20th August 2022

Barefoot Smiling

Nepal, Thawang

Agile excavators were challenging the lack of connectivity that once made Guerilla warfare viable at every turn. By the masses, the view that prosperity lies in the flow of vehicles and information is held unquestionably dear, as the shastras once were. Therefore, towards Thabang I walked from Sulichaur on dusty tracks pounded by tractors, motorcycles and sports vehicles. Red boards with names of ranked cadres that had fallen for the revolution, the cause and date of their demise, stood as metaphors. Most of them were rusty, dust laden and neglected. A board in Jaimakasala had eleven listed as martyrs of the People’s Village Government. One of them had murder listed as the cause of death, but someone had scrapped out one of the alleged murderer’s name. Was it a misdemeanor or had the change in political relations warranted the removal? Will the boards remain relevant in the times to come? Questions, so many questions! On the way, I met a young man whose family, like many others that were able to, had fled to the capital to escape wartime troubles. After that, he had only visited the village once. Thus, the semi-outsider who had come home to observe mourning with a friend was a suitable companion. Furthermore, his relatives happened to own a hotel. The familiarity of the uphill climb and walk across landslides, into that cozily nestled village between high hills of green and red, had bred between us turned out to be of help. I shared the dorm that night with road workers who had unique perspectives to offer. Not only did they concur with my observation of the continuation of archaic practices, the likes of which had invited prosecution elsewhere for they were deemed not to be of revolutionary character, in the heartland of the Maoist movement itself, but also openly talked about how hashish trade had been for years the source of local prosperity. They remarked that the road building process had faced countless obstructions because it went against such interests. For all the good that had been done, it seemed like the literature that I had read had painted a rather idealistic picture of affairs. Winter rain fell heavily that night. The next morning, it could be observed that the way up to the pass, one that seemed miniscule compared to the ones that I had scaled in the mountains, had become encumbered by snow. White on orange, with thatched grays and pinewoods, were to the eyes soothing, but a slippery mess to deal with. Midway up the steaming hill, snowfall resumed. Navigating the snow without a stick for balance required extreme concentration. The sight of groups of joyous boys and girls playing with snow, across the pass, did not do much to ease my woes. It was only an encounter with a woman in her sixties, if not seventies, draped in a polyester shawl and wearing flip flops on her sluggish ascent up the pass that humbled me into feeling content about the state of my being.

I followed the road and fearing a blackout had stale samosas from the previous day’s fair at a junction. The men and women there were throwing muddy snowballs at each other in a flirty fit, some of it landed on the samosa I was having, but having endured unexpected snowfall, I was in a too stoical of a mood to complain. Another turn later, Thabang came to sight. The capital of the erstwhile People’s Government was a sizable, traditional village that stood on the upper half of a hill, slit through the middle by a new road that had limited the use of an intimidating flight of white stairs that descended down to the river basin. Only a few of the surrounding terraced fields had not fallen into disuse. With the help of Puspa, who I was in touch with through social media, and Bikkil, whose pictures had inspired me to head there, I received the contact of one of the local conveners of an underground Communist outfit. Meeting him was first in the order of priorities. The abundance of houses that retained the style of a bygone era with golden maize strung on verandas and the presence of an Esewa outlet were the first things that caught my eye. I stopped at a house to ask for directions to the comrade’s home. The very same house turned out to be the one I was looking for – an incredible coincidence! He appeared a while later and after laying a few basic questions before me, warmly welcomed me to stay at his place. Because of the nature of my walk, which reminded them of their ordeals during the war years, more often than not, dedicated former Maoist combatants received me with warmth wherever I went. The comrade offered to show me around. Thabang did have a political aesthetic, there were revolutionary slogans and paintings at every turn, but the cultural and religious aspects were visually prominent. Unique, intricate carvings on wooden windows and arcs depicted fables with elements of lifestyle. There were figures of spirits created to maintain harmony outside houses. Paths were paved with stone everywhere and women could be seen weaving cloth on spinning wheels. The environment was pleasing to the eye, but it could not hide the horrors of the past for long.