A Different Alchemist: Himalayan Yarns of Nepali Shepherds

ब्लगमान्डू!: एसएलसी फेल, विहे पास

Conversation with young shepherds in a rural Nepali village. Topics: education, aspirations, flirting with girls and the marriage to produce more children for grazing oxen and sheep!

Unlike the shepherd in Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist, 18-year-old Padam Bahadur Rawal who has given up all hope of passing the School Leaving Certificate exams plans to spend the rest of his life with the woolly animals (22 pics inside)

By Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal

Rara (Mugu): Padam Bahadur Rawal is fighting with the clouds of smoke in a hut while about four hundred sheep with their shrunken faces in the drizzling rain are gnawing outside. A few other shepherds who have assembled here to avoid the rain plan to take their animals to the jungle as soon as the rain stops. The beans boiling in a small pot in the fire will be consumed by the shepherds as dinner. Welcome to the hovel situated just above the village of Jhyari nearby the Rara Lake.

If Padam knew the meaning of the English words “MAKE THE TEMPLE” scribbled on his right hand and “HAPPY” on his right shin, why would he fail thrice in the SLC exams? “I studied sheep [instead of books],” said the ex-student of Karnali Secondary School in Topla village. “How could I pass?” Unlike the shepherd in Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist, this 18-year-old who has given up all hope of passing the “Iron Gate” exams plans to spend the rest of his life with the woolly animals — about five dozen sheep outside belong to him. After hearing the meaning of the English words, he smiles. Right at the moment a fly comes and sits on his teeth for a second. If only one fourth of the flies flying around him in the hut were sheep Padam would be a millionaire.

Padam takes his sheep to the grazing field. “The Maoists didn’t let us study,” Padam recalled his schooldays. “‘They forced us to attend their programs. The teachers seldom came and the ones who came ran away fearing Maoists.”

Padam looks at the sky as his sheep prepare to go to jungle for grazing.

“Girls are such snobs, it’s hard to win their hearts,” Padam said. “They are distressing. Girls act superior, vain and always demand respect.” He won one heart last year.

Padam takes out his toungue as he struggles with two rams. “The tradition here is to have many children,” he said. “Half of them go to graze oxen and the other half to graze sheep.”

Bhair Bahadur Rawal, 22, puffs Sulpha. “I’ll marry when I’m thirty,” he said. “I’ll go down (to the cities), sell my sheep and find a girl who has put on lipsticks. In the cities, girls run after money. They don’t bother about their hubbies’ age.”

Sheep are the soul of the people of this region. Every household has a dozen to hundreds of sheep which are assembled into groups and taken to grazing fields and jungle. This group has sheep from five families that were mixed in the month of Jestha and will be separated in Asoj. When the sheeps are mixed one person from one household is enough to go after them but two are required when they are separated.

Shepherding can’t be a hobby, considering the hardship. But there is the problem of unemployment. Out of the 105 households in the village, only two persons are employed- guards in the Rara National Park. “If I got a job of just two thousand rupees, I would give away all my sheep to the government,” announced Bhair Rawal, 22, as he puffed on his sulpha adding more smoke. Both the lads haven’t finished school and it’s not their sole fault.

“The Maoists didn’t let us study,” Padam recalled his schooldays. “‘They forced us to attend their programs. The teachers seldom came and the ones who came ran away fearing Maoists.” When he was in the 10th standard, the Maoists took him twice to Rowa village, forcing him to walk for several hours. This year’s SLC results had been flashed the previous day; but Padam isn’t excited. “Other subjects are easy to pass by copying and cheating but English and Math are impossible.” His conclusion is firm.

During the pre-SLC tests, Padam said, Maoists took the invigilating teachers to the School office and told the students ‘okay boys write, cheat (copy)’. But they were not there in the SLC exams. “We didn’t get a good teacher from the beginning,” Padam said. “There’s no one in the village that is qualified to teach. All are from outside. They go way for summer holidays in Ashad and come back after five months. No one passes SLC, result’s always nil. We try for two to four years and after failing many times we just give up.

This studious boy sporting Puma cap is Kshetra Rawal, a fifth grader in a local primary school. His brother Padam (left, not the main character of this story) studies on grade 2. Since the school is closed as there are not enough teachers, the boy said they have come Mili, an open space near Lake Rara, to graze oxen. He was trying to do some math in his notebook when I took this photo.

Smile!

Sheep graze in an open space near Rara lake.

While closely guarding their masters’ most loved possessions, dogs enjoy the sun in an open space

Dinesh Wagle with sheep grazing on the background

Shepherds inside the hut

Wagle with shepherds inside the hut

But, even if you give up the SLC exams, you must emerge victorious in the fierce competition of finding girls to marry before you cross your teens. Otherwise you may remain a bachelor for the rest of your life.

Last year Padam married a girl one year younger than him by proposing via family members but he has had the experiences of flirting with girls that’s better known as “Lapakne” in the region. Lapakne is a very common method of finding a girl that involves boys walking for hours in the night, peeking into huts where girls are sleeping and impressing them by singing:

Badal kina gherido, megh kina aaudo?
Heri dit napugne thaur yo mun kina dhaudo?

[Why’s the clouds gathering, why’s it raining?
Why does this heart come to the place that’s not enough for watching?]

Since we are talking about love, the subject of letters is inevitable. Is there any son of a man who hasn’t written one?

Bata ti pani ko naulo, tirkha lagya pine
Ko hola babuko chhoro chhithi patra dine?

[Water is in the tap, drink if you are thirsty
Who would be the son of a man to give me letter?]

If there was such a challenge, which boy would turn way?

Lau laijau military jutta
Mathi lekma hiun chha
Naphalnu diyako chitthi
Tesma mero jiu chha

[Wear and take way military boots
The upper hills are snowy
Don’t throw away my letter
My body’s engraved on it]

You might be reading this article at any time but the game of lapakne happens only at night because, as Padam said, it’s “embarrassing” during the day. When I requested him to sing a lapakne song, he pointed at the elders in the hut and said he would be ashamed. The fathers of children seldom go but there’s a line of unmarried and recently wedded ones.

“If it was in the cities, we could go riding bikes,” said Bhair. “Here in the village, we walk in the night with aching legs, and our eyes might get hurt in the bushes.”

Ek bolda malya jalya
Ek bolda patya
Daika gotha khelna aaula
Jharo chiri rakhya

[One young ox colorful
Another white in the middle
I’ll come to play Dohori in your shed
Keep the firewood from the pine trees ready]

Chulthihara Rawat, 8, smiles as she becomes shy and tries to cover her face. She was on her way to find an ox that hasn’t returned to home since the previous day.

Chulthihara with her brother Ratan, 6.

Chulthihara doesn’t go to school and probably will never. Her brother is a second grader in a local primary school in Jhyari village.

Bhair is garrulous. He has not impressed a girl till now. “You don’t get a girl if you don’t win her heart,” Padam said. “As you grow older, girls don’t even glance at you.”

I couldn’t help laughing.

“You laugh,” Padam said and looked at Bhair. “This is what happened to him. He didn’t get any girls and perhaps won’t, ever.”

“Are you married?” Padam asked me.

“No,” I said. He was stunned. I told him I was 28 and tried to assure him (and myself) that I would get a girl.

“You get girls down there,” Padam said. “Not here.”

In such a situation, there is a crowd of boys competing to attract girls.

“Girls aren’t kept in their homes for a week once they start to menstruate,” Padam said moving both his hands that intended to mean ‘heavy flow’. “When boys know this, they throng to the huts like this.”

Bhair, who was smiling, decided to speak. “I’ll marry when I’m thirty,” he said. “I’ll go down (to the cities), sell my sheep and find a girl who has put on lipsticks. In the cities, girls run after money. They don’t bother about their hubbies’ age.”

“What will you do with a city girl?” Padam responded. “They’re grown up eating rice which is a dream here. Moreover, they can’t work here.”

The Sulpha Puff: “It was very difficult to inhale the smoke as I couldn’t even manage to puff it well let alone taking out the smoke.”- Dinesh Wagle. In another picture, a local boy seats on Wagle’s left as Aite Rawal plays with the digital camera.

Girls are seldom sent to schools in these areas, so there is no chance of falling in love in classes. “Nowadays, there are at least five or six girls in a class,” Padam said. “During my time, there would be none. We didn’t find a single girl from the sixth to tenth standard.”

“Ha…Ha..ha..!” Bhair was touched by the talk.

Even if you find someone, there is no guarantee that she will agree to be yours. “Girls are such snobs, it’s hard to win their hearts,” Padam said. “They are distressing. Girls act superior, vain and always demand respect.”

Once a girl likes a boy, their relationship grows and friends help them. Occasionally, boys fight for one girl. She elopes in the night and her parents next day ask her if she did it on her own will. “If the parents don’t like the boy, they drag the girl and take her away,” Padam said.

Padam had no thoughts about getting married at 17, but his “household work and problems” bonded him. The youngster understands that if you “get married fast, you have children sooner and it’s hard to provide them clothes.” “The tradition here is to have many children,” he said. “Half of them go to graze oxen and the other half to graze sheep.” He has no plans to become a father at the moment but he hasn’t done family planning, either. “I’ll use contraceptives,” he beamed. Padam lives with his parents, grandfather, a first grader brother and two sisters aged 12 and 14 who don’t go to school.

The fun of singing songs doesn’t go on forever. You must come back to life’s hardships. The rain has stopped; it’s time to herd the sheep. Padam hasn’t forgotten his two friends who lost one eye each while driving sheep a few months ago. But he also knows that the sheep don’t understand this.

His name? Sarpa (snake) Rawal, 65. A resident of Jhyari village of Pina VDC-4, Sarpa was herding 14 cows and buffaloes as I was wandering in the jungle trying to find sheep hut. He was making woolen coat with Puinetho. “It’s okay over here,” he said after I asked him about the life there. “The national park is giving us slight headache, rest its all fine. He kindly showed me the way to go to the sheep herd.

Well life is not that much fancy over here. Look at the man’s trouser that’s been torn and sewed several times at several places.

Aite Rawal, 74, shows me his coat made from the wools of local goat and sheep. “I have been herding sheep since I was 12,” he said. “My father, grand father and great grand father were also shepherds. Nothing is good with this job. All the time its suffering and pain. But we can’t abandon this profession because we can’t grow grains to survive. Animals are the only means for us to survive.” Aite is the former pradhanpancha of the village and had gone to Kathmandu to request the then king to shift the village of Jhyari to Nepalgunj. The then king Mahendra had shifted two small villages including Rara to Bardiya after declaring the area National Park. “We don’t want to stay here,” said the old man. “The park doesn’t allow us to graze our animals there. We don’t have enough grazing field.” His effort to move didn’t materialize “because of the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990.”

This article appeared in today’s edition of the Kathmandu Post and the Nepali version in today’s Kosilee (Kantipur)
ब्लगमान्डू: यो लेख नेपालीमा

Wagle’s experience of Bungee Jumping: Bungy Jumping In Nepal: Incredible Experience

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2 thoughts on “A Different Alchemist: Himalayan Yarns of Nepali Shepherds”

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