Amma

Nestled between two giants, India’s influence is particularly strong in Nepal.




The Mother and the Motherland are greater than Heaven.
-National motto of Nepal

In September 2009 I lived in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, where I spent time volunteering in a children’s home. Travelling with Global Volunteer Service, I spent time under the care and direction of Volunteer Service in Nepal, which cared for children in four different children’s homes in the Kathmandu Valley. During my time at Shining Stars Children’s Home I lived with a wonderful Nepali family from whom I learned a great deal about the rich and complex Nepali culture. The majority of volunteers with Volunteer Service in Nepal were from the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States of America, New Zealand, and Australia. Since for many volunteers, including myself, this was our first time in an Asian country, there was also a four-day crash course on the language and culture of Nepal. During this time each volunteer stayed with a Nepali family, many of which were multi-generational and neighbours with other family members. During these four days we were in a particularly rural part of Nepal, Bistachaap, where every day women worked in rice and vegetables fields. Of course, the majority of the lessons occurred outside of the classroom. Since I had an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and what I believed to be a firm grasp of the Hindu religion, I was relatively confident that I would be comfortable regardless of any unexpected social mores. I would receive one of my most potent lessons from “my” grandmother in this beautiful countryside.

My fervent and frequent offers of help had been politely but roundly declined by my host mother and sister. Although the Nepali family that had taken me into their home was being compensated for my presence, I still felt the need to be useful to them, if only in some small capacity. So when I saw my host grandmother sharpening a small hand-held scythe on a whet stone in a muddy corner of the yard, I imposed myself once more. I grabbed my Nepali-language workbook and bent low beside the woman. “Ma tapani laai maddat gorna sakchhu?” I asked slowly, but, fortunately, not incomprehensibly. For a moment I thought she would hold up her hand to wave me away, but to my surprise and delight she nodded instead. I tossed my workbook into my room and stood at attention, awaiting orders.

My grandmother wore traditional Nepali clothing. The hem of her rose-coloured skirt hung lightly around her brown ankles. A light pink jacket fit snugly around her slender arms. The only element of her wardrobe that betrayed the century was the pair of blue plastic “fashion” sandles she wore. The glittering bangles around her wrists made music as she patted the low wall that surrounded the house. I sat as my grandmother crouched low to the ground, her inner thighs supporting her torso. Scythe in hand, she went to her work with calm verve, trimming the foot-high grass and weeds.

Grandmother continued in this fashion for only a few minutes, just until I had begun to think that my only work would be to keep her company. She stood up and departed, leaving me looking out onto the rolling tree-covered mountains, and the tiny houses that dotted the mountains’ base. She returned with a large, woven basket. She held up the grass she had just cut, looked me in the eye, and tossed the bundle into the basket. I had been given my task. She resumed her crouching position and I followed behind, taking the freshly-cut grass and tossing it exuberantly into the basket, crushing down the contents as they neared the basket’s rim. From the speed and deftness at which she performed her task it was clear that it was not such a great burden that I lifted; she had likely perfected the simultaneous cutting and discarding of the grass when the Berlin Wall was being built.

Nepal’s Coat of Arms. Nepal’s flag is featured at the very top of the crest.

Having a constant stream of volunteers coming through your home can have a variety of effects on a person. I had seen people become exasperated with some Western visitors. In the home where I had stayed for the majority for my time in Nepal, my sister held Westerners to a high standard. My sister was shocked when visitors staying in their home and working in their community would refuse to eat the food prepared for them, or decline to participate in festival activities. Despite being the  result of the best education, healthcare, and opportunities this world has to offer, some visitors were unable to recognize themselves as ambassadors and models.

During the four days I spent in her son’s home, the elderly but energetic lady had been very kind to me, despite my own blind spots. During the four days in Bistachaap she often invited me to sit on the wooden bench on their cement porch, bringing me hot milky tea and snacks, usually pounded rice. She accommodated my clumsy attempts at the language that was truly foreign to me. Her tanned face became a wonderful knot of wrinkles when she smiled, and so was frequently lined. I wanted badly to touch it or to take a picture of it, but propriety and shyness precluded such small actions.

When we had finished the front of the house we proceeded onto the side. Rogue goat kids bleated as they made way for our assembly line in motion. I heard fellow volunteers laughing in the house next door, but for the moment I was pleased to follow my grandmother. An elderly lady in blue clothing emerged from the neighbour’s yard and struck up a conversation with my grandmother. Bistachaap is a very small village in which one can claim family members living in every other concrete home, so for all I knew these two could have simply been neighbours, or they could have been cousins or sisters. At any rate, they had witnessed the other’s life and so had no small amount of conversation to share, my grandmother cutting the grass all the while. In a moment of solipsism I fathomed that my grandmother’s visitor might be serving up some jibes about the basket-toting shadow behind her friend, but if this was the case she had  the grace not to look at me as the two women laughed, slowly circumambulating the mud- and pepper-covered home.

Soon we were alone again, the basket growing ever heavier. As we neared the back of the house she cut some reeds and threw them on a pile of rotting mud and straw next to a tiny barn. “Should I put the grass on that pile too?” I asked, motioning wildly so that my meaning would be clear. She smiled but shook her head. “Gaai,” she answered, pointing to the stone barn situated about ten feet behind her home. I was thrilled to recognize the word. “Oh, it’s for the cow!” Lines galore greeted my understanding and she nodded and motioned again. We set back to cutting the grass, she oblivious to the earwigs jostling about her feet and the mosquitoes that crowded her face. I was not as focused and alternatively shuffled and swatted, as the case demanded. My grandmother chopped bamboo branches and flung them over her shoulder into the wilderness behind the house. Her dark braid was intertwined with scarlet strips of cloth, and she flipped it from over her shoulder to swing down the length of her back.

Our work finished, I emptied the grass where the livestock would eventually reach their feast. My grandmother had already washed her hands and I followed suit. The water was cold from the outside tap, where we also washed dishes, our clothes, and ourselves. She had already taken a seat on the front porch and invited me to sit as well, “Basnus.” The bench on the porch sat two comfortably but my grandmother was happy to assume a crouching position, ever after her meticulous work on the lawn. Between her animated chatter, my little Nepali, and the general good cheer that pervaded the space where work was, we had a very enjoyable conversation. Through the sheer will to understand one another, I learned that the woman had three sons, all of whom lived on the same lane. Her husband lived and worked in Kathmandu proper. She missed him very much but they sometimes found the opportunity to speak on a phone. She had eight grandchildren. Her father-in-law also lived in the home where she and I lived. A thin-legged man, he had no qualms about showering naked in front of any and all. She would wait until he trudged up the hill at 3:00pm, when he joined the village’s contingent of elderly men at the one and only tea shop. Only then would she light a cigarette, since the smoke bothered the old man.

This is a photograph taken by David Stubbs for National Geographic. This kitchen, located in the northern Nepali city of Lo Manthang, is similar to the kitchen in the home where I stayed in Bistachaap. For more National Geographic photographs of Nepal, click here.

After our chat we sat silently for a while. It suddenly occurred to me that I did not know the woman’s name. “Tapaaiko naam ke ho?” I asked. She smiled without showing her teeth; just a pleasant, patient smile. “Amma,” she told me. I nodded, not knowing whether or not I had incorrectly asked the question or if the word was also a personal name. In Nepali the word “amma” means “mother”. I did not realize how much this exchange foreshadowed our next chore, which only the stamina of a mother could tolerate.

Amma tried to explain the particulars of our task, but I only understood the words “fat” and “cow”. I was just pleased that I hadn’t been deemed incapable of anything more complex than bundling grass. I followed Amma back to the barn, with it’s rattan roof and small stone windows. I supposed that we would now feed the cows, as we had plenty of grass. Grandmother lifted a large pile of the greens in her arms and climbed in through one of the barn’s low windows with amazing dexterity.

“Should I bring some too?” I asked, pointing to the pile with one hand and to myself with the other. Grandmother shook her head and through the window I spied the door that she motioned towards. I quickly made my way to the back of the barn, hopping to and fro to avoid the fruits of previous cow meals. From the inside Amma opened the thin wooden double doors and I peered into the dark space, taking stock of the animals inside. “Dui moto gaai!” I exclaimed childishly, seeing that in fact the family owned two large yellow cows, which alternately mooed, ate, defecated, and scratched their heads on the poles supporting the thatched roofs. Grandmother smiled as she distributed the feed. She pointed out the two goats as well as the tiny, kicking calf in the corner. I stood there, hands on hips, satisfied with the shape of things.

Located in Kathmandu Valley, the Buddhist Temple Swayambhunath is called the Monkey Temple for its many vivacious and mischievous simian dwellers. The above photo shows the many steps up to the Temple.

The feeding of the livestock finished, Amma began scooping up the old straw that lay in muddy piles behind the animals. Man, I thought to myself, I sure hope she avoids that massive pile of shit beside that straw. Quite the contrary, she used the straw to get a firm grip on the cow manure. With the same gusto with which she cut the grass, she tossed the vile mixture out the side window, onto the same “muddy” pile onto which she had tossed the long reeds. I loomed in the doorway, my eyes unnaturally wide and my mouth rudely agape. Amma scooped the cows’ urine with cupped hands from a narrow trough in the floor and sent it to the same flying fate as the dung. I was unsure whether I was expected to help and, to my embarrassment, realized that I was completely unwilling to do so in any case. Amma was neither judgmental nor insistent that I continue with the work that I had demanded she put me to. She continued to scrape the shit off the rocks, once and a while admonishing the animals for stepping in her path. In this way I watched her ensure the health of the livestock, and thus the health and prosperity of her family. When she had finished her work she walked to the tap, scattering birds from their makeshift birdbath in the puddles below. I watched as she vigorously scrubbed her fingers in the cold flowing water.

The next morning was my final in Bistachaap. At 6:45am Amma knocked on my door, although I had been up for almost two hours already. “Chiyya,” she announced, and handed me a cup of strong black Nepali tea, heavily sugared and nice to smell. “Basnus,” she kindly demanded, and I sat on the bench with my tea. My grandmother crouched next to me. The songs of birds and one of her granddaughters were the only sounds. The inquisitive birds and the low clouds, obscuring the tops of the mountains, our only welcome intruders.

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