To Nepal with love
The writer's account of the frequent trips made during his childhood between the 'big city' of Delhi and the township of Birganj in Nepal
Birganj is a bustling little Nepali township, a stone's throw away from the Indian Border. Many years ago it was a small village best known for being the gateway to Nepal across the stream from Raxaul, a similar small outpost on the Indian side.
Some of my happiest memories are of school vacations spent in Birganj, home to my maternal grandparents and an extended family of assorted uncles, aunts and cousins. It was an annual pilgrimage much looked forward to, mostly by train from Delhi to Raxaul from where we would clamber on to a 'taanga' or a rickshaw. A cloud of dust would follow us to Birganj, obscuring any border between the two countries. It has been many years since I last made the journey but recent headlines in newspapers about rumblings from across the border have evoked a more personal rumbling of happier times. It has opened an old family album of black and white memories which have been touched by time but not faded away.
My childhood visits to Birganj did not require a passport or a visa. The only visible changes on entering Nepal were the number plates on cars written ironically in Devnagri script and the shops or 'pasals' as they were called filled with foreign goods. The currency was different too but the Indian notes worked just as well.
My grandparents made a handsome couple — he, a tall imposing man with a humorous twinkle in his eyes which always looked on the verge of breaking into a dance and she a diminutive comely woman who would pinch him sharply on his wrists whenever he cracked jokes at her expense. My grandfather would often sit in the front courtyard ostensibly manning the flour mill where the villagers came to mill their wheat. But I soon learnt that this was just an excuse to lecture and hector the villagers for various acts of commission and omissions. He would scrutinise the coins with a squinted look, rub them, turn them over, and look sharply at the poor villager before dropping the suspect coins into his iron money box with a great show of reluctance. Ignoring the villager's protestations he would then proceed to admonish him for sins that he may or may have not committed but had been found guilty of by my grandfather. The only recourse the poor villager had was to complain to my grandmother who would then shake her head and roll her eyes. My other older relatives did not appear to have any particular vocation except polishing an assortment of rifles and guns in the hope of perhaps successfully using them one day on a hunting trip or on an unsuspecting thief!
Long before Dubai, Nepal was every Indian's favourite shopping destination. A good reason was that the IC (Indian Currency) was stronger than the NC (Nepalese Currency) and you felt like a Dollar carrying it around! Indians flocked to Nepal to visit three major attractions — Pashupatinath, Shwambhu and New Road, not necessarily in that order. The first two quenched their spiritual thirst and the last satisfied their craze for foreign goods. Of course shopping in Nepal brought with it attendant risks as every returning Indian was treated like a smuggler by the Indian Customs. On one occasion I, all of 8 years old, returned home on a flight from Tribhuvan to Palam. After disembarking at Palam, I was grilled by the customs officer who rummaged through my bag pulling out shirts, pants and sweaters subjecting each one to close customised scrutiny much like my grandfather before finally deciding to let me go. I stepped out with the four packets of Rothmans Cigarettes sent by one of my uncles for my father safely secure in the four pockets of the shirt and trousers I was wearing.
For Indians who could not afford overseas travel, Nepal was a perfect destination allowing us to mix temple-hopping with window shopping! Besides, one could take photos with foreign cars in the background, travel in Electric buses which were popular in some parts of Kathmandu, return home with imported goods and generally call ourselves foreign returned at a great discount.
On the other side of the border too, there was a yearning for some, if not all things Indian. For example, Baba Mama, mother's younger brother, was a big fan of Hema Malini. I remember watching 'Dharmatma' with him in Apsara, Birganj's only cinema hall those days. When Hema Malini's character was suddenly disposed of by a bomb before the Interval, Baba Mama's howl of anguish was louder than the explosion on the screen! Others would routinely find excuses to rush off to India at the drop of a sneeze or the faintest hint of a cough coming up for a full medical check-up. One Uncle was so fond of cricket that he would spend months following the MCC team across India whenever they toured the subcontinent. My aunts were also frequent visitors to Delhi, flitting from one market to another buying up bags full of dresses on each trip while their better halves nursed their gins and tonics at our house with my father.
My cousin sisters far outnumbered my cousin brothers. Coming from a family of four brothers and no sisters, I have always been fond of them, all younger to me. As my trips to Nepal became rarer, I found myself looking forward to their visits. Like mothers and daughters, sisters tend to bring a certain composure in your lives like a gentle breeze which calms the waves of a restless ocean. When my mother passed away a couple of years back, cousin Bala rang up and said, "Dai, keep in touch. The elders are all going one by one and we are all that is left for each other."
Indeed, I see India's relation with Nepal in the same way as I see my bond with my cousins and other relatives from Nepal. Treaties and borders are drawn and written on paper but relationships between people are etched in their hearts. The dusty road between Raxaul and Birganj will forever have 'taangas' and rickshaws ferrying people to each other's hearts across an unseen border.
The writer is an IAS officer presently serving as Additional Secretary in Govt. of India. Views expressed are personal