Waiting for Rain

The killings started sporadically: a few in the Far West, a few in the Far East. A few Nepali Congress leaders and a few United Marxist-Leninists. A village of suspected Maoists, some dangerous students. A few here and a few there. Nobody knew who was doing it, although everybody had their own theories. The newspapers said it was the Maoists, the human rights activists presented evidence against the Police, the Police said it was the terrorists, insurgents and guerrillas. People with sympathies in the far left said it wasn't the real Maoists but their oppressors who were using the Maoist tactics to kill off their own enemies. The Police provided irrefutable evidence that it wasn't the real Police but Maoists dressed up as policemen who were committing massacres. The leaders gleefully seized this media opportunity and publicly accused each other of incompetence for being unable to control the instability. They proposed solutions, including extra-judicial ones. The speculations spread as insidiously as word of the killings.

There were rumors that the Maoists were just a set-up that they didn't actually exist. That the People's War of the last three years was a virtual drama staged by the Royal family to get rid of democracy and reestablish their feudal rule. That there were other forces at work trying to destabilize democracy, ranging from Indian businessmen to the United States of America. Perhaps neo-capitalist forces were also at work, and transnational capital. Who could tell? The World Bank presumably had something to do with it, although nobody knew exactly how.

People heard the shots being fired in the forests, and nobody knew exactly what was going on, and there was no one to ask. People said that the Army, armed with sub-machine guns to ensure security, had started showing up in villages and shooting people they suspected of being Maoists, making sure to catch the people unawares when they were all gathered at events like school functions. Of course women and children also got killed in these operations, but it was better just to do the job at once, and cleanly, rather than leave the children to grow up to be terrorists. It was perhaps coincidental that most of the villages happened to be low caste, untouchable, too far into the hills or the Terai to merit any media attention. The operations to reinstate stability always had to be covert, always done with extra-judicial caution in order to maintain the public nature of peace, the public show of stability from the capital. The secrecy was also a necessary strategy to defeat the Mao, that dreaded, elusive being with his sinister, homemade musket, who came and went through the villages as silently as night, chopping off hands and delivering final warnings to the oppressors.

So it was a country made uneasy with rumors, and unsure of the veracity of its own truths, that started dividing up the symbols of the next election. There were a hundred parties and twenty-three independent candidates, and the symbols were evenly distributed among them. Spray-painted signs asking to Vote For some undecipherable name went up alongside the duotone campaign posters that adorned the walls, the houses, the billboards and the Pepsi signs of the Kathmandu Valley. Big smiling faces and rows and rows of red suns and green trees were instantly ripped and tattered within a few days. Strips of mutilated signs blurred into each other: the motorcycle, the aeroplane, the watch, the electric bulb and the radio running into the cow, the sickle, the spade, the pair of oxen. People, trapped in the monstrous snarl of traffic, barely gave the strips a second glance.

The sun, the hand, the tree, the plough. The four big national parties with the four big signs, although none of them would have been able to say who had sowed and which one had reaped the chaos that now ruled the nation. Five governments had come and gone in the last nine years since the Revolution, the most change of governments in the history of democracy. It is almost as if people, intoxicated with the idea of power that was corrupted but not hereditary, were taking turns to play the elite game. Now it was power to the people -- power to corrupt and to control. The power to demand kickbacks, to allocate tenders, to demand donations for campaigns. The power to be opaque, and never have to be accountable. It had been nine years of freedom, nine years in which the roads had become a little more crowded, women had become much more fashionable, there were five times as many cars on the roads, more supermarkets and the Communists shaved off their beards.

The United Marxist-Leninist party had the best symbol -- the sun, a red circle of unusual potency and emotional resonance, evoking almost religious devotion in the small towns of the capital. The Kathmandu Valley, a week before the election, was papered with the two-toned prints of the sun. Blood-red posters, flapping like prayer flags in the wind, crisscrossed the maze of lanes of the inner core of Asan. Unwashed by rain, the dust of April soon covered them with an ochre uncertainty.

It was the third week of Chaitra and still there was no rain. The corn seedlings were starting to yellow in the powdery earth. People, occupied by their expectations of rain, viewed the drought as a premonition to foretell the results of the election. Harka Bahadur Tamang of Churay Khola swore that voting for the sun would only prolong the drought while Dipendra Silwal, from Ward No 4, thought that the sun might soften some of the hard glare and let the rains through. Dipendra's brother Lalu, who worked as a taxi driver in Kathmandu, spat on the dust and said he
wasn't voting for any of those thieves. None of them. He would just vote for the ones who gave him money. He'd heard that they were handing out money. Fifteen thousand, twenty thousand, depending upon how many votes you could muster up.

"What if both parties give you money?" asked Dipendra. His brother sometimes annoyed him with his slick urbanity.

"Then I will take the money from both of them and vote for neither." He said, dusting his dazzling white jeans, now covered in a layer of yellow dust. He adjusted his sunglasses on his head and dusted his jeans, and grinned.

"You're not going to give the vote for our Ram Babu?" Dipendra, a man of firm principles and sincere beliefs, was genuinely upset. He pointed to the posters plastered all over the walls of the teahouse across the road. A man in his thirties, with a small clipped moustache and gleaming teeth, smiled multiple smiles at them from a red background. Bista for Honesty and Incorruptibility, the scrolled letters said.

Ram Chandra Bista, their independent candidate, had come by the day before and given an expansive speech about the need for bikas. For development. He had talked about our country, and how poor most people were. He had talked about the need for clean water and political transparency. He had talked about his clean record, alluded to corruption that the other candidates were involved in, hinted about future plans for a big water project that could come to the area. He had expanded on his desires to bring development to the village.

Most of the women and some of the men had applauded him with a big hand. They liked him. He had teeth that gleamed like chips of white marble, and his lips were always parted in a movie-star smile. He was a politician who was also a poet, exploding across the quiet dustiness of their town with the energy generated by his own dynamic words. As a teenager, he had written verse filled with fiery patriotism, and now he had hatched out of his younger incarnation to become what he was already destined: a visionary leader. He had a Kathmandu accent but could joke and talk like a gaule. He called them all dai and didi, was always deferential and respectful. He had walked through their area wearing his dried marigold garlands and waving his hands, and won from the same constituency in the elections two years ago. He had not come back to the area since then, but people had not heard anything bad about him. He hadn't taken bribes, like the ward chairman. He hadn't promised them taps and not brought them, like the village committee's candidate.

All they heard was that he had developed a big patch of land up in Salla-pani Chowr into a big farm, and that he was planting lemon grass and esta-berries. That he was growing silk in the trees and honey, yellow like liquid amber, in the hives. And he had bikasay fish in a pond, and saffron flowers with red fibres worth their weight in gold. He had managed to harness some of that elusive bikas, that elusive development that had evaded them for the last ten years. All those lazy Tamangs who were living there before -- what had they done? Had they done anything to develop the area? Would they have been able to do anything but plant corn and potatoes and eat the same shit their ancestors had done for the last thousand years?

There were stories that Harka Bahadur had been forced off his land, that the rangers had come and forcibly made him sign over his ancestors' land to the man when he was setting the farm up for the first time. That had been ten years ago, and Ram Chandra Bista had paid Harka two thousand rupees for a ropani. Or so Harka claimed. People were not quite sure about Harka, with his crazy eyes and his dark forebodings. He said he had been forced off his land when he had resisted, because he had not wanted to sell something that his family had owned all their lives. He said that Ram Chandra had driven up one night with in a van full of rangers, dressed in their green Army uniforms.

It was about eight in the evening. They had slammed the door of the van and come in, all nine of them. Harka and his family had just finished eating the evening meal. Sinki and rice. The fermented, dried radishes drowning in their own sour juice. He had invited them in, offered them some rakshi. Been civil because there was no reason not to be. Ram Chandra knew his stance on the matter. He knew that Harka Tamang would never sell his ancestral land. The men refused his rakshi. They walked all over his kitchen, his upper rooms, feeling the wood with their hands. The fresh pine that had taken him seven months to hew and saw. Then they told him that he had used wood that belonged to the government. He had stolen government property. Broken the rules. He could go to jail. Harka's wife Sanumaya, sitting quietly by the fire, felt the sour sinki juice come up in her mouth and ran outside to throw up, quietly, on the porch.

Unless he sold his land to his new neighbor, in which case, they would consider some alternatives. One of the rangers, a fat man with his topi cocked over his head, wheezed in satisfaction as he looked at the notebook in his hand and said in a breathy voice: "The house isn't worth much. I would say: Nine thousand rupees." The house that he had built with his own hands. That had taken him seven months and six big pine trees to build. His house with two floors and windows fresh with blue paint that he had paid for with the money he had earned that winter breaking up gravel in the stone quarry. A house clean as a newborn baby, shining from the lime-wash, a skin of red ochre brightening up his porch. But this was during the time when the government still owned the forests. When the government and people who owned the government could come and claim the wood, and the grass, and the leaves as their own property. And Ram Chandra had been a member of the Panchayat then, a Minister of Forestry. He could do things and nobody could stop him.

Other people had had their land seized by the Forest department, Harka knew. He also knew the choice was between him accepting the price or going to jail. He had looked up at them, nine men in green uniforms and big boots walking all over his house, and known that it was all over. They had taken his hand and made him put his thumbprint on the document. The gentle pressure of the fat man's hand pushed his thumb deeper into the thin bark paper. The black ink spread across and obscured his name. Made it undecipherable, illegible. He felt his entire being, his ancestors and his history being reduced to that one black mark onto a piece of paper that would from now on belong to Ram Chandra Bista.

That land had been something else. That is why Harka had refused to sell it. It was up in the pastures, and one could see all of the Kathmandu Valley laid out below, a green and gold tapestry. One half of the slope was covered in pines, and since they were the only family at the top of the hill, the wind was sometimes the only presence besides them. The sound of the wind sweeping through the pines was like his heartbeat -- constant, omnipresent, life-assuring. It would start with a deep roar and carry on through the woods as if it would never end. And then, abruptly, it would stop, and a silence would descend, a silence so big it seemed to fill the entire world just as it filled him. The wind was an elemental cry of transience, a lament that caught him and made him pause when his mind was filled with doubts and questionings. That's why he had refused to sell the land -- because you felt a peace up there that you would never feel once you descended down the hills.

Now he had been forced to fall, to descend. Walking through muddy rivulets dried to a trickle by the spring heat, breaking the stones in the stone quarry in Lamche, where the only sound was the sound of rocks and flakes of granite falling down the barren, steep slope in sudden grating leaps, he could not stop thinking about the silence, and the sound of the wind through the pines.

And that's why Ram Chandra had wanted it too, had not been satisfied with the property of the nine other families whose land he had bought. He had to confiscate Harka's land by any means because this land was the embodiment of an unspoiled idyll. A space replete with silence. A space rich with the resonance of wilderness that had been cultivated at the edges by one family for generations. A place that tourists from all over the world would pay through their nose to visit and see, because it embodied for them all their dreams of what Nepal was like.

All of what Nepal was like without having to face the bedbugs and the outdoor overflowing toilets, without having to walk days and days and eat millet porridge and have diarrhea and run out of toilet paper in the middle of nowhere. Churay Khola was an easy two hours ride away from the Valley, the roads bumpy but not too uncomfortable in a Pajero four-wheeled drive. Ram Chandra was already dreaming about his tourist resort that would cater to all the environmentally sensitive, ecologically minded, high budget tourists who would walk among his plants and admire his permaculture. Who would use his low water toilets and eat his organic food. Who would bring him fame and fortune as the ecological warrior of the poor country of Nepal. Who would sip strawberry wine in the evenings as they watched the lights of Kathmandu through the glass windows. Who would write about him in their magazines and feature him in their news programs. His face, with his clipped moustache and his gleaming teeth, would circulate among the select circles of North America and Europe. What did it matter if Harka Tamang, that drunk who was on the edge of some breakdown with his drinking anyway, had gone around accusing him of all sorts of completely untrue accusations and allegations? What did it matter that some trashy newspaper had even printed it once -- hadn't they retracted their statement once he had called up? What did it matter?

He was still running for elections, and he would probably still win. And those documentaries documenting his immensely successful farm that stood as the example of how cash crops could be developed in Nepal would be aired in newschannels of different countries. News that Harka that drunk will never get to see because he will never be able to get his hands on a TV. And even if he did, there is no electricity in the barren fold of hill that he lives in now, thought Ram Chandra, laughing at the idea of Harka Tamang lugging a TV up to his shack where he lived now. That drunk was well and truly taken care of. Although Ram Chandra, being a savvy politician, had known when he saw Harka again after a long time that it was important to take his hand, look him in the eyes and tell him sincerely: "We must work together for this election now, right, Dai? You must help me to in the coming days."

Harka knew he could probably get a job planting lemon grass at Ram Chandra's farm if he asked for it. If he groveled a little bit. Threw away his pride. He would get Rs.1200, not enough to live on but better than the stone crushing job that his family had to do to supplement the results of their meager harvest. He would have to work the land knowing that he held plants worth thousands of rupees in his hands, plants grown on his ancestors' land. He would have to bow to Ram Chandra each time he came by. He would have to turn away a little bit and meld into the background when he came by with his group of international visitors. Harka would rather work on his own small patch of land that he had bought halfway up a valley, even if it was dry and crusty. He had tried some lemon grass but some talk from Ram Chandra's workers made him afraid that he might say he had stolen the grass, so he had given that up now. He would rather plant his own corn and wait for the rain.

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