Animal-purna: My Outstretched Hand For The Street Dogs of Kathmandu

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For weeks I struggled to write this post. Then my Nepali host-father struck a street dog with his walking stick.

The dog was foraging in litter bags, its back turned; this is how they live. The blow was a short, powerful one. The stick clattered, the dog yelped, skittered, spun, teeth bared. My host-father laughed deeply and someone behind him joined in.

‘Na ram ro,’ I shook my head. Not good, my painfully inadequate way of expressing my disgust in his language.

‘Dirty,’ he said, in mine.

I threw up my hands, ‘the whole place is dirty!’

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Business as usual…

Dirty, polluted and over populated. The Bagmati and Bisumati rivers are brimming with waste; agricultural, industrial, human. The streets are thick with dust, putrid emissions – even the rain brings down dirt – and litter, scattered at will, heaped in bags, perversely attractive in its varied colours and textures. When you walk the streets and hear a low throaty rumble behind you, you might mistake it for a growl. But it is more likely a Nepali, summoning the crud from their lungs before hocking that onto the street to join the rest of the filth.

Living among the pollution and the people are the street-dogs. Thousands and thousands of them. By day they slumber in doorways or on stoops, one eye open for feeding opportunities. By night, dog communities rule. Silence in Kathmandu is rare, even in the early hours. Instead the night is rent with dog politics – howls, barks, squeals and chatters.

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I would pass ‘Whatamess’ every morning on my way to work, caked in the same mud…

They live and die among human droppings and garbage with little human intervention, let alone kindness. Most are thin. Many have mange and other parasites. Many bear wounds from cars, battle or burns.

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And every morning I saw this puppy too. He has more leg than anything else, desperately hungry and sore with mange

And when there are too many, when the population becomes too much, the community resolves this through a cull. In acts of utter cowardice they poison the dogs.

Man and dog in Kathmandu? Dependence and ignorance. Unlike the arrogant monkeys that swing in parks and around temples, the dogs rely on people. Yet the people are ignorant, even cruel. Striking a dog will not stop it foraging in the rubbish, nor will it cleanse the streets and the habits of Kathmandu.

I arrive at Kathmandu Animal Treatment Centre (KAT) (ironic because most of their treatment is administered to dogs).

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Kitten irony…

Set up in 2003 by Jan Salter, an artist based in Kathmandu, the charity have implemented a neutering scheme, spaying those female street dogs they can catch, area by area; they treat the injured or diseased (dogs and the occasional cat) and are working to make Kathmandu a rabies-free city.

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Jerry…before

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Aloof (so un-cat-like) but recovering, when I visited KAT last week

Now, KAT are moving to newer, bigger premises, as their current one bursts with a frightening (for me) abundance of canine life.

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Sadly when I saw this one, he was curled in the cage, unable to eat…

So, here’s the outstretched hand. I would like to help KAT. Their cause is in my face and under my feet daily. And in my ears nightly. Nepal has so many pressing problems – political instability, depleted water resources, poverty, discrimination – this one is low down on the national conscience. But somebody has to do something and KAT – helped by their volunteers and funded by donations – are, despite the uphill struggle.

I have set up a Just Giving page and will be using my own uphill struggle – an 18 day trek through the Annapurnas, beginning 3 October – to raise money. I am doing the trek anyway but it seems like a request for donations must be accompanied by a courageous, endurance or crazy event. In the interest of clarity, this is endurance event; I have named it Animal-purna (sorry).

So, please visit KAT’s website and my Just Giving page if you have the time and money to spare.

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A happy and cure ending – one of KAT’s residents…

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My Family – Special Guests

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It was not until my volunteer placement in Nepal drew close that I became anxious about living with a Nepali family. Different customs, different language, different beliefs. Deep down I do know that the ‘What If’ goblin rarely shows his face, but also, things rarely turn out the way you expect them to…

I was aware that there is no equality for women in Nepali society, why else would the charity run a ‘Women’s Empowerment’ program? But as a visitor from another culture, whose own society has made significant, if not absolute, steps in equality, I didn’t think those rules applied to me.

So women, the time of the month is never your favourite time of the month. You’re uncomfortable, painful, those around you more imbecilic than usual… Imagine if, during this time you were forced to live in an outhouse with a sack for bedding and a diet of dried cornflakes for nutrition…

I was becoming comfortable in the household routine. I had got into my daal (lentils) baht (rice) rhythm and every morning I made a point of buying an English language newspaper (small things), which I would read when I got home from the office.

One day, making myself comfortable with The Himalayan Times, Prem came to sit with me. We had our usual non-sensical exchange – a kind of small talk made even smaller because we are usually not even talking about the same thing – before he stood up and announced that we were to be special guests at ‘Mummy’s Brother’s’ house.

I had met Mummy’s Brother – in Nepali culture it is common to refer to people by their family role – along with his wife, a day or so earlier. Mummy’s Brother told me he had been in the Gorka Army and between tours to Cypress, Brunei and Honk Kong, had been stationed in Aldershot, England. I was happy to be invited to the family’s house, if only a little disappointed that The Himalayan would have to wait.

Then Prem began talking to me about mints.

‘Mints?…Mints? You have mints?’ I told him that I had not had any mints recently, knowing that was unlikely to really be asking about mints. He was close, in front of me and he moved his big hands from his throat to his waist in a flowing motion, repeating ‘mints, mints, mints.’

I strained, trying to summon any inspiration. Then he added a new word, ‘nat-ur-al,’ spoken very slowly.

With a creeping horror I realised Prem wanted to know if I was menstruating.

‘Mints,’ meant menses. I could see the funny side; this huge, Mongolian decendent, standing in his front room, hands moving as if in some Hawaiian dance, talking about natural flow. But what right did he have to ask? And what right would somebody have had to decline me dinner if I had said yes?

Whether I would have been kept in an outhouse with only a burlap sack for my bed and denied real sustenance for the fear that I would make anything else I touched impure, I don’t know. But I do suspect I would not have been able to go to dinner, had I answered yes.

This primitive practice of ostracising women during menstruation and following child birth is Chhaupadi. Some Nepali men believe that menstruation and child birth render women impure; their solution, to remove them from the house and the food and the clean water supply. It was outlawed by the Supreme Court of Nepal in 2005, in theory. But only this month The Kathmandu Post (Friday 12, ‘Doti village to be free of Chhaupadi’) covered the story of a district Village Development Committee preparing to declare their village the first ‘Chhaupadi free area’ by October. Now, I know things run late in Nepal, but that is seven years late; it strikes me as the action of a disinterested government looking to appease some international pressure. But what do I know?

Shadows stretched long under the setting sun and the weight of our cultural differences, Prem and I set out for Mummy’s Brother’s house. He mouthing and repeating the English word for menstruation, which he had made me tell him, ‘men-stru-a-tion.’ Me, having given up trying to tell him that it was inappropriate, stunned by the destructive power of superstition.

My Family – Meet the Family

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It was not until my volunteer placement in Nepal drew close that I became anxious about living with a Nepali family. Different customs, different language, different beliefs. But deep down I do know that the ‘What If’ goblin, but also, things rarely turn out the way you expect them to…

This is Prem Gurung and his wife Himalchul – ‘Mummy’. Suman, their nephew, lives at their house too.

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Mummy looking sardonic, as usual…

The Gurungs are my Nepalese family. Prem speaks some English and Mummy’s English is on a par with my Nepali. We communicate with hand gestures and smiley faces; we are having two conversations, sometimes three, but we are trying.

I know their house is numbered ’21’ but I do not know the street name and postcodes do not exist.

For three weeks I am on a dusty, pot-holed ride with my family (a typical experience in Kathmandu) to appreciate how they live, laugh, love and, er, wash in their noisy suburb of Somewhere Northwest of Kathmandu…

My Family – Teej Party

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It was not until my volunteer placement in Nepal drew close that I became anxious about living with a Nepali family. Different customs, different language, different beliefs. But deep down I do know that the ‘What If’ goblin, but also, things rarely turn out the way you expect them to…

My host family, Prem, Himalchul (‘Mummy’) and Suman, their nephew are Hindus (or ‘mix’, as Prem would say, when talking about food, water or religion; because Hinduism in Nepal, is often mixed with Buddhism). Anyway, for the purpose of this story they are Hindus. That is how I came to find myself sweating in a third storey front-room lined with the faces of multiple-generations of Nepali families, dancing some hip-shaking, hand-curling Hindu dance feeling startlingly alive and also wishing for the pain to be over. I would have accepted dying as a way of achieving this.

Why? Last week saw Nepal celebrate the Hindu festival of Teej.

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Teej celebrations out in the open…

The Technical Bit
Teej literally means ‘third’; it occurs the third night after the moonless night of each month. The most important Teej is the one following Shravaana month, which falls in the monsoon season. This is ‘green Teej’ because everything is turned green by the rains (I expect this was named prior to the advent of the motor vehicle and the over-population of Kathmandu, because here, everything is still brown, covered by dust, pollution and general filth) and this is the one the Hindus really celebrate.

Teej is known as a woman’s festival. The reality is that is observed by women dressed in red in support of the wellness of their husbands or future husbands. An extremely male-centric female festival. It involves eating, dancing, singing, fasting, washing and taking offerings to Lord Shiva at the local temple.

The Story
Hindu women pray to Lord Shiva, God of Destruction. So it goes (as I was anecdotally told on a fruitless slog to the viewing tower at Nagrakot) that Shiva returned from places unknown to find that his wife, his goddess, was dead. He was desperate, furious. He did not know what to do. Possibly he lost his mind. He set out naked, taking only his rage with him. He walked and walked. As he walked through the villages he was observed by the women. They were struck, not by him but by his great male appendage; they abandoned their work and set out to follow.

When the priests arrived in the villages they found the women gone. At once they set out to bring them back. Eventually they found them with Shiva, him still naked and them still in thrall. The priests too were furious; they cursed Shiva that his appendage should fall off. And fall off it did.

Shiva retaliated, driven insane by these circumstances. In retaliation, he cursed the women. He cursed that they should never find satisfaction from one man, that they would be insatiable, needing man after man after man and were doomed to be bitches forever.

There ends the tale and that is why, thousands of years later, I found myself on a dusty carpet, trying to mimic the moves of the delicate but feisty Nepali girl in front of me. The reality was stiffly swaying hips out of time to scratchy songs of high-pitched voices and great percussions of drums and string, wiggling and knotting my arms and fingers.

Sitting down after the song – to applause of sorts – I avoided looking at Prem or Mummy, cringing from the intimacy forced upon me. While I was thousands of miles from home, this was just like being at any family party and I, emotionally uncomfortable, was unavoidably me.

Many of the women around the room declined to dance, reticent and giggling. The children sporadically threw themselves across the carpet, then threw themselves onto a chair with sudden self-awareness and the men took control, one pocketing the remote for the stereo, claiming DJ position. And later, when the men were cajoled, pleaded, incited to dance, the room was full of disturbing South Asian displays of ‘dad dancing’.

No party would be complete without the spectre of social embarrassment. Getting up to dance for a second time, he followed me. Trying desperately to copy the hand-pumping, spinning example from the beautiful dancing girl, I smashed my armful of plastic Teej bracelets together (thinking that was what I was to do with them). One immediately shattered across the floor and while I was about to shrug, I saw the looks of horror on the faces lining the walls, followed by frantic scurrying to find the pieces. I reddened from the inside, completely Teej-ed.

That was not enough, he would not let me be. The third time, my arms flailing, I hit a woman and a child, in two separate moves.

Time to sit down.

When I finally made my bed, full of rice pudding and daal, I thought of how even with different clothes, beliefs, dress, music, a family party in Nepal and one in England was not so much different. The reason was different (I am not sure I would welcome a man-celebrating festival in the UK) but the humans were the same. The only absence was alcohol. And, while I am a confirmed lover of wine, this could only be a good thing.