SERA, Sindhupalchok-This is a picture postcard hamlet. Its lone tourist lodge is straight out of trekking brochures that promise instant nirvana. The tiny rooms with low-ceiling tin roofs are shaded by banana leaves, and are immaculately clean. The bed has wrought iron legs and is fitted with a comfortable mattress. Between the bare floor, naked ceiling, and freshly whitewashed stone walls the clean and colourful cotton sheets appear like an artwork spread for display. A tiny window offers the view of rice paddies and the mountains of the Jugal Himal to the north.
There is an compact toilet into which they have managed to fit a mini washbasin, a functional commode, and a mixer shower with running hot water from the solar collectors on the roof. In a place like this, when evening falls there is nothing but the music of the river, the piercing call of strange birds and the sigh of monsoon rains on the leaves. There is no electricity, and the phone is blissfully out of order.
After the rains, the night sky is so clear you can walk around in the starlight. I sit down at the chautari on the riverbank and try to identify some new stars in the sky. I choose a few particularly bright ones towards the north above Lantang National Park and name them after the souls of the dead. The most luminous one could be King Birendra. Not even immortality is entirely free of time and space.
Then there are the white stars on the red sky of the Maoist flag. Just after the regicide, Maoists claimed that they had an "undeclared working relationship" with King Birendra. High in the sky to the north, King Birendra is silent. Were you talking to the Maoists as Dr Babu Ram Bhattarai and Comrade Prachanda claim? How could you sympathise-let alone have a working relationship-with an ideology that has brought the country to the very brink? I ask for forgiveness for my irreverent question, my momentary lapse of faith. King Birendra smiles.
The Sera lodge itself is an example of the havoc that the Maoists have wrought on Nepal's tourism trade. They may not be targetting tourists, but their very presence is scaring trekkers away and depriving rural Nepal of one of its sole sources of income and employment. We were the first guests here in last six months. Tourism is an image-conscious business where perceptions matter more than reality. Even though not one tourist has been harmed in six years of insurgency in the country, just the reports of the spread of Maoism is enough to create a scare. One terse public statement of Comrade Prachanda causes a flurry of travel advisories by western embassies in Kathmandu, and cancellations of reservations.
The struggle for survival of the lodge at Sera is filled with poignancy because it is a non-commercial resort and one of several across Nepal that doesn't repatriate profits to Kathmandu or abroad. It is a sustainable philanthropic enterprise that ploughs tourism earnings directly into running a local school and a health centre. But because there hasn't been a single tourist for the past six months, the school has been closed and the health centre is barely running.
Asked why tourists don't come anymore to Sera, the lodge attendant gives a fearful "I know but I dare not tell you" shrug that says it all. The shopkeeper in Talamarang is more forthcoming, even though elliptical in his answers. Hiding behind an impersonal pronoun 'they' for the Maoists, he tells me: "They haven't caused any problem for us. Why do you (meaning people of Kathmandu) say that this area is in 'their' control?" I ask him who are "they"? He starts dusting his wares with a meaningful silence.
On our way we stop for tea at Melamchi Bazaar. Connected by regular bus service to Kathmandu, Melamchi has the look of a wild west town. Shacks with tin roofs, roadside drains overflowing with filth, street corners reeking of urine, iron bars dumped haphazardly in front of matchbox structures struggling to keep straight, and black plastic bags fluttering like flags on bushes along river bank. The cinema theatre had a poster of Nepali movie, but it was blaring an Indi-pop number to draw customers.
A vegetable vendor looked familiar. He turned out to be from my village. Pointing towards a slogan painted on a shop-front along the road, I asked him, "Who did that?" He answered me with the finality of ending the conversation there and then: "Them."
Its is terror out here-naked and palpable. The dread is no more of the vagaries of nature (floods or famine), atrocities of the administration (these days, policemen themselves wear hunted looks) or the fear of an uncertain future. It is the most basic of all fears: fear of life. It has become so pronounced that the object of dread is a collective pronoun, a malevolent word full of dread and foreboding.
It is in the context of this harsh reality that the recently implemented Public Security Regulations need to be seen. There are laws to check the tyranny of the government, but how else do you deal with those who have so terrorised the masses that no one even dare take their name?
The idle intelligentsia of Kathmandu is leading the chorus of protest against the regulation. For them, there is nothing wrong with kangaroo courts of insurgents dispensing Taliban-like quick justice. But administrative actions under the due process of law is tantamount to "resurrection of ghost of Panchayat". George Orwell was right, there are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.
Democracy needs practitioners capable of faith without illusions, not fanatics in search of purity of intent, form and content in every government regulation. As long as the rule of law with right to reject the lawmakers through the ballot box exists, freedom is not in danger. It is the terror of unfreedom in the unquiet hills and plains of Nepal that should engage the empty minds in their safe perches in Kathmandu.