Nepali Kalasahitya Dot Com Pratishthan

Story:


Mahesh Paudyal

Hulaki

She died just a week after her husband returned from Malaysia.
She was just ‘she’, for no one called her by name. In fact, no one knew her by name. At the most, she was Ramawatar’s ‘dulhan’.
They were from Tarai, and had started a provision store in Sulbung. Those days, as is true till these days, all provision stores were run by people from Tarai. Her husband supplied things, and Ramawatar’s dulhan managed the customers. They were married just a year ago, and within a matter of six months, the husband moved to Malaysia leaving the entire business upon her and his mother’s shoulders. It was Hulaki who had read Ramawatar’s call-letter to Malaysia.
Rumors said it was a case of murder. A man from the neighborhood claimed he had heard some shrill cries almost at midnight. But the police declared in the morning: “Suicide!”
That was final. In that part of the world where roads and electricity were still fairy tales, police was a piece of wonder in neatly ironed khaki uniform, and bright glistening butts of their rifles. All said yes, and the body was cremated. Hulaki knew the under-table story, but kept quiet. Several times, he had read her letters sent by Ramawatar from Malaysia. One of the recent-most ones read: “By the time I am back, make sure that you have managed it all. I also have talked to mom, and she will do the follow-up things.”
She had cried to her limits, and said, her parents were poor, and could not afford dowry. Hulaki was in fact no one to her, but had consoled her, “Have patience, sister! God helps everyone.”
He knew several of such stories. Knew of new and old love affair, pregnancies, possible divorces, land conflicts, life threats, call ups in the army, foreign employment, appointments in the government, transfers, examination results at far-away colleges…But he shared when needed, and kept quiet when not.
Hulaki – that was his name. The priest had perhaps christened him differently, and perhaps he bore a different name in his credentials. But, that made little difference, for no one knew him by that ‘original’ name. He was proving old maxims that placed a lot of prominence in one’s name wrong. “What is in a name, after all?”
He worked in Hulak – the postal service – as a postman, and his profession gave him the name. He had entered the job with a lot of difficulties. Those were the heydays of monarchy in Nepal, and whatever the king and his close coterie thought, was the law. Beerendra, the most liberal of the kings of Nepal so far – had given a democratic color to his rule, and the general public was finding easier access into services. Hulaki had no one in the ministry, and though his primary education – the highest criterion then for a Hulaki – was bright, he did not find easy entry. He repeatedly sat for the examination, and repeatedly passed with high scores. When his case was too excellent for the authorities to disprove of, they reluctantly appointed him a postman, and posted in Sulbung, one of the remotest places in Ilam.
Sulbung, then, was a difficult zone for any postman. Houses were many, but were strewn over the hilly terrain in such a way that a distance of at least a mile separated one from the other, it took a long time for a man to compass. The head post-office was down there in Ilam Bazar, at least three-hour walk down the lane, and four hours uphill to return.
He moved to Sulbung with his wife and two kids in mid-winter. The village committee chairman had sent three horsemen with the best of their stallions to carry him and his family from Ilam Bazzar. Up there at Sulbung, a grand reception had been arranged for, and Hulaki and his family experienced a royal reception. A huge gathering greeted them on the ground of Sulbung High School, and Hulaki was formally ushered into a three-room building whose one of the rooms was the sub post office, and rest of the two, the postman’s quarters. The slope to the south of the house lay bare, and he had the permissions to plough and use.
For a bazaar-bred family, Sulbung was a harsh location. It had the most difficult climate in the world, he thought. Up there, the mighty Maipokhari had frozen to stone, and rivers ran low into trickle. The deities that meditated all along the fringe of Maipokhari looked sad and forlorn, for no one would turn to them to worship. The peak of Kanchenjunga far away, raised its proud head of silver, and announced the mythical glory of the Himalayan Civilization. The Himalayan Civilization defies the western claim that men evolved in plains, and founded the greatest civilizations on river banks. Eastern civilizations, be that of Harappa, or Mohenjo-Daro, were based on insights that Rishis developed on the mountains, far above the Indo-Gangetic plain.
But, Hulaki had no time for the silver mountains; he was finding it difficult to negotiate with a topography he was not used to.
The sub post-office had come to Sulbung many years back. Some even think it was during the Rana period. But the Ranas did not allow much movement of the people, and hence letter-writing was not a need. Moreover, education was closed for the laity, and they did not even know the alphabets. So, no letters! But, after the restoration of democracy in 1950, and more specifically after the mass movement of 1990, people started moving in all directions within the nation and abroad, and the importance of letter was naturally heightened.
Hulaki – for he had no other name for the residents of Sulbung – was appointed at such a historic time. That age could perhaps be best referred to as the ‘Age of Letters’ in the history of Nepal. A fresh contingent of educated youths was pouring in, and informal education was teaching alphabets to the village folks in all parts of the nation. Nepal was extending its hands abroad, and many working youths were moving out – especially to the Gulf countries, India and Malaysia for job. They needed to send and receive letters.
Early in the morning, Hulaki would set out for Ilam Bazaar. A caravan of mules moving downhill with loads of milk, amidst an ever-jingling melody of their neck-bells and military-style trots of their feet, would make his journey musical. With them he added his uniformly timed footsteps that had their own temporal calculations, never to miss the opening time of the District Post Office at Ilam Bazaar at 10 a.m. sharp. He believed, letters made the most powerful sensations if they were delivered in time, or even before expected. With delay, they lost their luster, and gradually faded way into death, he thought.
At 11, he would be moving uphill with his old and proud khaki bag. Once again, mules and their attendant would give him company. Often he thought he and the mules had no difference. Both carried others’ loads.
His khaki bag would sway to and fro, as he lumbered along – tired to the bone. Tired he grew, granted, but he was neither frustrated, nor dissatisfied with his job. His bag was one given by the government, and its possession would make him feel he was different as a man of the state. He enjoyed this comparative privilege, though it never made him puff with hubris. He always had his postman’s uniform on, and his proud cap would always be seen recapitulating the mighty Kanchenjunga on his head.
With his bag filled with curiosities, he would reach Sulbung High School at midday. He would not stop for meal. Straight away, he would rust to the room in his ‘house’ that bore the sign board, “Sub Post Office, Sulbung” and completed certain official procedures which the villagers never knew. He would perhaps maintain his records about registered letters and money orders, if any.
With his bag, he enjoyed a position of power in Sulbung. Television age had not still ushered in, and people often tuned to ‘Philis’ radios that brought to their ears Radio Nepal, their favorite and the only station that spoke their language. Often, they had heard the king and the bigwigs talk on the radio. Though the portraits of the kings and the queens hung on every house, the people knew that kings and queens would change faces with age and time as they in Sulbung did. They had no idea as to what King Beerendra and Queen Aishwarya looked exactly like at that time. Hulaki’s bag could give them an answer; he had postage stamps with kings’ and queen’s portraits, and the villagers bought them prodigally just to see their majesties’ faces. With kings and queens inside his bag, Hulaki was a man of power.
That was an age when people in Sulbung cared little about big news – about referendum in the nation, about the disintegration of Russia, or about war in Kosovo. They cared more about husband beating his wife, about locust destroying crops, about stag spotted very near to someone’s backyard, or about the daughter of a certain farmer getting pregnant following a brief ‘sitting’ with Mukhiya’s son behind the haystack. And Hulaki was the most authentic source of the news, as he would read certain telegrams down there at the District Post Office about a youth dead in Qatar following a motor accident, or about a youth from Kanchenpur dying of AIDS in the then Bombay, or say about the son of a Dalit from Doti entering Bangalore at the age of 14 in old shabby clothes, and returning home after five years in neat Bimal brand clothes with a thick wad of money for his sister’s marriage, a Philips radio for his father, and a record player for his mother who played her favorite Deuda number ‘Chhamaka chhamaka Doti ramro raundo bhinaju’ on a cassette she bought in Nepalgunj last October when she had been there to sell sumac extract and soybean. About AIDS, they knew next to nothing, because this story is about an age before NGO’s and INGO’s operating like locusts in the remote hinterlands of Nepal knew how they can make dollars out of this unfortunate reality.
Those abroad would send letters to their wives at home, and due to a long spell of separation, those letters would bear passionate emotional expressions that would, at times, qualify to the rank of ‘amorous’. But since those women could not read, Hulaki would read for them. Many times he would stop and revise a word or two here and there before reading, so that the news that was harsh in reality would sound good to the listener. He knew some people had weak hearts, and would even be shocked to death hearing about their son losing a hand on a rice-mill conveyer in Kuala Lampur. He read to many, and thus knew of many things. He knew of love and hatred, of dues and liabilities, of birth and death, of war and peace, of borders and encroachments, of loss and found, and in summary, of everything. Thus he knew much secrecy of many, and like every individual that knows secrets, he was quite ‘powerful’ though he never misused it to his advantage like an irresponsible minister.
Every home in Sulbung was thus his home, as he was a confidant to many, and in every big and small social gathering, we was a compulsory invitee. He would sit in the middle and in a storyteller’s tempo, tell strange tales of strange lands, of wartime and times of peace, from far and near. Adults would throng around him and women wondered how he could know so many things. From a distance, children would look at him with awe and interest as though he were a small chimp brought to Sulbung from a certain sanctuary in England. He was a working man, and bore an aura of dignity and contentment, as he related tales that came to him as accolades of his experience.
However, with time, the face of Sulbung changed. The road that connected it with Ilam got blacktopped, and Sulbung High School became a higher secondary. Mules were replaced by vehicles carrying milk, and electric wires entwined the village like a spider’s web. Slowly, television crept in, and kings went on screens from postal stamps. Soon the telephone came in, and the number of letters in the red box fell sharply, almost to a nil. Within a matter of a decade, every single individual got a mobile phone, and Qatar or Malaysia was here, very much here, on the fingertips. When the Internet came in, Hulaki became a dinosaur.
It had been thirty years since he came to Sulbung. His hut was a secluded place now. His only son was abroad, and of his two daughters, the younger one wrote her lover an SMS, and they fled. He would sit all day on the yard on a straw mat his wife wove last winter. He did not need to hurry to Ilam bazaar anymore; he could do so once in a week, only to return empty handed. Who would write letters these days? Occasionally, a letter or two dropped in, either from Burma or north eastern part of India, for these are lands quite far off, and having little access to the modern media of communication. These belts have a huge population of people from Ilam, who probably left their fatherland in the late 40s, fundamentally because of ethnic misunderstandings, or in search of better soil for what they called ‘dhanko bhat’ i.e. rice. As many did not have their heirs back at home, their land was confiscated, and they were doomed to be diasporic. However, a long web of relationship existed back in Nepal. They would send letters to them, especially when one of the kiths died far away in the foreign land, perhaps in a coal mine, or in a tiger attack while herding cattle in the thick jungles of Burma or Nagaland. Such letters, with death news, would have yellow threads attached to them, and Hulaki would feel sorry for their recipients. He was sorry for himself as well, for he was doomed to find life and identity in death letters. Gone were his days full of mirth and blossoms. He was no one now in that part of the world.
That was not the only change. Sulbung, which was an empire of peace for ages barring a few ethnic tussles in the early fifties, started registering unprecedented rise in cases of crime. Teen pregnancy was an epidemic; children watched porn clips on their hand sets at schools. Housewives stuck to the television sets while the hungry calves in the sheds mooed for hay. Youths were seldom seen in the village except at festival seasons in October; the populace consisted of schoolchildren and minors, senior citizens, and physically challenged ones. Hulaki’s heart pained to see it all, and often thought, he should tear his life apart, and put an end to it.
Yet, he could not do so, for, life it was and not a paper-boat one could throw into the river when unwanted. Even with paper-boats, people attach love, if it is of their own making. Leave alone paper boats; we have love for a pebble we unconsciously caress, put into the pocket and stroke on a river bank, and by the time we are leaving for home and the uselessness of the pebble strikes our mind, we find it difficult to throw it back on the sand. Life is not a pebble, either. Hulaki had escorted it through all difficulties, and yes, decorated with joys and sorrows, not only his, but of the whole locality. He could not dispense with it. No!
But his misery aggravated. With the turn of the time, hulak sewa or the postal service virtually turned into disuse. To many people who thought sarkari karmacharis – government employees–wanted to efface works, he was a powerful blow. He was different; work was his identity, and it had given him a sense of power and dignity. But now there was no work for him. He did receive the salary, and with it came unimpeded allowances, bonuses and arrears. But it had no soul, for without work, he had no name in that part of the world.
That year, in most of the social gatherings, Hulaki did not receive any invitation. He had no reason to keep visiting from house to house, for there was no business. With it, he lost the touch of the history of many people.
One afternoon, on his way back from the District Post Office, he sat on the bank of Jogmai, the great river eternally flowing down the peak. Inside its cool, placid water, he could he see his face, forlorn and lonesome, tired to the bone, shabby like a forest after fire. He sat thus for a long time, looking on his own image inside. In fact, the image inside and his real self out of water seemed one to him. The liminal space between his reality and his myth had over the years narrowed down to the thinness of a razor blade, and one potent push could completely annihilate the separation. He wanted to push it right there, and transcend into the realm of myth where his true self would melt into the image, and flow with the ripples, far away to the sea where no one from Sulbung would easily travel to. Because no one could surmise the distance between Jogmai and the nearest sea, and those who did, knew that it was not easy.
He sat on the bank for a long, long time. His image took different shapes, as water quivered on the surface. Wind shook it sometimes, and sometimes, perhaps, a fish passing by cut through it. When the sun started a westward descent, his image inside acquired a bright hue, and the hue lasted for a long, long time. It was a bright crimson hue, he knew, but it was coming from a descent, a fall, a journey that would end soon. After some time, the sun was nowhere, and with it, his image was a myth.
At dusk, Hulaki lumbered uphill. A sour sense of alienation besieged him. The silver-capped hills far away had no appeal for him anymore. The hill was steeper that day; the path more rugged. He slipped a time or two, and hurt his knees. Jogmai, down there in the gorge did not sound pleasant. She was singing a mourning number, a tale of lamentation, an echo of a feeble groan made far back in history by a dying man.
At home, Hulaki did not like to have anything for dinner. He went directly into his room and threw on his bed. His wife sat near, as she felt something was wrong with her husband.
“I fell down on the way; got bruises on the knee.”
He pulled his trousers, and yes, there were bruises. She rushed in, got some mustard oil and turmeric, made a paste and smeared.
“I think I am not going to eat anything for dinner tonight.”
“Why? Kanchhi has picked lemons and a cucumber from our own garden, and prepared green salad – your favorite.”
“Our own! Nothing is our own, Meena. Nothing!”
She looked here and there, blank.
“See, Meena. Nothing ever is our own. We are done with Sulbung. We are moving away from here within a week.”
Meena was not at all prepared for it. But she said nothing, for her culturing had taught her not to speak back. In fact, ever since she married Hulaki, she never had any reason to revolt, for Hulaki understood her more than she did herself. There were no grounds for complaint in that home. To a simple, village-bred woman like her, there were no grounds for questions as well. She kept quiet.
Days and nights at Hulaki’s home for a couple of days passed like eras. Hulaki would sit on the porch and look down the lane. Standing proudly on the ridge to the south of his house were trees – mango, orange and guava – he had planted the very year he moved to Sulbung, some thirty years back. Particularly dear to him was the mango plant that he reared with difficulty. He had carried the seedling all the way from Coochbihar where he had once been to attend a program about postal services in South Asian region. Coochbihar, those days, produced one of the finest mangoes in India. Back home, in less than a week of its planting, Golmu – his only cow then – stamped upon it and broke it almost from the neck. He had hard times fixing it back, wrapping with a cloth, and attending to it every single day till it showed progress and two tender leaves developed on the top, replacing all the former, wilted ones. To these two leaves, he anchored the two halves of his heart. Today, the same mango stood there on the ridge as an accolade of his considerate guardianship. He was proud of it, and claimed, its mangoes were the best in Sulbung.
Along the eaves of his thatched roof, many a generation of sparrows had grown in the past thirty glorious years. The nestling never claimed that roof was theirs forever; when time came they flew away beyond the horizon, leaving a mere memory for the Hulaki to reflect upon and surmise that life was wonderful in good old days.
One fine Wednesday morning, they packed the stuffs they could carry. Wednesday was carefully selected, for Hulaki thought it was auspicious for house-related decisions, as the old maxim said, “Som kheti Budha ghar,” — Mondays are good for farm, and Wednesdays for home.
When the loads were ready, they decided to move. He paid a last, parting look to his house. The house that gave him home for the best thirty years of his life was ousting him as virtually a dead man. In fact, every house ousts its owner as dead one day, early or late.
There was no one to see his family off, save two mule-owners he had hired for the transit, and the watchman of Sulbung High School, who had to close the doors and own the keys.
Down moved the caravan, and with it moved the tale of a life that was, long ago, a true life. Soon, they subsumed into the thick winter fog that cloaked the entire terrain. No one knew where they went, and none cared to ask. The mule-men said they left them down there at Barbote. That was the last thing recorded.
The watchman opened the house to clean. At one corner, Hulaki had thrown his postal dress – something he did not want to remember anymore. The watchman rummaged its pockets in search of…you know what. He fished two letters as old as history. The first was written in 1990 by an unknown man to Kishor Limboo, where a line read: “The child your wife begot yesterday is not yours, but mine. You did not know we had affairs.” Thank God, Kishor, with his wife and the child, had moved to Canada, and they did not know, right then, anything about the family. The second letter was written in 1995 by Chattre, a women-trafficker who was later on caught by police. He had written to Junthuli of Hutulung: “Junthuli, at ten a.m. on the 13th, do meet me at Naranthan with Luti, Tara, Thulibuini and Januka. The tickets are ready. We will move to Lukhnow, and you will fly to Jerusalem on the fifteenth.”
With the letters, the watchman ran to village committee chairman. They decided to conduct more searches. More letters were found underneath the cot – all chewed or torn to bits, making them unintelligible for good.

 

Translation: Writer Himself






Publisher :
Nepali KalaSahitya Dot Com Pratisthan

Distinct Advisor :
SP Koirala

Advisors :
Umesh Shrestha
Mohan Bdr. Kayastha
Radheshyam Lekali
Yograj Gautam
Dr. Hari Prasad (Manasagni)
Dr. Badri Pokhrel
Yogendra Kumar Karki
Rajendra Shalabh
Kapil Dev Thapa
Samir Jung Shah
Advisor Editor :
Rajeshwor Karki

Chief Editor :
Momila Joshi

Transcreator :
Mahesh Paudyal 'Prarambha'
Kumar Nagarkoti
Suresh Hachekali
Keshab Sigdel


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