Against a Peacock Sky

Monica Connell


Against a Peacock Sky

Monica Connell


For two years in the early 1980s Monica Connell lived as a paying guest of Kalchu and Chola in the Nepalese Himalayan village of Talphi. Gradually she was accepted as a member of the family, sharing its joys and sorrows as well as taking part in its various tasks from mud-plastering the house to rice planting in the terraced fields. The village, in the remote Jumla region of western Nepal, was ten days walk from the nearest road, and its only contact with the outside world was through trading expeditions: north to Tibet for salt, and south to the Indian border for cotton and metalware.

‘A haunting book that achieves informed sympathy with Nepalese village life without the least trace of false romanticism.’ - Nigel Barley
‘Acutely observed and full of moments of startling empathy.’ - Mail on Sunday
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Against a Peacock Sky: Two years in the life of a Nepalese village
ISBN: 978-1780600-42-0
Format: 206pp demi pb
Place: Nepal

Author Biography

Monica Connell grew up in Northern Ireland. She studied Sociology at London University followed by Social Anthropology at Oxford. Against a Peacock Sky, her first book, was shortlisted for the Yorkshire Post Best First Work award and has been translated into two languages. More recently she trained as a photographer and published two illustrated books about Bristol contemporary culture, Flying High: New Circus in Bristol, and A Universal Passion: Music and Dance from Many Cultures. She currently lives in Andalucia.


Extract from Chapter One

THE CALF WAS BORN a month prematurely, in March. The nights were still so cold that icicles formed on the outside of the chutes that fed the water-mills, where the water churned white and spilled over. In the day they dripped steadily and almost thawed, and then from dusk to the following sunrise they were slowly reformed. As far as the eye could see the earth was brown; there were white pockets of unmelted snow, and sombre green pine thickets on the ridges, but no leaves on the deciduous trees and no bright green shoots in the withered remains of last year’s grass. Nothing was ready for new life.

I don’t know what alerted Kalchu to go and look in the stable. He may have heard the cow moaning as she gave birth, his ears sensitized to noises the rest of us would not have heard, as we sat talking and laughing around the fire. Or maybe he had seen the onset of labour in the way she had acted earlier, when he and Kāli untwisted the bales of hay for the night and spread out the fresh pine-needle bedding. He was gone for about half an hour and I don’t think any of us even suspected that there was something amiss.

When he came back he was carrying the calf, his arms encompassing all four legs, so the hooves came together in a bunch, with the rump and tail protruding over one forearm and the shoulders and chest over the other. The neck was stretched out in front so the head hung down low, almost as low as the tiny hooves.

Inside he twisted round and, leaning his shoulder and elbow against the door, pushed it firmly to. Then, very gently, he lowered the calf on to the rug by the fireside. As soon as the hooves touched the ground the legs crumpled and carefully he rearranged them, folding them over to one side, out of the way of the body. Comfortable now, and secure in the warmth, the calf let its neck curl round – an almost involuntary movement – so the chin skirted the ribs and the muzzle nudged the soft hollow flank. Its ears rested flat back and the long dark lashes interlocked over closed eyes. It could almost have been dead already; a passive progression from birth to death with no awareness of life at all.

The twins sprang up from where they had been sitting by Chola’s side and ran round the hearth to have a closer look. Squatting down naked by the calf they stroked it and ran their small fingers through its coat. There were no traces of blood now, just a damp oily film where the mother’s tongue had licked it clean. Lāla Bahādur started to play with its stringy tail – twirling it round in the air, twisting and tugging it back from the socket – trying to provoke a reaction that would jar it to life. But Hārkini just touched it gently all over, marvelling at the tiny, perfect form.

At first no one was quite sure what should be done. Kalchu sat silently watching the calf. He seemed resigned to this twist of fate that the first calf to be born into his stable for two years had been brought to life before it was ready, before the winter was even through. There was no emotion in his face – no resentment, no sadness. If there had been its time had passed. Now he merely appraised the situation, calculating the odds for life against death. In the end he judged that the investment of hope should be made; that they would fight for the calf’s life and risk disappointment.

His decision resolved the confused inactivity. If the calf was to be kept alive the course of action was clear and time was critical. Nara was sent to get a bowl of milk from someone who had a cow that was yielding; Kalchu suggested maybe the ḍāṅgri or the Ḍum in the bottom house on the corner. At this time of year there wasn’t enough milk anywhere in the village to borrow for more than a few days. So if the mother was still dry then, there would be no choice but to let the calf starve.

‘I suppose I could always suckle it myself – give the twins one breast and the calf the other.’ Chola was leaning back laughing, making as if to enfold the old and new progeny under her two arms. ‘It’s been done before – twice when calves were born to dry mothers, the women of the household fed them their own breastmilk until they were old enough to wean.’ I looked at her dubiously, and she was still laughing and insisting that it was true. But it was impossible to distinguish between the truth of myth and the truth of reality.

While we were discussing it, Kalchu was trying to inspire the calf with life. He opened its eyes, and standing astride the small body, he clasped it between his rough hands and pulled it up. When the hooves were in place on the ground he held the weight for a moment while the calf reoriented itself. Then he let go. Clearly there was some innate sense of balance: the calf lowered its head and stretched out its neck, then reeled slightly and righted itself. But the muscles had no strength to sustain it, and it fell over forwards, hitting its nose on the ground.

When Kalchu pulled it up again there was blood trickling from its nostril. This time it held out longer, and gradually it learned the way to work its muscles and to develop their strength. Eventually it was standing so well that the twins were able to play teasing games with it, pushing and pulling and slapping its sides, so sometimes it fell and sometimes it lurched from side to side and recovered. And we cheered and laughed at its chequered progress – and picked it up again and again because it was still too weak to get up alone.

The will and ability to stand is one of the most basic manifestations of the life-force, almost more basic than an interest in food and water. I’d seen this attitude once before in the village when a cow, grazing on the cliffside, fell down into the valley below. There was no doubt that its foreleg was broken; it was bent right out to the side from the knee. But it was a valuable animal with many calves to its name and the owners hovered over it, beating it viciously, insisting that it stand up. Eventually it did. You could see that the pain of standing was more than it could bear, and it struggled to be allowed to collapse again but the owners made it walk; led it away stumbling on three legs with the fourth jutting out sideways. And they were triumphant, as we were now, because it was a sign that it was going to be all right; a clear confirmation of life.

When Nara came back with the milk, the calf had collapsed, exhausted. Its legs were splayed out at awkward angles on the rug, and its flanks rose and fell with the deep breaths of sleep. He had found milk at the ḍāṅgri’s house and the old man had come back with him to see if he could be of any use. He didn’t advise but just stood there, nodding his head vaguely and smiling to himself while his hands – almost involuntarily – went through the motions of twisting the spindle he’d brought with him and winding on the wool. Then he sat down quietly, reluctant to flaunt the experience of his years unsolicited.

And there was no doubt that Kalchu, though younger, had dealt with a great many premature births before this one. He handled the calf deftly, with calm assurance. None of us did anything; we sat there silently watching, deferring to his competence. He was pulling back the calf’s head so the brown eyes rolled up and only the whites were showing, and opening its mouth by slipping his thumb in at the side. Then, keeping the thumb in place, he pushed the rim of a bowl in between the rows of teeth and poured its contents, a trickle of oil, right down into the throat. The calf shook its head lamely, but Kalchu merely tightened his hold and stroked the underneath of the throat to make it swallow. Then he let go and the calf sank back to sleep. ‘That’s to make him shit,’ he said. I wondered why it was important that it shat, but I didn’t ask. Maybe it was no more than another way of affirming its life.

The next thing was to make it eat and drink. So, lifting up its head again, Kalchu offered it a finger coated with milk. It was very weary now, so weary it only wanted to drop back to sleep, and yet too weary to fight for that freedom. It ignored the finger and Kalchu dipped it into the milk again and forcibly opened the mouth. ‘If they don’t suck by the second day,’ said the ḍāṅgri, ‘they forget how.’ So Kalchu persevered, and the calf reached out its tongue and licked his finger, and then, at last, took it inside its mouth and sucked.

Before we went to bed we took the calf down to the stable to its mother. ‘It’s important that they see each other tonight,’ Kalchu explained. ‘If the mother thinks her calf is dead, she’ll dry up for good. And the little one will lose heart and its life will drift away if it’s cut off for too long from its own animal world.’

It was pitch dark in the stable and, even with the burning sticks of jharo we’d brought from upstairs, we could see nothing at first. But it felt safe and familiar as it always did, with the sounds of chewing and the smell of sweat and cow-dung and half-eaten hay. In the end the mother found us, grunting softly as she came over, nuzzling the calf and licking its cheek and neck.

When they had reassured each other, Kalchu put the calf down by her side. She still hadn’t completely shed the afterbirth and it was hanging down, a twisted sheet of blood and mucus, between her legs. As he pushed the calf’s head towards the udder he spat to rid himself of the polluting sight of birth.

 The calf didn’t recognize the teat, but standing there by its mother’s side it shat. And Kalchu was satisfied and picked up the quivering body to carry it back to the fireside.

The next morning each of us went in turn, as we woke, to have a look at the calf. It was more alert today, staring out at its surroundings through moist brown eyes that were learning to focus, and playing with swishing its tail. But it seemed very small, much smaller and more fragile than the night before, as it swayed from side to side in the bright sunlight. And I noticed that the skin was hanging loose in folds over the shoulder and behind it, as if it had fit a rounder form yesterday, before the rigours of birth. ‘The mother’s still dry.’ Kalchu had anticipated my question. ‘We’ll have to see it through a few more days ourselves.’

It was a job that fell mainly to me, because I was at home. Kalchu and Chola were both out all day at that time, preparing the winter land for spring. In the mornings they left the calf outside on the roof, under an upturned basket to stop the crows and vultures swooping down to peck out its eyes, and because sometimes, in winter, the jackals are driven by hunger right up to the houses, even in daylight. Then they draped a rug over the basket, so the calf could be warmed by the sun, but not dazzled by its rays. I found a medicine dropper and used that to feed it the milk they left me. And when I went out I put the calf inside with its basket and rug.

In the evenings, when Kāli brought the cows home, we’d take it down to the stable to its mother and she would stretch out her nose to it and blow, and the breath would come out as steam in the cold, evening air. But she had no milk to give it – so there was no reason for it to suck the teat, which would have helped the flow.

After ten days the calf had become a haunting presence. Its body was hot and dry and the coat had lost its black lustre, so it stood up on end, pale brown and rumpled. Most of the time it looked dead. Its breathing was too light to move the flanks, so I’d go over sometimes and put the back of my hand to its nostril until I could feel the heat as it exhaled. Its eyes were no longer the eyes of a cow – they were blue and vacant, like the eyes of a mad person sending images to the brain of a world other than it really is. It rarely blinked, but sometimes the lids would close and then reopen, as if consciousness were slowly drifting away.

One night I dreamt about it; about the dog going over to look at it, as it sometimes did, and instead of sniffing it and walking away, it tore open the anus and started to pull out the innards.

I still fed it, but I recoiled from it. I hated pushing the medicine dropper in between the rows of teeth, now permanently bared, and the hot dry lips, and watching the milk dribble out at the corner because it wouldn’t swallow. Kalchu and Chola had lost interest in it, like animals with their dying young. Sometimes they’d stand it up and watch it fall over, as if justifying their negligence. Then they let it be.

One morning Kalchu came up from the stable with a bowl of warm milk and poured half of it into a separate container for me. He was pleased, proud that his was one of the few households with milk in winter, and apparently unruffled by the irony of its coming too late, when the calf was already more dead than alive.

The calf lived for fifteen days. It was sad when it died; sad because of the memory of what it had been like when there was still hope. But it was also a relief. I didn’t see it dead. The Ḍum leatherworker came and took away the body very early one morning. Then, some days later, he brought it back – stuffed. The fur was very dull now, and sparse, and the eyes were gaping black holes in their sockets. It was a rough job, but somehow it didn’t look that different with the skin stretched over straw instead of ribs. Kalchu took it downstairs to the stable twice a day when he milked the mother. He said that the dummy stimulated her to produce in the same way that the sight of the living calf should have done.

Then, not a week later, one of the ploughing bulls seemed to be ailing. Kalchu had been working them, tilling the land on the south-facing slope of Jimale, where wheat and bitter buckwheat are sown alternately. Those upland fields are the hardest land of all to till, not only because of the incline, but also because they’ve recently been reclaimed from the forest and the soil is still heavy with roots and stones. He had been careful not to push the bulls too hard. In the evening when they came back he would crumble salt on a flat stone for them to lick, and once, in addition to their hay, he gave them the heap of grain that was left at the bottom of the fermentation jar when the beer was finished. Usually, he said, after ploughing for four or five days, he would keep the bulls at home for two. But this time only one had rested; the other had worked right through, for a full ten days. This was because Jakali’s husband’s ploughing bull had died and he’d pleaded with Kalchu to lend him one of his.

So now it was ill. There were no visible symptoms. Kalchu had gone right round it, feeling its legs and back and stomach, but he could find nothing. There were no cuts or swollen bruises, nowhere that was particularly tender or sensitive to his touch. He assumed that it was exhausted, wasted by the work at the end of the long winter, and he blamed himself. He had lent it to Jakali’s husband against his better judgement. He had felt sorry for him when his own bull died and he was afraid it would be tempting fate to throw up this opportunity to redress the balance in their fortunes. And if it was just exhausted, it was simply a question of postponing his own ploughing and resting it up for a day or two until it had regained its appetite and its strength.

But a week passed, and then ten days, and there was no change at all. It just stood there, or sometimes lay down, in one particular spot at the far end of the stable, with its eyes half-closed. There was none of the violence of illness in it, no writhing or moaning, and it was never impatient or irritable when Kalchu tried to feed it or probed it for sores. Nor was there any instinctive offensive, no fight to transcend its condition and stay alive. It was as if it was harbouring some great consuming sadness and had lost the urge to live.

One morning a Ḍumini from Pere came to have a look at it. She was a mantri, a person who knew certain magic incantations, and was reputed to be able to cure sick animals. She told Chola she’d heard from someone in Pere that the bull was ill, and she knew she’d be able to cure it; she’d treated hundreds in her time and only one had ever died.

So Chola took her downstairs and led the bull out of its dark stable into the adjoining sheep-pen, which was enclosed by stone walls, but without a roof so there was light to see. The mantri looked it up and down from the doorway without saying a word. Then she sent Nara to fetch the things she would need: a piece of rope the length of the space between her hands when she held out her arms; a supple willow twig, the length of the space between.

Then, still in silence, she picked up some cow-dung from the floor and rolled it into a ball between her fingertips. When it was the right shape she blew on it, then closed her fist around it and began to massage the bull’s neck and shoulders and back and rump, tapping it hard and rhythmically with the knuckles of the clenched fist. All the time she was muttering under her breath, not articulating the words so they could be understood, or so it was even clear what language she was speaking. But her lips were moving fast and her voice rose and fell between breaths. It seemed that all her concentration and all the power of every muscle in her body were focused on the point where her fist struck the bull’s back.

Nara’s hands; a sprig of the dāṅtelo bush in flower; and some wheat flour and tobacco for her own payment.

And strangely, the bull was responding, shifting its weight from one side to the other, so it was leaning slightly towards her. And around each blow the flesh shuddered – the same sort of involuntary movement a cow will use to despatch a fly, but the ripples were more pronounced and further-reaching.

While the mantri was working, Chola stood in front of the bull, holding its head down low and gently smoothing the tuft of coarse hair between the horns, reassuring it.

It took the mantri a long time to work right round the bull, from shoulder to rump down one side and then from rump to shoulder back up the other. When she had finished she turned to Nara, who had just come back with the things she needed and was peering round the door, as if he was too scared of her magic to come right in. ‘Take this to the crossroads,’ she said, dropping the ball of cow-dung into his cupped hands, ‘and bury it so none of it’s left showing.’

Then she took the willow twig, laid it across the bull’s withers and secured it in place with a rope tied firmly beneath the soft folds of flesh on the underside of the neck. ‘That represents its ploughing yoke,’ she told Chola. ‘Leave it there. In due course he’ll rub it off himself.’

On her way out she paused, reaching up to slot the dāṅtelo branch between the stones above the lintel, and the bull lowered its head threateningly and took a few steps towards her as if it was going to lunge. But then it turned round towards the open stable door and went back to its place in the darkness.

 Chola had taken the bull’s high spirits and responsiveness to the mantri as a sign that the treatment was going to work. But in the following days nothing changed. When Kalchu brought it fresh hay and water and even maize porridge it remained aloof and indifferent. And when the other cows were taken out in the morning and brought home in the evening, it stood there without even turning its head. And the days passed and the nights passed and it seemed to be just waiting for death.

The next time the dhāmi was possessed by one of the village gods, Kalchu went to the shrine to ask for advice. And the god, speaking in his high falsetto voice through the medium of the dhāmi, said without a moment’s hesitation that Kalchu’s bull’s time had come, and there was nothing any of us could do to save it now. He added that two of Kalchu’s bulls would die this winter and the third would live. After that the bull’s willow twig yoke was replaced by a strip of red cloth blessed by the god. It was fastened tightly on to the right horn, so it dangled down over the cheek and eye.

The dhāmi was right. Nothing could restore the bull’s heart for life. One evening Kalchu came into my room and we sat staring into the fire for a long time. Then he said that the bull had died. He had gone down to the stable earlier and seen that it was missing, so he went to look for it. He couldn’t believe that it would have wandered far when it hadn’t even been outside the stable for such a long time.

He searched everywhere for it, going right through the village, asking people if they’d seen it. But no one knew. Eventually, he found it, lying down on the Kālādika – an open, grassy plateau about a quarter of a mile outside the village – the nearest place where the cattle were taken to graze. There was a young boy there with his cows at the time, and he told Kalchu that he had watched the bull and it had walked slowly right round the circumference of the Kālādika, before lying down where Kalchu had found it. It wasn’t dead, but it was dying.

‘I took a bowl of water and I gave it hirin, as if it was my father, or my brother,’ said Kalchu. ‘And then it died and I came home.’

I was shocked. I hadn’t realized the bull meant so much to him.

‘It ploughed my land for eight years. It knew better than I did what to do. It even knew which land was mine so I needn’t even have guided it there. It was part of my family. It was part of me.’

I thought back over the times I had watched the ploughing; in late autumn at the potato harvest, and in the summer, slopping through the flooded paddy fields. There had never seemed to be a particularly harmonious relationship between Kalchu and the bulls. They had minds of their own, refusing to move one minute, and the next tearing ahead out of control, breaking down the mud banks that contained the irrigation between the paddy fields. And Kalchu would alternately soothe and cajole and then whip and curse them. There was no doubt he spoke a language the bulls understood, but no one could say they always obeyed him.

‘But you have other bulls, don’t you?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ he said sadly. ‘Two. But they’re young. They’re not strong enough and they haven’t been trained.’ He sat silently for a minute and then he got up and walked out.

And still that wasn’t the end of it. Not long afterwards one of the cows died. It happened at night in the stable, and in the morning the Untouchable women came and dragged it outside and butchered it just in front of the house. Kalchu and Chola were both at home and from time to time they looked down, both repelled and fascinated. And villagers walking past gave the gathering a wide berth, and spat in disgust with disparaging comments. But the women were crouched so low over their work that their shawls shrouded their whole bodies, and I didn’t once see them raise their eyes from the carcass. It took them most of the day and, in the evening, they picked up their basketloads of red meat and carried them back to the security and acceptance of their own Untouchable community at the far end of the village.

But it wasn’t just Kalchu and Chola’s cows that were dying, and it wasn’t just bad luck either. They said that every year at the end of winter the cows are so thin and weak that diseases spread and wipe them out like flies. And if the spring is late, like this year, then the supplies of hay that the women gathered all autumn from the steepest slopes where the grass grew longer because it couldn’t be grazed just don’t last out. Everyone’s cows suffer.

Last year too the spring was late and Jakali and her husband lost so many cows that they consulted the god. The god said that the place where their house and stable were built was plagued with evil influences. So they took the house apart, stone by stone, and rebuilt it twenty yards further south on a piece of land recommended by the god. They built it around a makeshift shrine, with offerings to the gods, both good and bad, and it took them all the following winter, this winter. And it was then, when Jakali’s husband’s ploughing bull died despite the new stable, that Kalchu had felt obliged to lend him his, and it had been overworked and died.