Nepal: Microcredit, Politics, and the Professor

Temples to Shiva at Pashupatinath

13 June  2011 Around 8pm. Well! What an astonishing day.  After I wrote the bit above I went to the women’s center, where I mostly observed Dalina, a volunteer from the Czech republic, teaching a small group of women to write and speak some English words.  Their English is rudimentary but still better than my Nepali, and I think that the experience will be mutually beneficial.  After Dalina finished her lesson, we started a conversational role-playing game which brought us all to the floor laughing.  Then I met with Tej, the director of VSN, to discuss how I can best use my time here.  He would like me to teach in their school because of my credentials, but I prefer to spend my time developing and expanding their women’s program.  I have proposed that we set up a microcredit loan program for poor, unattached women.

Because family connections are everything in this society, a woman who has no husband and who has somehow become disconnected from her relations almost always finds herself in a very vulnerable economic situation.  Laxmi, for example, our cook, has never been married, has no children, and no family or village connections to help her.  She was living with some relatives, but, as best as I can understand, they moved to American and left her homeless.  She came to Sugandha, who arranged for her to live nearby and to cook for the family.  He does not know much more of her story because she has worked for him for a little more than a month.  He has promised to sit down with both us to translate while I ask her questions about her life.

Laxmi is precisely the sort of women whom I would like to help.  There are many women in similar situations—some of them have fled abusive husbands, others have been disowned for some act that the family considers dishonorable, and others have fallen on hard times through other means.  Tej seems to be quite excited about this project.  Obviously, we have much more to discuss, since neither of us has any experience with microfinance.  I welcome any suggestions from you, my readers.  I will be researching the topic and making an effort to learn as much as I can.

There is so much for me to learn here, my brain sometimes feels as though it will explode. Today, for example, began and ended with a lecture from two different men, Sugandha and a professor of American literature, philosophy, and religion, whom I met in a local shop, about Hindu cosmology and the caste system.  Both of them emphasized what must be an elementary concept, namely that there can be no life, no generation, without death and destruction.  The Mahadeva, or great god, manifested himself in three forms, Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the protector, and Mahesora, sometimes also known as Shiva, the destroyer.  Shiva is by far the most popular god, as far as I can tell.   He is figured with snakes and a trident-like staff.  There must be thousands of temples to Shiva in Kathmandu, and in every one of them Shiva is represented by a ligna, or phallic stone.  So, the bringer of death and destruction is also the god of the sex act that brings life into being.

Linga in temple to Shiva at Pashupatinath

Shiva is often seen with Parvati, his wife or lover, sometimes in an explicit sexual embrace.

Vishnu and Parbati at their temple in Durbar Square, Kathmandu

The apparent contradiction between life and death is also seen in the important goddess Kali, who is a manifestation of Durga, the great mother goddess.

Kimberly Kali

The delightful professor whom I met in what we call the general store is called Baikuntha, which means “heaven,” Poudel.  He looks to be about 58 or 60, with short, steel-colored hair, tan skin, high cheekbones and large, dark eyes.  He is smaller than I am, about 5’ 4, sturdily built and still quite fit.  We struck up a conversation about his studies of Native American mythology, and I gave him my card.  He  invited me to his home, where his wife served us some cucumber slices and banana.  She brought us sweet lemon tea when we went up to his study, which was a light-filled room at the top of the house, where there were three single beds pushed against the wall.  One of them was covered with stacks of books, the others were scattered with pillows and were obviously designed for lounging and reading.  There were more books on shelves in an adjoining room.  We knelt in on cushions on the floor, directly facing one another, and talked about yoga, his current fascination with Chinese culture and language, and  the current political situation in Nepal, which is very uncertain and flammable.

The country is still reeling from a ten-year civil war between the Maoists, who rose to power in the hills, and the Nepali army, which owed it allegiance to the King.   The war ended in 2006, after more than 14,000 people died.   In 2008 the Maoists won an astounding victory in the Constituent Assembly elections, winning over a third of the total seats and forming a bloc larger than either of the other political powers, the Congress party and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML).  A Hindu monarchy was declared a secular republic.  Since then feuding between the former adversaries, the Royal National Army and the People’s Army, as well as party in-fighting and corruption all around, has prevented the government from writing a new constitution.  The deadline for a final constitution was set for 28 May 2010 came and went and still the politicians could not cease fighting amongst themselves.   A crisis about this dire situation was recently averted when lawmakers agreed to extend the deadline for yet another three months.  I will still be here when that dates arrives.  Since I have been reading about this stiutation online and in the newspapers, it made me happy to find someone knowledgeable with whom to discuss it.

What I like best about Baikuntha, perhaps, was that he is the first Nepali person who had the nerve to complain about the infernally loud music that has been blasting into the neighborhood for the past eight days.  It was an enormous relief to meet someone else whom the noise was driving insane.  He was also humorously disdainful of the priest and all the “ridiculous activities” that have been going on at the makeshift temple.  He said that the priest was preaching a narrow and imprecise interpretion of the Vedas that could appeal only to the most uneducated Hindu people who think that, in order to be good Hindus, they need do nothing more than dumbly listen to Sanskrit verses that they cannot understand, cover themselves with red powder, dance a bit and go home.  This confirmed my own sense, when I sat for an hour or so among the priest’s swaying acolytes, that they were alarmingly glassy-eyed.

According to the professor, true spirituality requires a great deal of thought and questioning, and does not consist in blindly following a dogma.  I agreed with him, but he did most of the talking.  He also very generously invited me to stop by his house at any time to visit him, or to share meals with his family.  He even said that I could live with them if I wanted to.  I very politely thanked him and said that I was happy at Sugandha’s house.

After our conversation in his airy study, he invited me to Nepali tea at the local tea shop, and that is where he answered my questions about Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and the caste system.  I found everything he had to say very interesting.  As he explained it, uneducated Hindus believe that caste is a permanent, inherent condition, but in fact a person born into a Brahmin caste who does not act like a Brahmin can easily degenerate into a Dalit, or untouchable, whereas a person born into the Dalit caste who behaves ethically and strives to do good in the world, to work on behalf of others, will be reborn as a Brahmin.  Nevertheless, he also said some to my ears uncharitable things about the fourth caste, the Shudra, to which my very generous and kind hosts, Sugandha and Sova, as well as the director of VSN, Tej, belong.  He naturally was born a Brahmin, as his surname indicates.

This conversation took place in the café, which sits on a corner and open on all sides to the street.  As we perched on stools and drank our hot tea in the humid afternoon, Nepali children passing by would interrupt the professor’s lecture to say “Hello!  How are you? What is your name?” to me.  I get this greeting nearly everywhere I go.  It always comes with large smiles and usually with a hand or two, or four, outstretched to shake, and I always stop to talk.  Baikuntha didn’t seem to mind, and picked up everytime exactly where we left off.  One little boy simply stood and stared at me for about 10 minutes.  Perhaps he was trying to understand our conversation.  Nepalis are unabashedly curious, and do not hesitate to ask strangers their age, marital status, and weight.

At any rate, I am tremendously happy to have met Baikuntha, because I know that I will learn a lot about Nepali culture and politics from him.  He has already lent me one book, on the “art of tantra,” which is a serious spiritual practice and nothing like what most Westerners assume.  I want to read it to understand the discrepancy between the highly erotic art on many of the mandirs, or temples, and palaces, and the sexually repressed contemporary society.  He has offered to lend me more so that I can learn about the multitude of Hindu gods and goddesses and better comprehend how Hinduism and Buddhism coexist in Nepali society.  He has also promised to bring me to the university and has also invited me to give a lecture in one of his literature classes.  The only thing that displeases me were his rather prejudiced opinions about the Shudra caste, which contradicted all that he had said about the fluidity of character.  Since I had just met him, and he had been so kind, I did not challenge him when he disparaged all Shudras.  I will have to ask more pointed questions the next time we meet.

But here is how he left me today.  He said that it was remarkable that I had given up my job as a professor and come to Nepal to volunteer.  And that if I stayed and studied the culture and the language that this a alone would be a great achievement.  It was nice to hear.