Wednesday 27th February 2008

Ok, so last week Aamaa’s other daughter, Sunni flew in from Hong Kong to visit, which has been very exciting for everyone – especially Aamaa, who hasn’t seen her daughter in three years (during which time Sunni has gotten married and had a baby!).
Aamaa has never met Sunni’s husband or her granddaughter.

Anyway, Aamaa told us on Wednesday that we were going to have a big puja soon, which is a religious ceremony to give offerings to God. Puja’s can vary – some people do them everyday, offering a small plate of rice and fruit etc to the temples, but Aamaa said this one was going to be a very big puja. So on Thursday last week (Valentine’s day, and no I didn’t get a card!), Aamaa and Priya went off to the markets. They came back in the evening with two taxis loaded with stuff!

We watched in awe as the boys carried it all inside – huge sacks of coconuts and all sorts of things. We asked Aamaa if it was vegetables and things for a big feast, but she said no, it’s all for God.
When Priya came back she said they’d spent over 30,000 rupees on all this stuff for God. We asked what it was all for, and she explained that this puja was called Lakh-Bhuti – puja of a million lights, and we have to take butter lamps to all the temples. Each lamp (ceramic bowl) has to have 125,000 wicks, and we need 5 for each temple. She said we’re going to visit 17 temples all together, so we’ll need to buy a lot of oil, wicks, bowls, etc, as well as all the fruit and leaves and pots for the offerings.
Altogether it will cost around 140,000 rupees, which is about 1,100 pounds!

I was really horrified, and had to go off to my room for a bit. I know I am living in a strange country and it’s important to be sensitive to other cultures and religions, but I simply couldn’t understand what was happening.

Here I am desperately raising money to get the kids into school and provide things for them, thinking that they don’t have any money. I paid their rent when Jeetu ran away, paid for Motilal’s operation and countless other little things over the last 6 months and suddenly it turns out they have over a grand tucked away which they’re going to spend on God.

Literally all the things they’re buying, the fruit, the flowers, the leaves and lamps, will be taken to the temples and left there as offerings.

I felt so horrified and hurt, and fooled completely. I literally started to cry as I made a list of all the money I’d spent on them and all the people who’ve helped me – I felt utterly awful.
Priya came in to find out why I hadn’t come down to eat rice, and of course saw me bawling my eyes out. I told her it was nothing and REALLY really didn’t want to talk about it with her just then – I needed to calm down a lot and be rational, but Priya wouldn’t leave until I told her (and I was too upset to think of a good excuse).

Eventually I explained that I just couldn’t understand why they were spending so much money on God when they could have paid for the children to go to school instead.
Priya erupted and started shouting and crying and saying “Oh my god Maya! How could you be like this Maya! I thought you understood us Maya!” etc.
Then she started crying in earnest, saying “My family have given EVERYTHING for these children, don’t you think we deserve to have our own lives too? This is a special ceremony for our family and we’ve been saving for years for it”.

Of course I felt awful and tried to make her understand why I had been upset. Then she explained after she’d calmed down that they didn’t have all this money – everything was donated by various grandparents, uncles, cousins, (one uncle paid for us to have a tanker of water sent over, and another uncle paid for all the oil and wicks for the lamps etc) but then Aamaa came in to find out why neither of us had come to dinner, and was horrified to find us both in floods of tears!

At that point I was mostly begging forgiveness, as of course they deserve to have their own lives and do things outside of running an orphanage, and had they been spending that amount on a wedding or something I probably wouldn’t have minded, as people back home spend way more than that and in our culture that’s a perfectly normal thing to do.

I think I was so upset because I’m not exactly very religious and found it insane to spend so much money just on God, but really it’s no different than spending it on a wedding, it’s a celebration either way really.
However, it’s another big cultural difference – to me, the children should always come first, but to Aamaa, God ALWAYS comes first.
Anyway, then I felt so awful for accusing them of something that I couldn’t stop crying and poor Aamaa made it worse by trying to hug me all the time.

The next morning Aamaa took me and Karla up to the store room to show us what they’d bought, and it turned out most of it WAS vegetables and things for the kids anyway, but it set me off again, and poor lovely Aamaa kept picking things up and saying “Look Maya – potatoes yes?” “Look Maya, this is masala, yes?” and I felt even worse.

Poor old Aamaa – the harder she tried to convince me that they were buying things for the kids too, the more of a heel I felt and couldn’t seem to control the waterworks!
I couldn’t successfully explain that I was crying because I felt bad, not because she’d done something wrong!

Anyhow, it was all thankfully forgotten in time for the actual Puja, which was last Monday.
The event itself was massive, starting at about 8am and lasting until almost midnight.
There were 9 holy men/priests who came over and sat all day drawing complicated and beautiful pictures in tikka powder on the floor around the fire, and ensuring that all the rites and rituals were being performed correctly.

We chopped huge vats of cauliflower and potatoes and cabbage, and several aunties came over to sit on the roof making the butter lamps all day.
It was all very intense and extremely religious!

However, we all had fun, although it was a bit exhausting, and oddly, the power didn’t go off all day! I commented on this to Aamaa, wondering if they’d known it wouldn’t and had chosen that day specially, but she just smiled and said she’d prayed to God and he’d done it.
I remained unconvinced about that.

I’ll add some more pics for you to look at too (see Puja gallery post)
Yet another long email, and there’s still so much more news to come – mostly political updates etc, but I’ll just have to write another email, as this one’s long enough!

tons of love

ps – on a generally culturally-insensitive note, here’s some medical advice from the lovely Kesar Lall, my Nepali-cuture Guru to cheer you all up. (I really love this guy!)

For backache: Rub yourself where it aches against the staircase early in the morning without anyone seeing you.

For a headache: A headache during the daytime may be cured by an offering of twelve lighted wicks to the sun early on a Sunday morning.

Pain in the wrist: If you have a pain in the wrist, get a pregnant woman to tie a thread around her own wrist seven times early in the morning.

Shingles: The remedy for shingles is to draw the likeness of a lion on the body in such a way as to enclose the eruption within the outline of the animal.

Smallpox: It may be cured by the worship of Sitala Mai, the goddess of smallpox.

Toothache: In a street known as Bangemuda in Kathmandu, there is a big block of wood protruding from a wall, into which thousands of nails have been driven. This is the Toothache God. If you have a toothache, take a nail and drive it into this block of wood.
(I’ve actually seen this block of wood in town!)


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