Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Jhapa Rendezvous

City life can be full of desperation for many people. We have things to do, and more things to do, with little breathing space and with no escape from the mundane routines. We make plans to go out, to some beautiful place, to rejuvenate ourselves once in a while.

For people always on the rush, dreams no matter how fantastic and plans no matter how elaborate often don’t materialize. The Ace Travels keeps selling the offers, and more offers, but not everybody can just leave or afford to buy the trips to the far-away Goa or Bali or Milan or New York, or even to domestic tourist hotspots like Pokhara or Lumbini or Namche Bazaar.

Where do you want to go? Indeed, that’s the question. And when can you actually be able to take a vacation?

Oftentimes, it’s the advert or your itinerant neighbor or colleague who may influence your desire for a destination. It shouldn't be that way. Sometimes inspiration comes from unlikely quarters to visit unlikely places. That is what this article is all about.

One of my quiescent interests is in writing about places, not in the archaic fashion of a travel brochure, but in a way that is brutally instinctive, spontaneous and quirky. So when I recently visited Jhapa, the easternmost district in the country, I decided to give it the attention as our established writer does to Phuket or London. You may ask, besides supari and murai and tea gardens, what is there in Jhapa to see?

The American author Henry David Thoreau wrote that it does not matter where or how far you travel; it only matters that you do. The journey is as much within yourself as it is without, or about a place.

Ah, how true!

Little did I realize during the hit-and-miss trip in Jhapa that I would look back at those moments fondly, in retrospect, when I returned to the capital city.

Sure, there may not be any “great” natural wonders there in Jhapa, or any man-made monuments or marvels. But there certainly is a place and the people that complete the place. Though spontaneous, my travel proved mostly lackluster, seeing the usual sights and hearing the usual sounds. I let it happen with little planning over where to go and what to do.

In these days of mass media and visual overload, if you see a thing, it’s like you have seen all things! Until my recent rendezvous with Jhapa, district-wide, I had rarely ventured beyond the urban sprawls along the East-West highway, which, surely, are not representative of the hinterlands.

Riding a two-wheeler with Gyandendra Niraula, a local journalist, I started off, past Birtamode, a sleepy little town a decade ago now turned into a bustling commercial hub of the entire district, past Chandragadi, the decaying sadarmukam that is losing its past glory, past Bhadrapur, the ghostly remains of an erstwhile trading town on the border, reaching the Mahabharat war milestone Kichak Badh, and to Kechana Kabal, the lowest elevation in Nepal, from the sea level.

Then to the avant-garde tourist initiative Hatti Sunde (the gateway for elephants entering Nepal from India), the fertile fields of Bahundangi and Buddhabare, to Arjundhara, another Mahabharatian spot for pilgrims, to Domukha, a scenic place where the Kankai river enters the plains, leaving behind the mountains, and to Jamunkhadi Simsar and Zoo, a community-managed innovative project.

If you could visit and see a place for yourself! Locals pride in Kankai Mai that sees the largest congregation in the East annually, as well as in Arjundhara, calling it the Pashupatinath of the East. And more new shrines are coming up, such as Krishna Thumki, a natural mound with rocks having footmarks, supposedly of Krishna himself.

Memories came flooding back from a quarter century ago, when I had walked all day through the deforested, desolate land to the south, along the mud-covered road to reach Rajghat, Baradashi, and the sleepy village of Jhapa from which the district, which means “canopy” of forests (in Rajbansi language), derives its name.

This time, I saw that the stinking jute pits are all gone, and there are many vegetable farms, and jungles everywhere, with many community managed green areas. And beyond the highway and its arteries, there are graveled roads leading to every little village. And these are often built by the locals themselves.

Besides the tea gardens or rice fields or betel or coconut farms from yesteryears, the hinterlands are dotted with new enterprises like vegetable or rubber farms, brick kilns, and plywood factories, suggesting an urban shift in rural vocations.

Although every little chat or conversation with the locals seemed to center on our disgusting politics, or rather politicking, on deeper thought the subject merely served as an undercurrent to deeply-held concerns regarding economic prospects, infrastructure and social image of the local community.

I also noticed a subtle shift in people’s attitude toward politics. People cannot wait any more for the political netas to resolve everything. They know, for example, the two KPs, Oli and Sitaula, both entangled in Kathmandu, have little time for their constituencies. As in many other districts, a large chunk of the youth have flocked overseas as migrant workers, sending back remittance that ever keeps adding on the concrete sprawls of Birtamod and other urban centers.

Many who chose to stay behind or have returned are on way to becoming local entrepreneurs, trying their hands in restaurant, trade, real estate, education, etc. Others have taken up cash crops. The rise of the middle class and the upwardly mobile families’ giving into consumerism is visible especially along the highway and urban centers. With land price skyrocketing, and in some places exceeding that for land in the capital city, a nouveau riche class is emerging, creating further gap between the haves and have-nots.

Jhapa, home to indigenous Rajbansi, Satar, Dhimal, etc has attracted people from diverse backgrounds. The erstwhile malarial land saw the beginning of mass migration of Pahades half a century ago, with people of Nepali origin from north-east India arriving later, as well as Bangladeshis and north Indians. A melting pot, it has been adventurous with new ideas, including ideologies, although the district itself has not really benefited from such adventures.

The left uprising that took place here during 1972-73, styled after the Naxalites, defined national politics but with no long-term local benefits. The netas left for the capital city along with their ideologies. Despite being one of the richest districts in the country, with the literacy rate next only to Kathmandu, Jhapa’s development is snail-paced. People feel a development leap is not possible without mega-infrastructure projects. The extremely slow pace of construction of over Rs 500-million Mechi bridge near Bhadrapur is an example.

Locals feel they have been betrayed by politicians as well as the well-to-do who often end up in Kathmandu. Just as America absorbs foreign talents, Kathmandu continues to suck up the best and the brightest of Jhapa, earning the envy of people from other districts. During my conversation with local journalists, one joked that The Kathmandu Post should in fact be called Jhapa Post, for most of the journalists working there hail from Jhapa! At least, that is the perception.

Perhaps this explains the common stereotype of Jhapalis, as exemplified in the gross saying that 100 Syanjalis equal 10 Gorkhalis who equal 1 Jhapali! This image of Jhapalis as shrewd is reinforced by the dohorhi “Syangjali/Jhapali lai nabhana jali” sung by Khuman Adhikary and Bishnu Majhi.

It is a pity for a rich, educated and strategically located district that it has not been able to grow to its fullest potential. Jhapa is merely an hour away from Silliguri, four hours from Darjeeling, and it is the district closest to the sea. Furthermore, it is not just close to India or China, but also much closer to Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar than from Kathmandu. In fact, for such strategic location and transnational potential, the district could be developed into an alternative capital.

But doing so may bring no less desperation to people than Kathmandu already does.

Published Feb 20, 2013 in Republica


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