Beneath the Mahua Tree

>> Wednesday, June 17, 2015


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. 


Binaya Pradhan June 19, 2015 at 2:33 AM  

Is this fiction or real?

ASP June 19, 2015 at 2:36 PM  

This is fiction. The only thing real are the places.

Aj Joshi February 7, 2016 at 11:13 AM  

Just wondering - where can I find a copy of this book?

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