As well as most of Kathmandu inhabitants, Sujan likes to speak about his native village, Mallaj, “among the hills, over the city, between rivers, fields and mountains”. So when he proposes me to visit his family I have no other choice but to accept. At this time, I am far from imagining what I will experience there…
After many hours on the hazardous roads and bridges that lead us to Beni, the closest city, we finally step out on the ground. Wind is blowing as we walk towards the village, keeping eyes half closed and with a dust taste in the mouth. “We are going to visit my sister” says Sujan. “He’s also got a sister? ” am I thinking… I finally understand after having greeted a handle of brothers and sisters that they are what we are used to call cousins in western countries. We take a seat, drink a glass of raksi (pronounced roksi, a home made alcohol) and eat some snacks. Glass after glass mood is getting warmer and friendlier and, despite the fact we do not understand each other, we spend altogether a great moment moving from house to house in order to visit the whole family living here. “If ever I forget to visit someone, he will be angry” confesses Sujan.
Once the family tour achieved, we are facing a dangerous and steep path that will lead us to the top of the hill where the village stands. Having spent so much time drinking, eating and laughing, it is in the dark, then in a black night, that we climb it. Despite the effort, laughs and singings makes the challenge easier, although they will not last long, soon to be replaced by the regular breath of the climbing men. In the end, we reach the village safe and sound and are welcomed following Hindu traditions. One after each other, the members of the family bless us with the tikha, giving us a flowers collar and sticking on our forehead this special mix of rice and red vegetal mixture. As the second foreigner visiting this place I am welcomed as a very special guest and I am even given money during the ritual, a way to wish me prosperity, which makes me feel quite ill at ease. However it is getting late and we quickly go to bed. Tomorrow is a very special day and we do not want to miss it at any price!
This morning, the alarm clock is replaced by the sound of the rooster. It is and will be the first and last time that it will reach my ears. Today his sacrifice and the one of some female colleagues of him is organized. House after house, one can see the villagers blessing the future offerings with water, rice and flowers, a testimony of respect for the soon to be dead animals. Morning is about to end as the whole family meets around the sacrificial altar. The master of the ceremony prepares the ritual, incense and offerings are displayed in a specific order and with great precision. Religious illustrations are then drawn using a yellow powder making me think of curry: a star representing the sun (quite similar to David star), svastikas representing harmony and so on. Preparation takes time, children get excited, tension rises…
Once the preparation is over the ritual sacrifice can start. The rooster’s head is stuck to a wood piece and, with a quick and precise movement the khukuri’s edge slices the animal’s neck. Eyes of the bird blink frantically before closing once and for all and one takes its corpse around the altar in order to spread the blood on it. Sometimes, the corpse escapes from the hands of the one who is carrying it and runs for a few meters before collapsing, which amuses the children. Then, one by one, roosters and hens are sacrificed to Hindu gods without them having any notion of what is happening. A future banquet is about to start for us, humans.
Women are preparing the meal in the kitchen, sitting in front of the wood oven, sometimes whistling on embers, letting smoke curls escape into the main room. Men are taking place between the four walls, sitting cross-legged on straw carpets. They will be the next ones to eat, just after the children, women being last, following to the tradition. The meal is a great success. Rice, lentils, vegetables curry (the usual Nepalese dal bhat) and of course boiled rooster are devoured, along with liters of homemade raksi. Everybody is laughing, sometimes also crying, the abuse of raksi bringing painful feelings to mind, but today joy is reigning over Mallaj, the (almost) whole family being finally reunited.
The party is over and days are passing by peacefully. Every morning I feel fulfilled by the show of the snowy Himalayan summits unfolding to my eyes, right next to my door. I am enjoying the simple but delightful feeling of life in the countryside. Day after day, I feel more and more comfortable in this place even if it is almost impossible for me to communicate with the villagers. Hosts are doing their best to make this stay the most enjoyable possible and I can testify once more of their hospitality when, lying feverish in my bed, they bring me water and fresh hot buffalo milk from the farm. I feel like a child being pampered as he just caught a bad flu. Laying in my bed under two layers of blankets I can listen to the sound of the raindrops hitting the stone roof of my shelter and savor the hot milk before resting. However, this little moment of innocence will not last forever.
After another fever attack, I am peacefully sleeping when the hysteric screams of a lady not far from here suddenly wake me up. As I do not really understand Nepalese, I think that she might be arguing with someone else or reprimanding her children but the screams seem to persist forever. I then decide to step out of my bed and see what is happening. Shivering and shaking, I wailk towards the gathering a few houses from here. Some children are crying, some others run and take me by the hand to show me what is happening. At this moment, the worst ideas begin to come to my mind. Did she become crazy? Did a children fall and die?
Sky is roaring behind the cloudy hills. The first rain drops fall sparsely on our shoulders and light becomes darkness. Sujan is here among the villagers. “One of my aunts committed suicide” he announces, “I think you knew her, she was with us during the celebrations”. I am shocked. A few minutes ago this person was here among us but now she’s gone. Devastated, her husband lies on the front of his house and the wailings of his daughters add up to the ambient sadness. Villagers catch one of her which became so hysteric that she can not really control her body anymore. “We are going to call the police. We can not move the body until they are here” explains Sujan.
During the night and after the police came, the body is carried away to Beni hospital. Under the glow of candles and torchlights a handle of men walk down the same steep path we climbed before to reach the village. I will not join them until the next morning, along with some family members. Atmosphere at the hospital entrance is morose. Women are sitting together on the ground, forming a circle of solidarity in which they try to comfort each other. On the other side men are waiting in a deadly silence the moment when we will carry the body to the river to proceed to its incineration. A few words sometimes break up the heavy atmosphere although the waiting seems to be lasting for ever.
Numerous persons gather on the walls surrounding the hospital. They sense death is around and wait for the body to come out of the stone house as well. Is it compassion or simple curiosity? I will never know but I am not surprised. The concept of privacy in Nepal not exactly being nowadays concern. The long expected moment finally comes after a few hours, the stretcher carrying the dead body coming out of the stone shelter. First, a few men holding a white fabric open the cortege, followed by stretcher and relatives. The sound created by big seashells used as incongruous music instruments rhythm the walk to the river. A short stop in front of a sawmill gives us the opportunity to carry some wood pieces that will be used to build the funeral pyre where the last goodbye will be said.
The corpse is gently dropped off on the freshly built pyre. The yellow fabric covering the women is removed, letting only a white shroud masking her nudity. Relatives say a last goodbye to their mother, their sister, their aunt, their friend. One by one, they pour some water on her body, a pack of cigarettes is dropped at her feet and once the farewell ceremony is over, fire is set to the pyre which will consume for the next hour. Family will stay until the body is fully consumed.
A short moment before the ceremony started Sujan told me “You know, you are very lucky to be experiencing this!” … “Well, I am not sure the word lucky is the correct one in this kind of situation” I answered, “But this is definitely an excellent opportunity to discover your culture!”. At this moment I still had no idea what I would experience after the funeral. During the next thirteen days, children of the dead women must follow a specific mourning ritual in which their relatives will help. During this ritual, if it happens that someone unfortunately touch one of the children, they will not be able to eat their next meal.
The son of the dead women is currently working abroad, her brother will then replace him during the ritual. During the next thirteen days he will only be dressed with a white fabric covering his head and his private parts. First, he has to shave his head (the same applies for the husband). Then, a long process begins where he drops water over his head before building an earth and animal excrements pile on which rice and incense are scattered. After this prelude, the preparation of the meal starts. While his relatives build a plate using a banana tree leave’s rod, he lights a fire and cooks rice and ginger. He then eats his meal as his friends, on the other side of the shelter discuss and laugh, which sometimes makes him laugh the same way and join the conversation.
Once the ritual is over it is time to go back to the village where relatives take over day and night to keep company to the widowed, playing cards and smoking cigarettes. Alone behind a carpet surrounding the place where the corpse was found, sitting on straw and covered only by the ritual fabric and a blanket, the brother watches. It is forbidden to anyone else to enter here. The same kind of ritual happens in the next house where the daughters of the dead women live, among women.
Life continues in Mallaj and it is soon time for us to go back to Kathmandu. Even considering the tragic events that happened, I keep an excellent memory about these moments spent with those men and women living in a culture which I did not know anything about. A little bit sad, I then leave this place during a cold morning, delighted by the show of the shining Himalayan summits. These men and women might not be rich (in the western meaning of richness), but the love and solidarity I felt in this place are a richness we drastically miss in our “civilized” countries where money and physical goods prime over human relationships.
The photographs of the funeral ceremony were made with the agreement of the concerned family. In the beginning I did not wish to photograph this ceremony in order to respect them. However, they have been the ones to insist, whence the missing photographs of the cortege.