Jonathan Fakayode Hadas Edwards: Probable Future Tension: Reflections on Nepali Time

       To an impatient foreigner, what’s unnerving about life in rural Nepal is the sense of stasis. It’s as if nothing has ever changed and nothing ever will. This impression came into focus during a microbus ride in the middle of my grant period in 2008-9. I was heading from Kathmandu to visit a friend’s village in the Terai, Nepal’s southerly strip of flatlands. As we bumped along over the rough roads to the sounds of lok git (stylized folk music) from the radio, it struck me: for all their melodic elaboration, these tunes never stray from the tonic. Rhythmically, too, they orbit around one of two or three basic patterns, tapped out on the double-headed maadal drum. Through their often nostalgic lyrics and through their hypnotic rhythms, the ubiquitous modern folk songs evoke a romanticized version of village life: romanticized because those who’ve left the hard-scrabble life and yes, the beauty, of the gaon for the opportunities of the increasingly congested capital rarely choose to return (except once in the autumn for the dashain holiday).
      Despite Nepal’s incredible ethnic and linguistic diversity, despite wide socioeconomic variation and differing degrees of remoteness (some villages are a couple hours’ walk from the capital, others a week’s walk from the nearest road), village life in Nepal is somewhat of a piece wherever you roam. People—especially women—are busy washing clothes, cooking, cutting fodder for the livestock. Depending on the elevation, there are fields, usually terraced against steep hillsides, of buckwheat or potatoes or rice. And yet, despite the endless round of labor, there’s that pervasive, hard-to-pinpoint sense of stillness that had crept into my awareness, as if all the activity serves not so much to advance any particular cause as to simply keep the wheel turning. There is momentum, but it is angular, not linear. Brrmph, brrmph goes the millstone, around and around, just as it has for a thousand years. But for the arrival of mobile phones (in places that may not have reliable electricity) and the occasional glimpse of plastic trash, some of the more remote villages could pass for medieval settlements with their thatch-roofed houses, their smoky kitchens, their weathered faces. After a briefly-flowering youth, most of the inhabitants could be anywhere between thirty and sixty—while the truly old look ancient. One village crone told me without evident self-pity, “I’m old, can’t do any work, it’s time for me to die.” Of course, for the Hindus and Buddhists that comprise the country’s vast majority, death is no end, but another stage on the wheel of re-birth. Around and around.
       All this circular time can be unsettling to someone weaned on the constant (if differently monotonous) novelty pouring from electronic devices, to someone infused with ideals of progress and weighted with the expectation of constant achievement. Where I’ve come from, sitting and doing nothing for even five minutes is frowned upon: why is so-and-so just sitting there, someone is apt to complain. Why doesn’t he get up and do something? (Asking ‘why’ as if you’re entitled to an answer is, it turns out, another typically American behavior.) Where I’ve come from, the only exception to the taboo on doing nothing is meditation, and an activity that is accepted not as an end in itself but only as a suitably laborious step towards a more advanced state of mind. If Amrika has made room for meditation, Nepalis have gotten all too familiar with tension, a word heard frequently in the capital and for which there seems to be no Nepali equivalent. Tension, it’s tempting to conclude, is what results when a Puritanical obsession with hard-earned progress is imposed, through the machinations of global capitalism, on a people who’ve been managing alright with circular motion since the current yuga began.
       I’m largely unconscious of the freight I’ve inherited from my Puritan ancestors when I arrive, in January, at Pusparaj’s village in Kapilvastu, the district that boasts the birthplace of Gautam Buddha. The question that nags me, that I can’t quite bring into focus, is how to get into the rhythm of the place? When no entry point to village life presents itself, I can always sit and read, and I resort to this evasion often enough. It would be better to sit and sit. What would be better still would be to do what everyone else is doing, which is work: repetitive action that yokes the mind to the minutes and hours. Stripping kernels off of dried corn or leading the water-buffalo around in an infinitesimally narrowing spiral, their steady hooves threshing the last rice grains from the straw. I’m not here to work, however, and it would surely be unthinkable to let the bideshi guest do more than a token amount. I wish I had a stone to polish, a piece of wood to whittle. That I knew how to whittle. For the time being I’ve forgotten about bhagchal, the game of tigers versus goats played with pebbles (twenty goats to one tiger) on a board scratched, as often as not, into the dirt. There’s my tired paperback, already mostly read. And there’s a notebook in which to scribble. I’ve got nothing but time.

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