In his 1983 novel Aviral Bagdacha Indravati, Ramesh Vikal focuses, as he often did, on the poor and powerless, with what Manjushree Thapa terms “a revealing confluence of Marxist aesthetics and Hindu ethics.” Between 1949 and 1952, Vikal was jailed several times for expressing socialist beliefs in his writing, as were many writers of his era, but that did not stop him from writing on the themes of injustice and class inequality. Born in 1932, Vikal worked in education much of his life and became one of the leading authors of Nepal. He published eight volumes of short stories, three novels, and was the first to receive the prestigious Madan Puraskar award, to be followed by many other accolades. He was appointed Academician at the then Royal Nepal Academy, and passed away in 2009.

Required reading for college students in Nepal, On Flows the Indravati describes the essentially feudal situation that reigned in rural areas in the 1970s. The story features an unrequited romance between two young Majhis, the machinations of corrupt elections, much-abused tenants who are forced off their farms by the Kajis (who have controlled the Majhi village for generations), a group of younger men who try to get the older generation of Majhis to rebel against the Kajis, a schoolteacher who tries to educate these youth but is silenced by the rulers, and, central to all this, the much-abused Indravati River. The ending is grim: the Kaji’s murder of a Brahmin who sympathized with the Majhis goes unpunished; instead it is the young Majhi men who end up in police custody, the Majhi girl is sold into prostitution, a drought strikes the village, and the remaining Majhis starve and die while the Kaji feasts. The chapter offered here outlines the scene wherein the two Kajis inform the Majhi tenants that the farmland they have been living off will be taken away to build a mansion.

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“The mansion will be built!”

The Old Kaji’s servant Juthey Gharti came to wake Bhuma early in the morning, while he was still in bed. Bhuma’s mind was disoriented by this early morning summons from the Kaji. What emergency had arisen that made the Kaji think of him so early? Bhuma got up hurriedly, quickly rolled up his straw sleeping mat and stood it in the corner. He pulled the tattered shirt hanging on a nail over the hearth onto his body, put his ragged topi on his head, and went outside, rubbing his eyes.

“Why, Juthey? This early?”

“I’ve no idea!” Juthey revealed nothing – “The Master suddenly ordered me to summon you, and I came running.”

Bhuma went back inside with all kinds of possibilities playing in his mind’s eye.  Lalgedi was sleeping the deep sleep of youth on the other side of the hearth. It was the hot season, so her blouse was untied, and her well-developed breasts were nearly emerging. But Lalgedi, fully sunken in sleep, was unconscious of her state; there could be no room for doubt about this particular situation. It was natural. There was only her old father in the house, well past the turn to old age; her brothers hardly ever stayed at home, so who would she feel ashamed with?

“Not up yet, daughter?” Old Bhuma looked at the soundly sleeping form of his daughter. “It’s already broad daylight.” (A typical expression) “Daughters shouldn’t sleep so late.”

But Lalgedi merely said, “Mm-hm,” turned over and went back to sleep. For some reason, this time when old Bhuma’s failing eyes fell on Lalgedi’s sleeping, carefree, half-uncovered youthful body in the dim morning twilight, he felt taken aback. Was Lalgedi already so grown up? It seemed only yesterday that she would come to him with a snot-encrusted nose and snuggle in his lap. Was this his Lalgedi – his orphaned daughter? He hadn’t even noticed her blossoming into womanhood. When had there been a chance or a situation to bring it to his notice? Lalgedi had always been awake by the time he got up, already off to the spring for water. When did she ever lie around totally dead to the world like this?

‘Lalgedi is no longer a child.’ The old man felt something new after unexpectedly glimpsing his daughter’s uncovered, unfettered young body. He turned his eyes away. Plucking his homespun shawl off a nail, he threw it around his shoulders and shouted, “Child! O, daughter! Isn’t it time for you to get up? Up! Up! It’s already light! Let the pigs out. It seems the Old Kaji’s sent for me, who knows why; I’ll be back.”

“Um hmm,” Lalgedi stirred again. This time her movement was more alert than before. Next she stretched a few times and got up. Though the light in the room was very feeble and dim, the shadow of her father’s form standing near when her skirt was hiked up over her knees made her squirm. In the dark, her cheeks seemed to be on fire at her inadvertently awkward state. She quickly pulled her skirt down and began to tie her blouse; she brushed back the locks of hair that had fallen across her face, rubbed her eyes with the backs of her hands and asked, “Is it already light, Dad?”

“You think Khinauri’s rooster just started crowing?” her father said, pleasantly irritable, “When you’re asleep I can’t tell if you’re alive or dead. It seems the Old Kaji’s sent for me. I’m going to the big house, then I’ll be back.”

“Why’s the Old Kaji sent for you so early?”

“I don’t know why… Juthey Gharti came.” The old man wrapped a scarf around his head as a turban and prepared to go, “Your brothers haven’t come home?”

“I don’t know; they haven’t been back since yesterday.”

“Well, well, turn the pigs out. Bring a jug of water, then you’ll have to go to the landing,” instructed the old man, “I’ll cook the rice myself when I get back.”

Old Bhuma left the house and started up the red mud trail, heading for the big house. A steep slope had to be climbed to get to the big house; it was an ancient rule. The low-caste Majhi houses were not far from the river. The higher ranks build their houses on the heights.

            When Old Bhuma reached the big house, the sun was just beginning to peek over the top of Timal Ridge. Its soft rays lay spread out on the Indravati’s banks; it was a bright tika on the forehead of the high peaks to the north, which were visible between two hills. A cool morning breeze created a delightful atmosphere. Following Juthey, Bhuma entered the room in the big house and saluted the Old Kaji. The Old Kaji Chaturbhuj Singh was sitting in his grand room, cross-legged on a straw mat by his bed, burbling tobacco in the giant Palpa hookah in front of him. He took the silver tip of the long silver Khaptadi pipe in his mouth, then let out the acrid smoke.

The Old Kaji – fair skin, huge eyes, high-bridged nose and severe chin, strong bones in his hands, arms and neck – looked like an old soldier. His hair was already more than three-quarters white. He had thick whiskers, and a thick moustache covering thin lips pressed so firmly together that his face looked terribly serious and inscrutable.

Some distance from the Old Kaji, the Young Kaji sat leaning against the bed. His personality was the complete opposite of his father’s – he was clean-shaven, and the lines of arrogance and cruelty in his dark, hard face were deepened by the morning sun. His huge eyes were lit with clear flames of disgust and dissatisfaction, giving him the air of a volcano about to explode.

A few other old and middle-aged men from the village sat on a mat near the door; veiled fear and timidity could be seen on their faces. This kind of atmosphere felt quite serious, and old Bhuma’s heart surged with an unknown fear. He looked back and forth from the Old Kaji to the Young Kaji. He didn’t dare sit down, but remained standing.

“Sit down, Bhuma,” said the Old Kaji, trying to make his voice as gentle as possible. But everyone including Bhuma felt that there was an unusual quality in his voice. “The reason I’ve called you all together so early in the morning is for no other reason than…”

Having said that much, he stared into everyone’s face to see the effects of his words. Timid curiosity was on everyone’s face. What was the Kaji going to say? He wasn’t in the habit of prefacing his talk with such preambles. Did he have something unexpected in mind today? What was it? They looked at the Kaji’s face, mystified.

“I was born in this village; I was raised and grew up here,” the Kaji’s subject was now wrapped in an even more mysterious cloth, “All of you were born here too, raised here, grew up here. That means I have just as much love in my heart for this land, this earth, as you have in your hearts, yes or no? Tell me…”

Old Bhuma and all the Majhis became even more bewildered and stared at Kaji’s face like idiots. Yes or no, they couldn’t come to any conclusion. What would be the right thing to say? They looked at each other. Then they looked again at the Kaji with a feeling that they were completely at his mercy.

“This village has prospered; there’s been development here, and if the name of our village reached the city and its markets, and the royal family, you’d all be as thrilled as I would, wouldn’t you?” An aloof smile flashed on his lips.

“Why wouldn’t we, Master!” they all said, practically in chorus – “Who wouldn’t be pleased if the name of his village became famous, if his village opened to development! … Right? … Who’ll argue with the truth?”

“So who would feel it was a bad thing for his own village to flourish, for his own home to improve?” the Old Kaji asked, further obscuring what he had to say, “Even birds and animals try to beautify their own nests and cages, and you and I are human beings… And all of you are like my own family! Have I ever done anything that wasn’t good for you?”

“No, Lord, no!” said Naraney Majhi, shaking his head, “To hell if I lie!… Right?… If not, say so!”

Naraney looked at all the Majhis present for confirmation of what he was saying. They nodded their heads up and down at his heartfelt approval. But in their eyes flickered the foolish feeling that they couldn’t make head or tail out of the subject at hand. What was at the core of the Kaji’s long preamble? But if they didn’t understand, it wasn’t their business to betray suspicion about his motives. Their relationship to the Kaji was like a father-son relationship – the Kaji had slipped that into their minds repeatedly, and it had congealed there like a clod of earth. Still, interest and curiosity about the Kaji’s intentions peered from their eyes.

“The Young Kaji wants to do something good for your village.” Seeing the favorable effect of his words, the Kaji edged toward illumination, “You all know that the Young Kaji is now finished with his studies. From now on he’ll live in the village most of the time. So that will be good for all of you, won’t it?… You’ll have support and protection. If anything happens you’ll have help and advice, tell me if I’m wrong!”

“How could we say no, Master; it wouldn’t do to say no to the truth! The Young Kaji must reside in the village now. If he always stayed in the city, nothing would get taken care of,” said an old Majhi man. But they knew in their hearts just how good it would be for the people if the Young Kaji lived in the village. It would be the kind of good that when you thought of it your heart emptied, your blood ran cold, and every hair stood up on end. But how could they function if they didn’t chime in with the chorus of their superiors? So.

“Yes, once the Young Kaji moves here permanently, the face of your village will be totally different – important people – his friends – people from the city will visit here. You’ll be able to lay your troubles before them.” The Old Kaji continued, steering the matter toward his goal. “But when that level of people start to come here, we have to welcome them on that level – there has to be a place for them to stay that suits their status. We can’t put them up in any old sort of place like you or me, can we?”

The Kaji looked at each of their faces in turn. There was nothing in the faces but the blankness of a river rock – a void with no sign of intelligence or good judgment. Whatever their Master said, how could they contradict him? All of them, including Bhuma, sat with vacant faces.

“So the main thing is…” the Kaji’s voice was now completely serious, “Young Kaji wants to build an urban-style residence, a mansion fit to welcome his city people when they come… So…”

“That’s a wonderful thing, Master!” said Naraney Majhi, bright with happiness, “Who could oppose that?… It’ll boost the reputation of the village. We can always be in the Young Master’s company. That sort of thing is thanks only to our good luck.”

Naraney looked at the others’ faces to see the effect of his words. Everyone’s head was moving up and down, up and down, like a sheep’s head on a child’s toy, “That’s right; the reputation of the village master, the reputation of the village, the reputation of the villagers! If a mansion is built here, then even the uncivilized, dull Majhis will get to see some things. They’ll be able to turn up their noses at other villages.” Now a glimmer of curiosity could be seen in their eyes alongside feelings of restrained pride. The line of a sly, devious smile appeared at the corners of the Young Kaji’s hard eyes.

The fire had burned low in the tobacco in the Kaji’s chillum. Bhuma Majhi removed the chillum from the hookah and took it out of the room. He blew on the embers to get it cleanly burning again and brought it back to its place in the hookah. Then he kneeled and sat on a corner of the mat.

The Old Kaji blew out some tobacco smoke and opened his mouth to say something. But this time for some reason there was a momentary flash of some uncertainty, a bit of regret in his eyes. Perhaps he felt the unseemliness of the way he was trying to entrap these powerless people, who were out day and night catching fish in their nets, in a grand net of his own sugary, slick words to satisfy a selfish desire; perhaps that gave rise to a feeling of wrongdoing. However, it was an extremely fleeting feeling. He was not very sentimental; he was practical. In practice everyone more or less plays the game. And it wasn’t true that there would be no benefit at all for the villagers in what he was trying to do. It wasn’t an out-and-out lie that the reputation of the village was in a way the reputation of the villagers.

The Kaji had made it vividly clear that if a mansion were built in the village, the villagers would benefit. The King’s people would come and stay in such a mansion – subbas, sardars, khardars and other chief officials would come to stay. (At the moment one had to go as far as Chautara or Dhulikhel to find a government official.) Once they had come it would be easy to send their complaints to the King.

            For a moment a strange emptiness and silence pervaded the room. Only the gur-gur burbling sound of the Kaji’s hookah and the hack-hack of someone coughing brought awareness to that static moment. The acrid scent of tobacco smoke mingled with the smell of filth, sweat and pigs that clung to the Majhi’s clothing, creating a strange third smell. But though that smell had drawn strange wrinkles of distaste and aloofness across the Young Kaji’s face, the Old Kaji seemed to take in the atmosphere favorably.

After enjoying the acrid tobacco taste for a moment, which Bhuma had freshened by blowing on the embers, the Kaji shifted his seat. A wave of alertness seemed to bring those gathered there, as well as the Kaji, back to life and consciousness.

“So, I’ve always consulted with all of you when I have to do something in the village, have I not? Tell me!” the Kaji broke the silence – “All of you are agreed on the issue of building a mansion. But the thing is, where to build it? … …It will need a large compound…and also a substantial garden.”

“Of course it’ll need that,” agreed Mijar Majhi, “The hat has to fit the head; the pocket has to fit the trousers. If there’s going to be a mansion, it has to have everything a mansion needs! Once you prepare the ceremonial ground, you need all the essentials to complete it, don’t you?”

“Yes, you do,” Naraney agreed.

“So the mansion can’t just be built anywhere, then. A separate place has to be found and arranged.” The Kaji made his voice very soft and sweet – “That’s why I’ve summoned all of you. We’ve got to consult, haven’t we? …What do you say, Bhuma?”

“We must!” Mijarey agreed loudly.

Bhuma opened his mouth – “Where has the Master decided to build the mansion? Just give us our orders, and we’ll help in whatever way we can.”

“How could I decide that,” said the Kaji, letting out a joyful laugh, “Who would give me that task? It’s for the Young Kaji to decide the style of mansion, what type and how much land is needed. He’s already projected everything. He says there’s only one place in the village that’s wide enough and fitting from every angle to build the mansion – Kabhrey Field! (The field with the kabhrey, or elephant fig tree, in it). There’ll be plenty of room for a compound and garden there. That’s why…”

It was as if a silent thunderbolt had fallen in the room. One after another, the hues of shock, sorrow, and silent rebellion came and went across the face of every Majhi there. Also a bit of disbelief. Kabhrey Field was the one and only piece of land where they could raise enough grain to tide them over through the year; if they didn’t have even that, how could they survive? However dumb and simple their sort might be, anyone will turn wary and suspicious when it comes to being kicked in the stomach. Until now his wretched subjects had gone along with the conversation, treating the Kaji’s every word with blind devotion and faith, as if they were the words of a god, but the Kaji’s final statement had created a terrible earthquake! Was he trying to evict their entire community by taking away their one mouthful of food, their one scrap of land? They watched as the masks of disguise fell to the floor in front of them one by one: the Old Kaji who thought of his subjects as his own children, the face of the statue of a god.

“But Master… Master!” Bhuma tried to gather the courage to object. But his ignorant mind, its power to dispute blunted by yes-yessing since birth, couldn’t find the conviction of command or wisdom. He looked at his companions’ faces with a profound question in his eyes – ‘Well, what do you all say? Where are we going to go rinse our mouths after a meal once we’ve forsaken the only place where we can stand?’

But the Kaji instantly guessed the question in his heart. Endeavoring to make his voice even more compassionate, he said, “How many households are you in the village? About forty roofs right? And under cultivation, the produce from that twenty-muri land won’t even feed you for three months, right? But for the Young Kaji, it’s perfect for the mansion from every angle. So.”

“But Master!” this time Bhuma dared to open his mouth – “That twenty-muri land is all there is for forty roofs! When casting our nets for Mother Indravati, serving the Master, and earning wages from wealthy villagers isn’t enough – by the Master’s goodwill, we labor on that land by hook or by crook to fill our wives’ and childrens’ bellies. But if you take away Kabhrey Field too, then our Majhi babies…”

“Listen, Bhuma!” This time there was cruelty mixed in the Kaji’s voice, “You’re my subjects; I don’t have to keep asking you what to do with my own land when I want to. But I’m not a man like that Dharmadattey Bahun across the river, murdering his own tenants. So…”

“If the Master kicked us out, we’d die just like that.” Setey Majhi, who until now had sat silently, spoke in fear.

“That’s why I’m saying you shouldn’t lose faith in me,” said the Kaji, lowering his voice somewhat. “But what to do, the mansion has to be built. The Young Kaji has consulted with an engineer and gotten the plans approved already. If the mansion doesn’t get built, it’ll be your nose and mine! So, you advise me; is there another place besides Kabhrey Field that’s suitable for a mansion in every way?”

“There’s no other place!” Mijarey Majhi answered.

“Well then, you tell me,” said the Kaji, as if he were helpless, “But listen, I’m not going to take that field away and just let your wives and children die. You’ve served my lineage for generations and generations, you’re like my own sons; who would you depend on if you were evicted? In exchange for that field, I’m going to give you riverside land that’ll be more than enough to feed forty roofs. You spend your efforts on that, and eat. I won’t even take a share of the crops for three years.”

Again the Majhis’ eyes widened. The Kaji had brought some land by the river under cultivation which yielded eighty or ninety muris. Every year the rice had been abundant there. But ten years ago the Indravati to the south had turned into Mahakali and done a crazy dance toward the north; that whole farm ended up in its belly. Two years later it heaved the land up out of its belly again, and trying to restore it to fertility turned into a catastrophe for the Kaji. When pouring money and labor into it didn’t work, the Kaji gave up. So for eight years, that rough, rocky, river land had been sitting there like a challenge to human arms, like a cruel joke. But the quick-witted Old Kaji suddenly deemed it far-sighted and shrewd to use that very useless land to cast a net seemingly made of justice and benevolence over the simple Majhis.

How could the Majhis succeed in wrestling with that famine-ridden river land when even the Kaji’s wealth and power had not achieved the purpose? Even if they did succeed and made it somewhat fertile, how could they count on the violent, wild nature of the Indravati? If it got a little intoxicated, how long would it take to rage fiercely and swallow all their efforts into its belly the next day? That was why all the older Majhis, including Bhuma, were reduced to staring, unable to reply. They had neither the strength nor the wisdom to outright deny the Kaji’s compassion and benevolence in giving them eighty or ninety-muri land in exchange for twenty-muri land, and that too without taking a share for three years. But they also didn’t dare to agree to that riverside cremation ground in exchange for their rough chunk of gold, the moist, watered, fertile earth on the hillside.

“Well? What do you say?” With his sharp eyes, the Old Kaji watched various kinds of lines appear and disappear on the faces of the Majhis – especially Bhuma Majhi. But how could Bhuma and the handful of elder Majhis there make a decision? True, if it had been some years earlier, their decision would have been unquestionable; they would have been able to decide for the whole Majhi community. Bhuma especially had been able to do this in the capacity of Majhi Headman. But the village was not the same as it had been. People’s opinions weren’t the same. The older men of the village were in the position of having to fear the fierce tempers of the young men.

“Master! Shall we consult and call a meeting in the village?”

“Fool! You’re the village headman; what kind of headman are you if you can’t even convince your own people of that much?” There was hidden contempt in the Kaji’s voice. “Enough, go and call a meeting in the village. But listen – you’re the village headman; all of you are the elders of the village – you should be able to work out this sort of thing. I don’t know about anything else, but once the mansion is built you’ll be the ones with your noses in the air boasting about it.”

“Father!” the Young Kaji, who had been silently cleaning the barrel of his gun since the beginning, spoke in a harsh voice that made the Majhis’ hair stand on end. “What are you saying – if these vile villagers don’t agree, the building of our mansion will be stopped? … You’re giving them a real pat on the back. They’ll get out of control that way.”

“The mansion will be built!” Kaji said reassuringly, “Don’t get excited. These are your subjects, your people. There’s no chance of them throwing an obstacle in front of your desires. They won’t do it. The mansion will be built, it’ll be built. No matter what, it will be built!”

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Copyright: Ann Hunkins, 2010.

Cover photo: The Sunkoshi River. Jwalanta Shrestha/Flickr. Republished under CC license BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Hunkins is a poet and translator living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She contributed to W.W.Norton’s Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond, 2008, and translated Dhoopi (The Juniper, 2006), a long poem by Toya Gurung, and Karagar (The Prison, 2005), a novel by Banira Giri. She also has a collection forthcoming of nineteen short stories about Nepali women.