We had come back to our guesthouse in Tulsipur from dinner around 10pm, staying late at a restaurant on the outskirts of town. En route, crossing the rubble streets, lined with vegetable stalls and shops, the only movement disturbing the night was the odd wild dog gnawing on garbage, and a few flickering household lights. Without streetlights, the town’s streets were dark and deserted, and it was as if walking in a post-apocalyptic version of London from 28 Days Later, emerging from a coma to a vanquished civilization. Did we miss the outbreak, and the evacuation? Where is everybody? It’s only 10 o’clock, and we were only gone for two hours.
Here, people wake and kids play as soon as the first rooster crows at daybreak, and all shutter inside soon after the last handful of dal bhat is shoved into mouths at dinner. Television sets sometimes play Nepali and Indian movies and shows into the night, but not late. As soon as the sun stops shining its light, most public activities stop. This is no town of nightly social gatherings, or sipping drinks and tea at local establishments.
In Kathmandu, Nepal’s biggest and most energetic and diverse city, the situation is only a little different. On a Friday night, one can run out of options quickly as the police shut most establishments down early (except for the odd tourist bar), and be in bed sipping tea, thinking “it’s still early for a Friday, and I’m in bed?!” And as you’re driven home in a taxi, you wonder where all the people are, and why everything is so dark – this being the Nepali night of celebration after a six-day workweek. There are no streetlights again, nor stoplights (Kathmandu has one working pair), and few people are walking about (most trying to peddle hashish to lingering tourists in Thamel), outnumbered by the roaming wild dogs.
Nepal is a country shy of the night, and is a place Hemingway would have little patience for.
Apart from evident reasons of poverty and little disposable income to spend on socializing, along with the strains imposed by grueling long workdays, something else is at play here. For this, one must look to the remnants of war and the long shadow it has cast over the Nepali psyche.
Nepal’s Civil War lasted 10 years, between 1996 and 2006, and was between Maoist guerrillas and government forces, ending in a 2006 peace agreement. Throughout the conflict, 15 000 people were killed and around 150 000 were internally displaced. As the conflict matured, tensions and violence mounted, paralyzing most of the country in blockades, curfews, and fear.
Maoist guerrillas would often march into towns, ransacking the place for goods and supplies, destroying factories and police outposts, and whatever other lewd behaviour that came with it. The same can be said of government forces, terrorizing locals and throwing about accusations and threats of sympathizing and supporting the Maoist enemy. Maoists controlled rural Nepal, while government forces controlled Kathmandu, the prized possession.
After the peace agreement of 2006, social and psychological effects of the war linger – one being the fear and horror that would occupy some nights. Not knowing how the night would begin, or end under the curfews. Whether it would be peaceful or violent, whether one’s restaurant’s supplies or farm animals would still be left in the morning, whether one’s children were safe, or whether one would be assaulted and disappeared. As the curfews and the violence became the norm over 10 long years, the fear of the night became engrained.
Pinky, a manager at Backwards Society Education (BASE) has told me that it was not like this in Tulsipur before the conflict. People would stay out later into the night, socializing and hanging out at shops and restaurants and each other’s houses. The sun’s set did not automatically mean an end to the day.
The curfews, and the fears they inspired, changed the meaning of Nepali darkness. For those too young to remember, or not yet born, its lessons are imparted on them by their forefathers and an altered social landscape.
Every night, I can be found lying on my mattress-less bed, reading under a ceiling fan, with nothing else to do. Hemingway’s become a good companion here, appreciating his bar hopping and social ideal more than ever, although still amazed and frightened of his alcoholism.
Posted By Corey Black
Posted Jul 20th, 2011