The Story of the Nepali Plains
The Story of the Nepali Plains
— Pramod K. Mishra
Ever since I gained awareness of my surroundings as a child in a Rajbanshi tribe in the hinterland of Morang, an eastern plains district in Nepal, I knew two things. One, that there was Desh somewhere in the south, where my mother and I couldn’t go, and there was Morang in whose jungles we lived; and, two, that I was an abominable nothing, not a Deshwali Pannit like my father, who spent much time in his Desh; nor one of the hill men, a few among whom lived in scattered wooden houses in the clearings of the jungle as farmers and repaired to their hills at the onset of dust, heat, and malaria.
It was only later I knew that I was not even a Rajbanshi, either, one of whose courtyards we lived in and whose language I spoke, and a few among whom had become my mother’s mother, brothers, and uncle by faith and so mine as well. Nor was I like any other Deshi who set up “kirana” stores or worked as fishermen, carpenters, barbers, and seasonal workers, such as planters, weeders, jute washers, and harvesters. A few literate among the petty traders had become our masters at what later became the village school named after the then Crown Prince of Nepal.
When I walked through the village bazaar in my bow legs to go to or come from school, the women of these Deshi fishermen and carpenters pointed their accusing fingers at me and whispered and gestured among themselves about some unspeakable social affliction I was said to have been born with. For some unspeakable reason, I was considered unspeakably worse than everyone around me; the nature of my predicament such that it could only be whispered about and expressed in gestures.
But Autumn Moon, the club-footed, knock-kneed boy, himself a laughing stock among the village children for his limp, openly called me names and made me mad. And because he was physically weaker than I, I very often kicked, pushed, and thrashed him for insulting me. My thrashing, however, had no long-term effect on his filthy mouth. But the precise nature of my affliction I didn’t know at the time–neither did I have the courage nor the wherewithal to investigate it. As for knowing the “nothing” part of my being, there was nothing to know about nothing.
I was just a grimy, snotty, bow-legged ugly little boy with no claim on anything–no language, no culture, no religion, no family, no house, nothing. I had already spent time by then as an untouchable urchin in the cell of a police station along side other adult criminals near Calcutta. So in this unspeakable vacuum of nothingness in the Nepali jungle, I became curious about others who had something and were somebody.
Only much later, when I became a college teacher in Biratnagar, did I know that the Rajbanshis, the Dhimals, the Tharus, the Gangais, the Satars, the Khabas–the tribes in the Nepali plains–were not the only inhabitants of the Terai. Although I had met in later years a teacher or two among these non-tribal Madhesis at the village school whose alumnus I was, I didn’t know them well. It was only in this college in Biratnagar that I knew the plains dwellers from mostly the Maithili-speaking districts of Saptari, Mohottari, Dhanusha, Siraha, and so on, who were derisively called Madise by the dominant hill dwellers.
These college teachers were not the tribesmen. Far from it. They came from the same castes and languages as people from the other side of the border, people I had met and lived with in my college days on the banks of the Ganges. These people came from all castes and taught more than one subject. There were high castes and low; some taught the humanities and social sciences, some the sciences (Later I found out that at one time at Trichandra college, Kathmandu, different men with their last names as Jha taught Sanskrit, Newari, Nepali, English at the same time, and had there been Hindi and Maithili as subjects, I have no doubt that these would have been taught by other Jhas, as they did on the banks of the Ganges).
The Brahmans among these were more fierce, more aware of their social and political status. These people felt caught in the web of Nepali politics of de facto discrimination against the inhabitants of the Terai. They resented being called Madise, definitely a pejorative term when pronounced with a twist of the tongue and bitterness, ethnic malice and hatred in one’s mouth by a hill person. These plain dwellers preferred to call themselves Madhesi, as though the “h” instead of nothing and ‘i” instead of “e” made hell of a lot of difference, changed their political and cultural status. Indeed, I, too, felt that the word “Madise” carried in it a pejorative connotation, like nigger, kike, or faggot for certain groups in the United States, because it was used by the dominant people, the Nepali-speaking people of the hills, to hurt the Madhesis and look down upon them. These people from the hills, by virtue of their caste and language status and link with Kathmandu’s power establishment, wielded unsaid political and cultural power–the country seemed to belong to them alone. Because “Madise” was a term given to the plain dwellers by those who discriminated against them and generally didn’t like them, these Brahman Madhesi college teachers hated that term. They were the ones among the Terai people who resented their dominated position the most. So they clung to their caste status more fiercely and volubly.
On the other side of the border, their position would be as respectable as the position of any dominant group in any culture; but in Nepal, they were lumped together with the rest of the plain dwellers–with the lower castes and tribes. They couldn’t distinguish themselves and evince their comparable, no, even loftier lineage to others. Some of them were mad that they couldn’t explain their superiority by virtue of their birth and marriage genealogies that dated back to the seventh century, a tradition begun to maintain caste purity and prevent contamination (it would be interesting to investigate the historical reasons for the origin of these family genealogies). At marriage time, since the seventh century, any member of the Brahman caste had to go to a registrar called Panjikar to see if the groom’s both parents and the bride’s both parents had impeccable blood, pure and unadulterated, in the caste. Only after the verification of purity down the lineage line could marriage be fixed and consummated.
But these Madhesi Brahmans were hard put to explain the superiority of their blood and language to the Nepali-speaking folks, who knew no other kind of superiority but their own. Indeed, all the Madhesis were looked down upon, as though they didn’t deserve treatment as respectable human beings. Culturally, this was more true in areas where the hill population outnumbered the Terai population, such as Biratnagar, but in western districts, where the ancient settlements of these Madhesis outnumbered the recent hill population, the old Birtawala and other hill folks had adopted the linguistic habits and dress codes of the respectable Madhesis. That’s why, when you heard them speaking Nepali, their accent was like that of any Maithili-speaking Madhesi. In addition, they wore dhoti and kurta, and a “gamcha” lazily hung on their shoulders. Not only that, their teeth looked as black and rotten, their mouth as red and bulging as that of any paan-eating Madhesi gentleman of means. Nonetheless, politically, by virtue of their affiliation and identification with the dominant ideology of the Nepali state, they carried more political and cutural clout.
Despite their cultural position as dominated people, they did get some positions of power in the Panchayati state, these high caste Madhesis–Bhumihar, Rajput, and Kayastha completing the high caste quatrain. A few among them became zonal commissioners, one or two ambassadors, one or two in the courts and the palace and the Panchayat cabinet. These were token appointments, and the appointees carefully guarded their position and status and followed the rituals of power and position with more than usual zeal. Because these Terai high caste people had their own traditions that emphasized education and power, they were educated, but instead of becoming power-wielding officials with a revolving chair and a mighty pen that wrote signature and turned the fates of men and society and their future, majority of these plain dwellers became teachers and technicians–health assistants, teachers from college down to primary schools, quite a few even doctors and engineers and overseers. But they could never become Royal Army officers, hardly any police officials, and few civil servants.
But, truth be told, because of their caste consciousness and cultural affiliation across the borders in India, these Madhesis, too, like the hill folks against them, were deeply prejudiced against the hill folks, especially against those who were poor and came from non-high caste hill backgrounds. (But I must say that when they found the hill men mistreated on the south side of the border in the buses, trains, and on railway platforms, these Madhesis defended their countrymen from insult and assault). For example, they considered even the hill men of high castes relatively less civilized by virtue of the latter’s long abode in the hills, where traces of civilization and sophistication–in matters of bath, toilet habits, cuisine, caste rigidity, tradition of music and literature–were few and far between. And because marriage system even among the hill high castes is a little flexible, because widows could traditionally remarry if they couldn’t live as widows and had guts to find a man who could run away with them; and a married woman, if unhappy in her marriage, could elope with another man, their ways were considered not so sanctified–and so inferior. Furthermore, there is a tradition of becoming a hybrid caste for the progenies of permissible intercaste unions among the hill dwellers in Nepal. The more rigid and orthodox you could be, the more stubborn your belief system, the more superior your status among both hill and Madhesi castes. In a nutshell, you can say overall that these Madhesi high castes were more conservative in caste matters than the hill high castes, and they were immensely proud of it. And it’s one of these Madhesi Brahmans who once told me, “I would rather be dead as a Brahman than live as any one else.” And he was a PhD in English and a nice, soft-spoken man.
Most of the lower caste Madhesis followed the examples of their high caste fellow Madhesis. They obeyed caste rules, followed the cultural mores of their castemen on either side of the border, carried an ambivalent attitude toward the Nepali state because of the rampant discrimination against them in social, political, and cultural matters. And because of the vast ocean called India lies on the south side of the border, they get a whiff of the dominant wind from the other side and become complacent and proud. Alas, only if they knew the treatment their fellow lower castes receive on the south side of the border–these proud ignorant fellow Madhesis!
In the latter half of the eighties, when the Panchayat system seemed as firmly ensconced as the Himalayas, when one by one the university teachers, lured by gains and frustrated by delay in change, were being inducted into the corrupt and corrupting system, and when we lost the major executive positions even in the Nepal University Teachers’ Association one year to the system, in the latter half of the eighties, in a casual conversation with us one of the leading and respected democrat intellectuals wondered while sitting on the grassy ground on the eastern side of Rani Pokhari in Kathmandu, “What has happened to our people in Nepal? Even our people in the Terai are doing nothing under such oppressive, despairing conditions. We know the volatility of people on the other side of the border when Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency and suspended the Indian constitution, but on our side the same people have lain docile and dead, no fire, no energy, nothing.” Who could understand what he was saying better than I? In my college days I had known first-hand the agitation of the people on the other side of the border during the Emergency.
The same evening, I went to the staff room and raised this question to my colleagues. One of them, a Tirhute Bahun whose ancestors had been brought to the Valley from the Mithila region in the times of the Malla kings, said, “Da Terai is dead. Dere’s nothin happenin dere. Nobody knows dere how to pronounce a Sanskrit line anymore.”
Was the Terai dead? Was the Madhesi culture dead? Was the tradition established by the Maithili culture dead? Where have you gone Yajnaavalkya, Gargi, Maitreyi, Sita–the ancient Madises and Madesinis? Where have you gone Siddhartha the Madise? one felt like asking. Of course, one could ask only silent questions then.
The culture of Mithila goes back to the times of the Vedas, in which the region is called Videha, because of King Janak of Janakpur, who, too, was called Videha, a saint in the garb of a householder, whose famous daughter, Sita (who is also called Vaidehi), became the heroine of Valmiki’s “Ramayana.” In the ninth century, on the other side of the border, the First Sankaracharya, in his sub-continental crusade to reestablish the dominance of Hinduism and wipe out Buddhism, had encountered a householder named Mandan in a little village. Shankar had heard about this simple villager’s scholarship. With Mandan, Shankar debated for several days, at the end of which the formidable Shankar triumphed. But then a strange thing happened. The wife of the householder, privy all this time to the scholarly exchange from behind the door, came out and challenged the celibate Shankar into an intellectual duel. They went through the whole gamut of shastras, but Shankar remained unfazed. So Bharati, for that was her name, lured the celibate into the uncanny realm of sexology. Shankar was dumbstruck by the woman’s discourse on human sexuality. Having known no woman other than his mother, he knew nothing about it. So he conceded defeat and vowed to return after having mastered the formidable “Kok Shastra.” He had died young, and I’m not sure if he obtained the forebidden knowledge or died obtaining it.
Just the other day here in North Carolina, while browsing through the CD’s in a local CD store, I stumbled upon Vidyapati’s name. The writing on the front cover of the CD was in French–“Chants d’amour de Vidyapati” (Love songs of Vidyapati) and the titles of the songs, too, were in French and German; it was produced by Radio France. For a moment, I couldn’t believe my eyes! Then I thought, maybe Vidyapati’s songs had been translated in French and rendered into melody. I asked the manager if I could listen to the CD just in case. He said, sure. So I listened. I was dumbfounded at the original songs, the same Maithili songs I had sung and read and had happily memorized like many a Bengali, Nepali, Urdu, Bhojpuri, Sanskrit, Hindi, Rajbanshi song and poem. Vidyapati had composed those songs in the 14th century in India, but also in Nepali Madhesh. And these songs warm the hearts of millions everywhere they were sung, far beyond the regions in which they had originated six centuries ago.
For the first time perhaps anywhere, Vidyapati’s songs had legitimized, from a woman’s perspective, the rights of women to their sexuality and made women the subjects and agents in erotic acts and expressions rather than just objects of male gaze and lust. In one of his songs, not included in the CD, he makes a woman lament her unequal marriage to a child groom, “Piyaa mora baalak, hum taruni he, kaun tuup chukli bheli janani he . . . .” (My husband is a child but I’m a young woman. What virtue I didn’t earn in my past life that I was born a woman.” And I know for a fact that in the villages of Mithila, there’s still a tradition of writing poems and lyrics, learning classical music, intricately painting the mud walls and courtyards, and pursuing knowledge for its own sake. So why is the culture of the Madhes dead?
Now I think that maybe you need a palace, a kingdom of your own, or a clear acceptance and recognition of your rights and culture in order to be culturally and intellectually alive. If one doesn’t have a palace, how can one leave it or not leave it–either way creating a sensation and feeling the weight of both leaving it or living in it? You need a rightful share in the political power and you need legitimacy of your culture–your language, dress, way of life, including paan- chewing–in order to awaken to selfhood, knowledge and excellence. But every little culture, every little language group cannot have a kingdom of its own in order to realize its full excellence; the world would be full of kingdoms and their wasteful kings. Nonetheless, in many parts of the world, war rages on in order to have a kingdom in the absence of honest legitimation to diverse cultures and languages within any political borders of nation-states.
Or, more importantly, the caste system has proved to be the undoing of the Terai. The non-tribal Madhesis are too engrossed in their castes and clans to think of anything else as the arbiters of their sense of self and cultural capital. Maybe it’s true that they have nothing more to offer than the rotten leaves of the Panjikars’ family geneologies. Once you belong inflexibly to a caste, you receive a certain degree of ready recognition and respect, which is not going to go away. The deadened caste rituals of birth, initiation, marriage, and death replace the need to be in perpetual search for excellence in all human endeavors. The need to be perpetually alert gives way to the comfort of an unavoidable caste complacency. So the only risk you need be aware of and against which you need to build fortifications is the loss of your caste, like my Brahman colleague; and once that’s secure, then the other thing you need do is look for a way to earn your living to feed yourself and your family and follow the rituals. And in an effort to earn a living, no matter what kind of crimes you commit and corruption indulge in, there’s nothing to be ashamed of and worry about, because your ever-stable caste is your conscience-keeper and morale booster, always at your rescue from birth to death. As long as you have the security of caste, you have no need to worry about anything else, any fall. And when the insecurity and humiliation of political dispossession combine with the stifling security of caste identity, the result is a death-blow to all vitality and creativity in the culture. Survival of the body and maintenance of its purity become the only mantra worth chanting, sleep or awake.
And in all this the Brahmanic ideology has been the one prime instrument of destruction and decay. If a culture or a language becomes the sacred preserve of one narrow group of people, stagnation and rot set in. The suffocating confines of religious codes create a stale pool of ideas and talent, blocking new talents from cropping up from unexpected quarters. All human creativity is reduced to the level of rituals in such a situation by those who think the culture is their paternal property. And the Brahmans are the ones who are most trapped in the Brahmanic ideology, which has not only prevented them from breaking into new grounds but stunted the rest of the society’s unhindered growth.
This dangerous ideology is afloat wherever caste system is practiced. It propounds that only the Brahmans, and with some concession the other high castes, are capable by divine ordinance to pursue knowledge and become professionals to run the society; education doesn’t come to others naturally, because God hasn’t made knowledge for others nor others for knowledge, particularly the lower castes. Even if by the force of circumstance, the well-to-do lower castes have sent their children to schools in recent years, it’s only for pragmatic reasons, not as part of the natural order of things. A set of stifling ideas still pervades the conversations, language, songs, beliefs, attitudes, and consciousness of men and women in the Terai, and all these cultural sources of knowing and interpreting the world come, in one way or another, from the mainstream Hindu religion in the region. So a non-tribal Madhesi may be ignorant about everything else, but he is never ignorant about his caste and what it means in the society at large.
No wonder, then, that the fertile land of the Terai can yield bumper wheat or rice or corn, but is so dead and dying when it comes to producing vibrant culture and leadership. Whatever brilliance and whatever vitality that has come about in recent years in the region, it’s mainly because of the settlement of the hill people in the Terai, devastating as these settlements have been to the local tribes and their livelihood. These people from the hills had the guts, the courage, of course supported by the political ideology of the Nepali state, to leave the hardship, the beauty, the climate, the cold crystal water, the scented pines, their generations-old neighbors and neighborhoods of the hills and come down to the plains and cut the dense forest for livelihood. I’m not talking about the Birtawala hill people who lived in Kathmandu and maintained their large landholdings in the plains, originally political gifts to them by the rulers, but the new settlers, who came down for a few bighas of land. These people have the courage, the vitality, the brilliance, the political confidence to do new things, think in new ways.
Of course, the closer these people from the hills have gotten to the Panchayat system and benefitted from the corruption of Cold War easy foreign aids and lived in the towns, the less they have retained the original vitality of the first generation hill dwellers. That’s why, you see a drastic change in lifestyle among the new settlers of the Terai towns. For example, in the hills, the women worked in the kitchen and the fields from sunup to sundown, brought brimful water vessels a mile or two down from the water source, cut firewood, bore children alone, did all kinds of work and still survived the harsh patriarchal codes. But once these men and their women settled in the comforts of the Nepali towns in the Terai, they began to employ maids to do the dishes and cooking, boys to get grocery.
Their sons, clothed in the latest fashions and toiletries, map the streets of the towns from one cinema hall to another every evening, beating about the bush, killing time on the steps of popular shopfronts all day long. Their daughters go to college as part of a marriage fad, as a need to look attractive to the potential grooms, not for a serious pursuit of knowledge that would make them confident and self-dependent. These young, energetic, vibrant young women frequent the film halls of their towns to watch the Hindi melodramas so they can get out of the boredom born of inactivity and learn their lives’ lessons. Decay has already set in at this intersection of caste- clan security and pride, and film and now T. V. images. There’s hardly any serious emphasis on a systematic cultivation of their mind, their soul, and body through literature, music, the arts, and sports. Preservation of virginity rather than acquisition of knowledge and development of talent still characterize their and their parents’ paramount concern, and those who rebel against the ideology of virginity and caste do not do so inspired by a solid base of knowledge but by the teenage rebellion shown in the formula Hindi films. But you can’t make lifelong decisions and channell your life based on teenage whims and Bombay film messages, meant to play on the fantasy of the sexually repressed people of the region.
The parents and male elders are of no help, either, in this matter, for they still believe in the old feudal morality, as the culture still remains Panchayati–caste and clan based. And the towns have developed hardly any innovative ways to capitalize and train these young energies. All the towns in the Terai are mushrooming and expanding without any thought to their hygiene and culture; without any plans for adequate parks, playing grounds, adequate roads. The schools are of no help, for most teachers read one thing, if they read at all, and believe in something quite different, the book teaching and learning good only for helping students pass exams; their syllabi do not encourage curiosity and questioning, instead emphasize rote-learning and getting certificates. And the salary these teachers get these days is not enough to pay even the rent, let alone have enough for a basic dignified living. So these teachers overwork in too many places.
The colleges are worse–their teachers ill-paid, ill-fed, mired in petty group and parochial politics and gossips, well-to-do among them wasting their time playing popular Puploo, Nepal’s national pastime for the prosperous; their privileged pupils desperate to show off the clouts of their castes, clans, source and force. As a college teacher, I nearly got beat up more than once by many of these college scums of prosperous Nepali parents for not letting them cheat in the exams. As for name-calling, don’t even talk about it. You should have been there to witness the ridiculousness of the whole enterprise called college education in Nepal.
Because the political system was bad, a system in which nobody was accountable for anything, least of all those who wielded power, college teachers, like every functionary of the state, did only their offiicial duties. Everyone, from the vice chancellor down to the peon, seemed scared both of the students and their guardians, let alone the mysterious sources of power in the government. Everyone afraid to lose one’s izzot, the all precious honor, a concoction made of caste, clan, wealth, social and professional position. But since I didn’t think I possessed this strange bird called izzot in the first place, I wasn’t afraid of losing it in doing what I thought was right. Besides, my izzot, if I had any, was not something, I told my colleagues, that could turn into water in a mere fist-fight with a well-groomed, spoilt hoodlum son of some corrupt functionary or feudal lord. And if izzot was such a fickle commodity, to be guarded at the expense of one’s personal dignity and sense of justice, then one and one’s society and the nation would be far better off without it. But you never knew whether a college ruffian’s father, or father’s father, or mother’s somebody, or his somebody’s somebody was a cook, a functionary, a secretary in some important places.
So the only good thing that happened in Nepali colleges in those days was the student politics–against the Panchayat system, because in the absence of people’s awareness and courage in opposing political tyranny, these students acted as the vanguards of political change. I admired both the democrat and the progressive groups. But what surprised me here was that the women student leaders almost always became treasurers in these students unions, as though that was a transferred role from their household in which a woman kept account of the day-to-day expenses that a bunch of keys hanging by her waist symbolized and to which they would return after their stint as student union treasurers–a smooth transition, I suppose.
Once I asked a bunch of these female college students, seated in rows on the steps of the college, Why is it that you guys always become only treasurers? Why don’t you field women candidates for other positions? Why not have even all female student union for a change for God’s sake? They collectively looked at me as though I had gone out of my mind. Of course, many among these student activists, men and women, loved comrade-handshakes more than political and intellectual analysis, but the serious among them, despite some of their sold out college teachers and despite much of the curriculum, did do some serious thinking about their society and its political system.
Among other damages it inflicted, and whose repercussions Nepal will have to face for decades to come, the Panchayati Raj, and the supposedly new things and new ways it brought about in Nepal’s national life during its thirty-year tenure, the Panchayat Raj decimated the tribes that lived in the forests and the open lands where the jungle ended. The Tharus, the Dhimals, the Khabas, the Rajbanshis of Morang and Jhapa have been finished–their land, the only source of income, gone for the most part, partly rendered unproductive by deforestation but mainly sold; their way of life vanished and vanishing with the disappearance of the forest, which served for these tribal villages as sources of more than one thing; their self-respect turned into drunkenness and gambling.
The political leader called zamindar they had of their own tribe in times past, too, is finished after the inactment of land reform in B.S. 2018; his land and power gone for good. And when your most respectable person in the tribe, no matter how tyrannical, is reduced to a beggar, you don’t have any role models left, nor can you, like the caste Madhesis of other districts, look across the border for inspiration and encouragement. If there’s nobody who comes from your tribe is important or is accorded importance by the state ideology, then there’s nothing but despair staring in your face. And the only people these tribesmen see in positions of power now in Nepal, from a police official to an office clerk, are aliens for them. What has happened to the tribes in the eastern Nepali Terai during the thirty-year Panchayat period is terrible.
One at times thinks that the caste Madhesis of the Terai, because they felt dispossessed, became compulsively self-serving and conserved everything indiscriminately. They didn’t raise any noise when the vast jungle in the Terai was cleared and sold to India in the late seventies and early eighties. Many among them, the rangers and foresters, indulged in the Bramha loot along with the patriots. What made Sundar Lal Bahuguna in north western India found the “Chipko” movement to protect deforestation and what prevented the caste Terai people from doing so? The answers could be alienation, the need to just survive, and lack of democracy. And caste system that played such a vital role in this passivity still continues to be so in all matters of public concern in the Terai. If anyone has doubts, one needs to attend a meeting of the Sadhbhavana Party for a knowledge of this aspect of the Madhes. Even those who are educated among the Madhesis, politically, socially, and intellectually, they continue to be as good as their uneducated fellow Madhesis–caste, family, clan, blind imitation of India and Indian ways in bad matters still characterize their private and public lives and thinking. Maybe the advent of democracy will change all this to some extent. But only maybe.
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