Maili DemaLast year, my Maili Dema died. Twice. Literally. The family was waiting for her two children to arrive from Kathmandu for the final rites, and that’s when she woke up—after 14 hours. She was already wrapped and put aside in a different room. Apparently, they heard her mumble, she was wide awake when they saw her. “I wonder if she had already been awake for god knows how many hours and they only heard her then,” sobbed my mother.
Last year, my Maili Dema died. Twice. Literally. The family was waiting for her two children to arrive from Kathmandu for the final rites, and that’s when she woke up—after 14 hours. She was already wrapped and put aside in a different room. Apparently, they heard her mumble, she was wide awake when they saw her. “I wonder if she had already been awake for god knows how many hours and they only heard her then,” sobbed my mother. Ama’s tears of grief were also infused with guilt, guilt that she couldn’t do much for her own sister. Her endless requests to her nieces, nephews and her brothers to bring Dema to Kathmandu for a check-up fell on deaf ears.
Maili Dema was her second eldest sister who had complete paralysis and lived in a faraway village in Panchthar, a two-day arduous walk from the nearest market, Pauwa Bhanjyang. As soon as her children arrived, she breathed her last. “She died surrounded by all her children. That’s the only consolation she had,” my mom said, during an interval from her sobbing and sighing. With weak bones and broken ankles, Ama could not walk up to Dema’s village even if she could go up till Pauwa Bhanjyang.
My earliest memory of Maili Dema was when my sister and I took her around in Kathmandu. We were amazed at how she found everything in the valley ‘visit-worthy’, even if it was just a short walk from our house to Ring Road. “Dema, chhitto ke!” I shouted. She smiled, showing her few remaining teeth, I can’t remember how many she had left back then. She was a shriveled, tiny figure, barely 4’10”, clad in purple velvet chaubandi and maroon fariya, a big gold bulaki that rested comfortably just underneath her nose. Her wrinkled, shiny, sunburnt face would light up every time she smiled. “Stop it, Sanu!” my sister yelled at me. “She can’t walk in those slippers.” “But… but how? How can you not walk in chappal? And those are MY chappal!” I was irritated because Ama had lent Dema my chappal without asking me. “Choop! She is used to walking in shoes only, ke….! Shhhh!” Maili Dema came, almost running, but with those flip flops tightly tucked under her arms. “Dema, please wear those, you might step on thorns,” I warned. “Noo, noo kanchi! It’s okay!” came her reply in Bantawa. Then, we let her walk on the grass while the Ring Road still had a greenbelt with jacaranda trees and shrubs with wild flowers enticing us to cross the barbed fence to play there, make flower garlands or count bird nests atop the trees. For us, the green belt was our roadside park. “Dema, nana told me you can’t walk in chappal. Sachai ho?” She gave me a smile and my sister gave me a long chilling stare. As a 12-year-old, it was hard to comprehend how you could not walk in flip-flops. It was my first realisation that privilege could come in the shape of something as silly as slippers.
Dema came and stayed with us, not often, but when she did, for months. She was a pleasant person. Calm and kind. We seldom saw her angry. The first time we saw her irritated was when she saw women in swimsuits on TV: “Thukka! Alachhinni!” She swore at them, much to our laughter and entertainment.
Ama made sure that we respected and took care of her. We braided her long hair, bought her bangles, tika and potey. However, there were times I’d get irritated with her children. “He was spitting inside the house.” I once complained when we were young. Dema rushed towards him and started hitting her son—whom I’d mistaken for her grandson at first. There was 22 years of difference between him and his eldest brother. It was my mom’s turn to come charging at me for having opened my mouth but Dema quickly came to my rescue: “Sanu was right.” “But she is older than him. She needs to understand,” my mom retorted. I never quite understood why a 12-year-old would “need to understand” when an 11-year-old misbehaved or why I needed to bear the brunt just because I was one year older than him. One year! In spite of Dema disciplining him, he was a spoilt kid as she had him at 40. She also loved him the most among her children as he was the youngest and was quite sickly as a child.
Growing up, we heard Ama talk about Maili Dema often, how she got married off into a good family but to a bad husband—a womaniser, an alcoholic and a gambler. “Never a day’s peace for my sister. I wonder when she will know what it means to be happy. Her husband was never good to her, her children turned out to be idiots. Sigh!” Though we felt sorry for Dema, our love for her was just an overspill of our love for Ama. The way Ama took care of her sister was indicative enough for us to behave well with her.
My Ama would buy her jewelry, either a tilahari, a marwadi or simple earrings before Dema left Kathmandu, only for her to return a year or two later with no sign of those jewelry on her. She would make up excuses like she didn’t want to wear it this time or someone had borrowed it off her but Ama knew the real reason—it was her children who were shameless enough to sell their own mother’s jewelry. The last time I saw Dema, her beautiful golden bee that adorned her face wasn’t there anymore. They had sold off her bulaki as well! Her face looked bare, Ama cried when she saw her sister but Dema shrugged it off with a smile—“it snapped, kanchi! I will wear it as soon as I get home. It is with thuley sunar.” Everyone knew that one would never leave jewelry with a goldsmith unless to borrow money.
My memories of her aren’t just limited to melancholic moments, we shared fun times too... especially during celebrations. Dashain, being one, when we still celebrated. Ama would be all excited that she had someone from her maiti. With food, drinks and cards, flowed stories of the past. One such story was how fearlessly Maili Dema would play lingey ping as a kid. Unafraid and shouting with utter delight, she would cross over the tips of the bamboo poles that the swing rested upon—10 feet or higher. My Ama would scream out of fear, lest the poles would break and Dema would fall off it. It was difficult for us to imagine Dema in that avatar. Her happy, mischievous childhood that became a distant memory—almost alien to the life that she later lived. It seemed that life had turned her into a stranger, even to herself, or perhaps her inner courage with which she would swing so high, gave her the silent resilience to carry on, despite the adversities.
“Those who can go past the tip of those poles in lingey pings end up in heaven after they leave earth re,” my mom often said.
I don’t know if there is a swing up there for you to enjoy but I know you are finally home, Maili Dema.
At last, at peace!