Call him Krishna, his father is Nepal’s dean of civil engineers and his mother is a devout Hindu and a nationally respected short-story writer, so his creativity comes naturally. He was educated at an Indian Catholic boarding school so good that it attracts students from Europe, so Western cultural and Christian concepts are familiar to him. Yet the tall and rather handsome young man lived almost ten years in California, chiefly waiting tables in high quality restaurants between trips to the beach, and the American experience was formative—when he walks across the room he nearly leaves behind a trail of entrepreneurship. By age thirty-five, happily long back in Kathmandu and now engaged to be married, so far amid inventing several new products being manufactured, he founded, owns, and manages two good restaurants, a security firm, and a construction company. That is the problem.
It is October, Nepal’s most beautiful month, safely out of the summer monsoon, dry and not yet chilly but, alas, everyone knows that so it is wedding season, and there are lots and lots of weddings. From my fifth-floor apartment looking across to the Himalayas, every day the din of multiple wedding bands stomps and drums endlessly across the Kathmandu Valley floor. Krishna must know them all.
Krishna reckons that Nepal’s average-to-large extended family has three weddings a week during the busiest four months of spring and autumn. For relatives and friends (or victims), that means at least two mandatory appearances of a couple of hours each, per three-day wedding reception, times three weddings per week. Krishna (a civil engineer’s son of course) estimates that just less than ten percent of the nation’s potentially productive time is spent at weddings, although he might prefer the word “squandered.” He has not provided national cost estimates, but doubtless he could. A daughter’s wedding can be the biggest expense of a lifetime, often with as many as 1500 guests back and forth, fed and watered over three days, whether in a posh international hotel, a multi-storey “wedding hall” made for such catered events, or a gaily coloured tent in a garden or farm-field. Leave someone off the guest list at your peril; scrimp on the comestibles and hear about it for generations. By any measure of time, effort and money, even one wedding is a big expense for hosts and guests, and there are, as I said, lots and lots of weddings.
Then it is Dashain, everyone’s favorite festival. In an agricultural country autumn is harvest time. Moreover, Hindus, especially in this historically Hindu nation, celebrate good overcoming evil in the mythological form of the goddess Durga slaying the monster Mahishasura in a heavenly realm. Hard-core Buddhists may prefer to celebrate the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka (304-232 BC) converting to Buddhism after a bloody war in modern day Orissa, and adopting ahimsa or non-violence. But that is a bit like American Jews boosting the importance of Hannukah so their children do not feel left out at Christmas time. Yet since it is Nepal, and the concepts and gods aren not mutually exclusive, most people celebrate both holidays. Krishna does so grudgingly.
Not that he is a Himalayan Ebenezer Scrooge by any means. He is honest and conscientious, and overly generous with his money and time. He closed down his thriving businesses for a week to ensure that everyone has enough fully-paid holiday relaxation. But the weddings distract him, and Dashain piles more distractions on top, for Dashain requires more mandatory visits to family and friends, lots more. His hyperactive brain, bursting with ideas for improved service, new products, new businesses, and new architecture, management tips and principles, politics, comparative religions and cultures, good jokes and whatnot, does not thrive among mandatory discussions of what vegetables taste better curried and which local hospital proved best for Uncle Ram’s hemorrhoids. With minor topical alterations that is part of any protracted family gathering anywhere.
On major holidays as a child, my family visited one set of grandparents for brunch and another for early supper, having stocked up on antacids beforehand. Increase that exponentially for Nepal. There are probably fifteen such visits in a normal, week-long Dasain, and procedure can be complicated. The younger and those of lower status visit the homes of the elder and ones of higher status, but then you must be at home to receive your inferiors, usually whilst you are away from home greeting your elders. Food in copious quantities, and tea, must be available everywhere around the clock.
It appears, logically, that everyone young enough to still have many teeth spends the holiday on the roads between one’s home and one’s many superiors’ homes, and so the sensible thing would be to minimise the Brownian Motion, meet at traffic jams and pass snacks through the windows from car to car. Indeed a variation of this is underway. Krishna reports that Kathmandu’s nouveau riche have begun hiring hotel conference halls with booths or alcoves for every branch of the extended family. You can visit one stall where your great-aunt applies the traditional red tikka mark to your forehead; you gobble a few buttery sweets and give her a hug, wash off the tikka in the bathroom, and repeat the process again and again down the long line of elderly relatives. It is what we could have read about decades ago were PG Wodehouse a Nepali Hindu—Bertie could have pitched up at Claridge’s or the Ritz and serially placated Aunts Dahlia and Agatha, et. al., while Jeeves kept the motor running for a quick getaway.
Yet much may lie beneath the nuisance. Edmund Burke reminds us that the value of a tradition may remain invisible yet essential. While Henry James said that “it takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition,” fortunately Nepal has history to spare. Mounted on garden walls near my home are Licchavi Dynasty bas-reliefs from the third century AD, and in a nearby market square slumbers a largely-ignored statue from the sixth. Ornamental wooden roof-struts, brick homes and little street-corner temples from the 17th Century abound. The religious statuary, even 1700 years old, remains within Nepal’s living traditions—the same deities are worshipped in the same forms and poses today—unlike pagan Roman sculptures propped up in a park by Renaissance popes. Nepali faith, tolerant but practiced and cherished profoundly, has no doubt kept them united despite the northern and southern tsunamis of Chinese and Indians at their borders.
So the celebration of Dashain is surely 2,000 years old and maybe more than a millennium older; so it is plausibly fifteen times older than the United States of America. Nepal’s extended family structure is maybe older still and is reinforced by the time and expense required to maintain it—often weddings and holidays. Extended families not only convey cultural traditions and act as social glue, but they provide dependable sources of capital, a social safety net for members unable to work, employment and customers, help rebuilding the barn or painting the bedroom, and if you visit New York or Birmingham a third-cousin’s couch on which to sleep for free. They will happily find you a suitable wife or husband, even if you are past your sell-by date. Nepali relatives will get one to the hospital, bring the patient hot food, and sit up all night at the bedside. They know someone, who knows someone who knows someone else, with an affordable house to rent, and the landlord will fix the roof because he is married to your third cousin’s widowed step-mom who if he is unhelpful can crush him like a cockroach. But they do insist on you stopping by their weddings and kissing your share of great-aunties.
Westerners spend around half of their incomes paying taxes (and regulatory costs, etc.) to governments that provide less than a South Asian extended family costing only ten or fifteen percent of one’s time and variable cash for rare big events. Looked at in that manner the weddings and festival obligations are the bargain of a millennium—or in the case of Nepal, two or three millennia.
The religious message of Dashain, beyond good triumphing over evil, celebrates Shakti or the one vast celestial power of which Durga is but one manifestation. Shakti embodies the creative and fertile, often latent in the male and active in the female. So it celebrates the Imaginative, while ancient extended family traditions reinforce the Conservative. Dashain is the main event for Nepal’s Imaginative Conservatives.
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