An airplane sits atop the roof of a building in the Nepalgunj bazaar. It is silver and blue, perhaps five meters long, and has two propellers. Though it is made from cement, it is close enough to life-size to make one do a double take. Most people in the city have no idea why it is there.
Downstairs from the airplane is a jewelry shop. One day I wandered in and asked a pyun guarding the doorway about the aircraft. I half-expected a dismissive response, but his face took on a solemn expression. “Please sit,” he told me, and went to call the sahuji from upstairs.
The shop’s chairs were plush, its interior surfaces all marble and glass, with lit cases dripping gold and silver necklaces, rings, and other jewels.
The sahuji appeared after a few minutes. He was a small man in his 70s, with a pencil mustache and a loud voice. He wore a furry Jinnah cap, a gray tracksuit, and aviator sunglasses. He barked across the street to a chai wallah to bring us tea.
The sahuji introduced himself. He was a Hindu from the hills and a devout vegetarian. Before he became a businessman, he had traveled in the 1960s through Europe and the Middle East—Germany, Iraq, Syria. He built the airplane decades ago. I asked him why.
“Because this had never been done before in Nepal,” he said. My expression must have betrayed my confusion. “This is our logo,” he explained, using the English word. Many people come asking about the airplane each day, and this helps business. “Everybody is wondering about it. People are even having motorcycle accidents because they are watching it!”
He said that his youngest son, who had recently retired from being a pilot, was opening a second jewelry shop in Nepalgunj. The sahuji had plans to build an artillery tank on top of that. This, too, would be a first for Nepal, he explained.
Nepalgunj is in Banke District, approximately 3 kilometers from the Indian border and 15 kilometers south of the East-West highway. It is the regional hub of the western Terai and an important trading town between India and the Karnali watershed to the north.
The beating heart of the old bazaar is Tribhuvan Chowk, which pulses during the day with a crush of shoppers, bicyclists, electric rickshaws, horse-carts ferrying goods and people to the border, fruit-sellers pushing pyramids of pomegranates balanced on carts. Children travel to and from school in cages attached to the back of rickshaws, which weave among porters carrying sacks of grain and cement. Retail shops offer electronics, clothes, cosmetics, hardware, toys. The air is saturated, depending on the season, with humidity or the music of wedding bands and car horns, the smells of incense, spices, and raw sewage. Gramophone-shaped speakers attached to telephone poles broadcast Swasthani sermons, or the Muslim call to prayer. A statue of King Tribhuvan once stood in the center of the intersection until it was removed, about a decade ago, by Young Communist League cadres. Today, a dusty Nepali flag occupies the pedestal in its place.
The old bazaar is roughly a square kilometer, divided into four quadrants by the north-south and east-west roads that intersect at Trihbuvan Chowk. In the bazaar’s northwest quadrant is Bagheshwori, the city’s oldest Hindu temple, and the Junge Mahadev, said to be the world’s only mustachioed Shiva. In the northeast quadrant lies the Jummah Masjid, and the cramped Muslim quarter known as Eklaini, where gullies wind around saints’ tombs and betel wholesalers cut the nut in front of their homes. To the east, the bazaar abuts a stagnant pond called Rani Talau, built by one of the city’s early tax collectors as a monument to his beloved wife. To the south of the bazaar lies Hospital Road, which is lined with government offices and the zonal hospital, and eventually leads to the Indian border and the town of Rupaidiha in Uttar Pradesh.
Nepaglunj’s newer neighborhoods are located north and west of the old bazaar. To the north is New Road, a thoroughfare flanked by fancier shops, with a center divider lined with palm trees. Nepalgunj soils are notorious for poor drainage, and New Road turns into a canal during monsoon. To the west of the old bazaar is Surkhet Road, a four-lane highway that runs from the Indian border north to the East-West Highway (and, if one keeps going, eventually to Surkhet). It is home to many wholesalers and hotels. Much of the real estate on New Road and Surkhet Road is owned by people from the hills, or Pahadis, whereas the old bazaar is predominantly occupied by people from the plains, including Muslims and Hindu Madhesis.
When I began visiting Nepalgunj several years ago, I became enthralled with its grimy charm. I met characters—businessmen, babas, academics, and artists—who, like the jeweler with the penchant for bold architectural statements, had interesting perspectives and stories. The city’s large Madhesi and Muslim population make the town unusual in a country where both these groups are minorities (according to the government census, Muslims and native speakers of Madhesi languages make up one-quarter and one-half of the city’s population, respectively, compared to one-twentieth and one-fifth nationally). I found the city’s well-known filth to be beautiful, in a way, and I took photos (I considered them artsy) of trash and open sewers. And the city became all the more appealing to me because of the general disdain with which it is regarded by many Nepalis and ex-pats in Kathmandu—as dirty, a backwater, boring. Like One Direction singing “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful,” I considered myself a connoisseur of the under appreciated.
However, time gave me perspective. Perhaps the shit in the city’s open sewer system grew more pungent; perhaps the reality of people’s lives gradually sank in. I made local friends, and learned more about the place from their perspective. I became aware of exploitation, addiction and worry. I got a first-hand look at ethnic and religious tension when an acquaintance was murdered. Nepalgunj didn’t cease to become interesting—far from it—but it became more real to me.
Nepalgunj is part of what is known as the Naya Muluk, or “new country,” which includes the Western Terai districts of Banke, Bardiya, Kanchanpur, and Kailali. The area had been conquered and incorporated into Nepal in the late eighteenth century under Bahadur Shah (the younger son of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the king who unified Nepal), as part of westward campaigns that saw Gorkhali control expand all the way to the Sutlej River in what is today Punjab in India. In 1816, after a two-season war with the British East India Company, the Gorkhalis ceded much of their gains, including the Naya Muluk, to the Company in the Treaty of Sugauli. The British then gave the territory to the kingdom of Awadh, whose Muslim nawab and court were famous for their profligate lifestyle in Lucknow. The nawab had lent the Company funds to finance their campaign against the Gorkhalis, and the British saw him as a useful ally to buffer the hostile Sikh and Maratha states nearby. The territory was ruled by the king of Tulsipur, a tributary state of Awadh, for the next four decades.
In 1856, the British annexed Awadh. After a series managerial mistakes that angered soldiers (sipahi, or “sepoys” to the British), tensions came to a head in 1857. Rumors spread that the cartridges used for the soldiers’ Enfield rifles, which they had to rip open with their teeth, were greased with beef and pork tallow (taboo foods for Hindus and Muslims respectively). Troops belonging to the Company and their allies went into revolt. In what became known as the Sepoy Rebellion to the British, or the First War for Independence to Indian nationalists, violence erupted across northern India.
According to Leo Rose’s history of Nepal’s foreign relations, Nepal: Strategy for Survival, Jung Bahadur Rana, Nepal’s ruler at the time, saw the 1857 revolt as an opportunity to strengthen ties with the British, whom he recognized as the rising power in South Asia. When he proposed sending troops to help the British suppress the revolt in Awadh, the other Ranas were skeptical at first. But Jung Bahadur reminded them that they would be fighting a Muslim-led army, not a Hindu one, and it would be an opportunity to take revenge on the nawab, whose financial support of the British had cost Nepal dearly during the earlier war (never mind the fact that it was actually the British they had been fighting).
With support from Jung Bahadur and his troops, the British retook Lucknow and as reward allowed the Gorkhalis to spend days looting the place afterwards, returning to Nepal with cartloads of jewels (it is said that much of the gold and silver in Kathmandu today originated with the looting of Lucknow). Following the revolt, ties between the Ranas and the British strengthened. The Ranas agreed to provide troops to serve the British on an ongoing basis, a legacy that continues to this day in both the Indian and British armies. And, importantly for the history of Nepalgunj, the British returned the Naya Muluk to Nepal.
In Nepalgunj, I was told that if I wanted to learn about the history of Naya Muluk, I should visit the librarian at the Mahendra Library. I had never heard of the library. I found it in the old bazaar, across the street from a row of shops where wedding musicians rent out great silver chariots and sound equipment for janti processions, which they demonstrate by blasting music throughout the day. The library was in a humble two-story building, with a small yard in front and a lonely old tree.
I found the librarian in his office. Several middle-aged men sat on chairs against fading yellow walls, their faces buried behind newspapers. The librarian sat at a desk below a fluorescent tube light and a portrait of the goddess Saraswoti. The bass line from a Bollywood remix tune thumped from across the street, causing the windows to rattle.
I introduced myself, half shouting to be heard over the din. He was a big, handsome man in his seventies with longish silver hair, and a calm smile. He seemed amused to have a foreign visitor interested in books and history, and offered me a tour of the library.
The tour began in a dark, cavernous space that he called the “reading room,” and then he showed me the stacks upstairs. There was an impressive English and Nepali collection of books, which he explained are largely unread—most visitors come just for the newspapers and other periodicals. He himself was a voracious reader: he estimated he had read between two and three thousand books.
The librarian had a passion for history, and he told history as stories. He re-told me the story of how the Naya Muluk had been taken away and then re-gifted to Nepal, but he added a twist that I had not known. The 1857 revolt in Awadh was led by Begum Hazrat Mahal, the wife of the nawab, who had been exiled. She led Hindu and Muslim troops against their foreign overlords, only to be driven into exile herself by the British and their Nepali allies. With a retinue of her guards, she escaped across the border into Nepal, and spent some time hiding out in the jungles of the western Terai.
Meanwhile, in Kathmandu, Jung Bahadur became incensed upon hearing the British offer to return only the area now known as Naya Muluk as compensation for his military support—apparently, he had expected much more territory. In a gesture calculated to irk the British, he sent word to the Begum and her retinue in the jungle that they would be welcome to take up residence in Kathmandu. She accepted. When she arrived, the Rana promptly confiscated her remaining treasure, and she lived out the rest of her days in the Nepali capital. When she died in 1879, her body was interred in a tomb, which today can be found in a dusty, forgotten corner of the Nepali Jamaa Masjid compound on Durbar Marg, by the stairs to the sky bridge to Ratna Park. (In a parallel story, the Maratha commander of the 1857 revolt, Nana Sahib, also settled in western Nepal, though details of his life are murkier than the Begum’s.)
The librarian said that his own Brahmin family had come from the Lucknow area seven generations ago, fleeing the 1857 violence. They settled near what is today Nepalgunj, in an Awadhi-speaking farming village. Although there were a number of villages in the immediate area at the time, much of the rest of the western Terai was still jungle, and remained so until the 1960s (even today, the western Terai is much more forested than the central or eastern Terai).
I asked the librarian if any remnants from the time when his family immigrated still existed. He told me that there was a village named Banke Gaon, from which the district eventually derived its name. It was the earliest settlement in the area, the seed from which Nepalgunj grew, now a neighborhood to the south of the bazaar.
Later, I bicycled there, hoping to find something old. The village has been swallowed by the city, but nonetheless maintains some of its bucolic character. It is a poor area, with old one-story mud homes with sloping tile roofs. Many of the residents work fields on the outskirts of town or as laborers in the city. I hoped to find someone who could tell me about the neighborhood’s history, but it was midday and few people were around. A tethered goat stared at me from atop a pile of logs. I ended up chatting with two young Madhesi men smoking cigarettes who knew little about the place’s history but concurred that it was “very old.”
On my first trips to Nepalgunj I stayed with a gracious American couple in Shantinagar, a sleepy neighborhood not far from Banke Gaon on the south side of town. Most of the houses there are expansive one—and two-story units built on large lots. Some of the more palatial homes have been converted into offices of I/NGOs or government agencies working in health, education, women’s empowerment, agriculture, good governance. There is a large maidan where men practice driving motorcycles, and ladies scooters, and an outdoor stage where plays from the Ramayana are shown each night during Dasain, culminating in Rama shooting a flaming arrow into a giant straw effigy of the demon Ravana. Horses used for pulling carts to the Indian border wander around Shantinagar on their days off, grazing on weeds.
Shantinagar ends rather abruptly, giving way to rice fields on its south and east sides. There are a few roads lined with new houses that protrude into the rice fields, little peninsula communities on the edge of the island-city. I liked to take walks down one of those roads, into the fields, in the early mornings. Coming from the sprawling metropolis of Kathmandu, it always seemed amazingly easy to get out of Nepalgunj.
I would pass caravans of men and boys on bicycles riding in the opposite direction, on their way to the morning labor market at Tribhuvan Chowk, where they huddled in groups until a construction contractor or brick kiln manager picked them up for the day.
The air was clean, and I sometimes saw kingfishers by a pond used for irrigation. On winter mornings in a village just outside of town, Madhesi men sat against an east-facing wall, warming up in the sun, a rusty tractor slouched nearby.
Out among the rice fields was a small Hanuman temple. The compound was planted with leguminous trees and flowers, and there was a separate room occupied by a baba who treated ill villagers. One day I visited the temple and watched the baba as he ministered to a mother who had come with a sick baby. The mother was young, with dark skin and a simple sari wrapped around her sinewy body, a scarf draped over her head. The baby had a swollen foot. They sat on the veranda in front of the baba, who said some mantras and, using a handful of grass, flicked water mixed with cow dung onto the baby’s foot. The baba offered them prasad, and the mother bowed to his feet. I wanted to tell her to go to a hospital, but I hesitated, partly for fear of taking on some sort of responsibility, and then they were gone.
After they left, the baba noticed me and motioned for me to come sit. He offered me laddu and tea, which he heated over a small fire, and asked where I came from. He wore red robes and a head wrap, and had a thick gray beard. He said he had recently moved to the temple from a cave outside of Surkhet, motioning with his hands to show me how big it was. A few men from a village nearby joined us on the veranda, and spoke with the baba in a mixture of Awadhi and Hindi. The baba lit a chillum and passed it around.
I couldn’t understand what the baba and the men were saying, but they began to laugh and the baba turned to me and said that he spoke English. He was the principal of something called the Ullu Uchha-Madhyamik Vidhyala (Foolish Higher-Middle School), he said. “A-to-Z-automatic-duplicate-yes-no-very-good. Do you know what that means?”
I said I wasn’t sure.
“Aha! Then you must come to my tuition classes!” he said, guffawing with the villagers, all thoroughly stoned.
I visited the baba several more times after that. He often said humorous things, but sometimes it was unclear whether it was appropriate to laugh. Once he pulled out an old, dirty book from a trunk containing most of his possessions. He said it contained a mantra that gives one the power to become invisible. When I asked him to demonstrate, he declined, saying it only works when no one is looking. He said he had studied with Babu Ram Bhattarai, the former Maoist leader, in India.
“At JNU?” I asked. No, he said, at an ashram.
He told me stories about robberies he had suffered, including by someone who drugged his tea and made off with his mobile, books, rice, and lentils. Feeling sorry for him, I brought him an LED flashlight. This was the beginning of the end of our short-lived friendship, if you could call it that. The next time I visited, he asked me to come back with a smartphone and a Casio keyboard, for playing bhajans. I stopped visiting.
Some days I wandered in the old neighborhoods around the bazaar.
I was struck by the way many people lived out their religious identities. It was usually easy to tell Hindu from Muslim—if not by one’s words of greeting (namaste versus salaam-alaikum), then by facial hair or dress. Although many Muslim women in Nepalgunj do not cover their heads, many do wear a hijab or the face-covering niqab. Groups of young men, students of the Barelwi organization known as Dawat-e-Islami, meander around in distinctive white robes and green turbans.
Buildings get claimed by one religion or another. Muslim houses fly flags with the Shahada, the declaration of faith, while flags of Hanuman—the monkey god and symbol of strength favored by Hindutva groups in India—flutter above Hindu homes. In the northwestern part of the bazaar, the streets are lined with scores of gold and silversmith workshops, each with four or five men and boys sitting on cushions on the floor, tinkering away with blow torches, hammers, and tweezers. Each shop is nearly identical, save for framed images of the Koran, the Kabaa in Mecca, or posters of Hanuman, Laxmi, Ganesh, or Bishwokarma.
I liked to take walks around the city in the evenings, too. At night, there was a sense of space absent in Kathmandu. On Shantinagar’s quiet streets, bare light bulbs formed islands of light around telephone poles and from a distance, one became aware of the emptiness in between. In the bazaar, I caught stolen glances inside brightly lit homes and shops with colorful interiors—a man in a saloon getting his moustache trimmed, a pretty woman hovering in an upstairs window. Street vendors sold kati rolls and samosas. Marriages paraded through Tribhuvan Chowk, with dancing crowds followed by a silver chariot or a car, then a music system on wheels blasting Bollywood hits loud enough to cover up the sound of the diesel generator trailing in the rear.
One evening, a friend suggested we go see a Bollywood film at the Laxmi Chitra Mandir, near Eklaini. The Laxmi is the city’s oldest theater. (There is also a brand new QFX nearby on New Road, which shows Hollywood blockbusters at three times the price.) We arrived around dusk. It was a hot evening, and groups of rowdy young men were loitering outside, talking on mobile phones and chatting loudly. We bought tickets at the box office, where old film posters were scattered about and overflowed from a disconnected fridge. I did not see any women anywhere, and asked my friend if they ever come to see films. He said that girls come on dates, for the romantic films. But tonight’s film wasn’t a film for ladies, he said with a chuckle.
We found seats in the upper section of the theater, not too far from one of the few working ceiling fans. I had been warned to watch out for bed bugs, which crawl out of the seats during the evening shows. A colony of bats roosted in a corner of the ceiling. The film turned out to be a thriller shot in Rajasthan about star-crossed lovers who get reincarnated, although no one seemed concerned with the plot. The main attraction was the film’s star, a former porn actress who had switched to mainstream movies. Whenever there was a sex scene or the heroine came out wearing some flimsy excuse for clothing, the crowd bellowed and whistled, making it impossible to hear much of the dialogue. The noise aggravated the bats, with their sensitivity to sound, and they started to circle around the theater.
It was also during nights, over too many glasses of Royal Stag, that I got to know a group of local businessmen. At the center of the group was Bijaya, a Madhesi from the eastern Terai married to a Tharu woman from Bardiya, at whose house friends would gather several evenings a week. Bijaya was about 50, stout with curly hair, and although he often wore a lungi and undershirt at home I never saw him leave the house without dressing up. He had a penchant for jokes and socializing and, I would come to learn, he treated everyone, including his employees, with respect. He was a coal merchant, and somewhat incongruously, a fervent communist.
My first evening at his house, Bijaya had just returned from a business trip to Meghalaya, in northeast India, to source coal for Nepali brick kilns. He was holding court with his friends, discussing how thoroughly impressed he was by the Adivasi matriarchal culture in Meghalaya, where women inherit property and men move in with their wives’ families. He went on a long tirade against Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, for his treatment of Adivasis. His friends and I quietly nursed our drinks until it felt comfortable to have side conversations and talk about more mundane matters.
Part of what impressed me about Bijaya was the unusual diversity of his friends. There was Madan, Bijaya’s business partner, a large man with a wide face who was a retired schoolteacher and Tharu activist. He spoke in a deep, loud voice that sped up whenever he became excited or told a joke, though during cocktail hour he often reposed on Bijaya’s furniture quietly, occasionally jiggling his feet, like a bemused cat frisking its tail. There was Chaand dai, a quiet Muslim brick kiln owner, who took soft drinks while the rest of us sipped whisky. He chewed paan incessantly, and had a crimson mouth. There was also Rajeshwor, a Bihari pharmaceutical representative with a boyish face, who spent his days driving his motorcycle from clinic to clinic selling medicines to doctors, whose arrogance he vented about when drunk. He often came with his young daughter, a bold girl who came to visit Bijaya’s wife and play with their rambunctious puppy, which she somehow taught to swipe the screen of Bijaya’s smartphone. Bijaya’s live-in foreman, a young hill-Brahmin named Dilli, drank with us while simultaneously acting as servant, refilling plates with spicy meat and bhujia.
As I got to know Bijaya better, he often lectured me about Marx and Lenin (teaching me Nepali equivalents for capitalism, industrialist, and materialism in the process), but he adamantly opposed membership in any political party himself. He was a romantic. He railed against weapons traders for their lack of principle and talked of a future without borders or nation states. He worried about climate change, which he believed was human driven, and we discussed the danger of rising sea levels. I sometimes found his ideology a bit stiff, but I respected his resolve. He gave money to beggars, bought a friend a new motorcycle, gave an impoverished neighbor a zero-interest loan to buy a rickshaw. We grew to be friends.
On the southeast edge of Nepalgunj’s old bazaar lies an oasis of tranquility called Mahendra Park. It is surrounded by a cement wall; entrance is ten rupees. The park is about a hectare in size, with palm tree-lined promenades, cement benches where clandestine couples meet, and a small field where picnickers sit on Saturdays. There is a derelict rose garden, where Muslim boys in kurtas and skull caps play kabaddi after being released from madrassa. On one side of the park is a small, sad zoo. There are cages with parakeets, peacocks, rabbits, emaciated deer, and monkeys chained by the neck. Grumpy looking emus are allowed out of their pens during midday, when they mingle with and scowl at street dogs that wander into the park.
I visited the park on a chilly, foggy day, the type of day for which Nepalgunj winters are famous, when the sun disappears behind the haze and morning slides imperceptibly into afternoon. In the zoo, a well-dressed young boy was boisterously peeing through the fence into the deer pen. I stared at him incredulously. He stared back at me, equally incredulous. Then he pointed behind me and asked, “What is that?!”
I looked. “That’s a turkey.”
He finished peeing, then ran off to his mother. “Taarkiiii! Taarkii!! Amaaa, look, taarkii!”
I sat down at a pavilion in the garden and was just beginning to take some notes when a man with red hennaed hair, a mustache, and a paunch approached me. He was eager to talk. He looked like a retiree, but said he was just 42. He had been a brown sugar addict for 20 years, he said, but had been clean for the past five. Though there is a foreign-funded methadone program at the regional hospital, he quit cold turkey—with cold showers and prayer (he was a Muslim), and support from his mother and two brothers. Now, he was hoping to find a job and a wife, spending most of his time at home or wandering around the neighborhood, trying to avoid friends from his wilder days.
I said that heroin addiction sounded awful. He said, “I wouldn’t wish it upon the son of my worst enemy.”
I later learned that heroin addiction is common in Nepalgunj, partly because it is cheap—just a couple of hundred rupees for a fix—due to the proximity to the Indian border.
Another day, Dilli, Bijaya’s foreman, offered to show me the border. We rode on his motorcycle to the customs office to meet a truck bringing in a shipment of coal from Varanasi.
The customs office is about a hundred meters north of the pagoda-roofed gate that marks the border, in a large dusty compound guarded by the Armed Police Force and Nepal Police. I noticed a machine gun sticking out from a guard tower as we entered. Scores of Indian-plate trucks were parked in a large parking lot, waiting to shift their goods to Nepali trucks. Groups of men huddled in small groups, some chatting with customs officers.
Dilli introduced me to his “agent,” a man not employed by the customs office but who makes his living by shepherding shipments through it, filling out the necessary forms and greasing the necessary palms on the inside. He had an ad-hoc office in a tin shack under a tree within the customs compound, as did several other agents nearby. Inside, a group of men sat on a bench waiting to speak with the agent, who sat behind a desk covered with documents, quizzing me about how I came to speak Nepali. He served us tea, and we talked about his daughter’s education. Dilli later explained to me that for each truckload of coal, in addition to the official levy of around 90,000 rupees, the agent took a fee of several thousand rupees to prepare the necessary paperwork and give “gifts” to officials. Without the agent, getting goods across the border would be nearly impossible.
Before we left, we met with the head of customs, a man from Kathmandu, in his second-floor office. When I asked him about imports, he lamented Nepal’s trade deficit with India. He said the major imports were food—rice, lentils, sugar, vegetables—as well as agricultural equipment and excavators (we also saw a truck full of diesel generators in the lot outside). Very few items cross the border in the other direction—medicinal plants, tree resin, some buffalo meat.
“Nepalis have become lazy!” he said, referring to the imbalance of trade.
The border has been, for better or for worse, the defining influence on the development of Nepalgunj.
After the Naya Muluk became part of Nepal in the late 1850s, Jung Bahadur established the bazaar at Nepalgunj in order to control trade between the more populated hills and India. In naming the town, the gunj suffix was borrowed from across the border. It was a common convention in Awadh, whose ostentatious luxury the Ranas apparently admired. (The Maharajgunj neighborhood of Kathmandu and the town of Birgunj also followed this naming pattern.)
During the late nineteenth century, the balance of trade was probably more equal than it is today. Cloth, salt, pots and pans, spices, tea, ghee, and tobacco were the major items imported into Nepal through Nepalgunj. Exports included grains, oil seeds, medicinal plants, fibers, and, most importantly, timber. Sal from the western Terai’s large tracts of forest was used to make sleepers for India’s expanding railway system.
The mentality of rent-seeking shaped the development of the city. In a directive dated Baisakh 7 1920 BS (April 1863 AD), the government addressed revenue collectors, traders, and others in the area: “A new market was constructed in Nepalgunj. . . . Take whatever goods you have for sale to the Nepalgunj market. If you take your goods to India or elsewhere, you shall be punished according to law.” By requiring traders to conduct transactions on the Nepali side of the border, the government was entitled to taxes. Twenty years later, in 1885, traders in Nepalgunj sent a petition to the government complaining of the tax burden; apparently, two competing authorities (a government officer and a contracted tax collector) were both collecting duties, resulting in double taxation.
In order to populate the new bazaar and surrounding area, the government sought to attract traders and farmers from across the border by granting them plots of land. There was also a push factor—farmers migrated due to the extraction of high rents and taxes by the British and landlords on the other side of the border. Some Pahadi traders also moved in, but most were not willing to settle in the Terai at the time because of malaria and the foreignness of the environment. As a result, Nepalgunj developed as a distinctly Madhesi town, until a major wave of Pahadi migration to the Terai began in the 1960s.
One winter day the librarian introduced me to an elderly historian who lives on a narrow alley in a warren-like area east of the bazaar. The neighborhood, known, as Gagangunj, was a center of Nepalgunj’s sex trade until the early 2000s, when a neighborhood committee kicked out the sex workers, many of them from the Dalit Badi caste.
Sanat Regmi was a small, round man, and he sat huddled underneath a Chinese fleece blanket in his living room, wearing a beanie and reading glasses. Three sides of his living room were covered with books (he lamented that more were still in another room, bundled from a recent move) and the fourth had a shelf containing a kimono-clad Japanese doll, various certificates and awards, and statues of gods and goddesses.
Regmi explained that he had recently returned to Nepalgunj after retiring from Kathmandu, where he served as member-secretary of the Nepal Academy. He was working on a memoir interweaving the city’s history with his own. “This is my birthplace, and I love it here,” he said.
He explained that his grandfather came from the hills to Nepalgunj in 1995 BS (1938–39 AD) as the personal priest of the bada hakim (governor) at that time, whose sons he also tutored in Sanskrit. After receiving land, he married and settled in town, and raised Regmi’s father here. Regmi grew up speaking Nepali at home, Sanskrit in school, and Hindi and Awadhi in the streets with his friends.
He told me a story about Rani Talau, the algae-covered pond not far from his home. It was built in the 1880s by the local tax contractor, a man from Salyang by the name of Lok Bahadur Thapa. At the time, “Nepalgunj” consisted of the village of Banke Gaon and several others nearby, as well as the Bagheshwori Temple and a military fort that had been established by the Tulsipur state’s army. The customs office was first located on the north side of what is today Rani Talau, but as the volume of trade increased, it had to be moved to a larger venue. After vacating the original location, the tax collector decided to erect a Shiva temple there, and workers excavated a large pit to make bricks for its construction. When water collected in the pit during the monsoon, the tax collector ordered workers to line its banks with bricks, and dedicated the accidental pond to his wife. (Though she was not royalty, the term “Rani” was used in those days to address aristocratic women.)
Later, I visited the temple on the north side of Rani Talau. The old structure is gone, replaced with a newer, smaller mandir, but an august old pipal tree, likely dating from the original construction, sits on the edge of the compound. It is slowly breaking through the compound wall, its branches reaching outward, aerial roots dangling over the quiet street outside.
Though Nepalgunj’s economy remains centered on trade to this day, other important sectors include a small industry, banking, hotels, and I/NGOs.
The city’s first industrialists were the sons of Dev Shumsher Rana, a former prime minister who had been deposed by his brother Chandra Shumsher and exiled to India in 1901. In the decades after Dev Shumsher’s death in 1914, his children were allowed to return to Nepal on the condition that they settle outside of Kathmandu.
“I did ask my grandfather why he chose Nepalgunj,” said Dhawal Shamsher Rana, one of Dev Shumsher’s descendants, pausing to sip his tea. “He said, in those times, Nepalgunj was the only border city which had railway connectivity to India [through Rupaidiha, the Indian border town] and the roads were semi-paved for tangas, or horse carts.”
Dhawal Samsher is a compact, fit man in his 50s with an easy charisma. He spoke in a vaguely English accented, academic tone as we sat in his hotel on the outskirts of the city, a charmingly defunct place. It had palm trees and a weedy tennis court, an empty swimming pool with a sign reading “members only,” and room numbers that for some reason started at 7201. (To my consternation, the hotel was in the midst of a renovation that I felt threatened to steal its charm.) The hotel is a side-project for Dhawal Samsher, who holds a PhD in political science from the US, served as Nepalgunj’s mayor from 1997 to 2002, and is currently a vice-chairman of the Hindu-nationalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party.
Dhawal Sumsher explained that his grandfather established one of Nepalgunj’s first rice mills. Food processing and mechanical industries cropped up during the Panchayat period, he said, and in the past ten years several new pharmaceutical factories have opened on Surkhet Road.
But banks and the aid industry are probably larger sectors of the city’s economy today. An I/NGO boom followed the 2006 peace agreement, as donors decided to refocus programs on the mid-west, a region previously neglected by the government and development sector, and a hotbed of the Maoist insurgency. Over 500 NGOs based in Banke are currently registered with the Social Welfare Council.
Banking and the NGO boom have spurred a hotel boom to host the many meetings, trainings, and other functions required. Establishments with enigmatic names like “The Kitchen Hut” sprang up, featuring expensive rooms with standardized art, specially packaged soaps, and continental breakfasts. Attached to many of the newer hotels are casinos, frequented on weekends by visitors from Lucknow.
One evening I had dinner with the proprietor of a large, mid-range hotel near the city’s center. We sat in a dimly lit training hall where a session had just ended, and charts depicting agricultural marketing chains for small farmers were taped to the walls. My host told me that in the previous year he had made about five crore rupees (approximately half a million dollars) in revenue from NGO and INGO functions alone.
If there is a stimulant of choice in Nepalgunj, it is the multi-flavored oral explosion known as paan.
Paan wallahs, who seem to have stalls every few meters in the bazaar, wrap betel nut, tobacco, lime, coconut, and various sweet jellies made from rose water and fruits inside green paan leaves, which they keep fresh in buckets of water. Chewing paan leaves one’s mouth feeling tingly fresh, sort of like brushing your teeth, except that it also gives you a buzz and is terrible for oral health, staining teeth red and, for hardcore uses, black.
And it is addictive. I interviewed a paan wallah at a tiny shop on the corner of Tribhuvan Chowk, who kept feeding me various sweet paans. In between mouthfuls, I managed to ask a few questions. In which season did he sell the most paan? “Forever,” he said in English, his jaws working a wad, a far-off look in his eyes.
The first time I tried paan, I spit its red juice all over my pants and had to change my clothes. Not so for the experienced chewer. If the city is a great canvas, paan chewers are so many Jackson Pollocks, deftly coloring in its streets, floors, and walls with splotches of red. Paan spit is everywhere. Even in the elevator of a private hospital, I noticed a crusty crimson cascade just below the buttons one pushes for the different floors. When Bijaya the coal merchant and his friends came to Kathmandu, I remarked on cherry-colored streaks emanating from each of the windows of the car they came in. He smiled and said proudly, “You don’t have to look at the license plate to know where this car has come from.”
If paan is the addiction everyone suffers alone, tea is Nepalgunj’s party drug.
I sometimes accompanied Bijaya to Rahul’s tea shop, near Tribhuvan Chowk, on evenings when no friends showed up at Bijaya’s house to socialize. (Such lonely instances were rare, and saddened the socialist. He once told me, “When no one visits, it makes me wonder, am I human?”) Rahul served steaming sweet tea from the front of his long, narrow house, which was built on a standard plot sub-divided between three brothers. His stall was popular among leftists and Muslims who eschewed the bhattis, sekuwa ghars, and other alcohol serving establishments in town.
Sitting in front of Rahul’s shop, Bijaya told me of his love for birds. When he was a boy he had a pair of parrots, Raam and Shyaam, who slept in his bed and woke him by tugging gently on his upper lip. They accompanied him everywhere until they found mates and went to live in the forest, he said. On his phone he had pictures of hornbills, parakeets, and birds of paradise, which he downloaded from the internet. He showed me a photo of a weaver bird, which, as he explained it, constructs water-proof nests (he once did an experiment to test, he explained) and catches lightning bugs alive to affix them inside, for indoor lighting. “This is a very modern bird,” he said.
In Nepalgunj women are less visible in public than in Kathmandu, and I didn’t often have the opportunity to meet or talk with them, especially those my own age.
One afternoon Srijana, a gender specialist at an INGO, agreed to speak with me about gender in the city. Srijana is in her 30s and was raised by a single mother in Kathmandu. After studying at a women’s college and earning a master’s in the US, she became an advocate for survivors of domestic violence there for several years before returning to Nepal. She accepted the job in Nepalgunj nearly two years ago and moved with her husband and their daughter, excited about the prospect of living outside the capital.
“ ‘Women’ is not a homogenous group,” she reminded me. “Nepali women come from all different backgrounds, and even in Nepalgunj, when you talk about women, there are Madhesi women, there are some Tharu women, there are Brahmin-Chhetri women, there is the urban-rural difference. There are Muslim women, and among them there are upper class and lower class. All women’s experiences will be very different.”
She recommended I speak with one of her co-workers, Rita, a spectacled woman with a pretty smile about the same age, one of only two Madhesis in her office of over 40 employees.
Like many Madhesis, Rita has relatives in India. Her mother and her paternal grandfather had both come from the Lucknow area. Being poor with little land, her father had felt lucky to land a civil service job, and she grew up moving around the Mid- and Far-west as he was transferred. As soon as she finished her School Leaving Certificate exams, she got a job at an INGO, and finished her intermediate and bachelor’s degrees while working full time. With her salary she supported her parents and siblings after her father retired, and had not married.
I asked how friends and relatives felt about the way she had forgone a traditional woman’s role.
“A lot of people in my community would tell my parents, ‘You should provide for your daughter, rather than live off her salary.’ It was challenging for me.” She continued, “My father had a different mentality. He always went against what most people said, but now people are starting to see he was right. When I was kid, I never imagined I would have a job like I do today, live like I do today. Because where I came from, women get married and have babies early.”
Another day, I met with Mohammadi Siddiqui, a well-known politician and activist. In 2004 she founded Fatima Foundation, an NGO that works to promote dialogue between Muslim and other religious communities, and empower women through education and job skill training.
She told me that she had had the good fortune to receive an education, and then married an underground democrat, a Congress member, during the Panchayat era. Though she lived in pardah in her husband’s house, he had encouraged her to read and do clandestine work for the party, hiding and filing secret documents. He died soon after the 1990 democracy movement, leaving her with three young children, but Mohammadi felt inspired to continue his unfinished work. He had been due to run for ward president on the Congress ticket, and she left pardah to run for the seat herself. Her mother-in-law, who was uneducated herself, supported her, helping take care of the children while she campaigned. Mohammadi won the election and continued to serve in the party, eventually becoming a member of the first Constituent Assembly in 2008.
She explained that she founded Fatima Foundation as a Muslim women’s NGO because she felt other women’s organizations were too Hindu- and Pahadi-centric. Muslim women face a different set of challenges, she said, and she sought to dispute the notion that Islam teaches female subservience.
She spoke of the economic disparities among Muslim women. “In wealthy households, girls get to go to schools. There are a few wealthy Muslim women from Banke who have become doctors, or have master’s degrees. But in the villages, there is still child marriage and domestic violence. Parents can’t provide for their daughters, so they marry them off at a young age.”
Later, I visited a government girls’ school, where mostly poor girls from Madhesi, Muslim, and Dalit backgrounds study.
I stumbled upon the school because of a photograph. Through Nepal Picture Library, I had obtained some pictures taken by an American Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s. The photos included Tribhuvan Chowk, the Junge Mahadev temple in the pond by Bagheshwori, and several others taken in places that were hard to identify. One appeared to show a school: there was an L-shaped building with an open-air corridor where a group of young girls sat at desks. In the foreground was a badminton court and three adults standing in the sun—two men and a woman in a white sari.
After asking several rickshaw wallahs and store-keepers, I was eventually led to the Saraswoti Girls’ School on Hospital Road. I wandered into the compound, where students were on recess, chasing each other around the halls. I peeked inside a room labeled “Science Hall,” where four girls from class 10 were studying by themselves, surrounded by dusty shelves with jars containing tapeworms and starfish in formaldehyde and a diorama depicting the planets.
Entering the school’s courtyard, I looked back at the building and immediately recognized it from the photograph. Though a second story had been added, and a small tree in the photo had grown, it looked much the same.
A man saw me studying the photo and introduced himself as school’s accountant. He had worked at the school for over thirty years. When I showed him the photo, he pointed to the woman in the white sari and exclaimed, “Mehrotraji!” She had been the school’s principal for decades, he explained, and though she was Indian she made Nepalgunj her home. He called over several other old teachers to come look.
The teachers invited me to the staff room for tea and samosas, cooked by the school’s two cooks, both widows. The accountant said that the school had been established in 1998 BS (1941–42 AD) by a Mr. Tandon, who owned a rice mill, to educate his daughters. It operated secretly under the Ranas (who restricted education across the country, fearing the potential democratic yearnings of an educated population) before it was nationalized by King Mahendra in the 1960s.
Mrs. Mehrotra, the Indian principal, had been a strict disciplinarian and had built a strong reputation for the school, which once served girls from well-to-do families. Mehrotra hired female teachers almost exclusively, and instruction was in Hindi.
But much had changed in the years since she left. A scarcity of female math and science teachers led the school to hire more men. Wealthy families began sending their children to private schools; the student body became primarily poor Dalit, Muslim, or Madheshi. These were not, in all likelihood, the girls mentioned by Mohammadi Siddiqui who would go on to earn master’s degrees or become doctors.
The first time I met a politician in Nepalgunj was at a friend’s uncle’s house. My friend’s family is Pahadi, originally from Accham, and they had a pug named George that liked to hide under the couch. It was a warm evening, and the mosquitoes were relentless.
The uncle was in the midst of complaining about Nepal’s lack of political leadership when a middle-aged man with a belly walked in, and then he abruptly changed his tone. He introduced the man as a neighbor and a local leader of a political party.
“This man is a great, great man,” he said.
I greeted the politician, who let out a grunt, shaking my hand firmly. He had a mouthful of paan and thus could not speak. Squeezing onto the couch between the uncle and me, he motioned to my friend to take a photo with his phone.
The uncle commentated: “This man is going to post these photos on Facebook. ‘Look, this foreigner has come from New York to visit me,’ he will write. Oh yes, he is a great man.” I couldn’t quite tell whether he was being facetious or not.
The politician flashed me a red smile and wagged his head. Then he brought out his phone and flipped through pictures of himself with various party leaders. With each, he let out a small grunt and flicked his wrist, for emphasis, giving me a few moments to take each photo in. Before long, he was on his way to another engagement.
I wanted to learn more about politics in Nepalgunj, so I made an appointment to meet a political science lecturer at Mahendra Multiple Campus. The government university lies just south of the city, on a large plot of land with many trees. I arrived early in the morning and wandered around. Students loitered under arches in hallways, waiting for professors to arrive. Most classes are conducted in the early hours, allowing students to work and professors to teach extra classes at private colleges during the rest of the day. The campus had a jungle-like feel. A football pitch was overgrown with waist-high grass.
I stopped to look through a window into a large hall, which was padlocked and had apparently not been used in some time. Desks and chairs were stacked to one side and a pile of window frames and scrap wood sat in the center of the room, covered in dust. A voice from behind me said, in English, “Optimum utilization of resources.” It was a small, balding man with glasses. He introduced himself as an MA student in economics from Bardiya. I asked him what his plans were after graduating. To teach +2, preferably at a boarding school, he said. I asked if he had any interest business. He shrugged. “I haven’t got any capital.”
With time to kill before my meeting, I went for tea at the Gurung Khaja Ghar, just outside the university gate. A young man sat down near me and lit a cigarette, muttering about how hard it is to quit. The proprietor, a chunky man with a limp, commiserated. “When I was in Dubai, I smoked nonstop. My supervisor said, ‘You’re like an old battery—needing recharging every ten minutes.’” He eventually quit by taking up chewing tobacco instead, he explained.
A couple of students sat down at my table and wanted to make conversation. One was the president of the Maoist student union, a Magar from Rolpa District and an MA student in anthropology. His friend was also part of the organization. The Maoists had won the last student body elections, which took place nearly ten years ago. They said the party had a strong following on campus because most students are from poor backgrounds; those who can afford to attend private campuses do so instead. I asked them about their goals. The president spouted out a lot of vague stuff: creating a more democratic society, empowering youth, educational access for the poor. But he added that they wanted to expand vocational training for high school students, so they can get jobs. “People go and get MAs in English, and then what job are they ever going to get?”
They asked me about the US election, and whom I voted for. When I said I was a Hillary supporter, they seemed to relax. “Donald Trump is an extremist,” declared the president of the revolutionary student’s union.
I met the lecturer of political science in his bungalow in faculty housing, by the edge of a forest at the back of campus. He was a gracious man. He served me hot tea and we sat in his small room while the TV played Man Versus Wild in Hindi in the background. He was high-caste, from Butwal, a Congress member. His wife had a teaching job elsewhere, so he lived alone for most of the year. His brothers and his father were all teachers too—this was their family profession, he explained.
He had joined Congress in the early 1990s, and remained opposed to the monarchy during the civil war. In 2006, he took part in the pro-democracy protests, which saw people unify across party lines. “It was like a hunt. We were like hunters encircling the tiger from all sides.”
One protestor, a poor Dalit woman named Seti BK, was killed by a police bullet in Nepalgunj. Afterward, a chowk on New Road was renamed from King Gyanendra Chowk to Seti BK Chowk, and a statue in her likeness erected. The memorial was supported by all parties, he said, in contrast to other, decidedly partisan chowks around town such as BP Chowk, Ganeshman Chowk, and Pushpa Lal Chowk.
In his mind, things went downhill quickly after the king relented. The unity felt during the movement for democracy fell apart. The Maoists, Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, and other “regional” parties, as he called them, began to stoke feelings of ethnic difference in order to court votes. He explained, “Once the regional parties gained influence and this issue of identity was raised, many groups—Muslims, Hindus, Madheshis, Pahadis—they started having communal feelings.” The Congress, as a truly “democratic” party, lost out.
The lecturer felt that communal identity has no proper place in politics; politics is about serving the nation and uplifting marginalized people, but without dividing people along caste or ethnic lines. In a way I was sympathetic with his position. How to make amends for historical racism without further entrenching the concept of race, I felt, is a major challenge for the liberal left in my own country.
But when he spoke about Madhesis I cringed. He admitted that Pahadis are for the most part newer migrants to the area, but essentially saw Madhesis as foreigners. “Madhesis have maximum relations with India. They are not sincere in their politics. They look to Lucknow, Bahraich, Delhi.” He seemed to see them as a political and economic fifth column, saying, “They suck, extract money from here and send it across the border.”
Later, as I was mounting my bicycle to leave, the lecturer called to me from the porch of his bungalow. “Be careful of the students,” he said. “They’re not trustworthy.”
The breakdown of unity after the democracy movement that the political scientist referred to manifested openly in December 2006. The Nepal Sadhbhavana Party (NSP), one of the earliest parties to openly advocate for Madhesi issues, called a bandh across the Terai in protest of a draft of the Interim Constitution, on the grounds that it disenfranchised the historically marginalized Madhesi population. NSP cadres torched a number of vehicles across the Terai, including a microbus in Nepalgunj, following which a counter-bandh demonstration was called by Nepalgunj transportation workers. A riot soon broke out, pitting Madhesis against Pahadis. Although a government probe committee was assigned to investigate the incident, its findings were apparently never made public. An independent inquiry was conducted by a human rights NGO, the People’s Level Civil Investigation Committee, which assigned moral responsibility for initiating the disputes to the NSP, but noted that the victims of the riots were largely Madhesi. In the end, one person was killed (Kamal Giri, a Madhesi struck by a police bullet), 26 individuals were injured, and 78 million rupees worth of property was damaged or destroyed, the large majority of which belonged to Madhesis. A video showing police standing by while Pahadi rioters vandalized Madhesi businesses soon went viral, and as the author Prashant Jha discusses in his book Battles of the New Republic, it helped fuel the subsequent 2007 Madhesi movement across the Terai.
Although the December 2006 violence was awful, it was not, as the political scientist implied, the first instance of “communal feelings” in Nepalgunj.
Tensions between Hindus and Muslims ran high in the 1990s. In 1992, Indian Hindu nationalists led an angry mob that destroyed the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, claiming that the mosque had been built atop the site of an older temple to Lord Rama. Tensions spilled across the border. Fights began to break out between Muslims and Hindus in Nepalgunj, often over women or cricket matches between India and Pakistan. A chapter of the Shiv Sena, modeled on Bal Thackeray’s Hindutva and Marathi nativist political organization in Bombay, opened an office.
Tensions came to a head in the May 1997 municipal elections, in which the Shiv Sena supported candidates for Nepalgunj mayor and other positions. After Shiv Sena supporters reportedly blocked a Muslim from entering a polling place, a Shiv Sena member was shot and injured, and riots erupted in which many homes and businesses were destroyed. One Muslim from a nearby village was killed and 27 people were injured; 90 percent of businesses damaged belonged to Muslims.
Many people I talked to attributed the violence of that time to the Shiv Sena. But the organization had since fallen into obscurity, they said, after splintering into two groups and losing one of its key members, assassinated by Maoists during the war.
Nonetheless, a friend helped me track down the head of one of the splinter groups, the Nepal Shiv Sena, and I visited him at his home one morning. He was a Newar, descended from traders from Bhaktapur, and he lived in one of the city’s oldest Newar settlements, on the northwest side of the bazaar. He was in his mid fifties, with a beefy face and a wide chest. Along with the other early members of the Shiv Sena, he had been a body builder and wrestler, and continued to work out. (The friend who introduced me had attended the same gym and said he sometimes challenged young men to match him at the bench press.)
We sat on faux leather couches in his dark, spartan living room. For the home of a Hindu nationalist, I was surprised by the lack of gods or any religious artwork adorning the walls.
He said that the Nepal Shiv Sena is a “cultural organization,” contrasting it with the Shiv Sena Nepal (note the different word order), which gained notoriety when its members vandalized the offices of the Nagarik newspaper after receiving critical press in 2012. He said the original group before the split had also been a cultural organization, although he acknowledged that they endorsed candidates in the 1997 local elections. Although they lost in the municipality, he remarked proudly that they won all the seats in a VDC adjacent to Nepalgunj.
He credited his political awakening to a trip he made to Bombay in the 1990s, where the Shiv Sena leadership told him that Hinduism was under threat in Nepal, and he vowed to protect Nepal’s Hindu identity. Bal Thackeray himself later visited Nepalgunj. When the king was removed and the state declared secular in 2008, he said, re-establishment of a Hindu state became his first priority.
“Hinduism needs a homeland,” he said. “Nepal should be for Hindus, just like Israel is for the Christians,” he said, apparently confusing the religious identity of that country.
Perhaps because I was not Hindu myself, he switched to talking about India. Despite his group’s connections to the Indian Shiv Sena, he was strongly suspicious of the southern neighbor. In his view, India’s latest plot was to infiltrate Nepal with its citizens by politically engineering inclusive citizenship laws, contained in Nepal’s interim and 2015 constitutions. In contrast to many analysts who have noted the restrictive nature of the laws, he claimed that the clauses had already allowed 4 million “foreigners” to gain Nepali citizenship. Ultimately, he feared 16 million Indians could gain citizenship if nothing was done to stop them.
I asked him how he felt about Nepal’s mainstream Hindutva political party, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP). He lamented their loss in the 2013 elections in Nepalgunj, but attributed this to their flawed strategy of allowing some Muslims into their party.
“Muslims are tricky, they will always betray you,” he said.
The meeting ended, and I felt a pressure easing in my chest as I emerged from the dark living room onto the sunny street outside.
Although the Shiv Sena Nepal may have fallen to the wayside in recent years, other Hindutva groups have been active in the country. A group calling itself the Nepal Defense Army claimed responsibility for bombing a Biratnagar mosque in 2008 and a Patan church in 2009, killing two people in each instance. The mainstream Hindutva party, the RPP, which had previously split into two factions led by Kamal Thapa and Pashupati Shumsher Rana, reunited in 2016. The two factions received almost 10 percent of the national vote in the 2013 elections, and the RPP is currently the fourth largest party in parliament. The leaders have persistently campaigned against secularism, frequently touring across the country.
One afternoon they came to Nepalgunj.
A stage was erected in the middle of the street close to Tribhuvan Chowk, and strings were tied between telephone poles, dangling party flags depicting a cow, the animal whose protection is a focus for Hindu nationalists in Nepal and India. (Bijaya pointed out one flag that was mistakenly hung upside down, making it look as if the cow had died and was in rigor mortis.)
A large crowd of several thousand people gathered in the middle of the street, while politicians took turns speaking from a dais draped with an image of Prithvi Narayan Shah.
“Nepal is 82 percent Hindu, 9 percent Buddhist, and 3 percent Kirant. If you put all these together, that makes 94 percent. In order to protect the identity of these 94 percent of people, we demand that Nepal be declared a Hindu nation!” said Thapa in his speech, citing census figures and apparently conflating Buddhism and Kirantism with Hinduism.
A thundering Pashupati Shumsher Rana declared, “In our campaign, we are not against any religion, friends. . . but that decision, that decision which robbed this country of its Hindutva identity, that thieving decision is what we are fighting against!”
When I spoke earlier with Dhawal Samsher Rana, the local RPP politician at his charming hotel, he had told me he did not see Islam or Muslims as a threat to Hinduism or the country.
“The problem here and in the rest of the country is conversion into Christianity,” he said. “This has been done in a very systemized and organized way which is leading to problems and tensions. We’ve realized there is a certain purpose to it, and we are trying to stop that.”
The RPP and other Hindutva groups argue secularism has allowed proselytization, which is technically still illegal, to flourish. In Nepalgunj, churches have proliferated over the past several decades, although they are hard to spot. They are often in converted houses, marked by only a small cross.
“We get little girls coming from Korea, in busloads, coming to convert. Young, pretty looking girls, and they live here for months and months converting people,” said Dhawal Samsher Rana. He said that they were targeting Dalits, Tharus, and other Janajati groups.
In some ways I sympathized with his position. I had always thought of proselytization as a chauvinist, colonialist project. On the other hand, I knew several Christian Tharus and Dalits and could sympathize with their frustration with the Hindu caste system and wanting a way out.
In any case, the idea that Hinduism is under serious threat in Nepal, be it from Christianity, Islam, or secularism, seemed far-fetched. I was reminded of a paper I read by Pragya Dhital that described Hindutva groups’ constituency as “a majority with a minority complex.”
By contrast, it is hard to deny that Nepal’s Muslims play a marginal role in the country’s politics. Few Muslims have served in high office, and those that have rarely sought to directly address the concerns of their religious community.
In her book Islamic Revivalism in Nepal, Megan Adamson Sijapati suggests that prominent Muslims appointed to cabinet positions either by the monarchy or democratic governments have felt beholden to the powers that appointed them, rather than a specifically Muslim constituency. Of the 240 directly elected members of parliament today, only five are Muslim (none from Banke, although one Muslim, Mohammed Istiyak Rai did represent a Banke constituency from 2008–2013).
Many Muslims developed a distrust of the monarchy after 2004, when, following the murder of 12 Nepali laborers by terrorists in Iraq, police in Kathmandu failed to prevent angry Hindu rioters from vandalizing mosques, beating up imams and threatening the lives of many Muslims. The delayed police response led many Muslims to suspect that rioters received clandestine support from the state under King Gyanendra, who had declared a state of emergency two years earlier and was a public supporter of Hindutva groups, although a connection was never proven.
As the scholar of Islam in Nepal Mollica Dastider has noted, Nepali Muslims have never really voted as a block, although parties have tried to court them as such. The UML was one of the first parties to directly appeal to Muslims, founding the Nepal Muslim Ettehad Association in the mid-90s. The Maoists gained some popularity among Muslims by calling for secularism during the civil war, and many Nepalgunj Muslims became sympathetic to the party for its opposition to the Shiv Sena (Maoist cadres assassinated a Shiv Sena member in Nepalgunj in 2004). The Maoists have also formed a Muslim wing, the Muslim Mukti Morcha.
But perhaps more than any one party, Madhesi activism over the past decade has had an impact on Muslim politics in Nepalgunj and on how Muslims see their own identity.
One evening at Rahul’s tea shop in the bazaar, Bijaya’s friend Chaand dai introduced me to a local Muslim Maoist leader, Ather Husain Farooqui. He was in his 40s, a member of the central Maoist committee, and a former principal of one of the best Muslim private schools in town. (Several months later, he was named chair of the Muslim Mukti Morcha.)
Ather Husain told me that many Muslims in Nepalgunj supported the Madhesi movement in 2006–7, as well as the more recent blockade in the 2015–16, recognizing that they share with Hindu Madhesis a common legacy of exclusion by high-caste hill groups. He said that his party appealed to Muslims and Madhesis more generally, though he admitted there had been tensions. (Maoists killed a teenage Madhesi protestor in Lahan in 2007, further inflaming the Madhesi movement, and many Madhesis continue to see them as fair-weather friends.)
I asked him whether he considered himself a Madhesi.
“Look at me,” he said. “When you see me, what do you think I am?”
He was wearing a windbreaker jacket with sunglasses propped on his head, and he was clean shaven and had dark skin.
Before I had time to answer, he said, “You think I am a Madheshi. Then I tell you my name, Ather Husain. Then what do you think I am? Muslim. Then I show you my citizenship card? And then you know my identity is Madheshi, Muslim Nepali. In that order.” Almost as an afterthought, he added that, ultimately, economic class is the most important identity.
We sipped our tea and watched cows pass by the tea shop.
Not all Muslims I met in Nepalgunj shared Ather Hussein’s view that Muslims are Madhesis.
I met a friend of Ather Husain’s, a Muslim radio journalist, in his studio near Eklaini one evening. He was a plump man with an immaculately groomed mustache, and wore a look of perpetual disapproval on his face, though he kindly obliged my questions.
“Look, I’m a Muslim,” he told me. “Around the world, Muslims have their own identity. Our community is international.”
When I asked if he considered himself a Madhesi, he offered a non-ethnic reading of the term. “I’m a Madhesi because I live in the Madhes, below the hills. So are the Pahadis who live here, so are Muslims, so are Hindus.”
Unlike Ather Husain, he was a supporter of the UML. He said that although many Muslims were attracted to the Maoists and Upendra Yadav’s Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) in 2008, helping them clinch two seats each from Banke, they later became disappointed with those parties after they failed to promulgate a new constitution on time. In the 2013 elections, the tables turned dramatically, and the UML won one seat and Congress three seats in the district.
He said, “In my experience, security is most important [for Muslims] in politics. Muslims who vote for UML are voting for them because they believe the party will stand by them and keep them safe. It’s not always safe here, for various reasons.”
If Madhesi politics has been one factor affecting Muslim identity in Nepalgunj, then the growth of new Islamic schools of thought has been another.
Although the Muluki Ain of 1854, which officially codified Nepal’s caste hierarchy, grouped all Muslims together as impure (paani nachalne) but not untouchable, and to this day many Hindus see Muslims as homogenous, there is in fact a diversity of Muslim groups. Though most Muslims live in the Terai, a community descended from Iraqi and Kashmiri traders have lived in Kathmandu for centuries, and churaute Muslims traditionally sold bangles in the hills of western Nepal. The vast majority of Nepali Muslims are Sunni, but there are different schools among them. Especially over the past two decades, conservative schools emanating from the Middle East and elsewhere in South Asia, such as Salafi, Jamaat-e-Islami, Ahl-e-Hadis, and Deobandi ideologies have challenged the traditionally dominant Barelwi school. These new forms of Sunnism preach stricter adherence to what they consider original Islamic values, and certain groups, such as the Salafi, are sometimes accused of spreading extremism in other countries. Megan Adamson Sijapati examines the rise of these groups:
“Among the many factors involved in the Islamic revival of contemporary Nepal is the simple yet essential fact that participation in it provides the possibility of greater communal identity and solidarity—as well as greater social opportunities—for Muslims in a non-Islamic environment. It also provides a sense of membership in what Nepali Muslims view as the authentic religious worlds from which these ideologies emerge, particularly Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and North India.”
She notes that experiences of violence, such as the 2004 Kathmandu riots and other attacks on Muslims, have also contributed to the rise of Islamic revivalism.
In Nepalgunj, the main revivalist school is Deobandi, which was founded as an anti-colonial religious movement in the wake of the 1857 revolt, spreading from a seminary known as the Darul Uloom Deoband in Uttar Pradesh. Deobandi mosques and madrassas in Nepalgunj, like their Barelwi counterparts, maintain connections with those in India, but compared to Salafi and Ahl-e-Hadis groups, which are more prevalent in eastern Nepal and receive support from the Gulf, they have fewer connections with the Middle East.
I first became aware of the separate schools in Nepalgunj at a religious teaching event that Chaand dai invited me, Bijaya, and his partner Madan to one evening. (I was somewhat surprised that Bijaya accepted the invitation, given his ardent atheism. He had become convinced of the absence of god as young boy, he once told me, after stealing laddus from a temple and observing that nothing happened.)
At one point during the function, which was held to mark the tenth day after the holiday Muharram, I found myself seated next to one of the maulanas (Islamic teachers). His name was Wajahul Kamar Khan, and he was from a Banke VDC on the far side of the Rapti River, and ran a madrassa in Nepalgunj.
Wajahul Khan told me that not all of Nepalgunj’s Muslims were honoring the holiday. Deobandis, he explained, worship the same god but do not observe many of the holidays celebrated by Barelwis, and hold different views on the nature of God, the Prophet, and the honoring of great teachers. Regarding the latter, he explained that Barelwis sometimes pray to God by visiting saints’ tombs, whereas Deobandis believe that doing so is a form of idolatry. I had seen one such tomb, located in the courtyard of the musafir khana, or guest house, attached to the Jummah Masjid in Eklaini. The evening I visited I saw a group of women place a tapestry on top of the tomb and sprinkle it with flowers before bowing to it.
The maulana spoke respectfully about Deobandis, even if he did not subscribe to their teachings himself.
A man sitting next to us was less diplomatic, chiming in: “They say that the Prophet, peace be upon him, was just another human being, only a dai. But he lived 1400 years ago, so how can he be your dai? If anything, he is your great, great, great, great, great grandfather. And if he was your dai, what does that make his wife? Your bhauju?!” The last point seemed to particularly incense him.
As we were returning home later that night, Madan told me he had learned as much about Islam as I had from the evening. “You think that the conflict is between Muslims and Hindus, but no, they have conflicts among themselves!”
Another evening, as we were having dinner in a restaurant in the bazaar, a friend, Ameer, told me he was Deobandi. I was surprised; he seemed in most regards a modern Muslim man. He was clean-shaven, usually wore jeans and a t-shirt, and worked at an INGO. Most of his friends were Hindu. He seemed a far cry from the puritanical ideals of Deobandism I had heard about.
He said his family became Deobandi about 15 years ago, when his older brother married a Deobandi woman who introduced them to it. Later, I met his father, the son of a Barelwi imam, who told me he was attracted to the Deobandi movement because Barelwi traditions had become old-fashioned. The world is changing, he said, and some of those traditions have no place in modernity.
I also met a young Deobandi engineer who told me something similar. He said Deobandism is necessary because Muslims have begun to stray with drinking, gambling, taking interest on loans. He described Deobandi beliefs as more “scientific” than Barelwis’, which he said were clouded by superstition.
It occurred to me that the Deobandi followers I knew were more forward thinking, in some ways, than they are often given credit for. The lure of Islamic revivalism seemed in some ways similar to that of “development,” driven at once by a fear and an aspiration for one’s identity.
The complexity and fluidity of identity, as well as the superficiality of it all, became more clear to me one afternoon when I visited the gurudwara on Surkhet Road, where Nepalgunj’s population of several hundred Sikhs worship.
The temple is in a large, two-storied marble building, with a veranda and prayer room on the second floor.
A young man greeted me as I entered downstairs. He was perhaps eighteen or twenty, and although he wore a turban and a kirpan, the ceremonial dagger that all Sikh men must wear, his facial features looked more Janajati than typical Sikh. He spoke no Nepali, but he gave me a bandana to cover my head and with gesticulations shepherded me to a veranda on the second floor. He pulled out a phone, and said, “Facebook?” And we exchanged Facebook IDs.
An older gentleman with a long, gray beard appeared. He also spoke no Nepali, but ushered me inside the prayer room, or Darbar Sahib, where the Sikh holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, sat atop a throne-like structure beside a vase of plastic flowers. We sat on the floor, and he fed me a handful of sugar candies. I tried to communicate, largely unsuccessfully, using my taxi-cab Hindi.
Finally, a third young man who spoke some Nepali appeared. He looked like the other young man, and explained that they were brothers, both priests-in-training, and the older man was the head priest. When I remarked that they did not look like typical Sikhs (they both appeared incapable of growing facial hair more than a mustache, for example), he laughed, and said that was because they were born as Maharjans (the Newar farming caste) in Lalitpur. As babies, they were adopted by a Sikh guru and raised as Sikhs in Hariyana, India. They grew up speaking Panjabi and Hindi, and when they travel home to visit their birth father, they communicate with him in Hindi.
The head priest insisted on feeding me a meal, as is typical for guests in gurudwaras, but lamented that the kitchen was closed. Instead, we ordered out for vegetarian momos, which we ate together downstairs. I thanked them and said I was impressed that people born as non-Sikhs could become priests in their religion.
As I was leaving, the older priest turned to me and said something in Panjabi, which the younger priest translated for me: “All over the world, people worship god. All over the world, people have the same blood running through their veins. And all over the world, people love momos.”
One December afternoon in Kathmandu, I got a call from Bijaya. The connection was bad, but I could make out that he was on his way to the capital because someone was in the ICU at Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital. Ather Hussein, the Maoist leader, was there too, he said. He sounded worried.
Ather Husain’s number was busy, but I took a taxi to the hospital that evening and found him outside the ICU. He was talking intently with an elderly man and woman, whom I later learned were Muslim MPs from the Congress party. His eyes were red and he looked tired.
When he saw me, he greeted me quickly and said that I could go in and see the patient myself. Still unsure of whom I had come to see, I followed another visitor into the room.
Lying in one of the beds was Wajahul Khan, the maulana I had met the night of the teaching hosted by Chaand dai. He was unconscious, hooked up to a ventilator, his chest rising and falling to the rhythm of a machine. Tubes snaked into his nose and arm, and he had a large bandage on his head. It felt somehow invasive for me to be there, so I left quickly.
Speaking with Ather Hussein and the other visitors, I learned Wajahul was in a coma. He had been attacked by an angry Hindu mob in Matehiya VDC, not far from where he lived, on Mawlid, the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday. Religious tension had been brewing in the area for some time, at least since Muharram, whose lunar date coincided with Dasain celebrations this year. On Mawlid, tensions boiled over. According to a later independent investigation by Siraj Khan, a senior Nepalgunj Gorkhapatra journalist, a fight broke out between Hindu and Muslim young men in a Hindu village that the Mawlid procession was due to pass through. Several Hindus were injured, and the procession, led by Wajahul Khan and others, came to a halt outside the village and gradually began to disperse. At that point, a group of villagers seeking revenge for the earlier fight attacked the Muslim crowd using farm implements and homemade weapons. Wajahul was hit in the head with a heavy blunt object. One Muslim died immediately, and others were taken to hospital in Nepalgunj; five were evacuated to Kathmandu.
None of this received significant coverage in the media. A few back-page articles were published in Kantipur, The Kathmandu Post, and The Himalayan Times, but the articles either omitted the religious aspect of the violence or buried the fact that people were killed.
After leaving the ICU, I watched as Ather Husain and one of the Congress MPs distributed a wad of cash to two men who had been discharged, and sent them off in a taxi to catch a bus back to Banke. One was in his twenties and the other was middle-aged. Both had large bandages on their heads. Besides the physical pain, I thought about how they must feel. Did they want to go home? Would home ever be the same, now that this had happened?
I tried to remember my meeting with the maulana. Though it was brief, he had opened up to me, sharing his own beliefs and asking me about my own. He was gracious and gave me his time.
I recalled the only time I had been roughed up, on a dark, cold night in Kathmandu, by two young men after my wallet and phone. My injuries healed quickly, but all the same I felt violated and was on edge for months afterwards. On the other hand, Wajahul and these men from Matehiya were targets themselves, physically attacked because of who they were. How could that possibly feel? How long would it take the survivors to feel normal again?
The next day, the doctors told Wajahul’s family that he was brain-dead. He died a few days later.
As terrible as the Matehiya violence was, things could have been worse had the violence spread from the village to the city. There were fears that something like the 1997 violence could recur in Nepalgunj, but mercifully, this did not happen.
Ather Husain and others held meetings with the prime minister after it became clear that Wajahul was going to die, and emphasized the danger of bringing the body back through Nepalgunj, where some activists wanted to hold a public procession. The government transported the body back to his village, first by plane to Tulsipur, then by helicopter. Thousands of people came from the surrounding villages and Nepalgunj for the religious teacher’s burial.
I returned to Nepalgunj in January, interested to see how the public mood had changed. To my surprise, most people I spoke with said they felt little difference.
“It’s impossible to know what people think, inside. But externally, people are not aggressive, either on religious or ethnic lines,” a young man at a paan stall said.
A reading glasses merchant said that in Nepalgunj, “If something happens, people know that you have to immediately sit down and discuss about it. Why? Because [violence] isn’t destructive just for the individual, it is destructive for all of society, for Hindus and Muslims alike.”
When I asked people why something like the 1997 violence had not recurred, both Hindus and Muslims highlighted the changes that had occurred over the past two decades. The city had experienced bikas, development, and people had become more educated. Some said that there was greater camaraderie between Hindus and Muslims after the Madhes Andolan of 2007, when Madhesis of both religions jointly clashed with Pahadis; the lines of division had become ethno-racial, not religious. When I pointed out that those accused of Wajahul’s murder were Hindu Madhesis, people noted the different political context where the violence occurred. Until recently, there was no bridge across the Rapti River connecting Matehiya to the rest of Nepal, and mindsets were influenced more by Indian culture and politics. The Madhesi movement of 2007 had not had an impact there, they said.
Others pointed to the leadership of Nepalgunj’s civil society. NGOs like Fatima Foundation, Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC), and others have led periodic dialogue events over the last ten years, bringing together religious leaders, judges, and local politicians to promote social harmony.
I learned of an organization called the Inter-Faith and Societal Goodwill Forum (Antar Dharmik Tatha Samajik Sadbhav Manch), founded in response to the 2006 riots by leaders from Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Christian faiths. The two primary leaders are a local maulana named Abdul Jabar Manjuri and the head priest of the Bagheswori temple, known as the Chandannath Yogi. They are an unlikely pair, sometimes seen riding around the city on a motorcycle—the baba in front, wearing brass hoop earrings and handlebar moustache, and the maulana behind, with his hennaed beard, flowing kurta, and Nepali topi. They agreed to meet with me.
“When people do bad things, it’s important to remember that it’s individuals who do bad things, not religions,” the priest told me. “Crimes are crimes. It’s important not to make it about religion. For the people who want to blame a religion, as soon as the Hindu guru and the Muslim maulana sit down together, it’s a good message. They don’t get the opportunity. And we go ahead with legal procedures.”
The maulana told me that although he had never met the priest before the 2006 riots, he now considers him a good friend. At the time of the riots, they were introduced by a local businessman and began walking the streets holding hands and admonishing restraint. In the subsequent years, they have worked with the local authorities and intervened in several religious disputes before they had the chance escalate, facilitating dialogue between the groups. They have received recognition from international donors and government officials.
He explained that after the initial dispute during Muharram in Matehiya, he and the yogi had traveled to the VDC. At a meeting with villagers, he urged them to fight for justice, but not in the name of religion. “Fight for roads, fight for getting electricity. Why fight each other?” he recalls saying, lamenting that it seemed to do little good.
I asked them why the violence did not spread to Nepalgunj. The yogi praised the chief district officer, who held meetings with various community leaders to allay fears and anger. He added that he and the maulana had urged local journalists to cover the issue sensitively, and was happy that the national media had not given it heavy coverage, since sensational reporting could have made things worse. “The media shouldn’t add to the fire.”
After our meeting, I walked with the maulana through the old bazaar. He told me he felt awful about what happened in Matehiya, but the main thing is to prevent this from happening again, for no more deaths to occur. He said this in an almost cheerful tone that could have been interpreted as a lack of sincerity, but I don’t think that’s what it actually was. He had a point. His and the yogi’s efforts to keep the issue out of the public eye may have helped the situation from getting out of hand in the short run, but I wondered about the long-term implications of sweeping it under the rug.
One afternoon I attended an introductory course for businessmen on how to smile, organized by the Nepalgunj chapter of the Brahma Kumaris.
According to their website, the Brahma Kumaris “is a worldwide spiritual movement dedicated to personal transformation and world renewal. . . . Their real commitment is to helping individuals transform their perspective of the world from material to spiritual.” The sect was founded in 1937 in Sindh province of then-India, preaching a form of female-led spiritualism that emphasizes meditation and eschews caste. In Nepal, the group is sometimes referred to as “Om Shanti” and has grown popular among older people in cities. I knew a Newar driver in Kathmandu whose wife became a follower; he often complained about the Brahma Kumaris’ vegetarianism and abstinence.
I was invited to the event in Nepalgunj by a neighbor of Bijaya’s, a retired schoolteacher who had joined the group. She told me that there is too much negativity in the world, too much fighting, and that Brahma Kumari teachings are a source of positivity. She said joining helped her let go of things outside of her control, things within the hands of God.
The event was held in a hall in the Nepalgunj Chamber of Commerce in the bazaar. A group of Brahma Kumaris sat on a stage, wearing white saris with pins depicting the Supreme Soul, a symbol that looks like rays of light emanating from a red sun. A banner behind them read, “Easy Life (Muskan) for Busy Man (Business Man) MUSKAN (Smile Sharing).”
The introductory speaker for these busy people was late. When he finally arrived, we went around the room introducing ourselves. The participants were mostly Pahadi and included a rice dealer, a petrol pump owner, a gold trader, a candle factory owner, and the female manager of a printing press.
Our facilitator was a young, charismatic Brahma Kumar who described himself as a “life coach” for the corporate sector in Kathmandu. He gave a long, interactive talk, filled with good, if scattershot, advice. Stay positive. Strive for fulfillment rather than money. Live in the present. Aim high and set goals. Be grateful. Say sorry and thank you. Pay taxes and don’t deal on the black market.
A woman in a white sari broke it down for the industrialists in the crowd: “Make your mind like an ice factory, your tongue like a sugar factory, and your heart like a love factory.”
We meditated, gave gratitude to our limbs and various organs for serving us well, forgave our adversaries, focused on the present. With partners, we pinched each other’s cheeks, forcing one another to smile. We played a game with string where we had to disentangle ourselves from each other, during which I somehow managed to knee the president of the chamber of commerce in the nose. (I apologized profusely; he found a different partner.) At another point we were chanting “om shanti om shanti om shanti” when something went haywire with the mic and a jarring loud noise made us all jump.
The emphasis of the event, as I suppose was to be expected, was individual transformation. When the printing press manager complained about bandhs, our teacher told us that it is important to let go of that which what is out of our control. Our real problems lie not in the world itself, but in our perception of the world.
Later I had dinner with Bijaya at his house, sitting on the floor of his dimly lit living room in front of an electric space heater. Somehow we got to talking about our personal demons. I said one of my greatest flaws is that I sometimes get angry and judge people prematurely, relating an example from earlier that day, where I felt slighted by someone I had never met, over the phone. Bijaya said he thought this is something we all need to overcome.
“Everyone has a dark side,” he said, gazing into the heater, its orange light reflecting on his face. “Hitler, Mussolini. These men gave in to their dark sides.”
I recounted what I had learned at the Brahma Kumaris’ introductory course on how to smile and asked Bijaya what he thought about it.
He agreed that materialism and individual lack of consciousness have caused many of the world’s greatest problems. There is too little respect for people, he said, too much respect for things. People are like horses wearing blinders, seeing only the religion or race of those they encounter. But he was skeptical of meditation, saying we need to focus on understanding each other more than our own minds.
There was a moment of silence. Then he said, “What if everyone in the world spent five minutes per day imagining they were someone else?”
The question seemed childishly simple, and I didn’t think much about it at the time. But later I reflected on all the different kinds of people I had met in Nepalgunj, their stories, their views of each other and themselves. I thought of Wajahul Khan and the men who attacked him, the students at Saraswoti Girls’ School and the opportunities society would, or would not, provide for them, and beggars I had seen Bijaya give to in the bazar. I also thought of the apathy and contempt that seem to have become staples of politics in my own country. I remembered what my parents used to say when I was young, “Put yourself in their shoes,” and I realized it was probably the most important advice I ever got.
Bijaya’s dog uses a smartphone.