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AND THE BANDH PLAYS ON

*

Raj Kumar was sixteen and still at school. He supplemented his income working at night as my security guard. At eight-thirty he and his mate would appear, torches in hand, to peer into my room, observe every minute change since they last peered, shine halogen spotlights on me if I was sleeping, whisper loudly and crash around in the gravel.

‘Is it a tigah-h-h? Is it an elephant? ’

There was high pitched giggling.

‘I think it is a monster,’  said Dogster dryly.

More mirth from the mist.

‘Mr. Raj Kumar! Sir!’

His torch clicked on.

‘No monster.’

‘Everything is good, Mr. Raj, I am safe. Goodnight.’

‘I am going.’

‘Sleep well.’

Raj hovered in the doorway.

‘I am going.’

‘O.K. Raj, goodnight…’

A pregnant pause…

Two bright eyes lit on the shiny black Sony on the desk.

‘No, you can not watch movies.’

Crash, giggle, clump through darkness. I see their torches wobble off along the path.

‘See you!’ shouted over a young Nepali shoulder, ‘I come tomorrow!’

*

Govinda the manager  was my conduit to the world. His English was way better than my Nepali so, in effect, he was translator, guide, host and life-line –  my Phulbari fixer. Life was easy between us.

‘I will collect thirty or fifty children,’ he said one day, apropos of nothing at all, ‘make children house.’

He gestured at the valley below. Handsome poverty-stricken hamlets vied with lush, terraced fields, the land curved away under us like slices in a bright green mango.

‘Many problems down here. Look pretty but many problems.’

I always rather had the feeling that Govinda’s grand and noble ideas needed grand and noble amounts of my foreigner cash.

‘Drink problem. Drug problem. Poor problem. Dead father problem. Too many children problem. Sometime all problem, all-together, every time.’

His face darkened. Govinda didn’t really like to talk about bad things to a foreigner.

‘One boy, I have him here – her mother was burned alive.’ He paused and twitched his head; ‘she was a witch.’

Which boy?

‘Yes,’ he said, nodding wisely.

*

Fate brought us together – that’ll do. Sometimes people collide in Kathmandu – before I knew it my accidental American was tagging along. Fine by me. I’d warned him.

He looked the very model of a modern Social Studies teacher, short back and sides, clean-cut and collegiate; perfectly normal in every way – He looked like everybody, as if someone had taken a gene from each reality show in America, put them in a blender and bred him. He was forty-one and looked twenty-five, married for twenty-two years, fit and healthy.  He was in Nepal, alone.

Alone, that is, save for his constant companion; a heavy bag of rolled up material.

‘Show me,’ I said, knowing I had found a candidate for ‘most stupid man in the world’,

The brown bag weighed a ton. He pulled out the contents; three rolled up sheaths of material. One was surprise pink, a diamante stretch fabric covered in sequins that I had truly never seen before. One was a lurex with diarrhea; swirling psychedelic globs of shining plastic velvet – orange, monsoon green globbing into red, neon yellow and luminous grey.  The third was a return to the diamante, sequined, astro-pants; iridescent purple, this time.

‘Looking for an Indian tailor…’

‘But you’re in Nepal.’

‘Never did find one in India,’ he said with what might, for a blond Californian lass, be a disarming smile. This man had been lugging a five kilo bag of material around for a month – looking for a cheap tailor.

‘Gotta look good for the Burner Girls!’

I had no idea what he meant.

*

‘Mr. Raj Kumar! Sir!’

‘Everything is good, Mr. Raj, everything is good – just talking to Mr. John. Goodnight.’

‘I am going.’

‘Sleep well.’

‘I go, see you. I come tomorrow.’

‘Tomorrow one movie, Raj…’

*

‘Burner Girls! Burner Girls!’ The chicks who hang at Burning Man!’

Burning Man is an annual art event and temporary community based on radical self expression and self-reliance in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. It takes its name from the ritual burning of a large wooden effigy on Saturday evening. The event is described by many participants as an experiment in community,  radical self-reliance and radical self-expression.

So that’s what that material is all about. Radical self-expression. Obviously he thinks of himself as pink and sparkly.

‘Yes, some amazing women, Dog. Drugs and sex, drugs and sex for days.’

This seemed to be a good time to quiz him in his missing wife.

‘Oh, we have an open relationship,’ he said blithely, ‘I told her about five years ago that I couldn’t go on being faithful. There were too many women in the world.’

I liked his blissful candor. We were just men on the top of a mountain. No need to lie.

‘She’s my high-school sweetheart; I love her to death – but after fifteen years…’

Luckily his wife felt the same way. It was a modern marriage. Together they stumbled into the sweet embrace of free love. ‘Sex Radicalism,’ he preferred to call it.

‘I don’t own her, she doesn’t own me. She can use her body any way she pleases.’ Fortunately for her randy husband, this interesting concept gave him permission to use his body in any way he pleased.

‘We screw around. Sometimes we screw around together, sometimes we don’t. It’s cool. We’re Sex Positive.’

Noticing the blank look on my face, he added, ‘it’s a philosophy.’

*

The Sex-Positive movement is an ideology which promotes and embraces open sexuality with few limits. The terms and concept of sex-positive and sex-negative are generally attributed to Wilhelm Reich. His hypothesis was that some societies view sexual expression as essentially good and healthy, while other societies which see sex as problematic, disruptive and, dangerous take an overall negative view of sexuality and seek to repress and control the sex drive.

‘Sex-positive’ isn’t a dippy love-child celebration of orgone,’ says sexologist Carol Owen, ‘it’s the cultural philosophy that allows for sexual diversity, differing desires and relationship structures, and individual choices based on consent. It respects each of our unique sexual profiles and understands sexuality as a potentially positive force in one’s life, a simple yet radical affirmation that we each grow our own passions on a different medium – that instead of having two or three or even half a dozen sexual orientations, we should be thinking in terms of millions.

Which all makes perfect sense to me – but then where my loins are concerned I’m articulate enough to justify almost anything. I just had no idea there was a Sex Positive movement. I think we must have called our shagging something else.

In his particularly Californian way, my Social Studies teacher had conjured up a philosophy that actually encouraged him to be as dirty as he liked. With the enthusiasm of the new convert, he was shagging his way to salvation.

*

Out of the blue and the darkness, in the black of an August Nepali night, a bespectacled organic farmer from Cleveland appeared at my door. The poor chap looked miserable – his laptop, thin cotton shirt, shorts and flip-flops were not going to help him now – only stupidity kept him warm. He was lost.

His appearance was so unexpected it was almost surreal. Once the sun goes down in the Nepali mountains a blanket of deep black covers the world. We were seriously isolated – yet somehow this student fool had found my door.

Young, thin, serious and probably very smart where organic farming is concerned, little else of life had yet filtered through. He was probably twenty-two with thin gold glasses and a Bill Gates stare – but an interesting refusal to admit that he was in any trouble at all. The poor fool had turned down an invitation to stay at Namo Buddha, an hour or so up the road and decided to return home to his own bed down in the valley..

‘Maybe I should’ve asked a few more questions,’ he said blithly, ‘it was light, the guy just said go down, go down, go straight and down. If you get into trouble just ask for Govinda.’

The meek young farmer headed off into the gathering clouds of his own stupidity. Of course, once the Nepali night fell on him he was stranded. Eventually, walking along a lonely road, he met a man and asked for Govinda. The man bought him miles through the rain to Phulbari. Raj Kumar escorted them both to my house. With me was Govinda. Now Bill Gates was saved.

One problem. He had the wrong Govinda.

A new candidate for most stupid man in Nepal.

We let the organic farmer stew outside while we decided what to do with him.

Dog wasn’t going to help him. He just didn’t like the guy.

‘He’s not sleeping here.’

This weedy college punk was far too stupid to help – he was a young man who needed a good dose of consequences. A night with the chickens will smarten him up.

‘He can sleep in the cave house, I don’t mind,’ John said, ju-u-u-ust a little bit too eagerly.

‘Why not,’ I chuckled. That would be a dose of something more than consequences.

The newcomer didn’t look like a sex-radical kinda guy, more a sex-you-mean-me? kinda guy. Unaware of the political agenda about to be unleashed on him, the poor sod even looked relieved.

‘Yes, please…’

Cleveland lamb to the Californian slaughter.

*

‘Yes, we have tigah-h-h,’ said Raj Kuman, his eyes shining brightly in the morning sun. ‘And bearrr-r-r-r. Rr-r-r-r-arrrr.’

I’d had a disturbed night.

‘Have you ever seen a tiger, Raj Kumar?

‘Yes,’ he said, all the certainly of his lie staring excitedly from his face.

‘Rr-r-r-r, I hear big tigah-h-h-h shout, rar-rrhhh, big enormous tiger shout, explodering. There,’ he gestured to the other side of the pond,’ two big tigahh-h-h.’

Was this a real tigah-h-h or dream tigah-h-h, Raj?’

‘Little bit real, little bit dream,’ he shrugged.

‘I heard a horrible howl last night,’ Dogster nodded,’ and then a splash as something fell in the pond. I heard it swimming towards me, sobbing. Everything went quiet after that.’

‘Tiger-fish-bear-monster,’ said Raj Kumar wisely.

He knew. He was the son of a witch. Such things were possible.

Perhaps it was the organic farmer.

*

Hoefer sent me this curious E-mail after my first visit:

Since you left, 30 years have passed.

Govinda and his family where attacked at night at their homes ransacked all valuable taken.

The Maos came back in. While playing city politics in Kathmandu, they  come and occupy the top pavilion for a night and a day to demonstrate their power to the villagers in-between.

Anarchy sneaks in overnight, and we are planting trees around it.

*

Govinda introduced me gently to his son. Last time I was here the lad was just a kid, shyly posing for pictures beside his dad. Now he was taller than Govinda. While the boy went off for chai, his father whispered urgently;

‘He want motorbike. I tell him no. No motorbike. No money. He cry. School finish this year. He want Hospitality College in Kathmandu. Soon, I have to tell him no. No money…’

The kid returned. He was bright and friendly, respectful and shy, all at once. He sat down next to me, smiled and handed me my chai. Of course, I had been set up.

‘Tell me about when the Maoists came.’

‘They came all at once,’ he said, ‘in the night. They crashed in and broke things and wanted Daddy.’

‘Were you scared?’

He nodded.

‘Did you cry?’

‘Yes,’ he said in a little voice.

Govinda-lite was waiting for me to have the ‘what are you going to do now that school has finished’ conversation’ but I wasn’t biting. I know that the next step is the ‘oh dear poor lad so sad how can I help you’ conversation. Dad was probably filling out the adoption papers now.

At very least, I could pay for his tertiary education.

‘Govinda, I’m not going to pay for his college fees, you know that.’

Govinda smiled and shrugged. Tomorrow he would sell me someone else’s land.

*

In the mountains, things move slowly, seasons come and seasons go; life beats to a natural drum. But inside those picturesque houses, in the dark of a winter night, it’s a battlefield of superstition, religion, politics and sex. Gossip fuels the faintest flame, anger and alcohol turns to madness, witches are burnt and children killed – ignorance and culture dance a secret gavotte. This sleepy Shangri-la seethes with secrets.

Politics and poverty have always been powerful friends – add stupidity, self-interest, greed and corruption; add a red flag, a hammer and a sickle, an inept power elite and stand back – you have politics in Nepal. When the Maoists began their struggle in the Kathmandu Valley, the house of a rich man on top of a mountain must have seemed like a logical place to start. Just as Phulbari can see everyone, so everyone can see Phulbari. There he was – the foreign capitalist sitting in his castle in the sky. Demands were made. Demands were ignored. Hoefer refused to deal with the Maoists. Maoists refused to deal with Hoefer – an epic stand-off ensued.  It’s been going on for a decade, igniting every two or three years in a show of force.

‘Boof!’ he said, miming punching his face. ‘Boof, boof! Boof. Ow.’

Then Govinda laughed and clapped his son on the shoulder.

‘Everything fine now. Sometimes I in the middle. Mr. Hoefer one side, the world other side. Everybody here now Maoist,’ said Govinda eagerly, ‘everybody same. Me too – Maoist. All finish.’

Of course, this being Nepal, merely winning the war didn’t mean the battle was over. Following massive popular demonstrations and a prolonged “People’s War” against the monarchy, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) became the ruling party during the election in 2008. Now they are at war with themselves.

And the bandh plays on.

*

POSTSCRIPT MARCH 2011

Greetings from Singapore.
Just to want to keep you abreast of the events in Phulbari farm. We don’t know when we are able to set foot again. Latest news and photos from Govinda  is the vandalism – small steps to intimidate us. Someone or a group burnt the “holy” tree on the island of the pond at summit of the hill. What can we do but to detach ourselves from the farm. Somewhat difficult for those of us who love the place.
Best regards,
Cynthia
All is not going well at the farm.
“Maoist Bhadis” or Maoist Baddies
A kind soul had cautioned not to bring the ladies to the farm because of Maoist activities the preceding days. Not to be cowered, Shirley and I decided to visit the farm as we had intended to.
It was a decision that I have not regretted even though we could only spend two nights in the Cave House with its inviting fireplace. The familiar welcoming view of the mountain range set in low clouds softened the tension of arriving devoid of the usual friendly Namasté greetings by staff members and the odd villagers.
We were virtually locked out but thankfully, our day watchman finally came down from the hilltop to open the gates. We had hired a Sherpa cook the same morning of our departure who spoke little English and the instruction to him was to prepare “Dhal bhaat” (lentil and rice) dinner.
Then we settled ourselves in the Cave House late afternoon, ate lunch of hand-carried cheese and pumpernickel bread, and a glass of Australian rosé bought at the wine shop in Banepa town. From our fortress-like Cave House, we watched the ensuing drama of rural politics, human greed, manipulation, lies, accusations and the rising crescendo of “Give, money, pay, tax, cash, compensate.”
It has not always been like this. During the last election, Maoist elements in the village had won a majority of votes and had since overtaken the policies of village life in a runaway situation that left the innocent and uninformed too caught up to protest. This grip on rural areas has snowballed and the consequence is what we  are experiencing.
Three weeks before our arrival, my husband Hans had already been at the farm to prune the fruit trees and plan for a bigger fruit orchard. Water shortage in parts of the country is becoming dire and we had already scaled back on vegetable planting. On February 2nd, Hans was visited by a party of Maoist leaders from the district of Kavre with a demand of one million Nepali rupees (approximately S$18,900) as “a contribution to the party.”
He pointed out that over the last 18 years of our presence in the farm, the company had not made profit to begin with. Secondly, as a foreign investor he emphasised that he had no intention to side with any political party and chose to remain neutral. As the negotiation appeared futile, the Maoist group stepped down the sum to 800,000 rupees which was again politely refused. They left and were loudly abusive to the farm staff with a last word that the farm was to be closed and to await further “big Mao action.”
To wait or not to wait, that is the question. Being an altruistic German, Hans decided to face the consequence of a horde of vociferous villagers emboldened under a certain tutelage.
Ten youths visited the next day and stated that they were able offer security services to resorts and that they are already engaged by the nearby Namo Buddha Resort run by an elderly German couple whom we are acquainted with. Again, their offer to look after the security of the farm was rebuffed as we are clearly not running a resort and we do not intend to pay three thugs a monthly ransom of 10,000 rupees (S$188) each. The same request was repeated in successive days with the same answer “No.” By this time, the aggression increased several notches directed mainly on our staff numbering two persons. When Hans left the following day for the capital Kathmandu about 45 kilometers away, the leading staff member was physically threatened. The worker in turn decided to flee to the town of Banepa and resigned from the company telling us to close the farm and wait another year.
While in the capital, Hans met up with the German ambassador to make known the threat of the Maoist groups. The result of the meeting is not known immediately though we understand that a copy of a written appeal to the German representative has been forwarded to the relevant authorities. A recent report by the Carter Center (founded by the former US president Jimmy Carter and his wife) highlighted the negative impact of the youth wing of the main political groups reported in the local newspaper.

“Many activities of the Maoist-affiliated Young Communist League (YCL) and, to a lesser extent, the CPN-UML Youth Force remain targeted toward financial gain, and youth wing activity continues to have a negative impact on security in many districts.

“Political party youth wings have the potential to play a positive role in Nepal,” said Dr. David Pottie, associate director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program. “However, we have found the YCL (Maoist-affiliated Young Communist League) and the CPN-UML Youth Force engaged in interference with tender processes, taxation, and other activities that undermine political space, development, and public security.”

So it seems that forced donation made by “muscle power” on local businessmen as well as foreign investors is prevalent in the country.

The demand for political contribution is not the only issue confronting us at the farm. After years of quietly minding our own business, supporting at one stage 11 workers and maintaining the pump and supply of water to the villagers, we were suddenly confronted by the villagers led by a leader, again a Maoist party member, for an unspecified “tax.’ The most perplexing thing is that the villagers decided to double lock the pump house gate thus depriving themselves and our farm of water supply. We reciprocated by asking the villagers to take back the pump house and the running of the diesel generator, petrol and wear and tear. That was the last direct talk we had with the leader who replied that he would have to call a meeting with the villagers to discuss our offer.

The other issues are almost too boring to mention but it has to do with three staff members who had resigned and are now demanding gratuities and back-dated double pay for 24-hour guard duty.  Absurd as it sounds in any business environment, we learn from our lawyer the hard knocks of labour laws heavily favouring the workers. No amount of negotiating and counter offering could persuade our former workers to reason with common sense and rule of law. It seems that they are empowered by the Mao Bhadis (as the card-carrying members of the Maoist communist party) are called.

The last blow is the insistence of one Maoist group to hand over the farm keys to them as though any fool would want to give up property and rights to a bunch of unknown persons. The truth is that the keys are despatched out of the country to save any innocent soul from the trauma and harassment by Mao Baddies. Our day watchman has quit after about 50 rowdy men or “muscle power” threatened him violently. A second watchman is ambivalent about his position and told us to wait for a month or so.

Just moments before our departure, the depraved ex-worker showed up with a few of his Mao Baddies in front of the gate he had locked to prevent Hans from getting his hired motorbike. This was clearly obstruction and a physical threat which could potentially be a time bomb. A phone call to the company lawyer explained the gravity of his action and reluctantly, the man unlocked the gate and allowed Hans his passage out of the sticky situation.

Loud shouts and persistent demands earlier drew a group of women in their flaming red saris. I had noticed over the years the abundance of red as the choice of colour for the womenfolk. Someone said it represents wealth or good luck. I took it as a sign of their assertiveness of their political sway whether or not they understand the ideology of Mao Tse Tung.

We left the farm with a saddened heart not knowing when we can return. Three years ago I visited the farm after eight years of absence due to the army fighting the Mao insurgency. This time I await this madness of rampaging groups to dry up like the approaching parched season. But in this case, this is no longer a political group versus the army but an uncontrollable situation of roaming grabbers with or without the blessings of their leaders.

As the van wound its way down the hillside the peaceful scene of children walking home from school and women tending to the goats and  hay belies the smouldering unrest and helplessness that many are facing.

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