Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dashain Notes

Dashain aayo, khaunla piunla… Somehow the happy childhood memories embodied in this familiar phrase heralding the arrival of the festive season, and its promise of food and drinks and new clothes, gets revived every year.

We often fall back on childhood memories when it comes to estimating our contemporary happiness. Those youthful memories of joyfully visiting mama ghar, the maternal uncle’s household, seem so deeply etched in our mind.

Scrounging the rough mental notes from my free-wheeling journey of observation and imagination, I share some Dashain impressions. Here are my nuggets of observations leading up to the festive season and during my stay in eastern Terai.

The big deal
The biggest festival indeed proved to be a Big Deal. Getting a bus ticket was like winning a jackpot to embark on a lunar trip. The tourist bus arrangement was possible, finally, only on a high bidding. The cosmic-like voyage included a cosmopolitan crew, the Panerus from Seattle, the Rais from Seoul, the Karkis from Dubai, and some families from Kathmandu.

Some revelations
No sooner had we reached the destination, we found that Dahain is no longer an exclusive occasion for family gathering and eating and drinking; more and more people are leaving their homes to go to places like tourists. They are trading blessings for pleasure.

Slowly, as extended families are diminishing, Dashain offers more incentive for family reunion. Instead of the traditional door-to-door visits to elders and tika-centered ceremonies, followed by dahi-chiura, or masu-bhat, some even go for the festival party with family and friends.

The average sums of Dashain dakshina, the benefaction money given to tika-seekers, have shot up considerably in the past few decades. An elderly told me some kids demand no less than a hundred rupee bill, and grown-ups manage to get several times more. Maybe it’s ostentatious, but money, devaluated already in terms of goods and services, flows unabated. Apparently, Dashain is going more cha-ching!

A housewife said even without dahi-chiura and masu-bhat Dahain no longer feels khallo, or dull. Increasingly, people opt for a variety of delicacies, and relish foods and drinks offered by the ubiquitous markets. Also, many people have turned vegetarians, and one does not need to wait for Dahain to consume meat products.

Fundamental questions 
Death and birth are common themes of conversations during Dashain. They start with somebody telling you that he or she is deprived of tika this year because someone died or was born in the extended family. For whatever astrological reason, even a happy occasion of the birth of a new one prevents a family from celebrating their festival of festivals.

We visited some elderly people, and some have been chronically ill and bed ridden, including a cancer patient who may die any day, another suffers from bone erosion and rheumatoid arthritis, and yet another from Alzheimer’s. It was very painful to see them hanging between life and death, and I wondered if we could truly respond to their blessings. Most of the times, these fragile souls lay on their beds, anxious about their afterlife, not sure whether they will be reborn in the form of a crocodile or a dog or a swan. For them, unexposed to the competing theories of afterlife, there is no hope even in the next sphere of being.

Dashain blessings from the elderly felt like merely a ritual, with many more elders left to suffer throughout the country, and with little meaningful help coming their way from our government.

The new gen
Children appear smart, for both good and bad reasons. Some display incredible memory power and technological know-how. They talk like adults and no topic is off limits, even the taboos. One local theory has it that children are adultized; they do not have a well-formed public space of their own, separate from their elders, hence they tend to exhibit everything they hear and learn from their parents.

Invariably, village kids are articulate, and they seem to have a piercing voice, so much so that on a few occasions, I saw people literally closing their ears with fingers. A housewife commented that kids tend to be louder during gatherings to seek attention.

You come across children who talk of killing with guns, or youth who boast of hacking computers at local cyber-cafes. It’s a global village; children play with visitors from Brooklyn and Jackson Heights.

A knowledge society
Whatever Jürgen Habermas or other thinkers of knowledge say about its role in society, when you are in the village, you have to be a patient listener these days. People have so much to tell you about themselves and the world around them. You may not have the opportunity to speak if you are not assertive enough.

Of course, as in the city, people may seem increasingly indifferent, and there are often gaps in the conversational logic, but be prepared to be surprised with their points; you wouldn’t agree more; touché!

Knowledge or the illusion of knowledge built on bits and pieces of information via new technological gadgets like mobile phone and local FM radio stations as well as returning migrant workers from abroad continues to expand. Increasing literacy and improving quality of local education also contribute to this.

Wealth creation
Perhaps it’s just the usual small talk, but money was THE topic on everybody’s lips this Dashain, wherever I went. The merits of capitalism were keenly felt by family members, neighbors and relatives, in the plots of lands somebody bought in the nearby urban center, or a house someone built near the highway. A middle-aged man suggested nothing can substitute real estate in terms of easy money, and schools and colleges, or vegetable farming were other lucrative ways to wealth.

People talk happily about their relatives working in foreign lands who send back money. They do not like to talk much about their hard work or exploitation there, an issue that only hurts their pride. Dashain used to be a time to wish for good education, healthy and long life. Now more and more elders bless for its means—for a plot of land, a house, a vehicle, that sort of thing. And for the remittance economy, money is in circulation more, so much so that people report petty theft has stopped altogether in villages.

Future is here? 
At least a glimpse of it is here, and people are savoring it. They are looking for increased access to roads, electricity, water, and communication, and making ever more efforts to send their kids to better schools. One visible indicator is the increase in the number of highway and road traffic; many people have discarded their bicycles and graduated to motorbikes, some to cars. With no substantive support coming from the government, they are even investing in these areas locally.

One often hears about Kathmandu being a filthy place, and unlivable. The village is clean, with plenty of water, open fields, linge ping and what not. This recurrent small-talk also pits Doha or Riyadh or Kuala Lumpur with our capital city or other small townships. As a visitor from the capital city, I realize Kathmandu is in a losing battle to maintain its standards of life and living.

The villages are becoming self-absorbed, perhaps a sign of their coming of age. Local communication infrastructure in the form of radio and telecommunication, and direct international exposure through migrant workers serve as the vortex of change.

Larger issues, such as the elections, appear only as afterthought. People seem indifferent and even apathetic to talk about the impending polls. They will only vote for a candidate who will deliver some tangible goods.

Increasingly, Dashain, for many, has become a way for imagination and dreams rather than just memory.

Published in Republica, Oct 23, 2013