The Spark

Published: March 1, 2014

ON A MONSOON NIGHT IN 2005, Sunil Babu Pant was at home in Kathmandu, in the flat he shared with his parents. For the past two days, his phone had been ringing incessantly; doctors at a government hospital across town were calling about an unclaimed body. The deceased was a meti—a person born male but with feminine identity—who had died from AIDS complications three days earlier. The corpse was beginning to decompose and smell, but neither the meti’s family nor the doctors would touch it. Even within the medical establishment, AIDS was a highly stigmatised disease. Besides, the doctors had no idea how to find a temple that would cremate a meti. They turned to Pant, who was the director of the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), Nepal’s first organisation for sexual and gender minorities. The meti had been one of his volunteers.

 
Pant had waited to see if someone else would come forward, but now he decided to act. He set out cautiously. Kathmandu’s streets were crawling with security forces but almost entirely devoid of civilians: the country was embroiled in a civil war, and its capital was frequently under curfew as part of the ruling monarchy’s efforts to quash a nearly decade-long Maoist rebellion. Pant convinced a taxi driver to take him to the hospital with the headlights turned off, and instructed him to wait outside.  When Pant emerged from the hospital, he was cradling the meti’s emaciated corpse in his arms. The taxi sped off without him. By then, two BDS staff members had arrived to help. They hired another cab, for ten times the usual rate, and crept toward the Pashupatinath temple complex—one of the holiest Hindu sites in the world.
 
At Pashupatinath, Pant tried negotiating with the priests, who said they couldn’t perform funeral rituals for someone who was neither a man nor a woman. They could also see the body was wasted by disease and refused to allow it onto the complex’s cremation grounds. Pant and his companions ferried the corpse to a few more temples, but were repeatedly turned away. Finally, at a small Hindu-Buddhist temple by the Bagmati River, they found priests willing to perform the last rites.
 
The pyre was damp because of the monsoon, and it took almost six hours for the body to burn. By the time the ashes were being swept away by the river, the sun had come up, and half a dozen BDS volunteers had congregated at the temple. They started talking about the upcoming Gaijatra, an annual festival of the dead marked by flamboyant costumes, mockery of the elite, and, as in some other Nepali festivals, processions in which metis dance to earn money. Though BDS had held gay pride parades during the festival before, the volunteers decided to make that year’s Gaijatra memorable to collectively mourn friends and colleagues lost to AIDS or violence. The increasing militarisation of Kathmandu’s streets had led to a rise in the abuse and extortion of metis by police and security forces, and BDS members wanted to boldly claim their right to public space.
 
That year, Pant and BDS celebrated Gaijatra in Kathmandu with a particularly colourful and conspicuous gay pride parade. “We first thought we should make Gaijatra a special LGBTI”—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex—“event for the death celebration, to pay respects,” Pant told me during one of our interviews. “But it became something much more than that. It became political.” BDS outdid itself with each successive Gaijatra. Pant’s organising and strategising abilities ensured that, by 2012, pride parades had been held in three cities, and the number of marchers at each event typically swelled into the thousands. Pant’s audacity took many by surprise. During the 2007 Gaijatra, the gaunt, handsome 35-year-old sat atop an elephant, waving a rainbow flag, and rode through Kathmandu’s streets to the royal palace. Several years later, a US Embassy official accosted me at a cocktail party to discuss the stunt: “Do you know what he did? He rode a rainbow elephant right up to the king’s fucking gate! Who does that?”
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