Reckonings: Participant-Observation from a Distance

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sienna Craig.

I am going to use this space as a Savage Minds guest to sort through some of the images, questions, and emotions unearthed over these past six weeks or so, as communities across Nepal have lived and died under the weight of falling buildings, landslides, floods, trauma, and homelessness brought about by massive seismic shifts across the Himalayan belt. Given the dizzying pace of news cycles and our collectively short attention spans, those for whom Nepal is not an important place will refer to this disaster as an earthquake, singular. But this is no singular disaster. The country has experienced about 300 seismic events since April 25, 2015. For thousands, the initial 7.8 earthquake was sufficient to kill them. But the remains of that day rumble on and people are now living to the rhythm of expected surprise. Ayo ayo ayo. A lament. A modicum of pain. But also, simply, it has come.

For most of Nepal’s roughly 30 million people, living uncertainty is old hat. Consider the legacies of civil war and political instability, the dynamics of moneylending, wage labor abroad and the weight of debt, questions of when the rains will come or when they will stop. But the spring of 2015 has cracked open new forms of vulnerability, ripped into the seams of lives and landscapes, and at once exacerbated forms of inequality even as it prompts new forms of Nepali collectivity. More than half a million homes have been destroyed or are precariously habitable. This equates to about 2.5 million people for whom ‘home’ has become a place of desperate refuge or a village now longed for among the tent cities of the urban refugee. More than 3,500 schools have been destroyed. The wind and water of one’s place, and one’s ancestor’s place, may now be nowhere to settle and perhaps an environment to which one should not return, the vertiginous threats of dislodged rock and snow, glacial lake outburst flooding and landslides being what they are. As the skies begin to crackle and roar, as clouds bloat and groan like bellows, millions of Nepalis may look up and wonder what is next. And there becomes an eerie symmetry to it all. Avalanche as downpour. Thunderstorm as quake.

Monsoon began officially last week.

Thinking anthropologically in the midst of raw emotion has been at once a refuge and an odd form of distancing – grasping for something that is tangible and yet ephemeral as a form of security when there is little to be had. Where do global assemblages go when donated tents sit in in my office, while so many people sleep on the ground? Where, within a cognizance of neoliberal tactics, can I place the buckled government health post or the NGO funds that will rebuild it? In what mode do I assess the political economy of disaster capitalism when a son hopes to cremate his mother but is denied state relief because his citizenship papers are buried? How do exegeses on ‘structuring structures’ give way to a ground-truthing of aid and political will amidst the rubble of so many actual buildings? How can I be a participant-observer through the portal of my retina display when friends tell me I should come, see for myself, bring what I can? How might I reckon the far-away-so-closeness that Viber or IM provides with the knowledge that my utility as a scholar and a fundraiser might mean that where I should be is here, tucked in to summer in Vermont, even as my heart-mind is in Nepal?

To keep living these questions themselves, as Rilke puts it, is to challenge simple assertions about Nepali culture, to heed advice about writing good anthropology in a time of crisis, to take seriously the questions raised by scholars of and from the region, to consider carefully how the various arms of the state are responding, and how we write about such response.   Whose voice? Which culture? What reality? Drill down. Be empirical. Write what you know. Fellow Nepal scholar Lauren Leve provides a rich example of what I mean.

In the Nepali district in which I have spent the most time – a region in the rainshadow but where climate change has come to roost – destruction keeps occurring in slow motion. We speak of cracks – gé – running down the sides of rammed earth homes, letting in sky. Even though Mustang District was not as heavily impacted by the quakes as other places, people are still sleeping outside. Bridges have buckled and folded. Veins of earthen hydrology have cracked through the center of town. Centuries-old monasteries are being reduced to the elements from which they came. In one of the villages that have been most heavily hit, local residents are beginning the salvage work that is a necessary step in the process of rebuilding. Yet in this village where all homes were damaged but only some were completely destroyed, debates surface about whose need is greatest. As tin gets distributed for temporary shelters, the social laws that help to enforce community solidarity may trump other ways of calculating fairness. These discussions also hinge on translocal economies: Which families own a house in the cities of Pokhara or Kathmandu? Whose children are living in Brooklyn, sending money home? What of the disabled?

Villagers from Ghiling, Mustang District, Nepal repairing a chöten. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering
Villagers from Ghiling, Mustang District, Nepal repairing a chöten. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering

Politicians from the district center arrive with army men and candy colored tarapulin, delivering the news that the entire village may need to be relocated. But on what basis? elders ask. They spin their wool and talk about how the old heart of this settlement was less damaged than newer houses, those built on the edge of things. Astrological calculations and a reading of this place’s sacred geography advised against those locations, after all. Local and diasporic youth as well as those running the school argue the need for engineers and geologists to perform assessments. It occurs to me that these logics are different ways of knowing a shared precarity, divining a collective future.

Then come discussions about how to rebuild. The desire for rammed earth bricks and flat roofs, for houses rimmed in garlands of firewood, held firm by wooden beams with central courtyards open to the heavens, is strong not only because of convention but also because the region’s tourism economy is structured around the idea of visiting a ‘little Tibet’ – an unreconstructed place, a remote place. Even so, scholars of the region complicate this concept of remoteness as a somewhat troubled and always ‘relational category.’  These concerns for aesthetic integrity come up against ‘new normals’: more rain and rising temperatures in summer, erratic snowfall and fewer people to shovel roofs in winter. Perhaps pitched tin in a ‘monastic’ shade of red is a better solution?

These deliberations occurring half a world away keep me up at night, as do the surfeit of images, so many of them brimming with suffering. One friend shares a picture that lifts his spirit as it does mine: people repairing and reinforcing a chöten at the entrance to his village. This structure marks territory, inscribes collective belonging. Villagers use earthen pigments to paint the chöten with luminous stripes of ochre, cadmium, sage-colored soil. To heal its wounds – to share responsibility for its conservation – is one way of addressing other forms of trauma.

And then there are places where such work has been stopped in its tracks by this self-same Earth.

An email from a journal’s managing editor reminds me that I owe them a manuscript review. The piece, about community-led conservation of a Buddhist monastery in the mountains of central Nepal, has been sitting on my desk since just before the first earthquake. I kept meaning to read it but have not yet made the time. You’ll have it by week’s end, I tell the editor. The earthquake has kept me busy, preoccupied, I say.

Later that evening I begin to read, but the abstract stops me short. This is a piece about the  Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Langtang Village. Langtang. Tears come. This community was literally wiped clean away by a massive landslide triggered by the first quake. Hundreds of villagers and dozens of foreign trekkers lost their lives here, buried by the onslaught of rock, snow, and mud. Those strands of kin who did not perish are now living in a tent city in Kathmandu. The children of Langtang have just started school again, also in tents; online memorials to ‘those who left us’ bring to life the faces of mothers, sons, trekking guides, farmers, monks, grandfathers, and so many more. Just a few days ago, on June 12, the displaced community in Kathmandu held a massive ghewa ceremony, a ritual to mark the end of the 49-day period of the bardo, the in-between state between death and rebirth. Words fail, and the words on the page in front of me blur.

Until they don’t. As I read the story of this sacred space and all that its stewardship means to the people of Langtang, I am reminded of the ways that monastery is mountain deity; that the borders between built space and social ecologies of place are permeable; that materiality in this form of mahayana Buddhism is about a certain type of witnessing, “cultivating a critical and particular engagement with the material world,” as the authors describe. Buddhist emptiness is not nothingness, even when things are gone. And it is not a static logic of authenticity that people value when considering the needs of their social and religious institutions, but rather a sense that the lineage and integrity of such places can remain intact, and that they have the skillful means, the upaya, to rebuild them.