11-17 March 2016 #799

Birganj for beginners

A window not only to Birganj but the entire Madhes
Dambar K Shrestha

After Girish Giri’s father, Gopal Giri, the mayor of Birganj during Gyanendra's reign was murdered by the Maoists in 2005, his family renounced politics. But as a young idealistic journalist, Giri felt that he could not abandon the town he grew up in.

When Giri visited Birganj recently during the violent street protests and border blockade, amidst all the black marketing and vandalism, he felt he had to do something. The entire country was reeling under fuel shortages, but Birganj and its people were affected more than any other place.

While in Birganj through the turmoil, Giri wrote articles in the online publication, Setopati, describing the protests, analysing the appearance and tone of the demonstrators on the streets, and talking to ordinary people caught up in the violence. The articles opened a floodgate of comments, and Giri remembers thinking that the story of Birganj (and indeed the Madhes could not be told in a few thousand words.

Giri’s new book, Birganj: Mero Saharko Katha (Birganj: The Story of My City) is in Nepali and is the result of his attempt to introduce various dimensions of his hometown to a wider audience. The book is based on the accepted truism that the hills have not understood the plains. Giri, who is from the hills but lived in the Tarai, views the issue differently. His intent in writing the book was to open the minds of those who form opinions about the Madhes while living in the geographically and psychologically distant Kathmandu.

“We have not been able to fathom the pain of the people who have lived in Nepal for centuries and how they feel when they are called Indians,” says Giri, “we call the Tharus ethnic people but classify the Bajjika speaking people as outsiders.”

Giri’s journalistic career began in Birganj, working for national dailies like Kantipur and Nagarik, and he later spent four years in Australia. While he always wanted to be a writer, he worked on other projects like a translation of Ani Choying Drolma’s book, Fulko Ankhama, and made a documentary on Birganj’s football team, Team Nepal.

Although Giri moved to Kathmandu, his heart is still in his hometown. He returns to Birganj often to renew ties with his childhood home and neighbourhood, where the story of his book begins. On the journey back home, he writes about the obstacles he faced while crossing the highway in Simra, as he details the struggle of the protesters.

He chronicles stories from the birth of Birganj, mixing its development and history with its more interesting and mysterious protagonists. “The main characters of my book are those people who live on the streets, the experiences of whom not only defines the current situation of the city but the entire nation,” he says.

The writer also comments on the politics of Birganj, the formation of the Sadbhavana Party and the history of both the native and the newer Madhesis. He breaks down the myths and stereotypes, the generalisations and the ostracisation of the Madhesi people in the hill mind. This is a sympathetic book that will be one of the first literary attempts to stitch back the torn fabric of hill-plain relations in Nepal. 

Giri hopes the launch of the book on Friday will encourage other writers to produce similar work. He says: “I believe the book will be a window not only to Birganj but the entire Madhes.”