The blockade started quietly enough, on a rainy day in mid-March. It was the first rain of the year. People breathed in the smell of wet earth as if it was a long-forgotten blessing. In the bushes, the last remaining springs of yellow winter forsythia bloomed side by side with dusty spring jasmine. This flowering was troublesome, highlighting the nature of a world in which time had lost its moorings – spring had arrived early, too early, two months before winter's end.
The Maoists had called the blockade. The idea was to choke off the landlocked country, slowly choke off its food, medicine and other essential goods until the people, hungry and full of rage, would come out on the streets and stage a mass protest that would bring the absolute monarchy on its knees.
The Democrats, cornered by the King, imprisoned, bullied, and made to flee, were desperate to prove they still had a constituency. There was nothing to be gained from holding more talks between the infinite bifurcations, divisions, diversions, ruptures, fissures and splinters of the political parties. Unable to agree between themselves, the Democrats did the next best thing – they decided to agree with the rebels. This 12 Point Agreement between the two sides was marvelous, showing solidarity between the democratic and revolutionary impulses of Nepal. People as far away as New York and London applauded this coalition of the people's forces. The agreement only had one minor flaw – the Democrats had forgotten to lay out exactly how and when the Maoists would lay down their guns.
Petition-writers in the West, who had not lived through five years of absolute monarchy, ten years of the People's War, and fifteen years of democratic anarchy, wondered if that small and minor point –violence – could be overlooked to support this historic breakthrough. While they wondered, a young boy named Ram Bahadur Bomjom, who had been meditating beneath a tree for half a year without food or water, decided to get up. He got up because the white cloth that covered his body was on fire.
"I am not a Buddha," Ram Bahadur said. His face was troubled, and he appeared to be slightly feverish. People who had hoped that this young man might bring peace to a troubled land watched agape as the cloth turned to charred ash and floated from his young body. The birth of a new Buddha would have solved the conflict, but instead here he was, on fire.
He asked his young assistant to take the blackened cloth off his back. "I don't want white cloth anymore. Give me red cloth from now on," he said. Expatriates living in Nepal, gathering in lush garden Holi parties, talked about the press conference they had just attended, the video of Bomjom they had just seen. The press conference, called by a self-appointed committee that had moved into the area to start regulating the throng of pilgrims, aimed to explain the miracle of cloth combusting from internal heat. "He took the cloth off and added it to the fire. It burnt for a remarkably long time. Well, he figured he would make the bonfire burn for a while, right?" The journalist joking was a long-term resident, used to the freaky phenomena of Nepal, but also skeptical and wary about the seeming magic realism of this unexplainable country. Exposing the boy as a fraud, he had decided, was going to be his contribution in this ongoing saga.
Ram Bahadur became a national and international sensation after making a decision to meditate for six years. Curiosity seekers flooded down where he sat. The crowd swelled from ten to ten thousand. Before long, the meditator had to battle not just his hunger and the spontaneous combustion of his clothes, but also thousands of gawking spectators. Reporters wrote stories about him. He appeared with a perfectly manicured head of curly hair on websites, on DVDs with bad sound, and on the BBC. Observers said he sat for sixteen hours every day, and that he didn't eat or drink at all. The most asked question about him was: does he piss? Medical doctors dealt with this apparent paradox of modern science by claiming he seemed to have lost a bit of weight. Others said his face had a red glow around it. Others, who knew the Maoists on intimate levels, said that the young rebels who sat guard were blinded by sensations of brightness at midnight, and were unable to see what Ram Bahadur did after he got up from his seat.
One of the people who came to see the meditator was a young man from Kalikot. Hastabahadur Kathaya was seventeen – a young man on a life or death mission. "How can a man a year younger than me sit like that for six months without food and water?" he said to the woman next to him, as he peered through the thick crowd.
The young woman looked around and saw the speaker — a young man with burning, intense eyes. She told him that her own uncle had walked through the woods at night to see Bomjom. He had walked through the darkened undergrowth and brush, through the thick branches and the sibilant whispers of hidden animals, before they reached the gigantic tangle of roots which blocked their path. "The roots are so enmeshed a fat man thinks he can't pass through. But they all pass through," she said in hushed awe. "My uncle did too."
"What made him want to sit for six years?"
"I heard his sister came home one day with a chicken to sacrifice for the festival, she wanted to celebrate. They are Tamangs, after all. They love chicken and alcohol," she said as tactfully as possible, trying to denude this statement of ignominy. "He was so disturbed by the sacrifice he argued with his sister, but she wouldn't listen to him. So he rushed out of the house."
Hastabahadur had come with one specific purpose – to find out if the young boy was indeed not drinking or eating, as the reports claimed. If a sixteen year old boy could do that, then he held the key to the suffering that plagued Hasta's village in Kalikot. Then all he had to do was ask Bomjom to reveal the secret. The people of his village, facing a famine, would be saved. People would no longer die from hunger because they would no longer need to eat.
Hasta craned his neck. A cordon held off the people from the charmed figure of the boy. All around him was a sea of people – old men counting beads, old women chanting hymns in internal rapture. Young mothers with infants in tow came to be blessed by his presence. Young men held motorcycle helmets — many of them had ridden for hours on dusty tracks to witness the miracle. Some were reposeful as they waited, some dubious and derisive. A hum of commerce rose in the air. Committees of various genres, and businesses of various species, had set up shop. They were busy offering water to the pilgrims, hawking religious literature, selling popcorn and soya beans, and asking for donations.
"I don't see him," Hastabahadur said. He turned and saw that the young woman was no longer besides him. She had left without saying goodbye.
Hasta looked around till he spied an important looking monk. This monk was sitting on the side, counting his beads in a yellow silk outfit. He had a beneficent look on his face, and, as he counted, he seemed to chant powerful mantras.
"Rimpoche, is it possible to have a personal meeting with the meditator? I have an urgent question." The monk looked up to see a young and wild-looking man, disturbed by something beyond the ordinary.
"I am sorry. The boy is sitting for world peace. He cannot be disturbed."
"But my question is very urgent!" Hasta felt the benefit he would get from meeting the meditator far outweighed any bad karma he might acquire arguing with a monk.
"It is not possible." The monk, counting his beads, walked away.
Hasta ran after him. He had now joined a group of other monks, wearing large hats that blossomed on their heads like tea-cosies. They were holding colorful flags and were walking around a circle. "This is a ritual for long life, don't push me," an ancient, wizened woman muttered to Hasta as he tried to push her aside. The monk was now seated underneath a glittering yellow satin umbrella.
"Rimpoche!" Hasta implored. "My village is dying of a famine. Can you please ask the meditator how he survives without food? How does he manage to stay alive? Maybe he can teach them how to live without eating! All they need to do is survive for the winter. We grow enough for the rest of the year!" Two monks, brawny, young, and with beautiful, compassionate eyes, dragged him away so that he couldn't disturb the ceremony.
Hastabahadur threw himself down on the ground in supplication. Perhaps the gods would help me meet this boy, he thought. As his cheek touched the dust, he smelt wetness and realized he was crying. Nothing could redeem him now. He had spent a year in India and only had seventeen thousand rupees to show for it. The phone call from his brother had warned him that the circumstances were dire. "Hasta, the whole village is dying," he had said in a quiet voice. The blockades of food had slowed down the food delivery. But more damaging had been the demolition of the food depot, which the state used to run. Once upon a time. But then the Maoists had come and blown that up, and now, in the lean season, there wasn't even a sack of rice to beg from the depot. His brother's voice held the echo of prophecy.
The only thing Hasta could do now was gorge, and forget hunger. In a roadside stall, smoky and squalid, Hasta found a woman with bouncy breasts and a loud laugh selling quail eggs, roasted chicken and fermented radishes. The chicken was so spicy it made his nose run. In his hand, she put a glass of rakshi. He downed it lightly, one after the other, like lemon sherbet. Two hours and two hundred rupees later, Hasta stumbled down the road. He had to buy a bus ticket to Kathmandu.
An ascetic was sitting below a tree as Hasta walked by. "Do you know where I can find a bus office, Babaji?" Hasta asked. He was slurring his words but was excessively polite.
"No bhaiya." The Babaji, with dreadlocks and grey ash on his body, seemed to be the figure of an unknown apostle.
"Do you know how to get rid of famine?" Hasta asked in drunken hopefulness.
"No, I don't know how to stave off famine. But here, have a sweet," the apostle said, rifling through his cloth bag. "Experience dissolution. Hunger won't touch you then."
The green square of sugar and bhang grass crumbled in his mouth like a sweet blessing. The Baba seemed to feel sympathy for him, so Hasta asked for more. A strong sensation of life floated up through his body and into his head. The sound of flutes, the ringing of bells, the burning of incense, and the lilac spread of twilight entered him like a benediction. He felt like he was seeing the world with a clarity that he never had before. As he walked off into the woods, the darkness felt interminable.
Hasta lay down on the ground and tried to sleep. As he watched the vines twist around the trees, and the leaves shift in the wind, and stags jump through the creepers, he saw the unsubstantial figure of a young man come floating down the jungle. He seemed to dissolve; he shook and shivered. There were no seams in his cloth, and it flapped in the wind like the riggings of a ship. Hasta leant up on his elbow, wondering why he felt so slow. But before he could get up and verify if the figure was real, or just the figment of imagination, the figure vanished in spectral stillness.
Hasta went to sleep, awoke, saw sunlight, fell asleep again for what felt like an endless string of time. He saw corpses lining the ground of his village. Shrouded in white, the bodies lay on the ground – his entire clan. There was his grandmother, shrunken in death. There was his mother, small and empty. And there – wait, no, was that his child… Time seemed to pass - although the same bird twittered the same note over and over, and the same motorcycle revved up behind him, with the same sequence of sounds, repeatedly.
A hummingbird hummed near his ears. It was a different sound from the twitters he had heard before. Hasta opened his eyes and noticed that the constellations on the sky had gotten brighter. Now there were many stars, all seemingly joined to one another in endless patterns. He went to sleep again. The next time he awoke, he realized that he was sleeping under a large banyan tree. Just like the Buddha, he thought. Then he smelt the fetid smell, looked down, and saw vomit all over his the ground. His gullet burnt from the taste of regurgitated alcohol. He remembered the big plate of chicken and the glasses of rakshi, and couldn't suppress a rumble of laughter in his belly.
"Why are you laughing?" The voice came from the tangle of undergrowth. Hastabahadur looked up and realized he was staring at the faces of five policemen. They were carrying guns.
"Because I am not the Buddha," Hastabahadur said.
"Oh? Are you sure?" His confusion made them curiouser.
"Never been more certain in my life." Hasta's humble voice preempted derision.
"How long have you been here under the tree?" The policeman's bluster, threat and reverence confused Hasta.
"It's the full moon. Isn't it?"
"No, Bhai. That was a week ago," the policeman said. "We are searching for a young man who was meditating under a tree. He has disappeared. Is it you?"
"The meditator has disappeared!" Hasta was surprised at the solace these words brought him. Now that the young man was out of the cordon, perhaps Hasta could find him and ask him about his secret.
"Did you see him anywhere?"
"I saw a young man in white walking that way. He was shivering."
"How long ago?"
"Bhai, the boy disappeared a week ago."
"But I was with the crowd when he was sitting under the tree yesterday!" Hasta realized his mistake. The policemen looked at him strangely. He had compromised his claims to sanity. Then he realized what it was – the old ascetic had given him something so potent it had put him to sleep for an entire week.
"Where are you from?"
"You're not a Maoist, are you?"
"No, sir. I just got back from Gharwal."
"Well, if you're lying and you're really Bomjom, you better go back. Business is suffering. People collected millions of rupees in the seven months you sat, you know?"
"But I am not Bomjom." Hasta panicked. The police in Nepal never took the time to ensure they had the right culprit. What if they took him back and made him sit under a tree for sixteen hours every day? "Dai, please believe me."
"Maoists may have abducted the boy so they can set him up and collect cash that way," another policeman said. "Heard anything about this?"
"No." Hasta was at a loss for words. He had spent the last year building houses for rich Indian businessmen. He had no idea about Nepal's complicated politics. The image of timber, lime, the smoothness of beams, returned to him with a visceral pang. He wished he was feeling mortar beneath his fingers.
"Well, young man, looks like you're the only suspect we got for the missing meditator." The policeman, who looked just a bit older than him, smiled with satisfaction. "Right age, right ethnicity."
"How can I convince you I am not him?"
"Got any money for us?"
"Not much." Hasta fished in his pockets and came up with a dirty fifty rupee note. The rest of his savings – seventeen thousand rupees - was tucked inside a sweaty belt around his waist.
"Are you carrying anything else? Gold? Drugs?" The youngest policeman asked.
"Nothing of value." A trickle of sweat fell down Hasta's face. He felt nauseous. All of a sudden, he remembered that he was indeed carrying something that the policemen would love to get their hands on. He leaned over the side, and vomited. A stream of green grass mixed with chicken came out of his mouth.
The young policeman stretched down, grabbed the note, then kicked him on the side of his body. "Go, drunk, go." He's drunk, one of them said as they walked away. Some men return to Nepal, get drunk and sleep for days.
Hastabahadur had left his employer's home in India, ostensibly to go see Bomjom. But an equally urgent mission awaited him at Kathmandu. Hasta had lied – or at least, not told the whole truth - to the policemen. At Gharwal, he had not just worked in construction, but had also been a security guard of an Indian politician, at whose house one of the historic meetings between grumpy Girija Koirala and the fabled Prachanda had been held. Girija Prasad, the bald-headed flag-bearer of democracy, had been instrumental in calling thousands of strikes over fifteen years. Most of his eighty years as leader of the Nepali Congress party had been spent berating the king for being an autocrat – and ignoring protests from young leaders who protested his lifetime stranglehold over the party. Prachanda, the father of Maoist revolution, had called his fair share of blockades. The two found common ground when they met and agreed on this final blockade.
Combined, the two had effectively destroyed the Nepali economy, and had given an inadvertent hand to the King in keeping Nepal chained to an older and more autocratic time. The evil trinity – the King, the Career Democrats, and the Maoists – all benefited from a low intensity conflict that hurt no one but the poor. The never ending conflict was turning into Nepal's begging bowl – there were rumors Army officials had built mansions paved with marble, politicians drove around in SUVs, and Maoists had bought penthouses for their daughters in Bombay. All were paying out of pocket to educate their children in expensive schools as close as the Philippines, and as far away as England and the United States.
Hasta had heard rumors about all this. But when his employer asked him if he would drop off the first version of the 12 Point Agreement, handwritten and with tea-stains on it, he had agreed without hesitation. This would be his ticket to the den of leaders. Hasta had a secret agenda - his own Three Point Demand, which he aimed to put in front of the leaders as soon as he got in front of them. He would ask them to start relief efforts in famine-stricken Kalikot. He would request them to reconstruct the food depot the Maoists had bombed in the district headquarters, and he would plead with them to ask the rebel cadres not to take the meager rations.
"Be careful, Bahadur. You are carrying a historic document." His employer, an old man with a Nehru cap, handed over the white envelope and patted him on the arm.
Hasta took the white envelope, and smiled.
Hasta arrived in Kathmandu just as the rains stopped. The two days of cold rain been enough to put the few remaining trees of the city in verdant greenery. Flora climbed up dead-looking trees. Ivy, with the fullness of monsoon growth, suddenly covered decrepit buildings. Young women were riding pillion on motorcycles through dense traffic.
"I've never been in Kathmandu before," he said to the owner of Himchuli Restaurent, a few minutes' walk from Ratna Bus Park. The Restaurent had chicken chilli, Chinese chow mein, burgers and pizzas. Hasta, who had decided to practice eating very little in order to prepare for food shortage, felt a rumble in his stomach as he got off the bus.
"First time?" The man had facial hair that would have warmed the heart of Genghis Khan, and a warm smile.
"A plate of momo, Dai. Then I have to find the house of Girija Prasad Koirala," Hasta said.
"All seven parties are meeting there today, the newspaper says."
"Yes. They failed to agree."
"So what's going to happen?"
"The 12 Point didn't work, so they are working on a sequel."
"A sequel!" Hasta said. "But they haven't agreed on the original document yet, have they?"
"Don't ask me. Nobody seems to know what is going on."
"What does the newspaper say? Can you read it?"
The owner picked up the newspaper in front of him and read:
"'There is a need to make several corrections in the document we are about to publicize. Moreover, complications are arising out of a stampede to use each other in meeting selfish interests.'"
"I have an urgent request for the leaders of our country." Hasta made the Restaurent owner smile. He pointed to the front page.
"See this?" Two photographs, of two impassioned men giving speeches, were printed on the front. "This man is the Home Minister. This man is the leader of an Opposition party. They are calling each other criminals. This is the state of leadership in our country."
"Can you tell me where Koirala-ji's house is located?" Hasta said. He felt a sinking in his stomach, as if he could tell at once what he could expect from his trip. At the same time, he had to try.
Hasta ate the dumplings slowly, feeling them open in his mouth in spurts of juicy delight. "Up in my village, people are starving," he said as he put another momo in his mouth. It felt like his last meal. He would go to meet the political leaders, urge them to meet his Three Point Demand. That would be his last hope. He had no other plans to fight a famine.
How did Ram Bahadur Bomjom not eat for almost seven months? "He must have been lying," Hasta said aloud.
"Who?" the Restaurent owner asked.
"Ram Bahadur Bomjom."
"He said he wasn't one."
"That trickster, then."
On the tenth year of the People's War, the only certainty was that an indefinite blockade had been called by the Maoists from April onwards. The Democrats seemed to be in an uneasy alliance with the Maoists. Because they were Democrats who specialized in ambiguity, some of their statements appeared to say they were in alliance, some of them appeared to say they were not. There were accusations of fabrications, deceptions and inventions from all sides. To be fair, there was no conspiracy. Even the ones at the top would were unable to say what was going on, because they themselves did not know. Helicopters sent by the King droned overhead, making it difficult to think.
Hasta arrived at Koirala's residence at noon. "They're in a meeting, Bhai," the party activist, a young man in grey pants, blue shirt and an obsequious manner. "Is it urgent?"
"I am carrying an old version of the 12 Point Agreement," Hasta said. "It's a historic document."
"I am sorry, but the leaders are working on a sequel of that Agreement. They can't be disturbed." The young man gave him a stack of newspapers and seated him at a desk. "Please wait."
"I also have a Three Point Demand," Hasta blurted.
"Of course," the young man soothed. He walked to the door and greeted a large, bearish man with a great deal of beard with an extravagant "Ramesh-ji! How wonderful to see you! Everything going well? Come in, come in. Neta-ji will be out soon."
Hasta waited. Inside, a roomful of Brahmin men and a few others debated the finer points of a document whose particularities seemed to shift, moment to moment. Even leaders adept in slippery statements could not keep track. A constituent assembly? A constitutional monarchy? A republic without the king? A republic with the Maoists? A constitutional, constituent… One of them leaned over and whispered to his neighbor: what would the republic be constituted of, exactly? The neighbor muttered at him to be quiet. The original questioner felt that his neighbor was just as much in the dark as he was. After a while, they rubbed their eyes and asked for sweet, hot tea.
The Restaurent owner, after hearing his story of hardship and sorrow, had kindly told Hasta that a plane for Jumla was leaving tomorrow morning. If he could deliver the letter and his Three Point Demand, the Restaurent owner could ask his brother to book Hasta a seat to Jumla. The flight was overbooked, but the brother was a travel agent, and he was entitled to complimentary seats as a member of the Travel and Tourism Industry. Hasta waited for the next twelve hours, but none of the leaders came out.
Hasta returned to the residence at six the next morning. The same young man seated him by the newspapers. Hasta picked up the newspaper and pretended to read. By this time, the King had sacked three judges, Maoists killed two people in Surajpura Bazzar, students locked the principal's office in Tribhuwan University because the administrators refused to implement the student-authored 14 Point Agreement, two children aged five and eight were hurt playing with socket bombs, and a teacher whose property had been grabbed by his partner threatened self-immolation. But Hasta did not know all this, because he had never learnt to read. He had slept at the Restaurent at night, where the owner had kindly left a red and portable electric light on to fight the blackout. The machine had a FM radio, which the owner had left on – but Hasta had not understood, because the news was read in the Newari language.
Hasta pleaded with the young man: "Dai, I need to see the leaders."
"They are at a meeting right now, Dai." The young man was apparently used to fending off desperate supplicants. He exuded a large and empty smile, filled with sympathy and understanding.
"There's a famine in my village. My mother says my family has not eaten in a month. I have to go see them – my plane leaves at ten."
"Why don't you leave the letter with me, Dai? I will deliver it, and also your Three Point Demand."
"Will you remember all three points?" Hasta asked.
"I will," the young man promised, taking the letter and stuffing it in his back pocket. "Now hurry, you don't want to miss your plane."
"Be careful with that document. It's historic," Hasta admonished.
"Yes, yes," said the young man, edging him towards the door. "I will take care of it, don't worry."
The plane was a small Twin Otter, seating ten people. Hasta sat in by the window, carrying two nylon bags filled with Wai-Wai noodles, powdered milk, sugar, salt, flour, spices and oil. In his coat pocket, he had a small bar of Cadbury chocolate he had bought for his one-year-old son.
The plane seemed to drop straight out of the sky into the airport in Jumla in a heart-stopping landing. Hasta almost dropped his bag in panic. "I am dead," he thought, as he watched the plane drop straight through the surrounding cliffs.
In Jumla Bazzar, he was surrounded by what he had forgotten – men in tattered, smoke-blackened clothing, holding jute straps, with sullen looks on their faces. The anger in their faces shocked him. One of the men detached from a group of observers and came towards him. He tried to grab one of the nylon bags. Hasta resisted.
"That's all you got?"
Hasta gasped. It was his brother – bone-thin, with scars on his face, wearing a smoke-blackened coat.
"Mother's in bad shape," Resham, his brother, said. "It's good I joined the People's War, or else they wouldn't let us through with these rations."
As he climbed through the hills, Hasta told his brother about the sixteen-year-old boy who had sat for months without food and water. The story itself was the only sustenance he could offer, besides his two small bags of food, to his hungry brother. "Imagine! Months and months without food. Or even water. People kept asking if he pissed, but apparently he sits for sixteen hours every day," Hasta chattered gaily, desperately, trying to break through his brother's morose silence. Resham walked ahead, coughing every once in a while, lost in his own world.
He broke his silence when they were stopped by three young men dressed in fatigues and carrying rifles. "It's for my mother, comrades," Resham explained. The rebels walked in twos and threes – hardened by tough mountain terrain, proud as bandits.
"You are back from India, are you? What are you going to donate to the People's War?" one asked. He looked at Hasta with a calculating look. The young men were carrying rusty rifles. Hasta took one look at them and took out his money belt. By the time they reached home, it was eleven at night and all the packets of instant noodles had been appropriated by the rebels. Hasta's seventeen thousand rupees had gone down to sixteen thousand. He had a receipt printed in red ink, showing he had contributed a thousand rupees to the People's War. Hasta felt tired.
Then, as he climbed up the final slope to the village, he saw the scene he had dreamt in his jungle stupor. Outside his wooden house, there were three corpses, lined up. They were covered in ragged sheets. A rug, black and white, smelling of mountain goats, and covered with flies, was laid out outside the door. He put his two nylon bags on that old and familiar rug.
Resham sat down on a ledge. "They're dead."
Hasta knelt down and threw back a sheet. Below was his grandmother, dried and shrunken. He threw back another sheet. It was his mother. She too, looked empty, as if all the sawdust had come out of a ragged doll. Then, drawing an unsteady breath, he threw back the other rag. It was a small body. His son.
"Where's my wife?" The world seemed to ring with an echo of sounds that repeated mockingly. Hasta heard a motorcycle reverse. Then a hummingbird hummed, along with the uneven whine of a helicopter. But there were no motorcycles or helicopters in this remote part of the world. He shook his head, but the sounds did not disappear.
"She ran away with a trader. He said he would take her to India and they could live there together," Resham said. "She left a month ago."
"Why didn't she take him?" Hasta pointed to the corpse of the baby.
"Food was running low," Resham said. "She could barely walk."
Hasta took out the chocolate. He walked up to the doorway of his house, and looked up. Festooning the lintel was a number of dried herbs and tiny pouches of grain, that their father, the village shaman, had put off to ward evil. Inside was a hearth full of spirits. He put the chocolate down as an offering in front of the spirits, then came out.
"Where will you go now?"
Hasta shrugged. He watched a dung beetle roll a neat ball of dung down the broken granite rocks. A giant mushroom grew in red splendor in the cracks. "Maybe I will stay here," he answered.