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Happy Diwali (Deepawali) to All!

Posted by J Foster on Oct 30, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

A bright and happy Diwali (Deepawali) to all! May the festival of lights chase away all darkness and usher in a new and grander time of peace, prosperity, and joy.

(Morning Shaligram puja to the Maha-Shakti Devi, the Goddess of life and prosperity)

Mahashakti Devi Shaligram Puja conducted on the morning of the third day of Diwali

Mahashakti Devi Shaligram Puja conducted on the morning of the third day of Diwali

 

Mahashakti Devi Shaligram Puja conducted on the morning of the third day of Diwali

Mahashakti Devi Shaligram Puja conducted on the morning of the third day of Diwali

 
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Om’s Home (Reflections on Life in Kathmandu)

Posted by J Foster on Oct 28, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

That Wooden House
Audience in public
From what today
And that whacked the entrance
I am the mansion thorn
I am that there are
The sense of master
You’re cole and left
Haven’t you got a rug
Not the hypocrisis to gateways
The sense of master
A Saxophone’s tones guillotined
Developed by an eye on Springfield
Movie Stars that you love and hate
To another home, that wooden kate
That wooden house and a lob
Bring the jewelry to the railway cops
Turtles, Busters in China
A refugee on angina
Donald Amy, Set Whinfield
The guards described, the guards that yield
Coconut, Tetris and raft
A hustler smokes what is left
The director has enough to read
Write miseries on sheet
That wooden house and a lob
Bring the jewelry to the railway cops
It’s the entering thief
That wooden house and a lob
Bring the jewelry to the railway cops

~The Wooden House, by Pierre Rausch

Kathmandu is a lot like an old house. These deep internal supports, centuries old or more, overlaid by the patchworks of time. New cement walls painted with bright pinks and yellows, jarringly brilliant blues, and all wrapped precariously around 18th century brick-work and 12th century woodcarvings. Intricate Naga snake-women and ancient Vedic, Tantric, Buddhist, and animist deities overlooking sliding glass windows, rooftop water tanks, and an accumulation of about eight decades of creative electrical engineering. Is it any surprise that there’s only about 6 hours of electricity per day? Kathmandu is a city that shows its wear and misuse, its wealth and its poverty; in short, its life, in so many ways. Finger-stained door jams, trash discarded in the streets, kumkum and sandalwood powder caked on roadside shrines, the constant bustle, screech, and hum of streets filled with taxis, buses, cars, people, stray dogs, meditating sadhus, and cows. People hanging out on balconies overhead, women attending to the washing beneath alleyway waterspouts, beggars crying out for alms, fruit sellers plying their trade from rickety carts and bicycles, children running after a toy or a pet bouncing down the road. It’s a city in perpetual decay, with the veneer of life constantly building on top of it. Kathmandu is rotting underneath, but as the people of Nepal will tell you; this is how the soil of life is made, from which the wildest flowers grow.

 
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Fighting with Fieldnotes

Posted by J Foster on Oct 18, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Today marks, roughly, the half-way point of my long-term fieldwork. I have been in Nepal now some five months (with three months previous to this a year ago, and another three months previously in India) and will remain in Kathmandu until the spring, when I leave once again for the Kali Gandaki River valley of Mustang. This is the point of ethnographic fieldwork where one is generally advised to take stock, review everything collected so far, and consider what gaps might remain outstanding that can be addressed in the coming months. It seemed like such a simple task at first.

My fieldnotes are already, and some might say miraculously, somewhat organized. My primary notebook, which is sadly starting to show its mileage at this point (thanks Duct Tape!), is replete with colorful tape flags and Post-Its marking areas of specific interest or categorizing certain discussions for certain chapters. I also have a sense of an overall framework already in the works and have been plugging in information to relevant sections as I go along. This drafting stage for the final book isn’t specifically to just “get it all done,” so to speak, but to help me see what might be missing or what might not be as clear as it first appeared. This way, when I conduct more interviews or sit-in on a few more pujas and festival celebrations, I’ll know what it is I need to ask. But this still leaves me with something of a conundrum. A large portion of my fieldnotes are in drawings.

As I discussed earlier, many of these drawings (which are mainly drawings of specific Shaligrams) will be incorporated into the final piece of the larger work as a kind of “field guide.” But this still leaves out many other drawings that don’t quite fit the needs of such a chapter nor does it address the countless jottings and annotations covering almost every inch of two additional notebooks, two sketchbooks, some pilgrimage pamphlets, and a quick-access field book. I am certainly not the first ethnographer to encounter these problems. As such, there are even books and classes on just this problem; each with their own perspectives. How to fight with fieldnotes, and win.

There is never more poignant a day when you have to sit down with everything you’ve collected and try make some sense out of it. In my case, the metaphor of the museum collection is rather apt. I have a pile of objects in front of me (both notebooks and literal fossil stones) and now I need to arrange them in such a way as to tell the right kind of story. To construct some kind of coherent narrative out of the bits and pieces of encounters and conversations and observations made over more than a year of research. It’s at this point that the academic truly begins to struggle: how do I craft a narrative out of this that will both do it justice and be readable? How am I supposed to decide what is what, when half the time my research participants couldn’t even decide that!? Am I doomed to failure no matter what I do?

In the end, I have decided that the best route is to combine drawing and writing, photography and textual references, so that this research can focus more on the process of drawing out analytical connections from my informants’ multiple threads of narrative and experience. This is because Shaligrams truly do evolve over time (double-meaning intended). As I start now to sit down and write out these narratives, I will continue to try to preserve the numerous voices and perspectives of Shaligram practitioners themselves as the core of my ethnographic and theoretical discussions. As one Shaiva sādhu explained, sitting outside the gates of Muktinath as he had off-and-on for some twenty years or so: “The beauty of Shaligram is that it can be many things to many people. This doesn’t mean that you should not learn to read them properly, but that whatever Shaligram is to you may not be what Shaligram is to me. And that is ok, because Shaligram always is what it must be.”

While at the time I took him to mean that the nuances of Shaligram interpretation may sometimes be left to individual perceptions or insight, I later began to understand that what he was really referring to was a far-reaching sense of the formlessness of the divine: where the superficial nature of the material object and of the narrative was meant only to lead one to deeper understanding, not to be that understanding in and of itself. He contentedly assured me a few moments later that because of this, whatever it was that I would write couldn’t be completely correct no matter what I did, but that it would be enough, for the right person who could read it properly.

Having already experienced some of the challenges of the academic peer review process, I take a strange comfort in that.

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