Why I want to become a farmer and why government policies should screw me less

I am a farmer. I wasn’t one until 8 months ago. I have been working in cities and travelling across countries- and I knew nothing of cows and cow dung, grass and trees, potatoes and paddy.

I still can’t plough the field or milk the cow. I don’t think my cow likes me. I would cut my finger before I cut a doko of grass. It’s something my neighbors still smirk about. But the experience of growing paddy and vegetables and fruits and rearing cattle has made me a different person and today, I realise I am happy when I work in my own farm. I think it’s in my blood. Ten years ago, while appearing for my first job interview in Hyderabad in India during the IT boom, my interviewer asked me where I see myself in ten years. I had said I wanted to have my own IT firm or become a CEO or something at that level of fancy. Ask me today, I’ll tell you I want to become a farmer.

We are a rice people. Our festivals, our holidays, even our political movements are dictated by the cycle of growth of paddy. (By us, I mean people in my region; I intend no political exclusion of my fellow countrymen whose staple diet is not rice) And yet, we import rice. We import dal, we import vegetables and just about everything we eat or drink. The only consumable we barely import is cigarettes. Yet, when I look around me, it is clear that we don’t need to. So many people in my village and everywhere else in the country have quit farming in search of foreign labour. They send remittance to their families, who in turn, buy imported food from the market, sending that money out again. How is this beneficial? How is it possible that a country of farmers today has the land, better variants of crops, organic fertilisers and farm implements and yet cannot grow the food to feed itself?

Because farming is not lucrative! Our method of farming requires intense physical labour and the only produce we get is food. In the consumerist, globalised world of today, we need more than food. Clothes, electronics, housing material, Johnny Walker Red Label, LPG and a lot of other things that city people have and we don’t- our needs are many, but farming gives us only food.

Here comes the first problem- our agriculture is sustenance- based. We don’t grow to sell. Not even today. The jackfruits on my tree rot and fall: one jackfruit is as much as a family can eat in days, and entire colony of bats grow fat over a few fruits, and yet, dozens are still left on the tree. 25 kilometers away, people in Birtamod buy a jackfruit imported from Kolkata at more than a hundred rupees. It’s the same story with mangoes, with brinjal, okra, bitter gourd, turmeric and ginger.

The root cause of all this is transport. Or rather, the lack of it. If I could get my produce to the towns and cities, I could sell it for a rate lesser than the imported food and make a good profit. But to get my produce to the market, I need a vehicle. Four buses run from my village to Kakarbhitta, the nearest town. The bus stops a kilometer away from my house. I have no way of taking ten crates of tomatoes or a sack of cabbages that far. A Mahindra Maxx jeep, that costs 4 lacs in India, costs 14.75 lacs in Nepal. If an Indian farmer wants to buy a pick up truck or farm vehicle, he/she has to take a loan and pay it back in a few years as the returns come in. If I buy the same pick up truck in Nepal, I have to sell a kidney, pledge the other, mortage my land and probably promise to give my testicles and colon for cancer research. By the time that 14 odd lacs are recovered by transporting the vegetables to the town, three generations will have grown up, China will have made flying cars and farms in the sky and Nai Nabhannu La part 25 will be running in theatres. In short, that money cannot be recovered. The only people who can afford a car in Nepal are the landowners of yesterday, people who go abroad and come back, employees of international companies or those who use vehicles commercially. Farmers cannot own transport. It’s the same story with my neighbors, people in the next village, and the next one after that; it’s the same story with just about every farmer from Jhapa to Kailali, Taplejung to Darchula.

The reason I am comparing vehicles rates to that in India is because I live in a border village. Three kilometers away, I see farmers having electricity, motorbikes, TATA Magic to transport their goods. Milkmen come from Naxalbari on motorbikes, take our milk and go back across the river. Milkmen from our village are still using bicycles, and they have to tear their muscles cycling uphill. Why? Because a motorcycle costs upwards of INR 30,000 in India. In Nepal it starts at around 1,20,000. Selling one kidney is barely enough.

Is there a solution? Yes. But let me list out the problems first.

Our farming techniques are outdated. Nature-friendly but outdated. At some point of time, we will have to switch to modern equipment. Something as simple as cutting grass is a hazardous activity. In my village elephants rampage through paddy fields and cornfields just as we are ready for harvest. But for modern equipment- from sirens to drive away elephants to motors, pruning scissors to water sprinklers everything has to be bought, which automatically means imported, and getting them to the farms is something nobody will bother themselves with.

Lastly, there are no incentives to being a farmer. Earlier this year, the forest department offered to provide tree saplings to us. Excitedly, I ordered for over a 1000 saplings- teak, paulenia, khamari, masala, as did everyone else in the village. Some got ready to dig the holes and lay manure into them. Until we learnt that the trees would belong to the forest department, we couldn’t take their timber or produce and when they finally felled the trees, they would give us a percentage. Am I going to break my back planting the saplings and caring for them if they are going to belong to someone else? Perhaps not.

There are no community farms, I don’t have a market for my produce and I don’t get subsidies on farm implements.

More importantly, I have no insurance. If the rains fail, I am fucked. If 80 elephants- cows, calves and bulls, rampage through my farm and shit over everything- I am fucked. The VDC pledges around Rs.10,000 compensation; that will come by the next planting season and that is peanuts. We want rice, not peanuts. If pests infest my vegetables and bats eat my fruits, I am fucked.

Lastly, electricity. I want to use motors to run the kuti kaatne machine. I need motors to draw water from the wells, I want to use water sprinklers on my vegetable gardens, I want to use sirens to drive away the elephants. I can’t light a candle to do all this if there’s no electricity. So why do I want to become a farmer, then? My cousins think I should apply for a DV or go to the US through my relatives. A friend of mine asked me what was the point of studying so much and getting two masters degrees if all I had to do was farm. Perhaps I am crazy. Five years ago, when I was abroad as were my sisters, my parents, especially my dad, wanted to sell the house in the town and move to the village and rear a cow- we thought he was crazy. Today, I am glad they did.

I have seen through a terribly hot summer, a bad monsoon and one national tragedy after another. But today, when I stand and look out at the green paddy fields, their tops turning gold, and I drive through the gravel road from the highway to my village and I see parrots and sparrows swooping down and flying away, and I see a sea of green touching the orange of the sunset, and when I reach home and breathe no dust, walk around on the cool grass and see trees around me instead of buildings- I tell myself I will not exchange this for anything. As do so many farmers who have not given up on farming to work at the airport in Malaysia or construction sites in Qatar.

The government can help make things easier for us. We don’t want free grants; we don’t even want subsidies. What we want is for the government to not make things hard for us so we can farm. And if we farm well, we will not need to import food crops; we can survive ten blockades like this.

Firstly, do not tax farm vehicles and electric vehicles: pick-up trucks, tractors, utes. Or at least reduce the taxes. A farmer has to take a sack of dhan to the mill on a bicycle to get the rice. He can do it one sack at a time. An electric driven “city-safari” makes the job ten times easier for him. A city-safari costs between 60,000 to a lac in India. Here it starts at 2.5 lacs. Selling one kidney and having a surrogate child for a foreigner is not enough to buy that.

Secondly, get done with those electric projects, FFS! Even when there is no load shedding, we used to get a voltage of around 160-180V. We had to turn the fan with a broom before it started turning and picked up speed. All this until the people in the village got together, contributed and got a transformer and laid out a “four-phase” line. At the least, provide subsidies (or remove taxes) to small farmers on solar panels and batteries. One electric bulb can help get rid of so many insects and pests in a vegetable garden. But I can’t light the bulb, why? Because my world’s-second-richest-in-water-resources country has no electricity.

Thirdly, devise some sort of insurance scheme. Why do you want to take on the responsibility of compensating farmers when your own resources are limited? If my entire farm burns down, you would probably give Rs. 10,000- after one year, in a public function where the VDC chairman or my CA elect will hand me a cheque in front of the camera. Fuck that. Let farmers pay a small premium. Droughts do not usually happen all around the country, neither do floods. One part of the country can support another. Fields that are destroyed by herds of elephants can be compensated for from this fund. In Kenya, they are insuring cows because they are so important to the lives of herders. In cities, people have health insurance and life insurance and insurance for cars and bikes. Does it not make sense to insure my farm produce? Clearly it is more important to insure something that I have worked so hard for instead of a cholesterol deposit that I got by not working at all?

We are an industrious people. We have survived decades of stagnant, non-producing economy, civil war, earthquakes, terrible films and bad TV reporters with resilience. Wherever the government has built roads, people have started growing, trading and expanding on their ownsomething I have seen in places from Panchthar to Mustang, Kapilvastu to Kaski. All the government has to do is to not make lives harder for us. But why should the government do this? Why should it help us?

Because this country needs farmers. More of us. Because we want to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. If not in fancy electronics, at least in food. Because for every family that leaves its farm and moves to the city, for every family that gives up its field for plotting and sells it to apartment builders, another must farm in its place and produce enough not just to feed itself but the one that quit farming, too.

The origin of the word soccer

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?

*********

शंका

गोतामेजीको बाइक चोरी भयो रे।

बिहानको चार बजे.. ठ्यांग-ठूंग, ढ्यांग-ढूंग… मान्छेको चहल-पहल … सुत्नै सकेन छिमेकी खड्का कान्छो। स्कुल को छुट्टीमा  आएको, बिहान बिस्तारै उठ्थ्यो।  उसको उत्तानो सुत्ने बानि- छातीमा हात राखेर, ऐठन परि बस्ने। आज फेरि नराम्रो सपना देखेर उठें भनि ठानेछ। हैन रहेछ, गोतामेजीको बाइक चोरी भा रे।

खड्का कान्छा चप्पल लगाएर घर बाहिर निस्क्यो। उनका आमा बुवा दुवै घर अगाडि उभि रहनु भएको थियो – टर्च बत्ति बालेर। टोलका अरु मान्छे नि भेला भएका थिए… हल्ला गरिरहेका थिए। कसैले थानामा इन्स्पेक्टर चिन्या रे, अर्कोले सिमानामा सशस्त्र चिन्या रे। इंडिया त कटाउनै नदिने रे… पुलमै छेकेर चोरलाई समात्न लाउने रे।
अलिक मुख छिट्टो, बराल बाले सोधिहाले- बाइक अघि चोरी भएको, बोर्डर काट्नै थ्यो भने काटेर आसाम पुग्ने बेला भइ सक्यो, यहाँ उभिएर तिमीले भन्दा बाटो छेक्छ पुलिसले?
छिमेकी चुप नै बसे। बरालबा को कोहि मुख लाग्न नमान्ने। सम्भवत साँच्चिनै त पुलिसलाई चिनेका थिएनन पनि होल। रवाफ सबै उडेर गयो।
“बाइक चोरी  भयो त भयो। अब गाउँले मात्रै भेला भएर त केहि नाप्ने हैनन् त।” खड्का कान्छोले आँखा मिच्दै भन्यो।
एक दुई  जनाले पुलुक्क हेरे। उनका बुबाले चुप लाग भनेर संकेत गरे। गोतामेजी ठुला ठाला मान्छे, गाउँघरमा सबैले चिन्थे। कसैको फोन आउँदा उनकैमा आउँथ्यो। अंग्रेजी पढे लेखेका। दफ्तर तिर “गौतम” लेख्छन रे  थर पनि। गाउँमा कति जना कै पो बाइक थियो र? गोतामेजिकै त थियो। त्यहि पनि चोरी भएछ। अनि गाउँ सारा किन नउठोस त बिहान चार बजे।
“राती नौ बजे मैले ताल्चा लाएको गरेजमा” गोतामेजीकी श्रीमती गुनासो गर्दैथिन रुनै लाग्या स्वरमा। तल्लो पट्टि डेरामा बस्ने बब्लू र उसकी श्रीमती १२ बजे सम्म त टिभी हेरिरहेका थिए रे।
“कहानी घर घर की देखेर त मैले वर्तन माझेको” भनिन् बब्लूकी श्रीमतीले। “उहाँ पनि भोलि त सुबह ढीलो उठ्छु भनेर टिभी देख्न बस्नु भएको”- थपिन् ।
“हैन राम! कति बेला चाहिँ आएको यो चोर?” गोतामेजीकी स्वास्नीले स्वर तिखो पार्दै भन्न भन्न थालिन्। “यत्रो टोलमा अरु कसैकोमा नपसेर यहाँ मात्र चोरी गरेछ।”
“अरु कसकोमा छ र बाइक चोरी गर्नका लागि” खड्का कान्छोले मन मनै सोच्यो।
गोतामेजीकी श्रीमतीका आँखा रसाउन लागेका थिए। उनका वरिपरि जम्मा भएका खनाल काकी, दुई घर भट्टराईकी  बुहारीहरू (अरु बेला एक अर्काका कुरा काट्ने, त्यस दु:खका बेला त सहानुभूति दिन आएका संगै उभिएर कुरा सुनिरहेका थिए) र बब्लूकी श्रीमती सबैका अनुहार अलिकति राता भए । गोतामे बज्यूलाई त उनको बाइक चोरी भएको मात्र हैन, अरुको घरमा चोरी नभएको पो दु:ख लाग्या रहेछ। कसैले केहि भनेनन्। माथिल्लो तलाको बाल्कोनीमा गोतामेजी निस्किए। उनका श्रीमतीलाई बोलाए । श्रीमती रुन थालिसकेकी थिइन्। उनका वरिपरि छरछिमेकीका अनुहार  हेरेर, माया लाग्दो मुख पारेर “म गएँ” भने जस्तो गरेर सीढ़ीतिर लागिन्| सबैले सुम्सुम्याइदिए। गोतामेजीकी श्रीमती उता फर्किने बित्तिकै सबैको अनुहार मा रहेका सहानुभूतिका हरेक निशानी हराउने छ। तर समाज भनेकै त्यस्तै हो। मन मनै “ठिक्क पर्यो” भन्ने नि कति जना होलान्। तर मुखले साथ् दिन भने छोड्दैनन्।
पल्लो घर दिपक पनि त्यहिँ  उभिरहेको थियो। खड्का कान्छोसँग आँखा जुधेर इशारा गर्यो- चुरोट तान्न जाऔं। खड्का कान्छोले आफु अगाडी उभिएका उसका बुबा-आमातिर संकेत गर्दै जिब्रो टोकेर इशारा गर्यो हातले- ‘होस्! अहिले झापड खाइन्छ।’
गोतामेजीकी श्रीमती सीढ़ी चढेर घर पसिन्। बब्लू र उसकी श्रीमती पनि घर पसे। झिसमिसे उज्यालो पूर्व पट्टि आकाशमा फैलिँदैछ। दिपकले फेरि इशारा गर्यो- ‘चिया खान जाऔं।’ खड्का कान्छा का बुबाआमा पनि टर्च निभाएर घर भित्र पस्न लागे। कान्छाले भन्यो “म एकछिन दिपकसंग जान्छु। चिया खाएर आउँछु।”
“चिया रे? यति बिहान? कहाँ भेट्छस?” बुबाले सोधे।
“डे बसको स्ट्याण्डमा।” कान्छाले भन्यो।
“ल जा।” बुबाले छिट्टो अनुमति दिइ हाले।
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“तिमी खाँदैनौ ?” दिपकले सल्काएको चुरोट कान्छातिर तन्काएर सोध्यो।
“खान्न” कान्छाले टाउको हल्लयो।
दुई जना बसेर काठमाडौँ जाने बसको ताँती  हेर्न लागे|
४-५ वटा बस स्ट्याण्डमा लाइन लाग्या थिए। प्राय सबैमा खलासीले सामान लोडिंग गर्दै  थिए।
“एउटा बसको हूडमा चढाएर लग्यो भने कहाँ भेट्छ बुढो को बाइक”, दिपकले कुरा निकाल्यो।
“कुदाएर लग्यो भने पनि कहाँ भेटिन्छ”, कान्छाले टाउको नफर्काइ भन्यो। “राजा मार्ने त  भेटेनन्, बुढोको बाइक के भेट्थ्यो पुलिस ले?”
दिपक हाँस्यो। “खोज्दा पनि खोज्दैन” भनेर थप्यो।
चिया सकियो। घाम उदाउन लागेको थियो। “अब गएर निद्रा लाग्दैन,” कान्छोले भन्यो।
“अब के सुत्छौ र?  बिहान भयो” दिपकले भन्यो। दुई जना घरतिर हिंड्न लागे।
“हैन,” कान्छाले ठूलो स्वरमा सोचेझैं गरेर भन्यो। ताला लाएको थ्यो रे त ग्यारेज। गेट पनि त बन्द नै थ्यो होला। कस्तो  कसैले चाल नपाएको होला! अझ बाइक डोर्याएर लग्या भए त म सुतेको कोठाकै झ्याल बाहिरबाट लग्नेथिए होला। कस्तो चाल नपाएको मैले। म त प्राय छिट्टै ब्युँझिन्छु …”
“स्टार्ट गरेर लगेनन् नि त! चोर पनि मुर्ख त हैन होलान् त!” दिपक झर्केर बोल्यो। एक छिन दुवै चुप लागे। मंगसिर सकिन लाग्दैथ्यो। सास फेर्दा दुवै जनाको सेतो बाफ निस्कँदैथ्यो। पुषको जाडो केहि दिनमै शुरु हुने छ।”
“म त उठेको भए नि मतलब गर्दिन थिएँ।” दिपकले थप्यो।
कान्छाले पुलुक्क दीपकलाई हेर्यो। “के साह्रो रिस उठेको त तिमीलाई चाहिँ बुढो सँग।”
“हो त अनि! देखेनौ बोजूलाई? बाइक त हराएको हो नि! त्यहि बाइक कुदाउँदा छोराको एक्सिडेन्ट भइदिएको भए कति सराप्ने थिइन् त्यहि बाइकलाई। अहिले हेर न, मान्छे मरेको जत्तिकै रोइ- कराइ गरेर … “
कुरो ठिकै हो, कान्छाले सोच्यो। उसलाई नि त्यस्तै लागिरहेको थियो। एकछिन केहि बोलेन।
“एक लाख को पो हो त।” एक छिन पछि थप्यो।
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यस बिचमा गोतामेजी ओछ्यानमा छन्- आँखा उनका खुला छन्। पटक्कै निद्रा लागेको छैन। उनकी श्रीमती अघि एक छिन स्याँक-सुँक गरिन् , चोरलाई सरापिन् , एक पटक माइत फोन गरेर भाउजूलाई  सुनाइन पनि- बिहान साढे पाँच  बजे। अनि सुतिन्। निदाइन् ।
गोतामेजीलाई कसरि लागोस निद्रा ? उनकी श्रीमतीलाई त बाइक गर्व कै वस्तु मात्रै त थियो। बजार जाँदा पछाडि  बस्ने, साग-सब्जी अगाडी ह्यान्डलमा झुन्ड्याउने- सजिलो। श्रीमतीका लागि बाइक आफ्नो आफ्नै पर्ने, तर खासै माया नलाग्ने वस्तु थियो। बाइक हरायो- बाइक भन्दा धेरै त शान हरायो। ‘गोतामेजीको  सबैजना भएकै बेलामा बाइक हरायो! त्यत्रो ठूलो गेट हुँदा -हुँदै। ‘ अलिक दिन बजारबाट सब्जी हातमा बोकेर ल्याउन पर्ने हुन्छ। छिमेकी ले सोध्छन- ‘बाइक भेटियो’?  बाइक को खासै चिन्ता त कसलाई पो हुन्छ र, त्यहि घाउमा नुन थप्न सोध्छन। छिमेकीको काम नै त त्यहि हो।
बाइक प्यारो त गोतामेजीलाई! कति सजिलो अफिस जान, फर्किन, अब सात वर्ष बाइक चलाएको, साइकल कुदाएर अफिस जाने कुरा आउँदैन। प्युनले कुदाउँछ साइकल त। बसमा जाऔं भने त्यति टाढा छैन, रिक्सामा जाऔं  भने दिनदिनै त्यो रिक्सावाला संग भाडाको लागि बाझ्न पर्ने। ५-१० रुपैयाँको लागि बाझेको कसैले देख्यो भने इज्जत जान्छ। बाझेन र भने जति भाडा दियो भने महँगो पर्न जान्छ। दिनको ओहोर-दोहोर गरेको  ४०रुपैयाँ, महिनाको १२००। हुन त बाइकमा पेट्रोल हाल्दा नि त्यत्ति नै लाग्छ। तर बाइक भनेको आफ्नै हो- जता पनि जान सकिन्छ, जतै  रोक्न सकिन्छ। छिटो हुन्छ। गाउँलेले इर्ष्याले हेर्छन।
“इर्ष्या !”  सोचले दिशा बदलिन्छ। कसले चाहिँ चोर्यो  होला बाइक?
जसले पनि लग्यो, इर्ष्या कै कारणले लग्यो। हो… चिनेकै मान्छे को काम हुनपर्छ। पक्कै पनि धेरै अघि देखि सोचेको काम हो यो! बाटो हिंड्दा- हिंड्दै चोरले बाइक देखेर ए! बाइक रहेछ। चोरौं ! भनेर त पक्कै चोरेको हैन।
गोतामेजीलाई आफ्नो कुरा ठीक  लाग्दै जान थाल्यो। उनि हाकिम मान्छे- ऐन देखि लिएर मनोविज्ञान सबै पढ्या छन्, मानिसको सोच, मानसिकता उनि बुझ्छन् । उनको मनमा जो शंका पलाएको छ, त्यो सहि हो। यो साधारण चोरी हैन, उनको विरुद्ध षड्यन्त्र हो। बाइक कहाँ हुन्छ, थाहा भएको, मान्छे कति बजे सुत्छ, थाहा पाएको, आवाज नगरि ताल्चा काट्न सक्ने- यी सबै कुराले गोतामेजीको शंकालाई दृढ बनाउँदैछन्।
तर कसले गर्यो होला यो काम? कसरि गर्यो होला यो काम?
हैन, कसरि थाहा पाउन नसकेका बब्लू र उसकी श्रीमतीले? गोतामेजीलाई  अचानक शंका लाग्यो। कति नै भयो र बब्लूलाई चिनेको? डेढ बर्ष? डेढ बर्षमा मान्छे चिन्न सकिन्छ त? हेर्दा सोझो छ, हँसिलो  छ, जहिले भेट्दा मुसुक्क हाँसेर नै बोल्छ, नम्र भएर। तर बिहारी हो, के भरोसा गर्न सकिन्छ र?
पारीबाट मान्छे बोलाएर साँचो हातैमा दिएको पनि हुन सक्छ नि। एक-डेढ लाख को कुरा पो हो त। एक मनले सोच्छ- हैन! नेपालको नम्बर प्लेट लागेको बाइक, पारि लगेर के उद्धार होला र?  फेरि अर्को मनले भन्छ – बिहार हो! मान्छे त बेच्छन, जाबो बाइक के हो र? पाट-पुर्जा निकालेर पनि त  बेच्न सकिन्छ।
कान तात्तिएछ सिरानीमा थिचिएर। सिरानी फ़र्काए। उनि पनि अर्को पट्टि फ़र्किए। यो छेउ अलिक शीत्तल छ। झ्याल बाहिर भट्टराईका घर देखिन्छन्। जेठोले तला थपेर ढलाइ गरिसक्यो, कान्छो इर्ष्याले रातै भा छ। दाजुको कमाइ बढ्या -बढ्यै छ, दाँज्न सकिन्न। घर तल्ला थप्न पैसा लाग्छ। कहाँबाट  ल्याउने? गोतामेजीलाई  झसंग भयो।
फेरि विवेक को आवाज ले भन्छ – “हैन, हुनै सक्दैन! भट्टराई इर्ष्यालु होला, तर पापी छैन।” फेरि अर्को आवाजले भन्छ- “तँलाई कसरि थाहा? दिन-दिनै बुढीको गनगन, आँखा अगाडी दाइको प्रगति। मान्छेलाई विवश बनाउन कति नै लाग्छ र?
“हैन” भन्छ अर्को आवाजले। “एक-डेढ लाखको लागि भट्टराईले त्यसो गर्दैन। सानै देखि चिनेको हो, बाउ-बाजे छिमेकी थिए। बरु यस्तो काम खड्का को घर मास्तिर भँडारी को हुन सक्छ। “
“हो!” भनि अर्को आवाजले सहि थप्यो। भँडारीले गोतामेजीको घर पछाडिको जमिन किन्न खोज्या थिए। ३ कठ्ठा। हुन त गोतामेजीले खेतीपाती नि लाएका थिएनन् तर पुर्ख्यौली जमिन किन बेच्नु भनेर मानेनन। भँडारीका घर दुनिया भरिका मान्छे डेरा बसेका थिए। हेटौंडाको, सर्लाहीको, सिक्किम को, एक परिवार मुसलमान, एक परिवार बिहारी पनि। भँडारीकी श्रीमती सांसद लाई चिन्दथिन । अनि जिल्ला भरिका दादा-गुण्डाहरु पनि त! दुई जनालाई  ऊ  त्यो घरमा चोरी गर भनेर अह्राउनु कुन ठुलो कुरो हो र? ए! हामीलाई जमिन नबेच्ने? भनेर रिस पनि त होला। तिनीहरुकै घरमा डेरा बस्ने बिहारी दुइ नम्बरी काम पनि गर्थ्यो क्यार। सुपारी देखि लिएर चाउ -चाउ , चुरोट, फेयर एण्ड लव्ली सम्म पारि इन्डिया लगेर बेच्थ्यो। अनि इन्डिया सम्म बाइक लाने मान्छे त भइ हाल्छ नि।
ए साँच्चि ! भंडारीनी त आएकी थिइन् त घर! गोतामेजी आफ्नो कोठामा बसेका थिए।  भंडारीनी भान्छा कोठामा पस्या थिइन्- घरमा पूजा छ, बुनिया पकाउने भनेर ठुलो झाँझर माग्न। फर्काउन पनि आएकी थिइन्। हो! फर्काउने बेलामा एक छिन् सीढ़ी मा उभिएर ग्यारेजतिर हेरेर के के सोध्या थिइन्। ग्यारेजको छानामा नांग्लोमा तोरी सुकाएको थियो। तोरी के कस्तो भनेर सोध्दा ग्यारेजकै बारेमा नि के के सोध्दै थिइन्। खोइ के सोधेकी थिइन्, गोतामेजीले बिर्से। श्रीमती उठे पछि सोध्छु भनेर निर्णय गरे।
त्यस दिनको दृश्य उनको आँखा अगाडि झल्झली देख्छन। गेटबाट निस्कँदा बब्लूकी श्रीमतीसंग नि त के कुरो गर्या थिइन्।
हैन! यो बब्लू र उसकी श्रीमतीले कसरि चाहिँ  केहि सुनेनन्? हुनै  सक्दैन!
हुन त मेरै झ्यालकै तल त छ नि ग्यारेज, एक मनले भन्छ। हैन, तर तला  माथि हुनु भनेको अर्कै कुरा हो.…”
उज्यालो हुन थालेछ। पूर्व पट्टिको झ्यालबाट आकाश निकै उज्यालो भएको देखिँदै छ।
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“बुढो आज सुतेनन्।” खड्का कान्छाले माथिल्लो तलाको झ्याल हेरेर भन्यो।
दिपकले नि “पक्कै सुतेनन् ” भने झैँ गरेर टाउको हल्लायो। “अहिले सम्म मनमा कुरा खेलेर चोर समाते होल। भन्छन नै- चोरी गर्ने को एक पाप, चोरी हुने को सय पाप।”
“सय पाप रे?” खड्का कान्छाले सोध्यो।
“छिमेकी देखि लिएर छोरा, आफन्त, बुढी धरि माथि शंका गर्न थालिन्छ। हरेक मान्छेलाई शंका गर्दा एक पाप लागेन त?”
खड्का कान्छोले “हो” भनेर टाउको हल्लायो। दिपक आफ्नो घर तिर पस्यो। “आउ न अहिले एक छिनमा।” गेट भित्रबाट आवाज आयो।
“म त सुत्छु अब, नौ बजे उठ्छु” भनेर खड्का कान्छो आफ्नो घर भित्र पस्यो।
 तर उसलाई नि निद्रा लागेन। एक त उज्यालो। त्यहि माथि सोच्न थाल्यो, बुढाले को-को माथि शंका गरे होला त? डेरामा बस्ने बब्लूलाइ त पक्कै गरे। बिचरा बब्लू! बा उनकै छोराले पो लगेर बेच्यो कि? के थाहा, ठुलो स्कूल पढ्थ्यो, खर्च होला नि! ड्रग्सतिर लागेको होला। तास खेल्दा पनि जहिल्यै पैसा थपेर दाउ बढाउन खोज्थ्यो। जुवाको पनि त बानि लाग्या हुन सक्छ। कुलत लागे पछि त्यस्तै हो। दियो होला नि चाबी नक्कली बनाएर कसैलाई।
“ह्या! के भएको। मेरो चाहिँ बाइक पनि चोरी भएको छैन त, किन दशतिर शंका गरेको होला” भनेर आँफै सँग  रिसाएर खड्का कान्छा ओछ्यानबाट निस्क्यो र भान्छातिर आमालाई चिया माग्न गयो।

The Friend

“I hope you liked the biscuits”, said my friend’s mother. “I made them at home.”

She had her back turned to me but I could almost see that hint of pride on her face.

“Yes, aunty”, I said.

Truth is, I am not crazy about biscuits. They are sweet and dry and get stuck in my teeth. Also, her biscuits were not very appealing. They were too soft; they didn’t look brown enough and they broke when I took them in my fingers. The act of dipping them in tea and eating them was seemingly impossible. But all the same, “yes, aunty” is what I said. In my heart of hearts, I cursed myself for lying to this woman who was likeable and gracious and carried herself well, in spite of everything that had happened. What else could I have said though? “No your biscuits are terrible! But your tea is drinkable. In fact, it is nice”?

The moment I completed this sentence in my head, she turned towards me. For a second, I froze and my gaze met hers. Had she heard me? Mothers, we all know, can read minds. Or maybe, I had unintentionally blurted it out aloud. She smiled. So, she hadn’t heard it after all. I breathed in relief.

“Sure”, she said. “You are being kind. I know they are terrible. I don’t make biscuits usually. They are not something our people make much.”

“Yes!” screamed my heart. “Please don’t make biscuits. You are a nice lady; but your biscuits suck!” On the outside, of course, I smiled awkwardly and mumbled something about that not being the case.

“Maybe, I should stick to cooking traditional breads. I do that well”, she continued. I started nodding my head in consent and quickly changed to shaking it sideways and mumbled something that sounded like “No, aunty. The biscuits are great, too.” But my mouth was stuffed with those very biscuits and my words were not very clear. But by stuffing my mouth so, I had unintentionally confirmed that the biscuits were, in fact, so good that I couldn’t stop eating them. She stared at me for a good two seconds during which I spoke some barely legible words right through the food in my mouth, sending small crumbs of the biscuit flying out. I lifted the cup of tea and hurriedly washed it all down my throat with a big swig of her tea and took a few more gulps to make sure the biscuit had all properly entered my alimentary canal and remnants were not left sticking around in my mouth, for I needed this mouth right now to talk to my friend’s mother.

Only, I did not know what to say.

She was standing in front of the kitchen table, turned towards me, with her back to the gas stove. The dining room and the kitchen were parts of the same room. In fact, the same room also housed the sitting area. The couch was on the other end of the room, and visitors could sit there around a small center table. That half of the room was separated from this half that housed the dining table and kitchen by a curtain that stretched from wall to wall. My friend’s mother walked towards the dining table that I was seated at.

“Actually I have a lot of free time these days”, she continued from where she had left off. “So, I try new recipes.”

She was by now very close to the table. The entire space from the curtain to the wall was not more than ten steps.

It was then that my friend appeared. He stood behind his mother and started making faces. All this while, I had a very straight look on my face, trying to be a gentle visitor since I was meeting her for the first time. My solemn face was to convey that I was listening to her with a lot of intent. Then, my friend put his fingers in his mouth and pulled his cheeks apart and he looked a lot like the Joker. I suddenly turned from his mother and looked at him, aghast that he should be making faces thus and I am sure the surprise showed on my face. He wagged his tongue.

His mother, having seen my gaze shift suddenly, turned towards him. She could not, of course, see him, so she turned back to me.

“Is something the matter?”, she asked. I realised that I had been looking at my friend all this while.

“No, aunty”, I said. To add to that, I shook my head vigorously, so that this added movement would make my words more believable and kill any suspicion in her mind.

She sighed. I thought she was going to sit opposite me at the table, but she continued standing and leaned on a meat safe a few steps away from the table. She sighed again. I felt lost. I didn’t know what to say. In the meanwhile, my friend stood beside her with a look of mock innocence on his face. He was so close to her, I was sure she could feel his breath on her neck. I avoided looking at him.

“You must have heard about it the same day”, she said.

I nodded my head. She was a little surprised, but she composed herself quickly again.

“Who told you?”

I took another sip of tea. The cup was getting lighter and so, I decided I couldn’t be taking too big gulps too fast, for it would then finish and I couldn’t ask for another cup.

“A mutual friend of ours was at the hospital where he was admitted. He called me,” I said. I realised I was barely able to form sentences correctly. I never really know what to say at times like this.

She sighed again. “I was told only after two days,” she said. “Everyone- his father, his cousins and his uncles, knew it. Only I was kept in the dark.

My friend, who had managed to keep quiet for so long, suddenly rolled his eyes over and started marching in circles around his mother, like a soldier in a parade- his arms fully stretched and his heels clicking on the ground. I frowned. It was getting really hard for me to concentrate on what she was saying.

“I know”, I said, nodding my head. “One of his cousins is a friend of mine and she told me that they hadn’t broken the news to you.”

I looked at her face and immediately regretted having told her that. A flash of sadness crossed her eye. I looked at the ground and then at my hands. I found myself staring at the bottom of my teacup. There was nothing there. So, now I was forced to look at her. I could see her eyes were a little wet.

“They thought it would break me,” her voice quivered, her lips pursed together. “My son was dead for forty-eight hours and I had not the slightest clue.” She looked away towards the window. “In my head, he was alive. I had spoken to him three hours before they say he died.”

She stopped. She shut her eyes. A tear rolled down each of her cheeks, all the way to her chin. At this point of time, my friend climbed the meat safe behind his mother. There were some bowls and steel tumblers lying there and he walked right on the top of them. I started, for I was afraid he would make the cutlery fall. I was also getting angry because it was clearly very rude of him to be prancing around like a monkey while his mother was grieving over his death. She opened her eyes with great difficulty. She sighed again and turned to me. My friend, at this point of time, waved his hand from where he was standing on top of the meat safe behind her and having drawn my attention, lifted two steel tumblers and balanced them- one on top of each other on his head. He then folded up his legs and sat there like a yoga teacher, levitating above his mother’s head.

I, of course, thought this was very rude, because in my culture, we are taught to never go over an elder person even when they are lying down, nor to jump over their legs, leave alone above their heads.

“You would expect a mother’s heart to break- having to cremate her son like that. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way round? Wasn’t he supposed to cremate me when I die?”

She then caught sight of my gaze, which had unintentionally travelled in the direction of my friend. He was still levitating, but was now turned upside down and was rotating in the air like the hands of a clock- the tumblers, surprisingly, not falling off his head. And when his head reached six o’ clock, the tumbler was barely six inches over his mother’s head. In fact, had they fallen, they would have hit her head, bounced and landed on the floor, bouncing again and coming to a rest after a lot of clattering. I looked at the ground at the spot where the tumbler had fallen in my imagination.

“Would you rather not listen?” she asked, slightly anxious that I might not be too keen to listen to the story. But keen I was.

“Please, aunty”, I said, a little red in the face. “I want to hear it all.”

She paused for a moment and looked at me.

“Thank you for coming here. I know it must have been awkward. I saw your name on his phone. He had called you the same day, right?”

I nodded my head. I really wished I could get more tea. Her eyes looked sad. I imagined her bringing home her son’s mobile phone, sitting alone in her room and browsing through his call records, messages and photo galleries. How many idle afternoons had she spent thus after his death- hanging on to every string tied to his life? I remember the photos his cousin had sent me from his cremation- two cotton swabs stuffed into his nose, a coin placed on his forehead, his body draped in yellow cloth- lifeless. And as the funeral pyre caught fire, her son, a promising, lively, young, entrepreneur, turned into nothing but lump of burning flesh, smoke from which would rise and drift around, its sharp smell stinging people back into their senses. I tried to imagine where his mother- this elegant, composed woman, would have looked at as his body burnt. I really couldn’t picture any of it.

At this point, my friend vroomed across the room, squatting, as though he was seated on a motorcycle. That jolted me back to the present.

“Vroom! vroom!”, he circled around his mother. “Beep! Beep! Vroom!.” Like an ill-mannered child. I wanted to catch hold of his collar and pin him down to the ground. To me this seemed very insensitive, more so because he had on a motorcycle when he died. No, I corrected myself; he was on a motorcycle when he banged into a truck parked at the edge of the road. The men in the truck had stepped out, drunk and aggressive, and started yelling at him even as he lay there, injured and unable to lift the motorcycle off himself. And then, three of them took turns at beating him, They kicked him in the ribs, on his face, on his head, in his belly, until he puked blood and lay there unconscious. As a few other cars appeared on that desolate road, they got into the truck and drove away. Even as a crowd gathered, the blood from around him flowed across the road and under the shoes of those standing around him. He was dead on arrival at the hospital where his friend- my friend- was a doctor. He pronounced him dead. He told me the story that very night. I lived and worked in another city. Two thousand miles away.

Nobody must have told his mother the entire story. Parts of it, perhaps, but not the gruesome details.

“You know,” his mother spoke. “There were people who stood around him after his accident. Had they acted a little quicker, you know, maybe…”

I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t the accident that killed her son, but an unthought-of act of savagery- by someone who had nothing against him, knew nothing about him; someone who did it just out of a primal, spontaneous love of violence that is so innate to humans. I wanted to frame these thoughts into words and say it out aloud to her but my friend was writhing on the floor, clutching his heart in imagined agony and faking spasms, which I found disgusting. My disgust must have been clearly visible on my face for my friend’s mother said with a very pronounced annoyance in her voice, “you seem very distracted.”

I turned to her. She was irked. She must have been offended, for she was pouring her heart out to me and I was sitting there, looking around at nothing and seemingly paying no attention to her. I would hate me if I were in her place.

I mumbled an apology and looked at her with childlike innocence splashed all over my face like I never meant to offend her. It must have worked, for she sighed again and her face said that she forgave me.

“I am glad you came to see me,” she said again. But this time, she did not sound as grateful as she had the previous time. She was scanning my face for any sign of weird behaviour that I had been displaying all afternoon. I kept my eyes fixed on her, not once looking at my friend. I did let a glance slip to my teacup, though. There was a part of me that was imploring for another cup of tea. A part that could not understand why a human who earnestly wants a cup of tea could not implore to another human for a simple beverage that could be so easily served.

“My son had mostly good friends,” she continued.

I nodded. “I never found a soul who did not like him,” I said. And this was true. He was soft-spoken, helpful and a genuinely nice person- a rare find. That perhaps was the only thing which made go visit his house- a place I had never gone to before, for he had been a good man and I wanted to reach out to those he had left behind.

“He liked this one girl,” she said looking at me. “You might know her.” I did. We had all graduated together. He loved that girl. She didn’t love him back. I liked her, too. She didn’t like me back, either.

“I don’t know how things worked out with her but I wanted him to find someone and get married soon.” She thought for a while let out a smirk and shook her head- perhaps at the turn of events.

I was wondering why my friend who seemed to have lost all manners in his afterlife was not monkeying around. His mother was looking straight at her feet. So, I could afford a glance around the room. My friend was slouched on the floor, behind my chair, staring straight at me. He looked extremely sad and his eyes were wide open.

I looked back on what I had done or said. It suddenly struck me and I wanted to kick myself! Why did I have to think aloud in my head about the girl? He had never known that I had liked her. And now I laid my mind out open for him to read! He had read those lines straight off my head and they had hurt him. Not the part about me liking her but the fact that I had never told him any of it.

I looked back at his mother. She was still looking at the floor.

“This is it, I guess! My world has come crashing down around me. For the first few months, I couldn’t understand how I was to continue living, or why.” She paused.

One could feel the silence all around the room. I heard the hum of the refrigerator. Someone in the next house was hammering a nail. A TV was turned on somewhere in the next building.

“I know it’s just numbers. Thousands of young lives are lost every day. Perhaps my loss is not greater than that of the mothers of all those who die everyday. But it is great, nonetheless.”

My friend was now crouched, his hands around his knees, his head slumped forward, hanging upside down like a fly on the corner of the ceiling. His eyes- they were staring at me, looking right into my soul. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t have ulterior motives; that even though I wanted her to like me, I wanted her to like him back; that I was only overpowered by my Id, hanging on to the justification that if she didn’t like him, she would lose contact with him, and it would then be all right for her to like me; that he would have been OK with it. It was an assumption, a conclusion I had forgone. For I might have loved her, but I loved him more. I wanted him to read all this from my mind but I wasn’t putting it in words in my head and he was only staring at me with a piercing gaze. I stretched my hand towards him, offering to help him down from that corner of the ceiling

Suddenly I caught sight of his mother. She had been speaking all the time while these thoughts ran through my head, and I had not been listening to a word of what she had been saying. My hand was still stretched out- I reflexively pulled it back.

A spark of confusion flashed across her eyes and then it burst into flames.

Her face flushed in indignation. Who was this weird person who claimed to be her son’s friend? She opened her heart out him, telling him things she had not put into words before and he was clowning around. He was preoccupied and behaving like a schizophrenic.

She paused. “I think you should leave,” she said, looking at me, her voice devoid of any emotion. I gulped and slowly got on my feet. She slopped down on the chair opposite mine, put her head into her hands and started sobbing- the initial sobs turning gradually into a wail. Tears ran down the hands that covered her face. I stood beside her, lost. I wanted to put my hand on her shoulder, to tell her that all is not lost, that I loved her son and though I hadn’t met him in five years, he was, to me, the brother that I never had. But even as I was hesitating to lift my hand, my friend’s mother, still sobbing, started rising- in the air. And along with her, the chair she was sitting on and the table she had her arm on, rose in the air. I first raised my head in amazement and then looked down to see my friend slowly standing up from under the table with his hands over his head. With one palm, he was pushing up the table and with other, the chair his mother was sitting on. He effortlessly lifted all of it into the air like it weighed nothing. And even as I stood there with an amalgam of amazement and displeasure splashed all over my face, my friend stood up straight, his hands still lifting the table and the chair, until his eyes were level with mine; the tips of our noses less than four inches apart, and he looked directly into my eyes, his gaze piecing into my soul. I couldn’t feel his breath, for breathing he was not. I felt a cold shudder run down my spine; that feeling when you freeze in a nightmare enveloped me, held me tight for a few seconds and then let me go. The sudden release of pressure left my heart alarmed. I felt a drop of sweat trickle down my temple. I felt little beads of sweat form on my forehead. I looked back at him. My friend of childhood, of teenage, dead and gone, standing before me in flesh and blood. Yet that flesh was cold and that blood didn’t flow. I wanted to hug him and I wanted to kick him at the same time. What did he mean by such insolence? By pulling childish pranks around his grieving mother? By judging me for something I couldn’t help feeling? For something I did in spite of myself? Had she loved either of us back, wouldn’t he have wanted us to be together after he had gone away? How dare me judge in death for what I did or felt in life?

I realised I was breathing heavily. His mother’s wail was coming to an end. She was sniffing her sobs away. In an instant, before I even realised it, the table had come back down. So gently, that when she took her hands away from her face, she hadn’t even realised that she had been lifted and made to float in the air. She sat there, her eyes dried up, the dry tears leaving a trail on her cheeks. My hands hovered over her shoulder for a good few seconds but I could not place them there to comfort her, to be her son for a minute.

I picked up my car keys from the table and stammered a farewell and walked towards the curtain, beyond which lay the sitting room and the door.

“Thank you again for coming. It was very kind of you,” she said. And yet, her words sounded cold, even sarcastic, as though all her emotions, all her warmth had been washed away by her tears. I paused at the curtain; I turned back. I scanned the room for my friend, but he was no longer there. I couldn’t say a word. I nodded in reply to his mother’s words, even though she wasn’t looking at me. I walked across the sitting area and out of the door.

The sudden light outside hit my eyes, hurting them. I squinted a bit.

My shoes crunched the gravel as I walked towards where my car was parked.

I turned the key and pulled the handle of the door but it wouldn’t open. I peered inside the car through the tinted window and saw my friend sitting on the driver’s seat: seat belt fastened, his hands on the steering wheel, his face dead straight, staring at me through the glass, not one muscle on his face moving.

And no matter what I did or how much I pulled, my door wouldn’t open.

My problem with the Indian Railways

Over the last few years, I have always updated posts about the Indian Railways. Some like it, some find it amusing, some find it annoying; I have never really cared.

But I don’t diss the railways for nothing. It is, of course, an unbelievably HUGE organization and the fact that the railways runs so many trains and carries so many passengers in a day is mesmerizing.

But that’s no bloody excuse for the state of affairs. Indian trains aren’t just unpunctual or slow: you could blame those things on the huge cost of infrastructure and an inability to revamp the entire network throughout such a huge country. That is pardonable. But the railways are also shoddy and dirty as hell; what’s the excuse for that?

Every year, a budget is rolled out for the railways. Every year, new amenities are planned for the upper class passengers- wifi, food orders at platforms, resting rooms at stations, online booking for these resting rooms, private caterers who will deliver restaurant food to your seats, e-tickets that can be flashed on your phone or on your laptop, charging points for your tablets and MP3 players and your kids PSPs.

But fuck that! Two coaches away (separated from your air conditioned coach with terminal bogeys so no movement is possible between them) is the other India. That’s where there are no charging points; that’s where there are no reservations; that’s where there are 2-3 passengers for every seat.

That’s where in the killer heat of the Indian summer, five hundred people will sweat in unison: some squeezed against each other on the wooden benches, some standing, others squatting on the floor. In winter, the same number of people will freeze their asses off in unison. Some who are travelling alone will hold their shit in because if they go to the toilets, their seats will be taken when they come back.

This is where the Ticket inspector will find someone travelling with a wrong ticket and charge more money than what’s right; this is where the folks from the pantry car of the train cannot enter while the train is moving, because there is no entry to the ‘general’ coach from the reserved ones.

These are the toilets that are not cleaned at the next important station where a group of uniformed men spray water from the commodes to the doors on the other coaches. These are the toilets which, if you enter, you will no longer fear hell in your afterlife.

Every time I board a train, I see two lines starting from the spot where the general bogeys will come. These line stretch from the center of the platform to its edges. The number of people in that line is always many times higher than the number of seats inside those bogeys. There is a team of policemen with sticks and big bellies guarding the line. There is a team of porters who promise to get you a seat in exchange for 50 rupees or 100.

When the train arrives, there’s mayhem. The able ones jump and hang on to the doors that aren’t even opened. “Coolies” start throwing towels inside. Women with babies in their arms start running and join the mosh pit beside the door. Each one to his own. Or hers. If the chaos gets beyond control- the police swing into action- by randomly beating people- in a routine exercise called a ‘lathicharge‘, a colonial residue leftover from the glorious days of the British when they would swing their batons at anything Brown and moving.

How many get pushed and how many get stamped, and how many get hit by the police, even the plethora of Gods don’t know.

Elsewhere in the world, this happens when food packets are distributed to refugees who have been starving for days, when rescue boats reach the shores of stranded settlements in a flood; in the Indian Railways platforms, it happens every single fucking time.

For an able-bodied young man, a short trip in an unreserved coach is not that bad. Worst comes to worst, I can lean against the wall by the door or just stand for four hours or so. But a long-distance travel is another story all together.

I travelled once by “general” from Mumbai to Hyderabad. It was an enactment of the ship journey of Alex Hailey’s Roots in the 21st century. A coolie took 50 rupees and promised us a seat (Yes, I bribed, I do that a lot. That’s how I get around.) When the train arrived he was nowhere to be found. By the time we broke through the human sea and got inside- another coolie had placed a towel on a seat and said we would have to pay him twenty rupees if we wanted to sit there. We did, after putting up a weak resistance. This twenty hurt more than the fifty outside. That was consensual, this was forced. That was being shrewd, this was being looted. We sat upright on the wooden benches all night. A woman was sitting on the aisle, beside our feet. She had lost a child and was crying. Her husband was drunk- by the looks of it- and was hitting her every few minutes, asking her to stop crying. Like that display of love wasn’t too much to bear already, she had bundled another two children inside two torn blankets and shoved them under the seats, after moving our bags aside. Yes, like that! By morning, I felt so guilty about spending the entire night on the seat even though I had not lost a child nor had a spouse who would hit me at the back of my head, that I got up and stood by the door for the rest of the journey, nested between a dozen raised sweating armpits and their owners in brown holed banyans, slapping tobacco and cracking foul jokes. It was kinda nice, to be honest- now that I think of it.

It’s of course, easy for me to say that, because I obviously don’t travel general out of compulsion.

Apart from the fares, there is little difference between the unreserved class and the pampered travellers. The general class bogeys smell of sweat and their toilets, of urine and shit. The aisles in the AC give you a range of sock smells as you walk past a bogey. Migrant workers will be playing songs from the 90s aloud on Chinese phones in the general bogeys; a family will be playing aloud a pirated hall print of the latest film on their laptop in the AC coach. And honestly, the number of stares a woman travelling alone in either class would be the same.

The Indian railways is THE CHEAPEST mode of transport in the world. The general class fares are HEAVILY subsidised. But so are the sleeper class fares and the Air conditioned classes. And yet, the upper class passengers behave like they own the train.

Giving cheap transport is one thing. Making people travel 48 hours or more in extreme weather conditions, piled up like cattle and poultry is inhuman.

7 decades after the colonial powers left, Indians are dividing their passengers into five different classes. Five! Even the English don’t do that anymore.

So when you and I brag about wifi on trains, or complain about its speed; when we feel pampered on the Rajdhanis, or when we complain the dal doesn’t taste good; When we thank God for chancing upon a charging point in a sleeper compartment, or when we complain about the AC being turned up too high in the night- just remember- we are not just the customers of, but also a reason behind the continuation of, a malignant, classist system that has a different modus operandi for the haves and have-nots.

The railway budget of 2015 apparently included suggestions made by online users- on Facebook , on Twitter, How many of these suggestions suggested increasing the number of general bogeys even by 1 (that’s 20% less misery), of making conditions in these coaches more humane, of actually getting the system to work for those who can’t pay for air conditioning and Dettol soap in toilets?

A century ago, when a upper-caste Indian, educated in England and working in South Africa, was asked to leave a reserved coach, the indignation and humiliation he felt led him to start a revolution that fought against discrimination in two countries, inspired anti-colonial movements throughout the world, and secured the independence of the world’s most populated colony.

\A hundred years later, in the same country, the same apartheid rears its ugly head every day, every moment, on every train.

Mosquitoes and my toes

So last night I went to bed early because I wasn’t feeling well. I fell asleep and dreamt of a drone engine coming towards me… it got closer and closer and the humming grew louder and yet it would not land. It then went silent and I woke up to a mosquito bite.
I abused, I cursed, I let my hostility be known. I went back to sleep. That “tyaaaaaaaaaaaaan” increased again, came closer. I slapped in the dark. My ear suffered a bit of collateral damage, but the enemy wasn’t hurt.
I woke up and searched around my room for a mosquito repellent. I vividly remembered having seen one somewhere at some point of time. My brain (whose conversation with me you have read before and who you know is not an ally) cooked up images of that Good Knight in every corner of the room. But I couldn’t find one. I didn’t want to rack my brain- one enemy is enough.
I went back to bed, and then I heard the engine roar back to life.
Just a note here on the mosquito. A mosquito is a very important species. It’s every atheist’s trump card. In a room full of religious people each arguing over whose theory of creation is right, an atheist will walk in, look around at every one’s faces and ask which God in the right frame of mind would create a mosquito. Refusing to even touch the blunt that’s being passed around, he can get up and walk out, leaving everyone scratching their heads. And while a few of the believers inside may snigger and say “what a silly question”, none of them will have an answer.
In spite of its relevance to human discourse, nobody likes a mosquito. Nobody. Not even the atheist who used its existence as a trump card to mystify an already mystified debate.
I had to get rid of this mosquito.
The tyaaaaaaaaaan continued. I turned on the light. I followed the sound, from right beside my ear to around 180º to my right. I saw a thin form, hovering in the air. Unafraid, undeterred. I reached out for my glasses. Because for me to spot a mosquito in my room without glasses is as difficult as it is for an Indian cricket fan to spot the fallacies of the BCCI.
I wore my glasses, and then I saw her. This mosquito- slim, dark and with legs that had a sinister, perfect curve. She was from that race- the one whose hind legs are curved at the bottom- like a pair of Jodhpuri shoes worn back to front. We’ll call her Anophela, because I don’t know her actual name. I clapped in thin air- my palms came together in perfect unison, creating a reverberating clap when they hit each other. And yet, like in the last scene of a Nicolas Cage movie, Anophela had flown right out when she had sensed the two huge walls closing in on her. I had failed, she had escaped. She sniggered, and flew away to the other corner of my room. The corner that is so full of stuff that I can’t find the corner in that corner.
I needed to sleep. I couldn’t spend an entire night chasing a mosquito.
It then struck me. And I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before. There are mosquito repellent apps, right? I checked on play store. In spite of the bad reviews, I downloaded an app. The app claimed to produce supersonic sounds. It had options ranging from 14kHz to 22kHz. I turned it on at 22kHz, laid it on the table beside my pillow and went to sleep.
Supersonic my foot! The short bursts of noise that it was emitting was halfway between a Banshee sobbing and noise you would get when your old Nokia phone vibrated inside the pockets of an unidentifiable pair of pants in your laundry heap.
I turned on the light and saw the mosquito sitting right ON the mobile phone. It flew away. My tubelight’s a better repellent than that app.
I had to kill her. There was no other way. I was losing my sleep and besides, a mosquito can, according to Nana Patekar, turn a man into a transgender.
I threw away the blanket and waited, hoping that the heat of my body (literally, not metaphorically) would attract this tiny but potent enemy into the lair. In the meanwhile, i thought of jokes- bad one, as usual. I even logged on to Facebook and put up a poor joke as my status, Some read it, some laughed, others sniggered. A thousand kilometers away, an ex went “ufff, hawrey” and pretended to ignore. Some would read it later; The rest of the world didn’t care. I felt a sting. I looked down, and there she was- gently sitting on my knee. Poised, proboscis inside my skin, attempting to draw out blood in a maneuvre that would have given a lot of male mosquitoes a lot of ideas.
I had read somewhere that if you clench your muscle while a mosquito is sitting on it, it’ll get stuck there. I tightened all the muscles in my leg and slapped the spot she was sitting on.
It turned out to be an internet myth. I had killed nothing but the moment. She had won round two. I sat there, ready to face the ridicule of a creature more than a thousand times smaller. She was doing a small victory dance, mocking me. She flew past my face. Instinctively, I slapped the air with both my hands.
My hands didn’t even touch each other properly. There was no resounding clap. Just a slight brush of palms. And yet, when my palms separated, there she was. Still, lifeless.
What an unpleasant way to die. How quietly, after raging a fierce battle of tactics for more than two hours. I looked at my hand. The smear on my palm had stripes of dark grey and brown- as though the natural designs of her body while she was alive were imprinted on her grave.
I felt a little sad; but then I remembered the number of artificially manufactured broiler chicken that get killed and pass through the fires of hell to travel down my digestive tracks and turn into shit, I realised how small this crime was. I lay her cadaver on the table- in its entirety. I realised not a drop of blood had splashed from her corpse while being hit. She had died hungry- lying still in death, like a miniature black peacock.
I turned to the wall and saw another mosquito. This one was not as grand as the first one. She seemed disinterested- just stuck to the wall like that, posing no threat. But I knew once the lights went out and she smelled me, she would turn into an enemy. I slapped the wall. She died at once, without warning. I was not so gentle with this one- her head was separated from her body- much like Ned Stark at the end of season one. I laid her to rest beside the compañera; let her be there until a tiny current of air made by the lifting of book would blow her corpse away.
I went to sleep. All that is left now is an ugly smear on my wall, reminding me of the less important death.
In the morning, the mosquito repellent app asked me if I want an update.

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Trying to dance to democracy

Do we really know democracy? Can we lead our lives and structure our society on the “imported” principles of Liberty, Equality, Fratenity? As a society with caste, class and ethnic divisions, can we strive to become equal as and not more powerful than the other?  Or will we remain an aid-seeking, labour exporting “new” republic, broken along ethnic faultlines and taking up arms against each other to make our voices heard?

Anything I say or write about federalism and restructuring of states in Nepal will be seen as coming from a representative of a particular group- I am from the east and that, too a district with one of the highest literacy rates in the country, I have been working outside the country for way too long now and the fact that I come from a village called “Bahundangi” doesn’t help much to conceal the group I belong to. But since the restructuring is going to affect me as much as the next person from the next village, I do have my own share of hopes and fears about the process.

A lot has been said and written about the proposed models of federalism. What is perhaps unretractable is that we are now going to have a federation, and in all likelihood- one based on identity instead of just geography.

Much can be said about the dangers of ethnicity based division- the majority might turn against the minority, we might see people being evicted, ethnic faultlines may show up, there might be demands by new groups for new states and violence may erupt. All these are reasonable fears- almost every country that was colonised,as well as nations in Eastern Europe, are witness to what ethnic division can do.

But languages and cultural practices are dying in Nepal. The domination of Nepali as the language of instruction in schools, as the preferred language for official communication (necessary because administrative officers usually are Khas Bahun Chhetri and usually not local to the place they serve in) and as the language of the media has contributed to the gradual decline in the usage of the various languages that make up our diverse country. There is an under-represenation of ethnic groups in political and administrative life as well as in arts. The federal model should change that. The federal model should patronise local languages and culture in the respective states and work to update those languages to be usable in the 21st century.

To show us how this would work- our leaders point to Switzerland: 26 cantons, with at least four different languages among them- education, TV shows, official work happens in the dominant language and there is no single national language.

But let’s face it, we are no Switzerland. Apart from the mountains, there is little that we share in common. We are offended too easily, we feel victimised too soon, we block roads too happily and we form alliances too readily. To make our voices heard, we shout, we burn, we beat.We are the country that burnt shops and tires and even lost a life when a film star from a neighboring country supposedly said something about us. We are a country where we pay thrice the price of a vehicle and yet do not have insurance against someone breaking it at will in a street protest.

If ethnic violence broke out in these states, it will result in loss of lives and property.

Writers and politicians alike advocate the formation of small states. India is used to exemplify this (though most of their states are larger than our country). When ethnic violence breaks out in one state or there is demand for separation- such as in Assam or West Bengal, the rest of the country functions without interruption. The assumption underlying that statement is that ethnic violence is expected. It’s like saying that we as a people are prone to violence and it’s best to keep us in parts so that when we fight, we do not disrupt the whole.

I am no expert in the politics of my country. How the country is restructured is of lesser importance to me than how we behave. We have thrown out the king, we have voted twice after that. And yet the only way we know to make ourselves heard is by blocking roads and burning traffic and beating those that disagree with us- with no accountability whatsoever. “Peaceful strikes” do not stand true to their name.  Perhaps we have forgotten what peace is. When we talk about the government- we compare them to those in other countries- USA, UK, Australia, Continental Europe. We talk of civilised parliaments and presidential debates.”Hamro yesto kahile hune?”

And yet when it comes to ourselves, we take the fight out of the parliaments on to the roads. Our debates include throwing stones and burning tyres. We expect our leaders to be civil and yet we can’t even behave civilised. We expect our administration to be straight while we remain crooked. We want Plato’s Republic and behave like Freud’s patients.