Monday, January 09, 2012

Letting the cat out of the basket

At a discussion this afternoon about everyday religion in Darjeeling, with a religiously diverse group of workers in environmental activism, journalism, etc., I learned of a very special culture here, defined by funerals and humor.

Already yesterday my host told me that a distinctive feature of Darjeeling, where Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and indigenous people live cheek by jowl, is that everyone attends their friends' funerals, even if of a different religious tradition. Today the same point was made by several people. I learned that it's said that you don't have to go when invited to a marriage, but if you even hear of a funeral you must attend. That community coops, geographically rather than ethnically based, share the costs of funerals. And that Darjeelingers who leave dream of dying in Darjeeling, as there'll be lots of people at their funerals. Seems like funerals are the place to be - and evidently people have a good time, lots of laughter.

I don't know if people in other areas are really more humorless than this group, but we had a rollicking good time, especially once the one religious leader present had to go. Discussion of humor arose at the same time as discussion of loss - Lepcha (indigenous people of this area) told how his religion, a nature religion, could not be practiced in the city, and a Hindu described the lengths one had to go to to get ritually required materials - though bathing before a ritual had gone by the wayside, as Darjeeling is perennially short on water. Then a Rai told this story and we all laughed and laughed. Apparentlyeh heard it from his younger brother:

There was a family which had a ritual involving milk and fish. Whenever he performed it, the grandfather, knowing it would likely interfere, took the cat and put it in a basket. His grandson, a child, thought that putting a cat in a basket was the ritual, and a generation later people were looking for and wide for a cat every time the ritual had to be performed.

What wisdom is there in that story, and irony, and loss.

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