bloated, fly-blown ox had lain in the field for several hours
before the swarthy man dropped his soiled bag beside it. The muted
clank of his tools broke the silence, a warning to the scavenger
dogs and vultures gathered in two concentric arcs around the carcass,
High overhead, dozens of vultures traced the circles on the
ground, wheeling in slow orbits about the ivory disk of the sun.
At intervals, one would detach itself from the whirling mass and
glide to an awkward collision with the ground, then push its way
among the scores of scrawny-necked, claw-billed birds squatting
in the blanched rice stubble. Between the two rings, just out
of range of canine teeth and avian beaks, sleek black crows paced
like cocky barristers. All the encircling eyes were on the corpse.
The sun’s fist pounded flat the yellow paddy fields that
ran ruler-straight to the razor-slit joining pallid land to sallow
sky. With the back of a blood-blotched hand, the man wiped sweat
from his face. He was stocky for a sarki, the scavenger caste
only one notch above the ninth circle occupied by the dom or untouchables
who toiled in human excrement. His caste status entitled him to
render dead animals or cobble shoes from their skins. He was reviled
for his trade, but when a fermenting cow, bullock, or water buffalo
lay stinking in a village field, Brahmans hurried to him, beseeching
him to rid them of its presence, paying him a pittance or allowing
him to keep the hide.
From his blood-rusted bag, he withdrew two knives, their blades
dulled and blackened from inferior smelting. Grasping the small
knife in his left hand and the scimitar in his right, he surveyed
the throng of teeth and beaks. Shouting derisively, "hey,
you ugly beasts", he banged his tools together menacingly.
The metallic clang, the only sound other than the occasional dog
yip or vulture mutter, rang across the plain. Acknowledging their
inferiority, the dogs shrank back, in turn snarling at the evil-tempered
vultures to move away. Hierarchies of hunger.
He set to work separating the cadaver from its skin. There were
no religious preliminaries; this was not a sacred cow but a lowly
ghoru, a bullock that had uncomplainingly pulled plows and carts
for a decade. Although vitally important to village prosperity,
it was beaten when it balked, the lowest of the bovine caste.
Its prominent ribs and slack skin said it had probably died of
old age, although in a land of drought, it was hard to tell.
The dogs shifted as the ripe scent bubbled out of the body. With
teeth too dull to tear the thick hide, they had waited for human
intervention. Now, they surveyed the coming banquet, arrayed according
to their own caste, lower-echelon dogs crouching, submissive tails
between hunkering legs, wary for the moment they might be savaged
by a larger creature. The sarki smiled wryly as he chased away
the Brahman dogs and tossed slabs of raw meat to the inferiors.
It was easier to identify with the bottom of the heap.
As he worked, three Brahman men walked along the nearby road
holding the corners of their pristine dhotis to their noses. It
was hard to know if they were demonstrating distaste for the man's
act or recoiling from the odor of putrefying flesh. The sarki
Wiping the knife across his stained dhoti, he straightened up
and the assemblage pressed in a step. Daubing a rag at the blood
and gore the May sun had adhesed to his arms, he watched the glowering
dogs, savoring his command of the ground. Then, slipping his tools
into his bag, he stepped back and the dogs hurtled forward, a
brown wave crested by the foam of snapping fangs. Snarling, gnashing,
they swarmed over the ox, whose stiff legs vibrated like diving
boards beneath their weight. The beasts screeched and screamed,
teeth as often sinking into a neighbor's flank as into the carcass.
At first, the vultures hung back from the swirling vortex, but
soon hunger sapped patience. Its vision blinkered to anything
but the feast before it, a lone vulture waddled forward and was
driven back by a wall of slavering fangs and menacing growls.
Quicker than their rivals, the crows flitted in to perch on the
ribcage just above the throng, tearing at the flesh with their
matte-black, hedge-shear beaks. Other crows whiled their time
by tormenting the vultures, pulling at their tail feathers or
hopping up their backs to peck at their heads. Outbulked seven
to one, it was an act of bravado but performed in the knowledge
that when a vulture's beady eyes were fixed on food, he ignores
Eventually the tumult waned. Sated by the meal, the dogs slunk
away, and the vultures strode in, ripping the flesh with hooked
beaks, opening broad wings for balance like caped vampires. The
man watched them, sucking blue smoke from a bidi cigarette pressed
between his dry lips, the acrid tendrils trailing away in the
burning breeze that whispered among the rice stalks. The dark
writhing mound of vultures and crows soon obscured the remains
of the bullock, and black was the only color on the dun plain.
In air bereft of air, a distant rice mill hooted a string of slow
high notes like a toy train struggling up a hill.
The seared plain stretching to the horizon is the Terai. Running
along the upper edge of the Gangetic plain, it is a region of
hellheat and pestilence, dotted with small villages like the one
where I worked for two years as a volunteer. Few hill Nepalis
talked about the Terai, fewer wanted to know about it. To Westerners,
"Terai" meant Chitwan province, an Edenic garden sandwiched
between the Himalayan foothills and India's Bihar state, a lush
forest prowled by tigers and rhinos.
But Chitwan is what all of the Terai used to look like: a thick
jungle that ran from the Ganges River to the Himalaya foothills,
from Kashmir to the Bay of Bengal. The upper Terai was reputed
home of the progeny of high caste women sent to sanctuary along
the foot of the mountains when the Moguls invaded northern India
in the 16th century. Legend says that when the rajahs perished
in battle, their wives were obliged to bed their servants in order
to preserve the race. Their children were known as Tharus, a hardy
people said to be immune to malaria. The tale's authenticity is
open to question but in its defense, Nepalis note that when a
Tharu woman serves her husband dinner, she pushes the tray across
the dirt floor with her foot. As the foot is the lowest, foulest
part of the body, it is tantamount to
the vilest insult.
The Terai's thick forests were felled long ago, and the Tharus
retreated to the lower Himalaya. Flowing into the void from the
Gangetic Plain came the madheshi, sun-bruised and rail thin. They
came to farm the fertile plain on which rice grows profusely.
When there is sufficient water. Burnt by a molten sun, it is a
land as reviled by god as by the pahardi — mountain Nepalis
— who regard their hills as paradise and the Terai as perdition.
Indians refer to Bihar, the state just south of the border, as
"the nation's armpit". Pahardi have scant more regard
for their own "armpit" or its people. Yet, in truth,
their dominant emotion is envy and resentment.
Nepal's mountains are overpopulated, overgrazed, covered in
a thin layer of friable soil. When sodden with rain, the fragile
earth can be prised loose by a mild earthquake and sent down a
steep slope to the canyon floor, taking people, flocks, and entire
villages with it. By contrast, the Terai, running like a hem along
the Himalaya's pristine skirt, has what the hills do not: arable
land. Seldom more than 20 miles wide and comprising only 15 percent
of the country's total land area, it feeds Nepal, holds half its
population, and is its industrial heart. Without it, Nepal would
perish. Perhaps, it is tacit recognition of this fact that gave
southern Terai inhabitants, the madheshi, their name, a shortening
of madhya-desha or "heartland".
Reviled by nature, the sun-blackened madheshi I knew were dismissed
like dust by the mountain Nepalis. To the pahardi, they were religion-besotted
Indians who didn't even speak Nepali but Hindi, Bhojpuri, and
Maitili. The madheshi responded to their exclusion with indifference
to Nepal and its politics. "Ah, you're going to Nepal,"
they would exclaim when I set off for Kathmandu.
If the Himalaya and its inhabitants peer over and beyond the
Terai, the rest of the world ignores it. A traveler browsing a
Kathmandu bookstore will find dozens of books about mountain Nepal.
He will find nothing on the Terai other than pamphlets on Lumbini,
Buddha's birthplace. Or an episode in which Rama, god-hero of
the ancient epic, the "Ramayana", travels to the Terai
kingdom of Janakpur to ask King Janak for the hand of his daughter
Sita, fairest beauty in the land and a paragon of wifely virtue.
On the back shelves, he may find a ragged copy of "Biggles
in the Terai", or a derring-do big-game hunting book by Frank
"Bring Them Back Alive" Buck with brief mention of Birgunj,
one of the Terai's most populous border towns.
Both authors, however, refer to an era when the Terai teemed
with big game waiting to be turned into trophies, long before
the protective canopy of trees was stripped away, leaving the
Terai naked beneath a fiery sun. It is a sun which has to be experienced
to be believed. It cremates the land, the ash blowing and swirling
and veiling the horizon. On most days, the Himalayan peaks are
obscured by a gauze curtain. The tallest objects are thatched
roofs and an occasional dusty tree. Both are so hazed by shimmering
heat and airborne loam as to have no contours, a two-dimensional
beige canvas unetched by line or edge, the vague thought of a
painting in an artist's mind.
Perhaps the pahardi are right. The Terai is hard to eulogize,
much less to love. I lasted barely two years before I fled. Despite
its 40-mile proximity to lofty Himalayan glaciers, it is a crucible.
Its predominant color is the blinding ocher of the sun-baked adobe
that clads its houses and ground. There isn't even enough vegetation
for grazing. Trowel-wielding herders scalp grass from the hard
earth, banging the turf tuft against the ground to loosen the
root soil, then tossing it into a woven basket to feed bleating
goats tethered to nearby posts. There is no other fodder for animals.
By March, temperatures reach 50 degrees Celsius (Fahrenheit
122 degrees). During the next three months, the Terai succumbs
to the quiet cruelty of a tyrant who beats his subjects until
they have no will to resist. With nothing to glue the soil to
the earth, it soon swirls through the air. By April, the sky's
breath blasts from a furnace mouth and the slightest breeze stirs
dust devils. When the pre-monsoon winds blow in May, the landscape
is shrouded by particle storms. Winds howl and fling the earth
into the sky to blind and deafen. The shrieking gale reaches sharp
fingers into houses imperfectly-sealed walls and roof tiles, seeping
in through slits and cracks. Within hours everything inside is
jaundiced by a yellow film and the dark interiors echo with hollow
The heat maddens everything it touches. A woman relieving herself
in the fields at dawn is torn apart by rabid jackals. Another,
reaching into a shrine, is bitten by a krait coiled behind the
elephant god Ganesh. The air torments with scabies, shingles,
bedbugs, and mosquitoes. Or spawns diseases from which one expires
in the violent diarrhea of cholera, the freezing/scalding agony
of malaria, or the fiery fever of cerebral malaria that turns
brains to pudding, curdling them in a few short hours. And the
madheshi smile through it all, quietly accepting what they cannot
change, even when it kills them. Fatalistic fatalities.
In the Terai, I didn't so much live as exist. I was from the
Pacific Northwest, with its lush valleys, endless rainfall. To
me, the Terai was a barren cauldron. How could humans subsist
here? Yet, they did, resigned to their karma, yet unbowed by it.
The sun and their fellow man should have cauterized all humanity
from them yet they embraced life, and eventually me. It was I,
impatient with providence and accustomed to resolving difficulties
with technology, who suffered noisily. I had been sent to help
them improve their lives with the miracles of the Green Revolution
— new varieties of high-yielding wheat and rice to combat
starvation. They resisted, cocooned by comforting tradition, fearful
of change. They had been doing things their way for 4,000 years,
thank you, they had no need of my help. They were content merely
to have me live among them, sleeping in a cattle shed, sharing
their food and festivities.
I had rebelled against their servitude to providence. While
the sarki labored, I had sat in the lee of a house, taking shelter
from the desiccating heat. Beyond the bare houseyard, the green
rice beds were a shimmering mirage, the plants drying and dying.
"Do something!" I said to the others. "Sit down
sahib, there is nothing that can be done," they said. "Draw
water from the well," I said. "And what will we drink?,"
an old man replied quietly. An earlier planting of seedlings had
already wilted and died and the farmers had had to replant, reaching
for seed into the granaries reserved for food. Like the dogs,
their ribs would protrude long before the rice was harvested four
I had once asked a villager, "what is the worst thing that
could happen to you?" "That's a stupid question, sahib"
he said softly. "Why?" "Because if it is going
to happen, there's nothing we can do to prevent it. And if it
isn't, why should we sit around worrying about it. Accept it.
It is the only way to savor peace." The attitude was anathema
to me. To a Westerner taught that he could alter the course of
his life through science and determination, that he could overturn
destiny and weather adversity, such acceptance of predestination
seemed like mindless surrender. I soon saw the ox as a metaphor
for Terai life. I never was able to embrace their resignation,
despite repeated evidence that they were right and I was wrong.
It was these dichotomies that more than anything made me
realize how different we were and, eventually, made me decide
not to stay a third year.
By late afternoon, every beast has abandoned the ox. The bones,
picked clean, are yellow as the cow dust hour descends on the
Terai. The air resonates with a high keening sound. In the village,
an old, blind, begging troubadour crouches before a door. His
high reedy voice is accompanied by a mesmerizing drone rising
from a wide, upturned brass tray wedged between his bony knees.
On its center he has placed a vaneless vulture feather. He pinches
it between gnarled fingers that slide down its rough shaft, its
vibrations transferring to the brass pan, reverberating outwards
in concentric rings of sound. In the far distance, thick clouds
are moving out of the mountains. Soon, the singer's lament blends
with the hum of a breath strained as though through wires, as
if summoned by the blind man. Perhaps he is only the sounding
board through which its fury is transmitted.
The suspended dust is suffused by the dying sun, the cows are
silhouetted against it as they move towards their byres. Darkness
is slow in coming and when it descends, it is filled with menace.
The breeze rises, the air cools. Over the weeks, in wisps, the
clouds have traveled north from the Bay of Bengal, floated over
the Terai and stacked against the high Himalaya that blocks their
passage to Tibet. Now, cooled by the snow-chilled air, they reverse
direction, moving into the void created by the thermals sucking
heat from the land. The cloud wall halts a few miles north of
the village, billowing Gibralters with bases floating like mirages
a hands-breadth above the silent land.
By 8 p.m., they are beginning to growl. Lightning stutters deep
inside them so they glow momentarily orange, first this one, then
one farther west, then still another, pulsating along a broad
horizon. The wind flees before them, sweeping through the village,
furiously shaking the trees and scattering their leaves. Villagers
bolt their doors. I stand at the northern entrance to the village,
enthralled by the power I am witnessing. The lightning has seeped
to the cloud exteriors. Embossed on the smoldering mounds, silvery
filaments like tracery flit along the surface, thoughts on a gigantic
The wind rises to gale force. The lightning breaks free of the
huddled clouds, striking the ground, momentarily bathing everything
in searing light. Down the winding dirt road from the north, a
woman in a white sari moves towards me, struggling to reach shelter.
In the wind, the ends of her sari flap flag-like, etched momentarily
in the magnesium strobe that illuminates her in freeze frames
beside the skeletal tree reaching bleached bone fingers into the
sky. Dust devils appear in different places with each blinding
Mesmerized by the slide show playing before me, I am startled
when the previously somnolent sky behind me cracks open, a deafening
roar that begins far to the east. Like an endless Chinese firecracker,
the crackling crawls across the back of my head and on to the
west, its sound receding as it falls over the horizon in noisy
pursuit of the dead sun. The woman reaches the village and enters
I, too, hurry home, barring the door as the storm hammers at
the house walls, thin barriers of wattle, mud, and cow dung. Powdered
soil flows over the wide space between wall top and roof thatching.
Borne on the wind is the sound of my friend Ramanand playing his
harmonium and singing "Hare Ram, hare hare Ram" as he
performs his evening devotionals, his only refuge from the raging
By midnight, the wind is dying. Monsoon means "wind"
and this one bears no rain. It is a politician's storm; fury and
din, with nothing of substance or sustenance. But my nose detects
a hint of moisture in an atmosphere that seems charged with electrons,
setting the cows stamping in their pens. Harbinger of the liquid
violence waiting to pour down upon the land, this electric air
hangs over the village throughout the night, the thunder rumbling
across the sky at wide intervals, echoing against the mountains.
The sun rises but, for once, creates no heat. An ominous silence
bereft of bird call or insect cry has descended on the land. The
clouds waiting above the northern plain are now jet black as if
still suffused by the night. By 10 a.m., they begin rolling south,
charcoal masses filling a sulfurous sky. A roaring ocean moves
slowly but inexorably towards me. Soon the neighboring village
disappears behind a gray curtain. A tsunami of rain is moving
towards India, blackening the ground as it advances, the wind
icy where a moment before it was warm. The liquid wall beats a
drum tattoo on the broad leaves of the banana trees beyond the
village perimeter. It enters the village like a black tarpaulin
pulled across the pale earth, so slowly its progress can be measured
in inches. Creeping towards me, turning the earth to glistening
onyx, it reaches my house in torrents, pelting the roof house
thatching, the wind howling furiously. For moments, the rain is
so thick I cannot breath. I am drowning in air. There is no shelter
because the wind drives the rain horizontally along the ground.
Then, it passes as suddenly as it came. In an instant, the sky
is clear, prismatic water drips rainbows from the roof straws.
As I look into the distance it is as if cataracts have been removed
from my eyes. For the first time in months, I can discern individual
leaves sharply etched on a tree. The ox bones have been washed
clean, and the rice in the seedbeds glows a luxuriant green.
Although the storm has moved on to India, it will soon be followed
by more black clouds, and more until the fields fill and the rice
can be transplanted. In this realm of absolutes, it may continue
to fall until the villages are islands in a vast sea, bringing
a new kind of violence as the rats and snakes flee to high ground
and invade the houses. With too little rain, the rice will scorch
in the burning sun. Too much rain and it will drown. And all of
this will be accepted with a shrug of the shoulders. It is the
Terai. It is fate. Submit. Hare Ram.
Other photos of the Terai [Link to 6-A-1-l]