Aama's village

In 1974, Broughton Coburn hiked up to a Gurung village on a ridge at the eastern edge of Syangja District, and introduced himself to the headman. He had been assigned by the Peace Corps to teach at a high school. The headman found lodgings for Coburn with a 70-year-old widow who lived alone with a cat, some chicken, and a water buffalo. ’Aama’ was even more surprised by the sudden appearance of such an unusual lodger, and Coburn eased the transition by helping Aama with her daily chores. 

Aama did not have children, and Coburn’s own mother had died three years earlier. A mother-son bond grew between them, and culminated in two books: a photo-portrait of Aama’s life, Nepali Aama: Life Lessons of a Himalayan Woman, and Aama in America: A Pilgrimage of the Heart, the tale of their odyssey in search of the soul of the United States.

Coburn recently revisited Aama’s village of Kolma after 31 years. Aama died in 1991, at age 87. When her only daughter, Sun Maya also died two years ago, he vowed to return to the village and visit descendants four generations on. If Aama were still alive, she would have a new great-great-grandson.

I connected first with Resham, one of my students from 44 years ago, in a coffee shop in Katmandu. He is now working at an NGO and had not been back in his village for eight years.

“It’s not the same there,” he said. “There is something missing.”

Most villagers and Aama’s descendants were no longer there. Thagu, Aama’s only grandson, had found work with the police in India and his son is in the Indian Army. Maita, Aama’s eldest granddaughter, married along ago and moved to Pokhara.

In a quiet alley behind the shambling grittiness of Pokhara’s Pardi Bazaar, was a two-storey cement house with an ornate metal gate. Maita, who I had known as a young girl, graciously served tea and juice and sel roti. For her husband, daughter, sister and sister-in-law, she launched into selective recollections of how afraid the village children were of me initially, and my hilariously awkward manner of eating, sitting and speaking.

“Things have changed a lot, Gora Mama,” Maita said, as if searching for some news from the village to share. The relatives lined up and we solemnly clicked away with our smartphones. “Remember that clunky camera you were always putting plastic film strips into,” asked Maita. “And Aama said that her lifespan might shorten if you took too many photos of her? Well, nowadays we’re the ones taking all the photos.”

“If you make it to Syangja Bazar in time, Gora Mama, you can catch the morning jeep that will take you up the hill to Kolma village,” Maita added.

“I’m thinking I’ll just walk from the bazar,” I said.

“You can’t,” she said flatly.

“What do you mean, can't?” I said.

“There is no trail anymore. Everyone travels on the road.”

Aama's house

Sainli and Kanchi stepped from the dirt roadbed onto the leaf-strewn trail that meandered to Aama’s house. I could hear Aama saying, as she did when I showed up after months of work in Kathmandu, that she had premonitions of my arrival. Perhaps, somehow, she could perceive that I was again coming to see her.

Pushing through a thicket of weeds, we pulled up to a crude goth that filled the space where her house had stood. I set down my rucksack and, avoiding nettles, walked about quietly, mumbling to myself like an explorer deciphering an overgrown Mayan ruin. A low wall, the crumbled foundation of Aama’s house, appeared in the shadows. I took some photos while puzzling my way through a reverse sort of future shock, resurrecting the colours and bustle and the sounds and smells of decades earlier.

Kanchi and Sainli stood silently, their heads tracking my movement. They clearly sensed my confusion and sadness. “If you had stayed in the village, Gora Mama, it would not be like this,” said Kanchi softly.

A tear formed in my eye, and I mentally fast-forwarded wild scenarios of local marriage, village projects, healthful living, and Buddhist practice. But I was not the only one who had left. Kanchi and Sainli’s brother and sister and most of their relatives had also left. We were all participants in something much larger than all of us.

What had not diminished during the past 45 years in Aama’s village was the boundless hospitality. My inability to graciously decline had not changed, either, nor could I any better explain why I had to leave. Sainli and Kanchi begged me to stay.

“My family awaits me,” I told them tearfully, garlanded with mala.

They replied: “Then, next time bring your wife and daughter and son.”

I promised. And I will.


From the roof of the bus, the airy perch I had always preferred, fresh landslides appeared like ink splotches cast upon the Syangja hills. Everywhere, mad scribbles of ad hoc dirt roads linked even the smallest hamlets.

I walked along the road that paralleled the small khola, then searched for the trail at the base of a 700m vertical climb to Kolma danda. The hillside was crisscrossed with crude switchbacks. Maita was right. The old trail could be seen only as broken fragments: shards of a civilisation that walked.

By cell phone I connected with Aama’s granddaughters, Sainli and Kanchi, and they converged on the dirt road to guide me to their homes. After food and tea we walked on the road to Aama’s village, their maiti, as I struggled to get my bearings. The old stone stairway that I trekked each day to school was mostly overgrown, superseded by the road on the hillside above.

“Walking on the road takes longer than on the old trail,” I objected to no one in particular. “Yes,” Kanchi admitted, “but the trail is not the way people go, anymore.”

The acting headman, warmly gracious and purposefully upbeat, greeted us above Aama’s village. “We have electricity,” he pointed to the wires, “and now water flows in pipes to cisterns here. No need to get water from the spring below the village as you used to do for Aama with a naamlo and doko.”

From the school on the ridge, a half hour walk from Aama’s village, a jeep departed each morning for the district centre, where villagers could cash remittance checks and purchase food and supplies, mostly imported from India. As the headman said, no one really needed to work very much, anymore.

I privately sensed that village development was a consolation prize for those who had stayed behind, a rationalisation for the uncomfortable absence of so many of the village youth. The village looked like a village, but there was something missing, as my student Resham had haltingly suggested.

Corn and millet are still cultivated in the fields, and those we met (mostly women, middle-aged, and elderly) appeared well adjusted to a daily routine, and content. With fewer youth to herd them, the diminished need for draft power and manure fertiliser, and fewer mouths to feed, there are not as many livestock. No vehicle came or left the village while I was there. Water overflowed the cisterns.

One villager confirmed what social scientist Ganesh Gurung has noted about Nepali villages today: women carry corpses of their parents to the cremation site on the ridges, and even light the funeral pyres in the absence of sons who, tradition dictates, must perform this task.

Maita told me that many of the weddings, rituals, and festivals have reconvened at the Kolma-Bahakot Samaj in Pokhara. Gurungs prefer to marry Gurungs, and some meet each other through Facebook. In 1974, the high school on the ridge had 500 students, today it is half that number. The students now are largely Dalits, because most Gurungs study in Pokhara, or further afield.

As early as the 1980s, Aama had noted that young people were losing interest in subsistence farming, and home-grown skills such as roof thatching, or hand-hewing a wooden plough, were no longer being taught. How, I wondered, will the youth recraft a subsistence when the demand for foreign labour ends?

My resistance to the future, and the present, was beginning to seem idealistic and futile. The ancient bari terraces were being reclaimed by weeds and shrubs. In places, tall trees had emerged where corn used to grow. Trees are not a bad thing, Nepalko dhan. The countryside was a semi-natural landscape, courtesy of limited markets and opportunities.

Some spoke of the potential for cash crops such as coffee or walnuts in the fallow fields. If hillside farming were someday mechanised, might the land be converted to commercial agro-enterprises?

“Nepal imports approximately a billion rupees worth of food products every day,” Ganesh Gurung had told me. “Now, even China is looking to export grains and other food products to Nepal.”

I recalled what Resham, my student from the 1970s, had told me, that in the old days, hill people were embarrassed to be seen buying rice in the district centre. It was an admission of defeat, signaling that they were unable to support themselves. Nowadays, that sentiment has flipped: if people are tilling the field and growing their own food, it means they do not have relatives working overseas to send money to buy provisions. They are regarded as failures.

Resham said: “One day, just maybe, as people retire or become weary of towns and cities, they will return to the peacefulness of the countryside.”

The reverse migration trend may not have quite begun, but the abiding sentiment will make it forever possible. Perhaps out of my own nostalgia, or hope, I sensed that Resham, Maita, Kanchi and Sainli shared a vision of village revival too — the return of family, and the re-engagement of the cycles of rituals, festivals and seasons.

The present moment might be something of a holding pattern, a bardo or transition following death, prior to rebirth in a very different incarnation, one humming with commerce and commodities. And hopefully community.

Read also:

Preaching on high, Broughton Coburn

A true tale, Broughton Coburn