Sweet carts have parked along the main intersections and fill the air with wisps of sugar, butter, and condensed milk. Men with strands of flower necklaces speed through the streets on scooters, their foreheads dotted with red tikas, their bellies filled with chocolate. At night, candles line doorways and streets, and children travel from house to house singing songs and dancing for money. The atmosphere is jovial, and as I walk down the dirt road with my Nepali sister, I can’t help but feel light.
Tihar, one of Nepal’s biggest festivals.
As I think back on the things that have come to define my love for Nepal, Tihar is one. At once I’m reminded of Halloween, Christmas and Thanksgiving; all the best memories that involve family and fun are packed into a five-day-long celebration. Each fall, in October or November, lights are strung from rooftops, and families gather to celebrate and worship a collection of animals (crows, dogs, cows) while inviting wealth and good fortune into their homes.
My sister and I stop to watch a group of dancers take turns performing for a small crowd. Small pots of clay line their makeshift stage, twisted threads of lit cotton flickering in the dark. The smell of curry lingers on my clothes from dinner, and my fingers are greasy from the sel roti, traditional fried circle-shaped bread easily found during this season.
How do I condense my life in Nepal to a digestible missive to send to friends asking when I will return to America? That when I’m sick of hand washing my clothes and sweeping dirty floors and being face-to-face with poverty and can’t eat another plate of rice, the breeze rustles the bamboo leaves behind our house and I’m standing at the foot of the Himalayas.
The next set of dancers rotate onto stage. An older woman nudges to get closer to the show. Her face is lean and wiry, but her body is fully beneath a colorful patterned sari. My sister grabs my arm and pulls me into an entryway. The backyard is teeming with people and music booms from speakers. The announcer’s eyes lock onto mine.
“A guest! Please welcome…” he shouts into the microphone and steps next to me, whispering, “What is your name?”
“Michelle,” I reply softly. The music stops and the party turns toward me. I cringe as my name erupts into the speakers.
I am offered a foil plate of roasted meat and beaten rice and the DJ leads me into the center of the dancing bodies. His movements look like something out of Bollywood music video. I copy his steps. Folded bills of money are tucked into my hair. When the song ends, the dance circle opens and I find my sister laughing in a corner.
“I had no idea you had such dance skills,” she declares over the commotion. The scent of raksi, local alcohol, is thick around us.
“Hidden talent,” I laugh. “Let’s go before Amma worries.”
As soon as the screen door squeaks, we are peppered with questions. Why are we so late? Are we hungry? Do we want tea?
My mind is also reeling. How is a country that is so far from what I have known so familiar?
This is the magic of Tihar.
Top image by Partha Sarathi Sahana/Flickr