School Bus

2012-02 Goodbye Delan, Filming and Happiness in Janakpur.

Well here I am enjoying my second cup of coffee this morning. Last night I changed my order from 730am to 830am, deigning to take something of a lie in this morning. The first cup arrived at 8:26 and the second cup at 8:47! Slumbering after the first arrival I have enjoyed two lukewarm sweet cups this morning, drinking both after a 30 min cooling stage. Now feeling no different than I did before (this coffee is palatable but has no effect on my physiology) I have decided to write something about this rather hectic week.

Dr. Delan
Delan’s left us for a better place: Kathmandu.

The biggest news of course is that the big boss has gone home. Delan left on Thursday to Kathmandu to renew his visa and to give himself enough space and time to write this important Ph.D. upgrade. Here in Janakpur sure that the constant struggles with the study would have precluded him from actually finishing this in time – and having worked so hard I think it would be atrocious if we were not able to jump through this “hoop”. Suzanne, having done a Ph.D. already, was instructing us as to the various subtleties of this procedure – apparently people rarely fail and the minimum requirements are relatively light (a few thousand words and a brief presentation) – but having said that there is a degree of internal competition amongst the Ph.D. students, rifling to produce something magnificent. I suppose when one is presenting in front of an audience it would disturb the psyche if the presentation you deliver is paltry in comparison to all the others. I feel that as Delan is spending such a great deal of time abroad actually collecting primary data – one might argue that his time has been more directly spent in his work. I don’t have any real worries for him therefore. For my part – If I do eventually get round to doing a Ph.D. I would like to do my own primary data collection. Again not something that I was really that aware of before, apparently a large number of Ph.D.’s are written on pre-existing data… This makes sense of course – there are literal treasure troves of data out there in almost every imaginable field – however for my own sense of self I should like to think that if it came to it I would have a specific question which I would like to potentially address with my own original data. Who knows what time will offer?

Things feel different without his buffering presence here. But there’s no time to mourn his loss as both Suzanne and I are frenetically running around trying to finish our respective projects, mine the filming and has a clinical placement and her fieldwork. Currently we are pitching to return to Kathmandu on Tuesday. It has been a great pleasure working with a man for these last five weeks – in some ways we are quite akin – both really very much interested in the practical application of work that is done here but in others quite different. I have enjoyed immensely this company, his sense of humour and I hope he goes on to do great things following his Ph.D. One thing is for certain that his ability to stay calm and collected when things are fraying to pieces is remarkable. An interesting study would be to monitor the blood pressure of Suzanne, me and Delan in a given challenging situation here. I am relatively certain that his would stay the lowest.

To celebrate his departure we held two leaving parties. The first was a more relaxed social gathering at Rooftop restaurant (” the only place for smart people”). It was incredibly enjoyable to see staff after hours. I was pitched with Suzanne, Bishnu and Gagan at one end of the table whilst Delan enjoyed the company of Chaube and the rest of the gang at the other. It wasn’t a long evening, perhaps sensibly Bishnu called time early on, but the merriment was good enough to be remembered long hence. Rupesh my buddy from the trips to the villages and I sat next to each other and bantered away. Proudly, they bestowed upon me the nickname of Hashmuk (Pronounced “hashmook”) which means “smiling face” (because I am always grinning, they said). I think, to have a nickname implies having made a certain impression and I’m glad that this mine! Not that I should wish to disclose it here but there was much hilarity over the eventual naming of Delan (certainly amongst the staff) in the days that followed. Overall I think this reflects a real sense of camaraderie which we have developed with the team. After the meal the bikes drove 10m across the road to the nearest Paan shop, where Suzanne tried here first and last Paan. Deeply happy and a little tipsy we three cycled back to base in the dark.

Paan After Dark
After the meal we gathered around the nearest Paan stall and ordered our fill. Not an enjoyable experience for Suzanne!

The second celebration, a more formal affair, was on the Wednesday before Delan left where all staff present at the office gathered and there was a small imparting of gifts. MIRA and Delan gave both Suzanne and I lovely paintings and mugs from the women’s develop the centre tagged with the words “MIRA Dhanusha”. The style of painting is really quite something – simple but elegant and with incredibly subtle pastel colours which have a real organic feeling. Suzanne is in particular details in the scene the focus of her work – women and their indoor cooking environments. If and when I eventually gain a permanent place to live I should like to frame this – a celebrated memory from this beautiful time here. Each of us made a small speech – although I spoke too quickly and I am sure most of what I said was drivel. The sentiments we three shared together underlie the fact that we really have had incredible time here and really do value the working relationship we have built towards our respective goals with the staff. Delan obviously has a different perspective on things both coming back in the near future and having been here before – but I think he feels that this time in particular working together with Suzanne and me has been somewhat different. I should hope that the MIRA team feel like they have got something out of our being here beyond added confusion and extra work in their day to day activities. Hopefully memories from our brief visit will be valuable throwbacks for further celebrations ahead. Even when we don’t understand each other fully everyday brings more laughter than I normally have in a week working in London – that at least is universal…For my part I’m thinking hard of an appropriate gift to leave on my departure on Tuesday.

MIRA Dhanusha team 2012
Everyone gathered for Delan’s leaving ceremony

The other major happening this week has been the filming. I have been given leave to film something of a documentary of the larger follow-up project here. So far I’ve been shooting since Sunday last and have amassed six days of film. It has been a struggle as usual to organise things but I have actually managed to get a lot of the main things I wanted to film completed during the course of this week: Two days filming with two local families, a number of interviews with MIRA staff and filming around and about the city of Janakpur – totalling over 200GB of footage. It has certainly been a whirlwind keeping on top of the schedule and keeping my two cameras running. I have several more things on my list for the coming days and not the insubstantial task of translating between three languages (Mathili, Nepali and English) for the various persons of the film we are going to produce. Currently we plan to produce four versions – three of which will at least get updated again when the final results of this project are available. Ultimately it is hoped that we can use this to articulate the work we’re doing here both to the local community, nationally in Nepal and also the international community in the wider sense. I won’t belabour the point here but it has been an incredible privilege to be allowed to do this and I really hope that it will have some beneficial impact.

Villagers gathered round the Camera
People are always very excited to see their photos! I really wish I had some kind of portable printer. Next time I’ll take a polariod camera as well.

My parting thought here is something along the lines of what Suzanne and I were talking about together a dinner last night. Here in Janakpur I had expected to arrive and to be absorbed by the problems that supposedly exist in this part of the world. Indeed from an outsider’s perspective, reading statistics about the major determinants of “quality of life” and living standards one would say that this would be a terrible place to be. Indeed, even arriving for a short time one I think would be struck by the real poverty here and the way in which things just don’t seem to work as they do in the West (electricity, sewerage, gas and the many other facets and “difficulties” of living here). Suzanne says that had she have stayed just a few days here impression would have remained as such. But having been here now five weeks my lasting impression is not of the poverty or of the lack of proper facilities but how happy people seem to be here. There is almost constant air of festivity and people you meet a relaxed, non-confrontational and overall seem quite content with their lives.

It has made me reflect on certain issues regarding the imposition of ideologies about how things should be… specifically the idea to come in and change things for the better. Now, don’t get me wrong I still strongly believe that certain things were fundamentally improve people’s life and overall happiness. Specifically, those that relate to health – as poor health and fears surrounding illness can be singularly powerful in destroying happiness. Those factors potentially relating to economic material gains really I question their value. Having been in a really quite simple rural home yesterday I was struck by the desperately elegant nature of the place. Almost Japanese in its reverence for a certain rustic simplicity – it really was a beautiful place to be – but by our developed assessments a mud floor and mud walls would not score many points on a living standards questionnaire. Sweeping generalisations aside – it has made me consider the meaning of existence of a population level – coming back to my old axiom that if nothing is certain in this world (neither of why we are here nor of whether anything lies beyond) it is better to be happy in this life and to breed happiness in those around you. So I should congratulate the people of Janakpur who seem to have achieved an overall sense of contentment, which I certainly cannot recognise as being so widespread in my hometown, in spite of the fact that they live in one of the supposed poorest regions of the world. Standards of living may be different but altogether does that really matter if each day there is enough laughter to get you through? I would say this of course but I think the axiom holds true. After all what’s it all about?

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