Sunday, December 14, 2008

Lives of Jawang

I had wanted to write something brilliant with this post, but, as always, when the intention to brilliance is there, I fail. I am like the caveman who knows how to make sparks by hitting two stones together, but can never make a fire. Never a fire. In any case, here is the essay I submitted to The Kathmandu Post. I don't know if it has been published--I have to go out and buy a paper to verify.


Lives of Jawang is being shown at KIMFF, Rastriya Sabha Griha, at 3:15 pm, Monday, December 15. It is a work that reaches into mysterious distances to dig for kernels of truth. It is beguilingly a simple fare, but it is folded within itself. This thirty five minute long documentary by Ramesh Khadka builds itself up slowly, eschewing any grandstanding, to let rhymes within the narrative to work on the viewer.

Lives of Jawang is a good work of documentation, and of art. It would be wrong to claim it attains the impossible capacity for pure objectivity: there are lapses, the croak of a voice being piped through a wall, that jolt the viewer back into the seat, away from documented reality. But, that doesn't detract from the viewing experience as much. There is a fog that prevails over the village and its life which softens such intrusions and keeps the focus on motifs that linger in the background, waiting their turn to step into the limelight before quietly retreating into the shadows again.

By the time the contractor at a quarry says of his ilk that, “Chepang ko buddhi nai chhaina: khanne, ukkaune, jhikne, khaidine," the viewer knows just enough about digging and destroying in search of a harsh livelihood that she gasps with the overpowering punch of comprehension. By then, the viewer has seen just enough of the commentator, a Chepang from Jawang, that she can identify within the commentator's voice many shades of abuse and complaints and strains of old fashioned fatalism.
Between the opening scenes which come off as play-acted for the camera, where women ask each other what there is for food, and the closing scenes where the cast of characters has come into its own, we see the villagers forage for food in the jungle, in their aboriginal ways, tracing vines of tubers and yams to eke out a living, and close the narrative arc with men digging boulders out of the same slopes, slowly destroying for a paltry wage the very land that makes it possible for them to live like their ancestors.

Is it justified to ask an aboriginal people to continue their way of life? There is bound to be divisions amongst a people that finds its capacity for tradition tied to its chances of survival as a distinct people. Similarly, there will be those who champion a path away from tradition, towards what counts as normalcy, towards homogenization, which is a necessary step in a multifarious society aiming for the liberty of the atomized individual, where a life unshackled from inheritance is finally possible.

There is a passage in Lives of Jawang where an elderly woman wishes she could ear rice for every meal. She is the native who yearns for the foreign, because there is nothing attractive about the indigenous life to those who have to actually live it, those born into it and without a parachute of escape into another world. The very reason this documentary exists—as a documentation of a disappearing people that are slowly being pushed off the rocky slopes into the tumult of Trishuli—becomes a farce before this realization: this lady doesn't need her story to be told to people sitting in Rastriya Sabha Griha. She needs rice and dal and warm clothes to wear that come from China.

Some of the people speaking to the person behind the camera understand the gaze that is being turned on them, and don't mind a bit of posturing. The unpacking of authentic life for faraway voyeurs is exactly as old as ethnography in film. Villagers in Jhawang also relish the opportunity to address us from the other side of the funnel, understanding that they are personas on screen, unshackled from being persons that must face consequences of their stories and slurs.

Racism is rampant in Jawang, in the way aeons of victimization works its way into the myths and lores of a people. Of course, the traditional robber of the hills, the cunning Bahun, is told of by a village elder. But there is a seething hate present under the surface towards the Marwari owner of a stone quarry that employs young Chepang men. Not only is the quarry physically removing the landscape with which the lives of the Chepang village is tied, presumably to built malls and houses for Kathmandu elite, but the wages for a day's labor of “khanne, ukkaune” are very bad, and there is no regard for the safety of the workers. It isn't uncommon for a worker, who has also sneaked in a bowl of jaand during the afternoon break, to get squashed by a boulder tumbling down the sides.

Lives of Jawang works without much flair or fanfare, but it certainly works, juxtaposing very specific commentaries about life in Jawang. Two modern “evils” rear their heads in serpentine fashion: money and alcohol, but it isn't hard to see that these evils allow Chepangs to break away from the patterns of the aboriginal, for good or for bad. Alcohol requires cash, which requires working for the Marwari they despise, but it brings them out of the slopes and into our world, where it is possible for well-fed, warm and occasionally sober people to sit in a darkened theater and enjoy the pity that wells up when a child hungrily watches a grandmother digging food out of ashes.

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