A look back in melancholyThis Fagua marked the end of a distressing year filled with many avoidable and unavoidable deaths.
Seasonal festivals are meant to take stock of the year gone and celebrate the mixed blessings of life with humility and gaiety. The traditional spring festival in Mithila is marked on the day after Fagu Purnima as Fagua in the morning and Chaitavar in the evening.
On the morn of Chaitra Krishna Pratipada of the lunar year, old and young alike go to the symbolic cremation ground where the evil spirit of Holika has been burnt as the representative figure of cheer (tattered cloth) and sambat (timeframe) according to the spiritual and physical interpretation of the ritual.
In the Hindu belief system, the soul is eternal and the human body is merely a garment that has to be burnt on the pyre once it has outlived its utility and had been torn into pieces by the trials of time.
The Sambatsar is a time frame in Sanskrit. The burning of sambat marks the end of a year and celebrates the completion of the winter harvest. The Indo-Gangetic plains observe six seasons. Fagua or Holi marks the blossoming of spring—exemplified by mango flowers—that had begun with Basanta Panchami and will end on Baisakh Purnima.
The third and the political interpretation of the burning of what in Maithili is called sammat (consent) is a figment of my imagination based on the mythology of Holika and Prahlad. The legend holds that King Hiranyakashyapu brooked no dissent from anyone and threw his own son into the fire to the applause of his legion of followers. Contrary to the consensual expectation, however, Holika burnt to death and the dissenting Prahlad survived.
The fable of Holika predates the nightmare of American founding fathers reflected in the observation of James Madison: 'Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob' by aeons. It's the dissenting voice that saves the consensus from turning into majoritarian tyranny.
The consecrated ashes of cheer, sambat or sammat are thrown backwards by the faithful as they recite the mantra of surviving vicissitudes of human existence—'Je jibe se khele phagu, je mare se lekha le'. Roughly translated into English, the chant means that those who survive get to revel in Fagu while the ones that die pass into memories.
The last Holi was lost to the lockdown. Ignoring all pandemic protocols, merrymakers trooped to the Basantapur Durbar Square in Kathmandu this time as if to make up for missed opportunities. Had he not passed into memories, the Nepali Congress leader Nabindra Raj Joshi, 57, would have been there urging restraint.
Being relatively free from pretence or deceit, Nabindra had little hesitation in speaking his mind even to the throngs of frensied revellers often seen at Newa festivities. His sincere demeanour, smiling face and kind tone of voice usually succeeded in disarming even his fiercest of opponents in the political arena.
Though difficult to believe in these times of fungible faiths, he remained a committed cadre of his party. The human memory is notoriously short, but Nabindra will be missed by everyone that came into his contact over a long political career in a relatively short life.
Journalist Sushil Sharma, 62, faded away like the colour from a flag flying solitarily on a hilltop somewhere in serene surroundings. I had known Nabindra longer and met him more often but was somehow closer to Sushil who wasn't too well known for making friends and influencing people.
Late Madhav Kumar Rimal, the founding editor and publisher of Spotlight weekly, had introduced me to Sushil in its centrally-located but spartan office at Kamalpokhari junction in the early-1990s. Over my very short stint as a contributor to the magazine, I found out that Sushil was a formidable editor, a tireless fact-checker and a conscientious reader of dissenting opinions.
Bagh Durbar had stood as the symbolic representation of the Finance Ministry for so long that several of us kept using these expressions interchangeably much after the Kathmandu metropolitan office had acquired the historic mansion to house its office. ‘Corrections to the text of a column is a cumbersome process, that's the reason you have to be doubly sure before putting your pencil to the paper,’ he would comment with the confidence of a critical friend.
In a profession where every journalist is measured by the quality of her latest report rather than the seniority of age or experience, Sushil remained a lifelong learner invariably referred to as a 'senior journalist' even after leaving the media scene. He spent some time exploring an answer to the rhetorical question—Nepal kina banna sakena?, meaning why Nepal has failed to develop. Perhaps he didn't like what he found and stopped exploring after a while.
Contemporaries of Niranjan Koirala, 73, remember him as the dashing young man of the Hotel Soaltee management team who hobnobbed with the royalties in the Panchayat era despite having been a scion of the prominent family of opposition leaders of the system. His admirers have commemorated him as one of the game-changers of Nepal's tourism industry.
But when he passed into memories from his hospital bed in New Delhi, like the falling of a magnificent tree in the silence of a deep forest all I could remember was his inquisitive mind, unassuming manners and easy-going attitude towards a sceptical columnist.
When repeatedly given a choice by powerful politicos of either becoming somebody or remaining what he loved being, he chose the latter to the end of his life. One of the definitions of nobility is that it confers one the freedom from material aspirations. Niranjan would have smiled at the compliment.
Either I didn't know Malar Sada of Pathari in Saptari at all or I knew him so well that his story sounded all too familiar when he died of lockdown-induced starvation. The year 2020 shall remain etched in the memories of its survivors as a period of massive misgovernment, shameful corruption in high places, despicable chicanery and avoidable adventurism.
I knew even less about Surya Bahadur Tamang. Some newspapers identified him as Sher Bahadur, but that hardly mattered—the names of the unclaimed dead become impersonal numbers. But I could readily recognise his emaciated looks and stout legs in the grainy picture.
His ancestors were defeated or tricked into submission by invading Gorkhalis. Barred from serving in the Nepal Army as anything other than orderlies (pipa), some of his forefathers may have carried motorcars of the rulers on their shoulders from Bhimphedi to Kathmandu. Too weak to resist, too meek to fight back but too proud to surrender, Tamangs survive by the dint of hard work and some chutzpah in unwelcome environs.
There was no way I could have known Birendra Kumar Yadav, 30, of Sahid Nagar Municipality in Dhanusha for he had spent most of his life as day labour in distant lands. When forced to return home during lockdown, he died unattended on the Indo-Nepal border under the suspicion of being a carrier of the novel coronavirus. A post-mortem showed that it was hunger and thirst rather than disease that killed him.
On the evening of Fagu Purnima this year, the full-moon hid its face behind the all-enveloping smog as if in shame. The sun the next morning had no glory in its orange colour as its rays failed to burn the haze away. But birds still chirped. We shall overcome, for it's the quality of time—howsoever difficult—that it passes.