Kumaoni Wisdom in the Kitchen

One evening while getting water in the kitchen, I bumped into my host father who was busy making a salad of sliced cucumbers and beets with black salt—my favorite appetizer to dinner. “Carol.”, he said—which is how everyone in Kumaon pronounced Caro or Caroline– “You will live a very long life”. Expecting him to ask me for a slotted spoon or carry a plate into the living room, I paused in surprise—letting the precious filtered water spill from my overflowing purple nalgene onto the floor. “Damn!,” I gasped as I looked down and quickly grabbed a towel to mop up the mess. After recovering from the moment my brief moment of confusion, I asked him why, or rather what prompted him, to say such a thing. Telling someone they will live a long life is not exactly a casual comment one says in passing. He smiled, put down is knife and took a deep breath, as if he was about to say something important. “In Kumaon, there is a very ancient belief. If someone has a very good memory, if they remember people and things very well and know many things—then they will live a long time. For you, I think 110 years. You will live 110 years.” I did not know what to say in response. First, I did not fully understand the logic behind this prophecy, and second, I did not understand why I deserved to fall under it. But by the serious and warm look in his eyes, I knew he meant it. This was all that mattered. I trusted him, and I believed him. 

That night, I had trouble falling asleep. I was not bothered by my host father’s prophecy, but rather the fact that someone, or something, chose to deliver this message to me. It felt as if the universe had played this out, and the guitar strings of my soul were being plucked by something more complex than I could understand. My thoughts had certainly become influenced by the Hindu spirituality of daily life in India, but this time was different. I felt so deeply connected with the people and land, their religion and ancient wisdom—it was as if I had reached some state of enlightenment. I could feel the way I look at life changing. At the same time, there was a strong undercurrent pulling me back in the opposite direction. My life in America seemed relatively meaningless. I knew I did not want to leave Kumaon, but I did not expect to realize that part of me truly did not want to come home.

 

The next day as I did my daily trek to the hospital where I would give my final presentation, I walked past the newly built ashram near our home. I stopped in the middle of the goat-strewn path to listen to the sound of drums and singing. The air was thick with the smell of incense, which I breathed with a deep sigh of satisfaction. “I can do this”, I told myself, “I can go back home and bring Kumaon with me.” 

My thesis research primarily focused on evaluating the utilization of traditional healers, focusing on their practice, beliefs, and place in the larger landscape of rural healthcare. I remained flexible and tried to align my own goals with that of the NGO health team. This led me to focus on water-borne diseases, namely, Jaundice because the majority of local people seek traditional healing for the condition. I set out with IRB guidelines, a structured interview guide, a list of deliverables, and so on. They were almost completely useless and it took over one month to begin interviews. It was hugely difficult to gain the trust and acceptance of different healers and their families but once I did, what I discovered was absolutely brilliant.

A good deal of my research was anecdotal—it involved me listening for hours, over chai and dahi and aloo, to the stories of different healers and their patients. During one interview, I had baby goats crawling around my lap and during another interview, a healer showed up completely wasted. The only thing that kept my research (and myself) from not completely falling apart was my translator, Tulsi. Tulsi was getting her Master’s in English literature from a university in a nearby city, and had excellent command of Kumaoni, Hindi, and English. She also possessed something rare and vital for ethnographic research—she was fully connected to the people and communities I would be studying. They were her uncles, aunties, friends of her grandmother. She knew the Kumaoni traditions and respected them, never altering a word uttered by the interviewee and always dedicated to helping me understand.

Every healer had a unique story, but there was a universal wisdom that each healer took the time to mention (even the drunk one). Trust and belief: these were essential ingredients for a successful treatment. They were required of both the patient and the healer. Whether people chose to seek modern biomedicine or traditional healing, they must trust the practitioner and believe that their practice. Otherwise, it is impossible to be fully cured and regain health. The question of whether or not traditional healing “worked” was a question of whether or not you trusted and believed in it. Normally, I would consider many of the stories I heard as “miracles”. But they were not miracles—or else, miracles were possible. They knew I was curious, yet skeptical, from the minute we began. And I knew I had to trust and believe what they were saying in order to learn anything. That became my mantra, or “thesis statement” if you will.

 

My research taught me the real difference between my life in Kumaon and my life in America. The people of Kumaon have an unbelievable sense of trust and belief—in the land, their religion, and most importantly, in each other. There is something special in the land, something magic. Never had I seen such pride and brilliance in a culture. Yet it wasn’t a product of isolation. Yes, it is true that most village people did not have the means to travel beyond 50 km. However, I’m not sure many people had a real desire to leave. Their connection to the hills was reflected by their daily commitment and hard work. Even as development slowly crept up the hills in the form of “Himalaya resort” construction and de-forestion loomed as a major threat, people had faith that their traditional way of life and beliefs would live on. 

I came to Kumaon intending to learn about traditional healing for my honor’s thesis. I promised myself that I was not coming to India for selfish reasons—to gain spiritual enlightenment, immerse myself in an exotic culture, to travel and buy saris. At the end of the day, my research taught me more about my own mind than I could ever imagine. I have fully detached myself from concerns about competition for grades and awards, anxieties about school and pressures for material success. There is only a deep desire to do some justice to the people of Kumaon. My only hope is that my thesis can carry on their spirituality and connection, their trust and belief—because this means everything. I hope that this testament to their stories can take on a life of its own, a very long life.

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About Caroline Kee

Located in West Philadelphia, where I attend the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. I am a junior in the 2015 graduating class, majoring in global health and minoring in creative writing. This summer I will be an intern at Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (CHIRAG) in the Kumaon Mountain region of Uttarakhand, India.