First published in Mountain Bound.
The sun touched the crowns of the pine trees when Chandra returned to his village. It was Spring, the skies were clear. In the distance the snow-capped Himalaya shone like queens. It was half past eight, time for the Brahmin priest to wind up the daily rituals in the temple, a simple whitewashed structure containing a few holy stones representing Shiva. Most of the women were busy collecting water and preparing food. A few children were already on their way to school, some dressed in a neat uniform, others in tattered blue clothes, saved by numerous rounds of stitching. The headmaster opened the school gates and was about to enter the teachers’ office when he paused. From below, from the steep valley embracing the mighty Kali Gandaki River, three gunshots roared.
At a quarter to nine, a group of four men dressed in short pants entered the village. “Maobadis,” the villagers whispered, and moved back in the shadows beneath their porches. The men did not speak and went straight up to what was once Chandra’s house. “Where is Chandra’s wife?” they yelled at Laxmi, Chandra’s oldest sister and Nila, his sister in law. The women looked up in bewilderment. “We haven’t seen Chandra in four years, and have met his wife only once, just after he got married,” they said. One of the men got hold of Nila’s long hair and pulled her down the floor. “You liar!” he shouted, and kicked her in the face with his boot. “Don’t touch her”, Laxmi shouted, “she is only an in-law!” The other men grabbed her and started to kick Laxmi in the stomach. “Come and have a look at your brother; we brought him and you’ll be happy to see him,” they said, and pushed the women towards the trail meandering above the village.
From the ridge the women noticed a bundle of arms, legs, and a colourful shirt. A few students were watching, silent with disbelief. “Come, let’s meet him. He hasn’t eaten for four days and needs your food,” the men said, pushing the women forward. Nila started to cry. “Let us see how happy you are now that your bloody Maoist brother is dead”, the men shouted, “you should be laughing instead of crying.”
One of them walked back to the village and ordered a local teacher to get four village leaders to come and help. While the women were made to sign a document, saying Chandra was killed in an armed encounter, the teacher called the village priest and three others. The men hid their emotions well when they were ordered to carry the body to a crevice in between boulders and throw it in there. “Cover him with stones,” the men urged, and so they did. Just after 10 am, one and half hour after Chandra returned to his village, the burial was over and the men had left. The women, at last, broke down.
Chandra’s village is picture perfect to any outsider. This is the Nepal which has been portrayed as Shangri-la, the hidden paradise, ever since James Hilton published his classic Lost Horizons and tourism developed as an industry in the 70s. Positioned right above the Kali Gandaki River which cuts through central Nepal, surrounded by fresh pine trees and creased green-grey hills, it fits all the stereotypes. One imagines how the simple red mud houses, the well tended fields, the common water taps, the neat village school and the tiny Hindu temple overlooking it all form the home of some happy natives, living a hard but joyful life. But stay a little longer, and a different picture emerges.
The trail which travels through the village cruelly cuts the community into two. At the upper end one finds high caste Brahmin and Chhetris. Below live the Kamis, the untouchable blacksmiths. In the past Kamis used to be painfully poor, dependent on high caste neighbours for lowly paid labour and loans, and for letter writing and access to government officials.
Nowadays, even though they possess more livestock – buffaloes for milk and cows for ploughing- the Brahmins and Chettris no longer are better off. Almost all young Kami men have migrated, to India or further away to the Middle East or Malaysia, where they take care of what are known as 3D jobs: Difficult, Dirty and Dangerous. The men forward money home regularly, enabling their families to send the children to school and to supplement insufficient food stocks. What is more, the money allow the Kamis a small degree of luxury: a radio, a tin roof, a new set of clothes during festival time, comforts which not all Brahmins and Chettris can afford.
Economically there might be a certain degree of equality nowadays, but social divisions tend to remain as rigid as they were in the past. Kami children generally do not perform well in school, as after school hours they need to help their mothers in the house and on the fields. Low castes are not allowed to enter the temple, and not a single Kami has managed to get a government job. All teachers at the local school are high caste. The small group of boys and men who have joined the rebel army all belong to Kami families. If there is one thing all villagers, low and high caste both, agree on, it is this: in Nepal there are thulo manche and sano manche, high and low people, and changing that takes more than a tin roof or a silk sari.
Two weeks after Chandra’s death, most of the villagers look away when his name is mentioned. His oldest brother, well in his fifties, developed a heart problem and can be seen at the health clinic a lot these days. Laxmi and Nila, surrounded by ducks and dust covered children, hide their heads when asked to recount the event. Laxmi has not been able to sleep well, partly because the bruises caused by the beatings are not yet healed. “Every time I talk about it I develop this headache,” says Nila. She has not been able to inform her husband, a migrant labourer, about his brother’s death, not even when he called last week. “He’s got many problems of his own; the news would only increase his worry. Let him find out later.”
The army regularly visits the village, sometimes beating up family members from alleged Maoists, emptying houses to find photos, letters, documents. ‘We can’t even show you our brother’s pictures,” Nila says, “we burned them the day he died.” All that is left of Chandra are sketchy memories and rumours, like unploughed patches of rice field during monsoon.
Chandra was 27 when he was shot by security forces, who posed as Maoists. They met him a day earlier, when he was taking a morning walk. The men introduced themselves as comrades. Chandra, rumours have it, believed them. When the men suggested to travel to his village in order to meet the cadres there, Chandra packed a small bag and joined them. They drove to the hills and early next morning left for the village.
Chandra was a latecomer in the rebel army. While the majority of believers join the Maoists as teenagers, or when studying in college, Chandra only took up the cause when he was 23. Up to then he had very different dreams.
When Chandra was five his mother died after falling ill. At ten, he nursed his father on his deathbed. Relatives discussed who should take care of the boy, and he ended up living with one of his married sisters. “He had no money to buy slippers and always went barefoot,” recalls Rajendra, his childhood friend. “His family could not afford to buy a school uniform, but he managed to buy some cloth and sew the uniform by hand.” Up to class four, Chandra topped the class. Then Rajendra took over and became number one.
Chandra was loved by his classmates. “In the twenty five years I’ve know him I never saw him angry. He had a passionate nature, but would always convey his thoughts in a gentle manner,” remembers Rajendra. In grade five Chandra decided to move to town and work his way through secondary school. He sold newspapers and took up the job of his ancestors: goldsmithing. He enrolled in campus and graduated in English and Sociology. “Whenever I met Chandra he would say he either wanted to be a teacher or a singer”, recounts Rajendra.
But the odds were against him. Chandra was perhaps a graduate but still untouchable according to the mores in the district headquarters. While his friend Rajendra, son of a pious Brahmin, was appointed as the English teacher at the local secondary school, Chandra remained without a job. He changed his plans: he now wanted to go to the Middle East to work as a labourer, and make some money. He approached family members and friends to help him collect money for a ticket and a placement, but failed to raise sufficient funds. “The next thing I heard was he had joined the Maoists,” recalls Rajendra.
In Spring, in the afternoons, the weather in this narrow valley suddenly changes. A strong, dusty wind sweeps across the hills, causing doors to rattle and children to run inside for safety. Chaithuri, locals call it, the winds of Chait, the last month of the Nepali year. These days armed men appear in the village like Chaithuri. At night the rebels, some of them strangers, some relatives, knock on the door. Dressed in fatigues, carrying country-made guns, they demand food, shelter. At times they cover the walls of the school with revolutionary slogans: ‘Away with the Army!’, ‘Let’s close the country during bandh!’ Few people have the courage to refuse the rebels’ demands. They have heard too many stories of cruel retaliations to dare to differ.
But the army always seems to be watching. It does not take long before the soldiers, wearing similar fatigues, but with Enfield .303 rifles arrive. Almost anyone who crosses their path is accused of being a Maoist sympathiser, interrogated and beaten up. “Here we are caught between the Maobadis and Sena, the army,” says one of Laxmi’s neighbours. “Anytime anything can happen to us. We’re always nervous, we’re always tired.” The headmaster these days makes sure he reaches the school early, so he can whitewash the walls before the army arrives.
The language in the village has changed too. Children, without much emotional expression, explain what kinds of bombs the Maobadis use. “There’s balti bomb, which is put in a plastic bucket, and there’s kamala bomb, which is hidden in a flowerpot. But in this region Maobadis use mostly pressure cooker bomb and gangri bomb, kept in a water vessel,” tells a student of class six. The gangri bombs have created problems for the local Kami community. The traditional work of the blacksmiths here is making brass gangri, sold in the bazaar for 1200 to 2500 rupees each, depending on the quality. It is the only source of income for the few men who have not been able to find work elsewhere.
Hari is eighteen and like the majority of students in Nepal failed his School Leaving Certificate, known as the ‘iron gate’. There was no other option for him than joining his uncle in the smithy and learn the craft of his forefathers. Today his face, blackened by smoke and dust, can hardly be made out against the darkened walls. “Last week the army accused us of helping the maobadis to make gangri bombs,” he says, “we continue the work but have no idea if we’ll be able to carry them down to the bazaar. If we meet the army on the way, we’re finished.”
The women face different, but no smaller problems. With most of the men working elsewhere and too scared to return for holidays, they are left to tend the fields and take care of children and elders by themselves. The workload can be overwhelming. Water needs to be fetched from the public tap, fodder and fuel wood collected from the forest, fields prepared and tended by hand. After some were beaten up by the army, most women no longer visit the jungle. Nila: “It doesn’t matter what you say or not say to them. If you keep quiet, they kick you, if you open your mouth, they beat you up. According to them we like the Maobadis, because of our boys have joined the rebels, and we’re unable to convince them that we’re just women, wanting to live in peace.”
The son of one of Chandra’s neighbours joined the Maoists when he was thirteen. “He had always been a strange child, always running off to here and there,” his mother Saraswati recalls. “I got into the habit of tracing him and bringing him back to school.” However, this time his mother can no longer find her son. For the past three years she received no letters, no phone calls. He visited once, when she was fetching water, and met with the two younger children. He left no message for his mother. Since then the army regularly comes to her house, making a mess, asking her over and over again: ‘Where is your son? Where did he go?”
Saraswati no longer cares. Her face hardens when she talks about her oldest son. “My love for him died when he joined the maobadis. What son would do that to his mother?” Saraswati has problems managing the homestead and the care of her two young children, one of whom is often sick. “My greatest fear that one day he will come and take his youngest brother to the jungle. Then I’ll be left all myself with my daughter.” And what if her son dies in an encounter with the army or police? For a long time Saraswati remains silent. “If he comes back I won’t be able to face him,” she says, at last. “I’ll be mad with anger.”
Night starts early in the village these days. By half past six the Kami families move inside the house. All windows are closed, and no lights can be seen. Even though two months ago the village got its long awaited connection to the national grid and every house has at least one light bulb, the evening is spend with candles or kerosene lamps.
The upper, less fearful side of the village continues to be alive for another one or two hours. Brahmin farmers discuss today’s milk prizes and the last radio news bulletin on their porches. They switch their lights off much later, after the buffaloes and goats have been fed, and the children have completed their homework.
Rajendra, the high caste teacher, watches the scene from the temple, overlooking the village. “These days I feel disgust when I think of my society,” he says, squatted on a rock. “Our leaders never ask themselves why people like Chandra become Maoists and how we can solve the problems of the neglected people.” Turning around, he stares at the spot where his friend was buried. “On the day Chandra was shot, I felt as if I died myself. When we were young the two of us had similar dreams. Now he is dead, while I am alive, with a good job. I do not like the Maoists at all, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t love hím.” For a moment Rajendra is quiet. Then, softer: “People change all the time; he later might have changed his political views. Chandra could have been a leader and done something great for the country.”
Walking the trail towards the village, Chandra must have looked up at the mud houses, huddled together like sleeping dogs. His eyes must have trailed along the ridge, from the recently renovated temple, moving past children skipping along stone walls, to the flowering fruit trees surrounding his ancestral home. He must have noticed the freshly ploughed fields, rich golden brown, waiting for new life.