Photo: Constantin Stanciu/Shutterstock

Disappeared in Kathmandu

Kathmandu Narrative Activism
by Robert Hirschfield Sep 15, 2014

On the rooftop restaurant of the Alobar1000, whenever a joint gets smoked, a Kathmandu tradition is kept alive. A toke in Kathmandu is like a prayer in Jerusalem.

As an old Westerner whose ’60s generation of spiritual seekers and drug worshipers inspired Nepalese to name a street after them (Freak Street), I’m filled with nostalgia by the ignited weed, despite my lackluster history as a drug user, despite this being my first time ever in Kathmandu.

I find myself looking around for old-timers whose umbilical cords with this city were never severed. I’ve met some who winter in Goa. A little addled, still sweet on the weed, given to choppy notions about spiritual states.

Every now and then, in Thamel, between one flotilla of motorbikes and another, I’ll see a white-haired man like myself and wonder if he was part of that tribe whose migration here may have been little more than a rebellious itch in need of an exotic scratching place.

I invite Manjima Dhakal, a victim of Nepal’s 10-year-long Maoist-led rebellion (1996 – 2006) against King Gyanendra, to the Alobar. At 22, she’s roughly the same age as many of my co-residents on the guesthouse rooftop, eating late brunches after a late night of drinking, talking, texting, making out.

Manjima’s brown eyes are so deep I feel almost as if I can embark on a mini trek in them.

She was seven when the police seized her father, Rajendra Dhakal, a lawyer and human-rights worker, in Gorkha. Accused of being a Maoist, he was taken away and never heard from again. He became one of the thousand or so “disappeared.” The security forces loyal to Gyanendra and the Maoist guerrillas were both guilty of absconding with suspected collaborators or political opponents, sometimes torturing them before killing them and randomly burying their bodies.

I decided to write about Nepal’s disappeared because many years ago, in Bolivia, after Che’s death, I “disappeared.” Plucked out of night by men who stuffed me into an unmarked car and deposited me in a black cell in a La Paz detention center. I felt erased. I felt a momentary emptiness that was quickly filled with fear. Did Manjima’s father feel what I felt as he was being taken away?

“The peace agreement that ended the war in 2006,” Manjima says, “gave a higher priority to the needs of the parties that opposed the monarchy (the Communist Party of Nepal Maoist and the Congress Party) than to the families of the disappeared. After eight years, we are still waiting for our loved ones, or for their remains. We are still waiting for the perpetrators to be arrested and brought to trial.”

The Nepal of lofty mountain passes and prayer flags in the wind gives way in my mind to the pitiless gray space of any post-war society. I know from my interviews that the Maoists resisted having their guerrillas prosecuted, and that Congress was unwilling to have Nepali security forces stand trial.

“What do you remember about your father?” I ask Manjima.

“I remember the poem he wrote me for my birthday when I was little. I can’t recall exactly how old I was. I am afraid there is a lot about him I am now unable to recall. But I have managed to adjust somehow to losing him. I know a girl whose father also disappeared, but she never recovered psychologically.”

In between questions, I catch Manjima stealing quick looks at the Westerners. Shy looks. What does she make of them? Post-political Europeans, they no longer tote around historic burdens the way she does. But it’s Europe she wants to migrate to, disappear into. Europe where progressive politics was born. The politics of Rajendra Dhakal.

Caught between Manjima and the travelers on our periphery talking about Pokhara, Angkor Wat, Bali, I’m seized by my unreliable, geriatric sense of the present tense. The 20-somethings seem as far as they are near. I think of hauling myself down the alleys of Thamel to Freak Street. But what do I need with a shell and its display case of ghosts?

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