Pronounce the word Mithila and the picture of ornate Janaki Mandir and its late Mughal architecture with Rajput influences comes immediately to mind. The temple is one of a kind in Nepal. However, this Naulakha Mandir is relatively late implant in an area that had been claimed by forest and then discovered by Hindu seers multiple times. Erected at the orders of Maharani of Tikamgarh, a Bundela princess from the Vindhyas in central India, the holy edifice dedicated to Goddess Janaki is barely a century old in a region where history—or collection of myths—dates back several millennia.
According to the legends, at its apogee the Maithil civilization spanned the land between Mechi-Mahananda in the east, mighty Ganga in the south, Narayani-Gandaki in the west and Mahabharata ranges in the north. The vast expanse hosted numerous settled societies, some warlike and itinerant tribes, and even a few fiercely independent fiefdoms that rose and fell with the swing of mercurial Kaushiki River. But they invariably remained cultural tributaries that ultimately enriched the diversity of Mithila.
Its decline probably started when the Maurya Empire (322 BC–185 BC) subsumed it and claimed its entire heritage. By the time of Mughals (1526–1857), Maithil scholars had either fled or withdrawn themselves into cocoons and the once flourishing civilization had begun to decay from within. Mithila nowadays evokes images of decrepitude, despondency and despair. North of the international border—the Nepaliya Mithila—however bursts forth occasionally with tremendous energy. Even disturbances are proofs that the region is alive and possibilities of rejuvenation still exist.
Some of them may hesitate to accept it for reasons of political expediency, but the entire line-up of Madheshi leadership—from Upendra Yadav and Mahanth Thakur to Jay Krishna Goita and Jwala Singh—is essentially Maithil. The president and vice-president may have chosen to champion Nepali and Hindi respectively for partisan reasons, but they are illustrious sons of Mithila. The NRN concept took shape under the stewardship of Upendra Mahato, yet another Maithil prodigal. Despite centuries of subjugation, Mithila continues to be remarkably fecund.
When a bomb blast ripped through a group of peaceful protestors, creating perhaps the first five linguistic martyrs in country’s history, it was time to take a break from watching endless rounds of political seesaw in the capital city and savor the sweet summer of Mithila. The taste of tangy Tikula (raw mangoes), intoxicating scent of Mahua (madhuca longifolia) flowers combined with the flavor emanating from the earth when first rain drops fall on parched grounds have the power to energize even the most jaded imagination.
The trip begins on an anxious note. A well-wisher from Biratnagar suggests deferring the trip as a banda had been announced on the day of the journey. There is a slight problem however: The airline declines to postpone or cancel a discounted ticket. Recently someone went to court over similar issue in the US where judges observed that while the airline was justified in deducting appropriate handling charges, it could not refuse to reschedule or refund the passenger. Information that “conditions apply” in the fine print does not imply that a carrier can get away with everything. Consumer consciousness being low, commercial establishments in Nepal behave as if they are doing customers a favor by serving.
Fortunately, a co-passenger had arranged for a vehicle to be picked up from the airport. Riding along relieves worries of being stranded at the very beginning of the trip. The driver, however, has his own cup of woes. Pump after pump in the main industrial town of the country prominently display ‘No Diesel’ signs. Along the highway, apparently there is some trouble in Ithari. The talkative charioteer of the diesel-starved vehicle takes a longer detour and pushes through minor roads directly into Inaruwa where a large gathering of Muslim protestors is being addressed in Nepali. Another distinctive feature of the mass meeting is its composition: The crowd is almost entirely male. That may not be so portentous in Nepal, but experiences of communally-charged towns in India have shown that protest rallies without female presence have higher propensity towards abusive language and carry more risks of turning violent.
At the cradle of Madhesh Uprising in Lahan, old animosities between Pahadis and Madheshis seem to have melted away in the heat, but acrimonies persist. Participation at the Youth Social Forum in Lahan is mercifully mixed. However, even in an assembly of youngsters between the age of 16 and 20-something, community composition of the gender divide is hard to miss: Most girls are Pahadis while Madheshi participants are predominantly boys. It is needless to blame Hindu lawgiver Manu alone for the status of women in Maithil society. Gender inequality can also partly be attributed to male insecurity that comes from the inferiority of belonging to a colonized community.
Floor discussions in the assembly veer toward guarded rancor. Pahadi participants are sanctimonious and patronizing. Madheshi youths seem to be having a hard time controlling their annoyance. Apparently, it would require a lot of effort to explain to self-righteous Pahadi social entrepreneurs that troubles of being a poor in the ruling community and the trauma of belonging to the externalized section of a subjugated population is not the same thing.
The next morning, a pillion ride on the motorcycle of a youth activist from Godar in Dhanusha is akin to attending a seminar on causes of disenchantment consuming Madheshi youngsters. With an attentive audience of one, the boy pours his heart out. Coming from a mixed settlement of Maithils and Magars, he is aware that complete segregation or full equality is not possible and violence is no solution but what else can an energetic youth do if he has experienced enough not to buy the argument that Madheshis and Pahadis have lived in harmony for centuries? Perhaps the boy has been paying more attention to his passenger than the surface of the road. Flat tire strands us both somewhere close to Rupani. It is load-shedding hour, so the puncture cannot be mended.
Hosts from Rajbiraj arrange for an alternative transport within minutes. This time the visitor from Kathmandu is to ride triple on a motorcycle. Time for another pillion ride turns out to be yet another seminar on frustrations of Madheshi youths.
The wind makes it difficult to hear the lanky boy sandwiched between rotund motorcyclist and his terrified guest clinging desperately to the seat at the back. “No matter,” comments the young reporter, “I will switch into Nepali!” Apparently, he also believes that one tends to talk louder in an acquired language. Could that have been the reason the Muslim haranguer at Inaruwa had chosen the ‘national’ language to communicate with his fellow Maithil Muslims? The young scribe is convinced that a fresh wave of violent irruptions is inevitable, as nothing has changed on the ground for people like him.
Leaders debating forms of government and federalism in Kathmandu seem to have no idea about the stress building up under the ground beneath their feet.
Interactions with Federation of Nepali Journalists and leading luminaries of intellectual society in Rajbiraj give little cause for cheer. While it is encouraging that some Pahadi Bahuns have finally begun to speak Maithili, a faint hint of disquiet in their tone is unmistakable. The Madheshi elite seems to have failed to convince their Pahadi neighbors that future under Maithil leadership would be more accommodative than it was in the past.
Only a deeply wounded pride coupled with vengefulness could have caused the renaming of Pokharel Tole as Sarvodaya Tole in a hurry without first assuaging remaining Pahadis that building harmony was the real intention. It would have been sacrilegious to leave Rajbiraj without paying one’s respect to physically ailing but intellectually still inspiring Ram Raja Prasad Singh. Surprisingly for a person of his age, health and experience, Singh prefers to dwell upon future rather than share memories of past struggles.
The next day, yet another banda has been called, this time by Majhis, an occupational caste of fisher folks that are vital for the survival of life along banks of Koshi River. The bus leaves early to take advantage of the dawn—banda enforcers are invariably late-risers—but it still has to face minor obstructions on the way. A fellow passenger in the overcrowded rickety vehicle glowers at the visitor obviously from Kathmandu—who else would don a half-jacket in May in Madhesh?—and thunders, “If I didn’t have a job, I too would be out on the road with them smashing vehicles!” Quest for dignity too is essentially to ensure equitable economic opportunities.
Janakpur banda has crippled transportation from Dhalkebar onwards the ancient capital of Mithila and beyond. It is going to be yet another backbreaking pillion-ride on a motorcycle. The prospect of straining the ear to listen to the angst of one more Maithil youngster, however, reduces the fear of an arduous journey.
Leaders debating forms of government and federalism ad nauseam in distant Kathmandu seem to have little idea about the stress building up under the ground beneath their feet. Meanwhile, the clock ticks menacingly.