Friday, February 18, 2011

Ghosts and Tigers and Yogis

A friend of mine once referred to the "magical realism" of living in Nepal. I like that phrase - my perspective on reality often seems a bit fuzzier here, less solid. A lot of that comes from living in a culture with different habits and religious beliefs than mine, I guess, and using a language that I do not completely understand. But the events of the villages seem to travel more through rumor and hearsay; they seem to be more malleable, and occasionally rely on supernatural explanations.

For example, when I started throwing up and couldn't drink or eat anything for about 18 hours, I was propped up on the back of a motorcycle and sent to the village health post to be treated for food poisoning. When the same thing happened to the Headmaster's son, they sent for the village jhankri, the witch doctor. When I asked him how he was that day he said first, "malaai bhut laagyo" ('I feel a ghost' - certain ailments are traditionally said to come from spirit molestation) and then 'malaai ringaTaa laagyo" ('I feel nauseous'). The witch doctor breathed on him, extracting the ghost. I wasn't there at the time. My brother said that this works sometimes, the medicine works other times. I've told them that the next time I get food poisoning they should get a jhankri instead of sending me to the health post again, which was super-cold because the doors didn't close and they used these Indian-made needles that were of a size and thickness that I feel should be reserved for horses.

Another example: there may or may not be a tiger in my village that is eating people right now. When I first came to this village I asked if there were any leopards in the woods (because of my experience with the leopard my first time in Nepal, which I mention here), and they laughed and told me no. Then last month I was told not to go out at night because the leopard had come back and you could hear its cries at night (this is not fun because of how far away the outhouse is from the front door). Later I was told that now there is also a tiger. I didn't think that there were tigers around here, and people often use the Nepali word for 'tiger' to mean 'any large, unreasonably irritable jungle cat,' but this person used both the word for 'tiger' and the word for 'leopard' in the same sentence, as if they were two jungle pals on a tour of the villages. Anyway, one of them apparently ate a kid. Or an adult. Or attacked two kids. Also, this either happened in Chapagaon, Lele, or Neupani. The story seems to differ quite a bit depending upon whom I ask, but everybody seems to agree that someone died and that a tiger was involved. I can't find this in the news anywhere, but I'm sure that it has been carried by local newspapers. And of course my knowledge of the attack is hindered by my imperfect knowledge of written and spoken Nepali.

At least this is not a tiger ghost. In 2008 I heard rumors of tiger attacks in a friend's village that were attributed to a tiger ghost that could turn to smoke and evade the police and the army. The story was that a sorcerer in the town died, but he had told his wife on his deathbed that he could come back to life if the wife offered rice to his spirit. However, when his spirit came in the form of a tiger, she fled in terror and the sorcerer was trapped in the tiger body. In a rage he began attacking the villagers, one time eating eleven of them in a single attack. Intrigued by this story, I asked what proof people had that the dead sorcerer was the tiger. They told me that despite his knowledge of magic, he was a modern man, hardly ever seen without his wristwatch and his cellphone. When that tiger killed the eleven men, the twelfth man climbed a tree and hid there, and he saw a wristwatch on the tiger's paw and a cellphone tangled in the fur by its neck. That was how they knew. I wonder how many permutations this story has, and what the family of the sorcerer think about it.

One more story. I just finished Fatalism and Development, which was written in 1991 by the famous Nepali sociologist Dor Bahadur Bista. I read chapters of it in an anthropology class back in California. He lived not far away in Lubu and I'm told that his son has visited our house. The book is basically a sociological critique of the Nepali version of the caste system and how it impedes economic development. In very strong language, Bista claims that the caste system and the values of the upper-caste Brahmin-Chhettris, which are not native to Nepal but imported from India, create a culture of sycophancy and superstition and fatalism that impedes development. The book, as you might guess, was pretty controversial in Nepal. True or not, it was interesting for me to read because it offered explanations for some of the most vexing cultural discontinuities I've experienced - e.g. the flexibility of time and the lack of planning and scheduling in the schools, the implied importance of personal connections over competence in government and work, the duties I feel placed upon me as part of my adopted "family," the constant vilification I hear of Nepal and idolization of the United States, etc. Anyway, in 1995 Bista was doing work in a remote region of Nepal when he disappeared and was never heard from again. It was assumed that he was murdered by high caste villagers who disagreed with his egalitarian motives. But in 2000 the Nepali Times ran an article entitled Dor Bahadur Alive, which claimed evidence that he had simply moved to India without telling anyone and become a religious ascetic. I guess that makes sense; kings have done this in the past. But how strange it seems in this day and age that people don't know. His family wants to see him but doesn't want to bother the police about it. In some ways it seems like a nice way to go, with people not knowing if you are dead in the ground somewhere or way off in another country living a life of renunciation and meditative calm. The history of people and their lives seems fluid - like the Royal Massacre, in which the generally accepted story is that the Crown Prince killed his family and yet many people refuse to believe that it was not a secret Maoist coup, the Shakespearean machinations of the king's younger brother Gyanendra, or the CIA...

Anyway, you can accuse me of dwelling on the exotic and fantastic, but of course these are the things that both make me doubt my rational understanding of the world and make me want to write back home with interesting stories. Also, speaking of magical realism, I just recently discovered this: if you take any author of magical realism and combine together the titles of their two most popular books, you get the name of what sounds like a really terrible death metal band! So with Salman Rushdie you get "The Satanic Children," and with Gábriel García Marquez you get "100 Years of Cholera." 

1 comment:

  1. Dear Luke,
    Please don't get eaten. If you do, promise me that your fleeting soul will take over the body of the tiger and become an immortal thing of legend. That way I'll at least know you're still around.