behind me. Banja cut madly for a few seconds, rested for a minute or two, then began cutting madly again. I made sure I got out of his way when he came too close to me, keeping my hands and fingers away from his blade. Sabita bent at her waist and cut steadily. Kuntul let everyone know she hated the work by cutting a few bunches, then decidedly sitting down on the edge of the paddy.

After a while, I was able to pick up my pace of cutting—I learned what force to use and how many bunches I could hold in my hand before I had to lay them down behind me—and Sabita asked, if I had ever cut dhan before? I said no, this was my first time. Even so, I did not cut more than she or Banja—but I cut more than Kuntul, which isn’t much to boast of.

During this time, Banja and Sabita were talking about the upcoming Constitutional Assembly election. Sabita asked if I had elections in my country? I said yes, we did. I asked her which political party her family was members of? I knew that there were three main parties in Nepal— Nepali Congress (considered conservative; in Tharu communities, many large land owners are members of this party), the Communist Party Nepal-United Marxist Leninists (CPN-UML, considered the moderate party), and the Communist Party Nepal-Maoists (CPN-Maoists, considered more extremist, of which there are several branches and smaller factions from inside fighting)—in addition to numerous smaller ones (some of which have banded together and are commonly referred to in news sources as “the 33-party coalition”). Sabita said that they voted for sun (surya—each party has their own symbol, which voters both literate and non-literate can recognize on a ballot), which Banja clarified as the UML (“em-el-a” in Nepali). Sabita asked me what political parties we had in the States? I said there were two big ones, and a few smaller ones, but they have no influence (prabhav parena).

While we were thus talking, a green Pajero showed up bouncing along on the pot-holed dirt road on the other end of a field, decorated with flags and blaring Salikram Chaudhary’s song “timro maya le”—a commercial song consisting of original Nepali words set to a traditional Tharu melody commonly sung at Maghi. Sabita turned to me with a smirk on her face to let me know that Salikram—a member of their village—was running in the election! Somebody was talking over the loudspeaker bound to the top of the Pajero, but none of us understood what was being said. I later learned from one of Salikram’s coworkers (he works for an NGO that focuses on “Tharu cultural empowerment”) that Salikram is running as a candidate from a smaller, local party. This particular coworker didn’t see any hope to Salikram’s actual election, but Salikram wanted to start a political career, and this was a good stepping-stone for publicity at least.

So this is how you campaign in Nepal—if you’re a composer/singer, blare your own music and ride around in a Pajero on the village road while people are in the rice fields cutting their dhan, asking them to vote for you!

Sabita asked me several times if I was done cutting dhan, or suggesting that I should go eat my morning meal, or take a bath, or something like that, but I worked with them till noon—about two and a half hours—until we all went back to the house to eat. I placated her by doing my own work and taking a bath in the afternoon, instead of going back out to the field to work with them.

A few days later, Sabita commented that she might need to call upon the help of their lower field workers to carry the dhan back to the house for threshing and winnowing. She and Banja could cut it all by themselves, but when it came to carrying it, it would take all week with just the two of them. I offered to help. Sabita laughed. “Oh bahini, pardaina, pardaina [its not necessary]!” she said. But I persisted. So she handed me a rope, and I pulled my newly washed doppota (scarf) off the drying line as we walked out to the field together. Banja was standing there with his large stick planted in the ground, and two ropes in his hands. “Auntie—tapaai pani dhan bhoknuhunchha? [Auntie—are you going to carry dhan too?]” he asked, surprisingly without sarcasm in his voice. I replied that I would try [koshish garchhu].

Sabita piled stalks of dhan together, laying them in alternating directions until a large square was created. This she bound with her rope, and with the help of Banja, lifted to balance on her head. This she carried back to the front yard.

Banja bound two large, messy bundles of dhan together. Stabbing one with his stick, he then lifted it with much grunting and groaning to stab the other. Letting the stick balance on his shoulders, he carried his burden to the front yard. Later, I asked him why he didn’t carry it on his head like his aunt? He shook his head vigorously. “I don’t know how to carry heavy burdens on my head! We carry burdens on a stick across our shoulders.”

This gendered way of carrying burdens was evident in watching the neighbors carry dhan back to their homes. Across the fields, everyone looked like walking haystacks in one shape or form—the women carrying large bundles on their heads; the men barely seen between two bouncing bales balanced on a stick across their shoulders.

I carried my burden on my head, as a woman should. It took a few tries to figure out how to carry it properly. I soon learned to carry it on the crown of my head; that way, my arms would just be there to balance my load and not actually carry any of its weight. My neck and shoulder muscles did not burn when I had my burden properly balanced. It took more than a few tries to figure out how much I could actually carry. After returning from one trip, Banja commented, “That burden was too heavy for you, wasn’t it Auntie?” He must have seen me almost tip into the irrigation canal as I walked one foot in front of the other across the plough laid over the ditch to reach the road.

The neighbors made comments about me to Sabita as they came back and forth from the fields, which amounted to, “She knows how to carry dhan?” “Oh, you have an extra worker in your field today!” all made in good faith—the neighbors knew me. Sabita smiled and replied, “she knows how to carry a little!” And a little I did carry—the small pile in the front yard that took me all day to create was bound into sheaves to thresh and winnow by hand the next morning. At the end of the first day, Sabita told me I should carry a little more the next day. I took this as evidence that I did not completely fail in carrying dhan, at least in her eyes.

The next morning consisted of arranging the piles of dhan we had carried the day before into a haystack. Pointing to the neighbor’s haystack, Banja commented to me that our haystack needed to look like that one—talk about keeping up with your neighbors; their haystack was already half as tall as their house!

The haystack by 4PM on the second day of carrying dhan. It was doubled by the end of the day. 

While cutting and carrying dhan was a new experience for me, thus rather exciting, I know full well that its hard, hard work for my host family. During that week, Sabita was up at 4:30 every morning, and went to bed around 8:30 or 9 at night—otherwise, as she commented to me later, her work will not get finished; in addition to her regular housework, she had harvest work to do. Each night she went to bed with her muscles sore; at one point, she told me she felt like a sick person. Banja (Sabita’s not sure how hold he is; I estimate that he’s at least fifteen) would sleep until his aunt called for him to get up—usually seven o’clock—and try and get a nap in the afternoons until she called him to come spin the fan so she could winnow the dhan. He told me he “felt lazy” (alchi laagyo) after carrying dhan all day; I replied that he was probably just tired (takaai laagyo). This is their livelihood. Its what they eat for the coming year. The hope is that the rice harvest is enough to feed the family and to sell so that they can pay for things they cannot make—like petrol for the motorcycle, or school for the boys, or emergency medical bills.