Nepali Times
My mother Bhagirathaa


The following text is translated from Khagendra Sangraula's latest book of essays, Aama ra Yamadootharu (Bhudipuran Prakashan, Bhadau 2059), a book critiquing the emotional blackmail that the Garood Puran, traditionally read during the 13 day mourning period, inflicts upon the family of the deceased in order to extract large donations for the priest. Sangraula's critique is completely godless, and refreshing exactly for this. The passage below is one of the book's more personal chapters, saying much about women's identity in village Nepal.

A person's name is very much a private medium through which to contact the world, a medium through which to interact with the world. Each person is a distinct singularity of the social whole, as well as an autonomous power. Our name is the medium of the emanation of our particularity, of our autonomy. Yet my mother was nameless: nameless, and in a sense, without recognition. I realised this in a way that pierced my heart after she passed away at my house in Kathmandu.

"How many people came to the funeral procession?" This question was tossed at me at my brother's house in Birtamod, after the first part of the grieving observances were over. This question was voiced by my sisters, who as women had been kept from the grieving site, in essence delegating them to the Vaishya caste.

In response I said, "There were many people."

"About how many?"

"Maybe a hundred, a hundred and fifty."

"Were there any big-name politicians?"

"CP Mainali was there."

"Was KP Sharma Oli there?"

Because Oliji was the parliamentary representative from Birtamod, this latter question was tinged with hues of local sentiment. The question was Sainla Dai's: He lived here.

"He wasn't there," I said. "He probably didn't receive word."

"Who else was there?"

"Most of them were writers and artists, my familiars and well-wishers."

"And others?"

"Friends from the neighbourhood."

The size of the funeral procession and the attendance of renowned and popular figures became a matter of prestige for our family. Everyone was pleased, becoming efflorescent and roused. Yet those who had attended the funeral procession hadn't known my mother's name. They were unknown members of the cortege of some nameless body. It is natural that our recognition should be as expansive or as confined as our social reach, our position and our creative contribution. But no matter what the level of our recognition, everyone has a separate, special name within his or her social parameters. My mother had no name or distinct image. It is an age-old law that a son should be known by his mother's name and a mother be known by her son's name. But it is like going unrecognised for a completely nameless mother to be known by her son's name.

When I think back to this I feel an intense bitterness. After our mother's death, her namelessness became a matter of great disappointment and torment for my sisters. Mother's body had already been cremated at the Arya Ghat at Pashupati. The remaining ashes had been swept up and immersed in the Bagmati River. After washing the sacred platform where the funeral rites had been performed, the priest initiated an offering of a ball of rice and water for the departed soul.

He asked, "The name of the deceased?"

What was my mother's name? I asked myself this question in confusion. Mother's name had never, anywhere, under any circumstance, been required throughout her life. She had never had a chance to go to school, so her name never made it to an attendance register, a marks sheet or a certificate. Father's name enjoyed sole rights over all the deeds and documents of home finances. There was never any room on those papers for Mother's name. It was Father's name that got written down on donations and offerings. The census? I do not know whether the census teams ever made it to my birthplace in that remote, inaccessible eastern corner of Nepal's topography. If they ever went there, I do not know what they wrote down as Mother's name. And what of the government ledgers on which the names of adult citizens are written for voting? I don't know about that either. I don't know if Mother's name had been required for my sisters' naming ceremonies: I had not followed those ceremonies carefully. There was no context in which I heard my mother's name so that I could remember it later in adulthood. Now the priest at the Arya Ghat was asking: "What was the name of the deceased?"

By some memory or impression, the name Narwadaa Devi flashed in my mind. It offered me-a son struggling for his mother's name-immense assistance. Yes, for certain, this was Mother's name-Narwadaa Devi Sangraula! Seeing the need for the name passing away, I felt like I had rediscovered Mother's forgotten name. I hurriedly told the priest what it was; and a ball of rice and water were offered to Narwadaa Devi's soul.

It was perhaps the next day that the weekly Jana Ekata carried a touching headline of my bereavement, under which was printed a picture of my mother. When my sisters saw Mother's picture later, it aroused so much joy in them that for a while they seemed to forget their grief at Mother's loss. Their pride was as high as Sagarmatha's peak-glory be, Jana Ekata! In this one life that we get to live, our mother's picture was published in a newspaper. But that "Narwadaa Devi" transformed my sisters' pride to ashes.

"Dai, whose name is this?" My youngest sister asked in voice mixed with astonishment and fury.

"Hunh? Isn't that our mother's name?"

"How could it be?"

I became as confused in Birtamod as I had been at the Arya Ghat at Pashupati.

"What was Mother's name?"


I tumbled all at once from the roof. What kind of son was I to not know my own mother's name? The blade of regret began to saw through my heart. I felt defeat, humiliation and shame. My head spun at my culpability, though there was no fault of mine in this. I would have known my mother's name only if I had ever had a chance to hear it.

I looked around. My sisters' faces, on which the sun of pride was rising a while ago, had now darkened in sadness, as in a full eclipse. Just a while ago my elder sister was saying, "See how lucky our mother was, Bhai! She was born in Yangpang village of Taplejung District, where only monkeys play, but she was able to immerse herself at Pashupati's Arya Ghat. See how blessed our mother was!" But now that "Narwadaa Devi" had placed all this joy, pride and consolation in the dust. My sisters were now worried that the offerings placed in our mother's name would not reach her. The rice and water wouldn't reach our mother Bhagirathaa, but some stranger by the name of Narwadaa.

"Dai, isn't it possible to correct that name?"

Such a difficult question.

"According to news received later, my mother's name was apparently Bhagirathaa. Therefore a humble request is made to the world to correct the mistake when reading the earlier issue, in which another appeared." How could I possibly send this kind of notice to Jana Ekata?

I hid my face in shame and went outside, and in my room I placed my mouth under a towel and lay down for a long time upon a heap of sighs.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)