In the winter of 1993, a team of six rongba – southerners – went to Lo Monthang, in the northern part of the north-central Nepali state of Mustang, to set up office. I was among them. At age 24, I was the youngest of the team, the only woman, and also the highest-ranking staff member: I was the officer-in-charge of the inelegantly named Upper Mustang Conservation and Development Programme, or UMCDP. This was the latest, and most far-flung, outpost of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project. I had gotten the job after organisation’s existing staff, and several applicants, had refused the remote posting. My main qualification was that I had published a travelogue on Mustang. My knowledge of the area was my sole advantage over the rest of the team. Otherwise, I was new to NGO work, and under pressure to prove myself. I was determined to do so, by being very, very good.
We knew that the villages of northern Mustang emptied out in the wintertime. Shortly after the previous autumn’s harvest, the able-bodied men and women would have closed up their dealings and headed south, across the Indian border all the way to Ludhiana. There they would have bought wool sweaters wholesale, and then resold them in street-side stalls throughout North India all winter. Their highland features loaned authenticity to their wares. Buyers preferred their sweaters to those sold by vendors from the plain.
Back in the villages remained the elderly and the very young, all becoming grimier by the day as the bitter north wind bore down from the Tibetan plateau, plunging the temperatures to below zero. Everyone – except us rongba, who did not know better – huddled around the sooty hearth for warmth during mornings and evenings. In the daytime, there was the brilliant high-altitude sun to bask in. People came out of their adobe houses to warm up their bones; and the miniature ‘lulu’ cows were freed from their stalls. As the shadows lengthened over the villages’ adobes and narrow lanes, the cows would shift, following the sun, till at sundown they would be edging up to the walls, desperate to hold onto the last of the warmth.
For the locals, there was no work to be done in this season. There was nothing to do but to survive till springtime, when the others – and life – would return to the villages. We had deliberately chosen this period to set up. We wanted to spend the wintertime surveying the villages, and identifying areas in which to work. The work season in upper Mustang spanned from April to September. We wanted to be ready to launch our programmes as soon as everyone returned.
Out of bounds
The quiescent wintertime was a period of discovery for us rongba. We would venture into the villages, and come back and share what we had learned. As we forged formal relationships and informal friendships we came across myriad novelties, such as the practice of one woman marrying several brothers, or that of men going over to the woman’s house after marriage. Which were the best horses around? Where were the raja of Mustang’s yaks kept? What was life like for the nomads who lived along the Tibet border? What social hierarchies were in place here? What life-cycle rituals were observed? One day some of the staff went to witness a sky burial, and returned ashen-faced.
We knew about the power of the monasteries, and made sure to keep the lamas and monks in good humour. We were sensitive to matters of religion: we had prayers put on to inaugurate our office building. About local superstitions, however, we learned only slowly, and only by chance.
One day some of my colleagues met a witch, as they were walking between villages. They reached a mid-way point between the two villages to find the teashop at which they usually stopped closed. So, they asked the woman next door whether they might get some tea at her house. It was only once they were seated that one of them remembered a rumour he had heard earlier – that she was a witch.
‘When a witch says you should do something, you can’t refuse her, or she’ll wish you harm,’ he explained to the rest of the staff a few days later. ‘We asked for tea, but she poured us chhang. It was the middle of the day and we didn’t want alcohol, but we couldn’t say no. We had to drink the chhang. We were about to leave after one cup, but she poured us another cup, then another. There was nothing we could do – we had to drink it all. We were completely drunk by the time we left her house!’
This was a benign encounter, relived, amid much hilarity, as a tall tale, a colourful anecdote. But it piqued my curiosity. I knew the house they had entered; I passed it often. When I passed it now I began to look for the woman who was supposed to be a witch. A few times I saw her. She fit all the stereotypes of a ‘bad’ woman, one who lived outside the bounds of society. She had no husband or children. She lived completely alone. She was past reproductive age, and beyond caring about her appearance: her face was caked with dirt, her hair was dishevelled, her clothes a mess. When I called out to her in greeting, she made no reply. She seemed to have no interest in social niceties.
It struck me how lonely she must be. It also struck me how uneasy it must feel, for those who lived within the bounds of society, to have a woman like her in their midst. She was a constant reminder of the price a woman had to pay if, by misfortune or by her own will, she fell out of society somehow. And yet this woman was also a reminder of a certain hard, bitter freedom such a woman could obtain. It did impress me that she went on with her life, however, despite the tag of ‘witch’ she had gained. People left her alone, and she left them alone.
It was not till the end of winter that I saw the power this woman – or her guise as ‘witch’ – could exert over women utterly unlike her, women who remained firmly within the bounds of society. There was an epidemic of ‘bewitchings’ in a neighbouring village that year. This took place around February. I found out about it when I stayed in the area overnight, as I often did when I went from village to village, drawing up the work plan for the year.
I always stayed in the house of a merchant, sharing a room with the youngest daughter of the house. She was well-spoken, very pretty and extremely hardworking. Even when all her siblings were there, the main load of chores fell on her: she kept the house, controlled the larder, cooked all the meals and dealt with guests, all without complaint. I had noted that despite the relative affluence of her family, hers was a life of drudgery. At night, she would come into the room and fall asleep almost as soon as she lay down, intently, almost dutifully, resting up for what promised to be another long day ahead.
This winter, she was alone in the house with her father and a few family elders. All her brothers and sisters had left. She had wanted to join them, but someone had to run the house. That someone – as always – was her.
This time, when I got to the house, she was nowhere in sight. The cleaning and cooking were being done by others, and she did not join me in her room at night. I asked about her the following day, and was told, by a family elder, that she was not feeling well. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, she came out with the truth. ‘Boksi lagyo,’ she explained, noting that the young woman had been bewitched. This manifested in very bad behaviour: she would have tantrums, refuse to work and insist on breaking out of the confines of her family’s home. Her voice changed into a low, unpleasant growl. And no matter how much her family tried to watch over her, she would be found, some mornings, asleep outdoors, in the village lanes. All this, I was told, was the doing of witches.
‘Which witch?’ I asked.
‘Eh, there’s one who lives around here.’ The woman gestured vaguely. ‘There’s another one over there. I don’t know if they’re real witches,’ she said, ‘but that’s what people say about them.’
The young woman was not the only one in the village to have been bewitched. In the following days, I heard of other cases of women (it was always women) behaving badly. They too would have tantrums, refuse to work, break away from home, speak in the voices of others, and sleep outdoors, in the village lanes. There was, in fact, quite a rash of bewitchings going on: an epidemic. I found out that this was taking place in 15 or 20 families in a village of about 200 houses.
To cure these women, the family had to call in Buddhist monks, have prayers performed, make sacrifices, spend money. They had to care for these women and ease their burdens, if only temporarily. They had to meet their needs and pay attention to them, and pamper them, even, for at least a week or two.
To me, this made perfect sense. It made sense that via a set of proscribed behaviours attributed to ‘bewitchings’, they would be able to vent their frustrations and angers, their rage – and get some much-needed rest.
It was so very punishing to be good. (I knew – in this job I too was stuck having to be good in order to earn the respect of the locals and my colleagues.) Being good meant doing only those actions that commanded social acceptance, and suppressing everything else. There was a neglect in this.
Around that time I had read some R D Laing, the Scottish psychiatrist. These bewitchings matched his definition of ‘hysteria’ as a corrective strategy used subconsciously by those who were forced into false, and psychologically unviable, positions. It made sense to me that village women, who were in a position to demand so little, would find the care and attention and pampering they wanted, and needed, via these bewitchings.
As each affected household attended to its particular ‘bewitched’ woman, the epidemic eased and then ended entirely, as people began returning to the village one by one. Its memory stayed with me, though, as the villages sprang back to life. Work started at a hectic pace. Our NGO began multiple projects all at once, and soon there was hardly any time to rest. Eventually we were working in all 26 villages of upper Mustang. The work was appreciated, and our popularity grew. Funding was growing. We were hiring more staff. By all measures, we were exceeding our own high expectations of ourselves.
Also, I had proven myself to my colleagues. Despite being a woman, and young, and inexperienced, I had succeeded. This mattered very much to me.
Yet I could also feel a dissatisfaction swirling inside me. Needs that were not met, perhaps, kept gathering and dissipating and gathering again, gaining strength with each return. By the end of the six-month work season, something inside me, a storm, was on the verge of bursting.
At harvest time I watched the young men and women of the villages flirting openly with each other, and envied them.
I longed to do what they were doing, but I couldn’t. I was stuck having to always be good.
After the harvest, all the able-bodied left once again. Once again, the quiescent wintertime descended, and the villages were abandoned to the elderly and the very young.
The young woman who had been bewitched did not stay behind this year. She left with her brothers and sisters.
Left behind was the ‘witch.’ And our office full of rongba – and new local hires.
By this time I might have succumbed to hysteria myself, but instead I sought, and found, what I needed, via a sweet, scandalous and fun-filled relationship. That relationship restored my spirit, and taught me that for my life to be psychologically viable, I had to be true to myself. I had to have care and attention and pampering. And I needed to be bad.
~ Manjushree Thapa is a novelist, translator and writer based in Kathmandu.