The day began in Dang with a litany of complaints from local people about Maoists and the security forces, both sides harassing a cowed population. Nothing new there then. But things got steadily more strange as time went by.
Just after lunch, the driver announced that there was a Banke-Bardiya bandh and that he wouldn't be taking us back to Nepalganj from Ghorahi. He could not be persuaded with threats, money or reason. As we know, very little stops a Nepali from observing a bandh, and our driver was, well, everyman personified. Just down the road though, a different breed of jeep jockey, pockets jangling with coins and keys, racy wire-rimmed glasses, two flunkies in tow. He would brave the bandh, he said, for Rs 4,000-twice the usual daily rate. Sold.
We roared off in a cloud of bravado and dust. At the first police checkpoint, enter the surreal. The police sat at a table below a banner that read National Condom Day. Inflated latexer, balloons bounced in the breeze. Through the window, we received four packaged condoms each and-I kid you not-a brochure with colour photographs-very detailed, graphic photographs-explaining how to use them. I remembered the apocryphal tale from India of the couple who choked to death trying to swallow condoms given to them by government workers too prudish to explain where they went.
"Resham phiriri" blaring from the stereo, we negotiated the switchbacks from Dang's broad valley down to Lamahi on the Mahendra highway. Then it got serious. No more condom jokes. A crowd stood at the police checkpoint, anxiously eyeing the road ahead through Banke. Our piratical jeep jockey listened nervously as a policeman said, "I can't advise you to go or stay, it's up to you." He muttered about cars on fire further down. Odd young men whispered "don't go, it's dangerous", and "they'll target you, not the khaire". I shoved one of them away semi-violently. Just then a truck rolled up and pronounced the road ahead "clear, no problem". So off we lurched in convoy with other brave souls. The driver was all for going; his lackeys nibbled their nails nervously.
Around a corner at speed, and the jeep began leaping lopsidedly like a one-legged kangaroo, an odd howling coming from the front left-hand side. Our man drove on. To stop was to cease being a moving target. Finally, we had to shudder to a halt and we discovered massive mechanical trauma. A broken shock absorber, a fractured leaf spring and a front bumper intent on shaving the rubber from our tires. The driver grabbed a metal bar, bashed one part, pried another, and sang bhajans to a third. We rolled away more smoothly, only to have the engine conk out repeatedly as we tried to pass the bravest bus on the road, the only bus.
That too was fixed at a still open petrol pump where, for once, the locals didn't try to scare our boys. We'd passed the site of the alleged burning car by then, and it remained alleged. A figment, a lie.
The long straight stretch before Shamsherganj Armed Police camp was our drag strip to safety and Tuborgs at the Hotel Batika. The APF surely would be guarding Nepal's citizens during the bandh, doing their duty. Well, unless the APF is about to defend the country's honour in a volleyball tournament, no, no, they were not on duty. A Saturday afternoon, pre-alcohol, lassitude lay over the camp, and the white ball bounded back and forth with vigour. We told the lone cop on the road that there were no burning cars, no signs of trouble.
Rumbling into Nepalganj, the setting sun a deep crimson towards Kailali, we looked forward to a hero's welcome at the hotel. The bored desk clerk looked up and flashed a "namaste" before informing us that the rumour of the bandh had been false. "It's tomorrow," he said, "the whole tarai belt." Our spirits and egos sank; false courage spent for nought. But then I realised. A bandh observed is a bandh indeed, whether 24 hours early or not. This country is in the grip of a surreal fear psychosis and the authorities are doing little or nothing meaningful about it.
I nominate my rakish driver from Dang for Home Minister, Police Chief, captain of the national volleyball team. Strange times demand creative thinking.