BELIEFS AND CUSTOMS
(By Satis Shroff)
Whereas the older people in Asia pray the whole day and are in communion with God because the life-span in Asia is shorter, I had the impression here in Europe that the older generation are still living it up.
You’re pensioned at 65 years in Germany and are still robust and not very old. This new acquired freedom is used for coffee-hours in the afternoon, trekking, sight-seeing and even ballroom dancing and pursuing interesting hobbies like gardening, fishing and bird-watching. Others like the adamant octogenarian Toni Hagen and the impeccable Sir Edmund Hillary even go on working as development workers in the Himalayas, where old age is regarded as an asset and not a liability.
And late, second or third marriages are not uncommon due to the fact that older people are left to themselves, and the younger generation would rather see their parents, grandparents in houses for old people rather than share a house in a joint-family. The family units have become smaller and smaller with the passage of time and industrial development.
Take Frau Brendel’s family for instance. All the sons and daughters have their own families and they are scattered over Germany and, till recently, even in Australia. The only time they get together is when a silver or golden jubilee or birthday is being celebrated or when someone in the family gets married. And whether it’s a child’s ‘confirmation’ ceremony at the local church, a marriage or whatever: the costs are tremendous, because the Germans do it with style.
I had the impression that it isn’t only the Asians who spend a lot of money on such occassions. Even the Germans seemed to go to extremes. A modern marriage for instance has the aura of a royal marriage and the German brides are dressed up like the late Lady Diana Spencer and the bridegrooms like Prince Charles. What staggers the costs is the party in a Gastwirtschaft or rented hall afterwards, with the choicest menus and unlimited drinks: sekt, wine, beer and schnaps.
Mrs.Brendel’s mother, was an 82 year old corpulent, grand old lady with failing eyesight, who watched TV sitting only five centimetres in front of the tube, for instance lived in a year on a rotation scheme with all her married sons and daughters travelling from Heidelberg to Bad Waldliesborn and down to Nuremburg and then up to Neustadt. She didn’t have a permanent home of her own. The children took turns in doing grandma-sitting. The family called her ‘Queen Victoria’, as she had a rather commanding tone.
It reminded me of my own maternal grandma, who was the central figure in the family, after the death of my grandpa, and who operated from her spacious bed in Victorian style, which had curtains of multicoloured glass-pearls. Visitng her was like entering into a world of 1001 Nights.
The indomitable lady would sit perched high, like an incarnated Rimpoche, and sip her Darjeeling tea and lay her hands on the foreheads and heads of the many relatives and acquaintances who wanted to pay her their respects or ask for favours. She’d cover her mouth with the end of a sari and would ask them uncomfortable questions about their families, demanding obedience and respect from them. And the relatives would comply with due submission. I found it always a spectacle the way people greeted her, presenting her white silk scarfs (khadas), bowing their otherwise proud heads, and receiving either a pat on their heads almost a slap if the grand old lady was disappointed with them. She was their moral instance, their conscience. And she had her spies and informants in the extensive family branches. She still had a lot of land, despite the so-called land-reforms introduced by the government in Kathmandu and her tenants and their families were still heavily dependent on her. She could be a kind soul at times and show compassion but most of the time she was very stern and shrewd towards her ‘subjects’. Her subjects were divided into two religious groups: Buddhists-cum-animists who were called Bhotays and Tamangs and Hindus. But she didn’t show much respect towards the Hindus. In her mind the achievements of a person in this world were more important than lineage and heredity. She’d always come up with, ‘What you make out of life and what you are is more important than what your father or ancestors were’.
Despite her crude ways in dealing with people I admired her secretly. After all, respect was something that had to be earned and didn’t come with one’s age. She was going contrary to the norm of her society in which old-age was regarded with reverence and admiration. In her eyes a person had to defend his or her right with his wisdom, for according to her — wisdom was something that couldn’t be stolen by thugs and robbers in the society, and she laid great emphasis on the importance education, even though she couldn’t read English. She could read and write Tibetan and Nepali though. It didn’t help her in her interactions with the British but her knowledge of Tibetan and Nepali were an asset in dealing with the local people, and she used it with a great deal of skill.
In the living room hung a hugh sepia photograph with a heavy gold-coloured wooden frame of her husband and his British friends posing in front of a vintage car. The British ladies wore quaint hats and flowing skirts, and blouses with buttons right upto the throats, where they gave way to frills around the collars. And whereas grandpa talked with his British guests, grandma was mostly confined to the kitchen where she supervised the Indian, Nepali and British cuisine. Another hugh and massive-framed photograph showed him with his British guests with their guns in their hands proudly posing in front of an enormous tiger that they’d shot in the terai during a shikar.
After the death of Grandpa she’d grown fond of a tall, grey-haired British physician with a goatee who used to treat the people from the hills and give them pills, tablets, mercurochrome on their wounds and tonsils, and zinc oxide salves smeared on a piece of The Rising Nepal or The Gorkhapatra.
I found Grandma Brendel’s story familiar, because it was exactly what happened to my own paternal grandpa who had to live in Kathmandu, Dharan, Darjeeling and Bombay because his children who ‘looked after him’ were scattered in two countries and five towns.
My paternal grandpa would sit in front of his hinduistic altar and be engaged in praying to the Gods. He’d sit in his lotus position take a mala in his right hand and start reciting the names of as many Gods and Goddesses and paying tribute to them. With 33 million Gods and Goddesses he would be busy for the better part of the day.
There were interesting moments when he’d be also listening to the conversation in the family kitchen and suddenly he’d switch in and start talking as though he hadn’t missed the conversation from the beginning.The only people who were genuinly interested in our grandpa were us kids.
He had the habit of going for long walks in the evening and underway he’d buy sweets as offerings for Gods like Ganesh, the pot-bellied God with the elephant trunk, who has an affinity for laddus and other sweet things. We’d enter the premises of a temple and he’d ring the hugh bells outside, and the whole neighbourhood would reverbate with the sound of the bells. There was always the smell of incense-sticks burning, the smell of milk, yoghurt and freshly made sandalwood paste with which we’d be blessed on our foreheads as a receipt after making the offering. A portion of the offering would be kept by the brahmin for himself and the Gods, and I’d get the major part of the delicacies for accompanying him to the many temples.
Grandpa was a robust old fellow with a sense of humour and loved to hum the tunes of Bombay films through his white starched moustache, whether Nepali, Hindi or Bengali, and could be rather embarassing at times, for he’d persist even though he didn’t know the tune and the lyric at all.
Every Indian or Nepali film has at least 14 songs and it’s more like a melodramatic musical with dances, seductive vamps, fights and rescues with litres of tears, screams, shouts and groans and happy ends—when the lovers are united at last after an endless series of ordeals. It’s kitsch but the masses in India and Nepal love them. The audience applauses, whistles and claps hands and is moved to tears. The film functions as a ventil for the poverty-stricken people and for two hours they identify themselves with the protagonists and live their posh lives in palace-like houses, flying first class, drinking champaigne, wearing the newest creations, doing the newest dances and suffering with the protagonists, feeling for them, and finally thanking them for enticing them to another fantasy world.
They take home the wonderful images and perhaps hope and courage to make something out of their own lives. If not, at least have the satisfaction of identifying themselves with someone else’s fantasy-world. When the poor soul comes out of the cinema-hall, the blazing sun glares at him,the terrible noise and chaos of the traffic, the stench from the alleys, and he is reminded of the struggle for existence and survival. The cinemagoer may be in Bombay, Dacca, Karachi or Katmandu: the brutal and sad reality in developing countries is, and remains, the same.
In winter grandpa was glad to be in sunny Bombay, and in summer he could retreat to the cool foothills of the Himalayas. That was the problem of industrialisation and population migration, when the men went looking for better jobs and pastures, or through marriage in the case of women. It’s always the women who follow their men, leave their hometowns and not the other way round. The future of the bride is always uncertain and depends on the dowry, the sympathy and mercy of the mother-in-law, and the behaviour of her arranged-husband.
Irrespective of the fact whether you’re a Hindu, Buddhist, Christian or Muslim, the desire and craving to ask God for help and protection has always been evident, be it at the house altar or Herrgottwinkel, at the shrine, temple, pagoda, church, chapel and cathedral and mosque. Sacraments and blessings have always been received from priests, brahmins and lamas. And pilgrimmages have always been undertaken by Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs and Jains. Ritual ceremonies like baptism, bratabandha, communion and marriages have brought along a good many customs with them, each specific to one’s ethnicity and religion and, nevertheless, similar and familiar in their basic meanings and purposes.
When I see the many votive pictures, gifts and offerings to the churches, temples, pagodas and mosques, I see how strong the clamour for heavenly guidance and succour is, and how varied, and yet similar, the distress is in the daily lives of people all over the world.
It was interesting to note that despite the marked Christian piety, the Black Forest people and the people in the Alpine countries like Switzerland, South Tirol, and Austria still cling to their so-called pagan customs, sayings, superstitions, beliefs and customs. This is also typical of the people living in the foothills of the Himalayas with tantric, Bon-religion and shamanism and shaktiism as accepted and tolerated forms of life and religion.
It was amusing to learn that the fear of ghosts, demons and spirits was widespread in the Black Forest and the Alpine Republics. The spirits were sometimes said to sit on a man’s chest or on his back, and in this way bring him to the ground. We Nepalis call this phenomenon ‘aithan paryo’ and speak of ‘boksas and boksis’, that is, witches of both sexes. If there’s a female witch, there has to be a male one too.
Satis Shroff is a writer living in Freiburg (Germany) and has written textbooks on Nepali: Sprachkunde for Germans (Horlemann Verlag, Bad Honnef) and has written for Nelles Verlag’s guidebook ‘Nepal’(Munich), articles in The Christian Science Monitor, The Fryburger, The Rising Nepal, Radio Nepal, Himal Asia, the Nepalese Perspective and Nepal Information (Cologne). He has studied Medicine and Sozialarbeit in Freiburg and Creative Writing (Writers Bureau, Manchester). He is the published author of three books on www.satisle.Lulu.com: Im Schatten des Himalaya (book of poems in German), Through Nepalese Eyes (travelgue), Katmandu, Katmandu (poetry and prose anthology by Nepalese authors, edited by Satis Shroff). His lyrical works have been published in literary poetry sites: Slow Trains, International Zeitschrift, World Poetry Society (WPS), New Writing North, Muses Review, The Megaphone, The Megaphone, Pen Himalaya, Interpoetry. Satis Shroff is a member of “Writers of Peace,” poets, essayists,novelists (PEN), World Poetry Society (WPS), Boloji and The Asian Writer. He describes himself as a mediator between western and eastern cultures and sees his future as a writer and poet. He is dedicated to promoting and creating awareness for Nepal’s literary heritage and culture in his writings and in preserving Nepal’s identity in Germany. Satis Shroff was awarded the German Academic Exchange Prize.