Thursday, December 26, 2013

Sita's Wedding


On December 15, Sita Giri – our “daughter” (she is the daughter of mit’s younger brother), neighbor, and 6th grade English student – got married. What made Sita’s wedding unusual in this season of weddings was the speed and circumstances in which it was arranged. Three days earlier, Sita did not know that Padam Giri existed; on Sunday, she was married to him.

The story begins on Thursday the 12th, with preparations nearly complete for a wedding the next day between Padam and a young woman living up the hill. But early that Thursday morning, the bride-to-be eloped with someone else. This was a set-back to Padam, who had taken leave from his job in Abu Dhabi specifically to get married. It was a potential financial disaster for his father, who had committed to the multitude of costs associated with a proper wedding. There was also the danger of stigma being attached to the jilted groom. Another bride of the Giri caste had to be found. 

Calls were made, networks activated, and Sita’s name emerged at the top of what we suspect was a very short list. That same day, Padam and his father left their home in Lamjung district to the northwest and travelled six hours by bus and foot to Dharapani. When they arrived, the two families began negotiations. There had been other marriages between Giris in the two locales, so genealogical relationships were known. Questions focused on the characters of the bride and groom: “Do you talk to boys on your cell phone?” (from the groom’s family); and from  the bride’s, “Will you abuse Sita?” The answers to both questions were predictably ‘no.’ Sita and Padam then spent ten chaperoned minutes getting to know each other. Both had the option of refusing the other, but the pressure to agree must have been intense. And so they agreed to be married. Somehow it just didn't feel like a mazel tov! moment.
Many brides and grooms know little about each other, but due diligence seemed cursory even by local standards. Sita did not learn, for example, until she arrived at her new home that the village has no electricity.  Certainly the people who gave her an electric fan and rice cooker as wedding gifts wish they had known that.
The following morning, Friday, in the presence of family, Sita and Padam exchanged tika and the betrothal was complete. The wedding was set for Sunday, the last day of the month of Mangsir; the following month, Poush, is off limits for weddings and no one wanted to drag this out. It was what one friend here accurately described as an “emergency wedding.”

About the bride: When we first arrived, we found Sita to be sullen and insolent. To our dismay, she entered our 6th grade class this past April. She sat in the back of the room, talked to her friends, and was disruptive. This did not sit well with Harvey and there were a few unhappy moments. But then Sita and Harvey reached an unspoken accommodation: in various ways Harvey acknowledged her status as the senior stateswoman of the 6th grade (at 18, she is five or six years older than most of her classmates), and Sita in return kept disruptions to a tolerable level. Over time, the accommodation turned into grudging mutual respect and then (something never to be admitted) into fondness.
Padam, 24, has completed 8th grade. He has worked in Abu Dhabi for four years and now has a job in the company cafeteria. He has four older sisters, all married and living in their husbands’ homes. His mother died, his father remarried, and Padam has four young half-siblings. We interpret this as meaning that the stepmother is badly in need of a buhari, a daughter-in-law to provide any and all household and farm labor. This is a potentially bad situation for any new buhari to step into. We take hope in knowing that Sita is a spirited young woman, but we are also aware that mothers-in-law here have generations of experience taming spirited young women.  

The wedding itself was traditional, if modest. Early Sunday afternoon the groom and his party of 50 arrived in Dharapani. There was a ceremony officiated by a Bahun, a big feast, and tikas and gifts were given to the bride.


Sita’s 6th grade classmates came in force to see her off. 

By 5:00, Sita was a married woman and on her way to a new village in Lamjung, a new set of kinsmen, and a new life. Or so we thought.
After the wedding we learned that Sita’s education was one of the negotiating points. Padam’s family reasonably argued that Sita, being 18 and still in the 6th grade, is not a serious student. When she comes to live with us, they said, she will be put to work. Sita’s family said that she must continue her education and, contrary to usual practice, should continue to live in Dharapani. It was finally agreed that Sita would live here for an undefined period “to study.” That, combined with low demands for dowry, suggested to some that Sita’s family had a strong negotiating hand and played it well.
A week after the wedding, Sita returned to Dharapani, husband in tow. We then learned that Sita will not complete the school year after all, but will return to Lamjung for the two months that Padam is on leave. After that, perhaps she will return here, perhaps not. People are saying it will be Sita’s choice where she lives. Perhaps so, perhaps not. We don’t know how this will play out. But as Sita figures out her married life, she will have to do it largely on her own. Once Padam returns to Abu Dhabi in February, they will not see each other again for two years. 
And now for something completely different…. 

We get few visitors here, and enjoy it when people do come. In early December, we had the special pleasure of a visit from Ariel Wilson, niece of a friend from Harvey's old days. Ariel came to Nepal to teach art and English in Kathmandu, and came to Dharapani to experience rural Nepal for a week. She also taught several art classes in our school. The kids are starved for this kind of thing and they just ate it up. 
One exercise had them draw portraits of each other. All were masterpieces and worthy of our refrigerator, if we had one.

But we are partial to the portraits that 7th-grader Sirjana Pariyar did of us.


The mill is a big hit. It is open and busy every morning, and the women’s association is seeing a profit. We still get pleasure from wandering up there occasionally and seeing it being used. 

Another big public works project is underway. The government is funding a scheme to pump water from the stream near our house to a tank at Paach Chihan, the village above Dharapani. This will be a boon to people up there who now have to carry water 20 minutes up the hill. Water will also be released for those of us down the mountain. The impact on us will be less dramatic. We are close enough to the stream that our non-drinking water is already gravity-piped into a 500-liter tank. Not having to tend to the pipe would be convenient, since making sure the pipe is connected and flowing can consume up to an hour of Harvey’s day.  

To get the job done, the project conscripted community labor. Every afternoon for a week, 30 or 40 people from Dharapani were out digging trenches up and down the mountain. It took a while to get this project going, but once started it was done remarkably quickly and looks to be completed by the end of January.
The weather is cold at night and warm during the days – the best time of year to be in Nepal. Unfortunately, we have been getting waves of pollution drifting up from India and stalling against the Himals. Combined with the winter fogs, we can go for days in banks of thick acrid haze, unable to see across the valley. Scheduled power outages most evenings bring home the length of the winter nights and suggest an early bedtime; we have been getting 10 or 11 hours of sleep a night. We have never felt so rested.
The end of our time here is creeping up. The school year goes through March, after which we will pack up, say difficult good-byes, and re-enter the madness of American life. 

Which brings to mind the holiday season. We wish all of you a very pleasant one and all the best for 2014.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Monsoon's End

We are in the middle of the Dashain holiday, a time when the country shuts down, families get together, and the goat population takes a serious hit. A news report stated that 1.4 million people, over one quarter of the population of Kathmandu, left the city to join family in the countryside. 

A good number of them have ended up here in Dharapani. For us it is wonderful  because Mira, Ashim, Sumana and Suman are back, and the compound is once again full of boisterous activity. Krishna, mit’s second son, arrived from Saudi Arabia after an absence of 18 months. Brihaspati is glad to have to him back, even though it is only for four weeks.
There has been a pall on this year's Dashain festivities. On Vijaya Dashami, the day when families exchange tikas, the remnants of Cyclone Phailin rolled in from India, hit the Himalayas, and stalled. We are in our third day (and counting) of torrential rains. Unlike last year, when our yard hosted scores of relatives, this year's rains kept people away. And that same morning, a young woman in Dharapani died. She had been living in Kathmandu, experienced a recurrence of cancer, and was brought home in July to die. Her death (especially on a Monday, an inauspicious day to die), combined with the storm, put a damper on the holiday. But our family did perform the important ritual of giving tikas, one of the highlights being the exchange between Harvey and his mit.

One of our projects has come to fruition. The nearest grain mill to Dharapani had been down the hill in lower Dumre - a long hike, especially if you are carrying a 50-kilo sack of rice on your back. For three or four years the Dharapani Women’s Association had been collecting dues to build a grain mill here, and despite the substantial funds they had collected it still would have taken them close to a decade to collect enough for a mill. So as a thank-you to the village for having been such wonderful hosts we decided to pitch in the needed funds. 

It was a collective effort. The women’s association provided the Rs 60,000 (about $600) in seed money. Every household in Dharapani paid Rs 1,000 for the labor to construct the building. Our mit served as general contractor, and he did his usual superb job of cajoling, haranguing, serving as the collection agency, and keeping everything and everyone on track. Samjhana Giri (left) and Brihaspati, the treasurer and vice chair of the association, were the guiding spirit, planners, and budgeters behind the project. 

We had the easiest role of all – handing over a wad of cash, cutting the ribbon (done with grace and style by Malinda), and soaking in the praise when people told us (as they did constantly) that our “names will live forever” in Dharapani. We don't care much about living forever, but the mill way well prove to be the most satisfying and worthwhile thing we will have done here – or perhaps the second most, depending on the outcome of another project we will discuss in a future blog. 

Last month we hosted George Basch, the founder of the Himalayan Stove Project, and three of his crew (see our March blog). They were in Dharapani both to distribute more stoves and to shoot video about the stove’s impact on the lives of villagers. People in Dharapani had never before served as film stars and extras and it is safe to say they will be talking about it for a long time. We had a wonderful time: we don't get many visitors, they were good company, and Malinda was celebrating the removal of her cast.


Most Nepalis cook inside the house over open fires that consume lots of firewood and produce unhealthy smoke. Indoor smoke is associated with bronchitis, lung cancer, TB, asthma, and a host of other ills, and the World Health Organization has estimated that 8,000 people in Nepal die each year because of indoor air pollution. The stoves are a wonderful piece of equipment that use less wood, vent the smoke, and create a healthier indoor environment. People love the stoves, they have an immediate impact on the quality of people’s lives, and the demand is insatiable. Please consider a contribution to the Himalayan Stove Project ( and stipulate that you want the stoves to go to Gorkha.
Death and its consequences have been on our minds, and not just because of the death on Dashain. In September, Lok Kumari Adhikari, the women who served as Harvey’s cook in the 1970s, died.  Her husband of 40+ years took it hard, and has gone to live with his son in Chitwan. One by one, Harvey’s links to the past are being snipped.


The husband of Sangita Pariyar (left), the woman who does our laundry, died as well. He had been ill for some time, and the immediate cause seems to have been complications from jaundice. We are getting a fresh perspective on how tough it is to be poor, low-caste, and widowed . 

And then a young woman from Dharapani who had been living in Thantipokhari hanged herself. Married at 14, first child at 16, dead at 19. By one account, she is the fourth suicide by hanging in and around Dharapani in the past 15 years. They all had their stories, but common themes typically include a husband working overseas, domination by a harsh mother-in-law, endless days of hard work, the impossibility of divorce, and no other way out. 

We have another death to report: Tommy the neighborhood dog. He showed up a few months ago and managed a living by making the rounds of nearby houses. But we think he liked us best because we petted him and treated him like, well, a dog. Last week Tommy disappeared, and the odds-on bet in the compound was that he was killed by a leopard. The theory was strengthened when Asmita found Tommy's much-eaten remains in a nearby field. RIP Tommy.

We’re not dead yet, but we have had signs of mortality that required treatment at the government hospital in Ampipal, about an hour's walk up the mountain. In August, Malinda slipped down the stairs and broke her foot. She was in a cast and house-bound for close to a month.  She is fully back to normal. Total cost for the exam, x-ray, cast, and rental of crutches: $30. Last April, Harvey had some weird growthy-bumpy thing on his leg which a biopsy showed to be benign. Total cost for the exam, surgery, biopsy, and follow-up: $24. We would not want brain surgery here, but for primary care, the cost, service, timeliness and lack of bureaucratic idiocy at Ampipal puts the American “advanced” health care system to shame. 

Returning from the outhouse

Ampipal Hospital, taken from Liglig Kot

8th grader Sabina Gurung

We are on a two-week break from school. Working six days a week is turning out to be less onerous than we had feared and we welcome the structure that it gives our lives. As we have written before, our reaction to the pedagogy and textbooks has run the course from disbelief to frustration, and has settled into resignation punctuated by fits of outrage. What makes it all rewarding are the kids. We enjoy warping their minds, to which end we recently taught the 8th-graders to “speak southern.” It is customary in Nepal for students to stand when the teacher enters the room and to say “Good morning, sir” or “Good morning, madam.” Our 8th graders now give us a rousing “Hi y’all!” and we love it when they greet us in the village with “Hi Hon!” and “Hi Sugar!” 


Prior the arrival of Phailin, we had thought the monsoon was over and were glad to see it go. The nights were cool, the roads were passable, and we could once again see the Himals lined up in the north like old friends. It will be that way again once this storm clears out. Life is good.

 And finally (and late), to our Nepali relatives and friends --
दशैको शुभकामना

Building the Dashain ping (swing) in Dumre