Portland, Oregon, United States
|Yellow, green, red. His family left no expense
to shower him with colorful dust.
Hari Bahadur Adhikari was eighteen-years-old. Some men in city clothes had come to his village. They wanted him to be a laurey, working as a soldier for the British Army. Hari fell in love with the idea of making Nepal proud. But tradition had its say first: his parents wanted him to get married.
So he did. And off he went to India for his training. He became one of the Gurkhas, fighting with what the British gave them.
His wife, Surita, could not read. For many years, Hari sent letters that his friend wrote for him. The village pundit, one of the few that could read at the time, would read his letters to her. Smiling, she would wait in anticipation for a man she did not know. Her heart stirred for this man. Soon word came that Japan had lost. The war was over.
Carrying his worn-down, makeshift suitcase, he lumbered back to the village he called home. Yellow, green, red. His family left no expense to shower him with colorful dust. The dirt that covered him felt assaulted.
Hari and his wife had never really talked. The city men had carted him away as soon as he’d gotten married. There was nonetheless a spark that the letters had forged. Or at least Surita felt it. Whether they liked it or not, they fell in love. And soon they had their first child.
One night, the twilight filtered through the small window of their mudhouse, and Surita could hear the faint crying of her son, Krishna. She rose to see if he was okay. As she fed him, she noticed that Hari was not in bed. Curious, she peered outside of the main door onto the porch. There he was, sitting with his hands folded on his mouth, looking into infinity. Wrapped in a blanket, he seemed lost in the farm that his family had plowed for generations for food and sustenance and work, trying to sustain the rigmarole of their lives.
“Hari?” she called out. He did not respond. She edged closer, and repeated, “Hari?” He did not move. Surita put her baby on the side and gripped his shoulder. His stare stayed fixed until she moved him.
Windows lit up. There was a hubbub in the village, a probing curiosity into the screams that they had just heard. Surita lay at the edge of the porch panting. Her shawl was in the air. Hari was standing, looking at her and Krishna who had begun to cry. Concerned neighbors came out into the cold, covered in their coils of clothing. “I had a nightmare,” Hari explained. And that was the story they all knew.
Both of them aged. Surita had five other children. Two died prematurely. Krishna was now fourteen.
They were a quiet family. Except for the cries of falling and fighting children, they communicated little. But Hari had become more irritable. Every day came with a new complaint. The rice was undercooked. The rice was overcooked. The curry was too bitter. The curry was too spicy. Surita did not say a word.
Sometimes he came home late. She could smell his pungent breath as he lay next to her. And then in random bouts he would leave to go sit outside. At some point, even she started losing sleep. She would talk to her children about his behavior, but they had little to offer except a shared concern. It was though something occupied him. After the counsel of a village elder, she suspected that some witch had cast a spell on him. Her husband, a kindred spirit, had now become prey to strange behavior. Something must have come over him, she resolved.
The jhankri came soon. Carrying his magic powers and covered in flowy rags, displaying the browned vivacity of both character and costume, he held a rusty and blackened trident. When the sun was bright enough, it would reveal its tattered glow.
Surita awoke at 4 am to set up the stick pillars covered with banana leaves. Decorated with daffodils and red powder, the sticks encircled a mud vase. In it, the fire had just started to glow. The jhankri waited at the side.
Surita and her children, brandishing brooms, pushed Hari out of bed. He was struck dumb. They threw water on him, covered him in red mud, and pushed him into the cold with thin clothing. They tied him to the stick facing west, towards the fire, and then the jhankri started to strike him with a leafy broom.
Hari screamed with every strike, every blow. They threw water, they threw mud, and he knew not why.
But soon the pictures flashed in front of him. The fire took him to another world. And he cried with what he saw. Neither Surita nor the children knew what came over him. The jhankri was convinced that the demon that possessed him was leaving.
The day soon ended. All went back to their lives. Hari did not say a word. The children were carrying water, feeding the cows, while Surita toiled away, pensively cooking.
My grandfather died a few years after. My grandmother and my dad Krishna live to tell their history. It amazes me how far we have come in terms of recognizing the psychological trauma from war. At the time, neither my dad nor his brothers did; all of them became a part of the national army, unaware of the trailing gravity of war.
In many ways, however, I know that they, thanks to their military background, understand what my grandfather saw during his military experience better than my grandmother. Some experiences cannot be articulated; in countries like Nepal, where people barely recognize what psychology is, there is no sympathy for people like my grandfather, let alone governmental support.
But today is a new day. And today, at least in the western world, we recognize that veterans need more than just a pension. When I go back, I hope to take this recognition with me to help those who stood still in hard times.
CHRIS THAPA is a student of French literature and computer science at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.