Warm-hearted nostalgiaThis time, my return trip to the United States after a month-long hectic stay in Nepal, India and Indonesia produced more intense jet lag than ever before in my almost three decades of travel between the US and Nepal.
This time, my return trip to the United States after a month-long hectic stay in Nepal, India and Indonesia produced more intense jet lag than ever before in my almost three decades of travel between the US and Nepal. Earlier, I barely felt jet lag symptoms, but this time they lasted almost two weeks and, more than sleep cycle disturbance, it was my mind that remained fuzzy and disoriented, slowing reinhabiting the American world, where I work and live, from the South Asian world where I spent the early years of my life. This cycle of physical and, more importantly, mental disorientation and orientation has fascinated me.
In the United States, I teach, among other things, immigrant, multicultural and diasporic literature. One of the running threads in this kind of literature is the fractured and divided consciousness of an immigrant. Although I have experienced it all these years, this was the first time I physically and mentally felt it keenly. When I returned to Nepal after seven years this May (in 2010, I was there for three weeks after a much longer stay of 15 months three years before), the dust and heat of Kathmandu enveloped me, and the memories of my life in the village saturated my mind.
In my village, the people I had grown up with, the surrounding geography, the landmark trees—dead, disappeared or living—and the associated memories all came alive, immediately seeping into and saturating my consciousness. The American world, which I inhabit fully now, receded from my consciousness. The languages that I hadn’t spoken in years all came back to me. I became filled with the day-to-day life and world of my village even during my short stay.
Particularly poignant was the sense of loss I felt when hearing about the passing of so-and-so villagers I had known growing up. Kuddus, a Muslim of the Laheri caste (the family originally sold bangles), had passed away a year ago. I hadn’t heard about it. In my phone calls, when I would ask, “Is everything and everybody fine in the village?” My interlocutor would say, “Yes, everything is fine. Everybody is well.” Kuddus had told me many tales of derring-do while growing up.
Bhagwat, one of the three brothers of the village Dauniya (a Rajbanshi informal title given to a village well-to-do) had also passed away. My first trip to Biratnagar had been in a bullock cart when Dauniya sent his cart to take rice and puffed rice to his hostel. The man who drove the bullock cart was named Kathait, a runaway sacred-thread-wearing young man from a hill village who worked as a servant in the Dauniya household. I had spent three quarters of a rupee in Biratnagar. But what had most fascinated me were the florescent tube lights. I thought they were long bars of white ice cream.
Bhagwat couldn’t continue his studies, not for lack of funds but because of the difficulty of the subject matter. Was it the Nepali language that added to the learning burden? Married with children, he was a gentleman but without much depth or drama.
And then there was the passing of a woman who had impressed me the most as a child. My mother, father and I lived in her courtyard, where my Rajbanshi dharma grandmother Sodosari lived. A daughter from a village in Jhapa, she had been married to an ailing man who was also the largest landholder in the village. All her life, she had lived as she fancied, defying society. The last few times I had visited her, she had, after losing her middle son, been taking care of her mentally ill youngest son. I had always admired her grit and guts.
The same soil
Then there was my pond, where I had stocked fish in 2007, the year my mother passed away. And the teak saplings I had planted all around the pond and around my house had now become 30-feet-tall trees.
One of the reasons why these deaths affected me so deeply or the trees and fish made me rejoice was because I had always been close to the soil—the village mud while walking in the monsoon season or planting rice or catching fish or pulling crabs out of the sucking muddy holes. I was also close to the earthly, mossy smell of the forest where I grazed our livestock with other herd boys.
My childhood experience of the village had been intense in more ways than one. I had been privy to the stories that circulated about various village characters—
stories of death during childbirth, incidents of transgressions by the young, and elders sitting in judgement to reprimand them or sanction punishment. Then there were the stories of the paranormal world—ghosts and spirits that hovered around the village, causing illness to humans and animals. That’s why, when I visit my village, memories of the past and the unfolding life of the present populate my mind, overpowering my American experience.
So, when I returned to my American world, it took two weeks to slowly get my mental bearings back and reacquaint myself with the complexities of the world I have been inhabiting for the last few decades. Ridding my garden of weeds perhaps helped, as it reminded me that the American soil is the soil of the same earth we all inhabit, no matter where we are. For the first time, I felt the palpable force of the competing worlds in which I inhabit, like speaking multiple languages. I suppose this cycle of disorientation, orientation and reorientation is a desirable goal for people in our globalised world, so we carry within us not only the consciousness of multiple worlds, but also the openness to multiple ways of being right and multiple paths to the same goal. For these and other reasons, this summer’s visit to my village in the eastern Nepali plains became memorable.