In search of old DashainIt’s not like it used to be, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Early Dashain memories. Going home. A family of four moving. Bags full of presents. A goat bleating in the aisle. Bloodthirsty goddess Shitala Devi waiting in a temple with soggy rooms. Half expecting the warmth of the blood. Greedy faces eyeing the gifts. Bowing down, heads touching the dirty, stinking feet. The half-hearted muttering of blessings and prayers. Cards, hooch, meat—the trinity of happiness. Four large bamboo poles standing at the foothill. Children swarming around like flies, fighting for the swing. A week-long rambling, meat-eating, and of forgetting the mechanical hum of daily life.
That was what Dashain looked like to me when I was a child. Even though my family was forced to leave the coolness of home and travel to Tikapur—a barren hinterland, an alien soil full of alien people—we came back to Palpa, to the old (and dying) relatives to receive tika. As soon as the sixth day of the Navaratri approached, we would book our tickets, do a lot of shopping, and prepare to move. By the seventh day, on Saptami, we would be at the courtyard of a house that had kicked us out of our rightful inheritance some years ago. Dutiful sons and daughters as we were, we could not turn our cold shoulders to the old ones, no matter how wretched and vile they were. Greeting people whom you don’t like, sharing a bogus smile, exchanging false courtesies and niceties—ah, the absurdity of life!
Then came the butchering: one goat after another. Blood congealed at the threshold of the temple perched on a hill—the blotches would not fade away till next year, marking the meaningless repetition in life. Almost all the village would flock around, each family carrying a goat or lamb, to offer their innocent lives to the ferocious, blood-gulping goddesses. But first, the devil was worshipped. Just beside the concrete, the pagoda-style temple was a small hut, so small that people had to bend down and crawl in to worship a stone blackened by soot and smeared with red vermilion—the cute little devil who ate nothing but the flatbread—and then they greeted the Devi. After the pujas were over, some of the young and robust men in the village (my father being one) would volunteer to slaughter the goats. Rumour has it, when my father was a college student, he slaughtered thirteen goats in a row, back to back, without pausing—the momentum awed the villagers as they still talked about his hacking and slashing skills.
Most of the heads went to the village priest as an offering. Or you could pay a hundred and fifty rupees and buy the head back from him. I remember one of my uncles dragging the headless goat all the way from the top of the temple to our house, its body still wriggling and twitching at times, eking out its last ounces of life. The uncles and aunts rushed, walked in and out of the house, dedicated all their day to the poor goat.
Grandparents sat down on the reed mats, watching the process with a judgemental eye, dreamily smoking the harsh filter-less cigarettes, and once in a while ordering their sons and grandsons to work faster, work better. The women would build the fire, chop the onions, mix and grind the spices. The whole house dedicated all its time and energy to cook the goat—first the entrails, then the ribs and limbs, skilfully storing the legs and head in the attic: a delicacy for coming days.
The ninth day, Navami, for me was a time when women of the house cooked various kinds of rotis while men busied themselves with cards and meat and illicit hooch. I swung in and out of these two extremes, a pendulum swaying in its limited freedom, tasting the freshly cooked sel rotis and watching the thrill of my father and uncles gambling. After a long day of cooking and eating and playing cards, we waited for the big day to unfold. The day of tika marked the essence of Dashain. It was more of a communal festival, the whole over-abundance of relatives gathered in the old house, giving and receiving tika and jamara, eating, praising, badmouthing, hollering, guffawing … a time to forget the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life and enjoy the vitality of the moment. It was an act of forgetting as well as an act of remembering—we shed our old selves and for the day took new identities as we lived in the philosophy of ‘here and now.’
What followed afterwards, the eleventh and twelfth days, was the arrival of daughters of the house with their rich husbands and little brats of nephews and nieces. They garnered all the attention, got the best piece of meat, got lavish dakshina, the crisp banknotes shining from thin envelopes. Unable to bear the unjust treatment, or maybe it was just my childish fantasy, my family went to my maternal grandparents’ house, where we were treated well with all those tapai and hajur—respectful personal pronouns for even a child like me. The same (almost monotonous now) process would be repeated there—eating goat, playing cards, and rambling. By the last day, Purnima, we would normally be back to Tikapur, travelling for around nine hours. Then came the waiting, a year-long yearning, for the next year to arrive.
Dashain these days doesn’t have the same charm and vivacity it had when I was a child. There are two reasons: the never-ending modernisation and my growing up. Modernisation came late, especially to the villages in Nepal, and when it arrived, it changed the face of the festivals. The old allure, the essence, is now gone. The whole fiasco has become a monetised carnival, one that only the bourgeoisie can enjoy. Without crisp wads of banknotes, Dashain is not the festival one can enjoy. From flaunting their newly bought cars to their endless talks of buying gold and land in the Tarai, my once-a-labourer-in-Korea-but-now-a-rich-land-broker relatives made it a fete for themselves, a personal one at that. Families struggling with poverty have no choice but to succumb and cower under the power of opulence. We, however, chose a different way: denial. We left going to the old house in Palpa.
More than that, I think my aversion to Dashain is mainly because I grew up. The childhood innocence was gone, and I could see the world better. I could gauge people’s meanness even from the mask of falsity they were wearing. I realised that my grandparents were no loving creatures; they are mean and vile; the money-grubbing monsters who would sell their sons and daughters at a slaughterhouse for some banknotes. My uncles and aunts were worse, the friends who cared only about the presents we brought home and the goat we offered to the goddesses. And, above all, all of them plotted against us so that my parents would be forced to leave home. They succeeded enormously. It’s been some years, five or six perhaps, that we have stopped going ‘home,’ and for me, it has been the most relieving experience.
The old Dashain is no more, but I am happy. For me, the Dashain we have been celebrating now, a small family activity, carries more value than all the butchering and cooking we ever did. Every year I long for this festival, partly because I get a fortnight-long holiday (a time for reading and writing and endless musing), and partly because I get a chance to be with my family in a small house my father built in Lalitpur after his years of constant struggle in alien soils. I take secret pleasure in drifting from one room to another, with a book in hand, always dreaming for a better world, always trying to catch that elusive thing called ‘happiness’ flitting across the house.