13 December, 2017

When the gods descend

Published in ECS Magazine, 2017

Recently the young woman who was helping me to cook and clean started to receive a spate of phone calls at work. “Come over immediately, your work is nothing, your son is everything,” the relatives at the other end would announce. This went on for a while, and she herself said to me: “What is this? I get more phonecalls than the Prime Minister.” I tried to contain my irritation at these very loud phonecalls, but eventually at one point I had to ask her to put her phone on silent. She couldn’t do that, she announced, because a very serious medical emergency was going on at her house. Her son, she said, had “deuta lagyo.”

The gods have gotten hold of him.  

I asked her what was going on with her son. She said that she did not know the specifics because it never happened while she was around, but her relatives had told her had had several episodes in which her son had started to talk deliriously by himself, and also shown symptoms of a physical fit. He has started to beat his relatives, she said. Is it epilepsy? I asked. She shook her head. “No,” she said. “Deuta lagyo.”

As an urbanized woman whose family never ever went to a dhami or a jhankri, I was at a loss as to how to interpret this. But before the symptoms were recognized as a titular deity descending on the young child, Rama had told me her son had “bokshi lagyo” (the witch has caught hold of him.) As soon as she said the word “bokshi lagyo,” I warned her: “Don’t accuse anyone of being a witch. The Nepal government has outlawed that. You could go to jail.”

Rama was nothing if not a quick learner. Immediately the next morning, she told me she’d been mistaken about the bokshi, and nobody had put the evil eye on him. She said that he’d gone with some other children to a Kali temple at midnight, where a young man had committed suicide. The spirit of the young man, she implied, must be disturbing her son.

She recruited a dhami to cure her son. “He’s asked for sixty thousand rupees,” she said, “to cure the two children.” Her niece was also exhibiting the same symptoms, she said. I was shocked. The dhami however, had given her a “guarantee” that he would cure her son, she said, so therefore the money was worth it. “Money is nothing, if my son gets cured,” she said. “The doctor cannot guarantee to cure my son, but the dhami can. He’s already showed up at our house at all times of the day and night, when we’ve called him. He has to, until the children are cured.”

The dhami diagnosed the disease: it was not “bokshi lagyo” but “deuta lagyo,” and they needed to do some protracted pooja to cure the children, he’d said. The next step was a pooja at Pashupatinath, at the labyrinth of the shivalingam, the dhami had told her. The labyrinth is an interesting, disorienting maze, and everyone from the Celts to the Christian mystics have used this device to shake the mind out of its trauma.

After this ceremony, Rama told me her son’s disease was now clear—he’d been seized by the gods, who had aroused themselves within the child and announced this: They had not done the proper pooja required for the family kuldeuta (lineage gods) in a few years, and the gods were angry. Therefore, said the deuta, this dashain the entire family had to gather in the family home and do the requisite pooja in the proper and correct manner, or else very bad things would happen. Nobody was allowed to drink alcohol. “The pujari cannot drink his tea before the ceremony is over, or else I’ll kill him,” the deity within the ten year old boy announced.

I was incredulous, but Rama assured me that not only her son, but also his cousin, a young girl, had been singing and dancing all night long because the Bhairav and seven Seto-devi (the seven white goddesses) had entered them, respectively, and were speaking through them. “It is impossible for young children to make it up for hours and hours,” She said. “When my sister-in-law laughed, my son said to her angrily: Don’t laugh! We had to shut up, even though we felt like laughing,” she says. And this had been going on for days. “I wish I had a video to show you,” she said. “They speak in this voice all night long.”

The gods within the children then got creative. Because it was close to exam time, the gods announced that the children should not be sent to school, but kept home, till they were cured. “Oh, that’s convenient,” I said. “How’s your son’s studies?” She assured me he was doing very well at school, but because of the illness she had heeded the voice of the deity and wasn’t sending him to school. The school administration had kindly agreed to allow him to sit for the next at a later date, once he was feeling better.

“The deuta knows things that my son can’t know about, that we don’t know about,” she said. “Like what?” I asked her, wondering if his mother’s credulity was egging on the child. “He said that his uncle had gone out again last night, drinking.” This seemed to me something a child would be aware of from family gossip, not just precognition or clairsentience, but it was impossible to argue. It was clear that Rama believed her son had indeed been seized by the gods, who were asking for a very serious change in behavior from the family: a commitment to give up drinking (forbidden for Brahmins), a return to a more pure way of propitiation (no lazy pujaris drinking tea before the goddess), and a bringing together of the family when everyone was scattered between Qatar, Kathmandu and the village.

Talking to Liana Chase, an anthropology graduate student who is doing her research in Sindhupalchowk on this topic, I wondered if these incidents weren’t a way for children to express their fears and get attention in families torn by migration. Were these also the only way children could draw attention towards their mental health? Rama’s husband works in Qatar—he’s had to sell his donut shop and go to Qatar after the blockade destroyed his business. From a prosperous small business, the family have suddenly been thrust into economic uncertainty and looming loan repayments. Just before these happenings, Rama had also told me her ten-year old had complained about having to take care of his six year old sister, who’d call him to wipe her ass after going to the toilet. I knew the sister was the spoilt star of the family, and both her father and mother prioritized her needs because she was the smallest, and because she had several health problems. Might not the boy have exhibited these behaviors because he was now being asked to be the head of the household way before he was ready for these responsibilites—and were these symptoms the only way to get attention in a family caught up in other more pressing concerns?

Liana told me about her research, including ways in which these psychosomatic illnesses are being treated in the villages—through government sponsored mental health care clinics, recently set up by the Nepal government; through temples and through churches. She also told me there was an organization in Kathmandu which counseled children who exhibited these symptoms, and they’d gotten better after counseling. 

I shared with Liana some of my concerns about Westernized and medicalized models of mental health care, including a story of a very good friend of mine from Brown University who committed suicide in NYC. She had been going to a psychiatrist since she was 8 years old, and heavily medicated on several drugs, including lithium and Prozac. “To me, these psychiatrists are the dhami-jhankri of the Western world. They are unregulated in their mumbo-jumbo and nobody checks to see if their very expensive drugs actually work,” I said.

What kind of safety net we now set up to deal with mental health care of vulnerable children like these two will be a test of the Nepal Government’s commitment to universal health care.

 I don’t think dhami-jhankri will ever go away, and their presence are a reminder that people need more than Western science to cure their spiritual ailments. During this Tihar, let us remember this: that the older dai is as vulnerable as the younger bahini, and that if the parents cannot distribute their attention equally, the children often get seized by spiritual forces beyond their control.