Women, Wanderers and Wastelands

I live in a country rife with systemic inequality.

These days, my Facebook feed is flooded by a certain share, friends urging friends to sign a petition: Allow Nepali citizenship to be conferred by the mother or father in the new constitution. The petition stares at me every day from my laptop screen. Women aren't granted this legal right, I explain to my Spanish flatmate, who is a traveler passing through Nepal.

Towards the end of the conversation, he mentions Yerma, a play by the Spanish poet and theater director, Federico Garcia Lorca. Yerma is running at Theater Village in Kathmandu, he points out. What does Yerma mean, I ask. Barren, he explains. Like land that has gone to waste. Yerma reminds me of a book of photographs, a collection spanning four decades of documentation in Nepal. Photos from the seventies are rare, a friend had mentioned while handing it over to me recently. Especially from Nepal's far-western region. Take a look.

Back in my room, the book of photographs -- simply titled Nepal:1975 - 2011, Kevin Bubriski -- calls out to me. A black and white photo of a young man is on the cover. He is wearing a braided ethnic headband, holding a small hand-drum, a garland of bells strung around his neck. He is perhaps of Tibetan descent. His stern gaze at the camera, and at me, is unsettling. It is a mixture of confusion and inquiry. He is staring hard, just like the petition.

Instead of delving further into the book, I google Yerma. The protagonist of the play is named after the Spanish word "yermo," which means "uninhabited, deserted, uncultivated, not productive." Yerma is childless, a symbol for the play's main theme -- frustrated motherhood. She struggles against her fate, in vain. Yerma believes that she is cursed. I remember the famous curse hanging over Nepal's head, the curse of the satis. More than once I have tried to listen to the cries of ancient women on funeral pyres, their hearts still beating but their legs engulfed by fire, flesh scorched and destroyed.

I cautiously open Bubriski. The collection is divided into six sections, the pages interspersed with introductions and reflections by eminent scholars and photographers, including Bubriski himself. I realize that this is an opportunity to learn, to look at Nepal more closely. Having spent most of my youth wandering abroad, I am still trying to understand my country and its people.

At first, I flip through the pages, unsure where to begin, where to pause. Then I read about Bubriski and his arrival in Nepal in 1975 as a twenty-year-old Peace Corps volunteer. He spent most of his first four years in the remote Karnali Valley. I learn about the Karnali people, particularly the Humli Khyampas (Wanderers from Humla) and their remarkable ethnogenesis (the emergence of an ethnic group). Between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, vagrants, escaped convicts, and disaffected villagers from different ethnic backgrounds had come together to form a core ethnic group. This group, the Khyampas, noted Swiss anthropologist Hannah Rauber in the 1970s, led a life on the road.


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