Against a Peacock Sky by Monica Connell

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Against a Peacock Sky by Monica Connell

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Category: Travel
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A beautiful and empathic description of remote Nepali life, that is no doubt as much time capsule as it is travel writing. Simple stories, simply told, that speak deeply of humanity and dignity...and hint at changes that have no doubt occurred since that time.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: June 2014
Publisher: Eland Publishing Ltd
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1780600420

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Monica Connell went to Nepal to do the fieldwork for her Ph.D. in social anthropology. I think it is important to know that. She went on a grant-supported trip, with a relatively specific objective. She wasn't a hippy wanderer looking for Shangri-la. She wasn't a mere tourist passing through. She went with a fundamental aim of learning about these people and how they lived. She also went, presumably, with the academic discipline of how to find these things out, how to organise them in her mind, how to "understand" them in the context of her own paradigms, and how to keep enough notes and files and photos to help her create some greater sense of the experience after the event. Fortunately, she also went with a sense of open-ness and curiosity and a willingness to muck-in, to break her own rules and to truly connect with the people of the village where she hauled up.

For two years, Connell lived her way into the community, learning the language, helping with the planting and the harvest and the trials and tribulations of everyday life: sickness, health, cooking, childbirth, planting, harvest, sickly animals and cheeky children and unhappy marriages.

For all this was a research trip (if two years on the ground can be called a "trip"), the feeling you get is that it became much more than that for the author. She says poignantly at the end that she has not been back: For the time being memory is as much as my senses can process. That was in 1991 when the book was first published. I'm hoping that in the intervening 20 years, she has indeed found her way back to the people who clearly made such a deep impression on her.

When I came to write the review of this book, I sat down and flicked back through the pages trying to find out exactly when it was that Connell had spent her two years in Nepal. I don't think the years are referenced in the text. I finally found the relevant, and suitably vague, early 1980s on the blurb on the back cover. The rough time period was important to me, because I've been to Nepal a couple of times and want to go back, so being able to compare how it was when Connell was there, how it was when I was there (the last time a surprising 7 years ago) and how it might be now adds another layer to her story-telling. I think that might be so for anyone who reads the book having visited the country, even if only as a wandering tourist as I did. That the precise calendar dates are not specified also feels right in the sense that this is a country – especially in its rural districts that has managed to thrive (after its own fashion) outside of time.

I worry about it catching up with the western world, as it is surely doing. I remember from my last visit one particular evening feeling how much these people have to lose by moving in the direction we moved in, and then a conversation with a couple of young nurses who explained that they were the only medical help in the district and how many days travelling their patch was from end to end. That's when we realise: it is not our choice to make.

Against a Peacock Sky isn't a travelogue, nor is it an anthropological study. Instead it is a collection of essays, vignettes on the life of a remote village ten days' walk from the nearest road.

A quick internet search shows that it is no longer like that, 20 years have undoubtedly changed the place and the people, so Connell's work is as much a time capsule as it is a social study.

Maybe, though, we shouldn't read it so deeply. Maybe we should read it purely for the pleasure of her prose, the acuity of her eye, for the drama of the personal stories and for the underlying sympathy for what it means to be human. After all farming life really isn't that different around the world. And people, frankly, are people wherever you go.

Read it then to discover the story of the premature calf. Learning about the Full Moon festival and the myths and legends of this area where Hinduism and Buddhism marry with older more local deities and requirements. Spend four seasons with the sheep and work through the phases of the Monsoon. Discover what a Karaso is and what can happen when you lose one or follow the hunt and wonder at the story of the red bitch. They are all tales of people deeply connected: to each other, to their land and their animals and their history. I hope some of that has survived.

But let us also not forget that they are tales of lives hard-lived. Connell doesn't romanticise any of it. She simply tells it as it was, and owns up to her own flinches when her western sensibilities conflict with the reality.

Reflecting on the book after reading it – and obviously we all put books into the context of what we know from our own experience – it occurs to me that it would be really useful for anthropologists from the countries "we" study, to come to study "us" in a very similar vein. I would love to read a Nepali anthropologist's take on a New Town in the north of England, or a Mid-western city in the U.S.

For more insights into the Nepalese way of life we can recommend the short story collection The Gurkha's Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly

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