I thought a breaking window would create a crash. I thought I would hear sound effects from a Michael Bay movie. But in the end, it was just a thud. And a small crack. “Ke khaana slow gareko?” the khalaasi was screaming at the driver. Faster, he urged him, do not slow down or we are going to lose more windows. But the line of buses in front was long and not every driver had the lead room to drive fast eternally. A bunch of kids jumped and rejoiced beside the road. One of them was beaming, he must have been the one that broke the window of our bus. People were lined up on both sides of the road. A policeman stood at every ten meters. A chilling realization crept upon me- the police was there to protect “us” from “them”. A bus stood still on the side of the road- it was burnt black. A hundred meters away was another truck- covered in soot, rubber burnt out, the rims of the wheels had started rusting.
“Close your window,” the conductor shouted at the boy two seats away from me. “And draw your curtains, you wont get the glass on your face.”
We were somewhere towards the end of the line of buses being escorted by the police, across the eastern Terai. All these buses themselves were headed towards the eastern end of the terai- Kakarbhitta, Biratnagar, Dharan- towns in the three districts that parties and protestors are asking to be included in province number 2. Like all buses, they had people of madhesi and pahadi origin- all being pelted with stones by kids and teenagers, to whom this was no wrong. For if you are brought up watching violence as an everyday act, a means to achieve your political and social aspirations, then where is the harm in throwing stones?
Most of the people standing beside the road were waiting for the escort line to pass so that they could cross the road. There were a few kids holding up pebbles, grinning; others were just jumping around. Our khalaasi was standing at the door and joking with them as we sped past. A Madheshi man, newly married, was in the cabin with the driver and the conductor, telling them spots to watch out for against miscreants. For all the animosity and the polarization between communities the black-flag journalists will tell you of, there is still bon homie. Nobody I could see was afraid. Protests or no protests, everyone was going home for Dasain. To me, personally, it was an adrenaline rush to see people aiming for my window. When a window finally broke, we walked up and gathered around it and took photos- the guy sitting beside it got up, rubbing his hair to throw away the glass pieces stuck there, cursing. And no surprise- he was a Madhesi himself.
And yet, when we crossed the Koshi dam, the khalaasi turned back towards the passengers and said “Open your windows now, no one will throw stones. They are all Nepali from here on”
“The ones who threw stones at us were Nepali, too”, I meekly offered. He looked at me like I was a madman. We had not been getting along well since the previous night when I asked them for my regular mineral water bottle that they give the passengers. They also didn’t turn on the wifi. We had established a mutual dislike. My opinion was not going to be respected here.
There were conversations in the bus after we crossed into safe territory. The words “Madhisey” and “Bhele” were thrown around a few times. “Dhoti” was reserved exclusively for India. The Madhesi man in the cabin looked at his feet a couple of those times. Those throwing these words around were the adult equivalent of the kids throwing stones- they do not understand that what they are doing is wrong. Or offensive.
We are far away form social equality or from social equity. We are not culturally sensitive; we are politically incorrect almost all the time. We have historically wronged the Madhesi community. Yet, to treat the entire Madhes as a homogenous singular, oppressed entity would be wrong. Upper caste, male, elite-school-alumni- journalists from land-owning families based in cities write of the struggles of their kind; they talk about the privileges of the hill elite in Kathmandu, while overlooking their own privilege. I have lived in the Terai for as far as I can remember and I know the difference between a family that farms chillies on one kaththaa of somebody else’s land and the owner of a factory- both of who are Madhesi, just as I know the difference between a Pahadi cobbler and a haakim. Our society is still plagued with many inequalities: based on gender, color, caste, ethnicity and class. These need to be addressed. Political representation is one way of doing it. Throwing stones at buses is not.
The ultimate goal of it all is social inclusion- a Nepal where people from the mountains, people from the plains and the hills can co-exist without mistrust of each other and without considering themselves as superior to the other. This can happen when inclusion becomes a reality- when there is no inferiority complex and there is no patronisation. Unfortunately, the political agenda that exists by default in democracy may never let that happen, because clever politicians thrive on mistrust, by creating fear of the ‘other’. Nothing unites people like a common enemy.
And yet, there is hope: that by constitutional amendments, equality can be achieved; that through democratic means, voices can be heard; that through non-violent ways, protests can be lodged. That one day, words like dhoti, pahade, and bhote will disappear from our lexicon.
And maybe in the process of doing that, Nepali people will stop throwing stones at other Nepali people because they want clauses in the constitution to be changed.
I remember the time when bandhas first started. I was in primary school and the joy of reaching the school gate only to see a lock hanging was unparalleled. The rest of the day would be spent playing khoppi and chungi and football with sock balls. (Is that where the word sock-er has its origins?) For those were days when TV sets weren’t a household item yet and only a few rich kids had video games and remote-operated cars that could keep them indoors all day.
Fast-forward twenty years and we have a generation today that has reached a voting age without seeing the country at peace. An entire generation has grown up witnessing violence as a legitimate means of protest: a generation that takes every bandha with a shrug of the shoulder and waits for the next day to resume work. Or next week. Or next month. Life goes on.
Even this time round, life will still go on. At the end of it, there will be a head count of those that died. It will differ with every newspaper; they will write “more than x lives” just to be sure it’s not technically wrong. Because what is the difference between 64 lives and 67? It’s the same amount of print space. Those that have led this “revolution” will bargain peace in exchange for government positions. The so-called “aspirations” of the Madhesi people will go unfulfilled. The Terai will remain equally fertile and yet, equally poor. Caste discrimination will exist as it has for “more than” a millennium. Buses will have their windows repaired. Life will go on.
The kids that were throwing stones at buses, spurred on by some and reprimanded by others, reminded me of us when we were younger. We were forbidden from playing in the mud, of running around barefoot, from swearing, from playing dandi biu, because you might get hit in the eye- so what if it’s your national game? But on days when there was a bandha and we had no school, all this was exactly what we would do.
For today, when there has been little school for so many days, what better way to pass the time than throw stones?