Why Stars Fall (A Short Story for Children)

>> Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Ajay Pradhan | July 29, 2015
Kori, the six-year-old first-grader, looked up into the sky from her bedroom window at night. She was mesmerized by the stars.
She wondered why some stars twinkled more than others. She wondered when she grew up and became taller if she could reach out to some and touch them with her hands. She wondered if she could pick the bright ones she particularly liked and put them on her bedside table. She wondered what it would be like to turn off the lights in her room and use the starlight to read the picture book that her Mommy bought for her today. She loved books. She loved stars. Maybe she could pin a nice one on her curly dark hair.
She had heard that some stars fall and she wondered why. She wondered what would happen to the fallen stars or where they would go. She didn’t like that some stars fall. She liked them all up in the sky, so that she could look at them at night and maybe someday pick some and keep for herself in her room. But she also took delight in the hope that maybe one of them would fall at her backyard so she could go and get it.
“Kori, sweetheart, you’re supposed to be in bed,” Mom, who had just peeked in from the door, said.
Kori turned her head to her Mom and then back at the stars in the sky. The sky looked so beautiful with those stars.
“Mommy,” Kori asked, “Why do stars fall?”
Mom said, “They don’t fall. They come down from the sky to visit their loved ones on the earth.”
Kori kept looking at the sky and said, “I get it. The sky is the heaven.”
“Yes, it is, darling,” Mom said.
Kori said, “The stars must be the people who leave the earth to go to heaven.”
“You are right, honey,” Mom said.
“You see the brightest one up there?” said Kori, almost in whispers, “I hope that one comes down from the heaven to see me. That must be daddy.”


Constitution is Not for Glorifying Killing and Bloodletting

>> Saturday, July 18, 2015

Ajay Pradhan | July 18, 2015

The Preamble of the preliminary draft Constitution of Nepal glorifies armed struggle. The Preamble apparently refers to the 10-year armed struggle from 1996 to 2006 between the government forces and the Maoist rebels. That armed struggle resulted in the killing of 15,000 Nepalis, many of them civilian non-combatants. Many citizens disappeared, are still unaccounted for, and are believed to be dead. There are cases of victims who were burned or buried alive and many were hacked to death. Victims’ surviving families are still living a life haunted by horror and terror. They are still grappling with the loss and trying to find some sense in the horrid outcome that some call collateral damage of the armed struggle.

And the Preamble of the draft Constitution unabashedly calls that horror and terror-filled armed struggle and in many cases barbaric killing and bloodletting a part of Nepal’s glorious history. Really? Glorious for whom? For the victims? For their families? The perpetrators should face the widows and mothers and children of the teachers, the farmers, the innocent citizens who were burned or buried alive, and ask them if they thought the armed struggle was glorious.

The glorification of armed struggle and the bloodletting is senseless and insensitive. We Nepalis accept it as part of our history, yes. But there is no need to glorify it. Those who are smitten with violence could wake up at night and gloat over it, if they wish. But, they should let the rest move forward, not drag them to the past. History is an important lesson. But history is not the pathway to the future; you must be courageous enough to chart the future course on the ideals on which to found your future.

If you tell me if armed struggle is not mentioned in the Constitution, then the Constitution is not worth the paper it is written on, I have an answer for you: You want to glorify the armed struggle and the killing and spilling of the blood? Go ahead and write a book to do that. Fill every single page with gory details. Go right ahead and gloat over the bloodletting, puff-up your chest.

But leave the Constitution alone, and with it let the rest of the people move ahead. Do not sully the Constitution with glorification of violence. Violence was part of the history, but must not be the foundation of the country’s future. The Constitution is about the country’s future and its preamble is about the founding principles for that future. The preamble of a Constitution is to declare the principles and values we resolve to found the country on. It is not a place to gloat over and glorify killing.

Learn from other countries. America’s founding fathers wrote their Constitution in 1789, within five years after the end of the American Revolutionary War against Britain in 1783 for America’s independence. More than 25,000 Americans lost their lives and about as many Americans were seriously wounded in that war, which had gone on for eight years from 1775 to 1783.

You know what the founding fathers did? They had the good heart, good wisdom, and, above all, good vision to not dwell on the past, not to harp about the grievances against Britain or military agents of the colonial rulers, not to expect anything from the colonial masters who ruled them for all their history. The founding fathers mentioned nothing in the Constitution, not one single word, about the war that brought them independence. They left all that for history books. Why did America’s founding fathers not glorify the war in the Constitution, that set them free from Britain? Why do you think? If you are too entrenched in the idea of glorifying wars, I doubt you’ll ever know; unless you’re told.

So, listen up: Because a Constitution is not about the past, it is about the future and it is about the values and ideals on which to found the new nation.

Instead of glorifying war and armed struggle that ended merely five years before, they chose to not give any space to the war but chose, instead, to focus on insuring domestic tranquility as a founding principle of America.

They did not mention war not because they forgot it; they did it because they wanted to found the country on the ideal of peace.

Instead of dwelling on the historical injustices, they chose to found the country on the ideals of establishing justice and general welfare.

Instead of expressing grievances of the colonial rule that denied true representation of the Americans in the colonial government, they chose to resolve to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and for posterity.

And they, the people of the United States, wrote the Constitution for themselves, they charted their own destiny. The rich Americans didn’t write it for the poor, nor the powerful for the oppressed, not the elites for the marginalized, nor men for women. No such distinction was needed to write the Constitution; they were all equal. Unlike Nepal’s draft Constitution which gives every hint that it is written by elites and the powerful to bestow on the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, and, to borrow the words from the draft Constitution, the "helpless single women", America’s Constitution was written by the people for the people, each equal to every other, of the United States of America.

No wonder they were able to write a preamble that, with merely 52 words, is so succinct yet so vast, so accommodating, so visionary, so enduring, so forward-looking, and so full of hope for the future to create a more perfect Union that they didn’t have to split the hairs nor write with nuances, nor meaningless details.

With great brevity, instead of dwelling on the historical grievances, recounting all the historical wrongs, they chose to look forward and found the country on the ideals of liberty, justice and peace.

A Constitution is not a history book. It’s the soul of the future, yes, the future, of a new nation. If we want a new Nepal, we have to look to the future and lay our Constitutional foundation for that future with great courage and great vision. If we only want to dwell on the past, we might as well simply be writing history books.

This task of writing Constitution is not for those with small heart, smaller mind, and short vision. This is only for those with great courage, great mind and great vision.



>> Monday, July 13, 2015

A. S. Pradhan | July 13, 2015

The SkyTrain is
less of a transit mode
than a miniature world,
full of surprises. The daily
commute opens up a new
vista; rarely do I see
the same face. This
pretty woman, a stranger,
seated across the aisle,
keeps staring at me
through her 
stylish sunglasses,
with a disarming smile,
her face bright and smooth
as porcelain,
like a white rose 
in a thorny bush.
Feeling awkward, but
being the polite man that I am,
I smile back,
looking right into her eyes.
When the train approaches
the next stop, she gets up
from her seat,
still staring at me
with charming smile.
Wondering if we have
met before, if I know
her from somewhere,
I get up, too, without
realizing why I even got up.
She then gathers her bag
and, to my surprise, 
unfolds a cane.
Then I realize why she
is staring at me as I see
her guide dog, ready
to lead her out
safely into the world.
I sit back, feeling
blindingly stupid.


Nepali People Cannot Expect to Have A New Nepal and Leave Women Behind

>> Friday, July 3, 2015

Ajay Pradhan | July 3, 2015
In ancient Nepal and India, widows in some communities and princely aristocracies committed suicide by fire on the funeral pyre of dead husband, all before the approving eyes of the authoritative patriarchs and their docile women in the family, community and society. Widows who did not want to commit suicide were forced into it. Often, the wailing and petrified widows were dragged to the pyre, to be burned alive. Society determined that after the death of husbands, women had nothing to live for.
We’ve come a long way from there. In today’s liberal society, the mere mention of this odious, repulsive and abominable practice, called Sati, wrenches our gut and makes us cringe with revulsion. We cannot comprehend the true psychological impact of this practice on the society at large and women in particular.
Social practices die hard and slow on their own, unless a larger-than-life personality convinces the impressionable citizens of the society to discontinue them. Or, unless the State decrees an end to such practices through enactment of law.
Thankfully the repugnant practice has now long been consigned to the deep trenches of history, both because of gradual social change and the State’s proactive intervention through codified decrees.
This was an extreme form of socially-entrenched and socially-sanctioned deep-seated prejudice against women in a patriarchal society.
Things have gotten better. But not all better.
Still today, women are subjected to state-sanctioned discrimination of a different variety. How else can you explain the discriminatory citizenship codes in Part 2 of the Preliminary Draft Constitution of Nepal tabled in the Constituent Assembly on June 29, 2015? Despite the fact that the Draft Constitution has codified equal rights for men and women, the draft contains unequal citizenship codes for men and women, which clearly do not align with the equal rights code guaranteed by Part 3 of the Constitution. For details of the unequal citizenship rights coded in the Draft Constitution, read my separate commentary here.
Has Nepal really moved much ahead from the patriarchal society that existed in the times of Sati? The nature of discrimination may have changed, but the prejudice still remains. Men still call the shots. The Constitution drafted by chauvinistic men still see women as a lesser human being. Small wonder why female feticide still occurs in the society. Misogynistic policies compel girl child to grow up wondering why she was not born a boy, instead.
The discrepancy in the application of citizenship laws on men and women has raised the gender perspective at international forums.
The June 2003 issue of the Women2000 and Beyond, a report series published by the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women (UN DAW, 2003), added a much needed focus on women, nationality and citizenship. The series is published to promote the goals of the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action for gender equality and the empowerment of women. (You can download a copy here http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/public/jun03e.pdf).
“Where parents have different nationalities, laws can bestow the nationality of the father upon a child, but deny the child her mother’s nationality,” the report states (UN DAW, 2003: 2). This is exactly what the Draft Constitution is about to do in Nepal.
To be fair, Nepal is not alone in this regard. The UN report states, “Although the laws of most States now entitle a woman to maintain her independent nationality upon marriage, many States retain laws that discriminate between women and men with respect to the nationality of their children, particularly in the area of acquisition of nationality by descent. Most legal regimes that provide for nationality by descent accord the nationality of the father on his children, irrespective of the nationality of his spouse. It is less usual for such regimes to devolve the nationality of a woman married to a foreigner on her children automatically. In many States, nationality through descent from the mother is conferred only where she is unmarried or the father is unknown or stateless” (UN DAW, 2003: 8). Which country do you think is about to do this? You guessed it: Nepal.
Can Nepali women expect to be accorded equal justice? Can they expect to live in dignity as equal partners to men? Can a wife have equal status in society as a husband? Can a girl child grow up, with equal protection and justice guaranteed by the Constitution?
As the cliché goes, where there is a will there is a way.
The UN DAW report (2003) lays out the “scenarios in which inequality in the bestowal and retention of nationality causes particular hardships for spouses of different nationalities. International human rights standards to redress these inequalities exist within the human rights treaties, article 9 in particular of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979 (CEDAW, 1979). Judicial decisions indicate how these standards can be used to challenge existing inequalities between men and women. However, there are many obstacles to the effective implementation of human rights standards” (UN DAW, 2003:19).
While international law recognizes the sovereign States’ discretionary power to enact laws and devise public policies with respect to conferral of citizenship upon individuals, the UN has made recommendations for actions at both international and nation levels (UNDAW, 2003: 19). At the national level, the UN recommends “legal and administrative reforms” in domestic law to ensure international standards that are based on the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1979). So, in Nepal, which is on the cusp of getting a new Constitution, if we don't do that now, then when will we do it?
Nepal has to decide whether to stand on the right side of history and global community or on the wrong side. There is a choice to make. Does Nepal want to stand with the small community of discriminating States or with the larger global community that has fair citizenship laws based on gender equality?
The time to make that choice is now, when the Constitution-writing process is in the last lap. If not corrected now, it will be much harder later.
Nepali people cannot expect to have a New Nepal and leave women behind.
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979 (CEDAW, 1979): http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/text/econvention.htm
The Women2000 and Beyond, June 2003, a report series published by the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women (UN DAW, 2003): http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/public/jun03e.pdf


Preliminary Draft Constitution Not Fair on Women and the Socially Marginalized - Part 2

>> Thursday, July 2, 2015

Ajay Pradhan | July 2, 2015
After I wrote my first opinion piece on the draft Constitution on June 30, I read the Constitution some more. Here are some additional observations. The Constitution is long (a total of 128 pages) and in Nepali. So, I’m focusing on the Preamble, Citizenship and Rights and Duties. I do intend to read the rest and post additional comments.
The Preamble cites armed struggle (sashastra sangharsha) as being part of Nepal’s glorious history. Really? 15,000 people dead, many of whom still unaccounted for, in Maoist insurgency and that’s glorious?
The Preamble commits to end untouchability (chhuwa.chhut). This is good, of course. But, the Preamble qualifies untouchability with a series of adjectives: class (vargiya), caste/ethnic (jaatiya), regional (chhetriya), linguistic (bhashik), religious (dhaarmik), gender (laingik), and all kinds of caste/ethnic untouchability. Very odd composition. Fluffy. And, likely untrue.

Untouchability is an abhorrent practice that has been unjustly applied on the basis of caste and ethnicity, but not on the basis of class, region, language, religion and gender. Untouchability and ethnic discrimination, exclusion, seclusion and marginalization is a big and an important social challenge for the nation and the country must put a sharp focus on this scourge like a laser beam. The current language of the Preamble waters this down. Clarity is needed. Each word must count. Constitution is not an instrument to use flowery language.
The Preamble declares establishing the foundation of socialism as a commitment. Socialism in and of itself is not, cannot be, should not be the goal. It can be a means to create a just society, but it cannot be an end in itself. Everybody should have the right to a just society, but they need not have a right to socialism. Socialism is only social-economic method that may work at a particular time in history. But its utility can change over time and the society may have to bring in a different system. Constitution needs to be visionary, not short sighted, which is what the current draft is. This is also repeated in Article 4 under Part 1.
Part 2: Citizenship
Part 2 is devoted to citizenship. As I identified in my previous opinion piece, the provisions in Part 2 are misogynistic and patriarchal. Those provisions must be corrected and gender-based discrimination and prejudice must be eliminated. If not corrected, the Part 2 citizenship provisions will directly contravene with the fundamental rights enshrined in Part 3. (For more details on how Part 2 citizenship provisions discriminate against women, read my other commentary on Citizenship here).
Part 3: Rights and Duties
Part 3 devotes on fundamental rights and duties. Article 23 under Part 3 provides for equal rights. Sub-article 1 of this article clearly states that all citizens will be equal before the law and no one will be deprived of equal protection and benefits flowing from the law. Sub-article 2 states that in the application of normal or regular (samanya) law, there shall be no discrimination based on, among others, gender. (It is not clear what is meant by normal or regular law and how it is distinguished from other types of laws.)
Despite this declaration of equal justice under law, Part 2 provisions on citizenship blatantly discriminates against women. The message of Part 2 citizenship provisions is basically this: In Nepal, it is better to be born a baby boy than a baby girl.
Every living, thinking, and breathing man and woman must oppose the misogynistic citizenship provisions under Part 2.
Sub-article 3 under Article 23 provides for equal rights for, among others, all castes and ethnicities. But, its “notwithstanding” clause provides for special privileges for social groups left behind socially and culturally. Oddly, enough, this provision includes the social grouping in Nepal that has been at the forefront of power structure politically, socially, culturally, linguistically, and in government administration—Khas Aarya, which includes Bahuns and Chhetris. Inclusion of this perpetually privileged group in the same category as the truly oppressed and marginalized defies logic.
This privileged group should not be lumped together with the truly marginalized and underprivileged social groups. Let me just give you one example. Let’s see who have been Nepal’s prime ministers since the fall of Rana Dynasty in 1951 (2007): Matrika Prasad Koirala, Tanka Prasad Acharya, K.I. Singh, Subarna Shumsher Rana, B.P. Koirala, Tulsi Giri, Surya Bahadur Thapa, Kirti Nidhi Bista, Nagendra Prasad Rijal, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, Marich Man Singh Shrestha, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, Girija Prasad Koirala, Man Mohan Adhikari, Sher Bahadur Deuba, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal, Babu Ram Bhattarai, Khil Raj Regmi, and Sushil Koirala. Many of them became prime minister multiple times.

Tell me how many of them were or are non-Khas-Aarya?

One. Yes, just one.

All the rest, Khas-Aarya. Out of 21 prime ministers (just based on head count, not based on the multiple, non-consecutive tenures), all but one were Khas-Aarya. (Two, if you also count Giri.)

So, no need to treat this Khas-Aarya group as underprivileged. No affirmative action for the privileged.

Focus should be put where focus is due: the truly marginalized, the truly dispossessed, the truly underprivileged, the truly oppressed. Unless that is done, the Constitution will only be providing lip service to them.

(More coming)


Discriminatory Citizenship Provisions in Nepal’s Preliminary Draft Constitution 2072 (2015)

>> Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ajay Pradhan | June 30, 2015

Yesterday, the Constitution Drafting Committee submitted to Nepal’s Constituent Assembly the preliminary draft Constitution, 2072 (2015). (You can download the draft Constitution here).

I gave Part 2 a read, which is devoted to citizenship. Part 2 contains Articles 10 through 20. This commentary only focuses on Part 2 of the draft Constitution. I do intend to read the rest of the Constitution and post commentary on other provisions of relevance to people's rights.
It doesn’t take you long to notice that the draft Constitution has discriminatory citizenship provisions based on gender. The gender-based discrimination applies to citizenship by descent and citizenship by naturalization.

Citizenship by Descent
Article 12 has provisions for citizenship by descent.

Article 12, sub-article 1, clause a (ka) requires both father and (not or) mother to be Nepali citizen at the time a child is born for the child to be able to obtain Nepali citizenship by descent.
Article 12, sub-article 1, clause b (kha) also requires both father and (not or) mother to be Nepali citizen, of which at least one is a citizen by descent, for their child to be able to obtain citizenship by descent.

These two clauses don’t quite look discriminatory, do they? Read Article 12, sub-article 4 and you’ll see that they are, in fact, discriminatory provisions           .
Article 12, sub-article 4 allows citizenship by descent through mother, if the father is unknown. However, this sub-article disallows citizenship by descent through mother, if the father is known to have foreign citizenship. Curiously, though, this provision does not apply if the gender is reversed. If the father is Nepali and the mother is a foreign citizen, there is no clause disallowing citizenship by descent through father.

Do Nepal’s political elites want to perpetuate a patriarchal society or what? What century are they living in?
This is not all. Read provisions for citizenship by naturalization. The gender-based discrimination becomes even more stark and reveals the misogynistic mindset of Nepal’s political elites.

Citizenship by Naturalization
Article 13 has provisions for citizenship by naturalization.

Article 13, sub-article 1 requires the foreign husband of a Nepali woman to spend 15 years in Nepal before he becomes eligible for Nepali citizenship by naturalization.
So, what’s the big deal? Let him wait 15 years and then apply for citizenship. Fair enough? Well, that’s now how it would work in the case of a Nepali man with a foreign wife. Nepali man gets the better deal than Nepali woman.

Article 13, sub-article 2 does not require the foreign wife of a Nepali man to wait 15 long years before she becomes eligible for Nepali citizenship by birth. The foreign wife of the Nepali man does not even have to wait one year; she is immediately eligible for citizenship.
Why this gender-based misogynistic discrimination? One can only assume that it is driven by politicians’ zeal of hyper-nationalism, fear against India and India’s perceived demographic pressure and influence in Nepali state. Do one thing. Call and talk to your Nepali politician uncle from Nepali Congress, UML or Maoist parties and your ultra-nationalist, chauvinistic uncle will explain that this discrimination is in the national interest.

Tell him, this is unacceptable in the 21st Century.
Dual Citizenship vs. Non-Nepali Resident Citizenship Card

Article 18, sub-article 1, clause b (kha) ends your Nepali citizenship if you acquire foreign citizenship. So, no dual citizenship for you.
But, interestingly, Article 19 provides that Non-Resident Nepali Citizenship can be (not shall be or will be) given to people of Nepali origin who have taken citizenship of non-South Asian countries (i.e., countries outside of the South Asian Association Regional Cooperation or SAARC). The draft Constitution does not define the term “people of Nepali origin” and is silent on the status of a non-resident Nepali’s children, grand-children and their children who are born in a foreign country, live in a foreign country and are citizen of a foreign country.

Clause b (kha) of sub-article 1 under Article 18 appears to contradict the provision of Article 19. Clause b does not have a notwithstanding clause to accommodate Article 19, leaving the provisions potentially subject to dual interpretation before a court of law, killing the provision under Article 19.
As a non-resident Nepali, I think you should all voice your concern to the appropriate authority, directly, through media or, at least, through social media.

Silence is not an option.


The Perspective

>> Sunday, June 28, 2015

Ajay Pradhan | June 28, 2015

From the giddy height
Of the mountain top
You look at the town
Far below down.

With no trace of grace
On your vein face
That's full of smug frown
You look around.

You think of human race
Far behind your pace
That lives in that town
As merely clown.

And above them all
With a heart full of gall
You think you stand tall
And the rest can fall.

With a swooning head
And a swelling chest  
With sighted eyes
But like clouded skies.

With a murky mind
And thoughts too blind
What do you find
But perspective misaligned?

You think you bear
Power extraordinaire
Deem yourself of great renown
The one with the dazzling crown.

So you look below
And think as though
With a smirk on your lips
And a mind out of grips.

That all men below there
Are beneath you, for sure.
And  your ego bloats
And your mind gloats.

You think you're
Master of all
The rest of them
Just too small.

But, oh, omnipotent
You let your ego float
Wrap your mind under a coat
And forget to take an important note.

Those men down
Below in the town
When they look up
At the mountain top.

They don't see you at all
For them you're too small
They have a different perspective
Maybe your view is defective.


Revolution or Nightmare?

>> Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A. S. Pradhan | June 17, 2015

At a time of turmoil,
violent demonstrating crowd
in the street outside
In a pitch dark night.
Unrelenting crowd against
unrelenting ruler.

The husband, the wife
and their baby girl
in the ground-floor room,
scared for safety. 

Their own breathing
seemed amplified
through megaphone.
The room,
separate from the main house,
that fronted the open yard
of the residential compound
with walls,
but missing gate.
It was a small world
of the young couple
And their little baby.
His world. Almost violated.

Gunshots pierce
the night air,
dispersing the mass
of demonstrators.

A strident crowd
break from the mass
and entered the compound,
shouting, screaming,
then kicking at the door.
Chest thumping,
heart pounding.

Were they seeking
safe shelter?
Or were they
looking to kill?
Who knew!
The man,
scared to death,
had one mission:
To save his young family.
To save his world.

Fearing the door
would be broken in,
He pushed the sofa against it
Shutting the revolting crowd
Out of his small world.
It seemed like an eon
When finally the crowd left
Leaving the small world
The young family called home.

They said, it was revolution
For the young family
It was
a fearful nightmare.
Lasting, etched in mind.

Note: Based on real events of 1991 People's Movement in Kathmandu.


Sufi Song: Ballad of Mahua Pokhari

A. S. Pradhan | June 17, 2015

A hundred stormy seas
A hundred-thousand miles
Shall I gladly cross, my love
To come see your smile

No tall promises I need
Nor do I want a big deed
All I beseech you, my dear
Is take my hand and lead

A thousand different hamlets
A thousand miles apart
Will look for you in each, my dear
Until my life does depart

For hundred years shall I wait
Look for you from morning until late
At the door of my father’s house
Until you come brighten my fate

A hundred stormy seas, my love
A hundred-thousand miles
Shall I gladly cross, my love
Just to come see your smile

Sing to me this our own ballad
Until I turn hundred years old
And I’ll sing you a duet of love
That for thousand cows cannot be sold

Man and Woman:
Will cross a hundred stormy seas
Will travel a hundred-thousand miles, my love
And come back to this Mahua Tree
And beneath it, will sing again our ballad of love


Beneath the Mahua Tree


By Ajay Pradhan | January 16, 2010 | June 17, 2015

The time seemed to stand still in Chandra Nagar. Not much had changed in the last eighteen years. The golden waves of rice paddies and wheat fields, the mango and litchi orchards, the dusty roads, and dust-covered roadside tea stalls and grocery shops all looked just the same as they did eighteen years ago. Roads were still bare; no gravel covers, let alone asphalt. Still ox-carts plied the roads, which seemed to move barely half-a-mile an hour.
Ujjwal stopped his Toyota SUV in the middle of the dusty and bumpy road that connected Chandra Nagar with Lalbandi, an East-Way Highway town approximately twelve kilometer away. He had driven on the highway from Kathmandu to Lalbandi. From there, he took a small feeder road that went through a number of sleepy villages—Raniganj, Ishwarpur, Bela, Babarganj, Manoharpur, and finally to Chandra Nagar, a sleepy village of six-thousand people. This village in Sarlahi District, Janakpur Zone still did not have electricity, running water or paved roads. It seemed time had slipped by silently, as had the attention of the government and political leaders.
It was late afternoon and the sun was dipping, turning the horizon golden and amber. Before going to his old family farmhouse, Ujjwal first wanted to go to a place that held special memories for him, which brought him to this farming community.
Ujjwal was thirty-seven years old. When he was a little boy, Ujjwal spent some of his winter vacations with his parents and siblings in the village to escape the cold winter weather of Kathmandu where they lived in a large house. He returned to Chandra Nagar for the first time in eighteen years. He told his family in Kathmandu he wanted to visit the village where he spent part of his childhood.
He stopped the vehicle, but kept the engine running, not intending to get off. His old family farmhouse stood at a short distance away from the dusty road. An old two-story farmhouse with a large terrace, tall pillars, with terracotta exterior walls that was peeling off and faded. Moss covered part of the exterior walls, and plants sprouted from several places. In its heydays, the building was one of the only handful brick-and-mortar buildings that had the aura of a village mansion. The building was surrounded by large granaries, harvest yard, milling yard, guard houses, watch tower, stables, cattle shed, and tractor and tool shed in front and two other smaller thatched-roof buildings, outhouses, a courtyard, water well in the courtyard, and servants’ quarter at the rear.
He peered through his vehicle window, with floods of memories starting go overcome his mind. The last time he was in Chandra Nagar was when he was nineteen. He was the son of a landlord who owned large farm properties in the village. During rice-planting season, more than a hundred farm workers came to his family farms to work in exchange of grains and some cash. His family employed more than a dozen people on a regular basis—cooks, cleaners, security guards, gardeners, milkmen, shepherds, orchard hands, masseuse, handymen, drivers, gofers, farm workers, farm managers. They were all at the disposal of the family, most from morning till night and many for twenty-four hours a day.
He turned his head in the opposite direction of the farmhouse. He looked at the row of roadside shops, tea stalls, kiosks. Visitors in motor vehicles were not an everyday sight for the local villagers. People were gawking at him and his dust-coated vehicle. A small throng of gleeful children, many of whom without shoes, surrounded the vehicle with curiosity and anticipation as if the man in the vehicle would give them a magic show or offer them candies. He looked at the children smilingly. He did have a box of candies on the seat next to him.
Children were delighted beyond their imagination when Ujjwal offered them each a candy from the vehicle window. They smiled at him approvingly.
It had been eighteen years, and he had been away from Nepal for the most part of those eighteen years, yet he didn’t have to ask for direction to Mahua Pokhari, the place that was the destination of his visit. He knew it was not far down the road. He revved up his engine, and honked the horn. The children backed away. He drove forward.
About ten minutes later, Ujjwal parked his SUV on the roadside. He looked at the small rolling hill with Mahua trees. a short distance away from Mahua Pokhari, a small lake surrounded by Mahua trees and expansive rolling grassy knolls and banks, just outside the village. He gazed at the trees, still seated in his vehicle seat, his emotions turning tender, his eyes turning moist. When it appeared that he was not going to get off the vehicle, he took a deep breath, opened the door of the SUV and descended to the ground. He closed the vehicle door, looked down to the ground, and he slowly bent his knees, his palms touched the earth, on which he had not set foot for the last eighteen years. Then he walked up the knoll towards the Madhuca trees with sweet-tasting flowers, which the locals called Mahua, until the Mahua Pokhari, the small lake, came into view. Instantly, a warm, fuzzy feeling overcame him.
He took another deep breath and surveyed the large pond from where he stood, looking at the water, the trees, the waterfowls. He walked across looking at Mahua trees until he found the one he recognized. He slowly circled the tree … then he spotted it. There it was; faint, but still quite there… his name and the name of the girl he hardly forgot for one single day of the last eighteen years, carved into the tree trunk: Ujjal + Rupa. He remembered that day very vividly—she had carved his name first, then he had carved hers. Then each had carved a cross-line to add a plus sign in between.
He ran his fingertips across the carving, looked at it for a while. He felt as thought Rupa was standing there beside him. His lips trembled. He closed his eyes. A whisper came out of his mouth: “Rupa”.
But, of course, Rupa was not there with him on this day. He stood there alone for a while, his eyes starting to get moist as his memories started to slowly carry him back to his past. He looked around as he felt his knees starting to swoon. He spotted a wooden bench nearby facing the waters. It was quickly getting dark, and the water reflected the moon in the sky. He picked up a pebble and threw it at the reflection. The ripples dispersed the silver reflection. When the ripples grew still, the reflection of the silver moon started regaining its shape in the water. His mind drifted back in time and opened the floodgates of tender memories from eighteen years ago. He lost himself from his present and found himself in his past.

Her name was Rupmatiya and Ujjwal called her Rupa. She called him Ujjal Babu. She spoke broken Nepali, his language; and he spoke broken Maithili variant, her language.
It was during a winter vacation eighteen years ago, few months before he was to go to a college in the U.S., that Ujjwal met her in the village.
He had first seen her at Malangawa, the district headquarters of Sarlahi approximately eight kilometers southwest of the village. Malangawa was the largest and one of the few municipalities in a district full of villages of farming communities.
Ujjwal was walking down the street with a friend. The main street lined with shops and vendor stalls on either side made for the town center. People were ambling on the street. On the street side, vendors set up stalls selling fruits, roasted peanuts, fresh cut sugarcane and fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice, deep-fried donuts, salted snacks, and loud colored cloying confectionary. There were tea stalls in front of fabric and garment stores that had brightly colored women’s dresses and children’s outfits on display out in the open. Random dogs, cows and oxen with bell around their neck staked their claim to any spot on the street they liked. Bullock carts pulled by oxen with bells clanging around their neck shared the roads with people. Mule carts waited on the street side for passengers. Sounds of animal calls filled the air—cows mooed, bulls bellowed, oxen lowed, horses neighed, pigs grunted, calved bleated, donkeys brayed, goats bleated, dogs barked, chickens clucked, cocks crowed, ducks quacked, pigeons cooed, crows cawed. From a distant, a loudspeaker blared a romantic Bollywood song. The air was dry and dusty.  
Ujjwal was practically a tourist in Malangawa and he was walking curiously. His eyes darted from one place to another. His attention was not on the street but on the stores and vendor stalls. Suddenly he saw a large white oxen lolling in front of him. He quickly moved to the side, to avoid hitting it. Instead of hitting the bull, he bumped into somebody on the side.
A sharp-tongued cute young woman, an ocher colored shawl draped around her head, snapped at him in the local Maithili language, “Oi Babu, why don’t you look where you are walking? Don’t bump into my sister like that, I’m telling you. I just know you Babus very well. You just pretend not to see and then purposely bump into pretty girls. Be very careful next time, Babu; otherwise, let me tell you, my slipper will slam on your smooth face.”
“Oh, sorry, I’m so very sorry. I didn’t mean to…” Ujjwal barely managed to speak in broken Maithili to the girl who snapped at him. Then he looked at the girl he bumped into, and he felt as though she must he easily the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Her beauty was such that her sight made his heart skip a beat. She was looking at him straight in his eyes. The only makeup she had on was the dark gajal eyeliner that enhanced the exquisitely beautiful set of eyes. Together with her large beautiful eyes, her full rosy lips appeared to put a smile on her face that seemed shy yet friendly. Her nose was cute and straight adorned with a diamond stud. Her skin was smooth and complexion was lightly dusky. Her hair was lightly wavy and tied in a bun in the back, with a few tresses falling down her forehead. She had a maroon, aqua and emerald colored bindi tika on her forehead, a pair of similar colored earrings, and a nose stud. She had an aqua colored shawl covering her head.
“Oi Babu, what are you gawking at my sister for like that? You want to eat her up or what? Haven’t you ever seen ladies before?” The girl snapped at him again with feigned petulance.
“Bela chal…let’s go. Why are you insolent? Don’t make a scene. It’s not his fault,” said the beautiful girl, a little nervous, also in Maithili, to her sharp-tongued sister, pulling at her arm. She looked at him rather apologetically. It looked as though the easily irritable and tetchy sister often made her edgy and embarrassed in front of strangers.
Then they walked away, the cute sharp-tongued girl still showing feigned annoyance at Ujjwal for bumping into her pretty sister, “What do these city boys think of themselves, prince of the village kingdom?” Obviously, she wasn’t quite done yet.
Back in Chandra Nagar, that night, Ujjwal couldn’t sleep much that night. The strikingly beautiful face of the girl he bumped into at Malangawa kept coming into his mind. He decided to go to Malangawa tomorrow again, hoping he sees the girl again. The girl was nowhere to be seen.
But two days later he saw her in Chandra Nagar at a store, with a gaunt-looking man. The sight of her just melted him, filling his heart with a profound and urgent desire to get to know her, find out who she was, where she lived. But before he could approach her, the gaunt-looking man said to him, “Namaskar, Ujjal Babu,”
Ujjwal turned to him, but his wasn’t a familiar face. He asked, “I’m sorry, but how do you know me?”
“I don’t expect you to remember me, but I know you, of course. I’m Ramdhan Thakur. I’m known you since you were a little boy. I am the headmaster of the school here.”
“Namaste, Ramdhan masterji, it’s nice to meet you. Thank you for saying hello.”
“Pleasure is all mine, Sir. My whole family is indebted to your father, Raghubar Babuji. Such a big heart he has. The benefactor of the school. If it wasn’t for his generosity, we would now be out in the streets.” He said, pointing to the beautiful girl, “Your father was very kind to Rupmatiya’s parents, too. Bless their soul. Rupi is my sister’s daughter, but since they passed away, she is like my own daughter now. Rupi, say Namaste to Ujjal Babu. He is Raghubar Babuji’s son.”
Rupmatiya looked at him and silently greeted with folded hands. Ujjwal greeted him the same way.
“Please give my regards to Raghubar Babuji. I have been meaning to come pay my respects to him. Maybe I will come tomorrow.”
“I’m sure father would be happy to see you.” And I’d be happy to meet your niece again, he thought.
“How long are you planning to visit here this time, Sir? I hope you are not going back to Nepal soon.” Village folks still used the name Nepal for Kathmandu, distinguishing it from Madhes, the low-lying flat Terai belt in southern Nepal.
“I’ll be here for about six weeks, but I’ll be in and out of here, traveling to visit other places here and in India. And, please don’t call me Sir,” Ujjwal said. “You are the school headmaster and I’m like your son.”
 “Where do you live, Ramdhan ji?” Ujjwal had to know.
“We live right here in the village, Sir. Just behind the Health Post in Lodhawa. Not far at all from Kamad.
It was the custom to give direction with reference to the village landmarks. The health post was the village’s only health post and dispensary. Lodhawa was one of the half-a-dozen settlements in Chandra Nagar. It wasn’t much far from Ujjwal’s expansive farmhouse, which was in Kamad settlement but his family’s landholdings were spread far and wide in Chandra Nagar and other nearby villages of Babarganj, Mohanpur, Brahmapur, Noukailawa and Bhaktipur.
“Oh, really…,” said Ujjwal, then adds, looking at Rupmatiya, “I have to stop by at the dispensary around eleven in the morning tomorrow. I have to pick up some medication.” He didn’t have any medication to pick up. Rupmatiya was looking him attentively.


Then that weekend he saw her again at the weekly open market in the local haat bazaar near Mahua Pokhari. She was with her sister again.
It was late afternoon. He was walking through the crowd. The locals were greeting him in Maithili with respect: “Namaskar, Ujjal Babu… Ujjal Babu, it’s good to see you, how are you?”

That night, at dinner, his family noticed Ujjwal was somewhat lost in thought and asked him if everything was alright. Sleep was hard to come by. Ujjwal sat up in the dark and looked out the window at the night sky. Stars dotted the night sky. The crescent moon appeared rather close tonight.
As he sat looking at the night sky, Chandar, the maid servant’s ten year old son came to his room with a glass of hot buffalo milk as every other night. “Ujjal Bhaiya, memsaab said to drink it.”
“Chander, do you know Ramdhan masterji?”
“The school headmaster? Of course, I know him.”
“Do you know where he lives?”
“Yes, of course. He lives in Lodhawa, just behind the Health Post.”
“Do you know his family?”
“Yes, why, Ujjal Bhaiya?”
“Nothing, just asking. Go now,” Ujjwal gave a cagey answer.
As Chander was leaving the room, Ujjwal said, “Wait. Here, take this.” He took ten rupee note from his wallet and handed it to Chander. “For bringing me nice and hot milk.”
“Thank you, Sir. You are very kind,” said Chander as he left.
The next day, Ujjwal went to the Health Post just before eleven and walked around, hoping that somehow Rupa would understand his wish to see her and come out of the house. He waited, walking back and forth, until it was one o’clock in the sunny afternoon. There was no sight of Rupa.

The girl saw her. Her sister whispered to her again, then walked straight up to him and said, “I told my sister that I think you’re following us and she says she doesn’t think so. Now you tell me, what is it? Are you or are you not?”
“What if I say I am?”
“Look, Babu. I don’t know who you are, but if you are following my sister, then at least she ought to know your name. What do you think?”
“Tell her my name is Ujjwal.”
“Why don’t you tell her that yourself? But not today. We’ll be here next weekend. Next week is the biannual village fair. Right here.”
“I’ll be here,” said Ujjwal, smiling.
Next weekend, Ujjwal went to the Mahuwa Pokhari fair. Of course, the only reason he went to the fair was not really to do any shopping; there were servants to do that chore. But he wanted to meet with the girl.
At the fair, he looked around, noticing the many things that were not typically seen in Kathmandu. He thought that the village life was unsophisticated, yet people were seemed to be free of worries and enjoy their life fully.
The fair was not only for sellers and buyers, but also for young men and women to see and be seen, for children to get their parents to get them treats and toys, for people just to come and walk through the crowd, smell the air, feel the twice-weekly vibrancy that was not present on other days, and just enjoy.
Ujjwal was there with his cousins and friends not really to buy anything, yet, being a curious man that he was, he was observing and absorbing intently the things that picked his interest. He noticed that fruit, vegetable and meat vendors sold by local traditional units that made no sense to him. Butchers slaughtered and skinned goats on the spot, hanging the slaughtered and cleaned animals by their hind legs by stakes. Vendors brought in their produce by large wicker baskets balanced on their head. Bargaining was a skill people acquired from childhood. Sellers set the price of goods twice as higher as they expected to sell them for. Buyers started by offering half the price of what they expected to buy the goods for. Occasionally when Ujjwal bought, he did not know how to bargain. He was a sought-after prospect for vendors and they cajoled him to buy their goods.
Book vendors displayed books and magazines on their stalls, mostly offering paperback Hindi romance novels and magazines, and random newspapers.
There were street magicians, snake charmers, snake oil dealers, palmists, barbers, and stalls that sold cosmetic and fake jewelry and glass bangles. There was a dance troupe showing a variety of dance shows. The entire artistes were eunuchs.  
Nearer to the Mahua Pokhari, a nomadic Sufi singer couple sat under a Mahua tree, performing romantic songs. The man played able and the woman played harmonium—they just had those two musical instruments. A crowd of listeners surrounde d the singers. Happy listeners were tossing coins on a rug spread out in front of the singers.
Ujjwal and his friends joined the crowd. The singers were preparing to start a duet. There in the crowd, Ujjwal found himself standing right next to Rupa and next to her was her audacious sister Bela.
Her mere presence beside him sent a sweet sensation through his body—it was the kind of pleasure that he had never experienced before. His mind was now no longer on the singers.
All of a sudden, Ujjwal heard a whisper: “Rupa, see, he’s following you here, too.”
Rupa turned to her sister who nudged her with her arm. Then she turned towards Ujjwal.
Ujjwal’s and Rupa’s eyes met. She quickly lowered her eyes, then stole a shy glance at him. She gave her a hesitant smile. She pulled her shawl around her head a little tight.
“Oi, Babu, Why are you looking at her like that? She’s not the singer. Stop looking at her like that and stop following her. Singers are over there,” Bela said to him, but she kept her voice low.
Ujjwal hesitated, but whispered back, smiling softly, “I’m not following her… but God is kind to me today.”
“God is always kind,” Rupa spoke to him for the first time.
That was the moment of bliss for him. He didn’t plan, all of a sudden he suddenly found himself introducing himself, “Hello, I’m Ujjwal. May I know your name?”
She gave him a shy and cagey look, paused, then said: “Rupmatiya.”
“As beautiful as you are.”
“They are about to sing now,” she whispered back.
As the Sufi singers sang, there they stood, side by side, listening and feeling the presence of each other.

A hundred stormy seas
A hundred-thousand miles
Shall I gladly cross, my love
To come see your smile

No tall promises I need
Nor do I want a big deed
All I beseech you, my dear
Is take my hand and lead

A thousand different hamlets
A thousand miles apart
Will look for you in each, my dear
Until my life does depart

For hundred years shall I wait
Look for you from morning until late
At the door of my father’s house
Until you come brighten my fate

A hundred stormy seas, my love
A hundred-thousand miles
Shall I gladly cross, my love
Just to come see your smile

Sing to me this our own ballad
Until I turn hundred years old
And I’ll sing you a duet of love
That for thousand cows cannot be sold

Man and Woman:
Will cross a hundred stormy seas
Will travel a hundred-thousand miles, my love
And come back to this Mahua Tree
And beneath it, will sing again our ballad of love

 So mesmerized by the melodious ballad the Sufi couple filled the air of Mahua Pokhari’s air with and so overcome was he by the sweet sensations that the presence of Rupa next to him gave him, he didn’t listen to a man call him from behind Rupa as the song ended.


Rupa and her sister Bela were barely one year apart. Bela was born when Rupa was eleven months old. They looked alike and often it was hard for friends and relatives to tell them apart. As they grew up, the one difference that set them apart was their demeanor. Rupa was docile and quiet. Bela, on the other hand, was quite gutsy, talkative and often combative. But her combativeness was often feigned, just to show the world that she was made of tough skin and anyone rather not mess up with her or her older but docile sister.
Bela was younger of the two, but she was the one who turned out to be the one to protect her older sister. It started quite young when their mother died and father became meek in the presence of his new bride that he brought home when it had not even been six months since the first wife, the girls’ mother, had died. The girls could never figure out whether it was their father or grandmother who was more eager to see a new bride in the home so that a male heir could be borne to perpetuate the name of the family. What would the girls do? They couldn’t carry the family name. They’d get married and go away to their husband’s home one day. When Rupa was born, the father and the grandmother were hoping for a boy. They were disappointed when the dai, the nursemaid, announced the birth of a baby girl, a Laxmi, in the family. Neither father nor the grandmother much cared if the Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, really graced the home; all they were expecting was the birth of a baby boy who could perpetuate the family name.
The stepmother soon gave birth to a boy, within six months of being married. The father thought for about five minutes that his new wife must have been already pregnant even before he chose her as his bride. But, he didn’t care much. All he wanted was a baby boy in the house, to make his mother happy. His mother didn’t care much, either. She was happy with the baby boy.
With the arrival of the baby boy in the house; the neglect of the two girls started almost right away. The father often started getting angry with them. The stepmother was too busy taking care of her baby boy to take care of the young girls. They were only six and five years old, but the stepmother already started ordering them to do small household chores. The girls’ uncle, Ramdhan, their mother’s brother, would bring them gifts of alphabet books, drawing papers and crayons. But, the stepmother would say, what would the girls do by studying? They have to go away to their husband’s home one day. Better start learning household chores early on. I learned when I was all but five years old. I learned to carry big-big pots and pans, feed the goats, clean the house. These girls need to learn, I’m telling you.
One day Ramdhan and his wife came to visit with their nieces, the little girls. They were both running fever and lying in bed hungry. That day, the uncle and aunt told the girls’ father that they were taking the girls to their home. They’ll take care of them. They will raise them. The father readily said yes. The father, the stepmother and the grandmother all heaved a collective sigh of relief. Good riddance. The girls are only a burden, the stepmother thought as did the father and the grandmother.
Their mother died while giving birth to her third baby, a baby boy that also died at birth. Rupa was just five years old and Bela was four. Rupa’s father married within six months. The father’s new bride no different from the proverbial stepmother,                     


“Dhut, you don’t even know that much? We don’t use kilogram-silogram here in the village. Let me teach you. We measure weights in our traditional way—Tola, Chhatak, Pav, Seer, Paseri and Maund. Five Tola makes one Chhatak. Four Chhatak makes one Pav. Four Pav makes one Seer. Five Seer makes one Paseri, which is short for Paanch Seer or five Seer. Ten Seer makes one Daseri, which is short for Das Seer or ten Seer. Four Daseri makes one Maund,” Rupa paused and saw him gazing at her face and lost in his own thoughts. “Are you still with me?”
Ujjwal’s attention was focused more on her eyes than on what she was teaching him. “Of course, everything is clear to me now, teacher,” he lied, grinning.
Mamaji says these measurements were in use even before the rule of Akbar in India.”

The villager’ subsistence and commercial activities included raising goats, pigs, and poultry. Those who could afford also raised cattle, including cows, bullocks and buffalo. Large landholders also grew a variety of cash crops, including tobacco, cotton, and jute. They also had large fruit orchards that produced different varieties of tropical and subtropical fruits like mangoes, litchi, and jackfruits. Some of the landholders had fishfarming in their private ponds. They kept pets like dogs and cats. They grew rice, wheat, lentils, oilseeds, potato, onion, and tobacco. They also made alcohol from the corolla of Mahua tree flower. The Mahua trees surrounding the Mahua Pokhari were the source of the Mahua flowers they needed to make alcohol. 


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