Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 4:40 p.m.
Another bus ride from hell marked the beginning of my second and last stay in Sisautiya. I was traveling with Prashant, Rashmi, Gayatri and Baibhav because Deepavali was approaching, and, for the same reason, everyone and their brother were also dispersing to their home villages from Kathmandu for the holiday. What resulted was a jam-packed bus, with people variably standing, sitting and lying in the aisle. Of course I had an aisle seat whose broken armrest either was occupied by someone’s backside, which extended deep into my personal space, or alternatively dug into my forearm if I attempted to claim it as mine. I guess I just ought to be thankful I had a seat at all.
Not more than five minutes after arriving at the Jha house in Sisautiya, I was enthusiastically greeted by Rahul and some of his cohorts. While I was indeed pleased to see them as well, all I really wanted to do was get my room in order and crash. Fourteen hours on a night bus, with maybe a total of two hours of intermittent naps, is one of those things that can put you in an irritable mood. Thankfully though, the bus ride did not forecast the quality of my initial week back.
First of all, it is worth mentioning that the weather is infinitely better than it was in September. And while the flies are bad, the mosquito population has tailed off to a reasonable level. Because Sunday and Monday were Deepavali and because the lesser-known (at least in the West) festival of Chhath included yesterday morning, the whole week was a school holiday. As such, not many students came to Eejot and I have been holding just one practice session in the mornings, which has given the handful of students who show up considerable blocks of personal time with the computers. I also managed to give a hands-on lesson that showed the students how to calculate the total cost of a shopping trip to the local market. I used real per-kilo rates for all of the items, which made the exercise that much more realistic and exciting to the students. Overall the lesson was a success, but only feasible because there was one student per computer, meaning that they were actively engaged in the task at hand as the lesson progressed.
Although I didn’t teach classes this week, Rahul made sure to make the most of my downtime by becoming my shadow even more than usual. His appetite for knowledge is insatiable and he comes up with questions faster than I can answer them. Among the things that we explored this week was how to install a program from a disc. The example program happened to be ‘The Oregon Trail.’ Funnily, Rahul had no interest in the game itself and his defining comment while we were exploring Independence, Missouri, before heading west was, ‘Oh. The butcher. He’s not good. He kills animals.’ Needless to say, we didn’t even get a chance to die of dysentery before new computer questions steered us elsewhere. The most exciting thing for both of us, though, came after I discovered Rahul could access the Internet from his father’s cell phone. As soon as I could, I opened the up the knowledge floodgates by introducing Wikipedia and Google. I wish I could have taken a photo of his face after that. Thankfully, I remembered to be responsible and made Rahul promise to ask his father permission every time he accesses the Internet, especially because I don’t know what the data rates are with the local network.
Apart from Eejot business, this week has been very culturally dense. But before diving into my most recent experiences, let me give a bit of overarching context. I have witnessed or partaken in three major Hindu festivals in varying capacities within the past month. First was Dasain, a many-day marathon of worship of and animal sacrifice to the goddess Durga as empowerment for the continued conquering of the forces of evil. Next was Tihar, also multiple days, and containing Deepavali, Festival of Lights, which occurs on the third day and invites Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, into homes to ensure prosperity for the coming year. Finally, there was Chhath, a festival spanning a dusk, a dawn and the night in between to honor the setting and rising sun, regionally observed in the Maithili communities of the Terai and north India. My own background knowledge of Hinduism led me to believe that Deepavali was the most important Hindu festival. Yet in each of the two regions in which I have experienced festivals in Nepal, the locals have impressed upon me the relative greater importance of the festival occurring at that particular time. For example, the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley went at sacrificing chickens, goats and buffaloes during Dasain with abandon and great zeal. In Changu, I was told that Dasain was the biggest Hindu festival of Nepal. Less than a month later, the college-age guys of Sisautiya explained that Chhath is the most important Hindu festival. Granted, my data points are limited, and perhaps most important and biggest are different and/or subjective. Whatever the case, Hinduism is certainly much more fluid than the three monotheistic religions Westerners generally encounter, and it tends to ooze out of any mold you attempt to fit it into.
Anyhow, I had a great time this week trying to keep up with all the rituals, prayers, pujas (worships),prasad (blessed food, loosely analogous to the Christian Eucharist in concept) production, etc. And as with everything else around here, there isn’t really a posted schedule of events. Things simply sort of happen at their own pace. So, all in due time, I got to see the mustard oil and kerosene lamps filled and serenely lit all throughout the house, on the rooftop and on the rooftops of all the houses in sight during two nights of Deepavali; prasad production for the worship of the household god; the ritual washing of hands and placing of tikas by brothers and sisters on each other’s foreheads during Bhai Tika; and the colorful, bright and highly social Chhath, which was far and away the most exciting to witness.
Preparations for Chhath started on Friday morning, which involved setting up family tents around a nearby pond. These were adorned with all manner of things, ranging from banana trees and embroidered cloth to strings of electric lights powered by diesel generators toted out for the occasion. In the evening, women and children arrived with baskets of prasad, which was spread on platters and protected from insects by numerous oil lamps and sticks of incense to await blessing during sun worship and consumption on following days. As part of the worship, young men made an alternating standing and lying, prostrating crawl of sorts from their homes to the pond, where they ended with a ritual bathing. Then, as the sun set, many women waded into the water, immersed their heads and stood silently facing the setting sun while bearing offerings. After a few hours of sleep, this was then repeated before dawn, except the women then faced east to greet the sunrise.
But all the while, and perhaps more importantly, the entire event serves the community’s social needs, with minstrels playing discordant traditional music, men and women gossiping in their respective groups, and children running about everywhere lighting fireworks and kept on their toes by fickle fuses. In a very loose way, the atmosphere might best be compared to a (beefless) chili cook-off. For my own part, I took lots of photos and mingled with some students who were home from their universities for the holidays, answering the now-familiar questions about American marriages, how American students pay for school, who my favorite cricket player is, and how I like Chhath and Nepal in general. Overall, it was a lot of fun and an authentic cultural experience unmatched by anything I’ve seen thus far.
This morning, Prashant and the Kathmandu-based Jhas left Sisautiya. Tomorrow, the plan is to start up on a regular lesson schedule again.