Against a Peacock Sky by Monica Connell

4 out of 5 stars

The beauty of the country of Nepal high up on the rooftop of the world is a stark contrast to living there. It is a tough life at altitude and the tiny villages still eke out their existence. The traditions that have existed since time immemorial still hold their power, the modern world at that point had almost no influence on their continuation of life.

For an outsider trying to fit in is very difficult, but for someone used to the relative comforts of a Western lifestyle then this feels an even larger step away from civilisation. Monica Connell is an anthropologist and she wanted to visit a village there to complete the fieldwork section of her degree. She had taken language lessons, studied guide books, scrutinised maps on the area and drew up longs list of supplies to take. She chose the Jumula district as these people there, the matawali Chhetris had not been studied in any depth so this seemed an ideal choice.

The tiny Otter plane took her and Peter, a research assistant who was going to take photos of them, from Kathmandu to Jumla where they stayed for a few days. A village was suggested to them and they headed out to take a look at it. The walked into the village and we met by barking dogs and stares from the villagers. Invited up onto one of the roofs, she asked permission to stay for a period of time to learn about life there. After they had finished, they realised that they had left it too late to head back to Jumla. They sat under a tree deciding what to do, and two boys appeared saying that their father had invited them to stay for six months. The village of Talphi had selected them and this man, Kalchu would become a close friend.

To me all the cows looked similar – small and black all over although I did recognise that some had longer horns and a few had non at all. He looked at me and said he often wondered how I told my books apart. To him they looked the same.
We smiled, acknowledging the difference of our worlds.

It is an intense world that she has entered, life is hard in the village and the rich tapestry of life and death is a daily occurrence. She and Peter settle into a routine in the village, helping out the family that they are staying with, watching the villagers dancing for the festival of karati on the roof of a neighbours house, seeing the tiny symbolic gestures and rituals when the flocks to go on the move and helping out where possible with those that were ill. As the monsoon arrives, they observe them building a temporary bridge as they do every year. She marvels at the way the women collect the pine needles, gather then together somehow and carry the enormous loads back to the village.

Connell provides some real insight into daily life in this village. It is full of tiny details that help paint a picture of what life is like there, from the grime that surrounds them all the time, the bead of dew glistening on the grass at dawn, the villagers smoking a chillim and getting the harvest in. The village is maintaining its way of life, but the outside and modern world is chipping away at it little by little. Connell writing is sharp and clear, much like the rarefied atmosphere. She writes with compassion too, not seeking to judge the people for the things that they do, nor questioning the rituals that hold significance to them. Rather, she bonds with Kalchu and his family, helping with the activities and work, participating and sharing the happy and sad moments of daily life there.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    That sounds like a very well done and lightly stepping time spent and book written. I love reading about Nepal and will add this to my wishlist, although I am NOT going to go and look at the publisher’s website as all their books look wonderful, if you know what I mean!

    • Paul

      I have a review of another of her books coming out soon. I think that you should (, but only after you have hidden your credit card

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