Bhauju’s burning questions

Sarita Pariyar | July 28, 2020

Photo: Sarita Pariyar


The rain is incessant, like the unceasing outpouring of a child’s questions for her mother.

A small hut roofed with sheets beaten out from drums of bitumen. Intermittent holes filled with putty. When the rain is slanting, water gets into the house.

The little corn in the nook under the rafters is wet – some of the maize has even taken seed.

Bhauju speaks in a monotone as she shucks the corn.

‘Can barely manage to shuck corn from such a small parcel of land.’

When a mother-in-law, even if still young, sees her daughter-in-law’s hands, her own hands and feet barely move anymore. The fine hairs on the cobs make Bhauju itch all over.

Bhauju breaks off ears in the muddy field. She picks off the leeches on her legs. Then, legs trembling, she carries the load of dry corn to the nook under the rafters.

Her body is drenched. When she was a young woman in Chisapani, the old upper-caste men would drool after the fulsome body of this damini. Bhauju’s stories were enough to make one forget Parijat’s poem Juthi Daminiko Abhibyakti – The Impure Damini’s Lament.

Looking over her own cold frame, she tells me that her fingers are swollen from the mud getting under her nails and the soles of her feet are cracked from walking without any slippers on.

She fondly calls me Nani – dear child. I have never called her by her name. She has always been Bhauju to me – sister-in-law, wife to my elder brother.

Bhauju lets out a long sigh and reminds me of something Lalpura didi of Bajura used to say:

May there be a bellyful to eat

May Dalits carry no debt

May you never be the cattle of the Tarāi

May you never be a Dalit from Jukot

‘I feel as if my life is that of cattle from the Tarāi, Nani. It is my misfortune that I came here, greedy to see city life. The clothes we wore in our villages were far better than these hand-me-downs of the city. I was the daughter of a family with enough to eat, at least.’

Thuli Bhauju is a daughter from Dhading, and a daughter-in-law in Hetauda. Her experiences span the countryside and the city. A tale of transition, from a daughter to a daughter-in-law. I live away from home to attend school. Bhauju lives with my father, my stepmother and my half-sister. The women Bhauju lives with are not kind to her. I have witnessed Bhauju’s trials for the last two decades. Whenever I see her, I remember my own childhood and the time I spent in her company.

Bhauju talks to herself, carrying a half-full aluminum water pot into the house. She says the pot is older than her husband, my brother, dented at the mouth, the inside caulked with lime.

‘The water stored in the hollow over there is finished. It looks muddy. But if you let it settle, it is good enough to drink. Nani – this shortage of water has made it difficult to keep cattle at home. How will I feed my cow without water?’

The goat kids in the cattle-shed cry out bitterly. Bhauju takes a plastic bottle meant for babies and feeds the little she-kids, her eyes tearing up.

‘I didn’t want to tell you when you arrived yesterday, but the mother goat died. I just don’t understand what happened, Nani. This must be what it means to be kicked when down.’

The kids prance around once they are fed. Bhauju smiles. Watching the kids reminds me of my mother.

As I lose myself in thought and stare at the guava tree, I see a vine snake in a cranny in the rocks. I scream in fright, call out to Bhauju. She is letting out the hen to forage – she counts the chicks twice, but one is missing. We easily guess that the chick has been eaten by the green vine snake – after all, a fat snake sits motionless right by the house.

Elsewhere, the cow lows mournfully, its udders heavy with milk. As she milks the cow, Bhauju says, ‘Did you see it, Nani – just like the vine snake has eaten my chick, this family will devour my life.’

Dai and Bhauju’s home is close to the jungle, a short distance away from our home. Foraging for firewood and fodder, working the fields, herding cattle – these were the beats of any ordinary day. Bhauju was famous for her ability to carry large loads of firewood. She would gather straight, round branches, tie them up into a tight bundle with a palm-fiber rope, and carry them. Very skilled at finding firewood. Just as skilled at gathering mulch into bales.

During her foraging trips, a song would echo through the forest:

Wherever I go, a burden of worries

I find no place to set them to rest

To what place can the misfortunate escape?

Let me find shelter on my younger brother’s porch

Those songs touched me much more than lessons at school. Songs of the experience and suffering of women, buffeted by double blows. Songs connected to me, my life and society. Such songs raised questions in my mind.

As she worked in the jungle, she shared her sorrows with the night-flowering jasmine, bottlebrush, Indian laurel, sandan and katmero, and with me.

‘Nani – I find the faces of my younger brother-in-law and my father-in-law as frightening as that of a tiger. Why is that, I wonder? I used to have the courage to speak with my brother-in-law. It gave me some relief to talk to him. But at home they talked down to me, called me a hick from the countryside. It made me wish that nobody from my home would ever visit. I had to walk modestly, wake up at three in the morning, no amount of hard work seemed adequate. They once bought an iron basket. What would I carry — the basket or fodder? When I couldn’t carry fodder in it, we used it to cover the chicken.’

After taking a moment’s rest, she talks of the jungle, of the heart.

‘People are afraid of the jungle – I am afraid of the home. So many daughters-in-law say they prefer housework over the hardship of going to the jungle. I prefer to work in the jungle. I can talk, I can laugh – I can even cry.’

She has a strange affinity for the jungle. Going to the jungle was a compulsion, but also a hobby. To go into the jungle was to be liberated. She would sing with abandon.

‘In the jungle, there are no in-laws. I would scream loudly sometimes; the heart would find relief. I’d think – would these birds hear my screams? Tell me, Nani – why doesn’t anybody listen to me? Why?’

How much longer can I cry in the dark jungle?

Will my life ever see any light?

What a broken fate I have

The heart weeps nine times each day

Whenever I heard Bhauju’s songs, I’d want to analyze their meaning and their relationship to Bhauju’s life. In the course of my studies I had read that Frederick Douglass, the African American slave and social reformer, wrote in his autobiography, ‘Slaves sing when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.’ Douglass added, ‘At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness.’

Bhauju, too, expresses the deep sorrows of her heart through song. I have never heard her sing songs of joy. I don’t know if it was mere coincidence or a regular process, but songs seem to be the only medium for slaves and those who live in slave-like conditions to express their sorrows.

When she’s finished singing, Bhauju says, ‘Even the jungle seems desolate these days. It’s become spent, sparser. There’s no firewood to be found around Sano Chautara – you have to go to Thulo Chautara. Blazing sun, empty stomach, when we don’t find firewood the heat dries up the intestines. The cool water from a spring nearby brings a measure of relief. There’s a different joy in twisting a sāl leaf into a cone to scoop up water to drink.

‘When I cut firewood, my wrist feels weak. I try to cut wood with a sickle with an iron handle, but even that doesn’t work. I don’t have the strength of my youth. All my strength is gone.’ She lets out a long sigh.

She adds, sometimes with words, sometimes through a song, ‘Other women’s husbands come along to help. When there’s no support from your spouse, it’s as if one half of your body is stricken. The wife is pregnant – What has she got to eat? Where is she working? Is she carrying heavy loads when she isn’t in a condition to do so? He has no concern for me. Sometimes I crave the taste of something good – then I eat these cigarette ashes. I find them very tasty.’

I have returned hungry from the jungle

In my fatigue I find nothing to eat

When I see food my heart wells up

Plates clatter, my heart fills with aromas

‘Hunger smothers the eyes like a dark cloud. I don’t know why, but I get very hungry when I am pregnant. Doesn’t matter if the food tastes good or bad. Whatever is given with a sweet word, that is the tastiest.’

Bhauju’s company and speech are very sweet. Fresh, hot corn gruel, perilla chutney, sour, cold stale buttermilk and, with it, the gusto with which she eats!

A bit of warm food is enough to make her forget the heavy load carried over the slippery red mud of the terrain outside. ‘The forehead lightens, but it doesn’t stop burning,’ she says.

‘Sorrow teaches camaraderie. When things are awry, it isn’t the same as when everything is in harmony. Everything depends upon the tongue – our words can make us lonely, and they can make the entire world our kin.’

Bhauju has endeared herself to the entire village because of her sweet words. Dry black-eyed peas, taro roots, lime, mustard greens, the first milk of a newly calved mother, foraged greens, mushrooms collected from termite hills or grass from the fields – she shares everything with the villagers, and she still hasn’t lost that habit. That’s why everybody in the village knows her as friendly, hardworking and generous.

‘When others eat, it smells good, but when I eat alone, it stinks,’ she says. It is her nature to love everybody, to share with everybody. I used to wonder why she loved to share so much. The African American writer and feminist bell hooks, in her book All About Love: New Visions, quotes the Buddhist scholar Sharon Salzberg from A Heart as Wide as the World: ‘We learn to experience mutuality when we share anything …  The practice of generosity frees us from the sense of isolation that arises from clinging and attachment.’ Cultivating a generous heart is the primary quality of an awakened mind. When we learn to give, we also learn to receive. ‘The mutual practice of giving and receiving is an everyday ritual when we know true love.’ And, the practice and ritual of giving plays an important role in healing the wounds of our hearts. Reading hooks’ essay, I felt as if I were reading the pages of the generous and helpful life lived by Bhauju.

Bhauju never has a moment to rest from her chores. ‘Your hands don’t wear away from work,’ she says. Those words have left a deep impression on my heart since childhood. Even now I sense her principles and practice of hard work.

When she works, she forgets the time, forgets when to eat. She would dig with a hand spade her stony plot of land, keeping track of the time by the sun’s progress. The land wasn’t suited for a plough, nor could she afford the day’s meal needed to invite others to barter their labour. Therefore, she was obliged to dig the stony field through long hours in the hot sun, on an empty stomach. The harvest fed the family for barely three months. Most of the corn was raided by monkeys.

‘Couldn’t you find a way where the monkeys don’t eat the crop, it’s enough to feed the family and it isn’t too much work for you?’

‘Is there such a way, Nani? By the time I climb up and down the hill to get home, it is already night. I walk with a thousand thoughts on my mind. I’m not even worried about being bitten by snakes at dusk. Instead, even when I cook cautiously, being frugal with the oil and spices, they scold me for being a spendthrift. It makes me feel sad. I worry about being scolded by my husband’s stepmother. And, when her young daughter sides with her to speak cruelly to me, the heart really hurts.’

‘These must be the sorrows that create songs, Bhauju?’

‘Nani – these songs are my life, not mere songs. Some talent is given even to wretches like us, it seems. I may not speak well, but when I sing, I don’t feel any shame or fear.’

At my father’s home is a stepmother

If I live there, everybody treats me foul

I suffer here with my stepmother-in-law

My tears will curse them all

‘I used to wonder – am I a member of this family or its slave? The constant barbs and insults left me wondering if I belonged in the family. I’d be desperate – where can I go, with whom can I talk? I’d think – what is the point in living this life, less in worth than rocks and dirt? But, when I saw my two young sisters-in law, I told myself – these are my heart and life, my dreams and future, and I’d satisfy myself. I hear that not all mothers-in-law or sisters-in-law are like my husband’s stepmother or his half-sister. Why was I handed this fate? I don’t believe in rebirth or a previous birth, but people are the most difficult to understand. On top of that, the mysteries of the human heart. I don’t recall a moment’s rest for my body. Never known to have rested for a bit, and yet I have to cry bitter tears just to get two meals a day. Sometimes I think – how much better my life would be if this family loved me as much as they love my toil!’

My silence was the answer to her innumerable questions – how could a schoolgirl answer?

I would run to meet Bhauju every Friday evening. I raced against myself. However fast I ran, it always felt as if I were late to my rendezvous with Bhauju. I’d save my allowance to buy a packet of cookies. The gift meant a lot to her. To see her grin when she received the cookies felt like a great victory. I learned then that it was a lot more important to be the reason for somebody’s happiness than to top my examinations.

I was oblivious to the fact that my respite from school was quickly ending. I never tired of chatting with her.

‘Let the day end, Nani – you and I shall chat through the night, won’t we?’

I was very fond of listening to Bhauju. The reason – her innocent love. Most of what she said sailed right over my head. Some of the things she said pinched me on the inside. I would cry to myself.

Outside the window would be the lonely, moonlit night. The songs of cicadas and the murmur of a brook flowing nearby. The cemetery hill right by the house would suddenly send shivers down my spine.

‘Don’t be scared, Nani,’ Bhauju would show me the fire of her lit cigarette. ‘Even ghosts run away when they see fire.’

I would forget everything while listening to Bhauju’s tales – ghosts, the fear of ghosts. Bhauju would take long drags of the cigarette and say, ‘This worthless life will also end, just like this cigarette.’

She would stare at the cemetery hill and add, ‘Nani – there is a morning after this night, isn’t there? After a moonless night, there is also the night of the full moon.’ We would talk, cry together.

And, sitting together like that, it felt as if our mutual love thickened, as if we understood each other, as if the heart became unburdened. In those moments it felt as if our formal relationship, as sisters-in-law, also disappeared. I would fall asleep, listening to her stories about hope and despair. It churned the mind, the heart.

Our heads comfortably occupied the pillow made from discarded husks of mustard stuffed into leftover cloth. Bhauju would have nasty bouts of coarse coughs and take deep breaths, as if suffering from asthma. I could clearly hear her heart beating harder.

Although both of us closed our eyes, we didn’t fall asleep easily. I never knew when I’d fall asleep as I juggled a thousand thoughts in my mind. One night, I was startled awake in the middle of the night – perhaps because I felt cold, perhaps because of a fright. I saw Bhauju by the open hearth, killing something with a smouldering piece of firewood. I watched closely. ‘How dare you come to sting my Nani,’ she said as she moved her mattress away from the slanted rain and killed the lines of red ants that had surrounded us.

I thought – Bhauju wasn’t killing red ants, she was fighting the people and traditions that stung her incessantly. I stopped being insentient when I considered Bhauju’s life and began questioning my own mother, father and brother. In what way was my home different from the cemetery hill near the house? Why was it that my father – whom I saw as the most intelligent, good and loving person in the world – was like a frightening tiger to Bhauju?

My questions continue to burn in my heart, just like Bhauju’s cigarettes.

This article was first published in Kantipur on 25 November, 2017. It appears here in an edited form, translated from the Nepali by Prawin Adhikari. 

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