The day begins at 9:51 am. My family gathers in our smoky, clay-floor communal room (which serves as a kitchen, dining room, living room and bedroom, sometimes all at once), clustered and sitting cross-legged on the thin reed mats spread along the floor. I wear a long, yellow kurta, my hair pulled back into two tight braids. I spent the morning with my younger sisters, mother and aunt: soaping and rinsing my hair with the women in the freezing tap water by the buffalo shed, smudging red lipstick onto the goofy grins of the young girls that danced around me as I dressed, sitting sleepily in the sunlight as my sister deftly twisted my hair into braids.
At 9:51, the Tikka began as my baaje – a thin man with deep wrinkles and rough, sun-tanned skin – lit incense and stuck it into a thin metal bowl full of dried rice. The bowl sat at the center of a brass plate holding several apples, candles and rupees: gifts for the people that would come by throughout the day. The incense lifted into the room, mixing with the smoke rising from the embers still burning from this morning’s daal bhat.
He turns first to Krishal, the youngest, my relentlessly energetic bhaai (younger brother). Chanting softly in a language I barely understand, baaje sprinkles tikka onto Krishal’s hair and presses the sticky rice mixture onto his forehead. He tucks a paati flower and stem behind Krishal’s ear and offers him a ten rupee bill. Baaje repeats the process for each member of our family – nine within our immediate family, and many more in varying extensions throughout Balamchaur, spanning across several generations.
This concept of a multigenerational home is something I never expected to adore so deeply. Though I have lived in Balamchaur for only 4 days, it feels like a joy and a gift to spend my time within this family. We eat together, sprawled around the ever-burning embers of the stove fire, scooping steaming daal bhat with our hands. My younger siblings tug at my shirtsleeves, lead me to Lapsi trees, show me how to peel the small, sour fruits; my grandmother holds my hand as we walk and points to things in the village, naming them in both Nepali and Gurung: stone, sun, goat.
As a family, we move from house to house through the village, giving and receiving gifts of tikka, rupees, flowers. My sister holds onto my arm as we shuffle along the stone walkways and stoop under low door frames, saying “Aunus, didi!”. The rest of the village bustles with a similar sense of celebration and gratitude as people greet each other in each house with laughter or hot tea. I never feel out of place, somehow, even within a room full of people speaking only Nepali, even as a grandmother asks me a question I do not understand, even as I meet new people and continually introduce myself: “Mero naam Chandani ho.”
If anything, I feel a part of this community, not apart from it.
In some ways, I almost feel more welcome here than in some places within my own country. There is a sense of incredible and intimate connection in this community: a familiarity and ease with which people communicate, touch, laugh. Often times during a meal, someone from another home will slip through the door, sit for chiyaa or some roti, chat and eat for several minutes and then, as swiftly as they came, slip out the door again into the crisp air. Today, as we walked from home to home, young girls held my hands and sang my name as if they had known me for years. At someone’s house, as I stood outside in the soft light of morning, a baby – no more than a year old – was placed nonchalantly into my arms, without any doubt of trust or capability.
This sense of community and family is something that I admire and envy of this place and these people. I’m moved by the depth and breadth of connections of the people here – to each other, to this village, and to me. It feels authentic and compassionate and true in many ways that are unfamiliar to my hometown in suburban Massachusetts.
I spent much of the day in awe, wondering if it could be possible to learn how to connect, relate and interact all over again. How can I learn from this place and keep those teachings close enough to my heart to bring them back home? Is it possible to create a new beginning for yourself halfway across the world and then bring it to where you began?
I’m not really sure. But I think a sort of sign might be offering me some insight –
A baby goat was born to our family today, just after Tikka began. She is tiny and black, and pokes her nose around the buffalo’s legs as she learns to walk on spindly legs. It feels auspicious to me – what is a beginning but a new life of sorts?
So I’m trying to learn a little from this baby goat, realizing that maybe beginnings are possible, after all.