The Eternal Farmer

The Farmer

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रोउँ त भने को सित रुने
नरोउँ भने मन भरी पिर हुने
चिन्ता बढ्यो झन्
रोएको रोऐछ खुसी छैन मन
रोएको रोऐछ खुसी छैन मन

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A hill far away from Nepal Valley
May 6, 1869

He walked softly along the ridge of sprawling Mandre Daaँdaa. Walked to its southern edge, where the hill suddenly spilled down into a confused mass of bumps, slopes and wrinkles all the way to the Daraudi riverbed. From his hut three hills over, Mandre Daaँdaa had always looked like an elephant’s head in profile. But from here it looked very different… less permanent.

He made his way slowly down the slope, one hand holding onto roots and shrubs lining the sides of the trail, the other often reaching into his patukaa for the khukuri to clear wayward bushes that blocked the almost non-existent trail. Sometimes he slipped on loose pebbles, but the kodali slung snugly over his left shoulder never moved from its perch.

He made it to the bottom, where the hill gave way to the roaring Daraudi winding around what would be the elephant’s trunk before disappearing into other folds of other hills. The sun had already singed through the morning fog and was searing his back and neck. There was a lone cloud floating in the sky. He dislodged the kodali from his shoulder, threw it onto the soft sands of the riverbank, looked up through the shrubs and bushes fed by the river, up the slope and onto the elephant forehead of Mandre Daaँdaa looming over him. Not a single tree on the hill, only a few gnarled stumps which lined the edge of his plot along the right.

The entire region, many hills wide, was part of Ramu Ale’s jagir. Two days ago, with a pressing of thumb prints onto paper containing mysterious words read out to him, this part, Mandre Daaँdaa, had become his to till. He knew he had gotten a bad deal. Ramu Ale’s ruthless negotiating powers had made him the richest dhokre in the village. But he had nothing to negotiate with, and had four hungry bellies to fill. The hill was now his to dig, and by God, he would dig.

He turned around, took stock of the breadth of the Daraudi, ran his eyes along the shore, the sandy banks, the boulders nearer to where he stood, then continued his reckoning towards Mandre Daaँdaa, tracing a straight line towards the slopes and resting his eyes on the first tentative bulge of the hill — about knee-high — that separated the hill from the riverbed proper. All along this separation large rocks provided a natural buffer from the angry forces of the river. Good. He followed the rocky separation towards the left, and located the boundary of his plot, as had been pointed out by Ramu Ale: a small stream that cut an irregular groove into the sprawling hill and separated his till from that of someone else on the other side. There. He would start there.

From his patuka he unhinged an ankhora and a pouch of makai, filled the ankhora in the river and hid the pouch behind a rock. He unwound the patuka and wrapped it briskly around his head. Legs wide apart, he raised the kodali high, and sliced the air in a clean, swift arc.

Swoooosh: the blade bit earth.

Swiiiish: his breath escaped through clenched lips.

Bent down, still holding kodali, he tilted its handle outward. A bladeful of compact earth yawned out of the hill. Now aiming for the lower edge of the first wound on the hill, he raised the kodali high, sliced it through the air.

Swoooosh the blade bit earth swiiiish his breath escaped.

There was now a sliver of clear separation between the riverbed and what would be the first tier of his terraced hill.

Shifting rightward one stride, he planted his legs wide apart again.

raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt shift

Beads of sweat collected on his forehead, trickled down, found the grooves of the many wrinkles which had already set into his thirty-year-old face, fell occasionally onto the metal of the kodali and gave off that sweatrusty smell he had known all his life. The smell of labor. Now the drops of sweat fell onto earth, disappeared. The lone cloud moved from over there to over here, but did not cover the sun.

Before long, he had carved about forty hands sideways through the base of Mandre Daaँdaa. Where he made the cuts, what would eventually become the terrace always hugged the contours of the hill: now bending inward to follow a recess in the slopes, now curving out to accommodate a bulge. The initial tentative shaping of the many terraces he would have to carve out… perhaps even a hundred, depending on the folds of the hill higher up.

Shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt for many more ghadis until he reached the other boundary of the plot: a sharp cliff of exposed rock which covered the right side of Mandre Daaँdaa and dropped sharply all the way down to the level of the winding Daraudi riverbed, probably the result of a landslide long ago.

Next was the hard part, flattening the surface of the first terrace, and fixing the edge of the next terrace across the hill. He would do more leveling later, but for now he just scraped out the smaller bumps on the hill and loosened earth all over the first terrace layer. Then the wall of the next terrace up, this one a little higher than the first, about knee high, still hugging the now slightly changed contour of the hill, still going left to right until he reached the rocky cliff. Again he loosened earth at the surface of the second terrace somewhat, leaving the bulk of the work for another day, and started on the third terrace, carving the wall that would separate it from the second level, working from the edge of the stream towards the right.  

Thus he went back and forth, sculpting the first hint of terraces on the hill as the morning wore on, stopping only for an occasional drink of water. Shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt.

Sometimes he would strike rock with the kodali, which made him wince out of fear that the blade of his precious tool would be damaged beyond repair. But he was lucky that day. The kodali survived.  

By the time the sun had climbed to its highest point in the sky, he had carved four terraces in winding symmetric layers… about a sixth of the way up the Mandre Daaँdaa massif. If our gods had happened to fly past Mandre Daaँdaa on their regular voyages through heaven that day, they would have seen the beginnings of an exquisite hand-carved masterpiece in the making, the contours of the terraces always respectful of the folds of the hills, not violating them but magically reinforcing the natural rhythms, each layer once created looking like it had always existed just so. Terraces crafted in perfect harmony with the undulations of nature. Crafted without the aid of manuals, crafted with no training other than intuitions handed down father to son all over the hills of this land seeped with the sweat, the दु:ख of fifty generations. But the gods did not fly over Mandre Daaँdaa that day. The beauty of the terraces went unnoticed, for he himself was too simple and too busy to notice it.

Exhausted and hungry, he stopped, wiped his brow and walked slowly down the roughly hewn terraces to the riverbed, grabbed the ankhora from behind the rock, walked to the edge of Daraudi, dipped his head into the water to cool down, filled up the ankhora, drank it straight, filled another, drank that straight, and with a third fill of the ankhora, fetched his pouch of makai and walked along the river bed about a hundred steps to a tree with enough shade to cover him until the end of the meal. He unwound the pouch, sank his hands absently into the makai, grabbed a fistful, threw it into his mouth. He stared at the river absently: it was in constant turmoil as usual: angry, confused, destructive. He took occasional swigs of the water, and quite soon was searching through the pouch for the last remaining kernels of corn, either burnt black or unpopped and hard as rocks, but still a satisfying way to end the meal.

Before forcing himself to stand up, he looked at the kodali that he had flung nearby. He remembered carving out the wooden shaft for the handle when the kami had handed him the newly forged blade. The handle used to give him occasional splinters in the beginning, despite his attempts at smoothing it out. But through constant use, it had become a smooth rod of ivory. It even glistened like metal when help up to the light, a result of constant contact with human hand and sweat. He shifted his gaze to the metal knob that firmly held the handle in place. For some reason, that knob was his favorite part of the kodali. The kami’s raw strikes around the knob were still sharply etched, the blows indiscriminately inflicted to force the knob into an approximate shape, but the kami had not spent too much effort on this part, for the knob had to exist to serve a function, but it did not need to stand out. Finally he traced with his eyes the roughly formed bridge that arched and connected the knob to the blade proper… also retaining signs of the kami’s strikes, but now more refined as the bridge curved downwards and opened up into a broad, firm plate, initially still dented somewhat and black with rust, but soon tapering into a smooth flat blade, the pure iron shining from constant use. And finally, the perfect, sharp edge at the biting end of the kodali, the one that would make contact with earth and feed his family.

He looked up, checked the position of the sun, drank a final ankhora of water, climbed up to the fourth terrace and started digging again, slowly crisscrossing the side of the hill until the bones and sinews of his hands ached.

shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt.  

His mind wandered. He thought of the curse that had given him two daughters but no son. Thought of leaving and starting all over in Mughlan. Thought again of his failure to negotiate with Ramu Ale. He knew that half the share was the most anyone had ever paid to dhokres in his village. But he only managed to talk Ramu Ale down to six parts in ten. He had not really thought about how he was going to survive on the meager remains. But now he did, and it made him raised the kodali extra high. He even stepped up on his toes.

Swoooossssh went the kodali. He collected all of his rage into one breath and spat it out. Swwwiiiissssh. The kodali dug deep into earth. He tilted the handle forward. The kodali did not move. Tightening his grip around the handle, he jiggled it with closed eyes and clenched jaws. The kodali did not move. He jumped up in the air, raised his leg, crashed his foot sideways onto the handle.  

मेराठोक्नी !  

The kodali finally gave way and toppled over, biting off a large chunk of earth. He toppled over also, crumpled and defeated with the pain, the heat, the shame. He gasped for breath. Small whines escaped from him. He sat there at an awkward angle, staring vacantly at the kodali, for almost one ghadi. Slowly, his breathing returned to normal, and the emotions drained out.

He pulled the turban off his head, wiped sweat. Spat. Got up. And started digging again.

Shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt.

When the sun had travelled well behind the elephant’s forehead, he squatted at the northern edge of the highest terrace he had dug, and surveyed the day’s work. Not bad. Two more days and he would finish outlining the terraces. Then would begin the more tedious work of leveling and tilling each layer. He would come with a few kodalos, bring his wife (if she collected enough syaula to last a few days) and also hopefully persuade Daaँdaa-Ghare Saila to come help him for a few days. If God favored him, the entire hill would be ready by Full Moon. Then it was all up to the rains. All this planning bolstered his spirits somehow. He still had a few good years left, had able hands, and was free of disease. He would survive somehow.  

He turned towards the immense openness of the Daraudi riverbed. He traced the river to where it disappeared around the fold of the hill over yonder, traced above it layer upon layer of hill that rose in the background, out to the far distance where the snowy mountains were turning orange in the setting sun dotted by wisps of blue-red clouds. The vastness of the hills the mountains the sky caused a quick spasm in his chest. His spirits sank. He suddenly felt very small.

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His Hut
The next day

He sat motionless on the ground face propped up with hands resting on bent knees. He stared ahead with vacant eyes towards the vast openness of the valley cut by the Daraudi river. The slopes all around him were strewn with boulders, rocks and dust that had just come hurling down from higher up the hillsides. To his left, his hut was now just a large heap of wood splinters, mud and straw. Faint smoke streamed out from the corner where the fireplace used to be. His legs were still shaking.

दाइ, दाइ, तिम्लाई मान्द्रे डाडाँ बोलाछ ।

As if in a dream, he heard these hazy words in a young boy’s voice from somewhere behind him.

Slowly he raised his eyes, fixed them at the sky, but otherwise remained motionless. After some time, he managed to squeeze out a word for the boy:

Why?

The earthquake caused a landslide and wiped out the entire hill. It’s just empty open space now: nothing is left. We also lost five huts nearby… they simply slid down like pebbles all the way to the river.

He continued staring at the sky. If he had turned his head right and looked beyond the ridge of the intervening hills, he would have seen clear blue sky, instead of the usual elephant head profile of Mandre Daaँdaa. But he did not look. In fact, he did not even notice the enormous dense cloud of dust that was quietly rising up from the valley below. The tears streaming down his face mixed with drainage from his nose and trickled down to earth. Earth that takes everything and gives so little back.

The thick cloud of dust continued to build, rose up slowly but surely above the valley, rose up to cover the hill across the river, rose up towards the Eternal Farmer and eventually covered everything in blinding suffocating gritty dust.

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Nepali lyrics excerpt from a song by Tiki Maya Gandharba, featured in the documentary The Mountain Music Project.  

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