Tag Archives: Death

Rest in Peace Hajur Bua

It’s been five days since we received the unexpected news—a series of calls from Kathmandu that ended with the death of P’s grandfather.

It has taken me a few days to think about what I wanted to say. It was quite a surprise, even though he was 88 years old, as he was very strong and active.

Hajur Bua was a very important person in P’s family, but I think he was of particular importance to P, who was the first born grandchild. Hajur Bua lived with P since childhood, teaching him how to play many sports, including his favorite—heck, it’s his passion—soccer. He used to walk little P to school every day and then pick him up and walk him home.

He was the “keeper of the house,” the person who was always opening the front gate or looking out the window to see who was coming and going when he heard its clank. Upon arriving at P’s family’s house in Kathmandu he was the first face you’d see, peeking out the gate or waving from the front window or roof, cup of tea in hand. He was always there to welcome us home or bid us farewell.

I first met Hajur Bua when I visited P’s family in 2005. Even then, I had heard many stories about him, and I was happy to have the chance to meet him, as I wasn’t sure when I would be able to come back or if I would meet him again. Luckily I had two more opportunities: He was there again in 2009, telling us stories about his time as a park ranger in Chitwan, acting out sitting on an elephant’s back during a tour. He liked to bring pictures out to share, or his school leaving certificate of which he was very proud.

After our wedding in July 2011 we were able to go back for Dashain. Although very strong, he was too old to make the long journey to America, but was able to participate wholeheartedly in the wedding party that was organized during our trip. He dressed up in a daura suruwal and coat in his favorite color which he called “gabardine” (which I think refers more to a type of fabric, but that’s what he called khaki-brown). He enjoyed sitting near us at the party, talking to people and introducing us to others. While we visited in 2011 he started calling me “Buhari”—bride—the same name he calls P’s mother. “Buhari, have you eaten?” “Buhari, have you seen this program?”

We were able to take our first married Dashain tikka from him. It would be my first and last.

I remembered seeing him many times sitting on the floor, cross-legged, like a man sixty years his junior. I couldn’t imagine my father being nimble enough to do that, let alone my grandparents. It was a testament to his health and fitness.

And then there was Rai Uncle, a former neighbor, who still liked to come over and spend time with the family. Hajur Bua and Rai Uncle had a love/hate relationship. Like two grumpy old men, they sometimes had feuds—“He took my umbrella!” “You cheated at cards!”—but they were companions as well, sharing in card games and conversations.

Hajur Bua also had a love of plants, a hobby I share. Back in Kalingpong, his home area, his family had a nursery with many interesting plants, and as an older man Hajur Bua tended to dozens of potted plants surrounding the P family home, several of which came from the nursery in Kalingpong. Many of the plants were unusual, much like the ones I enjoy collecting. In 2011 I complimented a giant green stemmed succulent plant, some type of Euphorbia, growing in a sunny spot behind the house. Before I knew it he plucked out a section of the plant, wrapped the roots in mud and wrapped the entire thing in damp newspaper and insisted I bring it home. I decided to try, and was able to sneak it in. The plant now grows on my window sill, and reminds me of him every time I see it.

Our Irish friend RH was visiting Nepal at the time of Hajur Bua’s death. He was staying with P’s family for a few days, before making a quick trip to Southern Nepal. He was due back to P’s home the day that Hajur Bua died. RH took the final living picture of Hajur Bua—as he looked through the front window, saying goodbye to him before RH left for Chitwan.

In an email exchange between P and RH, P wrote:

I almost feel as if you were meant to be there that week – to see Hajur Buba one last time. Since you met him, it almost feels as if you were there on our behalf. We also got the last photos of Hajur Buba that you took, looking from the window. It is hard to think that he is not going to be there to look out of that window next time we arrive home in Kathmandu and the next time the metal gate makes a clanking noise.

The whole news has been a shock and a surprise to all of us. He was old and had minor other pains and aches but we all felt that he was this strong person who would live to be 100 or more. At the same time, he passed away the way he wanted, without being bedridden, within a matter of hours. I am also glad that you were able to hear Hajur Buba’s stories once again while you were there.

I want to dedicate this posting to Hajur Bua. He always made me feel welcome and part of the family. We are all very sad at your passing, but we feel honored to have known you.

Jutho

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!

Gai Jatra

September-November is prime festival season in Nepal… even though we are at the end of August, the festivals are already starting.

Today is another  such festival, one I hadn’t heard of until we talked about it yesterday evening while P was showing off his rakhi.

Gai Jatra basically means “festival” (jatra) of the “cows” (gai) and is most commonly celebrated by people of the Newar community in the Kathmandu Valley. The festival commemorates those who have passed away during the previous  year.

Supposedly the festival has roots with the royal family—one of the Malla kings lost his son and the queen was so grief stricken throughout the year that her husband desperately wanted to relieve his wife of her sorrow. He announced that anyone who could make her laugh would be rewarded—so the local people paraded through the streets with cows (a sacred animal in Hinduism), and afterward there was a giant party with costumes, music, and jokes, particularly satirical jokes which made fun of important people in society. Eventually they were able to make the queen laugh, and the festival became an annual occurrence.

As part of the tradition, every family who has lost a relative during the past year participates in a procession through the streets of Kathmandu leading a cow. If a cow is unavailable then a young boy dressed as a cow can be substituted. After the procession the atmosphere is light and jovial—people dress up, wear masks, sing songs and tell jokes. Humor and mockery continue until late in the evening.

According to Wikipedia: “Gaijatra is a healthy festival which enables the people to accept the reality of death and to prepare themselves for life after death.”

Photos from this year's Gai Jatra celebration posted by Nepal News

Musings on Death

I got a call from my aunt last night. She invited P and I to my maternal grandmother’s birthday party at the end of October.

Aunt: “Grandma doesn’t really want to have anything special, but you know, she is getting up there in age, so we should all get together to celebrate. Grandma’s not going to be around forever.”

Later on my Grandmother called, “Did you hear this nonsense? They want to have a birthday party for me. I’m getting too old for this. Anyway, maybe if I was turning a ‘special year’ like 90 or something, but I think this is all very silly. But, your aunt said that we should all get together as a family during happy times, and not just for funerals.”

Maybe my family is just weird, I don’t know, but we’ve always been  candid about this kind of stuff. Death has never been a taboo topic to talk about. In 2007/8 my paternal grandparents passed away within a few months of each other and I feel like most of us knew my Grandmother wasn’t going to be around much longer after Grandpa passed away. She even spoke like she wasn’t going to be around. We didn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, wish death on her, but I think we were all realistic about it… however I think P found this a bit appalling.

Even when I got off the phone last night he had a comment, “I don’t know why you guys have to talk like that. It’s disturbing.” I don’t think we were being morbid, it is a bit lighthearted and harmless, but also acknowledging reality. Grandma isn’t going to be around forever, so why not celebrate now?

This is a cultural difference I’ve noticed between (at least) my family and P’s. I have to be careful sometimes, because I’ve learned over the years that talk about death, even as a joke, bothers him.

For instance, when discussing getting married sooner rather than later, I’d love to say, “My grandmother and your grandfather [Kakabua] are getting quite old. Wouldn’t it be nice to get married earlier so that they can attend?”  but I know he wouldn’t appreciate my point, no matter how valid, because it insinuates that they might die in the next few years. Meanwhile I was excited to go to Nepal and see Kakabua again. I met him four years ago, and at the time he was already in his 80s, I wasn’t sure I’d get the chance to meet him again and was really happy to do so in June. I don’t think I should mention that to P either. Any talk about or around death seems to be off topic.

I was mentioning this to AS today:

Me: “Is this a common thing among Nepalis, having it be a bit taboo to talk about death, or do you think it is just a P thing?”

AS: “Talking about death is taboo, and more so if you are talking about your grandparents or old age people. It is thought to bring ill luck to the person. There is a saying—sometimes people say something and it happens for real, so death is unspoken. Even if someone is in the hospital bed, no one will utter the word death. It is out of respect, love or maybe superstition.”

I can respect that. Talking casually about death in front of P bothers him like people talking about weight in front of my family bothers them.

A pint of beer and bit of reminising during the "Irish wake"

A pint of beer and bit of reminising during the "Irish wake"

Actually this reminds me of when my paternal grandparents passed away. My grandfather died in early December. The Nepalis in the neighborhood had found out shortly afterwards, and they came by to see how I was doing. That night I didn’t feel like making dinner, so I ordered a pizza, and I got a few “looks” while I was eating. I then remembered that in Nepali culture it is common to refrain from certain foods—meats, garlic, onions, salt, etc for a mourning period (usually 13+ days depending). Here I was eating a pizza, the day I found out about his death, which probably had all sorts of taboo elements for someone who just lost a paternal grandparent.

Then when we traveled back to New York for the funeral, the night before my father’s family did what they called an “Irish wake,” meaning we all went out for drinks, and reminisced about my grandfather over glasses of wine and bottles of beer. It was therapeutic, particularly for my father and his siblings, and it was nice for us cousins to hear different stories from our parents’ childhood.

When I was asked about the funeral when I got home, there was again a bit of a shocked reaction–alcohol is another taboo during the mourning period in Nepali culture. They were also surprised that we celebrated Christmas that year… usually Nepali families refrain from celebrating major holidays for a year after a family member’s death. Here we were, three weeks later, although our holiday was “toned down” everyone’s feeling on the matter was, “Grandpa would have wanted it this way” since Christmas was always kind of special for him–his birthday was on Christmas day.

My grandmother passed away during the “epic family visit” in June of 2008. P’s family was both very respectful, but also very curious about my family’s customs associated with death—wearing black, burying the dead, the wake and the funeral, the “Irish wake” that happened again (hmm, maybe we didn’t tell them about that), and probably most shocking of all… P and I brought home a cooler full of meat from the funeral. I know this probably sounds weird even by American standards, but my grandmother loved the caribou and antelope that my dad would hunt, and had quite a bit of it in her freezer when she passed, so my dad took some back and gave us some because he knew P liked it. J Phupu took one look in the cooler and said, “yes, our cultures are very different” since many people abstain from meat for a duration of time after a close family member’s passing.

Anyway, I hate to sound morbid on a Friday afternoon, but I was thinking about these things after the conversation with my aunt last night and P’s reaction, and I thought some of you might find it interesting. We don’t talk about death all the time (I swear!), but it definitely comes up in conversation occasionally.

Which reminds me, speaking of death, I read an interesting blog post a while back about a tourist at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. She basically wrote about how she felt uncomfortable as a tourist at the cremation grounds. You might find it interesting, as I did.