Nepali Jiwan had an interesting post on the concept of “impurity” in Nepal that I wanted to link to. I’ve been wanting to write about the Nepali concept of jutho or (for lack of a better word to describe it in English) “impurity” for a long time, but as Nepali Jiwan points out, the concept is very multifaceted and complicated and can seep in to many different aspects of life such as table etiquette, customs surrounding death, even women’s menstrual cycles.
Once I tried to list some of the jutho topics I’d learned about—mostly from table etiquette. For instance, one is not supposed to touch another person’s plate with your hands or eating utensils once you have started eating since this would “contaminate” the other person’s food. This even extends to reaching out to bowls in the center of the table and taking more food for yourself—a very American concept of eating (“Please pass the mashed potatoes!”)—because this could potentially contaminate the food as well, and is a reason that many Nepali women will serve everyone in the family first and wait until everyone else is done before eating themselves. In a country where we mostly use forks and spoons and our hands remain “clean” while eating, the idea of if you reach out to spoon more potatoes on your own plate you are “contaminating” the bowl of potatoes might sound a little weird, but if you are eating with your hands and they are sticky with mashed potatoes and butter, then you can imagine that multiple people reaching out to a serving spoon could get messy real quick.
Then why not use your other hand? Because the left hand is reserved for “cleaning yourself in the bathroom” and even though one washes your hands after wiping yourself, your left hand is ritually impure due to this, so it would be considered impolite to reach out to a serving spoon with such a hand.
While P’s family was here, they adapted to my more “American” style, and although they ate with their hands, I think they served themselves by reaching out with their left hand to the serving spoon or asked for someone like me, who was using a spoon at the table and had a clean hand, to dish out more food. I’m not sure if this made them uncomfortable, because I never thought to ask, instead I was just pleased to have a more “family style” (to me) way of eating, rather than P’s mom running back and forth serving everyone and then eating by herself. When we got to Nepal, the “Nepali” style returned.
This example is just one basic example of jutho, but there are many many more. I’m not in the best position to explain them as I live in the US with many younger Nepalis who don’t necessarily follow many of the rules of jutho, but when you live with a family back in Nepal the rules can become more evident depending on how strict the household is. Nepali Jiwan mentions a few—such as the jutho taboos surrounding a recently deceased family member.
Her mother-in-law passed away a few months ago, so the entire family is unable to celebrate holidays for an entire year. She writes about how she can understand how this can be useful in excusing yourself from the many social obligations in Nepal during a sad time, but the yearlong ban can feel lonely. I remember some of my Nepali friends and even P feeling very surprised the year my Grandfather died—he died at the beginning of December and my family celebrated Christmas that year. For a culture that waits an entire year, I think it made P feel uncomfortable to celebrate Christmas only two or three weeks after a close family member’s death. This makes me wonder what would happen in the future with a close family member’s death– I can understand not celebrating Nepali festivals for a year in respect of P’s relative, but will this extend to American festivals too? I can’t see my family accepting that–what, no Christmas presents this year? If we were in the US it might be less of a problem than if we were in Nepal, but I think I’d be sad not to have my festivals for a whole year if we were living over there. I guess this is all food for thought, and ramblings.
Someone I know who was getting married experienced some of this type of jutho. If you are informed of a family member’s death, then the celebration ban of jutho extends to wedding ceremonies and even eating (you have to abstain from meat, salt, and certain other spices for a certain number of days) so sometimes people will delay relaying information about a death until after meal times, or after a ceremony so that the ceremony won’t be disrupted. This can happen if you are far enough away in relation to someone, but if you are too close in relation then you have to be told no matter what. So this individual’s parents couldn’t travel to the wedding ceremony in the US because an elderly relative was close to death and the parents of the friend would have to be told if that particular relative died, whereas my friend could be delayed in being told until after the ceremony if the relative happened to die before it took place.
I originally started writing this post because I wanted to write more specifically about menstrual jutho, but this post is already getting long. I’ll break the post in two and write more tomorrow.
In the meantime, do others have jutho examples they can share? It would be good to learn about other juthos out there!