Monday, June 16, 2008

The PA Nepal House, Sakhu, Nepal

I am horrible with Nepali names.

Normally I am pretty good, and when I am teaching I am usually very good--it's just that you learn tricks for names, give each connection of name to face a mnemonic based on leters or spelling or odd connections of your memory: Lucia wrote about Albany, California; Greg has a chinstrap beard; Philip's favorite bus line is the 22, but he's only been on it once. But Nepali names are unfamiliar, and while I find the simple names after Hindu gods easy--Parbati, Ram, Gautam (named after the Gautama Buddha, who Hindus have adopted as an incarnation of Vishnu) and the like--but any name less familiar in my consciousness fails to stick, or tends to. In the repair class I'm teaching at the Prisoners Assistance house up in Sakhu, forever, I can remember only the name of Jogath, who is amazingly mechanically-minded, the star pupil.

This is only to say that the name of the girl who hijacked my camera on Saturday--first as the subject matter, then in fact the camera itself, asking if she could take a picture and then putting to film everyone in the house--has a name that escapes me. She's above, on the right. Not her history, though: she's just come back to the home about a week ago, a returnee. She had been "adopted"--that is, PA took her on as a ward--when she was only a few years old and her mother was in jail. Some years later--two or three or four years ago--her father took her back, but pulled her from school and had her cleaning house, doing laundry, and working in the fields all day. He also cut off all her hair, hence the head scarf--she's embarrassed, shamed, by her hair. It was only when she began to be beaten that PA could take her back, however--Nepal doesn't guarantee schooling for anyone, and girls are still seen as having a lot less worth than boys, especially in the rural parts of the country. Even as many caste hierarchies have been overturned in the past couple of decades, and though, somehow, the current constituent assembly has a mandate for female (and third-gender) members, in many if not most families a woman only gains status when she gives birth to a son.

While she certainly charmed me--I was happy to encourage her to take pictures, as long as she treated the camera respectfully, which she did--I later found out (from Indira, who the kids call Amma, the director extraordinaire of PA Nepal) that she's had a hard transition back. Those scratches on her face are from a fight with another girl, and she's been disruptive in school. All unsurprising, of course; but also a much more complex story than I knew or understood when I let her take the camera. A good reminder, perhaps, that in the environment at the PA home there's always a back story.

Some of her pictures:

Added June 22, 2008: Her name, it turns out, is Sushma.

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