Saturday, December 06, 2008

Maacha ko mol – Shivkumar Rai (translated* by Vikash Pradhan)

The Price of Fish


The torrential shower had just ended. As a frisky southerly wind spread tiny cloud shards across the sky, a dazzling blue sky, freshly washed, peeked through small tears in the cloud cover. There was no trace of the recent tumult. After a fit of madness, nature seemed resplendent in glory. Only the stream, washed clean by the rain, raged on. The nooks and corners of the hill resounded with the mountain brook’s roar as it made its way through them.

Emerging from his hut, fisherman Raaney stretched his right hand, and covering his eyebrows with his palm, looked up at the sky and then shifted his gaze to stare at the raging torrent. Shortish and stocky, clothed in a very old black denim daura suruwal^, patched all over and little more than rags, a striped waistcoat with a dozen white buttons lined up, an old faded cap, and with his suruwal legs pulled up to over his calves, Raaney looked one-of-a-kind.

Wonder what Raaney saw with his enquiring glances at the raging stream, picking a small fishing net from behind, he set out towards the stream. Sitting atop an algae laden rock he looked here and there. His snares were undisturbed, but the small embankment at the confluence had been washed away by the surge. Heaving a sigh of disappointment, Raaney drew in a long breath. A short fellow, he moved quite a way below with a few nimble leaps. Seeing the swirling froth and the swollen waters of the pool, Raaney gave his net a big spin and hauled it in the water. A little while later, Raaney pulled it out with his stocky, muscled limbs. Swept in with pebble, sand and some vegetation, a dozen or so fish writhed on the bank.


This was how Raaney made a living. His father had also been a fisherman - one night about ten years ago, he had been swept away by a monsoon spate: his memory might now be wandering in some forgotten realm. Ordinary people are scared of ghosts and spirits. As they believe, one should not venture out after dark: by doing so, one incurs the evil eyes of the supernatural. Raaney with his ghoulish ways was soon to touch the ranks of the ghosts. When the people of the diurnal world fell asleep, consciousness went on a trip to dreamland, and an eerie silence descended all around, it was the time Raaney, under the cover of darkness, went out with a blazing torch to search for fish in their nests and nooks. His weather beaten face looked sinister, lit by the flickering blaze of the torch. His white eyes set on his ghoulish face scoured the stream, the rocks, the hills and the walls. Possibly, the spirits of the stream got a chill themselves on seeing such a living ghost.

Raaney whirled his net and threw it again into the green pool. The fish disoriented and scared by the raging current got trapped in his net. A trace of joy flickered across his weather-beaten face. Tears welled up in his eyes. He started weaving his catch of fish on thin bamboo strips. Losing his mother very early, he was alone in the changing world. He may have his own fantasies about a life partner though. A small household by the stream, a toddler who would walk up to him while he was fishing and say, “Father, I want to fish too.” He would shout at his wife in irritation, “O Goray’s mother, take this child away.” Otherwise, returning home exhausted after selling his fish at the market, Goray’s mother would pour him a hot cup of tea, garnished with pepper, with a coy smile on her face. During these moments he would experience the joys of a householder.


Raaney headed for the market with his catch. His legs were drenched to the knee and bore blue marks due to bumps suffered on the uneven rocks of the stream. Blood flowed from those places where the skin had peeled. Despite the intense cold of the water, his heart was filled with the warmth of hope. He was set to make his biggest profit today.

At the crossing a man enquired, “How much is the fish for?”

“Eight annas a seer.”

“That much for fish that rollicks in the stream?”

“What is this price looking at the effort,” Raaney replied looking at the wounds and blue marks on his limbs. Raaney felt that he ought to price his fish more, but he himself did not know the real value for his fish.

By five, he sold off his entire catch. Counting the money in his hands, he found that he had earned ten rupees in total. He swelled even more with hope. If such sales sustained, he could easily earn no less than one hundred and fifty rupees in a month. With just two months labour, he could earn enough to raise a small hut and bring home a wife. Raaney’s covetousness took roots all around.

As he was heading ahead with similar thoughts in his mind, his attention was suddenly drawn towards a new shop on the roadside. A woman of about twenty or thirty was standing at the door. Though he lacked any influential grounding on matters of sex, there still remained some faint traces of arousal.

“Oh fisherman, do drop in at our shop for tea at times.”

Greedy at the prospect of exchanging a word or two with the woman, young Raaney thought it unwise to let go of the chance. He said, “Why won’t I eat at your place? OK get me what you have.” The woman served Raaney some sel, potato curry and tea and asked, “Shall I give you some fish too?”

Raaney looked at the plate and was enticed by the sight of the fish deep-fried with red spices. Drooling, he asked, “How much?”

“Two annas for a piece.”

“That’s the price of one piece of fish?” He panicked for a moment unable to gauge the valuation.

The woman replied with flair, “What do you think? This same fish will cost eight annas per piece as soon as it reaches a hotel. So, how is two annas for it expensive?”

Raaney thought it fair. Maybe fish should be priced in that manner. I am selling it at too little. Even then the two valuators had been unable to gauge the real value of fish.

The same thought again; a hut by the stream and a life-partner. Raaney suddenly looked at the woman. He felt his heart miss a beat. It then beat louder and faster. For a moment his thoughts became disordered. He asked, “So, where is your husband?”

The woman answered matter-of-factly, “My spouse is no more, my in-laws live in the market. My father-in-law does love me, but my mother-in-law is a harridan. She cannot stand the sight of me, so I moved out.”

These sentences fuelled up his hopes even more. He thought, what if she is a widow, she is still young. Moreover, being a widow she might love me. Now all I need to do is gather money for the hut. As he was about the leave, the widow said, “Please drop in at times, if fate does not intervene we will meet again.”

Raaney felt elated.


It was already seven when he reached the stream. Tonight there is jest in his body, joy in his heart and his young soul flitted about on its own. Yet again that dark monsoon night, the celestial beings have disappeared into some faraway realm. The sky is covered with clouds. Tears seem ready to drop from the sad faces of the clouds. Thunder struck the mountainside and the sound echoed all around. The stream flows on with its incessant roar. Raaney leaves for the stream with a burning torch. Thunder strikes again. Even the never fearing Raaney is momentarily shaken. He remembers the face of his father during the flash of lightning. But he thought it was just an illusionary shred of memory. The clouds appeared to roar, “Stay away from the water.” But why would he listen - he was resolute to earn double the money he earned today and to make the longings of his heart a reality.

Yet again Raaney cast his net in the pool; the fishes were in a stupor due to the light of the torch. About twenty-thirty carp and trout were caught in the net. He scours beneath the rocks and finds fish, he checks his snares at the embankment, and finds even them teeming with fish. Raaney is neither hungry nor is he sleepy. His hopes have found wings. He has no concerns about physical labour.

A dark cloud blew from the south. A flash flood rushed down from the top of the mountains with a whoosh. Little did Raaney know that riding the flood was the Lord of Death, Yamaraj. Hearing the water gush over the rocks, he started gathering the fish on the bank when the current swept them away. Raaney felt very sad to see the fruits of his hard labour carried away thus, but he did not realize that he was being swept away along with the fish. “The value of this much fish…,” escaped from Raaney’s mouth as he was carried down by the flood, but before the sentence could be completed, the water submerged him.

Everything came to an end – Raaney’s hope, ambitions and aspirations were born in that pool. They died at the same place. A foreboding silence descended all around again. Raaney’s net had already been covered by the sand. Only the remains of his torch flickered in the darkness as if awaiting his return. A cold breeze flew down from the nooks of the mountains. The perennial music of the flowing stream had spread to every corner of the mountains. Disorder was again absent in nature’s laws.

*Disclaimer - This is not an authorized translation
^ Daura Suruwal: A Nepali attire worn by males, comprising a top (daura) and breeches like trousers (suruwal).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

New Dreams, Harsh Reality

A lot has changed and yet its all the same. The roads are bursting in the seams with traffic, constructions big and small, planned and unplanned have come up all around. The bustle is noticeably more and people appear busier. Kalimpong has not been immune to the recent spurt of change and yet it is perhaps one town in the Darjeeling Hills that has managed to cling on to a large part of its past spirit. Darjeeling did not have much of open spaces, Kurseong was primarily tea garden land, but the brilliant yellow paddy fields have been characteristically Kalimpong. Slowly, many of these open terraces are making way to habitation, but the town still retains enough that draws me back to her on and off.

As I look at Kalimpong town bask in this pleasant December sun, a chilly breeze hits me atop Tirpai Hill. The drive up from town was uneventful. Despite a few Maruti vans forcing down their way through a one-way, the narrow road afforded enough leeway for us to pass without any detours. I have driven up to Tirpai many times from town by the same road, but its only in recent years that I have realised how narrow it is. Maybe the road has shrunk or possibly the constructions on the sides have cramped it to this narrow trail.


As a child, Tirpai was birds, walnuts and the cold breeze. The breeze still blows strong and cold, the walnut tree stands taller but the birds have grown silent. The hill no longer plays host to their chirps - the concrete has stifled their very existence. The house is visibly older. The moss has overtaken most of the north wall, some of the wooden frames have rotted at the base and the paint on the roof is peeling off.

The people here are older, my kanchi boju*, B mama**, R chema***. Even B, the little kid as I remember with the loud bawl and the constant snort trail below his nostrils, is grown up to a little man and shakes my hand instead of the conventional dhog^. He even attempts to initiate a conversation and updates me about town and also his own academic pursuits. After his final exams in April, he wants to study further in Calcutta and wonders how good a choice it is.

Among all the Kalimpong people that make the collage of images in my mind, Ramu daju’s^*^ is one that has perhaps remained unchanged. The hair is white now, which was probably black once, but he has practically remained the same through the years despite the few fine creases that line his face beneath the stubble. As a kid, we had to look up when addressing him, but the difference in height swiftly got bridged and the opposite holds true now. The talk remains the same though: he is aware of most general happenings around town and yet his interpretation and narration can be called only his, much to the glee of others. The omnipresent display of his even, well-brushed white teeth make up for most of his inconsistencies when it comes to the constant banter that he finds himself forced to indulge in out of habit.

For us, Ramu daju was the guy who milked the cow, lit the fire, cleaned the chicken coops and climbed trees around the house to cut branches that blocked the sun. We never really played with him, though we were a passive but constant shadow as he went through his chores. He made some small talk about the cow, birds, bees and hay. There were frequent references and comparisons to ‘his gaon^^’ back in Nepal, where things were similar and yet everything was better - the cow healthier, probably due to the greener pastures, the sun brighter and yet not as hot as in Kalimpong, the bees made more honey and birds were more colourful and plentiful. Most of all, it was peaceful.

The daylight hours for Ramu daju went on household chores, but the evenings were his alone - spent watching Doordarshan on the Sonodyne TV in the living room. There were no set rules or protocols regarding the seating, but Ramu daju shared the spot right in front of the TV on the carpeted floor with us, with the older ones reclining or sitting on the couches further behind. Starting with Krishi Darshan he would take in every second of the programming till it was lights out and the household retired for the night. The evening news was perhaps the highlight and any mention of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi delightful to him. The Nepali King was for him, a parallel to Rajiv Gandhi and he usually embarked on a monologue singing his praises and the development work underway back home under him. His loyalty to the Nepali royalty was perhaps best illustrated by a small framed picture of the Royal Family that hung on the wall above his bed.

The cow is gone now and the coops are filled with poultry chicken in place of local ones. Ramu daju’s shedule seems lighter with the load of the cow’s upkeep gone and LPG now being used in the kitchen instead of wood. Even the big Sonodyne TV has made way for a much sleeker Sony Wega, and in place of Doordarshan Ramu daju can enjoy Nepali fare courtesy Nepal TV, Channel Nepal and Kantipur.


Kalimpong town was abuzz with activity that day. A new political force had emerged that was finally posing some serious challenge to the incumbent group. The recent weeks had seem some political strikes and disruptions, and also a few instances of violence and carnage. The townspeople fearful of a resurgence in socio-political unrest, and fed up with the frequent political strikes had embarked on a peace rally around town. There perceptibly was a big assemblage, the roads were jammed and traffic had come to a halt to let the rally through. I could hear the din from the sunny vantage point of my boju’s courtyard. Ramu daju joined me with an update on the recent developments in town.

“The few years of peace we had after the Gorkhaland agitation is about to be broken again. We had a terrible time during the movement - you remember it, don’t you? You were just a kid then. We men-folk barely slept at night. The CRPF personnel would swoop down and arrest people indiscriminately. So many people from this vicinity got arrested and beaten up. I was lucky...,” reminisced Ramu daju. “You must have scampered away scared and hid somewhere. I don’t think they would have arrested you or anything. Moreover, you are a Nepali and you could have just told them that...,” I teased him. “As if it was that easy,” he angrily retorted, “you were too small to realise the way things were then. And you’ve always been nestled safe and cosy in Gangtok.”

Expecting an extended tirade, I moved away, but Ramu daju caught up with me and enquired, “so, how are things in Kathmandu? I have been hearing about the events there. Are things really different? Everyone’s been talking about the New Nepal, must be very exciting to be there now. I’ve heard Prachanda^^^ will be the President. He may well be like Gyanu^*, autocratic and authoritarian...” “Its still the same. There has just been a change in the political system. Recently they even removed the King,” I explained.

“There wasn’t a king as such after the demise of King Birendra. He was the real king,” Ramu daju reasoned with his simple sensibilities. “He was a good king,” he continued. He would have carried on perhaps, but for B, who interjected loudly, “you know what? Ramu daju is all set to return to his homeland. He wants to spend his old age in the New Nepal.”

Ramu daju uttered a few words of denial defensively, but it was clear that he did harbour some dream of returning back to Nepal. The recent events in Nepal, and the thought of a New Nepal, whichever way he took it, had perhaps added vigour to the dormant longing for his land.

A couple of weeks later, I heard that Ramu daju had indeed left for home.


A few months later, while in Kalimpong, I was in Tirpai again. I was surprised to see Ramu daju bring in tea. On enquiring, my boju summarized his misadventure in Nepal in a sympathetic tone.

His ordeal had begun right from the day he stepped on a bus for Kathmandu at Kakkarvitta. The journey that normally took about 14 hours had taken him over three days due to the frequent stoppages and detours en route owing to bandas**^ called by the miscellaneous agitating Madhesi factions.

Ramu daju had been an ordinary, average Nepali while at home, a farmer’s son and living off the land. The tarain for him was, going by various accounts, a hot, faraway tract of land, inhospitable and teeming with ‘tarain-basis’ who somehow eked a living off it.

As a teenager, Ramu daju had travelled to Kathmandu in search of a better future. The city built on a valley was dirty and hot, but he was surrounded by familiar looking hills and mountains. After about a year of doing odd jobs in the Valley, he had followed a missionary who was returning home to Kalimpong. It was then that he had had his first taste of the tarain. Attuned to the mountains and hills, the flat plains with miles and miles of semi-tropical foliage was alien to him. If Kathmandu was hot, the heat in the plains was scorching.

During the long, arduous drive he caught glimpses of the tarain-basis working in the fields. They looked no different from his own folk, only darker, and possibly as hard working. They had seemed docile and rapt in earning a sustenance to even bother glancing at the passing thoroughfare.

Returning home, and passing through the tarain again, Ramu Daju felt a perceptible change in the demeanour of the people. The other changes were more visible, a barrage over the Koshi river, many more vehicles plying on the road and a lot more roadside townships. The highway appeared less desolate lined by habitation, small shops and dingy eateries, mostly makeshift and no more than sheds.

The people he encountered now were very different from the ones he had passed during his earlier passage. They seemed much more aggressive, angry and not easily persuaded. Living in Kalimpong, all plainsmen were ‘bhaiyas’ to Ramu Daju. It wasn’t a derogatory reference, but just a label that had stuck on through the years. During a stop at a small hamlet, he had wanted to purchase a piece of fried fish. “Bhaiya, could you give me a piece of fish,” he asked naively. The exchange would have passed off without any incident in the past, but little did he know that now in the New Nepal, the Madheshi was no pahaday’s bhaiya. The vendor burst at him, but feigning ignorance, an apologetic Ramu Daju retreated to the safety of the bus.

As Ramu Daju found out from his fellow passengers, it was inclusive times, and the Madhesh, as the tarain was also called, had finally found a voice and were pressing for the rights they had been denied for so long. The pahadeys could no longer dish out the ‘tarain-basi’ rhetoric without the fear of reprisal. The plains were up in arms, and blockades and stoppages appeared to be the most effective way of expressing the general ire at the administration. An unwary Ramu Daju had to bear the full brunt of the Madheshi agitation, and his journey was riddled with stops and detours in the sticky heat of the plains.

He had finally reached Kathmandu, tired and weak, only to be bewildered by the changes that had come over the Capital in the few decades that he had been away, mostly for the worse. The crowd, the congestion, the traffic and the pace of things in general had literally driven him insane. The city appeared to have seen a massive exodus of the people from the countryside during his absence, and it seemed filled to the brim.

A complete stranger and almost lost, Ramu daju had somehow managed to escape from the metropolis on a bus bound for a town near his village. The trip this time ran smooth and he was pleasantly surprised to know that even his village was connected now by a motorable road, and he was lucky to hitch a ride on an old dilapidated jeep. Weary, he finally set foot in his village, much relieved and overwhelmed to be back. Development as he saw had not swept by here as swift as it had in the Capital. The road had ushered in some changes, but prosperity had been limited to a few, and their taller, bigger brick and cement houses bore witness to that. In general, the village still reeked of poverty.

The Movement was said to have been to change all that - wrest power from the hands of a few and empower the general, but Ramu Daju wondered if it had achieved that end. Despite the lush green crops decorating the terraced slopes, the landscape was still bleak and familiar. He could faintly recollect the general lay of the land, and was soon on his way home where, as a youngster, he had left his elder brother and his family behind on a quest for something better.

Guided by a few helpful people Ramu daju had managed to find his house, but to his dismay, found it locked and in utter disrepair. Some casual enquiry revealed that his brother had died quite a few years back. He was succeeded by a son, but he too was absent. He was supposedly displaced during the People’s War and was now believed to be living in some camp somewhere with his mother, wife and two children. His lands had been confiscated, and the assurance of such land being returned had been only in principle and not yet implemented. A few expected him to return, but no one could say when?

Ram daju was finally home, but found himself homeless.


Later, feigning ignorance, I asked a glum looking Ramu daju, “so, did you not go home? Now that the New Nepal has dawned when are you making the trip?” My intention was not sarcasm, but my question had perhaps brushed his ego and he replied sourly, with a hint of ire, “don’t act naive. I did go, but the New Nepal was just too new for my liking...”


* Grandma’s youngest sister
** Maternal uncle
*** Maternal aunt
^*^ Elder brother
^ A way of greeting where a younger person bows his/her head for the older person to lay his/her hand on and bless.
^^ Village
^^^ Maoist leader
^* Short for Gyanendra, the deposed king
**^ Strike, shutdown