Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy

Manjushree Thapa
14 September 2006

In 2003 the German literary magazine Lettre International launched a new literary prize, the "Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage", to recognise and honour a valuable but underrated form. In its first year, the prize was won by the Russian writer Anna Politovskaya for Chechnya: Russia's dishonour. In 2004, the Chinese writers Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao carried the prize for their seminal work, A Survey of Chinese Peasants, and last year it was British journalist Alexandra Fuller's book Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier.

Over the coming weeks, openDemocracy will publish excerpts from the finalists for the 2006 award. The winner will be announced in Berlin on 30 September.

The short list:

  • Manjushree Thapa (Nepal): Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy (Penguin Viking India, 2005)

To read extracts from last year's list, click here.

* * *

Extract from Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy (Viking Penguin India, 2005)

Chapter five: The Massacres to Come

Kingdoms Past and Present

The next morning, as we made our way past the wheat fields in Haudi village, Mama declared, 'Now this - this is fine land. That land near the pass - that was not good land. This land is better.'

No doubt, Mama held more complex views on a variety of other matters. But to talk to him we would have had to walk at his pace, which was plodding. Chitra Bahadur, who was stronger, slowed down to keep him company. Bharat sometimes walked with them, and sometimes sped up to catch up with us.

Past Haudi, the path led through a small settlement perched precariously on a hillside. The houses had holes for windows and doors, giving them an incomplete, gaping look. As we rounded a corner, we crossed a group of men playing carom. I stopped to ask, out of curiosity, whether the Maoists took action against carom players. Board games were, after all, as unproductive as card games, which the Maoists had banned. The men admitted, with sheepish smiles, that if the Maoists were around today, they would not be playing in public.

More articles by Manjushree Thapa on openDemocracy:

"Democracy in Nepal and the "international community" (May 2005)

"Nepal's political rainy season"
(July 2005)

The walk from there led through desperate-looking villages strung along dusty fields. At one house, a white-haired crone, blind in one eye, called out to us and asked if we had any medicine for her eyes. The eye drops I was carrying would be of no help to her, so I said no. Further along, another group of elderly men asked if we had come to conduct an eye camp. We found out that the army had recently conducted an eye camp at a nearby village. Again I said no. What were we here to do, then, the elderly men asked. We were not here to do anything, I said, feeling suddenly embarrassed. We were just walking through. They waved us past.

In time we arrived at a clutter of fly-ridden houses befouled by the stench of rotten hay. The men of this settlement looked old and weary, and the women had wild, matted hair and soiled clothing. A disproportionate number of them were elderly. The bellies of the children were swollen, and there was a red tint of malnutrition to their hair. We went to the village's only tea shop, but were told by an old man that there was no tea. So we just sat before the tea shop, trying to regain our strength in the scorching midday sun.

'Why,' Malcolm asked me, 'is this village so filthy?'

I had been wondering the same thing. Haudi had been very clean, but here the streets were littered with dung, and the adults and children alike had dirt-smeared faces. A tap was running nearby, but nobody seemed to use it.

I tried a variety of explanations: the lack of soap, the lack of leisure time, the general difficulty of maintaining personal hygiene in a life of toil...

We were getting ready to move on when a wisp of a teenage boy came up to us.

'What are you here for?' he asked in a bullying tone.

Unlike the other men of the village, he was wearing a shirt and pants.

'Are you a party member?' I asked in an equally bullying tone, not wanting to be intimidated.

'I'm a cell member,' he said.

'Well, we've been talking to your party's area secretaries along the way,' I said, trying to pull rank.

'But did you get the party's permission to come?'

I shot back, 'You don't need permission, Bhai. There's a ceasefire now. The code of conduct, which your party signed, says everyone can move freely.'

This seemed to confuse him. He flicked his hair out of his eyes and stared back with some hostility.

I suddenly lost my composure. 'I have one question for you, though,' I said. 'Where are your party's women? I'd heard that you had a lot of women in the party, but I haven't met many. Can I meet some here?'

Uncertainly, he shook his head.


'We don't have women in this area,' he said. Then he corrected himself: 'We have them, but they've gone. Out.'


'For programmes.'

I turned away with a snort. To an old man who was looking on, I asked, 'Will we be able to cross the ropeway?'

'The ropeway?' He blinked, bewildered.

'The ropeway at Raraghat.'

At this the Maoist boy stepped forward. 'You're going to Manma?' he asked.

I turned to him reluctantly.

With a suddenly helpful tone, he said, 'The ropeway is handmade, but it's strong. All of us use it to cross the river.'

I pointed at Malcolm. 'Will the foreigner fit onto it?'

To my surprise, the boy giggled.

The old man said, 'The man from ward number eight crossed, and he's bigger.'

The boy assured us, 'Take the ropeway. That's what we all do. You'll reach Manma today.'

Confused by his sudden transformation from a bossy Maoist to your average, sweet village boy, I thanked him, at which he grew abashed. The boy watched us for a long time as we walked away, and I felt sorry for him, for the scant options in his life.

In the parched, barren village of Raraghat, where we stopped for lunch, Malcolm went to bathe at a village tap, baring his ghostly pale torso, much to the delight of Bharat. 'How white he is, yah ha ha,' the urchin roared, then tossed off his own shirt and ducked under the tap alongside him. I, sitting at a lodge at some distance, heard some village men speculate among themselves. 'It's the milk that foreigners drink that makes them so white. The whiteness of their milk. And their special medicines.'

I fell into conversation with a man at the lodge, who was wearing - amid a grimy population - a dandyish white shirt, red waistcoat and tailored pants.

He was, he said, from a nearby village, and had come to take his wife to her maternal home. I asked about peace here, and heard, again, about the cases that had been described to us in Haudi village. He pointed at a hill across a deep ravine. 'The army would just shoot from distances like this,' he said. 'You and I would be sitting here. The army would shoot from there. How would they know if we were Maoists?'

Though the man was not fond of the state security forces, he also disliked the Maoists. 'If there were an election tomorrow, they'd lose,' he said. Then he laughed dryly. 'Unless they're still armed, of course. Then people would have to vote for them.' After a while he said, 'Our place never had anything going for it, you know. We were always as you see us now - living off nothing. But with the state of emergency last year, it turned into hell. Now, everyone is saying, We don't need the government, and we don't need the Maoists. Just let us go back to the way we were. We just want to go back to living off nothing. Just let us be poor. You know?'

When Malcolm and Bharat came back from their baths, we sat down to a meal of daal-bhaat sprinkled liberally with pubic-looking goat hair.

Afterwards, the dandyish man, who was also heading for the ropeway, took us along a shortcut through terraced fields. Along the way we met a contractor who had been working on the Karnali Highway before its construction was halted. The Maoists kept stealing explosives from the construction site, the contractor said, and the state security forces accused the construction staff of selling it for profit. Had work on the highway not stopped, it would have already wound past Raraghat, north towards Jumla District.

Avoiding patches of stinging nettles, we descended the terraced fields till we reached the bridge that the Maoists had bombed. It was a coil of glinting metal submerged in the Tila River's blue-green rapids. I looked with great longing at the metal, for no such strength was in evidence in the ropeway that the government had built. Its ropes were of rusting metal and jute, and the pulley that passengers sat on was hand-fashioned out of bits of wood, wire, aluminium and iron.

The dandyish man offered to ferry us across. He was of slender build, but then the man who usually ferried passengers across was skinnier. So the man sat in the front part of the pulley, as, one by one, we sat behind him, holding on for dear life to the bars that pinned the pulley together. The pulley would leave one shore, plunging at bracing speed halfway down to the centre of the river, to dangle there forlornly. Then - his slender arms bulging with effort - the dandyish man would pull on the jute rope to take us to the other shore. There he would fasten the pulley to a side hook.

Back and forth went the pulley, ferrying us and our bags, and villagers with sacks of grain, kerosene drums and even, once, a panicky goat. For each trip the man earned ten rupees. The other man, who usually ferried passengers, said he went back and forth over 50 times a day. The work was hard, but the money, he said, was good.

From there began our ascent to Manma, an ascent that often felt endless. The word Kalikot comes from two words, kalo (black) and kot (fort). The hill we were climbing was just this, a mass of black rock glinting with schist. Up and up we walked, reaching, after an hour and a half, stone steps that did not make it any easier to proceed. Not seeing Manma anywhere, we began to worry.

'Where,' I asked everyone we passed, 'is Manma?'

'It's just there,' they would invariably say, pointing to the sky. 'You'll reach it soon.'

But the steps wound on and on, and at times disappeared altogether, forcing us to scramble up, on all fours, along rocky cliffs. Exhausted, I began to feel like we were journeying to some mythical land - a land said to be under government control, a far-off hilltop bastion of the Kingdom of Nepal.

The landscape took me back to the wars of ancient times. How had the Khas kings from here ever laid siege to Nepal valley over 600 years ago? They had done so six times, the kings themselves leading the troops, and camping out for months at the edge of present-day Kathmandu. The longest of these sieges had lasted six months. The Khas invaders overran the kingdom of Bhadgaon, but found that Bhadgaon's Malla king had fled to a nearby fort. They were unable to break the fort because the people of Bhadgaon would not cooperate with them; the villagers preferred to abandon their homes in passive defiance. Unable to feed and house themselves without local support, the invaders came all the way back here, defeated.

Resting unhappily on a ledge - for Manma was still nowhere in sight - we saw the snaking contours of the abandoned Karnali Highway far across the hill, where we had eaten lunch. How this area could transform if a highway cut through it! I had never, in Nepal, seen villages as destitute as those we had passed through on this trip. If it was a crime for the state to violate its citizens' political liberties, I thought, it should be equally a crime to violate their economic rights.

Walking on, we eventually reached a shrine built of stone topped off with bamboo poles. Inside, a line of jagged stones stood in, cursorily, for deities. From the shrine we could see Manma bazaar.

I asked an old man idling by the shrine how long it was to the bazaar.

He lifted his hand, checked his watch, and said, 'One minute.'

'One minute?'

'Ten maximum.'

It took us 40 minutes.

It was near five o'clock when we reached the entrance to the bazaar. We were stopped there at a police post, and questioned by a policeman about the purpose of our trip. We gave him the same answers we had given Maoists along the way. Malcolm wanted, if possible, to meet the chief district officer. He said he would escort us into town.

Manma bazaar stood atop a hill that was equally inaccessible from all directions. An endless hillside of terraced fields stretched along the southern slope. Beyond, to the west, was the Karnali, the largest river of western Nepal. A portion of Kalikot District lay on the river's far shore. Kotbada, the site of the district's yet-unbuilt airport, was also across the river. I scanned the hills to see it. This was where, on 24 February 2002, the security forces had shot dead more than 34 workers, including 17 who had come here all the way from Dhading District, near Kathmandu, to find work. Thanks to the reporting of the journalist Mohan Mainali, this incident had found wide coverage in the Kathmandu media, jolting the intellectuals to rethink their habitual complacency. Like the atrocities we had heard about in Haudi village, this one had taken place as the security forces hunted down the Maoists who had staged the Achham attack.

The policeman who was escorting us was a garrulous fellow. 'I don't know if the CDO Sah'b is in his office,' he said. 'The Maoists held a programme today.' All government officials, as well as the heads of the political parties, had been invited for round-table talks in Tadi village, he said, pointing at a distant cluster of houses with his walkie-talkie. 'I don't think CDO Sah'b attended, though. The party leaders probably boycotted it too.' He grinned. 'Their leaders in Kathmandu haven't been invited for round-table talks by the Maoists, so why would they attend round-table talks here?'

His walkie-talkie buzzed: 'Where are the visitors now?'

He replied, 'We're just reaching the post, Sah'b.'

As we reached the bazaar, he made us sign a register at the District Police Office. It was the rule that everyone entering Manma had to identify themselves, and obtain passes for the duration of their stay. That this was in violation of the code of conduct was no matter. The district authorities were keeping Manma in a state of siege. This was apparent also from the large numbers of policemen manning the bazaar's main street.

In the CDO's office grounds, two policemen were playing badminton, one of them bearing a rifle in his free hand. They stopped when they saw us, and led us to the office.

The CDO met us in his capacious room with water-stained walls and mildewy carpets. He was a middle-aged man - obviously from the southern Tarai plains - with a guarded, wary expression. He sat stiffly in his chair, as though we had come to conduct a spot check, and had caught him off guard. The assistant CDO was also at the meeting, as was an army officer, who took out a notebook and pen when we began to speak.

Malcolm conducted some official work, and then we talked informally, trying hard to draw out the CDO, who was hesitant.

So, there had been a round-table talk in Tadi village?

'I didn't attend it,' the CDO said.

'The Maoists invited party leaders as well?'

'I don't know about that.'

How was the security situation, we asked.

'Everything's fine now that there's peace.'

So there was no threat from the Maoists now?


The conversation kept halting abruptly.

Nevertheless we went on with our questions.

It emerged, eventually, that the CDO had been posted here just over a month ago, immediately before the announcement of the ceasefire. Before that, his post had been vacant for seven or eight months, for much of the state of emergency. Given the security threat to government officials, the CDO had not been able to venture outside Manma to the rest of the district. 'Now, with the ceasefire, we'll go,' he said, though without conviction. 'We must go. We must.'

The CDO relaxed only when I asked him how he thought the insurgency could be countered. 'To solve the Maoist problem we must alleviate poverty,' he said, easing into his chair. 'First we must improve the education sector. And we must create income-generating opportunities. For that, we need a road.' He lamented the halt in the construction of the Karnali Highway, and went on about the imperative of development, becoming quite animated.

But when I told him of the atrocities that we had heard about in Haudi village - the beatings, the killings, the rapes, the explosives dropped from the air - he again stiffened. 'I can't speak on things that happened before I came here,' he said.

'Oh, of course,' I said, thinking: Why ever not?

And what was an army officer doing taking notes on our meeting with civilian officers?

The conversation finally petered out, and we stood up to leave.

Outside, in the grounds, I felt I could breathe again. The CDO, too, looked glad that we were leaving. His was not, certainly, a job that I coveted - defending this hilltop government outpost with the Maoists all around. We took leave from him.

On the bazaar's main street, we passed the district offices of the Congress and the UML, their flags fluttering gaily in the wind, in what was, for me, a strangely moving sight. The 1990 People's Movement had made it possible for Nepalis to enjoy pluralism in politics. Now that pluralism was under threat: The headquarters was the only place in the district where the political parties could now be present.

The street ended at an odd, artless bust of the late King Birendra, more parody than memorial. Out of a marble platform jutted a torso, clad in a black, lumpy coat and thick black glasses. The bust's eyes were cast up in an expression of shock as it looked out from before a sandbagged and bunkered police post, in what seemed an apt enough image for the state of the monarchy. We wanted to look up a journalist, Tula Ram Pandey, who worked as a correspondent for Kantipur. He was the district's sole journalist. It proved easy enough to find him, given how small Manma was. We had only just invited him to our lodge when the six o'clock curfew fell. Blasting tinny whistles, two armed policemen cleared the streets, shouting for everyone to go home. Men who had been ambling about picked up their pace. Mothers called out for their children. Waifs scampered off yelping. If we were to talk to the journalist, he would have to stay in the lodge tonight. With a smile he said he was used to being caught out by the evening curfew.

We moved into our room - the lodge's one free room - and were about to talk when the army officer who had taken notes at the CDO's office came by.

He wanted, he said, to talk to us. 'I want to respond to some of your earlier questions.'

We wished he had not come. He would not, after all, admit to any of the atrocities we had heard about along the trail. And we were not up for propaganda. But we could not really refuse him. The journalist left and we sat down with the officer.

Speaking fluent English in the manner of the Kathmandu bourgeoisie, Captain Ashok Khand introduced himself. The major who headed the Kalikot garrison was on leave, he said; it was the first time in 10 months that he had been able to leave his station. The captain, meanwhile, was second in command.

He was young, and gave off a sharp, professional air. Taking out his notebook, he denied the atrocities we had mentioned at the CDO's office. 'We may have made a few mistakes,' he said, taking a line that the army was officially to take in a few weeks' time, a line that for the first time acknowledged that not all was going well in their counter-insurgency efforts. But none of the beatings, killings or rapes had taken place, he said. Neither had explosives been dropped from the air.

We steered the conversation towards other grounds. The Kalikot garrison had 200 men, the captain said. This amounted to one company. Before the ceasefire they used to go on weekly patrols to the district's outlying areas, in situations fraught with danger. 'We're lucky not to have lost a single soldier,' he said. One soldier had lost an eye in one Maoist ambush, and another had lost a foot. 'But these are the only casualties we've sustained so far.' He took a lot of pride in this.

From his poise, Captain Khand looked set to go far in life. His job, too, I did not covet, I thought as I listened to him. Neighbouring Achham District's garrison had lost all but two men in a Maoist attack. The garrison of neighbouring Jumla District had also suffered heavy casualties in another attack. The Kalikot garrison obviously operated under great threat. Two hundred men - from families of ordinary means - were daily fighting to save the government, but more immediately, their own lives. They were no richer than the Maoists. They were only doing their jobs. The captain was responsible for them.

I could not help but ask how old he was.

He took some offence at the question. 'Old enough to do my job well,' he replied with a tight smile.

But my curiosity got the better of me. 'How old is that?' I persisted.

'Older than you,' he said.

'Surely not,' I shot back.

He finally said, 'Thirty-two.'

'Two years younger than me,' I said, and thought: Hell, he shouldn't have to shoulder such a heavy burden.

We fell into a more personal exchange after that. It turned out that our family houses in Kathmandu were in the same neighbourhood. And he knew a cousin of mine, also a captain in the army, young and smart like him. He asked, amiably, about our route, and assured us that we'd reach Jumla District's headquarters, Khalanga, in three days.

I had quite warmed up to the captain when he began to speak in ways that again set off my qualms: since the ceasefire, he said, the army had begun to conduct health camps, so as to win the hearts and minds of the people. These camps were proving immensely popular. The army was also thinking of taking up other development projects, primary among them the construction of the Karnali Highway. 'We recognize that the people of this area need development,' Captain Khand said. 'We must alleviate poverty.'

I could not help but think: If that was the army's job, what then was the job of the civilian government?

We parted politely enough.

Manma was publicly said to be a dry zone. For a decade now, the government had imposed a ban on the production and consumption of alcohol, as public drunkenness had caused much local mayhem. But in the privacy of their homes few observed this ban. Over dinner, offering Malcolm some chhaang, the lodge owner explained, 'We don't get to buy bottled alcohol, but everyone brews their own drinks.' He laughed, 'Even the government officials and the army and the police have their own supplies.'

After dinner, as Chitra Bahadur, Bharat and Mama slept - in their still, dead silent way - and Malcolm, drowsy on two glasses of chhaang, drifted in and out of sleep, I resumed the interrupted conversation with the journalist.

Tula Ram Pandey was a lean, tall man with a quizzical expression magnified by thick eyeglasses. When I said that it felt to me as though Manma was under siege, he told me that things had in fact improved since the ceasefire. The rule that all visitors obtain passes was, he explained, aimed at keeping the Maoists out. 'If ordinary villagers have any work in the bazaar, they can at least come and go now.' Even this had not been possible before the ceasefire.

He worked under considerable constraint here. Government officials often told him he was too soft on the Maoists. Yet the Maoists thought that as an independent reporter he favoured the government. 'Now, the atmosphere has eased somewhat,' he said. But during the state of emergency, his job had proved very trying. Till a few weeks back, the only functioning telephone line in town was at the CDO's office. He had to dispatch all his reports through this phone. At one point, even this phone line was down, so he was reduced to waiting for stray helicopters to come - ferrying government officials or state security forces or non-government workers or foreign dignitaries. He sent his reports to Kantipur's Kathmandu office via the pilots. But his reports often went out of date because there were no helicopters to send them on. 'I kept writing,' he said, laughing. 'Every day, I wrote, not knowing whether I could ever dispatch my reports.' And even when his reports did reach Kantipur's office, there was no saying they would be printed. He rarely found out what became of them, as newspapers rarely made it to Manma.

As we talked we heard a volley of gunfire, not far away, from some training that the army were giving to the armed police in the use of their relatively more sophisticated firearms. We went to a balcony to look. Outside, the hills surrounding Manma were pitch black. The army garrison occupied one dark hilltop to the north-western side of the bazaar. As we talked, the rattle of gunshots continued, and to me it seemed that the army were announcing to the Maoists, who were not far beyond the bazaar: Look, we've got lots of ammunition, don't attack us. And again Manma struck me as an ancient kingdom, with soldiers defending the fort from outside marauders. At one point a flare went off in the sky, lighting up the hills in a lavish display of military might.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData