By Amish Raj Mulmi
It snowed on Dashain that year, a most unusual dance of sleet and ice that killed off half of the crops in our fields. My mother ran out of the house as soon as the first white flake landed on our veranda, and upon her discovery, ran back inside to awaken her husband, fast asleep after another day of farming, liquor and fucking. She seemed terribly worried, but as I cowered in the smoky kitchen under the stairs leading upstairs, my father woke up with a grunt, and I realized this was no ordinary matter. Soon, others had come out of their houses, their dark shawls rapidly turning white in the blackness of the night, and everybody seemed to be talking about the paddy crop. A few women had begun wailing their misfortune, until their husbands slapped them into silence. It seemed a terrible night to live through, but that was the only choice everyone had.
The next morning, while everyone rushed to the fields, my sister and I ran to the hill overlooking the river and its valley, where everybody’s fields were. They were running hither-thither, confused, like the ants living in the big banyan tree in the middle of the village when we disturbed their colony. The crops were no longer green; they were a dirty white of snow and mud, disturbed before they could ripen. Soon after, everybody huddled around the rock whose shade was used in the summers to eat meals, a behemoth the size of a house. My sister had got bored by now, and she kept tugging at me to go back. I pushed her away once, but she persisted, and finally I had to acquiesce. I dropped her home, where mother was anxiously waiting for father to return, then ran to the kirana shop where I knew the other boys would be. I ran so hard that my left slipper broke, so I took it off and ran barefoot.
It was only at night, when I heard my parents talk in hushed whispers, my mother’s voice almost a sob, that I found out our harvest wouldn’t last us the year. We would have to borrow, as would the rest of the village, but even Sahuji didn’t have enough rice to feed the entire village. They had decided they would go to the district headquarter, a day’s walk away, and petition the sarkaar. I suspected that gave mother some relief, and she stopped crying. Soon their bed began to creak.
The mountain towered over our lands like a heavenly sentry, a lone snow-covered peak amid the green and brown hills alongside it. There were more peaks behind the mountain, but to reach them one had to walk even more. Even though if one looked at the peaks from the district headquarter, it seemed as if all of them stood in a file, one after another, rising above the clouds that brought us rain. We had many names for the peak — the Gurungs called it the mountain of cranes in their language, believing it to be the nesting ground of the white-feathered birds that would swoop down to the rice fields and hunt for frogs and fish; we were Chhetris, so we didn’t believe in that hogwash. Instead, the children stuck to calling it budhi himal, the old mountain, because the thumb is the eldest of all our appendages.
Budhi Himal towered over our village. Its shadow loomed large and sometimes pierced the white clouds that gathered around it. After every rain, the clouds would dissipate, and the sun would begin to paint them in the colours of its own light. The yellow would become a deep red, at times almost blood-like, the silver linings would glow like a golden sword, flaming and penetrating the heart of the clouds with every stab. The clouds would realize their futile attempts at escape, and scatter – a fluff self-destructing into smaller wisps.
Down below, the river was the lord of all that it purveyed. Snaking amid boulders the size of houses, its white rage was gently channeled into narrow streams that led to the rice fields scattered on its banks. Much later, I would see a photograph of another village, which I mistook for my own. It was a clever daguerreotype, marketing itself as the rural idyll which everyone tried to visualize when they thought of us. The river snaked through it too, irrigating the rice fields on its banks. Then, like a stairway that crisscrossed the hills, began more fields – thousands and thousands of them. And like our village, folks working on them, running their ploughs pulled by two oxen, rows of women bending down to plant the paddy in the muddy swamp.
But paddy is a sensitive plant, and requires an almost emotional smothering to give out its grain willingly. Every year, father would wake just before dawn – when shapes just began to assume their outlines and trundle his way down the only street of the village, crossing Jange’s, Sita’s, Rame’s, and Parvati’s houses before turning right and reaching the tap that had only been installed the year Rame’s elder brother drowned in the river. Next to it was the sahuji’s shop and the stone-capped path that led down to the fields, onwards to the river, and then finally to the headquarters. By the time Father reached our fields, the clouds began to break up and a tiny sliver of sunlight screamed through them. He would walk around our biggest field to the makeshift of a canal all the farmers had dug, and remove the stone that had been placed at a side-stream that prevented the water from coming into our fields. He would then place a stone on another side-stream, stopping the water to Jange’s father’s fields – a crude implementation of irrigation rules and regulations.
Behind Sahuji’s house was another path, which led to the big fig tree under which a chautara had been constructed. The headmaster’s house stood proud across it in its distinctive pink and white, marked against a backdrop of mud-orange and slate-roofed houses. One Dashain, the headmaster decided to repair his rapidly crumbling house, and the very next day he accompanied donkeys carrying yellow sacks of cement and sand to his house. As usual, my father was employed to repair the house’s façade, being the only man with a decent knowledge of stonemasonry. Two weeks later, with a liberal application of the concrete, the cracks had been filled in, and the headmaster was content that he didn’t even have to spend his Dashain budget. Then his son came from the city – Kathmandu, some said; others Dilli – and decided the house now looked ugly. My father was delighted. Once again he was employed to paint the house. Not as fit to be a painter as a stonemason, the visibly poor job he had done was enough to begin a slanging match with the headmaster’s son, until my father threatened to tie him to his ox’s tail and send him to the city like that.
The house remained like that, an incomplete job, until the rains did their bit the next year by washing off the colour from the rest of the walls anyway.