JANAKAPUR. In balmy, post-winter in Mithila the bountiful rice harvest is now safe in earthen silos. Mustard fields are bright yellow. Brown bees swarm over green mango trees in full bloom. The gray pigeon and the co-coo of the black cuckcoo punctuate the lazy, hazy air. The season seems divinely ordained for marriages, and newly-weds in red saris throng the whitewashed temples.
At dawn, it's magical. The breeze is cool, but not chilly. The sky takes on a ripe hue, as the sun peeps out from a filter of haze, red as an apple. Legend has it that Hanuman, the monkey-god, actually mistook the sun for an apple and chomped on it, plunging the universe in darkness. After much coaxing, Bayuputra (Son of Air) set the sun free and the world survived. Time ticks slowly here in this corner of low-land Nepal, and it reminds you that you are home.
The only jarring note is that of loudspeakers blaring latest Anoop Jalota bhajans in the distance. The invention of the amplifier must be considered a curse on mankind-it prompts politicians to become demagogues and forces us to shout at each other in order to be heard. Microphones and loudspeakers have snatched away the serenity from rural landscapes. Even where there is no electricity, pop bhajans and lewd folk songs are battery-powered.
When I was a boy, nobody in our village had an alarm clock. They didn't need it. As the stars faded the sparrows and mainahs would start chirping as if it were tomorrow. And it was: as the day broke the cuckcoos would go, well, cuckoo on the mango trees. These days, the din of badly rendered Hanuman chalisa being played over loudspeakers drowns out the songs of birds.
But getting up early has its rewards even today. The sight of birds catching worms in the fields is just one of them. Reminds me of the Shel Silverstein poem: "If you are a bird, get up early, if you are a worm, sleep late." Stepping on dew-wet grass on a walk along the irrigation canal is another. The joy of picking monkey-peas off stems, peeling off the pods and then eating the green kernel raw is as close to nirvana as you can get in this day and age.
And then all of a sudden, it was rush hour once again as people by the thousands took over the empty road nearby. From liveried palanquins of the presiding deity to the tattered clothes of devotees carrying their meagre belongings on their heads in bundles, the sight of pilgrims on the Mithila Parikrama rekindles faith, inspires hope. Times are bad all right, but we shall overcome. Hasn't this circumbulation of the ancient capital of Mithila been taking place for centuries-unbroken-despite floods, fire, famines, plagues, and the petty wars of competing principalities?
Dharma is not such a long journey-in a fortnight, Mithila Parikrama covers only Panch Kosh, or about 16 km. Apart from the deities in their palanquins, pilgrims walk bare-foot, singing devotional songs and even dancing occasionally. This year, armed policemen were escorting the procession. Not surprisingly, some of them didn't wear any shoes either.
Parikrama is a ritual of taking the deities to the doors of those devotees who cannot make it to the temple. Starting from Kachuri near Janakapur, it goes along the perimeter of the ancient capital of Mithila. Part of this area now falls in the political boundary of modern India, but it continues to belong to the same cultural region. Pilgrims walk during the day and camp for the night, usually in mango orchards on the outskirts of villages. Such campsites are then transformed into impromptu rural markets for trinkets, toys and other stuff that are part of any mela in the tarai. It can get cold at night, and many spend their time by the fire. Teashops spring up where villagers gather to gossip.
And news about the state of the state percolates down here, too. The communication revolution brought on by the night-buses (Kathmandu papers get here by the next day) and long-distance phone booths allow villagers to check up on news from relatives and friends in Kathmandu. Rural Nepal was never ignorant, only apathetic. Today, it is also aware, well-informed and alert. Because of this, there is general disdain for the political antics being played out in Kathmandu. Very few sitting in the tea shops appeared to be bothered by the stalemate in parliament. Some voiced the opinion that it was a ploy to obstruct the passage of the Armed Police Force Bill. Others thought it was meant to deflect attention from the King's reservations about the Citizenship Bill. This is heavy analysis that would put our well-plugged pundits in Kathmandu to shame.
Here, it is citizenship that is the big issue, and people tend to get openly inimical towards the Kathmandu elite. The communally-tinged riots that followed the Hrithik-fiasco in December has hardened attitudes. Gajendra Narayan Singh of the Sadhbhavana Party was on a long drive in the name of his Mechi-Mahakali Rally, and the fall-out of all this was that Nepali Congress-backed Nepal Students' Union lost the elections at its stronghold in Janakapur, defeated by Gajjubabu's boys.
Anti-Kathmandu sentiments are so strong in the tarai that the more Girija Koirala is cornered by the opposition in the capital, the more popular he gets in places like Siraha or Mahottari. Had the Nepal Communist Party (UML) gone to the doors of the voters, they would have got this message loud and clear. Lauda may be an obsession with the chattering classes of the Valley, but here in the plains the primary concern is security. It's not that people do not know about Lauda here, they simply don't care. Perhaps it's time now for the UML comrades to come to their senses and end this show, it has paralysed the nation long enough. In fact it has helped the Nepali Congress by distracting attention from the real issue of resolving the Maoist insurgency. If the main opposition continues with its antics much longer, it may prove to be suicidal here in these parts and others like it along the south.
It may be time our national politicians took a pointer or two from the deities of Mithila and went to the doors of their voters rather than preaching from their pulpits in the capital.