Ram Prasad Mahato’s earliest memory of a crisis is from the democratic revolution of 1951. “My father had to leave our home and flee with me across that border to India,” he said pointing east of the Mechi river, “because he donated one rupee to the Congress.” He guesses he would’ve been around five then, making him just over 71 now. Worn out by nearly six decades of agricultural labor, his knee took a turn for the worse; the arthritis now makes it impossible for him to work.
But when the Mechi river, which runs along Mahato’s Shanti Tole neighborhood of Bhadrapur, Jhapa, entered his house on Friday, he forgot about his swollen knee. Along with his wife, his daughter-in-law, and the three grandkids, the Mahato family hurried to the premises of the municipality’s oldest existing school, Bhadrapur Madhyamik Vidyala, which was started in 2002 BS, around the year Mahato was born. He would go on to study up to grade three at the school, until he was needed by his family in the fields.
As the water breached their home, the family packed a few things into two tin suitcases, and grabbed a few clothes. Mahato imagined they would lose everything else they had inside their three modestly built huts. But fortunately, the police came on a ferry to help the neighborhood move their valuables away to a secure location. Mahato family’s prized assets — an LCD television Mahato’s son brought from Kolkata where he works, and an electric fan — would be saved.
At the school, they found themselves with over a thousand other residents from Shanti Tole, which has grown from an empty river-bed into a sizable community over the last decade and a half. As the rain poured in, the classrooms of the school held over 40 people each, many of whom did not like the idea of spending the night there.
“This river here floods very quickly,” Mahato said, “when it rains up in the hills. But it lasts only a few hours.” This was probably why some left the school in the evening to go back to their homes. But the night turned out to be much more devastating. By midnight, the entire Shanti Tole was under at least three feet of water. Bhadrapur high school became the refuge for over a thousand people for the next two days. Mahato’s family were in the school last monsoon too, when they had to remain at the school for eight days, although the damage to their house wasn’t as bad.
Sudden floods are not the only grief the Mechi river has caused the Mahato family. Having been agricultural laborers for landlords for two generations, the family had hopes of finally getting some land of their own after the abolition of jamindaari (landlords) with the Land Act 1964. They did not get ownership of any land, but were entitled to till 12 bighas in Maheshpur, Jhapa, owned by Satyanarayan Agrawal, a powerful landlord in eastern Terai in those days. This was on the condition that they paid Agrawal 15 mun paddy (1 mun is 37.3 kgs) per bigha of land.
But within a few years, much of that land was devoured by the Mechi river. But Agrawal wanted his rent. “I paid the landlord for two years even though there was no land to work on,” he said, surprised at his own words. “He is dead, and so is his son,” he added.
The “Mahato” caste, he said, traditionally grew and sold vegetables. “But I never had enough land to do that”. He found work in different places: paddy fields, rice mills, and sometimes tea gardens. He rattled off names of the different landlords he had worked for or knew – the Shresthas, the Agrawals, the Giris, the Rajbanshis. They are all dead, he said. And so are their sons.
Meanwhile, Bhadrapur high school was looking empty by Monday afternoon, August 14, except for the cattle in the field. Most families had moved back to their homes. Mahato’s family was one of the three remaining at the school, since the ground at their homes was still soggy. Over the last two days, food — puffed rice and cooked khichadi — had come from a temple committee and vendors from the nearby market. Health officers from the municipality brought medicines, something Mahato badly needed since he’d been weakened by diarrhea even before the flood. He planned to stay on for two more nights, after which classes would resume at the school. His son, who went to Kolkata at the age of 12 and is now a driver for a certain Koirala there, can return only during the chhath festival. The main income earner in the family, he will be sending money soon.
Back home, the fences need to be mended, the rooms cleared, the walls reshaped, and the water pumps unearthed. The two cows and goats his family owns, now carefree and grazing lazily in the open field of the school, would need to be taken back too. Then Mahato plans to fetch the fan and his television, now safely stored at a friend’s place few minutes away. And what if he needed a few more days? Or if the river returned to his home? “I will ask the school guard to let me stay,” he said. “I can always return to the school.”