A Walk Through the Tarai
— Pramod K. Mishra
That sharp, sunny winter morning, I was overseeing a roomful of examinees in Biratnagar as a junior guard. Those exams in the early eighties were cheat-fests; a veritable bazaar of friends and relatives gathered outside the hall to help examinees not yet adept in the art and science of cheating. And nobody could do anything about it. Everyone, including the Campus Chief made out to be doing their duty, like walking those serpentine miles around towns on national occasions in topi and daurasuruwal. As a junior faculty, newly arrived, driven out from the poverty and powerlessness of a Morang village and fled from the caste-terror of India, I had been assigned to guard these mostly town-bred college students, and my pride had swelled in my new-found public role. That morning, it fell on my shoulders to distribute answer books and questions, and ignore what the examinees were actually doing.
I had begun to learn doublespeak and adjust to the Nepali political way of doing things. At an earlier exam, soon after the killing and beating between student groups on campus in the name of the outlawed political parties, the Campus Chief had advised me: “Thoda time luge gaa. Adjust ho jaayiegaa, Mishraji–ghabaraiye mut.” Indeed, everywhere around me people were being practical and adjusting–government officials in the offices, businessmen in their dealings, teachers… and the students were also exercising the wisdom of the time–they were being practical in the exams. And I soon learned that those who failed, in spite of being practical, went to India and in three months or so brought their certificates. They were being eminently practical. So exercising my practicality, I had come out of the room and stood in the sun.
Soon the man who was called Observer came on his rounds. In white shirt, cream-colored slacks, and fine leather shoes, this personage had come from Kathmandu, sent to this important eastern town by the Exam Controller’s Office to ensure academic honesty in the exams. This was one of the rituals, like many other rituals that suffused life in Nepal during the Panchayat system.
In more than one way, Kathmandu, where I had never been, had a mysterious aura for me. And this man had come from Kathmandu and was a professor there, or so they whispered. I looked up to him, a learned man, a mushroom nose, buck teeth, puffed-up cheeks, wavy hair carefully covering a balding head–blessed with Saraswati seated on his tongue, as my father never failed to remind me about people with learning.
But it turned out that like many another functionary of the Panchayati state, he too pretended to be doing his duty. So he walked the rooms but saw nothing, and spent his time, like all of us, outside, chatting with senior guards, many his longtime friends and acquaintances. With only thirty-odd years’ of modern education, every educated person seemed to know everybody else, especially people with links with Kathmandu and established clans. My fellow guard, too, knew him, and he busied the Observer in small talk.
“How is Kathmandu these days?” my fellow guard asked. “It feels like ages since I last visited the Valley.”
“It’s getting worse. Too expensive; too much crowding. People from all over Nepal, and India, too, seem to be swarming into Kathmandu,” he said. His eyes seemed to light up when talking about Kathmandu. But soon it turned out that our esteemed Observer, like the migrants he complained about, had himself made his home in Kathmandu only after finishing university. He came from one of the eastern hill districts, and had land in the plains, which he called “kheti” or “kamat” and a house in Dharan.
“Are you planning to transfer to Dharan then?” my fellow guard asked, prolonging the small talk.
“Who, me? No. Dharan is no longer livable for the likes of us. I have to sell my property there. Since the British made their recruiting camp in Ghopa, it’s been filled with the lahures,” he said without rancor. To me, he sounded genuinely saddened and defeated by the turn of events in Dharan, something I wasn’t much cognizant of.
From a schoolfriend’s vivid accounts, I had once imagined Dharan as a dangerous town of Congressi and Communist college fighters, who seemed to imitate the action from the Bollywood silver screen in their street and college lives. But by the time I encountered the Observer, I had made a few trips to Dharan myself and found that Dharan had two main cultural sources. The old source of course was the Hindu aristocracy of the hills that had patterned themselves on the prevailing power structure of the Ranas. In the absence of widespread literacy and historical documentation, the hill aristocracy had no means of keeping the documented memory of their courtier past alive, but the new recognition by the modern state in the past thirty years had revived its powers and prestige which had only been subordinated to Ranas and royal Thakuris during the Rana regime, not actually eliminated. In the past thirty years, the first wave of the hill aristocracy had begun to acquire large tracts of new land in the rural areas in the plains. And many had built houses in Dharan. In the traditional power structure, this aristocracy exercised overwhelming influence in the region.
The other cultural source for Dharan formed a triangle with Hong Kong and Darjeeling. Hong Kong supplied pounds, a glimpse of the world beyond, which included Hong Kong capitalism and British cantonment culture but also, through glossy Chinese magazines, the Communist revolution in China. And Darjeeling, the remnants of the foreign glamour and confidence of the Raj, which included its many missionary schools, and the native subversiveness; its population considering itself, in many ways, free from the hangups of Nepali Brahminism and touched with the influences of the Bengali culture.
The Gurkha soldiers, the lucky among these hill tribals, after their retirement had built neat little concrete houses in Dharan. The unimaginative ugliness of conventional concrete buildings stood in sharp contrast to these new, multicolored houses, whose arched, brick-by-brick painted facades showed a willingness to put beauty on display rather than hide it like clan secrets. Though imitative of the outside world, they displayed ambition and aspiration that were quite foreign to their staid, jaded surroundings.
So I was a little surprised at our guest’s disappointment with the way Dharan had turned out over the years, for it matched neither with my school friends’ description of Hindi filmi personages and college fighters nor with my own experience.
“What do you think of Janakpur?” asked my fellow guard, adding that he had grown up in Janakpur.
“Yes, I went there last year as an Observer,” he said and then sucked his teeth in distaste. “Janakpur doesn’t look like Nepal at all; it looks like Bihar. There’s no Nepali culture left there,” he said with a still greater disappointment, as though Janakpur had ever had the kind of Nepali culture that our learned friend wanted.
Of course, I hadn’t yet gone to Janakpur, but its association with Bihar revealed a new meaning. For people who hadn’t gone to this mythical town knew it as the Videha kingdom of Rajarshi Janak, one of the most respected kings of his time, whenever that was. And, more than history, it was the four-part timeframe of the epic Ramayana in which the town lived in imagination. But the historical Janakpur, despite retaining its Maithili culture, had gone through centuries of political vicissitudes. Indeed, many hill dwellers, who acquired land in the area and settled in the early days, adopted the local way of life, so much so that many Brahmins among them even changed their exotic pahaadi names, such as Pokhrel, Paudel and Dahal, into generic names like Sharma or Upadhyay, readily recognizable in the cross- border culture of the region.
In Biratnagar, I had already had some heated arguments with Madhesi colleagues when they had complained about their second-class status in Nepal. I had begun to maintain my distance, and had all but quarrelled with a Tharu college teacher who had whispered that the Panchayat system deliberately fostered corruption so the “people from the hills” who worked as functionaries of the Nepali state would benefit from it. I had considered these lies–rumors spread to console oneself and one’s failures.
But now, that winter morning, supervising cheating in the exams, I came upon a new revelation. The nature of Nepali nationalism was beginning to unfold itself, a kind of nationalism I couldn’t find in any textbook. I had thought after my experiences while studying in India that Nepal would be different; that here I would escape from the viciousness of caste hatred, escape from the cruelty I had seen and reacted against. But how can one explain the slap on the steaming cheek of a rickshawala at earth-scorching noon in Patna by a light-skinned student-looking young man (I had seen this scene while walking to the Gandhi museum) and the abuse of the same in midtown Biratnagar by a college student, an activist of the underground Communist Party, whom I knew well?
In the village in Morang, I had grown up noticing the potential among the settlers and the local tribes, in spite of small quarrels, for peace and amity. But the towns, by virtue of their proximity to state power and its ideology, began to appear vicious. In touch with the unspoken power of the state, ethnic identities became more defined, demarcated, rigid, and what the academics call reified. The further up you went in the pyramid of the state power structure, the innocence, despite the hold of the Hindu scriptures and ethnic memories, that existed in the villages by virtue of human vicissitudes, began to melt. It was like a classical Hindu kingdom with all its caste structure and hierarchy intact, albeit complicated by the advent of modernity–ethnicity, nationalism, language politics, the effect of British rule in the neighboring India and India’s independence.
This man from Kathmandu was a hill high caste; his last name made it obvious. But he could have been a Congress, Communist or Panche supporter. He could have been to an overseas university and written his thesis about his nation, like many a caste-ist professor of the universities I had attended in India. He could have been anything or anyone, but his prejudices against both the tribals and the people of the plains were hardly different from a prejudiced lay settler from the hills. My father’s dictum that Saraswati, once ensconced on one’s tongue, purified one’s soul, began to lose its hold once confronted with reality. I remembered in those moments of despair a couplet by Kabir, the vernacular intellectual of fifteenth-century India, “Pothi padhi padhi jug muwa, pandit bhayaa na koi; dhai aakhar premka padhe su pandit hoye” (The world killed itself by reading books, but failed to become learned; but those who could read the two-and-a-half letters of ‘prem’ became good men of learning).
As long as a hill tribe man carried his backbreaking load and lived in grime and ignorance, he was not a threat, not a problem; but as soon as he went abroad and empowered himself after the sacrifice of staying away from his family for years and brought ideas and economic power to the country, he became a threat, made the town uninhabitable. Paternalism is fine; but equality unbearable. So taught the Observer.
From then on, I began to learn fast the nature of Nepali nationalism that the Panchayat system fostered, particularly in the towns. It was only now in this town of power politics in eastern Nepal that I began to understand the difference between the cultural prejudices among various communities in the villages, which arose from the scriptures and ethnic cultural memories, and their viciousness when the individual prejudices found their tacit confirmation and assurance in the corridors of state power.
In the characterization of difference between Dharan, Janakpur and Biratnagar seemed to lay the crux of Nepali nationalism, in which the Rajbanshis of my village figured nowhere. The lahures of Dharan, by virtue of their knowledge of the outside world and power of the Sterling Pound, meagre though it might have been, had transformed themselves from silenced load carriers into citizens with their own sense of competitive knowledge and lifestyles. The people of Biratnagar–traders from India and the hill high castes–had their own sources of political and economic power. Janakpur, by virtue of its cultural proximity to Bihar and its power plays, and by virtue of the powerful Hindu myth, had its own confidence and clout, even though it didn’t look like Nepal in my learned colleague’s estimation. But where were the Rajbanshis, many of whom, some my classmates, had become rickshaw pullers now? I asked myself. They were in the villages, to be sure; but villages were faceless, and the towns didn’t recognize them. They had no power, nor any clout. They had neither the resources of the lahures nor the confidence of the Janakpuris. After the abolition of the Zamindari system, which at least distributed power among a few tribal chiefs, the tribes in the plains were in a shambles. They had begun to lose land, the forests, and with these their bread and dignity.
The Panchayat system by its discriminatory structure ingrained in its high caste ideology not only dismantled the local, power structures and cultural networks, it beefed up the hill high castes with power in various forms, and subjugated and impoverished the tribes, all tribes, but especially the smaller tribes, such as the Rajbanshis, the Dhimals, the Kabash, and so on.
But this Observer, by virtue of his migratory history, ethnicity, education, and profession could have bridged the gap and become a mediator of the ethnic complexities in Nepal. He was a learned man, who had completed at least his masters in one of the social sciences. So he knew some theories, some world history, some comparative structures and principles. And as a college teacher in the Valley, he himself was in an alien land, in the heart of Newar culture. So he perhaps had some knowledge of what it means to know culturally different people with their own rich linguistic and cultural histories. He could reflect upon his condition, the state, and nationalism. Yet it seemed that people like him became educated only to serve the cause of prejudice in a more sophisticated fashion. The positive potential of all his experience seemed to have been nullified before the sweeping influence of the state ideology and prevailing mores, forming a vicious circle when it interacted with and reinforced the prejudices of the laity.
As long as people looked like him, spoke his language, had identity like his, they were fine. And if they didn’t look like him, then they were fine if they didn’t have power and comparative knowledge. But as soon they came to claim to be his equal, they became bad, dangerous, an incentive to move out.
“What do you think of Biratnagar?” my fellow guard asked.
“South of Tintolia, things are not so good. It’s too close to the border”, he said.
I now had begun to be skeptical of my father’s faith in Saraswati’s power to cleanse a person’s heart. Saraswati could complicate the whole picture for the worse. I began to wonder if Nepal–the Nepal of the towns and power structure–was filled with people like this learned man. In time, I would know more.
(P.Mishra grew up in the Tarai. This is a much condensed version of the 5th in his series of essays on prejudice that have appeared in The Nepal Digest on the internet).
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