Ethnic Roots Abroad

Claudia, Maria, my sister Neeta and I had lunch together. We'd cooked Nepalese food comprising: chicken, potatoes, rice and chutney and ice-cream as dessert, and sat watching some videos of Neeta's trip to Europe, when I suggested that we should go to the ecological exhibition ('koausstellung) at the Messplatz in Freiburg, reputed to be the biggest of its kind in Europe.

We took the Strassenbahn, as trams are called in Germany, and got off at the Messplatz. Neeta, who's a teacher in a Nepali school, was on a visit to Germany, and was quite surprised to see a peaceful exhibition going on. There was no jostling, and not much noise. There were alternative energy exhibits, esoteric music, tourist curios, temple statues from the Hindu and Buddhist pantheons priced at 200 euros each, and lots of biological food: m'sli, which some nasty people call Vogelf'tter (bird-food), full-corn bread and crepes (a French invention), which can in no way compare to roti, chapatti or paratha from Nepal and the Indian subcontinent, bio-drinks, and woollen textiles and so forth. Solar cars, watches, pumps and other energy-saving gadgets were also on display.

Freiburg even boasts of an ecological-station at the Seepark (west). We, Freiburger, called our city till 1996 the 'kohauptstadt', which means the ecological capital of Germany. This is a status awarded officially in Germany. Till Heidelberg nabbed the title. Science City? Another German town grabbed it. Perhaps Solar City?

Neeta tried out wholesome 'fullcorn-crepes' and found herself making a grimace. She wasn't a friend of full-corn bread, though she'd always been fond of puris, chapatis and parathas made of 'atta' (full-corn flour) in Nepal and India. It was a matter of taste, nothing more. Either you liked something or not. The fresh apple-juice that went with it was delicious though.

After the exhibition, which to Neeta seemed more like an esoteric exhibition than an ecological one, we were, as the Germans put it "fix und fertig" (exhausted), and decided to have a siesta and recharge our batteries.

Later we watched the European Championship soccer in TV because Germany was apparently playing against Sweden, and we were all avid soccer-fans. The match was after dinner, which comprised: Thai scented-rice, Indonesian egg-cauce and masala curry with onions, garlic, ginger, tamarind and tomatoes.

Claudia took delight in cooking Nepalese and Asian food and had even taken courses in Asian cooking at the local Volkshochschule, where an elderly Indian guy was teaching German women the finer aspects of using Ayurvedic spices in the potato-cum-masala chicken.

In Nepal a good many orthodox Hindu families have a brahmin or bahun as a cook, because a bahun has a high esteem in the Nepalese society for he can not only speak, read and write in Sanskrit which he has learnt in Benaras or Kasi (India) but can also function as a priest, is pure and unpolluted in comparison to other mortals, and is respected as a mediator between the humans and the Hindu Gods.

An orthodox brahmin doesn't even touch the food that has been handled or cooked by someone from the lower castes due to the impurity associated with the lower castes. Even though the socio-religious barriers are slowly disappearing in the urban areas of Nepal and because the Nepalese have started travelling to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Europe and America--such customs are still strictly adhered to in the Himalayan villages.

Neeta recalled that we had a Tamang cook from the tea-gardens of Ilam, an all-round talent but he hadn't mastered the Chettri's usual command of the Nepalese language with its complicated grammatical rules, derived from Sanskrit. In Nepali, like in Latin in Europe, you have to be careful about the tense and the honorific usage of words. For instance: 'He has come' would sound 'waha aunu bhayo.' The rice is cooked would be: bhat pakyo. But this sincere, well-meaning Tamang kitchen boy didn't know the rules of Nepali grammar and turned up with:bhat paknu bhayo, which caused a great deal of laughter and was a family joke for years.

Bhat is a neuter word and, as such, it cannot be attributed with an honorific. He was bestowing honour upon the rice which was a howler. Contrary to most guidebooks on Nepal, even the Nepalese are glad when the guest comes punctually, because the dal-bhat-tarkari may get cold and a warmed up meal tastes different than a freshly cooked one. Most Nepalese don't have a refrigerator. The guest can bring some sweets for the children but alcohol is taboo in the high caste Brahmin and Chettri families, even though a German guidebook suggests bringing a bottle of whiskey for the host primarily because it's imported or from a duty-free shop.

When Neeta read that, she thought of her dear aunty Deviji in Patan, who would be shocked if she produced a bottle of whiskey. Alcohol is associated with decadence in the purity-pollution conscious Nepalese world of the high caste Hindus. But on the other hand, there are other ethnic tribesmen who pass under the rubric of the 'matwali-jat' (the caste-that-drinks) who might be delighted with a bottle of Scotch and it might create a good impression. After all, Scotch is expensive for a Nepalese-pocket and is an imported item. Nevertheless, it is useful to find out whether the person is visiting prefers alcohol or regards it as an affront.

We Nepalese generally drink a lot of tea from Ilam (Eastern Nepal), which is just as good as the Darjeeling one, if not better, because it grows on the Nepalese side of the same mountains just across the border. We make tea by boiling the water first, then putting the tea leaves and letting them boil till a good, strong color appears, after which we put sugar and milk. Another method of making tea in Kathmandu is to boil the milk first, then put the tea-leaves along with cardamom and then the sugar. It's called: dudh-chiya (milk tea) and is served with Ayurvedic spices. The preparation is similar to the Milchkaffee in Germany.

Dr. Novel Kishore Rai, the former Nepalese Ambassador to Germany and a good friend of mine, for instance prefers to drink smoked-tea made by the hands of his dear mother in Ilam. She has a few bushes of Thea sinensis which she calls 'my plantation' and is proud of her hand-made tea. In the Victorian days the tea leaves were plucked, weighed, rolled by hand and set out to wither in the sun. After the advent of industrialization, the tea-leaves were rolled by machine and the withering was also done in factories.

Since he was a man of Rai origin, I had asked him to say something about his ethnicity and he said, 'As you know, 'Rai' is only a cover term of more than 60 to 70 sub-clans and they do speak more than 50 different languages and not dialects. For example Chamling, Khaling, Thulang, Bantawa, Kulung and so on. Culturally they are not so different, but linguistically one cannot expect so much of variation among the so-called 'Rais'. Nepali is the only Lingua franca among them in their original settlement and now the younger generation is drifting towards Nepali because of so many socio-economical reasons. I am a Bantawa speaker, belonging to the Chamling sub-clan, but my children and my wife don't speak Bantawa at all.' They spoke German, English, Nepali and sometimes Hindi, when we visited them at the Embassy in Bonn.

His two teenage daughters spoke excellent German and were preparing for their German Abitur ('A' level exams). They have both received their masters degrees from the University of Poona.

Since I'd grown up with shamanism in the form of traditional healers like: jhankris, bijuwas, amchis, and yebas, I had given him a shaman text in Thulung shaman vocabulary written by the anthropologist N. J. Allen, and he went on to say, ' As you know, shamanism is an old tradition in Nepal and the shamans are well-accepted faith-healers. They do many kinds of shaman rituals and use the language, even though they don't understand the exact meaning of the words in many instances. Some of the words and phrases they do repeat out of memory, and practice without knowing the exact meaning. Moreover, they are controlled by the spirits they beckon during their rituals. They agree, that whatever said or done, is by the spirit but not by themselves. Science has not yet been able to prove what is behind it and how it operates.

Dr. Allen collected and viewed some of these shaman healing practices among the Thulungs of the Rai-group and he has written 'Illness in Nepal', which may attract the interest of medical students. I would say that this paper is more related to anthropology than western medical practice. As a Bantawa native speaker, I cannot understand the Thulung words he describes and some Nepali loan words we do understand, though they are phonetically somehow different.'

I recalled that a lot of Tibetans, who had fled from their homeland Tibet after it was annexed by Mao's Red Army, would pass through our small town and I was fascinated by their style of living because they'd spread out their ornamental ethnic tents outside the town and make a central fire and their mules, donkeys and yaks would graze in the green grass along the slopes and their dogs would bark and scurry around. The men had braided hair with moustaches and Mongolian beards unlike the Sikhs with their thick mossy beards.

The Tibetans had a fire-place romantic about them. It was difficult to communicate with them because they spoke only Tibetan and we spoke only Nepali, English and a smattering of Hindi. Oh, how she wished she could have talked with the friendly Tibetan ladies who were all smiles, despite their tragic past. The post-fifties generation of Tibetan children who came as refugees to Nepal, Dharamsala (India) and Rikon (Switzerland) speak excellent Nepali, Hindi and Schwyzer Deutsch, and also English and have integrated themselves in these respective countries.

The milky rice-beer is a very popular drink among the matwali-jat (the-caste-that-drinks) in Eastern Nepal, in the vicinity of Kathmandu and among the different ethnic folks. Every tribe has its own brewing secret. The Sherpas, Thakalis and Tamang-hillfolk prefer the chaang, which is made of millet. During the cold months, the Sherpas and Tibetans drink tongba which is a hot, milky alcoholic drink sipped with the help of a bamboo pipe. Momos, thukpa and sukuti (dried meat) go well with tongba after a long trek in the Himalayas. The highland Nepalese also prefer the tongba during marriage feasts. During my days as a journalist in Kathmandu, we used to go after a hard day's work to relax at Pala's Place, where his wife and lovely daughter used to serve us with momos, gyathuk and the warm tongba drinks. We'd sit around in a circle with the Pala, a burly Tibetan guy, who has the head of the family and the restaurant owner. Most of the Nepalese who came upstairs to eat momos and drink Pala's excellent tongba were His Majesty's civil servants and from the corporations. As time went by, the people would get garrulous and start telling stories. 

The ubiquitous raksi, a high percentage alcohol, which goes under the clandestine name of gurkha-rum, is prepared from rice, millet and barley. Raksi is not served in a small schnaps-glass but in a 0,4 liter glass. Liquor is taboo in the case of orthodox Brahmins and Chettris. The high-caste Brahmins go even so far as not to eat meals which have the following ingredients: onions, garlic, mushrooms and tomatoes. Some Brahmins and Chettris might even refuse to eat with Europeans because of their ideas of pollution and food-taste. There might be a face-saving move: by eating only fruit with them.

On the other hand, there are Nepalis who won't sit down and share their food with others, because they're only used to eating self-cooked food. Some Benaras-trained Brahmins even go to extremes and wear a loin-cloth called the dhoti when eating a meal with rice. Even the eating-direction is important for some. In Nepal you must be careful not to eat facing the Himalayas to the north. The sight might be grandiose but it's not regarded as auspicious. And don't sit looking to the south either. Either east or west is the most auspicious way to sit while eating lunch or dinner in Nepal. The Nepalese eat facing to the south only while conducting funeral ceremonies.

An eating-habit worth emulating from the Nepalese is the ban on speech during meals. Nepalese observe silence while eating. I noticed that speaking during meals was a normal thing to do in Europe. According to the rules of etiquette, the only time the Europeans don't speak is when their mouths are full of food. That's why you hear German parents saying to their children, 'Man spricht nicht bei vollem Mund.' The topics during the meals were mostly about one's diseases: kidney trouble, bowel problems, appendicitis, gall stones and how big they were, even about the prostata-glands and pus-filled boils. I thought it was a nightmare, and not a luncheon. But that's the way people are. They have to tell others about their problems irrespective of the place and occasion, despite the fact that such things are not encouraged in Knigge, the German book of etiquette.

Once I asked a Japanese lady named Shikibu Sawa, who'd come to Freiburg to learn German at the Goethe Institute and knew a common girl friend named Franziska Dold, whether they also spoke during meals in Japan and she said, 'Oh, no. My father would hit me if I did.'

In Nepal, before we start eating, we purify ourselves ritually by washing our hands and then sitting down on the floor near the kitchen and making an offering of the different food to our Hindu, Buddhist or animist Gods, Goddesses, Rimpoches, Bodhisattvas, spirits and ancestors.

There's no point in asking a Nepalese: "How do you say 'cheers' in Nepali?"

The urbanized Nepalese may say: "Cheers! Prost! Kampai! Nastrovije!" but the Nepalese from the village will tilt his head to the left and say, "Pyunu hos!", which means 'please drink!'

Since a good many Nepalese have gone abroad for further studies and have returned to work for the development of the country, they have organized themselves into alumni clubs and the German-returned club members hold an annual get-together through the courtesy of the Carl Duisburg Society, Goethe Institute and the German Embassy in Kathmandu. On these occasions you get to hear Nepalese conversing in German with the most amazing dialects, depending on whether they got their degrees from: Bavaria, Baden-W'rttemburg or Hessen. The same phenomenon is to be observed among the England-returned and Russia-trained scholars. 

The best way to get along with a Nepalese is to treat him or her as your equal and with respect, no matter how poor or rich he or she may be, because we Nepalese have an eloquent speech and care a lot about not losing face in front of strangers. Think about that when you meet a Nepalese and you've won a trusty and loyal friend for your lifetime. And never pat a Nepalese on his back or shoulders, because that is where one's personal God resides, and he or she might get offended and react with 'deuta cha, chunu hudaina!' Oh, please don't touch me there, there's my God on my shoulder.

To win a friend in these consume-oriented days of egoism, with the rat-race going on, people jostling each other with their elbows, can be enriching. To return to Nepal and meet old friends with whom you have shared your holiday-experience can be rewarding to some. To recognize and be recognized, despite a long absence in the dizzy heights of the Himalayas, be it under the Lhotse and Nuptse or below the Annapurna and Machapuchhare can do you good. Good, honest, sincere people who respect each other are welcome everywhere they go.

Claudia had once been to Bombay to attend her pen-friend Zinnat's muslim marriage, and had often pumped me full with questions about life in India, Hindu customs, religion and especially about the many Gods and Goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. She was perpetually interested in knowing which God was associated with which Goddess, and what their riding animals were.

I groaned, threw up my hands and said, "It's like a never ending quiz on who's who, with whom and on what, of the Buddhist and Hindu pantheon circuit." Claudia, on the other hand, was determined to write down the entire list of Gods and Goddesses and had her list always handy in the kitchen, below the cupboard with the hot spices.

"Isn't Krishna with Parvati? And who's Laxmi? What does Krishna ride on? A cow? But I thought the holy cow belonged to Shiva. Does Ganesh also have an animal he can ride on? What, a rat?" she'd say terrified.

"Well as long as they don't ride on spiders. I'm scared of spiders. You know, I have arachnophobia," she said.

"By the way, I know that Kumari is the Living Goddess in Kathmandu but who is Kumar?" she asked. And what does he ride on?"

"Kumar is the elephant-headed God Ganesh's brother and he uses a peacock," I replied.

All these questions somehow reminded me of the fictive American journalist in the novel "The Mountain Is Young" who stepped out of the aeroplane in Tribhuvan airport and asked , 'Who's Shiva? Who's Vishnu?' The fact is that most Nepalese bear the names of Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu and Buddhist pantheon, and a teacher might be confronted with a class full of Gods and Goddesses, and there might be a God or Goddess serving you in your flight to Kathmandu and back. In Kathmandu the police even arrest a God.    


More by :  Satis Shroff

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