As soon as I walked across the railway track and entered that house, I resolved to myself that I should prepare a documentary on the life of the journalist living there. The plight of those who write the news of the world should be documented at least somewhere. For my character, who would be a better model than Sundar Thapa? The moment I started pondering which angle I could start it from, I got a sort of thrill. If you are not aware let me confess this is an old habit of mine.
It was east-west railway line from Janakpur to Jainagar. I had imagined like the positions of India and Nepal, this railways ran north-south. At times, even the most ordinary imaginations betray us. For me, this scene was like the suicide of a senior who always advised me not to lose heart in difficulties. It was so unbelievable that I turned on the direction app on my mobile twice and checked it. I was obliged to believe. When I observed the railway track from the veranda of the house, I lost the sense of direction many times.
In the meantime, the track, the story of the train, and this house seemed to me like triplet brothers, not merely like twins. This was a beautiful vantage for me to start my documentary from.
Needless to say, Janakpur-Jainagar railway line is worth archiving in a museum, but has not yet been archived. The line lain by the British, who were ruling India then, is in the same condition even today, stretching with more glory. The train, even today, slithers with hundreds of passengers on board. People travelling by it appear like young oxen yoked to plough a barren field. They travel in crowd, albeit with enthusiasm, pushing one another this way and that. In such a situation, there should be news of one mishaps or another every single day. But surprisingly, nothing of the sorts was happening.
The house I was staying in was, perhaps, older than the train. Perhaps an engineer or such technical people stayed there when the railway track was being lain. The house made in a temporary way then had been reminding me that it stayed in its place in a permanent fashion. If anyone asks if it should be the train or this house that should first be kept in museum, I would recommend this house. More, I would place the room I was allocated to stay before any other. There were many reasons why this entire region deserved to be kept inside a museum.
The first thing is that a gravel road stretches just below the house. This road too was made during the British days, at the request of the Ranas, perhaps. Across this road, the railways track starts. Beyond that, there is a similar gravel road, and houses stands along its two sides. It’s natural for vehicles and motorcycles to move along the road, but it seems unnatural when their motions leave the houses in tremor, and skins of cement start peeling and falling off the walls.
Since this had been going on for years, no much cement was left now on the walls. Instead, the old bricks, arrayed without any proper order, were grinning with their antique art exposed.
When I felt a tremor soon after entering the room, I sensed of the coming of a train and walked out of the room out of fear. I had always longed to see a train before crossing the national border, and Janakpur had fulfilled that wish of mine. But as soon as I was out on the veranda, I realized that this house took vehicles moving on the gravel road for a train and started shaking. What if a real train came? Perhaps, it would consider the tremor an earthquake. And if there was a real earthquake?
I shuddered. After this, at the passage of every vehicle, I started chanting the name of Lord Ram, and decided that as soon as I was back to Kathmandu, I would report everything to the Department of Archeology. It was out of my imagination to find that a house where people lived could be in such a dilapidated state. The house should be immediately vacated and converted into a museum. There would be no much harm repairing the train later. After all, it was still running, albeit with difficulty, and serving the needs of the passengers.
In that case, what would happen of Sundar Thapa?
When I remembered his name, I was left confused. Sundar Thapa was yet another mysterious man. By this time, I had ascertained that the train plying here was older than the city of Janakpur, and this house was far mysterious than the train. Far more mysterious than the house was Sundar Thapa—its owner.
It was many years ago that I came to know Sundar Thapa, not by face, but through his writing. I don’t really know how many things he wrote, but one news report he filed is completely in my memory even today. The report impacted me so powerfully that I started considering Sundar a sensitive journalist who sided with freedom. The headline of the news I admired so much was: “Laxmi, not Sita, Found in Janak’s Land.”
The headline itself was so cuing that I could not resist myself form reading. What was the detail?
Madhes was under the grip of chilling cold. On top of that, it was early dawn.
At such a wee hour, a strange mother delivered her baby in a sisal grove, and disappeared leaving the newborn on its own. The infant started crying as soon as it parted with its mother’s lap. In the meantime, a man who had walked into the grove to relieve himself, heard the child’s cry, and stretched his eyebrows. With his goblet still in his hand, he entered the sisal grove. More people showed up, one after another, until there was a formidable crowd in the forest.
Most of the people standing there started discussing and arguing whose baby the infant was and how someone committed such a ‘sin’ by abandoning it so early that day. In the meantime, an ordinary rickshaw puller in town, Ram Lakhan by name, showed up, also aiming to relieve himself. He also saw the infant smeared in blood. He moved in secretly, took out the towel that covered his head and started cleaning the blood clots from the body of the baby. He took out the kurta he was in, wrapped the baby in it, and walked home with it. All this happened in great suddenness. This left some gawking, while others frowned their faces. As for Ram Lakhan, he walked away, until he came to a spot where people were burning litters. He carefully warmed the baby.
The baby had perhaps appeared as a harbinger of great luck to Ram Lakhan. His goat delivered two kids that night. He brought the baby girl home and thought his goat had delivered not two but three kids that night. Since the girl had been found on the fool moon day, people suggested him to name her Laxmi, after the name of the goddess of wealth. He did as suggested. Ram Lakhan’s wife Ramiya also started caring for the baby with great excitement.
Ram Lakhan did usher the baby retrieved from her death-bed, but he was not a king as Maharshi Janak was. Nor was he a childless man who had prayed to God to bless him with fatherhood. He already had two daughters and a son at home. More, his wife had started vomiting a month ago, and had turned quite frail. Education was a non issue in his family. As for food, he had to worry for a pair of meals even in such a modern time, for which, he had to pull his rickshaw day and night. Under such circumstances, he had started hoodwinking the passengers that came for a visit of the Janaki Temple, and charged them more fare than necessary under different pretexts.
When the new daughter came in, the worry of more money for dowry started bothering Ram Lakhan and his family. The fear that his wife might give birth to yet another daughter after a few months was equally intact. He was fully aware that in his community, people did not consider a daughter’s merits, but merely calculated the amount of dowry it entailed. Laxmi won’t be able to withstand the burden of dowry on her own. So, Ram Lakhan wanted to manage that money by tricking his customers.
Needless to say, his rickshaw fare was increased by fifty percent for the tourists, after Laxmi came into his family. Finding many tourists was a far cry. So he applied the same rule for the locals as well. Some objected to it and got angry; but he said, ‘It’s my rickshaw and I decide its fare.”
When this increased, an influential non-governmental organization working in that area filed a police case against him. He was charged of fiddling thousands of rupees by tricking the locals. The members of the organization had dragged him right from the road and hurled into the police station. The police enquired, charged a couple of lathis and hurled him into the lock-up.
He appealed with the police. He said, “It was not I that charged more fare. My circumstances compelled me. Punishment should go not to me but to the woman who abandoned her baby in the forest to die as soon as she was born.”
A rich businessman happened to get the news of Ram Lakhan making repeated pleas with the police. He bribed the police secretly, and got Ram Lakhan out of lock-up. People thought such magnanimous businessmen were rare in Janakpur, but the rumor came to be untrue in front of Ram Lakhan.
“Kaa naam chhi tori betiki?” he asked, wanting to know the name of the girl.
“Hum tora help karbe, Laxmi hamra dehi.’
For his favor, he asked Laxmi from Ram Lakhan.
Ram Lakhan had not lost the balance of his mind even in such an hour of pain. He said, “Bhagawan hamra delke. Ahanka kathila daib?” arguing that god had given the baby to him, and there was no question he would give her away to the businessman. He said this as though the businessman was guilty of a serious offence in asking the girl from his hands.
“Thoh sakbe? Apna halat dekhne chhiye,” said the businessman, reminding that it would be difficult for him to afford, considering his weak economic position.
“Dekhal jete,” he said, posing a challenge before his poverty. He meant, he would see whatever would come about.
“Pachhis hajar taka lo; baat khatam. Okra apana chhodi banaibe hum,” said the businessman, offering him twenty-five thousand rupees, and volunteering to make Laxmi his daughter. This way, he gave him both allurement and sympathy.
But Ram Lakhan did not comply. Said, “This is a land where Ram set his feet, where Sita did her penance, and King Janak had his righteous rule. My Laxmi was sent to me by Ram. He knows how I should take care of her. Do not allure me with benefits.”
Ram Lakhan wondered why the businessman, who did not make the slightest mistake in weighing cereals, was showing interest in the baby girl. But he did not choose to get stuck to this thought for a long time. He silently moved homeward, remembering Laxmi.
Sundar Thapa, who had been observing all these developments, filed a news report and sent it to National News Agency whose employee he was. Since the day he joined this work, he had filed many of such reports, but media in Nepal did not give much importance to the news provided by a government news agency. His reports used to be dumped in a corner as though they were news coming from a remote location outside the capital. But this time, the case turned out to be different. The news was published with importance in The Kathmandu Post, an English daily, in a translated version at a corner right on its front page.
Look at the miracle of the land stepped by Ram! The report happened to touch a German couple touring Nepal. They called The Kathmandu Post office and got the phone number of Ram Lakhan. They called him and offered that they would bear all cost of Laxmi’s upbringing. Sundar not only got the news published but also mediated between the German couple and Ram Lakhan in favor of Laxmi. He got Ram Lakhan’s citizenship card made, and got an account opened at a government bank. The same account started receiving ten thousand dollars from Germany every month. Not only that, the German couple bought for Ram Lakhan a new, electric rickshaw to replace his old, manual one. They also fulfilled the promise that every year, they would make some increment in the cash they would be sending for the girl.
Sundar constantly followed-up these developments. This left in my mind a beautiful image of Sundar, which grew deeper with time. His news was so beautiful that if I were richer, I would also send cash to Ram Lakhan in the same way. When his name itself was Sundar—meaning ‘beautiful’—there was no question that his reports were not. After reading the report, I imagined a picture of Sundar in my mind. I often got a flash of his beautiful image. Given that his name itself was Sundar, he must be quite handsome. When someone is young, people around him give a name that befits his appearance, and the same becomes acceptable to the family and society.
Though many years had passed since then, the beautiful image of Sundar in my imaginations had remained intact.
I got an opportunity to visit Janakpur many years after reading that news. One of Sundar’s relatives works at my own office, which I came to know during a discussion about the same report. Seeing my admiration for Sundar, the same colleague of mine gave me Sundar’s home address and telephone number. As soon as I alighted from the bus in Janakpur, I called Sundar from the bus-stop and expressed my desire to see him, without letting him know who I was. With a great ease, he told me where he was.
When I saw him, I forgot his name. A patron of beauty like me would never have imagined that such an ugly man like him would have the name ‘Sundar’ that literally means ‘beautiful’! When I forgot his very name, there was no question I would remember his writing. Straightaway, I speculated that this name was not Sundar Thapa, or the news was not filed by him.
It so happened that when I went seeking for him, he was standing by the side of a paan-shop, chewing paan and spitting here and there, even as he talked with the shopkeeper. I once walked close to him and returned, thinking that I had made a mistake. There was no way I could believe my eyes. He looked messy and filthy, like a man that worked at a garage, or worked for a local bus as its conductor. When he talked, a spray of red sputum flew out of his mouth, which was even falling on the mouths of the people standing nearby. They were chiding him in Maithili, asking why he was sending a spray of sputum all around. When they chided, he just grinned, and when he did, his teeth, polished black by paan he had been chewing for years, were exposed.
I genuinely doubted this very man was Sundar. I turned to the man I was now talking with after abandoning Sundar, and asked, “Excuse me. I hope you know someone called Sundar here. Sundar Thapa.”
The man whom I asked this question was taking advice from a man who looked like a politician. My intervention perhaps made him pissed off, he csaid with indignation, “Hai wahi chhe; samachar likhewal patarkar Sundar Thapa,” telling that Sundar, who was a journo, was the man standing next to us.
I had no option but to believe. I was left gawking at the man from top to the toes. He was completely different from the one I had imagined. People would shudder even on hearing and reading about such a personality. I was facing him eye-to-eye. My eyes revolved the same way as the lens of a camera revolves, when a mysterious scene is to be focused in a documentary film.
It seemed he had not combed his hair for years, and had not bathed since he trimmed his hair last. His hair was naturally black. On top of that, the pile of filth had made it abominable. Let’s leave his head here, and discuss something else.
After it is early March, heat in Janakpur soars up. Even in such a hot day, he was in his heavy coat. He had a strange spotted-dark look, like a fair man burnt by the scorching sun. On top of this, he had a thick growth of beard, and wore dark glasses. It was perhaps his hobby to chew paan and render his lips red. But felt quite uncomfortable with that lifestyle. He was in coat and pants granted, but the string of his slippers had almost snapped, and this odd combination slashed his personality by a huge degree. I wonder why I did not shudder.
Forwarding my hand, I introduced myself. All of a sudden, he hopped like a child, and embraced me tightly, as though he was an old time friend of mine, and we were meeting after eons. “Uncle Raghu had told me you were coming. But he tricked me when I called him.”
Then he turned toward the people gathered there and hollered, “Look here! He is a prominent writer from Kathmandu and a very good man.” He then laughed out in a fashion as odd as the adjectives he was using for me.
He walked away without saying anything. I thought I should follow him. I followed for a while. He moved ahead waving to a few people he ran across in the crowded marketplace. As I followed him, I recalled the news he had written and chuckled. I kept thinking how I should talk to him and on which issue. As I was after him, I was bound to say at least something.
“By the way, Sundarji, what is your qualification?” I regretted as soon as I had placed this question, because my question was a perfect mismatch considering his personality. I should have inferred, right from his dress-up, that he had not cleared the high school education. Why had I asked a question that would dishonor him in the first place? I almost regretted my impertinence.
On hearing my question, he stood facing me. Even as he stared into my eyes, I started mentally asking for apologies for having asked an indecent question. All these things had taken place within a matter of a few seconds.
“I did BA, after finishing MA in Maithili. I am doing PhD at present from Sanskrit University on the Stylistic Influence of Nepali Literature of Maithili Literature.”
It seemed my breath would get chocked any moment. I stopped still. After all, gibberish should have a limit! I merely said, “As soon as I saw you, I had the feeling that you are quite studious.” He didn’t perhaps comprehend my satire. He stopped again and said, “Dear poet, studying is my hobby. I am never tired to studying.” He took off his glasses, wiped them against his white but dirty shirt and put it back. Then he said, “I also finished my MA in sociology recently.”
Right at this moment, I happened to see the railway track still secluded form the eyes of the Department of Archeology. When he took the lead and crossed the track, I felt it was east-west, and not north-south. Every incident was turning unbelievable for me.
Before entering this house, I had seen the sewer leaking, letting a paste of urine and stool spill out on the ground. Two to three children were playing there, in spite of the stink. Of them, he picked one of the girls and said, “This one is my daughter. She is beautiful, isn’t she?”
I wanted to laugh out again. The girl had mucous all over her face, and all her parts, except the tongue she jutted out now and then to clean the mucus, had a thick layer of dirt and soil. She must have fallen on the sewer a while ago.
He left the girl behind and walked up the stairs. The stairs were such that one needed a different sort of courage to climb. He then escorted me into a room where one would shudder even in broad daylight. He whispered to me in a low tone: “My wife is upset with me. Promise, this is the first time she is angry since our marriage five years ago. You stay and rest here for a while; I will fetch some vegetables. It’s me that has to cook today as well. Please eat happily whatever I can afford.”
How would he know that one would get exhausted even after a ‘rest’ in this house? But one habituated to it might not even guess that.
After this, he was away for a long time. I was left thinking about him deeply. His relatives appeared to be living in a decent manner in Kathmandu. Raghu, his uncle—a man I called brother—had once told me they had huge estates in Ramechhap, which were being tilled and cultivated by others at the moment. His relatives were people of influence there. I wondered considering what this man was doing here in Janakpur. Even as I was thinking, I often shuddered on feeling that the house was shaking. When a vehicle passed along the gravel road downstairs, its sent tremors like the one sent by a passing train, and at such moments, I hurried out of the house in despair. Every second, I was gathering the fear that if a train passed along the track nearby, the house would certainly collapse.
Thank god, no train passed for a long time. The girl who had been playing downstairs came up. Sundar Thapa had signaled me that his wife in the next room was upset, but there was no movement she was making. Even as evening came darting, I started shuddering in this strange house. I started mulling up a pretext to leave as soon as Sundar Thapa showed up, and spend the night in some hotel nearby.
When it was fairly dark and the buzzer fliers had started buzzing, Sunder Thapa returned with heavy bags of vegetable and fruits in his hand. Even as he entered home, he came switching the bulbs on right from the veranda. I was trying to say something; he signaled me to stay silent, and entered the room.
“This house will certainly collapse.”
When a tractor passed along the gravel road, the house swayed in the same way.
‘I think I won’t outlive this day. If I escape death and reach Kathmandu again, I will write a long letter to the Department of Archeology about this house. We should not allow such an old train to keep moving. Let the train alone; this house is even older. We should not delay in enlisting it as a site of World Heritage. No! More than this house, its owner is even more mysterious.’
Of the three—this house, the trail and Sundar Thapa—I found Mr. Thapa far more mysterious.
“Trang!” came the noise of a bronze plate striking the floor. Simultaneously with it, Sundar Thapa yelled in agony, “God; I’m almost killed.”
Startled, I ran toward the source of the sound. I was left dumbfounded. Sundar’s wife had hit him with a plate, and was ready to charge another blow.
Sundar was trying to protect himself from the blow, requesting his wife not to be so cross. This condition of praying to one’s own wife, even when he was receiving blow after blow, was quite unbelievable to me, especially in Madhes. Astonished, I wanted to have a glance of his wife. As soon as she saw me, the woman veiled her face with the fringe of her sari. She kept the plate, ready to be flung onto her husband, by her side now. She raised her veil a little and said, “Namaste hajoor.”
Even as she was raising her hands to greet me, her veil fell further and I could see her entire face. I carefully scanned the woman’s face. This left me starting. I can swear in the name of God that I had not seen a woman as beautiful as Sundar’s wife till that day. I also bet, you too haven’t seen such a beauty till date.
After taking the meal his wife had served, I returned to the earlier room. After this, the story of the house and the trail became old stuff for me. I forgot the ideas of archeology and museum. I could not sleep that night, even as my mind was repeatedly stroked by Sundar Thapa, his beautiful writing, and his existence. Since he had fallen out with his wife, he slept beside me, and was in deep sleep at this moment as though nothing had gone wrong with him.
Before going to sleep, he had said, “Ashwiniji, this story not only belongs to Sundar Thapa; it also belongs to every Pahadiya that is in love with Madhes. Of the three of us—my grandfather who started this railway service, this house where I live, and its owner Sundar Thapa—you can recommend anyone for the museum. The reason is, all three have now become endangered species.”
Trans: Mahesh Paudyal
[Aswini Koirala is a Nepali storywriter and novelist of high repute. His most acclaimed works include fiction works Juckerberg Café, Uni and Premalaya. He is the Chief Editor of Sahityapost, an online literary portal. He lives with his family in Kathmandu.]