19 December, 2004

Rigor of writing

Hamilton’s understanding and curiosity of the people and cultures makes him the one of the first proto-anthropologists to enter the country and take stock—literally—of Nepal


There is a reason why the English ruled over an empire where the sun never set. The English colonists knew the value of knowledge. Take “An Account of the Kingdom of Nepal, and of the Territories Annexed to this Dominion by the House of Gorkha,” written by Francis Buchanan Hamilton and published in 1819. Written by a man who spent only 14 months in Kathmandu, between 1802 and 1803, and two more years on the frontier, it is an extensive documentation of everything from the genealogies of the rajas of small principalities of Nepal to listings of natural resources, from the minutest details of how metal was subdivided between different parties to the exact decimal point of grain measurements. Classifications of medicinal herbs, trees, animals, birds and ethnic groups are mixed in with a quite remarkable understanding of government and the justice system. The author, without doubt, was one of the most highly educated men brought up in the liberal tradition of the European Enlightenment. His understanding and curiosity of the people and cultures makes him one of the first proto-anthropologists to enter the country and take stock—literally—of Nepal.

The book has a heavy filter of scientific detachment and rationality without the later Darwinian undertones (Darwin would only be born six years later, in 1809). The mandatory burst of Eurocentric racism, where he talks about the deceitful and treacherous nature of the mountain Hindus, occupies only a couple of paragraphs. The word “barbarian” pops up a couple of times, but in ways in which a contemporary person might find more laughable than offensive, for example “a vigorous barbarian.” Nineteenth century ideas that people were formed by their geographical locations—he calls the plains people “melancholy” and “choleric” and the mountain people are considered “phlegmatic” and “sanguine”—do appear, but only cursorily. Thankfully, there is no mention of cranium sizes or intelligence, a later racist discourse that would only pop up after Darwin and Mendel. The rest of the book gives a great deal of methodical and respectful attention to each of his informants, from highly educated Brahmans to a slave.

Hamilton obsessively deconstructs Kirkpatrick’s “Nepaul.” Kirkpatrick, his predecessor, seemed to have done sloppy research even with extensive British East India Company support, and Hamilton goes to great lengths to point this out and to disprove Kirkpatrick’s claims. His tone is tart during these moments, the well-deserved sarcasm of the emerging researcher with new findings. Colonel Kirkpatrick complained about the lack of kitchen vegetables, saying that there were only cabbages and peas. “Meaning, I presume, European,” adds Hamilton, pointing to his own understanding that just because a European did not eat coriander, eggplants or okra they couldn’t just be dismissed as non-vegetables. Some of the earliest critiques of Eurocentrism came out of Europe itself, and Hamilton was definitely a vigorous critic of the limited understanding of his own countrymen.

Besides a few hilarious tonal mistakes—he heard “Bhatgang” for Bhadgaon, “Sristha” for Shrestha, and “ashruffy” for asharfi (gold coin), Hamilton is mostly accurate about the names, dates and places he mentions. He is methodical enough, unlike Kirkpatrick, to realize that “Nuggerkoties” were less an ethnic group than the people of a particular locality.

Hamilton, however sympathetic to the locals, was still an employee of the East India Company, and his inventory of resources doesn’t let us forget the purpose of his Nepal visit. Everything is carefully and extensively documented with an eye for future exploitation. Prithvi Narayan Shah, who resisted the British, shows up as an unsympathetic and cruel character, and his enemies are treated cordially by the British, revealing a small bit of their “divide and conquer” methods. The minerals and herbs would never make it down to India. What would come to be the British’s greatest gold mine, the Gurkhas, makes brief appearances in a small paragraph about a raja who keeps a Kiranti army armed with poisoned arrows.

What makes Hamilton’s account particularly relevant for the contemporary reader is his careful accounting of cultures and gender roles of different groups. For those who have a fondness for making grand claims about Brahminization and Sanskritization without the attendant footnotes, this book provides documented ammunition. Extensive notes about widow burning, marriage choices for women in different communities, all the way down to the fines for adultery (2 rupees and 10/16 paisa) make this a goldmine for researchers and activists working in gender rights and women’s history.

Also relevant are the careful accounts of extrajudicial killings between warring parties, torture that sounds startlingly similar to what is still practiced in Nepal, and concepts of honor that might give our activists working in peace-building a clearer understanding and historical framework on the messy human rights situation in Nepal.

Hamilton pays detailed attention to the governing structure of the country, extensively documenting land rights given to courtiers and to various office-holders. He writes, of the government: “At other times, again, on business of the utmost emergency, a kind of assembly of notables is held, in which men who have neither office, nor any considerable influence in the government, are allowed to speak very freely, which seems to be done merely to allow the discontents of the nation to evaporate, as there is not a vestige of liberty in the country, nor does the court seem ever to be controlled by the opinions advanced in these assemblies.” We can all be glad that our country has come such a long way from the 1800s in terms of government.

Were Hamilton still alive, his meticulous attention to cartography and to the lengths and durations of destinations would probably lead him to be recruited as a consultant by our contemporary warring parties. If the Army or the Maoists had paid as much attention to geography, this war would probably be over by now.

But even the British were not omniscient, and, as later documented, neither were they omnipotent. Hamilton, talking about the “swelling in the throat” of Nepalis, theorizes that this must be due to drinking water that came from mountains covered with perpetual snow. The discovery of iodine was still eight years away. In 1811 Bernard Courtois (1777-1838) would discover iodine while trying to help Napoleon make gunpowder. But until then, even Hamilton, that thorough, careful frontier-anthropologist, would remain in the dark about what caused goiters.

An Account of the Kingdom of Nepal and of the Territories Annexed to this Dominion by the House of Gorkha
By Francis Buchanan Hamilton
Printed in 1819
Repriented in 1986 by Asian Educational Services (New Delhi)
Pages: 316
Price: Rs:952

(Available at Saraswoti Book House and other bookstores in Kathmandu)

16 December, 2004

Waiting for Justice

December 15 2004, Nation Weekly Magazine Sushma Joshi

Morang District Court is crowded at 3pm on a Friday afternoon. Police with guns take a breather in the open air as they escort detainees into the courtroom. Upstairs, a tiny woman braves the all-male crowd and rushes in breathlessly as a hearing is just about to start in the civil bench. She sits down and covers her head with her sari’s pallu. This is Alkadevi Shah (38). She is here to find out if she will finally get property from her estranged husband.

A complicated case involving two lawsuits are about to be heard. Judge Mahesh Prasad Pudasaini reads his “misil” as the lawyers arrive. Advocate Ram Lal Sutihar, of Nepal Bar Association, Morang, addresses the judge. “Sriman,” he says. “My client is a victim of domestic violence. She was thrown out of her house. A woman has a right to maintenance. My client is entitled to her husband’s property. But her husband has taken an imaginary loan from another man, and put a counter lawsuit saying he is bankrupt after borrowing for his daughter’s wedding.”

The lawyer explains that the agreement between the lender and Alkadevi’s husband, Manik Chand Shah, is false because the supposed lender is far poorer than the debtor. He also points out that experts at the Philatelic Society know the stamp put on the loan agreement was published months later than the date of the supposed loan – showing that the paper was forged at a later date. The witness of the “len-den” (loan) also said he as not there at the time when the paper was allegedly signed.

Manik Chand Shah, who has married a second wife and recently had a child with her, is not present at the courtroom. His lawyer is there to represent him. “My client is not a man of means, Sriman,” says his defense lawyer. “How can he give her property if he doesn’t have any? Regarding the stamp – these things happen in villages. People don’t always do things in time. And the witness who claimed he wasn’t there at the time of signing – I can’t remember what I did a week ago. How would he remember what he was doing five months ago?”

The third lawyer, who represents the absent lender, is younger. He argues that there is no way Manik Chand Shah can escape his loan by getting his former wife to claim property. He has to pay his loan. His client has to get justice.

The judge asks if the woman has any children. “She had one daughter who is already married, Sriman,” says the defense lawyer. “Then why should the husband give her his private property that he earned with his own work?” asks the judge. The defense lawyer cites a Supreme Court case and says that there is no concept of “private” in a marriage – what a man earns after marriage also belongs to the wife.

After the hearing ends, Alkadevi walks downstairs. “He used to beat me a lot,” she says. “I don’t know if they will do something else to stop me getting property.”

After her husband started to beat her, Alkadevi’s brother put a petition at the CDO’s office. The husband went there and signed a “milapatra” saying he would live with her. He then ran away to Kathmandu, married another woman, and then stayed in Delhi for a few years before returning to Biratnagar.

Alkadevi says life is hard. She lives with her sister by the Jute mills. Her sister’s husband was killed by dacoits, and the two sisters survive as day laborers in garment factories, where they make thread.

The property in question is 18 katta, nine dhur. Split three ways between the man and his two wives, Alkadevi would get 8 katta and 3 dhur.

In 1993, a case was finally filed in the Supreme Court to amend the Civil Code and give women equal rights over property. It would take almost 9 years before a Bill finally passed on Parliament on March 14, 2002. It came into effect from September 27, 2002.

The new law establishes a wife's equal right to her husband's property immediately after marriage, rather than after she reaches 35 years of age or has been married for 15 years as before. A widow's right to claim her share of property from the joint family after her husband’s, and to keep this property even if she gets re-married, is also established in law.

But legal professionals say that women still have difficulty getting property. Most common are counter-lawsuits which show the man is bankrupt, therefore making it difficult for the woman to claim anything. Counter-lawsuits showing loans, and even property division between brothers are common in cases where estranged wives ask for property. Advocate Ram Lal Sutihar, who is fighting the case pro bono for a fellow villager, says that he has five or six other women in the same predicament.

In the evening, judge Pudasaini gives his verdict: Alkadevi will get her share of property, Manik Chand Shah will pay his loan, and the forgery case is dismissed.

Alkadevi, who’s been coming to the Courts for two years, may have the satisfaction of knowing she won her case. But getting the property is another matter. The land is under “rokka” – it cannot be bought or sold until the loan is cleared. The case can indefinitely be lengthened.
Some of the property cases have taken 20 years to settle, going from the district to the Appellate and then to the Supreme Court level. In one extreme case involving an uncle and a nephew, the uncle finally died after the case had reached the Supreme Court after 15 years. His sons were in India and did not care about the land in Nepal. The nephew, who has spent almost one lakh in legal fees, eventually couldn’t make it to the final hearing in the Supreme Court in Kathmandu because the trip from Nepalgunj would have cost him too much time and money.

The legal game is about wearing out the adversary and supporting the lies of our clients, a lawyer candidly admits. If Manik Chand Shah plays his cards right and hires a good lawyer, Alkadevi will have gotten justice through the Courts of Nepal, but she may never get her property.

12 December, 2004

So many goods, but noone to buy it : A typical Bandh day. Posted by Hello

11 December, 2004

The Crossroads of our National Imagination

The state of conflict has become, for the nation, a state of mind
Nation Weekly Magazine, 2004

Nepalgunj has palm trees. It has good sekuwa, thought to be perfected with MSG. It has a “New Road” that is being constructed; massive concrete buildings going up within the space of a few years, occupied by people fleeing the conflict in the mid- and far-western districts. It has mosques with elaborate minarets next to gurudwaras and temples. It has businesses, from law firms to tire stores, named after Bageshwori, the patron goddess. It has a list of ethnic groups, not all of whom drink water from the homes of other groups. It has Abadi speakers and Urdu speakers. It has a pluralistic, multi-lingual, vibrant border culture that does not, by any stretch of the imagination, fit the confines of Nepal’s limited Constitution.

For a city that is so close and yet so excluded from the presently limited imaginings of the Nepali nation, Nepalgunj has a special fondness for national figures. Specifically, it has an embarrassingly rich series of “chowks”—an intersection with a statue in the middle—named after national figures past and present. The list goes like this: Tribhuwan Chowk, Mahendra Chowk, Birendra Chowk, Gyanendra Chowk, B.P Chowk, Ganeshman Chowk, Pushpalal Chowk. Gyanendra Chowk and Ganeshman Chowk are under construction. The rest are surrounded by stacks of sandbags against potential ambushes.

The first sight of the conflict is not the exodus of Nepalis who cross the border every day at Rupadiya—their numbers sometimes rising to 2,000 migrants a day as they flee the “one man from every home” rule of the Maoists—but the fortified statues.

The Nepalgunj resident skirts this fortified reminder of war every day as he goes to work in his horse-driven tonga and his bicycle. The statues are a little misshapen. Rumours claim that the Birendra statue-maker got scolded for making the statue a little smaller than life-size. Pushpalal’s statue looks like it’s made of plaster by an artist used to making Saraswoti statues that are submerged in the river during Saraswoti Puja. His fist is upraised in the traditional comrade salute, but apparently he’s not immune to violence: He receives the same sandbag protection as figures of other political persuasion. During the day, a bevy of soldiers lounge behind the sandbags, staring at each passing car with curious eyes. At other times, they chat with each other to pass time. Their helmets are tossed carelessly on the bags. Any passing rebel with a grenade could blow up the edifice within a few tragic seconds.

An intelligent observer might wonder why so much resource is being used to protect some rather poorly made statues. After all, should not those thousands of rupees be better served if they were directed towards the refugees living under plastic in nearby Kohalpur or to the Badi community that has yet to produce a member with a Bachelor’s degree? Would those funds be better served going to educate the children of two farmers whose wives were raped and drowned by security forces dressed up as Maoists or to the Mangta community that still, to this day, goes to Kathmandu and to other places in India to beg for a living six months of the year?

But the argument of this observer would be wrong. All nations need icons, national or otherwise. They need the signs and symbols of national integration. If integration has been suspended, and national disintegration has taken over, the need to construct iconic symbols becomes even more urgent. In Nepalgunj, one gets the feeling that every long-dead king, and every martyred leader, will soon have chowks constructed and named after him. From the speed at which the chowks are being constructed, there appears to be competition between different political forces to ensure that their particular history graces the streets. Never mind if the chowks already disorient traffic and cause confusion.

Nepalgunj’s crossroads allow a traveller to make multiple choices. Directly beyond the city boundaries are roads which do not provide the same choices and which are not as navigable. A few days ago, passenger buses carrying pilgrims were shot at by the Maoists, reported a newspaper. Helicopters hovered over the city all afternoon long. Children are reported to be laying landmines on the Mahendra Highway. Black lines of defused ambushes cut through the roads. Travellers go through India to get to other border districts like Kailali to avoid blockades and crossfire.

Government employees cluster within the city and fear to go beyond the Rapti River. Beyond the river is unknown territory controlled by the Maoists. Everybody from the CDO’s office to the police, from the land revenue office to the forestry office, has not crossed the river in a few years. The void left by the abrupt departure of all elected officials and state agencies is felt most keenly by those who were receiving benefits, no matter how small, from the government and non-governmental offices. Programs from education to childcare have stopped as INGOs withdraw. Birth and death have become impossible to register as all grassroots-elected representatives withdraw to the city or flee to India. Marriage certificates and citizenship papers, registered at the CDO’s office, are in arrears as people disappear into India for months and sometimes years, often coming back to claim their papers after a period of time has elapsed. The buying and selling of land has also stalled. Land disputes are now settled at the local levels, increasingly by the Maoist “People’s Court,” the Jana Adalat.

For some actors within the most marginalized communities, conflict has sometimes brought odd windfalls. Take the Magta, traditional supplicants from Banke who put a big earthen container of rice in front of their windowless huts to “lock” it up and leave for six months every year to beg for a living. Both security forces and Maoists avoid their village, although the Maoists did blow up the police post as they passed through. For the men, the removal of the police force is a blessed relief. They no longer get beaten up. Dispute resolution has gone back to a traditional system. Men get together, fine the perpetrator of petty quarrels Rs. 10, and then spend the money collected on an all-male feast with drinks and pork. The women mourn those rosy, long gone days when a marital dispute involving domestic violence could be reported at the police station. They complain that they are not heard by the traditional council. It’s not all a big party, however: The men, who used to work as rickshaw drivers and worked till 10 at night, now have to leave by 7 p.m. The number of working hours has lessened, and so have their earnings.

The Badi too face pressure. Considered the lowest of the 23 dalit groups, the Badi fail to feature in most government policies and literature. They are outside the national imagination. At the local level, however, the police are all too aware of their presence. All Badi women are perceived to be involved in the sex trade, even though 60 percent of them now work in other areas. Police harassment and torture, along with police patronage of the sex trade, is common. The Maoists have also told them to get out of the sex trade. Caught in the crossfire, many Badi women from rural areas have fled to India, where nobody stigmatizes them for their caste or occupation.

This state of conflict has become, for the nation, a state of mind. For a tailor living in Nepalgunj, this state of mind is omnipresent. After the Maoists made him and his family leave their home in a mid-western hill district (one of his sons was a policeman, and this did not please the rebels), he migrated to Tarai. A loan from a kind clothes-seller, and 10 years of work, allowed him to build another home on ailani (government) land in Nepalgunj. A few years later, his younger son was taken by the security forces as a Maoist. The irony here is that the same son had run away from the Maoists, who had abducted him and made him do forced labor for six months. The tailor, for the second time, was told to leave his home by the Maoists—this time because they thought the detained son might give out information. The family is currently in hiding. The couple do not sleep at night—one of them always remains awake to keep guard. Sleep is a small sacrifice for these two who have seen their lives broken up too many times.

Keeping guard has become our national burden as Nepal tries to steer her way out of two armed forces. As we return to the city from the village in the gathering dusk, we notice that the statues and the chowks have been abandoned to the protection of the sandbags. All the young security guards are gone. Thankfully, some responsible leader in the Unified Command has decided the life of a human being is more important than a statue. In these times, night could mean potential death for a young man left alone to protect an icon of stone. Our car swerves to avoid a madman squatting and throwing stones from the middle of an empty road. A ghostly—and in the darkness, unidentifiable—statue rises behind him.

05 December, 2004

Shooting Karma

Shooting Karma
Tsering Rhitar is a perfectionist who works his scenes meticulously, getting take after take until he’s ready to move to the next scene

Tsering Rhitar stands by the reception area in the Sherpa Hotel, directing his film. The film, titled “Karma,” is a story about a nun who walks down from Mustang to Pokhara to Kathmandu to track down a man who owes money to the monastery. The nuns need the money to do a puja. The film, says Rhitar, is about the paradox of the co-existence of materialism and spirituality.

“Use your own language,” Rhitar urges his actor. The director is wearing a brightly colored Nepali topi as he directs his multinational crew his cameraman Ranjan Pallit is from India, his actors are Nepali, and he himself has a partial Tibetan background. His shooting script is written in English, with scribbled notes in Tibetan. Little storyboards have been drawn in stick figures next to the script. The dialogue is being translated from the only shooting script.

“We don’t have to be politically correct,” says the director, as a discussion about the usage of the word “aimai” ensues. “We want to speak like people speak.” The actor finally decides to use the colloquial word.

The actor, who has worked with the director before, translates the gist of the dialogue into his own words. The crew waits patiently for the director to finish. Then the grip and gaffer move in with lights and translucent paper that act as filters for the low-budget film.

Ranjan Pallit, the cameraman, says working with Rhitar is: “Very democratic. We can always make suggestions, and he will listen.” Pallit says he loves Nepal and has been here 10 times already. A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of Pune, Pallit has also worked with other Nepali filmmakers.

The clapboard says: “scene 73, shot 12, take 1.” By the end of the hour, the take will have increased to 7. The sign of a good director is perfection. Rhitar is a perfectionist who works his scenes meticulously, getting take after take until he’s ready to move to the next scene. Pratap, the actor, is working on a comic scene where he leers at the nun and asks her for some Mustang apples. The line is said over and over again until the director is satisfied. In-between takes are long moments of lag-time as actors try their lines, check their postures and gestures, and listen to the feedback from the assistant director. The process could try the patience of a saint, but the crew, remarkably, seems to hold up well. “And by the way, give me some Mustang apples,” the actor says, leering at the nun. The crew bursts out laughing the line, finally, has punch. “Don’t cut me!” the actor jokes as the director finally says: “Cut.”

“Karma” is being shot in digital video which allows for the flexibility of multiple re-takes. Unlike 35mm film, video is cheap to shoot. Film scripts have to be more tightly rehearsed in order to get maximum mileage out of the budget. For Rhitar’s working process, which involves a lot of impromptu directing and rehearsing on the set, video allows the flexibility of making mistakes and correcting them on location, without a lot of expensive re-shooting. Digital video is becoming the medium of choice for many indie filmmakers who don’t want to be tied down by commercial constraints and who can experiment without having to lug expensive and heavy equipment around in remote places.

Padam Subba, brother of Nabin Subba, who directed “Numafung,” is assisting on the set of “Karma.” “Tsering helped us a lot during ‘Numafung,’” he says. This reciprocity between the small and tight-knit film community has worked to its advantage people share resources and networks, and this has allowed for better working relationships between the different directors.
Rhitar has been shooting for 25 days in Mustang. The crew lived and worked closely with the nuns at the Tharpa Cheling nunnery. The process, said Rhitar, was very moving, and the nuns made good friends with the crew. The nuns cried when the crew departed.

Like many independent films produced internationally, Rhitar’s film is being personally funded by the filmmaker. The Rs. 3 million just covers the production and post-production costs. The rest of the funds, including the telecine transfer process, will be raised by the filmmaker later.

“I am not thinking about distribution at the moment,” says Rhitar. “I want to make it first, and then think about it.” He says he would like to have it widely distributed in the Nepali market, but he also wants it to be available to the international market. Rhitar is a rare breed—an indie filmmaker who follows his artistic vision and avoids the dictates of the market. Unlike many of his compatriots who spend their days hashing out virtual photocopies of Bollywood hits, Rhitar spins stories out of his own experiences and his community. This integrity has brought him international recognition.

Rhitar’s previous films include “The Spirits do not Come Anymore,” about the dying tradition of shamanism, which won an award at Film South Asia. “Mukundo,” shot in 35mm by the same crew as the one shooting “Karma,” won international recognition in film festivals in Japan, France, Sweden, India and the United States. It also won an award for the script from the Producers Association of Nepal. Shown at such well-known festivals as the San Francisco film festival, the film garnered respect, although it was never formally distributed on a commercial scale.

In the Sherpa Hotel, the phone rings, a group of German tourists enter with huge backpacks, but the actor remains on his job. “Okay, another take!” he says enthusiastically. “Nice. Lights off,” says the tired cameraman. “Get into emotion, Pratap-ji,” says the director. “Don’t talk, anybody,” the actor says as he closes his eyes for a few seconds and allows the noise to fade out as he enters his private world. A few seconds later, he opens his eyes and nods. He is ready. “Rolling, and action,” says the director. The actor says his line flawlessly. The last take goes fabulously well. The entire room of expectant spectators bursts into applause. A small miracle of filmmaking has just taken place. But there is no time for rest—it’s time for the next scene.

Internally Displaced

A major attack in the district headquarters often precipitates a sudden exodus, but the trickle of people leaving a way of life has become commonplace
BY SUSHMA JOSHI in Kohalpur, Banke
The tears are still fresh for Bachu Rokaya. She fled Mugu three months ago after her husband was killed by the Maoists. He was held in detention for four months and then killed. They tied his feet and hands and threw him into the Karnali, says a fellow villager who also fled down to Nepalgunj. Villagers suspect the man was taken because he was a state employee working for the government’s post office system and was also active in his community.

Bachu says: “I have nobody here, nobody.” Although there are nine other families from Shera VDC, her parents’ home, Bachu has to survive by herself in these temporary shelters. With two sons and four daughters to take care of and no source of income, her desperation is all too real.

Gayarudra Buda has a different story. The 39-year-old is also a single parent, although his burden is a different one: He takes care of his two-year-old daughter himself. His wife Bidara Buda, 26, was grinding flour in her village when the Maoists who had laid an ambush by the irrigation canal detonated it too early. The security forces for whom the ambush was meant escaped unscathed. About 60 security personnel came charging down the jungle firing their guns. Bidara was gunned down in the crossfire. The Army took the body to the barracks and told the husband that he would be given compensation. This hasn’t happened yet. Gayarudra Buda, who is now in Nepaljung, shakes his head when asked about compensation. He has yet to follow it up with the state agencies.

Gayarudra clutches his two-year-old daughter Nanda Buda who cries unceasingly as he talks. There is no milk in the camp. The baby has been eating roti and rice along with the adults. The children are showing signs of malnutrition.

Chandu Buda’s sense of loss is palpable as he talks about how he left the village. Also of Sera VDC, Mugu, he says: “We left with only the clothes on our backs. We took nothing. We had to let all the cattle—goats and cows—loose in the jungle to graze. We had to leave the fields full of crops.”

The camp residents are known as IDPs in development jargon—the internally displaced people—and refer to the hundreds of people who are forced to move from their homes to become refugees inside their own country.

The camp residents say that life in Mugu’s district headquarters is expensive. A kilogram of rice costs Rs. 32, forcing displaced people to move to areas where food is cheaper.

The numbers of internally displaced people have been rising steadily in the last 10 years. A major attack in the district headquarters, as the recent one in Gamgadi, often precipitates a sudden exodus, but the trickle of people leaving a way of life has become commonplace. The profitable salt trade between Tibet and the Midwest has become less so, now that Indian salt is cheaply available. But more damaging to this local economy is the Maoist tax that has been recently imposed. The tax makes it unprofitable to transport any goods, including potatoes and sheep. This is leading to a slow but steady decline in local trade.

There are currently 115 people in the makeshift camp here on the side of the road. They are displaced from various mid-western districts—including Humla, Jumla, Kalikot, Mugu and Jajarkot. The central district officer allocated 30 kathas, about one hectare, of government land for them to pitch camp on temporarily. The Red Cross has provided plastic for shelter; BASE and SAFE (both NGOs) have provided about 15 quintals of rice and three quintals of dal, Rs. 500 worth of spices and 10 kilograms of oil.

SAFE also distributed children’s clothes and put in a water pump. The Rara Club, a local organization made up of former Mugu residents now living in the Nepalgunj area, has donated firewood. Bigger INGOs working in conflict zones, including those who provide educational support, have not yet arrived on the scene.

For Bhairav Bahadur Shahi, 50, who left Humla one night without informing even his children, the reason behind his departure was very clear. “They always wanted me to attend their programs,” says the man as he squats on the dusty ground. “You can’t travel from one village to another without travel papers, and we have to give the reason why we want to go where we do. I finally had to leave.” He thinks his children are living in Simikot, but he is not sure.

The lack of freedom to travel made Sriba Chanda lose his right leg. Sriba, 11, was felling a tree when it fell on top of him. The Maoists told his father to patch it up in the village and that there was no need to go to the hospital. Then the snow fell, and blockades took place. By the time Sriba made it to the hospital, his leg had to be amputated. The boy, who has four siblings and no mother, hobbles around the camp in his crutches donated by the United Mission to Nepal. Although he used to go to school while in the village, he has now stopped.

The lack of freedom, say recent observers who have traveled in Humla, is one reason why people are choosing to abandon their villages and their way of life. Even though the collective pilot farms set up by the Maoists in the region have brought some opportunities of equality for women and lower caste groups, this is not enough to stop the mass migration. Many of the ethnic Bhotay villages in Mugu are abandoned, leading to the extinction of a way of life, observers say.

The heap of rice is slowly disappearing as family after family comes to collect it in their plastic buckets. The food is a meager replacement for a subsistence way of life that is now inexorably over.

Chandu Buda looks over the fields of stubble and says: “We used to have fields of apples that we didn’t know what to do with. Now we have nothing."