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The Terai: Waiting for the Rains
Appears in the book, Travelers Tales Nepal
 

The 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, dogs foremost.

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. Shiva's minions.

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 ignored them.

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 all else.

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 coughing.

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 months later.

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 brain.

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 flash.

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 her house.

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 gusts.

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]

 

 
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