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Madhesh Through Magic Mirror: History and the Quest for ‘Self’ by Bhushita Vasistha

Bhushita Vasistha


The Edibles and The Inedibles

I do not remember how Mother looked when she came to Saptari with a child cradled in her arms. The journey from Kathmandu, where she was trying to complete her Bachelor in Arts with no small difficulties, must have been tiresome. I was three when she left me in her father’s care. I do not remember if she had been little sad to leave me behind. In fact, I did not remember her at all. Four years later when I met her again she took my palms in her hands and told me, “I am your mother.” I stealthily pried into her beige angora sweater and followed the trail of gold embroidery until it stopped abruptly at her shoulder. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her face. Later that day, I would climb on a guava tree and try to catch a glimpse of her. With her forest green chiffon sari and rather poised manners, she made the dirty and carefree wilderness of Madhesh seem feral. She had come to claim me her own. But even then the thought of domestication troubled my young, wild soul. I remember throwing away the frocks she had brought for me. I later watched her hold those frocks to her heart and weep from a peephole in the window.

I had grown up savage, whimsical and wild in this enigmatic world fragrant with the aroma of ripened guavas and burnt milk. The land where sunburnt Tharu kids feasted on lantana seeds and bathed on muddy swathes till sand embossed deep into their translucent, caramel-brown skin. I ate every fruit and berry I could lay my hands on until Grandfather decided to intervene. His orientation class on poisonous berries worked: I remember gazing at those berries, plump with red, liquid poison and the way my heart went sick with longing for the forbidden fruit. Four years later, when my mother took me to the city of Dharan to live with them, I allowed myself to imagine that the berries tasted like the city. I couldn’t swallow the city and it’s subtle tricks of domestication without letting its poison hurt me a little bit. As I grew older I made peace with the ways of the city. But in my imagination Madhesh always remained my home, the home where my wild, unruly self could blossom wholeheartedly.

Madhesh as I Knew

Life in the plains, Madhesh, had the slow, sonorous rhythm of bullock-carts. Children roamed about half-naked, bejeweled in strings of beads and wooden bangles. Wooden planks that covered tiny stream of sewages running out from kitchens abruptly cut the alleys. Women woke up early and plastered the patio with the thick mix of pale mud and cow dung, while men wrapped thin loin clothes around their waist and went to the cowshed with wooden pails to milk the cows. Dogs and crows were offered food in the leaf plates and bhog—the daily offering of milk and honey offered to the Sun god. Beetle nut vines crept around mango trees like unruly lovers. When the sun rose high and melted the sweetness in their veins, one felt intoxicated.

It was as if we were oblivious to the malaise of engines and industries, tucked into the heart of the plains. A rudimentary mettle road ushered a few noisy buses into the village every once in a while. But they brought more fear than delight as my grandmother often threatened to leave me in a motorbus when I refused to drink milk.

The Parade of Shadows

My grandmother had rather oblong incisors, which made the warmest of her smile seem doleful. She had long, thin bones and a lean body. Wrapped inside the ruffles of starched cotton saris she appeared tiny and ludicrous. I remember her dark skin, the thin wisps of greying hair and a string of sandalwood bead festooned around her neck. She had a rather big depression at the base of her neck, between the collarbones, that sunk deeper when she swallowed or talked. She was always the last one to eat dinner. As the toads croaked monotonously, my grandmother chewed her food slowly like a masticating cow. I listened to the sound of the inaudible grinding of her teeth as they slowly faded and blended with the sound of the night. When I think of her, I think of that depression.

Grandmother belonged to that mysterious time of the night when the shadow and the body became one and the same. She seemed at ease with the anonymity of the night, while I was frightened by gentle dance of the light on the wick of a small kerosene lamp. The lamp stood at the top of a wooden rack, where spices were decked in neat rows, and projected a strange parade of acrobatic shadows on the wall. I watched their dance and listened to the melancholy song of her mastication until a thick drowsiness filled me to my bones. But sometimes her oblong incisors would suddenly come floating in my dreams like a pair of ivory shovels and I would shudder with fright. She died before I could gauge her smile beyond the flawed denture. But there must have been more to it. The older I grow the more I feel I have unkind to her memories.

Misgivings

Grandfather remarried a year later, much to the dismay of my youngest aunt. I was living with my parents in Dharan. When we visited them, I could see that he was growing increasingly light-hearted, grafting new rose saplings with his new wife, forty years younger than him. The sight embarrassed my mother, who had grown up watching his stern and cold, almost indifferent association with my older grandmother. Yet she continued supporting him graciously. We continued to visit them during festivals and summer vacations even when my uncle and aunt, who had grown embittered by his obvious fondness for his new bride, stopped coming to the family gathering.

The talk of Madhesh raises my old grandmother’s apparition: the two oblong incisors appear first followed by a thin, long neck with a depression. The depression comes as a reminder of her sadness, melancholia, defeat, bruises, all spread over her brown face like a handful of freckles. She had fought a long battle. She had borne seven children to the man, who did not love her. Perhaps I saw her only when the love had faded. She had survived the erosion of love to cook meals for the man, who had vowed to eat only the food cooked by his lawfully wedded wife. But the ghost of my grandmother is more than just a personal nightmare. Strangely enough, to me she personifies Madhesh. And just as I had been partial in my understanding of my grandmother, it seems I had been as partial in my understanding of Madhesh too.

The Scars

I have grown with the narratives of Madhesh I have heard from my mother and her family.

Mother was eight years old, when her family migrated to Saptari from the hills of Gogané, Bhojpur in search of easier life in the plains where they said rice and vegetable grew aplenty. Grandfather had been transferred to the plains two years earlier in 1967. After three days and two nights of arduous walk my grandmother along with her five children arrived in Saptari. Mother remembers how her first glass of water in the plains tasted like rusted iron, and the way sun hung low over a vast stretch of flat land like an angry god. They had arrived at a three-story edifice of rotting wood, which was to be their home. Only the second-story had walls.

The unbearable heat immediately struck down my grandmother. It befell upon my mother, the eldest of the children, to take care of her four younger siblings. Almost all my aunts and uncles, including my mother bear the history of their ordeal—the great migration to the flatland—in scars, which seems common among the people of my mother’s generation. The only way to heal a wound was with patience. There were no doctors. Scars meant victory, the mark of survival. More than that the scars meant bonding. The Koilis, the Mahatos and the Chaudharies, who were native to the land, spoke in strange language, which my mother found terrifying. But when they crossed ways, they saw each other’s scars and realized they were a part of a shared history.

In 2008, a bunch of protestors lighted two haystacks at the backyard of our Saptari home, threatening to burn down the entire village of the “hilly elites.” I realized there was a counter narrative, which I didn’t know, where my grandfather and his likes weren’t seen as survivors of a tragic migration but the “elites”, who had invaded their territory.

Madhesh I Didn’t Know

Who was the oppressor and who was the oppressed? Was it merely a point of view? A vantage point? These questions are tricky—I had never considered myself to be different from the Chaudhary, Mahato and Tharu kids I grew up with. When Ramesh Mahato was killed in Lahan in 2007, it became a landmark for Madhesh Uprising, which soon engulfed the nation. I was struggling to figure our which side of the battle I was on. Naturally, I wanted to be on the right side of the history. But there is no ‘right’ side or wave in the turbulent sea of history. History is dialectical. For every narrative, there exists a counter narrative. And for the longest time I didn’t know the counter narrative to my mother’s history of Madhesh. The people of the plains had no voice, no language to tell their stories—the navites spoke in a language the people from the hills didn’t understand.

My grandfathers were among the late migrants in the Madhesh, which meant the land was no longer affordable. Our relatives, who had migrated earlier, had come when large swathes of the forests were just being cleared and offered at a much lower price to encourage hill migration to the Terai. The state policy shifted the demographic balance of the region: the aboriginal Madhesis were no longer in control of local politics and economy but the new settlers who spoke the national language.

In The Battles of the New Republic, Prashant Jha writes that King Mahendra invented a narrative in which “faith in the ‘glorious’ history of the Shah dynasty, a common language (Nepali), a common religion (Hinduism) and a common dress (daura-saluwar) tied the country together. This definition of a ‘true Nepali’ immediately privileged a certain group of people – the hill Bahuns and Chhetris – who fulfilled the above criteria.” The Madhesis, who continued to wear dhotis reflective of their culture and lifestyle, were not seen as true Nepalis since they could not read, write or speak the Nepali language.

“What you then get is an image that was common across the Tarai. A poor Madhesi villager visits a distant government office in the district headquarters, his hands folded, speaking subserviently to a pahadi official, struggling to stitch together a line in Nepali for the sahib who doesn’t know the language of the area which he has been sent to administer, and pleads for citizenship, to become Nepali.” (Pg no 176)

Prashant writes with the vivacity of a storyteller. I was left aghast to realize that these people, whom I thought I had befriended, carried a secret history of defeat and injustice inside them. They continued being gracious to me, speaking to me in my language, telling me things I wanted to hear. They spared me the embarrassment of knowing how I too was a part of systematic subjugation of the people we claimed to be our friends.

Personal Narrative 

Of course, as a Pahade (of hilly origin) girl growing up in Madhesh I too have my shares of stories. I was fourteen years old, when a man, a Madhesi man, found me alone in a Dashain mela, and grabbed my tiny breasts and pinched them so hard that I fell on the ground. I cried for days. My aunts were shocked when they found me lying on the ground, smeared in tears and dust, holding my breasts.

But there is more to this personal narrative.

I grew up in Saptari, eating lattam (green guavas) with the tharu kids, swimming in the same muddy swath and riding buffalos. I have gone for ghongi hunt with Maulai kaka, who later boiled them in an aluminum pot in his mud-plastered kitchen and ate them with salt. Ghongi filled me with terror and I cringed at the thought of slurping the soft, warm flesh from the patterned shell. Yet I greedily munched on the delicious fish he roasted on guitha (cow-dung briquette). Maulai Kaka was my partner in crime. He kept my non-vegetarian consumption a secret from my Vaishnav grandfather, who was his friend and counselor. From the Bandraha bridge to my grandparent’s home I traversed two kilometers hanging by the sedan of Lalan’s rickshaw, while the amused passengers shirked and laughed and pleaded Lalan to ride slowly. Sitaram mama, a Chaudhary, gave me a ride on his hero bicycle and took me for a tour around Baluwa, our closest paan (beetle nut leaves) counter many times. When riding back we always stopped by the nahar (canal) to spit the aromatic, red fizz and competed over who spitted the bigger spit.

Madhesh is to me home. I grew up in its dust, in its poverty, amidst friends and foes, amidst fireflies that lit the large sheesham trees like a pulsating goblet of cool fire in September evenings. I have been loved. I had been hurt. So, when the likes of my grandfathers were reduced to the status of an “invader,” I had secretly cringed. I wasn’t ready to accept the charge.

The Invasion and the Magic Mirror

During Tihar, troupes of group children go from house to house singing bhailo, a folklore that narrates the story of King Bali. According to the myth, Bali offended Lord Vishu in his arrogance, and had to repent by going from house to house begging for alms like a poor man. The story teaches children the lesson of humility and kindness. This year, however, I heard a bizarre bhailo in Dharan:

A chana bechne dhoti, deusire
A khaula tato roti

Just as the country was rife with Madhesh andolan, here were a bunch of children, the eldest among them was not even nine, spewing derogatory rhymes. Dhoti is a piece of cloth men tie around their waist in Madhesh. But the term is also a derogatory slang for Madheshis, the natives of Madhesh. My grandfather, despite hailing from the hills, wore dhoti too. The racist rhyme should have hurt me but it didn’t. It embarrassed me a little, that’s all. Deep down I knew I hadn’t become a dhoti even if I had grown up amidst Maulai Kaka, Sitaram mama, Ahilya Didi and Lalan. While I claimed to be one of them, now I knew in my heart that I wasn’t one of them. The slang ‘dhoti’ denoted all of them but not me. Despite my claims to own the land, it slipped off my palm like sand. The Madhesh Movement didn’t just raise identity quest for the Madheshis but also for the second generation of Pahades like me, who grew up in Madhesh.

In the light of recent developments, I have often reflected on my own identity issues too. I have been living in Kathmandu for last ten years, where I am referred to as a Madheshi. I work with a man, who is a proponent of Madhesh Movement, and reminds me that I am a Khas. My feminist friends tell me I am a woman and must reclaim my identity as a woman. I often receive invitations from my journalist friends to attend certain protest programs and show solidarity with Nepali journalists. I have been thinking a lot about these identities. And just as I was ruminating over them I came across a statement by George Gurdjieff, a Russian mystic, who said, “In the path of quest for self, the only sin is to identify.”

The Quest for ‘Self’

Aldous Huxley said that the man is an amphibian. His each action is directed at attaining meaning in this world and the other world simultaneously. At the risk of simplifying it, if we look deeply into each political movement we see that their corresponding spiritual quest is to know oneself, one’s identity, to expand oneself.

Spirituality, defined simply, is the inner search for identity. In fact, Raman Maharshi had devised a meditation technique, which merely comprised of asking oneself constantly, “who am I?” And he warned to be wary of any answer supplied by the mind. The mind might say you are a Hindu or a Muslim or American or a man or a woman. Probe deeper, he said, deeper than the identity a society has invented for you. Who are you? Who are you in your deepest privacy? Who are you when you dream? If artificial identities like race, caste, gender, ethnicity or nationality could blur and melt merely in your dreamscape, how could these identities contain you, satisfy you?

The quest for identity is the deepest and the most profound quest of man, Eric Fromm said. But he also warned against finding short cuts in identities ascribed by society.

“Many substitute for truly individual sense of identity were sought for and found. Nation, religion, class and occupation serve to furnish a sense of identity. But the person who has not freed himself from the ties to blood and soil is not yet fully born as a human being; his capacity for love and reason are crippled; he does not experience himself nor his fellow man in their – and his own – human reality.”

Whenever we identify with one particular identity, we build a wall between the perceived identity and the world. These identities cripple our humaneness. Unless the process of individuation is wholesome and free from ascribed identities, a man or a woman cannot build this total capacity to love and commiserate with people around.

The Way Forward

Every political movement begins with the promise of creating an equal society. History is rife with examples of revolutions that only succeeded in reversing the roles of the oppressor and the oppressed. As long as we continue to wage a war in the name of collective identity, our goal for peace and prosperity would continue to be territorial and narrow. We are ready to kill or deprive anyone who doesn’t fall inside the group we identify with. Therefore, as long as we fail to embrace entire humanity as our own we will continue waging wars to create peace in a few secluded pockets.

When I reflect back on history and see that the revolutions and reforms of thousands of years have failed to solve the fundamental cause of disparity I wonder if we simply tried to change the system without looking within ourselves, within each individual? Have we failed to examine if there is a root of disharmony and discontent deep within ourselves? Is there perhaps a malaise within each of us, which expresses itself no matter how democratic or how liberal system we might invent? Of course, there is no denying the validity of the Madhesh Movement. Even to realize the worthlessness of an ascribed identity, one first needs to own it, live it. But could such identities alone contain our spiritual or existential quest?

We have been too preoccupied with these manmade identities to realize that life is a precious gift. We have been too self-centered to be able to embrace the world, the entire humanity as our own. Raman Maharshi was contemporary to Mahatma Gandhi. Both devoted their lives to reclaim their identity. Raman Maharshi did so through self-inquiry. Mahatma Gandhi resorted to political activism. While Raman Maharshi died a content recluse, igniting the flame of Self in many others, Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead. He died a disillusioned man, following the bloody partition of the India.

History is a magic mirror. I see what I want to see. When you look in it, you might see a different picture. Tell me what you see. If we could only begin to talk, perhaps a new picture would emerge—not partial but whole, more truthful and beautiful.

Mithila Review: Fund Drive

Bhushita Vasistha
Bhushita Vasistha, to this day, is a seeker on the path. Identity eludes her. She lives in a commune in the Himalayan forest, where Siberian birds come for winter retreats. Much can be said, and yet how much is enough to exfoliate a person. She rejoices in her own translucent, ungraspable being, leaving behind no shadows to trace. She occasionally writes at bhushita.tumblr.com

One Comment

  1. Arun Pandey Arun Pandey

    Nice!

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