After a long, long absence, I am back in Kathmandu. I took the train to Kolkata, didn't really see all of it, but covered pretty much most of the range there was to cover... Many indelible images set in the mind now--a stack of paperwork fluttering in the afternoon rush, a one-eyed man pulling miles of goat-guts, a fifty-year old man who knows his death is at the door, and therefore looks at his mother and says "that woman gave birth to me, she brought me up," and cries before a couple of strangers...
I wrote something for last Sunday, at Shiv's parents' house in Kolkata, where I went for lunch. Below is the text. I can't find a link to the article.
Toll and Fatigues
“After an overnight rain,” my fellow traveler in a Tata Sumo headed for Hetaunda speaks slowly, “imagine watching the sun rise on those mountains.” When he looks at the indistinct northern horizon, smoked by smog rising above Kathmandu, he begets an air of thoughtfulness. He seems to be talking about something else than the mountains or the golden light of a December sunrise. “What is that?” he asks as I thumb a crumpled ball of a pink ticket.
We are at the top of a pass: Kathmandu is behind us, and to our south are the mountains of Makwanpur. A dirt track snakes through mountain-folds. Bright scars of new roads can be seen as far as the eye cares to search. Some scars are the white of sandstone and flint, and some scars are the ochre and red of freshly dug earth, but they look auspicious instead of offensive as they dissect the landscape, like the signs of a long awaited healing. Pink tickets scattered on the dirt of the road are no more colorful than the fresh red of earth and the eternal blue of the sky. I pass the ticket to him. He takes a look, wants to pass it back, and throws it away instead. It is nothing important, just a ticket given to vehicles passing through.
I hadn’t picked the pink ticket because the ticket interested me as much as the person who handed them to drivers. Nobody questioned the small toll: drivers seemed unfazed by any number of colorful chits thrust into their hands by young men wearing combat fatigues. What is the tariff for? Why was the collector wearing a PLA uniform? I look at the man in combat fatigues to see if he carries a sidearm. He doesn’t even have the PLA insignia on his uniform. He strolls over, cocks his head to a side as if to examine a particularly peculiar specimen of a class enemy. He stands beside a carpenter who is finishing a window frame. They look at me after looking at each other. I realize that the carpenter is wearing similar trousers. “What is this for?” I ask.
Perhaps I have become too sensitive to the details of this moment that I perceive as a confrontation: I sense a ripple of heads turning or lifting up to look at me. The treble of my voice rings in my ears and I realize I could have spoken in a softer tone. The man in combat fatigues comes closer, looks at me as if he can’t understand the question, spits the stalk of grass that had been hanging from the side of his mouth. I know what the pink chit says. It is just a receipt for road tolls, collected for the district of Makwanpur by a local contractor. The young man is just an employee with the contractor.
It takes me a long time to decipher that moment on the mountain. It is only in Birgunj, watching rag-picking children attempt to kill marsh hens that I realize a small truth about the young toll-collector’s combat fatigues: those are the only warm clothes he possesses, and trying to eke out a living outside of a UMIN-monitored PLA cantonment, he wears them to work through the winter.
Immediately, I chide myself for being self-indulgent, pretending to see through a man whose history and motives I have no access to. There are many disparate things I shouldn’t conflate. A two-year-old girl squirts a thin, insistent trickle of diarrhea outside her house, behind Sri Ram Cinema in Birgunj, while her mother pumps water a few feet away to wash vegetables. There are graffiti asking the bold but statistically mundane question: “Do you have a vagina?” A business proposition and a phone number follows. Somewhere close by, a group of women from Maiti Nepal keep vigil over the border, pulling aside young women to brief them on the dangers of being sold into brothels. There is unrest around Ghantaghar Chowk, where the head of a man killed by a blow delivered to the head, allegedly by Maoist cadres, is the focus of a spontaneous protest. The driver of the tanga taking me away from there looks at me with pity.
“You look like a righteous man,” he startles me with an accusation I do not face very fondly. “But this is the Terai,” he says. “If you see a dead man, if you see a dying man, walk away. Don’t get involved. Or, before you know anything, they’ll accuse you of murder.”
The toll-collector’s fatigues returns to my mind. What has happened of his revolution? If I am right in my conjecture about that being his only pair of warm clothes, how has the newly imagined nation rewarded him for his toil? If he wears it as signal of affiliation to a force with the will to power, how have his toils rewarded us? How is the pink ticket ever really uncoupled from his combat fatigues?
How is the sick child’s stomach uncoupled from her mother’s ignorance about waterborne diseases? How is the fate of our women uncoupled from the graffiti on Birgunj walls? I am ashamed of the man who sees righteousness in me, but also suggests in the same breath that I abandon all pretences to it. Perhaps he did not see me as an equal, as coupled to him by a mutual chain of fear and worthlessness, and was eager to cut me to his size.
I wanted to give up all pretences to ignorance, for a change, and let the toll-collector know what I thought of the pink ticket and its subtext about his combat fatigues. I wanted to shake the tanga-wallah by his neck and rub his face into the ground where an unjustly slain man slept. I wanted to catch the man who wrote the mundane question, and show him the scars on women who have returned from the sexual slavery in Indian brothels.
I wanted to see meaning into the moment on the mountain, looking forward and back, conscious of the road that links an old, fatigued city and new scars on old mountains. I want to see a gesture complete and prophetic through the window frame just finished by a carpenter wearing fatigues. I want to call the phone number to tell the person that, no, I am sorry, but I do not have a vagina, and thus trivialize his malice. But I am also tired of what I don’t understand and what I can’t know.