Print Edition - 2017-06-17  |  On Saturday

Lest we forget

  • Radha Paudel’s Jumla: A Nurse’s story is an important and illuminating read, a book which at its heart is a story of common people caught between a rock and a hard place
- Sanjit Bhakta Pradhananga
The translation into English has been tastefully done, which itself can be a rare feat in Nepali publishing. The translation is simple, oftentimes literal, which can work as a double-edged sword

Jun 17, 2017-Last week, following a characteristically long, and occasionally barbed, tirade by KP Sharma Oli and a conspicuously short cameo by Sher Bahadur Deuba in the Parliament, Pushpa Kamal Dahal walked up to the pulpit and began his speech by admitting he was unsure about how long his own address should be, given the two starkly different precedents. The lawmakers gathered burst into a collective laugh. At the session, in voluntarily handing over the reins of the government, Dahal not only proved that he was a seasoned politician but was also able to arrest his falling stock in some measure. In the short span of a decade, the Maoist Chairman has proven that he is a natural at the political game, seamlessly becoming a part of the establishment that he once set out to turn on its head.

Much has changed since the Comprehensive Peace Accord was signed in 2006, ending the decade-long Maoist insurgency. A man we once knew just through a grainy photograph has become a two-time prime minister, rebel fighters have been absorbed back into society and the districts worst-affected by the conflict have become hubs for development and foreign aid projects. Time has ebbed away and the conflict that claimed nearly 18,000 lives is slowly receding from memory.

But with so many human rights violations and the stuttering transitional justice process cleanly swept under the carpet, is this ‘normalisation’ normal? Especially for some of us cloistered in our urban cocoons—where ‘capacity building’, ‘knowledge transfer’ and ‘social cohesion’ have become the lingua franca—the horrors of the insurgency can seem like a distant past, a different country altogether.

Which is why I found the English translation of Radha Paudel’s Madan Puraskar-winner Khalanga ma Hamala—Jumla: A Nurse’s Story—to be such an important and illuminating read. Part-memoir, part-social commentary, the book is an apt reminder that even if our memories might be faulty (and forgiving), the scars and traumas of the war live on, refusing to be forgotten.

Tracing the author’s journey from her poverty-stricken childhood in Chitwan to being posted as a health worker in remote Khalanga at the height of the Maoist insurgency, Jumla is not just fascinating because it recants a first-person account of one of the most deadly raids launched by the rebels during the war; but because of its neutral narrative—that lampoons both security forces and the Maoist guerrillas—the book is at its heart a story of the commoners caught between a rock and a hard place. More than being just a “war journal” about the attack on Khalanga on November 14, 2002, Jumla is about the Sunil Dais and Goma Bhaujus who lived in perpetual fear of retribution from either of the opposing forces; their communities wrecked by a deep sense of distrust among neighbours, let alone strangers.  

As a health worker first, Paudel also uses vivid and painful portrayals of women who have not just been pushed to the margins of society but are dangling between life and death for want of access to rudimentary healthcare; laying bare the systemic problems and abject poverty plaguing communities long before and still after the Maoist insurgency. In the seven year old girl raped by her own cousin; a 60-year-old woman who hid her uterine prolapse for 18 years with the base of torchlight which over the years attached itself to her internal muscles and Jumli mother’s dying during childbirth in the absence of simple surgical procedures, the readers find poignant reminders that the seeds of the discontentment and disillusion with the State and the systems that govern it are multi-faceted and run deep and wide.   

Jumla is also fascinating because it’s not merely a log of events that took place in Khalanga, but because it comes replete with existential musings of the author on the events and situations she had been thrust into. “Whose sons were they? Whose husbands were they? Whose fathers were they?” she asks, as she is helping clear out a river bed of corpses buried in shallow graves after the attack in Jumla, “There were no answers although their bodies had rested on the banks of the Tila River for the past four months. For the shooter, it was just another shot and their comrades hadn’t even tried to save them. How cheap had life become? Imagine how they would have called for help with their throats parched and how hopeless they must have felt when nobody answered. How many days must they have cried alone, thinking about their families? We hadn’t realised for four months that their tears had mixed with the waters of the Tila River. There were so many other tears we haven’t seen.”

That being said, Jumla does occasionally drift into a “self-congratulatory” tone—where the author puts forth a laundry list of the organisations she is involved with and the good work they have done—that steal from core narrative. Particularly, at the very end, where the longwinded description of her ‘Miteri Village’ project read like a forced, commercial, add-on. 

The translation into English, by Dev Paudel and Ishan Gurung, has been tastefully done, which itself can be a rare feat in Nepali publishing. The translation is simple, oftentimes literal, which can work as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it does make the book an easy read that is accessible to all, but on the other, you are left with the feeling that some of the literary prose from the original work failed to transfer over into the new book.

All in all, in Jumla: A Nurse’s Story, you will find that an important story is now being opened up to a new set of English readers, whose core reading about the Civil War perhaps had been limited to news reports and second-hand anecdotes. Particularly for those like me—rocked to passivity by our urban bubble—the book was an eye-opener; one that will hold relevance not just in our current state of gradual amnesia about the insurgency, but for future readers as well. 

Published: 17-06-2017 08:25

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