BARIYARPUR, BARA - The temple of Gadhi Mai has made this place famous. Once every four years, more goats and buffaloes are slaughtered here in a month-long ritual sacrifice than anywhere else in the world. But for rest of the time, it is very much a village like any other in the central tarai, where life revolves around the vagaries of nature.
The main concern of the villagers here is neither the intensity of the Maoist insurgency nor the possibility of mid-term elections, but the unpredictable temperament of the upcoming monsoon. Resigned to the hard reality of the rebels' atrocities as well as the establishment's impotence in tackling lawlessness, people seem to have fallen back in the comfortable embrace of an endemic fatalism.
The threat of a Maoist attack is like any other manifestation of the wrath of god that devastates the village every so often-floods, fire, famine and communicable diseases such as kala azar and cholera. Those who survive such calamities tell the story to their grandchildren. Those who are fated to, die. There's no point worrying about things that you can do nothing about.
The monsoon, too, is an act of god. But the deities that control the downpours are relatively more reasonable. Unlike Mahakal, the lord of death, the monsoon is the munificence of Mahakali, the mother of the universe. Come Ashad, and the farmers worship her with traditional expressions of animistic belief. In the later Vedic traditions, it is Indra, the king of gods, who commands the rains. Since he is always worried about losing his kingdom, Indra allows the monsoon to remain at the beck and call of his worldly devotees.
The romance of the monsoon resides in the imaginary realms of litterateurs who have never seen a peacock run for cover in the blinding rain. (Poets in Sanskrit tradition can't write about rains without making their peacocks dance with joy.) Kalidasa waxes eloquent about the clouds in his celebrated classic Meghdoot without sparing a thought for the poor who live in the mortal fear of the impending storm in their makeshift shelters out in the paddy fields. In fact, more than nature, the celebrated poet succeeds in Ashadasya Prathame Divase in portraying the preoccupations of the idle elite, Brahmins who don't have to hold a plough to make a living. For those who work with the kodalo rather than the quill, there isn't much romance in the cloudy sky on the first day of Ashad.
If you have seen Shiva Bhanjyang tremble in a cloudburst, as I did in 1993, it is impossible to look at a dark sky without a grim sense of apprehension. The innocent phrase "raining cats and dogs" acquires unsavoury connotations when you have witnessed piglets floating in the drain, puppies fighting to survive a torrent, and kittens shivering below a wildly swaying tree. My recollections of floods are filled with nauseating images of bloated bodies of calves floating along with the remains of straw huts that have been washed away.
But despite the risks associated with the passion of the monsoon, life without it is unimaginable. Rains feed the crop, floods invigorate the rice-fields with silt, and the humid wind makes the bamboo sing. Pigeons go into a huddle, but sparrows love the first drizzle as much as any human being. The heady smell that hits your nostrils when the rains begin in the tarai is too intoxicating to describe. When the pre-monsoon showers begin to clean the Gadhi Mai temple premises, you wish you could believe that fiction about peacocks in the rain.
There can be hope in the bucolic setting of Bariyarpur-seeing a girl-child without shoes braving the downpour to go to school. There can also be despair-seeing her harass a pilgrim for alms the next day outside the temple complex. But that's another story, the sad tale of school-children brainwashed into believing that deliverance lies in consuming this or that packet of noodles and a particular brand of bottled soft drink. The free market teaches us to gratify our desires instantly with the least exertion, no matter the social cost of the action.
Like the monsoon, democracy too is a mixed blessing. We tend to take its benefits for granted, but are haunted by the excesses we witness as it works. There is no enthusiasm for the mid-term elections in the districts of Bara and Parsa. During my earlier visits to Kalaiya or Birgunj, I could engage a perfect stranger at any pan pasal and discuss with him the internecine battles between the Krishna Prasad and Girija Prasad factions of the Nepali Congress. These days, you mention politics at your own risk-even the shopkeeper can ask you to shut up.
At a wayside eatery along the East-West Highway, a question about whether the security forces can restore peace before the elections elicits a laconic reply from the worldly-wise vendor, "They are safe inside their barracks." Another query about the chances of the Maoists participating in the elections is met with a counter-question: "Do they care?" After that, it is better to keep quiet.
When we have to get down from the bus near Gajuri to let the security personnel check our luggage, I suddenly realise what has been bothering me all through this trip. It is the deafening silence of a sullen populace. There are more than one hundred passengers patiently awaiting their turn, but there is no jumping of queues, no ranting about the futility of these checks. Nobody carps about corruption or curses the bureaucrats. No one wrings their hands about what the country has come to due to Koirala's greed for power. Ordinarily loquacious Nepalis seem to have suddenly gone extraordinarily quiet. Call it paranoia, but I find the lull frightening.