That’s what my Baba used to call me. As far as I can reminisce, I was called upon by numerous nicknames, but somehow I always knew those slew of names didn’t have a robust meaning. Babu moshai was meticulous, a two-syllable word that adumbrated a complex Sanskrit phonetic. Baba wasn’t much into the Vedic literature, but his prosaic artistry was unfathomable. Contrarily, Aama loathed the name babu moshai. She was cocksure that the name had a diabolical derivation and always ended up rebuking her spouse’s selection.
“Why do you always have to call him with that bizarre name?”
Baba used to ignore her abhorrence by clamming up. No facial expressions, no gestures, nothing. He knew it would be a weird thing to quibble. So in utter silence, he’d wriggle himself out of the quarrel and would go to the balcony to light up his homespun tobacco roll. He’d marinate his lip with saliva and tap on his favorite gasper for a while. In between those huffs and puffs, silence never breached the mood. Baba would tune into a music station on his small, old fashioned battery-operated radio set that’d play a jingoistic anthem, loud enough to capture everyone’s attention.
The red, the moon, and the sun!
Esteemed symbols of ours,
We shall live to protect it,
The red, the moon, and the sun!
Stationed beneath the breathtaking snow-clad mountains, surrounded by arid hilly terraces, Jumla’s scenic beauty was conserved by the propinquity of Mount Kanjirowa. With an austere landscape, the valley bestowed itself with the soggy freshness of Tila River. Beside the riverbank stood a small muddy hut bedecked with a plane, sloppy roof that was thatched with dry hay and tree branches. The house was not more than a story tall, but it was where my family resided. Despite having a kinship group of three, our living was quite slavish. Baba owned a small plot near Khalanga bazaar, but cultivation there was much futile. The only way we could make bread and butter was the gold rush of plucking Yarsagumba (caterpillar fungus) at the end of summer.
Also known as “The Himalayan Viagra” Yarsagumba harvest had transfigured itself into a tradition among the Jumlis (people of Jumla). Baba used to say that the best way of plucking the fungus is to dig your finger around the damp mud and gently scoop the base of the mummified plant in your palm so that you get left with an undistorted version of it. I used to go with Baba, crossing steep hills and perilous slopes all barefooted, until we’d reach the arable land. I still remember how hard it was for me during my initial visits to master the skill. It was until my tenth birthday when I got the knack of it. And that day, I was in cloud nine. Holding my first pick, I ran towards my home eagerly to show my mom what our daily bread looked like.
“Aama, aama, look what I have in my hand!”
“How many times have I told you not to get your hands dirty? You’re gonna eat up the germs.”
Seeing my mud-caked fist, she scolded me, giving a smirk.
“But look what I brought for you, aama.”
“Whatever you’re holding, you’re gonna throw that immediately and wash your hands. I don’t want to hear a single excuse now.”
Taken down by my mother’s words, I clenched my fist in anger, so hard that a crackling sound came out of my sullen phalanges. As I opened my hand, I saw fine golden particles all sprinkled with rancid mud, and the mixture looked as if I was carrying some sort of magical clay. Little did I know at that time how soon my first pick would turn out to be my last, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Even under such a harsh climate, the only vegetation that thrived in our town was the apple tree. It was beautiful to see the whole village adorn with red, succulent apples every year at the end of November. Winter had become bliss to all the Jumli farmers. But my Baba chose a simple yet challenging way to eke a living. The fungus was everything for us, and my Baba’s weary body couldn’t take the burden of becoming a cropper.
My Baba used the apple tree as an indicator to know the best time that would be suitable for harvesting the fungus. He taught me how to extract the gist from different colors the apple tree would flaunt.
“Pink is the color which tells you that nature is rejoicing in its dawn. You should always let the bee dance alongside the blooming petals…Green is when you get to know what growing up looks like. You should let the new shoot sprout in contentment. And this is the time when you go harvesting. ”
It was very shocking to know that even nature had accredited green as a sign of everything. But he never mentioned the color “Red.” The elegance…the beauty…all hid in that same color, which some villagers would call “The color of Divinity.” It was the color of prosperity and good fortune, the color that the tree would flaunt during winter, sharing its luscious fruits and mellow fragrance. I, too, thought that red was the color everyone would love. But sooner or later, it was about to change into something vicious.
It was a chilly morning in the late winter of 1996 when the climacteric rang its bell. Guerilla combatants stormed the Khalanga bazaar, all dressed up in military uniform armed with muskets and rifles. They had set numerous camps in the area, inside tea stalls and empty warehouses. Communist graffiti could be seen everywhere on walls, fences, and concrete slabs that read “Long live Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, and Prachanda Path!!” No one knew what was happening and why the guerillas were deployed there. In between the sips of morning tea, the talk about autocracy and democracy was rife, and people were unaware that their lovely hometown was under attack. The guerillas had seized the marketplaces, schools, and government offices and were celebrating the dawn of the insurgency.
Two days had already passed in turmoil and utter confusion when all of a sudden our morning chore was bothered by a loud thud that came from outside the door. Baba went to receive the gate and found three crabby insurgents eagerly waiting to force their way inside. As soon as they entered, they started inspecting our house in suspicion. Two of them were spruced up in military attire holding firearms, whereas one of them had an outlandish pamphlet in his hand with a slogan imprinted on it. All of them wore a red headband, which symbolized them as the member of the paramilitary force. Giving a skeptical look, they started interrogating us.
“Where do you work?” the tallest one asked my father.
“I don’t have a job, sir. I make a living by selling Yarsagumba.”
“What about your wife?”
“She helps me with my business, sir.” Baba replied hastily.
At that very moment, Baba knew something was not right. My eyes were continually ogling the rifle they had in their hands. One of the men drew his attention towards me and asked my age.
“How old are you, little boy?”
“I am eleven, sir.”
“Okay, that would do it!” he said and made us sit in a line and started reading the pamphlet.
“Everyone, listen up very carefully. On behalf of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center), we are ordering everyone here in Khalanga bazaar to surrender themselves and join us as fellow comrades. We are providing each of you with a long-barreled rifle and a red headband that you should wear on your forehead. No one, under any circumstances, is allowed to remove their headband, and if we find anyone doing so, we will punish them brutally. The war is in full swing, and we want every one of you to support us. The government that was made by bullets will be answered with bullets, so there is no turning back from here. If anyone wishes not to join us, we will treat them with special care. Is everything clear?”
We were so shell-shocked seeing the situation that we had no other option than to follow them. In order, they started giving us the rifle and the headband. Each time when they handed us the weapon, they uttered Lal Salam (Red Salute) valiantly. I still remember how my Baba used to beat me with his bare hand every time I got into a fight with my classmate on frivolous matters. He used to explain how a minute transition in the breathing pattern could control one’s anger.
“If you ever come across a situation where you cannot put aside your rage, always remember to close your eyes and take a deep breath, clearing your mind with all negative emotions. This way, it’ll be easier for you to dominate your inner self with positivity.”
But having to see his non-violent principle get crush by some hooligans only on the compulsion to save his family’s life was very ghoulish. To my pacifist father, the scene was quite horrendous. As we took the rifle, I looked into my Baba’s eyes. Fear and anger had engulfed him synchronically, the fear of not getting spared if he’d oppose and the anger that cropped up seeing his family get forlorn.
Nothing could change the fact that the color ‘Red’ had mutated itself from being subtle to odious. The color that coated the apple had now metamorphosed into Jumla’s horror. The newfangled red now symbolized war, communism, and democracy. It was, of course, a revolutionary change that broke down the autocratic rule and introduced freedom among the populace. But for a family like ours and hundreds of other innocent households, the war compelled us to take a path of terror, brutality, and violence.
As I celebrate my 30th birthday today, I see myself on a very different page. Over the years, I was forced to do many unimaginable heinous acts. I was a part of a countless number of feuds that occurred between the guerillas and local police. Numerous shootouts, bombings, and raids were the part of a decade long insurgency. I lost my family during the war; my Baba got bombarded during one of the encounters, whereas my mother remained a captive while she was grotesquely raped and tortured by the opposition forces.
But even in this chaotic chapter of mine, I find myself absorbed by the amalgam of love, hate, and undying propaganda that evolved a newer version of me. As I stand next to the pyre where my Baba was burnt, I still hear his mellifluous voice teaching me how to take hold of the grave melancholy that annihilated my youth and left me devastated. Family for me has always been like a prized possession, and no matter how arduous my journey was, it’ll forever remain the most precious thing I’ll yearn for.