18 Jun The Hunger of Winter, By Aidan Gurung
2010. It is Tihar, the Hindu festival of lights. For five days, there are fireworks and rituals and prayers; everything is done for Yama, the god of death. Each day something different is celebrated: first crows, then dogs, cows, oxen, and finally, our brothers. Crows are the messengers of Yama and so we worship them to ward off grief for the coming year. Dogs stand guard at the gates of Naraka, the Hindu concept of Hell, and in our offerings, we show our respect. Cows and Oxen are also connected to death, but I can never remember why we celebrate our brothers. I follow my mom as she guides me through the ritual: I put the purple garland around Surya’s neck, I put Tika, different coloured paste, on his forehead, I close my eyes and press my palms together as my mom recites some prayers.
On the table, we have sliced apples, bananas, papayas and peeled oranges on decorative plates. When I ask if I can have some fruit, mom yells at me like she’s never yelled before. She says that the fruit are offerings for the gods because only they can keep us safe. They are the only ones that can watch over us. We have cut this fruit, we have peeled this fruit, and in exchange the gods will give us protection, in exchange they will give us divine love. She sends me to buy more fruit so I can be forgiven.
When I return, it is almost dark and Surya is lighting diyos, oil lamps, on the stairs. I can hear mom’s voice from upstairs, marvelling at what a great job he has done. Surya stands at the top of the stairs, looking down at me, cupping a diyo with both palms. I throw the bag of fruit at his leg and run to my room.
2014. It’s just me and my family and we are driving down Taffy lane. This area is famous in Ottawa for its Christmas decorations. It’s just one narrow road, and you’re done looking at everything in 15 minutes, but there are houses with blow-up reindeer, houses with electronic elves that wave at you, houses with lights and lights and lights.
As we drive along, Surya tells us that Canada is the land of cereal and Christmas. He tells us that only once we accept both these things can we, in turn, be accepted as Canadians. Dad doesn’t say anything but nods approvingly. Mom tells Surya he will have no trouble fitting in, seeing how he knows so much about the culture already. All of a sudden I burst out crying because I don’t like cereal, because it tastes weird and so it must mean I’m doomed, it must mean we should move back, go back, we have to go back. Between my sobs I realize no one is crying with me, no one is even trying to comfort me. Instead, they are laughing, all of them, and mom tells me that we can’t go back to Nepal. She tells me that life must be lived in a linear fashion, going from A to B to C. She tells me that we have to force ourselves to go onward, even if we leave something precious behind.
I can’t sleep that night, so I decide to get a bowl of cereal, to give it another shot. As I walk toward the kitchen, I see Surya kneeling over in prayer on the living room floor. I can see the curve of his back lit up from the Christmas tree in the corner, our second-hand lights strung around it to give the room a yellow glow. Even from a distance, I can see his shoulders shaking. I go back to bed with an empty stomach.
2008. Today, mom takes us to the temple to pray that this winter passes soon. She tells us that January is the worst of winter, that it only gets better from here. Mom makes me peel the oranges this time, and when I am done, she puts them naked on the altar. She says a few prayers and then she turns to both of us, except she is looking only at Surya. She gives him a small smile, a kind smile, and then we all go home.
At dinner, mom tells us more about the temple. She tells us that we prayed to the Sun god, Surya, who my brother is named after. Dad is cutting his goat meat when he starts talking, except he is only talking about Surya. He says, we named you after the Sun god so that there will be no winter in our lives. With you here, our days will only be the summer. Under the table, I kick Surya’s shin, but I think maybe I hit the chair because he doesn’t say anything. I barely touch my food that night.
2019. In the waiting room, I scroll through Facebook on my phone. I see an article about Nepal and stop at the section about Bhai Tika, the fifth day of Tihar where we celebrate our brothers:
Bhai Tika originates from a Legend about the goddess Yamuna. When her brother fell gravely ill, the god of death, Yama, came to collect him. The goddess begged Yama to spare him, but he would not budge, until finally, she managed to strike a deal. She could perform one final ritual for her dear brother, and only after the flowers on his garland had wilted, only after the tika on his forehead had faded, only after this could Yama take him. To this day, sisters perform this ritual to ward off Yama, to protect their brothers from harm.
I try to remember the last time we celebrated Tihar when we hear the news. Mom keeps yelling, Surya! My son! My sun! She clasps my dad’s hand and doesn’t stop mumbling, son, sun, son, my son… Dad doesn’t say anything but puts his other arm around her and kisses her hair. Eventually, I go hug them. Our three bodies cling to each other, unsure of what we are to orbit now.
2011. The winter is over, and spring has started to show herself. The days are longer, and the air is warmer. On the radio a Nepali folk song is playing. Surya is sitting on the old leather chair, looking out the window at the neighbourhood, peeling an orange. His fingers dig into the skin and I can see some of the juice spray out onto his hands. It is so lovely, this little thing, this little fruit.
I watch him for a while before he notices me. He doesn’t hesitate before he extends his arm, offering me a piece. I am smiling as I walk toward him, I am smiling even as I eat it. It is sweeter than anything I have ever tasted. I feel the pulp and the skin and the juice on my tongue and it is sweeter than anything I have ever tasted. In this moment, everything is okay. In this moment, I share an orange with my brother.