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Published: June 12th 2013
They were trekking through countryside inhabited by the Rai tribe, and their progress was frequently interrupted to allow Ungel to explain to each passer-by where they had come from and where they were going to. Frank was struck by the women, with their broad, generous faces, festooned with coin necklaces, a nose ring, large silver discs over the ears, and always a scarf, draped over the head, or tied in a simple turban. Red was the preferred colour. They spoiled the effect somewhat by wrapping their midriffs around with long lengths of cloth which give them a spare-tyre appearance. The little girls were taught from a very early age not to be idle, and no girl past the age of five or six was seen without a spindle whirling in her fingers. If a woman's hands were doing nothing else they would be spinning, even when she was trudging along a trail with a load on her back.
In the afternoon, they came to a village where they were drawn by the sound of chanting to one of the houses. As they approached, a door opened, and a squealing pig was dragged out into the yard and flung down. A foot was placed on its neck pinning it to the ground, and a bamboo pole plunged into its heart and held there until its writhing ceased. Ungel muttered the Buddhist mantra 'om mani padme hum'
, 'hail to thee, o jewel in the lotus'
over and over as the pig met its brutal fate.
“It's a sin” he said.
“Well, it's certainly shocking,” Frank said.
Hamish was trying to light a cigarette with a shaking hand. “To say the least,” he added, dragging the soothing smoke into his lungs.
A temporary woven bamboo screen had been constructed around part of the veranda to create an enclosure that encompassed one of the two doorways into the house, and within the enclosure, on the veranda, a variety of pots and basins had been placed.
“Driving out bad spirits, sahib,” explained Ungel. “Pots are there for catch evil spirits in house.”
They were ushered inside the house by the villagers so that they could watch the ceremony. Three turbaned priests were chanting and dancing, swords in hand, around a crippled teenage boy. The occasion was not a solemn one, and there were grins as the foreigners dodged the blades that flashed too close for comfort.
The evil spirits were not concentrated solely in the patient, but were shared by the boy's mother. The chief priest took her arms and wrapped them around her body so that she was hugging herself, and then slowly and firmly pulled them towards himself, scraping the contours of her body, as if dragging something out of her.
“Sahib. We have to go now,” said Ungel. And so they left, wandering what the outcome would be.
“I wonder how they will explain away the complete failure of the exercise. The boy will obviously remain crippled,”mused Hamish.
“Well, everyone knows they've done their best,” Frank said. “I mean, at least the mother has the comfort of knowing she's done her best for her child, and her neighbours will know that too.”
“Yes, but how do they deal with the fact that it never works?” Hamish said.
“No doubt it does work sometimes. The priests'll be called on to cure a variety of illnesses, some of which will get better of their own accord.”
“And failure to effect a cure can be easily explained away, can't it? The priests didn't perform the ritual exactly according to the rules. (I suppose, in that case, the community might feel it had to defrock them). Or the patient's not in the right frame of mind. Or the pig didn't gurgle in an auspicious way as it died, and so on. You can never prove that the exercise is totally futile, can you? even though it is,”Hamish said scornfully. Frank wasn’t going to let him get away with this, although he was going to have to think on the hoof.
“Well, no. It's magic, and it's supposed to be magic. It's not magic dressed up as science. The priests aren’t deluding themselves into thinking they’re acting in a scientific way. They’re using magic that’s been sanctioned by the community over a long period of time. Failure can be explained perfectly rationally according to their own belief system. It doesn't challenge it.”
“So are you saying that if we'd been doctors, we would've been wrong to offer our services to the boy?” said Hamish indignantly.
“No. We could've offered our services, but the villagers would've interpreted our success or failure in terms of their own set of beliefs. So we would've become just another school of medicine within the community, attempting to drive out the demons with alternative rituals. After all, they’re interpreting our behaviour in terms of their own beliefs and concepts. In this case, the boy has almost certainly got polio, and we would’ve had no more success than the village priests,” Frank said. He had the bit between his teeth and was galloping.
“Well, in that case what they need is to be educated so they can appreciate why medical science is a fundamentally different game from the one their witch doctors play,” said Hamish. “They may lose something of their old culture by converting from an irrational life to a rational one, but they'd benefit in the long run.”
“That’d be a poor exchange, wouldn’t it? Better health care in exchange for a whole way of life? My bet is they wouldn't accept it. Their culture deals with all the important issues of life and death. Medical science can only fix bodies, occasionally. For them, retaining their rituals is the rational thing to do.” Frank was making this up as he went along, but he was feeling pleased that he was holding his own. Hamish was feeling exasperated by Frank’s air of smug certainty, and his tone was becoming irritable.
“It doesn't have to be all or nothing. They can learn that illnesses are caused by viruses, and bacteria or genetic mutations and not evil spirits, without giving up all the other nonsense.”
“It's not possible. As I've said, their medical practices belong to a system of beliefs. Pull one thread, and the whole thing unravels and then they're left with nothing. Belief in spirits that can be placated or frightened off underlies everything; not just medicine, but morality and decision-making too. I bet if they did go overboard and throw out their 'superstitious' belief system, you'd be wringing your hands at how the world had lost another precious culture.”
Hamish gave up. There was no point in going on. Frank was clearly not willing to listen to reason. “What d'you think Ungel? D'you think those villagers were doing the right thing for the boy?” he asked.
“Yes sahib. That is Rai people's way. We Sherpas have different customs. Sahib, let's stay at this village tonight.” It was getting late, and they had arrived at a village with a household that was willing put them up for the night. They unloaded their bags and sat outside on the veranda while Ungel tried to persuade the family to sell them some of their precious food for their evening meal.
The Rai women had a special way of talking. They spoke in a rather slow, weak manner, somewhat like convalescent patients, and their conversation was liberally sprinkled with affectionate family terms like daju
, elder brother, and kancha
, younger brother, to which one was expected to respond with liberal dollops of ama
, mother, and didi,
elder sister. Their first response to any request for food was 'There isn't any', but if asked very sweetly over a long period of time, their hosts would more often than not be charmed into producing the desired item. Ungel was a master at getting things out of them. “Ama
, we have hardly eaten for the last few days. It's the sahibs' custom to drink milk before going to sleep” and so on - all done in the same far off voice, and in a gently humorous fashion. They couldn't resist his technique, and he eventually had enough flour and lentils and milk to make the sahibs their evening meal.
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