Navigating Through Generations

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Sindhuli was my grandfather's ancestral home, and he once visited us in Biratnagar, Morang. One evening, Papa gave him a Hindustani one-rupee coin from the British Raj era. Then he turned to me and said, 'Let’s go to the cinema, grandson!' I was just 8 years old, gladly following him. The cinema was housed in a warehouse and had long benches for seats. I sat beside him, close to the screen. Though I can't recall the story of the movie, I vividly remember the characters on screen, as if they were speaking directly to me. The black-and-white screen spoke of life, indeed!

Some days later, he bade us goodbye to return to his beloved place. The return was a foot march of seven days, just like he had been in Morang across the river Koshi. Papa took a wide cloth piece for his luggage, made knots in the corners, and hung it on his back. That was a backpack for the essential supplies such as rice grains, gundruk (fermented, sun-dried green leaves), nuggets, spices, cooking utensils, and a few changes of clothing. A stick was walking him against his hunched back. Altogether, he had to have six-night shelters. He would cook morning and evening meals along with them. Papa had warned him, “Put big money in the waistcloth.” As such, Grandpa had an outer pocket for travel expenses.

His whereabouts were unknown for nearly two months. One morning, Papa received a letter—a white envelope encircled by white thread—a sign of death news in the tradition. He promptly broke the thread, tore open the envelope, and read the contents. Sadly, we learned that smallpox had taken away his life on the sixth shelter. It was his last cinema trip!

Papa

The epic now shifts to my Papa. "No more of this birthplace! Enough now," he had sworn out before the start of his adventure trip to Madhesh. Dark and thick forests dominated Morang during those days. Papa worked on a farm for others for a few years here. Meanwhile, he cleared a forest patch for his own farming. This was a way to acquire ploughing land. Next, he constructed a thatched roof for his wife and kids. Neighbours assisted him in raising it in just fifteen days. Thus, his hut had a roof above and a floor below, damp-proofed with clay over the layers of river sand and thatches. It protected them from the lashes of summer heat, rain, and storms.

Morang was new to land cultivation for food grains. Conversely, life rarely exceeded forty years due to diseases like kala-azar, malaria, and snakebites. Living beyond forty was a dream come true! That’s why being in Morang meant being in Kalapani exile at the time of his death sentence. It resulted in a conflict between settlers and forests. Once an adventurer fell ill, their life would quickly wither away, like a dying tree shedding dry leaves. Medical aid and resources were scarce. Instead, there was an awareness of local herbs, healers, and dhamis (witch doctors), always ready to be called upon. Events involving snakebites amused onlookers as dhamis beat saucers, cracked their voices, panted, and stomped their bodies throughout the night. By sunrise, the patient would be no more.

Having cash was another big dream. A one-hundred rupee note in one’s pocket was a matter of great glory. The British Raj rupee prevailed in a popular saying here: it was larger than life! As such, one rupee ran along with the life of a fellow, from name-giving rituals upon birth to living expenses like food and clothes to funeral shrouds upon death. Managing two square meals was not a big struggle yet.

Papa faced hardships and lacked formal schooling, but he stood for children’s education. During that time, children were seen as a gift from God. There was no concept of birth planning or prevention. If a woman conceived, morning sickness was the first normal sign. She knew of an unusual remedy for this, as she would scratch a piece of burnt clay from her wood fireplace and eat it. Such a woman in labour pain made a funny scene in those times. Some nearby experienced mothers attended that woman, and she, in turn, tucked a used railway ticket into her waist. The superstition was that placing the ticket thus quickened childbirth as fast as a train. Papa fathered 14 children with his two wives. However, in his later years, he faced financial struggles until his death at age 70.

Papa's transition

Papa's living conditions were somewhat better than those of his own father. He encouraged his hilly friends and relatives to join him in Tintoliya, Biratnagar. Then Biratnagar itself was expanding in various directions. Until then, Biratnagar had a few mansions surrounded by poor huts and sheds and lacked amenities like roads, schools, or hospitals, even though electric poles stood as part of Morang Hydroelectricity.

My generation

Morang has a transition of 60 years in its history. By the end of the period, its forests had receded like the hairline of an ageing adult. As such, new farmlands and human settlements had pushed back wild animals and birds too. The other was the start of science and technology. Until then, radios were large, box-like devices where one could speak from hiding in them. Then a handheld device by the name of a transistor could be carried anywhere. It was made in Japan, but when turned on, it never said “This’s Radio Japan” but said, “This’s Radio Nepal.” Telephone poles commonly connect individuals through home phone lines.

The transformation involved schools and higher education colleges. Biratnagar was still small in terms of education. Fortune seekers as adventurers now moved away from here as carpetbaggers, akin to the Europeans exploring the Americas. Kathmandu was the popular craze for all from the Terai and hills. It became a desired venue for Papa’s sons too. The pristine valley of Kathmandu was thus due to grow into a metropolis of concrete jungles. Grown-up children by that time had themselves become parents, which was a reason for a gap between past and future generations.

Me as papa

You don’t understand life!" rebel my youngsters as they distance themselves from me. They have no faith in others, often saying, "No, no, we aren’t for Nepal." Nothing appeals to them about staying close to family. It means the separation of old and new generations. Grandpas of my age, who are not physically strong, are not tied to this generation yet.

My grandkid

My grandkid is the only child in better comfort now, without any brothers or sisters. He need not follow me to the cinema like I did with my grandpa. He equally admires the Chandrayan scientists of South India for their rockets touching the moon. However, he is overlooking the tripund tika on their foreheads and their spiritual energy. In truth, he is a confused globetrotter now, reflecting the impact of a racial and cultural crisis. The situation is comparable to that of author Eric Drexler, who, in his book 'Engines of Creation' (1986), coined the term 'grey goo,' describing the biosphere in the throes of disaster. AI and biotech are shaping global transformations in races and cultures today. Transformation of lifestyle is the key point here. How have they transformed my kid? Keen on his career, but not getting married until late to breed his future generation! Is he then at risk of losing his culture and the continuity of generations? Nonetheless, my grandpa’s long march continues, navigating these phases alongside the ageing population. 

(Baral is a retired lecturer of English.)

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