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.
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.
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.