Govinda Bartaman is the quintessential Kathmandu leftist: versed in all cryptic aspects of Nepali politics, passionate about its obscurantist splits, given to vague ego tussels with fellow leftists, typically a moody poet and a down-to-earth journalist. He is a child of the country's elite caste structure with none of the privileges of being one. Except for the gift of language. This he has put towards a travel memoir, Sohra Sanjhharu (or Sixteen Evenings), about his journeys to Liwang, Nepalganj, Dhangadi and Baglung during the 2002 ceasefire.
Bartaman's Liwang is chockablock with shifty now-you-see-them-now-you-don't guerrillas, harrowed government officials, keen reporters and human rights workers, and chipper DFID consultants assessing the conflict's impact.
It is a surreal town. The District LDO, has been transferred 26 times over the course of his career, has in his tenure in Rolpa District taken on various guises - including of a Hindu ascetic - to avoid being recognised by the Maoists. More than 300 young men from the outlying villages have left in order to avoid being recruited by the guerrillas. People say that 15 women in one village have been raped by state security forces. Eighty-odd families from all over the district live as refugees in, the district centre. Among them is a man reprimanded by the Maoists for having two wives. He went on to bring home five more wives. The ceasefire has brought some relief. Locals now laugh, bleakly, about past days with 3PM curfews. But they remain worried that peace might end. The burned-out ruins of the roads department and the agriculture and post offices dot the landscape. A former rations supplier for the army, meanwhile, lives in a house decked with marble.
Sohra Sanjhharu is not the most artful travelogue. At times it reads like an unedited diary. 'I had gone to do the short one, but I ended up doing the long one,' he says at one point, of a toilet break that the reader might have been spared the details of. Shockingly, he chronicles his drinking of 62 cups of tea and smoking of just as many cigarettes. (What is shocking is not that he had so much tea or cigarettes but that he wrote about it in such detail). Each chapter chronicles a day, and ends with a 10PM bedtime. And every now and then there are goofy asides, such as his attempt to learn English, or passionate discussions on Stevie Wonder.
Still, this book is a must-read. Bartaman embodies Nepal's democratic left. His reservations about state atrocities is obvious but his horror at what the undemocratic left, the Maoists, have wrought is equally palpable. For those who dismiss all leftists as Maoist sympathisers (a widely-held view among the Kathmandu bourgeoisie) the political nuances in this book are enlightening.
And it contains many very poignant tales of war. An encounter with the niece of the Maoist-affiliated journalist Krishna Sen is one such story. Sen's own family no longer lives in his family house just outside Liwang. His 16 year-old niece Bandana heads the household now after her father (Sen's brother) died and her mother eloped, abandoning her with her 13 and 12 year-old sisters. They get by on their family lands with the help of neighbours. Most of the exchange with her is ordinary enough, but in the end, she asks, "They say that Uncle's been killed, is that true?" Unable to tell the girl that Sen was, infamously, killed in police custody, a companion of Bartaman's tells her that the case is still being investigated.
As Bartaman moves from Liwang to its outlying villages, and then onto Nepalganj, Dhangadi, and back to Baglung, he meets war victims one after another. An 18-year-old Tharu woman talks openly in front of her mother-in-law about being raped by policemen as other policemen kill her husband. A man talks of how he was moved 17 times while imprisoned by the Maoists. Another woman in Baglung tells of how after her husband was disappeared by the security forces, her neighbours have been pressing her to consider him dead and to wear the widow's whites. Another woman, whose husband has also been disappeared by the security forces tries to console her mother-in-law saying: "At least you have other sons. You still have the word 'son'. I don't have a husband. I don't have the word 'husband' anymore. My son doesn't have the word 'father'. So don't be sad."
Chronicling these tales, Bartaman depicts today's Nepal as a country of broken lives. Readers inured to the daily body counts in the news can finally see in this book the people behind the statistics. And they can see, in the words of one victim, all that is lost when politics ends and only guns remain.