Besi Sahar is waking up to another day of promising business as we step out from our lodge. As the gateway to Ghale Gaun, Lamjung’s major tourist destination, it seems to be thriving. The three-storey buildings, retail shops and agencies dealing in expensive holiday packages stand testimony to this fact.
But just twenty minutes north of the town, there is a large span of nothingness towards which we are headed. We can see the wilderness from our part of the town, there is a long muddy distance between us and the other side of Lamjung. It is mid-July, ropai season. The rains are a curse for our two-night stay, but a blessing for the villagers: balla balla pani pareko. The Marshyangdi River neatly separates the town and villages and connects them with sloping bridges. This town symbolises dreams that have materialized, the village of dreams in the making, ever stunted by limited means.
By the time we reach the village, the rain has defeated us, and disrupted the daily motion of villagers. Mothers battle with time in their rush to send children to school, open the shop or prepare for harvesting. The village falls into eerie silence as we watch a riotous herd of school children cross the bridge to town from a distance. The soaked, discolored prayer flags droop sadly over the trees and imitate the lackluster atmosphere characteristic of a settlement missing half its population.
Our expectant faces are met with instant suspicion by the locals but we are determined to intrude. Dhan Kumari is hurriedly sweeping the house and preparing to head out as we approach her doorstep. She seems slightly put off by this, determined not to have a rainy day in Asaar wasted by a bunch of wandering tourists. Her face softens when we tell her we are students, and changes to confusion when we tell her nothing important would materialize from our enquiry. Our quest to learn about what many have to live seems romantic and futile now.
Dhan Kumari puts a kettle on the mud stove for tea. Her adolescent daughter hides behind the door and peers at us gingerly. “Aren’t you late for school?” I ask. “I skipped today,” she answers. In the absence of her father, her mother needs as much help in the fields this season as she can get. Dhan Kumari hasn’t seen her husband in four years. The only sign of him is the meager bundle of cash she receives every few months and the two-minute courtesy phone calls he makes from Dubai once in a while. She flops down on a wooden stool and lets out a huge sigh, and cupping both hands around the steel glass she takes a noisy sip; she is now ready to answer our questions.
As her petite frame slouches over to rekindle the fire and she habitually grates one chapped hand over the other, she seems to be well beyond her age. It is surprising that she is just forty. For two decades now, life has been a challenge; one she has had to single-handedly triumph. Day in and day out she tends to the small patches of land that her husband legally owns. She has nourished the buffalo sometimes more intensely than her own children. The produce is sold for everyday expenses and her husband’s contributions are exchanged for better possibilities for the children. She has finally managed to send her youngest to a private school in Besi Sahar. I turn to her fifteen-year old daughter who had no such privilege.
“Do you want to get out of the village like your father?”
“Maybe Kathmandu? Or further?”
She laughs awkwardly: half embarrassed, and half eager to respond. But Dhan Kumari cuts her off. “We can’t afford that, she will stay here. There is so much to do in the house anyway,” she says. Her daughter’s eyes water at this and she looks downwards, hiding the embarrassment from us. The present is most important here. Plans are made for today or a month from now. Resources are in short supply, and dreams are suppressed by strict budgets. And with infrequent and often insufficient money being sent home, a family member working abroad is a liability rather than profitable.
“Is your husband ever coming back for good?”
Dhan Kumari shrugs and contorts her face to mean she can’t really tell.
‘This was destined to be’ is the refrain one hears the most from families across the village. “My two younger children don’t know their father,” she says. He is a visitor who brings them sweets every few years, entertains them while he’s here and leaves. In their tender minds, they cannot comprehend why any father would stay in the village and work from home. “My older children understand why he is away and resent it,” she adds.
Dhan Kumari’s was just one out of a dozen more families we spoke to that day. The configuration of members was dissimilar in each house but there was a common theme that tied them together. In some cases it was the wife that expressed exhaustion and at other times aged parents agonized over the supposed fates of their offspring.
Hitman Gurung carries a piece of Lamjung wherever he goes; here in Kathmandu or at an art exhibition thousands of miles across the world. He grew up in the muddy trails along Marshyangdi, watching as familiar faces disappeared in large numbers year after year, usually to pursue an occupation in the military services of foreign lands. He admits to the morbid adaptation that sets in from frequent news of village folks dying in service. Even today, the fate of Lamjung’s villagers are much the same, only now they are dispersed across the Middle East pursuing other labor occupations.
Almost a decade later, Hitman finds himself waiting for a dead body at the airport. It arrives from Dubai in a large wooden box. This particular worker has had the “fortune” of being sent in a proper coffin rather than the flimsy cardboard boxes that most arrive in. Hitman waits as the victim’s family claim the body and follows them to the cremation site in Swoyambhu. The father sits between sobbing relatives with a transfixed expression. The arrival of his son’s body was delayed by months. In between, the mixed phases of horror, disbelief and denial have wringed all energy out of him. Now, he is unable to react to the remnants of his son.
A few days later, I am with Hitman and his colleagues at their Tripureshwor studio. Their newest art project on migrant workers is underway. Its centerpiece, the coffin from Swoyambhu is half-finished. The stench of chemicals from the coffin hasn’t yet worn off. I disguise my alarm about the horror into curiosity. “Wouldn’t it have been less troublesome to build one?” I ask. “It would have. But we knew this would connect us to the issue more strongly. And it has,” he says.
It is past midnight in Adugodi, Bangalore. Hearing drunken brawls in a foreign language at this time has become commonplace for us. But today, the shouting is in Hindi, and in a particularly recognizable tone - we realize it is the Nepali dai from next door. The landlord has locked the cargo-box sized quarter he shares with his wife and two-year old son, and thrown their belongings out on the streets. We wonder what he did wrong during his unremarkable daily routine of opening and closing doors. We wonder if we will see him again. Perhaps we wouldn’t even notice as he is replaced the very next morning by yet another Nepali family: husband, wife and a two-year old child.
Bangalore has a way of instantly becoming home. As unsettled students, we tend to quickly form allegiances with other Nepali folk who protect us in buildings, wait on our tables and clean our homes. In a foreign land, there is such a bittersweet ring to the sound of “Sanchai chau, bahini?” In the day-to-day, these relations become normalized. The Nepali guard at the door nods and smiles as I enter the restaurant; other Nepalis cook and serve food. The barriers between us are translucent, they tend to blur but they do exist. We exchange anecdotes about Nepal as if it is the same country we are speaking of. But our stories of home are not aligned; they only reflect our disparate realities. My Nepali neighbors and I are leaving the city next month, while I am going home, they are escaping yet another world that has eaten them up and spat them out.
Hitman identifies himself as an artist oriented towards contemporary social and political problems. While his techniques of expression transcend the ordinary, the overtones in his work are rooted in realism and reflect a deep and genuine concern for social matters.
The roots of Hitman’s art project on migrant workers set in when Sheelasha, Hitman’s work colleague noticed the idiosyncratic and rather poignant practice of offering tika to the photo of a missing family member during Dashain. This resonated with Hitman, and his own experience of queuing at the passport office with hundreds of untrained, unskilled and often clueless individuals waiting to go abroad inspired them to explore this issue.
The surface area of the coffin is now covered with passport photos of prospective migrant workers from
Nepal to countries all over the world. On each photo, the name of the desired country is written in its respective calligraphy. I ask him why he has written this over the eyes of the individual. “It symbolizes the anonymity they live with as workers in these countries,” he tells me. The coffin signals an extension of that depersonalization, whereby the life of a person is reduced to the size of a box; the diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds that Nepalis identify with are completely dishonored in the process. This part of the project reflects the tragedy of migrant workers from Nepal, a separate series of paintings are dedicated to the desires and intentions people leave the country with. For this series, on each canvas is an imprinted emblem of the Nepali passport. Over it is the body of a headless man, and in place of the head are consumer goods that he is working to be able to afford: whether it is a television, clothes for his children back home, or even marriage.
“What reactions do you expect when the public sees this?” I ask.
“Of shock for sure, but I am hoping it is infused with a sense of awareness,” he says.
Hitman and his team have received much appreciation for this project since its first exhibition in Bangladesh this February. But they are determined to broaden its reach and long term ideas include an exhibition for people who are actually waiting to go abroad. The premises of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would be the ideal space for a public exhibition of this sort. While technical difficulties have stalled the process, this is an attempt to resist the redundant practice of exhibiting art with social messages in only well-lit rooms and to select audiences.
Another project was in progress during my visit to Hitman’s studio. The team had collected objects from the Bagmati and was transforming them into artefacts for an exhibition on climate change. Not long ago, they had worked on a project about pollution in the capital and before that used paintings in a silent rally to promote another cause close to their heart. The team’s work ethics are all about transcending the canvas, becoming involved with issues and placing their art in the wider community. Thinking of the level of depth Hitman had reached with his project on migrant workers, I had asked him, “Don’t you find your projects emotionally exhausting?” “Yes,” he had replied, “Like all art with a purpose should be.”