Tales of hope, tales of despair
By Dinesh Wagle in Achham, western Nepal
Wagle Street Journal
[This article appeared in today’s Kathmandu Post. Nepali version of the same appeared in today’s Koseli of Kantipur]
Photos by Wagle. Photos of Wagle by David Geoffrion
When I saw him for the first time walking on the dusty Karnali Highway leading to Jumla in Dailekhi land, the image of “Afghan Girl”, a famous photo by photojournalist Steve McCurry, popped in my mind. In the picture published on the cover of National Geographic Magazine in 1985, the Afghan refugee girl Sharbat’s eyes and face reflect immense pain and fatigue. I saw the same pain and fatigue on Rajesh Shahi’s face.
Tired of mixing gravel and sand at a construction site in Nainital, India, the 17-year-old was heading back home. He has been walking continuously for the last five days after crossing the Nepal border at Mahendranagar. His luggage, a green tin box held up by a tumpline, rubs against his back. A radio cassette player hangs from his neck and rests on his chest. Around 10 other people walk alongside Rajesh Shahi carrying similar belongings. They are all equally tired. All of them, before embarking on this journey home, had worked as laborers for a daily wage of Rs 120 Indian at a cricket stadium construction site breaking stones and mixing sand. They have all endured the reprimand of the Indian contractor, been intimidated by Indian Police at the border and some even robbed by them.
After reaching Khitki Jyula in Dailekh that February evening, they wanted to forget it all.
“There atop that hill is our home,” one of them pointed it out. The next morning, as they step into Achham district after crossing the Karnali River over the suspension bridge, they’ll reach their homes in time for lunch.
Before that happens, above the Karnali River and in a jungle below the village, an important piece of work will be done.
And even before that, there is another thing to be done at a shop in Jyula. Before leaving home for India, Rajesh had bought a jacket costing Rs 350 from the shop on credit with the promise to pay the money on his return. God save the boy, he is broke!
“All my earnings were spent getting back home, Dai,” the young lad who had stepped outside the shop to spit told me. “I bought some goods at Chisapani, this box, the radio; and I had to eat on the journey.”
The original plan was to cover the uphill distance on the other side of the Karnali before the sun was up, but Rajesh couldn’t convince the shopkeeper to let him go. The discussion lengthened, the morning was slipping away. “He is a shopkeeper of the village. I told him I’d pay him after reaching home, but he doesn’t listen,” Rajesh said. Finally, an older man among the returnees paid the money for Rajesh with the condition that he be repaid when they got home. The group continued its journey uphill. In a little while, they reached the river. One and a half hours from this place is Rajesh’s school in Bhaichala, Shree Sharada Primary School. Five minutes from the school, he reaches home.
Jeevan Shahi, 19
Jaisara Rokamagar, 16, with her friends
He laid down his luggage like his travel companions. He washed his hands and legs and dried them with a handkerchief. Then he opened the Chinese lock on his box. He slowly took off his old and worn-out jeans and jumper. He got into a new pair of jeans, fastened a belt around his waist and then put on a T-shirt. I saw a smile on his face for the first time after he changed into the colorful jeans which looked like a nine-year-old’s birthday gift. “Vacation” it said in big bold letters on his green T-shirt, and below it “In Goa Beach”. The words “Great Paradise” were overprinted on “Vacation”.
“Great Paradise Goa Beach” is a place in the country he labors in is something Rajesh doesn’t know. Nor does he have any plans of “vacationing” there. He just seemed too happy to be able to relax in the hills, his own hills.
“My heart is filled with joy, Dai,” he told me with a second’s gap after each word. “I’m about to reach home. I need to look good. I need to be fashionable. I should look good when I see my family.” He looked at me for a while, then at himself. He adjusted his T-shirt.
Rajesh’s travel mates and fellow villagers, 18-year-old Jeevan Shahi and 19-year-old Min Bahadur Bohara, also changed into new jeans, shirts and shoes. A little way above them, four girls carrying baskets were resting on their way uphill. Their laughter and jokes could be heard where the boys rested.
Now it was time to play at full blast the “Bliss” brand radio cassette player they had bought at Chisapani for Rs 900 which has FMs, medium wave and medium wave frequency from 1 to 9.
Shhhh as the wind blows
I wish to pluck the flower like youth
Far above the river as the girls were nearing all the three radios blared at one pace at once. Their volumes were raised. All the three of them were airing romantic tunes but they faced the same problem-you couldn’t figure out which cassette was playing which song in particular. It felt as though a fourth song was being aired from the mixture of the three.
The girls who had been carrying water in a plastic bag offered it to the ‘thirsty’ boys. As they gulped the water in through their palms the boys’ eyes met the girls’. Two cassettes had been turned off, another one was airing a sad song-
Nor you or me could see
This sadness written in our fate….
The girls moved on. When we met them again in Batase hill they were yelling “Oie, Oie” to the truck drivers on the move in the hills of Dailekh opposite the Karnali River. All the four of them sat in a row swinging their legs. They were waiving their majetras to the drivers.
“What is the name of the one who fed me water?” I asked.
“Why do you need to know?” she replied.
“Just for the sake of it.”
“I have no name.”
“Come on, tell me,” I urged.
“Why should I? Why should I tell my name to a stranger?”
“I am your very own. We are from the same country.”
“Even a person living in a different house is a stranger. You are from a different district altogether.”
I had to try for another couple of minutes in order to make the cheerful, red-cheeked 16-year-old Jaisara Rokamagar disclose her name and age. Jaisara and her friends have never been to school.
Jeevan Shahi, however, had attended school till the third standard. Then his educational journey got caught up with the People’s War. “The situation did not favor me,” he said in a solemn tone. “’You must become a Maoist or else we will kill you and throw you away’, the Maoists told my father,” he said. The first time his father took him to India, Jeevan was 13. This lad who thought the Maoists to be the number one culprits behind his lack of education added that his parents’ illiteracy was also a cause.
“How nice it would be if my parents had educated me,” he said. “I would also be doing a job like yours.”
Surely, manual labor in Indian cities is not easy. Rajesh, who was returning home from India for the third time, explained, “Immediately after reaching the place you need to look for a contractor. You need to find out if he gives you the amount you earn or cheats you. Then there is the work. You need to figure out how easy or difficult it will be. After that you need to rent a kamara (room) and buy chawal (rice) and atta (flour).”
Just like bringing chawal in the kamara, these laborers bring in Hindi terms into their villages. “Say bhat (rice) now,” the hotel owner had told Rajesh after he had asked for a second helping of chawal at dinner the day before. As people with different languages and of the different societies move to and fro, some words create confusion among them and it often becomes a matter of jokes.
“Once, a contractor told a Nepali from here ‘Arey, kuladi leke aanaa’ (Arey, bring a kuladi with you),” one of them said. “The Nepali fellow looked around and saw nothing. So the next day, dragging a calf he went up to the contractor and said, ‘Dekho, maine kuladi laya’ (Look, I have brought a kuladi). The contractor was utterly surprised. In Hindi, kuladi means axe.”
Let’s leave the jokes in the jungle. After walking for five hours, Rajesh is about to reach home. He arrived at the aagan of his house after dodging an angry buffalo. His mother sits on the other side of the aagan.
“Did you meet your brother?” It was the very first question his mother asked him.
No. Rajesh’s brother who had left for India for a laborer’s job last year is not in contact with his family.
“I had told him not to go too,” 55-year-old Dudhkaladevi Shahi pointed to Rajesh and told me, “There is work in the fields. We have buffaloes. Who will take care of them?”
“I don’t like to work in the fields,” Rajesh who didn’t speak in front of his mother said. “How can I stay idle here? You should go to India.”
The mother’s negativity towards her son’s working in India seemed to change when Rajesh took his trunk to the inner room and opened it. He had brought a fariya, material for a blouse, shoes for his small nephew, clothes for his father and another fariya for his sister-in-law.
“We had nothing to wear, we were naked,” Dudhkala said with a bright face, examining the cloth for a while and then putting it back in the box. “What use is staying here, there is no money. We can’t buy clothes.”
We stepped outside. I looked at Rajesh’s face. I can’t explain how happy he was to see his mother’s happiness. He reminded me of the American photojournalist Steve McCurry’s photo once again. How would he have captured the happiness in the boy’s face? I wondered.
It was already late afternoon when I returned after waving goodbye to the mother and son. It was cold and windy. Rajesh shivered in his Goa Vacation T-shirt, but he wouldn’t put on his old, worn-out jacket over the T-shirt despite my repeated requests.