“Babu, ooh tyaha hera ta! Testo hunu parchha manchhe bhaneko.”
(My boy, look at that man. One should aspire to be like him.)
I can never forget the moment my mother said these words to my seven year old self, pointing outside our window to a man with a vermillion-clad, Van Dyke bearded, short but radiant face.
That day, Padma Ratna Tuladhar was being rallied in a jeep after his iconic victory in the 1986 elections. This was totally different from anything my locale of Naxal had ever seen before. The fact that a commoner who dwelt among us had found his way to the Panchayat’s political structure, that too as an independent leftist, was no small feat. People were elated, rejoicing in Tuladhar’s win. In him, they had found a piece of themselves.
In due time, I forgot what my mother had said to me about Tuladhar. He did not come to rallies on our streets, and I did not follow national politics closely enough to know what he was up to. Twenty-four years later, he stood in front me again, this time on the streets of London.
It was 25 September, 2010, and as the newly appointed secretary of Pasa Puchah Guthi, UK, I was supposed to conduct an online interaction programme between Tuladhar and his international audience. Before we started responding to people’s queries regarding the first world Newah convention scheduled weeks later in London, he gave me an instruction –
‘Newari bolna audaina teso bhaye timlai?
Jwajalapaa ta bhanna auchha hola ni? Ho … tehi bhaye pani bhana.’
(So, you don’t know how to speak Newari?
You may be knowing how to say ‘Hello’, right? Yes, at least say that.)
That was very easy. His next instruction was–
‘NhuDaYaa Bhintuna bhanya sunya hola ni? Tyo bhaneko chai happy new year.’
(You must have heard ‘NhuDanYaa Bhintuna’. It’s like saying happy new year.)
I found him to be a little demanding, and that first visit was colored by a distinct feeling of discomfort. It wasn’t until 11th of November that I got his real introduction.
On that day, Prof David N. Gellner had invited him to the department of Social Anthropology at Oxford University to deliver a talk about his life. I wouldn’t have gone if I wasn’t the designated videographer. The talk ended up being a crash course on the cultural and political history of Nepal. Tuladhar spoke of human rights violations and the state of marginalized communities in the country with deep insight.
His talk started with a discussion of how the issue of language first sparked resistance from the Newar community in Kathmandu. Despite being indigenous inhabitants of the city, Newars were prohibited from using their own language in public. This is the context in which Tuladhar teamed up with like-minded friends like Durgalal Shrestha and kicked off the first Bhintuna rally in 1979.
A subject on which Tuladhar was keen to issue a clarification was his statement in favour of cow slaughter.
He firmly believed it wasn’t just the one-language policy that was a problem–nowhere in the world should a democracy nurture one-culture, one-ethnicity and one-religion. For a Nepali population that had been institutionally trained to take pride in “the only Hindu country in the world,” this was a viewpoint that was difficult to digest.
For Tuladhar, Muslims were as Nepali as other Nepali citizens. Since the culture of the Muslims traditionally includes having beef, he found the ban on beef to be against human rights.
Among many other life incidents that added to his firm commitment to the cause was when his mother came to see him in prison. He was jailed for asking for his basic rights to speak in his mother tongue, and all his mother wanted was to find out about his well-being. His mother was not allowed to use Nepal bhasha with his son who was behind the bars. That being the only language she knew, she was left with no other option than to leave without uttering a single word after an exchange of a few drops of tears.
Be it me or the British audience, everyone’s eyes were wet that day. For around two and half hours he expressed his ideas uninterrupted and we all listened. I have seen people clap during or after a talk but what I experienced then was a silence more deafening than applause.
That night I read everything that I could find about him on the internet. A long 1996 interview by Gellner, again, would tell me why he was rallying in my streets back in 1986. I also learnt that Tuladhar was one of those who actually coined the phrase ‘NhuDanYaa Bhintuna’ – the only Newah expression that even a non Newah knows!
Needless to say, this year’s NhuDan is not the same without him. To shout it out loud, where will the thousands of his followers find their energy from? Yes, many of us can say it now but the man who taught us how to say it, has himself decided not to be there with us.
On 4 November, 2018, we lost our beloved ‘Padma Dai’, ‘Padma Baa’ or simply ‘Padma Ratna’ following a brain haemorrhage. That weekend, I kept reading condolence messages from individuals, organisation leaders and politicians who never had a voice for the marginalised communities, people who were allergic to the word ‘janajati,’ and people who never understood that one’s cultural identity can never be preserved without political reform. On Padma Baa’s leaving, prayers alone do not make sense to me. We need to personify what he dedicated his entire life for.
NhuDanYaa Bhintuna, Padma Baa!
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