26 September, 2009

EVERY TWELVE YEARS THE RIVER RETURNS

Kathmandu Post, September 26, 2009
SUSHMA JOSHI

I remember Asthami, the eighth day of Dashain, from the old days. My grandfather, notorious for his bad temper, would climb down the rickety steps of his older brother’s house, fuming silently by the time the puja was finished and it was time to chop off the goats’ heads. He never had to wait for his food, so the one day in 365 when a row of female goddesses made him wait for his dal-bhatt was always an explosive time. Enforced silence—the patriarchs couldn’t talk till the puja was finished-- made his unvoiced tantrum even more tense. We’d all hush up and walk around whispering because Baba had lost his famous temper. In hindsight, it seems interesting to me that the only force that could silence this patriarch was eight feminine deities.

We sacrificed five goats for two families of around 50 people. The goats would be brought out from this little archway into the courtyard with the tamped down earth. We—a row of small children—would sit on the high brick wall and watch. Men, trousers’ legs rolled up, brought in the goats. The animals shook with fright, bleated, and tried to escape. We watched with a mixture of horror and fascination. This was the goat we’d fed the leaves to yesterday! This little one was the one that had taken the marigold flower out of my hand! Then a man would raise his khukuri and—chyak!—I always closed my eyes at this point, and when I opened it there would be thick red blood on the ground and the men would be busy running with the headless body, still shaking with post-mortem tremors, around the sacrifical space in a circle.

Yes, and now our grandfathers are going to drink the blood of the goat!, my cousin whispered ominously. She knew everything about everything. I was clueless. No! How can they drink the blood? I asked, disbelieving. Its true, she insisted. They have to drink the raw blood as prasad before they can eat.

His photograph as a young man dressed impeccably in daura-suruwal with a camellia at his coat’s lapel, and a topi tilted over his head, gives no hint of the rage that hid inside. Perhaps he, who spent a lifetime depending upon his sons' earnings, had to show his sense of masculine honor by terrorizing everyone with his words.

If a patriarch could be silenced by the Aasthamatrikas and the Navadurgas, what else could they do? Durga, the supreme manifestation of the Navadurgas, destroyed demons. Those two awful demon duos Shumba and Nishumba, the long lance, the lion who took her there and helped rip open those hairy characters. The base of the myth seems to me to be the power of the feminine to subdue the violence inherent in male psyches, the Shumba and Nishumba that slumbers inside the heart of every man.

There’s a tendency for the best amongst us to collude with Shumba and Nishumba. Durga, in order to fight off this tendency to fawn and bootlick and collude with those who embody impunity—must appear awful. Durga is not Durga if she’s not awe-inspiring, if she doesn’t scare our Shumba-Nishumba cheerleading instincts with her fearful roar.

This year, we’ve seen it all—abductions, kidnappings, murders, impunity in all its forms. Headlines scream—Nepal still a conflict zone. Who wouldn’t, during moments of helplessness, wish for a powerful female figure—munificent, unafraid, sure of victory—ride up on the battleground and drive a stake through those who sow terror and oppression?

Teej is appropriated by Nepali women to celebrate women’s lives and strengths. Teej parties blazed a quick trail across the diaspora, faster than Krishna or Shiva worship. Ever heard of a Shivaratri party in Washington DC? Compare with the number of Teej parties and you’ll see what’s important in the scheme of things. Is it the husbands that women purport to fast for, or the almost intoxicated joy with which women sing and dance, apparently, for their own enjoyment?

In the same way, female activists working fearlessly to eliminate all forms of violence and oppression could get together and try to see how Dashain relates to their own activism. Sure, not everyone’s a Hindu. And not every Hindu wants the sacred and the secular to merge. But there appears to be inherent potential in using this fifteen days not just for cards and cowda but also to think about ways in which feminist and women’s movements can get together and work together to metaphorically “kill” the demons in our society.

I’m not talking about gangs of armed women roaming the streets chopping off the heads of murderers and abductors (although I guess that would add a new dimension to the term “armed conflict.”) I am talking about women’s movements using this time to reflect on ways in which they could draw upon their inherent power to eliminate violence and oppression.

Why not choose a more peaceful deity to eliminate violence, you may ask. How about Saraswoti, that cool and calm goddess of learning who rests on her white lotus and raises nothing more lethal than a musical instrument and a book? The reason for choosing Durga, as those of you who’ve worked in domestic violence, anti-trafficking, and any work which requires dealing with impunity and brute strength, know—violence can only be faced with a degree of unshakable strength.

Every twelve years, goes a Nepali saying, the river returns. Rwanda and Burundi, where Hutus and the Tutsis slaughtered each other in the millions, had a conflict 12 years prior to their horrific genocide. That conflict, smaller, sounds like the Maoists’ People War—ten to twelve thousand people killed before it was peacefully settled through international mediation. Before it again erupted, twelve years after, in its terrific form. Have we brokered a lasting peace, or will we go the way of Rwanda in twelve years? The question, though troublesome, must be asked. Have we killed our demons or do they still live on as drops of blood spilt on the ground and which will rise, like Raktabeej, to mutate into a hundred others?

Lets allow that question to slip to the back of our minds as we return to the present. This is the first Dashain in twelve years in which it again feels like Dashain. The killings, the murders, the “encounters”, the disappearances, and the bombings, for the first time in twelve years, have been stilled. Shumba and Nishumba no longer roam the streets in broad daylight, laughing their awful laugh and reigning supreme. Durga, having driven her stake into those two awful characters, is back in action. Lets celebrate!

Sushma Joshi wishes everyone a Happy Dashain.

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