Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Death in the Newari Family

Yes, it was a long day's journey into night on Thursday...

We received a call from Allan, the Lincoln School director, at 10:30 pm at home informing us that Rajendra had passed away from this world about a half hour before that. We'd been at the reception for the Israeli independence that evening and met some friends from Lincoln there who had stopped to see Rajendra en route to the dinner reception. When I'd asked Luke how Rajendra seemed, he said, "He looked so much weaker than when I'd seen him a month before -- but with Rajendra his will is so strong, you can't say how long he will last." Then, within minutes of his death, Shakun and I were driving home from the reception right past Om Hospital to put Leah to bed when Rajendra's spirit left this Earth.

Allan said that they were sending a LS bus to Om Hospital at 4 am to help take the family out to Panauti, a small, historical Newari town an hour outside the Kathmandu Valley, where Rajendra originally came from. I thought about calling Suraj after Allan called, but felt that it was time for their family to mourn and I could imagine the scene of wailing and keening that is so familiar in Nepali society among the women.

Instead, since my mind was already quite disturbed and I was unable to sleep with the knowledge of Rajendra's death, I stayed up to watch the 1 am Liverpool Europa Cup game against Athletico Madrid (blame my sons for this English football addiction...), then thought to go to the hospital to meet Suraj, his sister, Chandni, to see if I could be of any assistance at that time.

About 3:30 am among the world of the living, after a disappointing Liverpool performance, I took a quick shower, put some clothes on, woke Tek, our nightguard, and drove in the dark, empty streets to Om Hospital.

As you know, there is a vacant, odd, malleable sense to darkness. The world seems to have retreated from almost any form of life. There are shells of buildings, silent roads, scattered trash on the streets -- but humanity has disappeared. It's an appropriate time for death. Life seems already to have receded from reach, as if it's an idea that has come and gone, departed from this material world, like dinosaurs of old, vanished, leaving only the remains of our ambitions, hopes and losses.

An occasional motorcyle passed with a few Nepalis getting into vehicles along the way. Besides that, quiet, emptiness, the void.

At the hospital it took some time to locate Rajendra's family. I went to the ICU, where we'd seen him last a week+ ago. There were other families there now, sleeping on the worn benches or on sheets on the floor. They tried to help me, but didn't know of a Rajendra Karmacharya. Already his form was slipping away...

Over in the wards in the main building, even the guards were asleep. I found one nurse moving and she directed me to anothe floor of surgical rooms. I wandered around, not finding the room she'd said, nor Suraj's family. Then, at the end of another vacant hallway, I heard voices and walked down to a small crowd sleeping, lying, resting on the floor at the hallway's cul-de-sac. Before I recognized them, they recognized me and woke Chandni, Suraj's sister who'd come back two weeks before from her third year at BCU in Vancouver. She smiled, tired, but happy to see me and said, "I'll get Suraj. He's sleeping upstairs."

Suraj had found a bench on the third floor to get some rest. We hugged briefly, then the three of us leaned against the hallway walls and chatted while his mother and her close relatives lay nearby.

Although Death had come so recently, both Suraj and Chandni seemed in good states of mind. They'd had months to accept and digest the reality of their Dad's fatal cancer. Even beyond the hopes, they had begun to realize the depth of the disease and the remoreseless of its movement. When Chandni was called back to Nepal, just before her junior year exams, they understood that the message was the messenger and time was limited.

About 5 am, people began to stir. The LS bus had come in right before me an hour before. There were phone calls to Panauti to relatives there and arrangements for the ambulance that would take Rajendra's body out to his ancestral home while the family travelled in the LS bus, generously offered by Allan as a sign of respect for the many years of service that Rajendra had given the school managing these same vehicles that would now take his body back to his natal town, just over the horizon, close enough to find work in Kathmandu, but never so far that he would ever forget his origins or his deep and lasting Newari family roots.

Death may be quick, but life takes time About 5:45 am the stretcher camefor Rajendra's body. Immediately, the Nepali keening began again in earnest as the women of his life filled the room one last time before the men moved Rajendra's remains out to the hallway, a sheet over his body and the women holding each other tight, close and protective.

This sound, Nepali women wailing, crying, like waves of sorrow across our souls, mourning their loss and life's inevitable end, never escapes me at such times. It is a sound, like the sweet fragrance of the night queen in the spring, that I will always associate with Nepal. I've heard it from Shakun's relatives when her uncles and father died; I've heard it up the ridges of the Budhi Gandaki river in northern Gorkha late at night in the solitude of a lonely Himalayan village and now, once again, among the Newari women of Kathmandu in the hallways of a modern hospital as the ritual of death occurs, again and again, and again...

Just before 6 am, the LS bus, the ambulance and me along in our aging Suzuki took to the roads, out of the Om driveway, up the hill to Chahabil and then around the airport heading out on the new highway they are slowly constructing past Bhaktapur to the lone road that connects the Kathmandu Valley with the ancient Newari settlements to the east en route to the only trading route with Tibet. I followed the small, van-like ambulance that carried Rajendra, Suraj and a few men of his family. Along the way, we stopped to pick up more relatives who were coming to support the family and mourn, one last time, at the cremation site in Panauti.

About 7:15 am, we drove down the narrow road that filters through the lovely, lush Panauti valley, mud houses on the hillsides and brick homes in the old marketplace. It'd been two decades since I'd been there. One of my early excursions when I'd come to Kathmandu in the mid-80s to see the famous, beautiful temple along a river. Since then, the modernization that has overwhelmed and mutilated so much of the traditional charm of these thousand year old Newari settlements, had engulfed Panauti, as well.

There, we drove through the bazaar festooned with flags and crepe for some celebration that had just passed or was continuing with the immortality that almost describes the profound Newari attachment to their traditions, festivals, jatra and life.

As I parked, the ambulance circled round down a dirt path to the temple by the river where people had already begun to congregate, family, neighbors and friends from his birth, youth and young life. As the nearest relatives came from the LS bus, Rajendra's body was placed on the cold stone surrounding the temple, the sheet no longer covering his face, his eyes barely open, silent, still, staring to the empryean beyond.

As we stood silently to honor and observe, individual women came up to touch his body, bless his life, leave some small rupee notes on his chest and pour some sacred water on his lips and forehead. A piece of what looked like gold was place in his mouth. The living with tears in their eyes or vacant looks, stood nearby, a circular mandala of life, surrounding, protecting one of our own, asleep forever at our feet.

Memories, no doubt, poured into others' minds as they did for me. The Rajendra of life, the living, on the phone, calling to say where the boys may be, what bus they were on, what time they would be coming home. For years, a decade plus, Rajendra was always there on the other end of the phone to reassure us that the kids weren't lost, that the busses had started late or that there was another 'jaloose' (demonstration) going on in the city, so they were delayed and still en route home. Rajendra's disembodied voice was always there to reassure, guide and protect our children through those Lincoln School years.

Now, we stood, unable to protect Rajendra from the vicissitudes and reality of this earthly world. We had offered him our affection and, oaccasionally, our support during his illness. He knew our affection for Suraj, in particular, and his close brotherly bonds with Josh and Ezra. The year Suraj spent at NMH last year brought our families closer together than we ever would have been in the segregated worlds of Kathmandu and Nepal. Suraj, through his gentle intelligence and thoughtfulness, had slipped into our family's karma and American identity.

Fortuitously, through some twist of fate, Suraj had decided to come home to Kathmandu and Lincoln for his senior year, rather than stay at NMH. In retrospect, how wise, karmic and necessary that decision had been.

Yet, Death is finally the Master of us all. I looked around at the scores of milling neighbors, family and friends of Rajendra's. The Newari women, including Chandni in her t-shirt and blue jeans, bent in sorrow among the older women in their red saris and tradtional ornaments, were still wailing. The men more stoic, resigned, emptied of emotion in small groups around the temple periphery. I looked and thought that this, too, will pass for each of us. One day, unlike today, we won't be here to observe, caught in our own thoughts, and feel ths sorrow, the necessity of Death.

One day, we, too, would lie quietly, peacefully, alone at the feet of others who may come to mourn our passing and honor our lives.

One day, we, too, would bid adieu to this curious, sacred and painful world of mist, sunlight and shadows.

One day, we, too, would have to face our own departure, and wish those we leave behind the love we could never fully express in life.

Om Shanti. Om Shalom.

Such is our destiny on this Earth.

I hope I haven't said too much.

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