SUGA (Mahottari District) - When the destination is home, even a short journey is far too long. The day trip from Kathmandu to Jaleshwar is indeed long in time and space: it takes more than eight hours in a run-down bus that rocks and rolls through nine of Nepal's 75 districts.
Monsoon Nepal rushes past the window: in Naubise farmers dressed in colourful clothes are planting paddy, in Bharatpur it is already harvest time for another variety of rice, in Dhanusha farmers in drab dhotis are busy irrigating their fields to transplant rice. Our buses were ramshackle, but it is still a beautiful country out there.
The first stop after the bus leaves Kathmandu is usually Dharke. The teashop owner there assures some bahun-type passengers that the food at his eatery is "pure" as he doesn't allow "Mussalamans" to go anywhere near his kitchen. This comment exposes the ugly intolerance beneath the surface of this seemingly tolerant society. If you are Muslim, don't refuse the offer of an outrageously priced plate of meat at any Mugling eatery-you run the risk of being taunted that halal meat is tasteless. The fate of the dalits is bad enough, but the lot of Nepali Muslims is even worse, as Dr Krishna Bhattachan rightly observed at a recent meeting. Even their existence is increasingly being questioned.
It wasn't always so. Nepal's Muslim population is not very large, just under a million, but up from 650,000 ten years ago. There is controversy about the accuracy of census figures, but the fact remains that the number of Muslims is a very small percentage of over 23 million Nepalis. They are across the tarai, but can even be found in some hill districts like Kathmandu and Kaski.
In Suga, we know our Mussalmans more by their castes than their religion. On the western fringes of the village, the cluster of houses belongs to Jolahas-the weavers. Machine-made cotton put them out of business long ago, and our generation of Jolahas never got a chance to run the loom. They made a living share-cropping, but these days it is the remittances from West Asia, Gujarat and Punjab that sustains most families. A pucca mosque has replaced the spotlessly clean thatched-hut that I played around as a child, but there is no sign of the Oil Money that the Indian media never tires of talking about.
At the northeast fringe of the village, there is another mosque in the Dhobi Tole. This too is now pucca, but the madrassa is a ramshackle affair where half-naked children recite "Alif-Be-Te" at the top of their voices. No sign of "foreign-funding" here either, and the only reason the poor prefer to send their children to Madarassa is the fact that these schools have flexi-time. Normal schools run according to a set routine and make no allowance for the children who have to help their parents at work.
A few returnees from the Gulf have turned entrepreneurs and run a Public Call Office, a tailoring shop, and a grocery. Other than that, the poverty in Dhobi Tole is as pervasive as in the adjoining Chamar Tole. Clients have dwindled as more people wash their clothes at home these days, but then many Dhobis from our village have set up shops at Jaleshwar and Janakpur. On Saturdays, they sip bottled soft drinks at the neighbourhood shop while the others toil at the Dhobi Pokhari.
During my childhood, we never thought that we were any different from our Jolaha or Dhobi neighbours, except the fact that the better off among us wore more expensive clothes. Village festivals were almost all common. I remember going around the village with the Tazia procession every year shouting "Ha Hussain" to mark the martyrdom of the grandson of the Holy Prophet. Once I had to fake a Hindu name for my Muslim friend to enable him get the tasty prasad from a Hindu temple in Janakapur. But in our house, Muslims were always welcome for what they were.
The difference of religion rose with the Emergency in India, and its effects spilled over to the our side of the border. It was in this period that the Muslims came to be looked down upon by the powerful people on both sides of the border and the difference between two communities started to surface. My participation in Tazia processions came to an end with the ritual sacrifice of a rooster and the presentations of a ceremonial turban to a long dead Sufi.
These days Salam, the traditional mode of Muslim salutation, has been gentrified into the more religious As-salam-wale-kum. The benign Ram Ram greeting has now become a defiant Jai Sri Ram. There is a process of Arabisation that is turning Muslims into Islamists, while saffronisation is transforming Hindus into Hindutwabadis. The communal virus from across the border is slowly poisoning the social atmosphere of the tarai. This civilisational hubris has turned devout Hindus into Hindutva zealots and god-fearing Muslims into hard-boiled Islamites. Culture is almost always inclusive and tolerant. The challenge before us is to once again reassert the inherent unity in the diversity of cultures. Building an inclusive identity based on the Right to Equality enshrined in Clause 11 of The Constitution of The Kingdom of Nepal is perhaps the only way of creating more effective social harmony.
Nepal is a "Hindu and Constitutional Monarchical Kingdom" but all its people "...irrespective of religion, race, caste or tribe, collectively constitute the nation" are equal.