On 12 March 1988, the weather forecast for the Kathmandu Valley in the Rising Nepal read: ‘Partly cloudy with temporary thundershowers’. No prediction of impending doom. There was just a note that the sun would set at 6:17 pm – two hours and 47 minutes after the final match of the Tribhuvan Challenge Shield Football Tournament was to begin at the Dashrath Stadium in the capital. Two minutes into the match, the Bangladeshi team, Mukti Joddha Sangsad, scored a goal against Nepal’s Janakpur Cigarette Factory. Eighteen minutes later, a hailstorm brought the game to a halt.
Outside the stadium, blowing at 80 km per hour, the windstorm damaged phone lines and electricity wires, felled trees and sent corrugated iron flying off roofs. Before long, large pellets of hail began pelting the spectators, who rushed in panic, all at once, towards the southern gate, through which they had entered. But the accordion gate was open enough for only one person to squeeze through at a time, thus creating a bottleneck. In the ensuing stampede, 69 people were crushed to death. Two days later, the Rising Nepal announced a rise in the number of causalities by one, and printed out a list of the perished. In the last paragraph of the first column was my dad’s name, misspelled with an additional ‘h’.
For the next 23 years, this incident remained just that – a news item seldom mentioned in my family, never discussed. So firmly banished were the memories of both the stampede and my father that, when my mom recently learned about a lama who could summon bais (wandering dead) and expressed her desire to talk to ‘Dad’, we assumed she meant her dad. My sister even made a joke about granddad’s notorious temper, suggesting that his soul would come back with a stick to strike us.
The fame of this necromancer had reached Mom through our house owner, who had travelled from Kathmandu to Pokhara, in western Nepal, to appease the wandering soul of his recently deceased first wife. Standing on our porch he recounted the trip, gushing about the lama’s talent in seeing both the past and the future. As it turns out, death does not fling a person into nothingness; rather, it turns them into pestering souls needing constant attention from the living. So malevolent were these spirits that, if ignored or left unsatisfied, they would stand in the way of their kin’s attempt at success. A believer in supernatural phenomena, Mom began to wonder whether Dad’s unhappy soul could be behind her woes: my apparent financial failure, my sister’s academic disinterest, and that elusive house to call her own. If we mollified his discomfort, would he also tell us, say, the date of my wedding? And since Mom was already going to be in Pokhara for work, would I then kindly join her there?
‘No!’ was my immediate response. How could the dead have answers to any uncertainty of the future? Not only was it ludicrous to think that the dead live – and live in schadenfreude – it was also downright creepy to think that someone might pretend to be Dad and that Mom would believe it. But then, slowly, curiosity took over. An image of a lama I had once seen in a picture stuck in my mind: a paunchy Buddhist monk sitting upright, high on a throne, his right foot on his left thigh, his robes splayed open on his lap, his eyes closed to some tantrik melody. I began to wonder whether, if Dad did speak via this lama, he would do so in a Magar accent, whether he would satisfy all the stereotypes of a Magar lad: insouciant, affable, lende – pigheaded.
I knew so little about Dad that this curiosity morphed into restlessness, into voyeuristic excitement until it gave way to uneasiness. I began to fear that my participation might be equivalent to mocking Mom’s belief, or worse, trespassing on her intimate moments with Dad. Nevertheless, I agreed to accompany her.
But first, a detour to Jorpati in the capital itself, to prepare myself for the encounter with the lama – to see whether I could look at ‘superstition’ from a perspective other than one of condescension. A sister of one of Mom’s close friends claimed to be possessed by Goddess Kali; believers called her Mata. Every Thursday and Saturday, from eight until noon, worshippers flocked to her, seeking reasons behind their miseries and assurances of future security. In her mid-30s, married and with a kid, she had been in the business, so to speak, for almost a decade.
Her small room on the ground floor sparkled with paraphernalia of Hindu worship: pictures of gods and goddesses, as well as Sathya Sai Baba; packets of unused incense; hands of bananas; pellucid veils; bells and flowers. Next to this altar she sat on a low chair while her devotees, mostly women and children, towed into the room, waited before her. When their turn came, these devotees, one at a time, would sit cross-legged in front of the Mata and spread out a mound of rice on a low table between them. Mata would then quietly light a few sticks of incense, stretch her back upright and close her eyes. After a few seconds of silence she would open her mouth, stick out her tongue and widen her eyes menacingly. Then, with her head lightly swaying side to side in an ‘X’ motion, she would introduce herself to the devotee: ‘Mahakali hun. Keka laagi daanki bolaani garis, e bhakta?’ (I am Goddess Kali. What did you call me for, O devotee?)
When I first saw this face, I could not help simpering with embarrassment. I had only known this woman as an aunt; to see her transform into a likeness of the mythical Kali was absurd. For one, her tongue was much shorter than Kali’s famously elongated one. Further, she was plump and soft, nowhere near as fierce as Kali is assumed to be. But as one after another devotee bowed before her, opening up about their problems (mostly domestic and academic), my reaction shifted from that of a cynic to one more willing to listen in to the conversation, even a little humbled at faith.
One of the women complained to Mata that she hated coming home because the moment she stepped on the doorstep, an intense anger paralysed her. To this Mata replied, in a voice like a mother’s rebuke, that the woman was seeking a happiness long disappeared. In order to feel better, she needed to allow in happiness in other forms as well. Although this piece of advice was peppered with ruminations on the alignment of different planets in different yog, and on conducting puja in and visits to different temples to realign them, it was effective. At the end of the session, when the woman received a pinch of blessed rice both as prasad and as a talisman, one could see relief radiating from her face. Faith had opened up bottled-up feelings and faith had, for now at least, drained them away.
I wanted desperately to believe that it was something like this, something as powerful as a sealed-up emotion, that was leading Mom to try to conjure Dad. If it was mere inquisitiveness about the future that was driving her, the Jorpati Mata could have easily quenched that longing. I did not want to believe in a malign, whiny monger image of my dad’s soul, either. So, on further probing, Mom finally yielded: She said that she wanted to find out how dad had died.
At first, this confession, this seeming morbid curiosity, sounded appalling, embarrassing and even offensive: no one stirs the dead to be entertained by the act of the individual’s dying. Doubly embarrassing, however, was when bits of the facts surrounding the tragedy at the stadium slowly began to emerge in Pokhara. As I showed Mom the clippings from the Rising Nepal, especially the list, she looked at them in amazement – she had not realised that the incident was covered in the papers. Dad’s passing away was made known to her by the police only a day after the incident, and by that time the police had already conducted the funeral rites. The last Mom saw of Dad was when, refusing to let her come to the stadium, he left with a neighbour’s eight-year-old boy instead. As we traced the boy’s name in the columns, Mom sat behind me, breathing heavily, perhaps due to the Pokhara heat, perhaps due to the list. Once we located the boy, towards the top of the second column, she said, ‘He must have died saving the kid.’
With this revelation, we headed towards Sundari bazaar in Pokhara. It was Saturday and only seven in the morning, but a crowd had already gathered in the courtyard of the lama’s house. Twenty bags of rice, suggesting the number of dead to be raised for the day, neatly lined a low-raised platform on the deck. The long wait thus began, wiping away romanticised expectations one after the other.
At eight o’clock, the lama came out of the room from behind a beige curtain that hung on the doorway, and the first sobering surprise of the day hit me: The lama turned out to be, not a Buddhist monk, but a fleshy, energetic Brahmin woman, rather loud and rude, verging on disrespectful towards her guests. Standing on the doorstep, with her hands clasped in namaste and in a stern voice, she said to us gathered on the deck, ‘If your dead has not been dead for more than a year, go back; it cannot be aroused. Do not touch the bags of rice. Do not make a lot of noise. Turn off your mobile phones. Recording of the session is strictly prohibited.’ She would have made a better Kali.
As the day wore on, we soon realised that number 21, our number, was far away. Each invocation took about 20 minutes, sometimes half an hour. The first few were interesting to eavesdrop on. Sometimes a loud retching sound heralded the arrival of the spirit; sometimes this was indicated by a sob, a note of exasperation or a sick voice. When people demanded to know why a particular spirit was torturing them, the voice would sometimes grumble about infighting, or about the living wasting away its hard-earned money. A few times, though, the voice clearly rejected the charge of causing any malaise, singling out another individual as the perpetrator, the ‘witch’, instead. Now and then the spirit would be nice – calming the crying relative by assuring that it would return to their dreams. But almost always, the spirit asked to be coaxed with sweets and regular puja.
As it became increasingly obvious that there was little more to the process of invocation, Mom and I started to look for other diversions. We began to wonder about the difference between a bai and pitri (any dead, despite its strong paternal connotation). We calculated the Mata’s income per month at the rate of 320 rupees per invocation. A 20-year-old regaled us with his own journey to become a Mata – clearly, even men can become such. We listened to our grumbling tummies and, afterwards, to a famous radio personality, herself in line to see the Mata, interviewing others about Pokhara and Nepal Tourism Year 2011 – live. A story about a young man from nearby Damauli who had killed a couple after a Mata accused them of witchcraft did the rounds as well. But as the heat and hunger intensified, so did impatience.
At quarter past two in the afternoon, four people cheated their way in, saying they were of the same family, and took an hour to get out. There were still seven more people ahead of us, and time suddenly seemed to be passing by more quickly than we wanted. If the rumours were true that the Mata could not bring up the dead past five in the evening, we would have to wait until Thursday to arrange another session; for this Mata, like the Jorpati one, reserved the other days for prophesying. An awful sensation sank in as the clock marked 4:30, and then the Mata confirmed she would not see people past 5:30 – and there were still four more rice bags before us. Mom and I then started to pester the remaining people to be quick with their dead, and even gave a shot, in vain, at asking if we could go before them. ‘We came all the way from Kathmandu,’ we begged. ‘We cannot afford plane tickets or endure five-hour bus rides every time an appointment is botched.’
The wait-and-see game ended at 5:10 when an old woman entered Mata’s room with her son, and Mom, in her anxious state, followed her in. Seconds later, I joined in, with the 20-year-old soon-to-be Mata close on my heels. The room was more austere than the one in Jorpati, perhaps because the altar was behind a set of curtains. Here, the Mata sat on a cushion on the floor, against a wall adorned with bundles of peacock feathers. The clock on the wall read 5:20, evidently ten irritating minutes fast. Nonetheless, when the Mata did not shoo us out, calm returned.
I began to observe her, trying to pigeonhole her. A charlatan she was not, for no one can continue a charade for as long and as continuously as she carried on. A skilful healer who understood human relationships well, perhaps? Someone akin to a psychologist, or perhaps a social worker? But then, what to make of her telling this old woman that there was a witch in the family who was barring her son from professional success? Was she a home-wrecking bluffer? What went through her mind when, in a casual conversation, the 20-year-old confided that he too gets possessed by gods and spirits? Did she believe him? Whatever she was, she seemed to believe in herself, and so did her visitors believe in her.
As it turned out, the time limit was imposed not by the dead, but by Mata herself. Finally, a little past the deadline, Mom settled herself in front of the Mata, and I sat next to Mom.
‘Name of the pitri and the tithi he died?’ Mata asked, spreading the rice evenly on the plate.
Mom gave Dad’s name and the date of his death as per the lunar calendar: Nawami.
The woman counted nine on her fingers and asked. ‘Who is this?
‘Huh?’ Mom was beginning to get nervous
‘How are you related to him?
The woman muttered mantras and asked Mom to light five incense sticks. ‘Did you bring your daughter?’
‘Yes, the elder is here.’
‘Should have brought the younger one; he likes her more,’ Mata said. Her eyes were now closed. ‘Snuff the dhoop once I lie down.’
She fell flat on her side while still murmuring mantras. A few seconds later, she shook her head, touched her belly as if in pain, and rose with her eyes still closed. Then, in a pained voice she asked why my sister had not come: ‘Kanchhi aaena?’
Mom began to cry. I fought back my own tears. In consolation, Dad shared that he was not a wandering soul anymore, but had found company with the gods in Pashupati temple in Kathmandu. He was thirsty, however, and in need of a pair of good shoes. He asked Mom whether she would offer him a glass of water later, and donate a pair of shoes to a baba. Mom continued to cry and, when she could, asked Dad about me and my sister. Dad told her to not worry about us, not even about marriage; we would turn out fine. Then, with eyes still closed, he reached across, held Mom’s hand, and promised that once she had her own house, he would move in with her, forever.
Back outside, my eyes were still reacting to the dark interior. Suddenly, from beyond the overhead powerlines, from behind a hayrick, the arc of a rainbow shot high above the hills into the sky. The sight, seemingly so clichéd, challenged me to snigger, daring me to relapse into cynicism. But why denigrate beauty, and why keep a tally of the mistakes the Mata made? Why overlook that her Nepali acquired a Magar twang, with neutralised verbs, midway through the session? Why dismiss her reaching out to touch mom as a clever attempt to comfort her? Why raise questions, overanalyse and not relish the clear power at work here, the power of – empathy? Belief? A placebo? The important point, and the only point that mattered, was that love was alive, memories were strong, and Mom felt good.
~ Weena Pun is an assistant editor at Himal Southasian.