The Tea Project

As I explained in my last post, having set out with the expectation of doing housing work in Dhading, I found myself instead pledging to do something a lot more like pastoral care. I had decided to (to the best of my ability) visit every house in Ward 6 at least long enough to drink tea, according to the well-established social conventions of Nepali hospitality. (Not everyone served me tea — some served me the local yogurt drink mohi, some served me milk or juice — but I pledged a tea-sized visit.)

To this, I added a second component. Since this was to be essentially a listening tour, I thought it would be nice to create some kind of visual result of all of my listening. I had a brainstorm in this regard, remembering the Japanese temple tradition of writing wishes on small pieces of paper and tying them onto strings outside of Shinto temples:

It occurred to me that as I talked to people in Dhading, I could write down what they said on small pieces of paper, tie all the papers onto a string, and display it at the Shiva temple right by the footbridge, which had completely survived the earthquake. (I figured this spot was not only attractive and had some nice trees outside to help hang things from, but was a spot most people walk past pretty routinely on their way down to Khahare bazaar.)

My pitch to people was that I was collecting everyone’s “man-ko kura” — the words of their hearts — regarding the earthquake, and that by hanging it at the Mahadev Mandir we would be “showing everyone’s man-ko kura to Bhagawan (Lord).”

This project turned out to be enormously popular. Pretty much no one had ever heard of such an idea before (except for one man who had worked as a cook in Japan and said, “oh yeah, I’ve totally seen that”), but almost everyone grasped the idea pretty quickly and were soon explaining it to each other.

So I bought some paper and string (and a piece of cardboard to wind the project-in-progress) and set out to start visiting.

My visits tended to last about half an hour. I would arrive and make small talk for awhile, and usually they would provide me tea, fruit, or something similar. I would carefully examine the site of their old house, and ask them about their earthquake experiences — where were you when it happened? were you able to save anything from the house? Then I would explain my project and ask what they wanted to say. Usually I would write for them, because the majority of adults in Ward 6 are illiterate, but some people proudly wrote for themselves.

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When I was writing for someone, it was a bit of a toss-up whether I recorded what they said in English or Nepali, so I hope that Shiva Mahadev is biligual. If someone talked slowly and conventionally, I usually wrote in devanagari in their exact words; if they spoke quickly and dynamically, I generally reverted to English.

A lot of people who told me very interesting things in general conversation reverted to established platitudes for the paper project — like “bhagawan, sabailai raksha garnu hos” (Lord, please protect everyone), but when someone shared something especially moving or special, I slipped the paper back into the pile to record:

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Then, to complete the visit, I would carefully write down everyone’s names in my notebook, and take photographs of everyone present. This seemed to be the part of the process where people felt most officially noticed.

It’s a little hard to get Nepalis — especially older Nepalis — to smile naturally for a photo, because photographs are important occasions and so you should be serious. But I didn’t at all want to send out into the world images of people looking dour and sad. I wanted to capture people looking like themselves — funny, warm, complicated, contentious, aggressively hospitable — and so sometimes it took some time joking and teasing and cajoling to get something a little more natural:

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Altogether, I visited 38 houses in addition to the house where I ate my meals and the house where I slept. There were a handful of houses where I couldn’t catch anyone at home, two houses where people didn’t really want to be visited, and possibly a handful of houses that I failed to locate — but because some people have left after the earthquake I think the current size of Ward 6 is probably only about 50 houses, so my coverage was pretty close to comprehensive.

It took me the full two weeks to do all my visiting — partly because of the limitations of time (since it is rice-planting season, I could only rely on people to be home from about 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., and then about 5 p.m. until it got dark a bit after 7 p.m.), and partly because of the natural limitations of my ability to be wholly present — not to mention the natural limitations of my stomach. (To my credit, though, on Saturday July 11th I drank an epic eleven cups of tea.)

By the end of the time, I had a camera full of pictures, a notebook full of names, and a string full of earthquake memories and sadnesses and hopes for the future. I woke up early on the day I had to catch my bus to leave, and Dil Bahadur and I went and hung the string of tied up paper at the temple. Dil Bahadur was insistent that all the words would best reach Mahadev if we wrapped the string around the tridents over his gate, and so here is how we left it.

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It probably won’t last long in the monsoon rains, but I hope enough people walk past to be able to see their words all collected together. It’s common in rural Nepal for people to tell each other not to cry or to dwell on hard things (since hard things happen all the time, and there’s so little you can do), so I hope it was helpful to have the opportunity to talk about the earthquake to me.

Certainly the majority of people thanked me effusively for coming. One woman in particular held my hand and said over and over, “Thank you for coming hear to my house. I had the opportunity to tell you my sorrows (dukha) in my own language, and you could listen and understand. I could tell you, and you could hear. So thank you — thank you.”

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