Friday, November 22, 2013

Katmandu II

   Girls abducted, burning bodies, a stoned holy man, semen loss... 
   (For Katmandu I go to the Nov. 12 post:(         

   The other group at risk of contracting AIDS was sex workers, even more difficult to locate than drug users. The Community Health Development Center, another NGO, ran a hostel for prostitutes on the other side of Katmandu; there were, I learned, two girls there, one of them HIV positive.
Both had earlier been taken to Bombay, a common destination for the Nepalese girls committed to prostitution by men promising to marry them or to find them a good job. They now lived in a pleasant house behind one of the major hotels, in a rural setting. There I was introduced to the 18-year-old with the AIDS virus by one of her providers, a woman named Purnima, a devout Methodist.
  "She spent a year and a half in Bombay," Purnima explained, while the girl sat waiting to be interviewed, wearing a plain dress, silver earrings and a scarf, her knotted hair skewered with a ballpoint pen. "She was taken to Bombay by a boy, who left her in a brothel."
The girl had been taught to groom herself for the customers, and to speak Hindi. The madam "was a nice lady," the girl said. She had lived there and entertained middleaged male customers for a year and a half before the brothel was raided by the police and  she ended up in an ashram.
   Eventually the Indian authorities returned her to Nepal. Here she cleaned and worked in the garden; she seemed happy. "For the rest of her life she wants to live here," said Purnima, "and teach others to avoid what happened to her."
Hers was a common experience for as many as 1,000 girls a year who came from rural Nepal, many from villages where prostitution was traditional. But the presence of AIDS was something new; this girl would not be returning to her village, as many did, with enough money to attract a husband.
I returned to Pashupati, intrigued by the juxtaposition of sex and death: 11 stone chaityas, or shrines, each containing a lingam representing Shiva's reproductive organ, just across the narrow Bagmati River from the ghats where the dead were ritually burned. Stone idols of cows, lions and hogs faced the little temple, its intricately carved lintels and angled struts supporting a gilded roof and embellished with male griffin-like creatures with horns, and erections. Other carved figures fondling one another, or in merry coitus, decorated the beams. People stood in the angled shade of the temple and lined the footbridge for a better view of the cremation about to take place.
Logs had been piled on a stone platform, surmounted by a body in a red and white sari, face covered, strewn with incense and straw. Two naked boys played in the river, and just downstream a woman did her laundry, indifferent to the flames licking upward.
   The sun was very bright, but big stratocumulus drifted west from the mountains, lined with gray. Thunder competed with the tolling of the temple bells as acrid smoke began to pour from the pyre, riding a wind in advance of the rain. The blackening hulk of the deceased, gruesome by western standards, took on an odd dignity, flanked by bright saffron robes drying on the balustrade.
Upstream, a dozen children swam in the muddy water amidst rafts of flower petals. It was Saturday, a holy day; the ornate silvery doors of the main temple were open and people moved through the smoke of innumerable incense sticks. A rhesus monkey leapt onto the roof, unremarked by the women selling bananas under a black umbrella and by the sadhus dozing on the steps of the shrines. It was a medieval scene - stone footbridges, shrouded figures of holy men, the smells of sandlewood and burning flesh - for no one questioned the primacy of death and the mingling of the tangible and the spiritual.
I climbed the stone stairs, looking for Yari. I wanted him to take me to the Shivaite holy man living behind the ghats. If anyone could address the question of sex and death so prominently juxtaposed at Pashupati, it would be a devotee of Shiva, the creator but also the destroyer. "Shiva is the supreme... androgyne." a scholar named Sudhir Kapar wrote in Shamans, Mystics and Doctors, a book I had picked up near the hotel. "Both as ardha-narishwara ('half-man, half-woman') and in his iconic representations as the phallic linga that is always accompanied by the yoni, the symbol of the sexual organ of the goddess... His androgyny is praised and satirized in Sanskrit court poetry."
Pilgrims had left graffiti in the moss on the white-washed walls below the Gorakhnath temple, with its towering gilded trident, symbol of Shiva. I descended on the other side and stood before the Guhyeshwari temple, home of Kali, Shiva's consort, or shakti, sexually dominant, to whom male animals are sacrificed. Being a non-Hindu, I was not allowed inside - there is no such thing as conversion to the faith - but inside for the ritual fires, an apparently peaceful scene belying what I knew to be the apocalyptic nature of the goddess, Kali, many-armed, blood-thirsty, said to demand sacrifice and to wear a garland of human skulls.
Guhyeshwari, built by King Pratap Malla in the 17th century, was dedicated to the goddess's vagina. Four gilded snakes supported the roof. According to legend, when Shiva was insulted by his father-in-law, the goddess was so angry she burst into flames, thus giving rise to the custom of suttee - the self-immolation of wives on their husbands' funeral pyres. A distraught Shiva carried her remains about, and here that important part of her came to rest.
  I found Kali represented on the other gate, one that opened onto a square, with a huge ficus and bleachers where men sold cracked coconut and pineapple from rattan stands, and a goat gamboled underfoot. An old woman passed with a basketful of pale yellow chicks. This innocent village life, with rice paddies in the distance, went on under the eyes of the fearful representation, on the gatepost, of a blue Kali with a bloody tongue and impressive male genitalia. Her counterpart on the opposite post was a leering skeleton, similarly endowed.
The monsoon caught me. I could see workers fleeing across emerald green fields, and there were no taxis, and no umbrellas for sale in this idyll. By the time I got back to far side of the hill, I was soaked. The stalls had been covered with clear plastic sheets, and holy men lay on mats under the temple eaves, staring into the rain. Every imaginable kind of flotsam - plastic bags, flower petals, mango juice cartons, watermelon rinds - rode the brown torrent over sidewalks and the tires of stalled rickshaws. During the festival of Dasain, animals were sacrificed to Kali on a grand scale. Then the city gave itself over to the most primal urges, and blood ran in the streets.

I was later seated in the Yak and Yeti with a young American who had lived for many years in Katmandu, a student of Tantric Buddhism and of Hinduism, eating momos - dumplings - and drinking tea. I'll call him Tom. He didn't want to be identified either with his views on the arcane sexuality of the place or with his own past experiences, which include a long affair with a priestess.
At the moment Tom was talking about semen loss. "There is a paranoia about it that makes men here prone to resent women. Fulfillment of desire means being robbed of your vitality... Folk culture includes the idea of succubi that can tap into your life force."
Semen loss must be avoided at all costs. Ayruvedic medicine recognizes a link between it, blood, bone marrow and other fluids which theoretically can be tonified and used to promote health and provide energy. Also, "an etheric shield is created by semen." The real downside of that theory, of course, is the mistaken notion of invincibility: "Some Nepalese men think that if they have sex without orgasm, they cannot get a disease." Worse, some think that sex with a virgin will cure one of it.
Tom pointed out that in the Tantric tradition, young girls are considered emanations of the goddess and sometimes taken to temples where they are turned into consorts for men for religious purposes. "There is the tradition of female yoginis initiating young men into Tantric life," he says. "Sometimes the priests become corrupt, and the girls are sold off... So some women today work as whores without guilt or inhibitions."
Some of the consorting is authentic religious striving, however. "The basic instincts are transformed into something higher." Tom's own experiences were "transformative... Tantric techniques prolong intercourse without ejaculation, but AIDS is a new idea. It is difficult to integrate."
At last I found Yari near the main temple at Pashupati. He took me to see the Hindu holy man living in a den behind the ghats, with an iron gate and, inside, a kind of altar decorated with tridents, symbol of Shiva, tomtoms, a mortar and pestle, and a human skull. The "baba" wore ashes on his forehead, and dreadnoughts, and his eyes were wild, but he graciously invited us in, first instructing us to leave our shoes on the doorstep. Now, I thought, I will get an official version of the link between sex and death, an association most  similar, I had decided, to that in the west between Eros and Thanatos. 
We sat on the pallet, with Yari serving as interpreter; he asked the baba to expound on this aspect of the belief espoused by so many Nepalese. "The sex life is no good life," the baba began. "Why do we throw out energy? Our body is our self, but our heart is god's."
That didn't explain much but was more coherent than what followed, heart-felt words that began to draw a crowd. Men came in and squatted on the dirt floor; the baba lit up a cigarette that contained not tobacco, but ganja. "There are 84 million kinds reincarnation," he continued, wreathed in pungent smoke, "The truly holy person goes directly to heaven." He talked about the sun and the moon, about boys and girls, and concluded, "Sex can kill you, but so what?"
To reinforce this grim acceptance, he picked up the skull and did a little bump and grind, more King Lear than Bhagavad Gita. He dipped some bright orange teka paste from the skull and smeared it on my forehead, marking me as a pilgrim. I flinched, and the assembly burst out laughing.

At the end of the week I felt better but was no closer to understanding the reality of AIDS in Nepal, or any other reality, for that matter. The official number of HIV carriers was still 202. The crown prince was still gracing state functions in The Rising Nepal and the haunting woman's voice still adrift on the airwaves. LALS was still distributing needles, and some less reputable NGOs serving as a kind of black market for foreign capital.
Before I left Katmandu I met with a French doctor who had been working in Asia for years. He explained things, first making clear that he did not want to be quoted since he had to live - and compete - amidst the over-lapping medical and entrepreneurial allegiances, in a land of confounding, if fascinating, beliefs. 
"The demands of the donor agencies," he confided, referring to all the outside organizations - including WHO, AIDSCAP, Save the Children, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, sponsored by Elizabeth Taylor, and many others - "are driving the epidemiology. The focus changes every couple of years. First it was the casual drug users, then IDUs, then AIDS and prostitutes. Now the emphasis is shifting to child laborers in the carpet factories.
"There isn't really an AIDS epidemic in Nepal, or a pandemic, but a case of spill-over from various groups in society... There's relatively little infection among IDUs, and gay groups are unknown as such," he said. "Most of the infection is from heterosexual contact, not with prostitutes but by workers moving around Asia, and by professionals separated for a time from their families in other countries, who bring the infection home."
So Nepal was not the victim of its own traditions but, like any mountain fastness, in any age, vulnerable to inroads from a world little understood, full of danger.

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