Author: Michael Rose, recently awarded his PhD from ANU. He would be thrilled to hear about any postdoc, writing or teaching opportunities that you might have going. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can check out his latest publication here.
Dispatches from a breatharian December
One weird Christmas, long before my time at the Australian National University, I was living on a commune in Southern India when a small group of my fellow eco-pioneers arrived at the startling consensus that food was unnecessary for human survival. The place was part of Auroville (a ‘universal city in the making’, though in practice it seemed to be predominantly French), and using advanced meditation, sunshine, trace elements of fruit juice, a clique there believed you could free yourself from food and the degenerate consumerism that went along with it. Some people call this breatharianism or inedia, and although it sounds implausible to many, for believers it is anything but. The variation they were practising at Auroville when I was there also involved urophagia, and done right it could (they said) cure diseases like cancer and HIV too – a truth that the sinister cabals behind patent medicine and battery farmed eggs would stop at nothing to keep repressed. The group had meetings where everyone was very malnourished and serious together and talked about the danger they might be in. I wanted to say something about the long association of food with life, but not wanting to seem like a sleeper agent for big pharma, found ways to absent myself to the nearby road where I hung out with Indian truckers and gorged merrily on (pesticide laden) cold Pepsi and cheap cake.
Mostly people snicker when I tell them this (‘hippies!’), but to a dedicated few at Auroville that December the idea that eating was not a biological imperative but an addiction fostered quite deliberately by shadowy puppet masters was an unquestionable truth, the denial of which was tantamount to madness. I honestly had questions about whether giving up eating rice and taking up drinking urine was a really a good life choice, but then, fitting in has never been my thing. The odd thing, though, in retrospect, is that none of them died, which is something that can happen if you stop eating. Their survival is significant because it suggested how, although you wouldn’t have known it from a short visit when they would hit visitors with their shtick about mendacious seed corporations or the guy in Europe who claimed not to have had a bowel movement in years, or why the kids from the neighbouring Tamil Village couldn’t play cricket on their land because cricket was a ‘war sport’, they were in the business of pragmatic compromise as well as performative idealism. In the end, they (like most people) needed to physically survive and not be cut completely adrift from the wider world. Fruit juice gave way to fruit, they came to tolerate the presence of cricket, and I personally believe one or two of them snuck off for a beer and a lamb burger. The practice of a group that was perceived by (and often promoted to) outsiders as a meme laden with all sorts of hackneyed and potential fatal extremisms (‘hippies!’) was far more flexible than was initially apparent.
To me at least there wasn’t any great trick to seeing this. Being there seemed important- physical immersion over time could be a way of decoupling from familiar comforts and coping mechanisms that might otherwise get in the way of knowing something new. Explaining it was another story, mostly because people back home were, by and large, not interested. They already knew all about ‘hippies’, and I found the way they were so often almost deaf to anything that challenged conventional wisdom to be actually pretty fascinating. Beyond the fruit juice and urine drinking faction, the defining feature of life for most in my part of Auroville was that using any sort of intoxicating substance was strictly forbidden. Most of all this included marijuana and alcohol, but it also extended to caffeine, refined sugar and even chilli, which they believed could get in the way of their search for inner peace by making them libidinous and short tempered. When I told them this people tended to look at each other knowingly and chortle with each other about how stoned we must have been all the time. Maybe I was still stoned, which would explain why I was telling them a story about ‘hippies’ that didn’t smoke. I tried to write, not with any success – but with the notion that good storytelling might be a way of presenting to people close to home whatever insights I might have gained by living far away persisted. Seven or eight years later I found myself signing for a PhD in anthropology.
Some thoughts on the curse of the bird
This was how my notebook and I found ourselves in ‘the bit of West Timor that is technically East Timor’ (Oecussi), and spending a day a week in a place called Fatu Lekot. It was a hamlet of twisting dirt tracks on the side of a goat gnawed hill between the mountains and the valley of the river Ekat – swidden gardens and sacred rocks above, rice paddies, and the broad river rippling over the pebbles below. The name meant good rock, although I thought of it as ‘the one where the Luis’ kid caught the curse of the bird’ (bun kolo).
Luis, my main contact there, was a thin man in his late 20s and a volunteer teacher at the high school down in the town. He had dreams of making it in the outside world, and I think one of the reasons he was so generous with his time was because I represented a glimpse of it. The heat and stillness of afternoon there was fierce and he really suffered in it, whiling away the hours lying on the sleeping platform while filling cheap exercise books with Frank Frazetta-esque eagles (his clan totem) and crucifixes and tapping out philosophical screeds on Facebook through his phone. A gentle fellow, he told me his neighbours said he was irresponsible because he really didn’t like to hit his kids, which they thought was raising them without respect for their elders. Indeed, his eldest did seem a bit out of hand. The stout four-year-old was always interrupting our talks to demand Luis pull out his phone and play a music clip consisting entirely of remixed rooster noises (Familiar Stranger Ian Pollock dubbed this ‘cocka doodle dub step), which became the defacto soundtrack of my fieldwork.
Luis’ younger brother was much less outgoing. He was fragile boy of maybe three who understandably preferred to shelter behind his Grandfather legs whenever I appeared. Grandpa was an old style mountain man (atoin nuaf), who always dressed in a sarong and only spoke the language of the hills. He had spent his whole life slashing and burning and planting and harvesting on the rocky slopes above the river, and I always thought it was really something to see their paths crossing in time, the man born into a world without electricity, and the child who, if he lived, would see one where artificial intelligence and an internet of things would likely become ubiquitous and change everything. I say if he lived because it wasn’t long after I arrived that the child was stricken with the curse of the bird.
Bun kolo (they told me) is a disease that occurs in infants and children and is characterised by a high-fever, bloody diarrhoea and frequent seizures. For a medical doctor it would almost certainly be seen as some form of dysentery, probably caused by water contaminated with human faecal matter. It can go on for days. Sometimes the child will fit itself to death. Sometimes they end up with brain damage. The name of the disease name comes from its cause: if, when an infant is laid to sleep on their back at night, a type of wild bird flies over the top of them while calling into the dark (‘koa koa, koa’), then the child might become ill. The boy had already been sick for a week when I rode up to see them, and when I arrived he wasn’t fitting or shyly clinging onto his grandfather’s sarong but prone on the sleeping platform (hale). When we went to check in on him, even in the stifling hut, I thought I could feel the heat radiating off him. Luis and I stood there and listened to the wet noise of him struggling to breathe through the mucus clogging up his nose and throat.
‘And when we heard the call of the night bird’, Luis said speaking of the night he became sick, ‘koa, koa, koa, we were all very frightened’.
I came back a few times over the next week. I found a few expensive bottles of Australian fruit juice in the Chinese store in the town and carted it up there like it might make a difference, and wished I was training to be the sort of doctor who could help. There was a health post in the valley below where they got medicine, but no explanation to what caused the child’s illness that they were able to pass on to me. There was also, in a hamlet further up the mountains, an old man known for being able to cure such illness. While Luis didn’t know why night birds gave babies fever he (and only he, it was a secret not just given out to anyone) did. The first thing he told them was to ditch the pills, as only then could he go to work applying his own treatment,consisting of Catholic prayers and paste made of boiled banyan leaves. The fever broke a day or two later. The old man asked for $200. The child lived. Later I heard Luis was talking about sinking a new well.
Watching long, writing well – why storytelling should matter to ethnographers
After fieldwork I hitchhiked over the border and followed the winding roads all the way down to the capital, where even more emaciated and wild eyed than usual, I fell into conversation with a bunch of Australian medical types in a bar by the port. Above the din of the monsoon on the tin and the whine of mosquitoes the doctors, who had just come from a week of restoring sight in the hills, politely listened to my tales of vengeful spirits and cursed birds (I hadn’t had a really cold beer or a chance to speak English in a while), but I got the sense it was out of politeness and curiosity. ‘Interesting’, said one. But I suspect another who didn’t hold her Bintang Pilsner as well was being more honest, when she admitted, ‘yeah, but you’re messed up with all that superstitious stuff.’ Faulting people who can cure the blind is complicated, but her basic view that people of highland Timor (and those who took them seriously) were somehow beyond reason was depressingly typical. They were ‘poor but happy’, or else in abject misery and need of being rescued from famine or war, both archetypes dating back to colonial times.
To me, fieldwork had suggested something different and far more prosaic, that my highland informants were (like everyone else) were just trying to along by drawing on the tools at hand, which in this case happened to include (along with a lot of other things) a set of customary explanations for what caused illness. Written up in an article or a blog post, such explanations might seem strange, although they are really just unfamiliar, and the important thing about them (far more so than their clinical efficacy, or lack of it) is that they are ideas and myths in motion – moulded and mixed by people to meet their needs in a rapidly changing world.
Nowadays, as the owner of a PhD in anthropology, the question of how to express this seems more important than ever – maybe essential to the task of writing the world in a way that goes beyond simplistic memes and potentially divisive preconceived assumptions. There are things that need explaining. As the doctors in Dili pointed out, from a clinical point of view there is no evidence that infants can get dysentery from birds flying overhead at night. I didn’t discuss it with them, but I suspect their medical opinion would have also been that you cannot live on urine, fruit juice and sunshine. What such perspectives miss though, and the point I tried to make as I drank with them on the waterfront, is that the unfamiliar (and, to them, outlandish) beliefs that they were so willing to dismiss were only elements in larger and essentially universal stories about the fulfilment of basic needs and the ties that bind people together.
Observed closely, told as part of a compelling narrative rather than a punch line or piece of exotica, nothing is as strange as it seems at first. Ethnography has the potential to make a difference because it is ethnographers who are best equipped to collect and tell tales that mitigate this sense of strangeness, and the sometimes harmful sense of otherness that it can enable – to keep looking for long enough to see that those who talk about the curse of the bird will also visit the clinic (people hedge), and how it is that in Auroville even urophagia is taken with a life saving grain of salt. Anthropology has things to say that can make a difference, whether or not it does hinges on whether we can be make it possible for people to listen.
[Image by Michael Rose]