The Three Interrelated Ds: Death, Dan, Development
A funeral procession in Boudha, Kathmandu
Death is the theme of today. Mark died ten days ago in a dramatic incident on the then hairline curling road to Nuwakot when he threw out his toddler son from the vehicle he was driving and fell to his own death. This was maybe helpful to all, including his wife and son and himself, since he was a drug addict and apparently beyond help. Death is the greatest blessing in life for all living creatures, whatever their circumstances. It heralds a further life for those who belong to certain religions, such as Buddhism; for others, the atheists, it is the end of all life as it is usually understood; for agnostics it is a question mark, what might arise?
Many people prepare themselves for death more than they fight for life. Sabitri, abandoned by her husband, had had a hard, exhausting life fighting to maintain her 2 children, sometimes tying them up as toddlers to the pillars in the sparse room that was her home as she went out to clean to earn some money. They survived, but in the end never supported their mother. She despised, even hated other adults but she adored all children and would do anything for any child. When she herself got ill she refused to go to a doctor and chose instead to let herself die, working on the circumstances by choosing the place and setting. She worked harder preparing to die rather than fighting to live. Oh, bitchy, loving, lying, intelligent, twisted, mad Sabitri, how I miss you! But I’m glad you are dead.
Death in the west, such as in UK, is such a suppressed, private act; it turns inward, it is quiet and its agonies have to be dissolved within. It is not allowed to merge with life. Here in Nepal death is open, visible, and audible. It reaches out to life and is finally dissolved within life. Death is on the streets, not in the form of a frightening black car which looks like a devil’s vehicle in which is hidden someone who has already left this world. No, here bodies wrapped in white orange shrouds are carried through the streets on a stretcher borne by four men, and accompanied sometimes by mourners. They are carried to temples by the rivers to be burned at the ghats.
Death is not hidden In Nepal. Its presence is constantly acknowledged by the living. People live in the awareness of death as the main feature of life, and maybe that is part of the reason that they are able truly to live even when their circumstances seem unsupportable. Maybe even an apparently unliveable life is still life in comparison to death. Maybe that is one of the secrets.
Yes, death as the greatest blessing. It is sometimes the only comfort by which terrible suffering is endured. Nothing is endless with the knowledge of death.
And Dan, he prepared for death. He was ready to die, almost wanted to die, but others were not prepared for it, did not want it. How shattered was his family, how devastated were those many people in Kathmandu who loved him, foreigners and Nepalese alike. He was an Indian, a Christian Indian of a line of decades, even centuries of Christianity. Rare to find an Indian or a Christian so beloved by Nepalese, but then Dan’s was a rare soul.
His integrity was incredible, intense, firm. He could never be called inflexible because someone so perceptive and sensitive could not be inflexible. But he was not finally strong enough to support the strain and stress of being caught between the financial rewards of the ‘development’ establishment and the realities of the ‘developing’ situation, of actually contributing to the development of those in need.
He had left his relatively low paid job in South India to take an appointment with WHO on its international staff and he was ready to give his everything to it.
The head of his organization was a British doctor known personally to me since we were based in the same UK city and we shared friends and interests. He was an excellent medical professional, which I had experienced directly over a complex illness of my elder daughter; and he was a good man. He had worked for a short time on a project with anthropologists in West Africa so I assumed he had awareness of cultural differences. But the power of cultural conditioning can maintain its hold over an intelligent, highly trained and decent person. This manifested itself when he, around the time Dan, too, took up his post in Nepal.
He ‘isolated’ Dan from the rest of his international staff who were all white-skinned Indo-Aryans. He never invited his dark, brown-skinned staff member to informal gatherings and even spoke of him, to me, in a contemptuous way – assigning him mentally to the lower ranks of the Nepali support staff of his organization.
Dan contracted an illness, a serious infection, but somehow failed to or did not care to treat it. He allowed it to take over his body so that it eventually killed him. He gave up his life, because he found he was able to give so little in his work. The bureaucracy was so cumbersome, the outlook of so many of the establishment so narrow and self-seeking and indifferent. He felt he was achieving so little for such a high salary, but he could not withdraw. He was caught in the development trap because he had no job to return to and would have difficulty in finding another in India; his sons were funded in good schools and he understood the problems he was supposed to solve in his new post: he saw too deeply and cared too much without being able to do enough to satisfy himself, without being able to break through or break down the bureaucratic indifference. And this killed him!
Many, many others experienced similar frustrations, and got caught in the trap of reorganizing their lives according to the demands and rewards of their challenging new post. They usually sent their children to top, expensive boarding schools, all paid for by their employer, as were their flights to join their families in their high-class, comfortable residences during vacations. Their salaries were high but this was rarely the reason for accepting their post. They believed they could benefit/help a small part of mankind in this job.
Only after around two years – sometimes three for the most positive personalities – did they realize they were bringing almost no benefit to anyone except themselves. But by then, like Dan, they were trapped. Their first responsibility was to their own family so they could not change the life-path, the schooling of their children. They could not resign because, even with a decent job, they could never afford to maintain the new paths of their children. Many, many admitted the trap and they declared they would expose it after they retired. Maybe some did, but I never saw any such exposures.
But he had done so much: he had generated love and trust where there had been suspicion. Nepalese mostly distrust Indians in Nepal, but his Nepalese colleagues and staff and government officials had come to trust, even love him. He was an official, and officials can never be expected to understand, but they came to believe that he understood them.
The cremation bore witness to it. That was another day I shall not forget. Days of death are good guides along the path of life.
Early that morning, I went in the Land Rover to the American freezer, the only one in Kathmandu at that time in the ‘70s/’80s. It was too much in demand. Now there are many hospitals where bodies can be kept after death. It is costly, but costs as well as the availability of this facility has overwhelmingly increased in the past decades.It was a grey and misty dawn morning and I went, not only to give support to Dan’s young men, sons who had reached Kathmandu from India the night before, but because I had the feeling that his body would not fit in their own car. I was right. They tried to put the stiff, frozen body into the big green Toyota that their father used to delight in, but it would not fit in. So they put it into the Land rover with the stretcher pushed right up against the front windscreen on the passengers’ side so that Dan’s head was just beside me. He was frozen, still, because no arrangement had been made to take his body out earlier. Someone, I barely noticed who, sat in the back and held the stretcher still. The mist cleared. I drove out of the American compound on to the morning street alive with clean, fresh people on their way to their daily lives. Little girls in their clean school tunics, hair neatly plaited, chattering together on their way to school. (How is it that one doesn’t notice the little boys so much?) Men and women walked purposefully to work; cyclists rode their bikes in the traffic; taxis hooted for passengers. No one seemed to notice my strange passenger.
I was very aware of my passenger as I drove to the WHO office building where I had been told to go to collect more kerosene for the cremation ahead, since the amount we had was inadequate for such a frozen body. The others, helpers from the office, were there when we arrived. I stopped the car and got out. We were too early so we had to wait there awhile. Nobody spoke. We were all frozen into the isolation of our own feelings. Then we set out to the house with the load of his body and the kerosene to where many people, family and close friends, were waiting to offer prayers and love to Dan. His body was taken from the Land rover and laid out on the sitting room. Flowers – so many flowers – were thrown on his body, so many tears fell beside him. Then Saro, the new widow, came out, saw his body and screamed, screamed like a wild animal and fell, half fainting. That cry was familiar. Last week it had come from the throat of Mark’s wife when Mark died. I had felt it in myself, though I’ve no idea if I uttered it, when Lalita, my daughter, was dying,,
The white head of the tall American Christian pastor towered above the brown and black heads around. He was a little bewildered by the overt passion of the religiously faithful around him, not manifested externally by his usual American flock, but he gave a moving blessing. For the first time I wept and wept. Then the body was put back into the Land Rover and I drove off slowly with my passenger amidst other cars to Pushupati, the most holy of all Hindu places in Nepal.
It seemed a long way through busy streets, again no one seemed to notice the strange passenger, to Pashupati, gracious, spacious Pashupati, its golden pagoda roofs and elegant stone carvings and multiple lingams spread over gently sloping hillsides on either side of the holy river.
The religious tolerance on the banks of the river approaching Pashupati had always been extraordinary. A Muslim cloth printer, originally from India, worked beside the river, washing his cloth in it. He lived nearby in a building of several stories, the other residents of which were Nepalis, not only Hindu and Buddhist, considered to be the same religion, but one was a Christian, undeclared, because the only religion allowed to Nepalis at that time was Hinduism, which included Buddhism naturally. Of course Shamanism was practiced by most Nepalis, whatever their declared religion, very often cross-cutting most cultural-religious groups.
The main temple was then, as now, strictly banned to all except Hindus, the identifying features of those admitted to the holiest of Hindu holies was being brown-skinned and black-haired. But that was transgressed on one occasion when a seven-year-old little girl of British stock, Lara by name, entered with her Nepali friends. Lara, living in Lazimpat, had Nepali friends and spoke Nepali with them. They decided one day to make a pilgrimage to Pashupathi. So they, a team of little ants all of whom were brown-skinned and black-haired except for one who was white-skinned and brown-haired, tripped their way to the holiest of holy Hindu places in their world. The presiding priest-guard gave a sightless entry to the team, not noticing the obviously different non-Hindu ant in their midst. None of the ants felt particularly triumphant, after all an ant is an ant and a pilgrimage a pilgrimage.
So the body of Dan,and the generations of inherited Christians, is allowed to be revered in the holiest of Hindu sanctuaries, albeit in the lowest of the ghats. This, because he was so treasured by his Nepali-Hindu erstwhile colleagues and friends, many, even most of whom, appeared for the ceremony. They gathered silently but powerfully mourning together his death. How many realized the cause of his death and how he had died. The two sons grappled with their personal shock and pain.
Lindsay Friedman was born in suburban England just before the Second World War.
M.A. University of Edinburgh 1954.
Post graduate degree in Phonetics. 1956.
Lecturer in the Phonetics Department, University of Edinburgh 1957-64.
Lecturer in the University of Legon, Ghana 1964-70,
Senior Lecturer in the University of Abdullahi Bayero, Northern Nigeria 1970-72.
Research Fellow, University of Nepal 1972-83.
Research visits to Ethiopia between 1974 and 1982.
Currently supporting various projects in Nepal, mainly child literacy for remote, extremely poor and deprived families unable to finance education for their children.