Fire and Strikes:
Politics of Power
The sun bursts through my window as it does every morning, lighting up the room and sidelining my alarm clock. But it feels different this morning. It is still bright and hot and humid. It smells the same….of course, it is quiet. It’s never quiet. Where is the customary racket of motorbikes and music and barking and bellowing? I have come to accept, and even expect change but this worries me. I scramble out of my mosquito net and look through the window. A stray cow munches on some rubbish but otherwise no sign of activity. There is no-one there.
Reassuringly my morning routine then proceeds as normal when my chai wallah places a cursory knock on the door and walks in. He smiles, wrinkling his face further and concealing his eyes. He is always amused by my mosquito net.
“What is happening?” I enquire as I hand over a few crumpled notes.
“Oh, just another banda. Nothing important.”
Bandas, or strikes, are common here. But this one is unusual. It is normally not this quiet. While generally chaotic affairs, often happening on a spur, they do however tend to follow a list of unwritten rules usually allowing some things to remain open. It is probably to be expected. The tension has been rising here recently in the build-up to the next constitution deadline- the “Last Deadline” we are told. Collectivist action such as this brings the government to the table, as it probably does everywhere. An earlier strike was even called by a radical group of medical students. Such solidarity is powerful.
My sweet tea provides the energy boost that convinces me to go to work. Doused in mosquito repellant, I cycle to the office along the empty roads just as the morning heat is starting to build up.
Our staff have come to work, but nothing happens today. Everyone is sitting around the table with newspapers strewn across it drinking tea, ruminating.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“The energy problem. Again.” Today turns out to be a double whammy banda over the continued lack of electricity and the new lack of petrol. At its worst there is electricity for only six hours a day. And those precious hours are often found hiding in the middle of the night. As if hearing our conversation, the fan gradually slows and stops. Breaks in power are normal, but it does not make things easier. The growing heat adds to their anger.
“Corruption!” someone shouts to a chorus of nods. “It’s down to corruption. They’re all taking the money.”
“Of course they don’t care.”
“With their private generators, they don’t even notice.”
The particular topic of annoyance is the re-stalling of the flagship hydroelectric power station. It was meant to provide many times what the country needs but is now nearly a decade late and out of money.
While I nod sympathetically, my dilemma is far more serious: it is avoiding the wrath of Sita. I am meant to be meeting her and she is not going to be happy if I cancel. Sita is a pint-sized, firebrand mother of a child in our study. I have always admired her from the moment she stormed into our office asking us to treat her son. It turned out that the little boy beside her was not her son but she was trying to convince us anyway. Later, long after I thought she had gone, I saw her standing on the veranda arguing with one of our staff. This is not normally somewhere were women argue so openly with men. Thankfully my concern was abated when I realized that it was only about politics. They both supported different parties. Neither showed any signs of relenting to the other’s views; a dogma that only politics, or possibly religion, can evoke.
Anyway, I was supposed to be interviewing Sita today. Through a series of intermediary neighbours, I call her to apologise for not being able to make it and to rearrange. I end up agreeing to ignore the banda and to come anyway. Apparently foreigners on bicycles are exempt. Another one of the unwritten rules I am told.
As if challenging the sun to midday duel, I leave the office and step into a wall of heat. My spring-hinged seat does little to placate the bumps but the lack of people makes the journey less challenging. I wander through the streets trying to match them up with a mental map I had created until I accidentally find her house. It is in the middle of the town down a dark, crowded alleyway.
An elderly semi-clothed man is sat watching me as I near. He shows no sign of activity until a little toddler startles him into life. He acknowledges my presence and then, after this disruption to the day, he continues with his contemplation. I knock on Sita’s door, take off my shoes and cautiously walk in, carefully avoiding a line of ants on the smooth mud floor. She appears smiling from the dark kitchen. Sita is probably in her late twenties. She is dressed in a brightly coloured sari contrasting with her pale complexion, that is highly prized in these parts.
She tells me to wait and then runs away to get a chair. I am then placed on the chair and of course offered more tea. It would be rude to refuse. She crouches down on her haunches beside me. Beads of sweat emerge from the shawl that is wrapped around her head. Despite the heat she makes sure to preserve her modesty.
I want to know about her cooking. Like most women here Sita cooks with wood or animal dung or something even less combustible. With all the efforts to battle the evils of tobacco smoke, it seems odd that indoor fires are ignored when the exposure levels are so very high. Unsurprisingly it affects poor women far away from those who make the decisions.
I ask her about what she uses for cooking. I want to know what she thinks about this, why she tolerates it. She seems happy to talk about the subject, though is a little bemused that I am so interested. I am worried about her health. But Sita wants to know about me. She too is worried. Why does this 30-something old man not have children? And a doctor at that! There must be something wrong with him.
She takes me into the kitchen. The smoke is dark, thick and noxious. She picks up different kinds of wood to show me. The backs of her hands are smooth and covered in henna tattoos from the recent festivities but her palms are coarsened from the decades of work. My untrained foreign eyes can hardly cope for the minute I am in there. It is not difficult any more for Sita. She says it only irritates her eyes when she has to blow on the fire and the smoke is more of an annoyance. Embarrassingly I involuntarily start to cough and am taken outside.
We go back to the small courtyard. Some friends have come to watch the spectacle. They sit beside us, silently swaying their heads in unison on a point of agreement. I want to know why she uses these fuels.
Aside from the cost implication, “when I use gas, the food has no taste. And the gas is dangerous!” She points to a cylinder and mimics an explosion. The immediate catastrophe outweighs any longer term insidious ones. They don’t like the gas, but electricity would be useful, especially at night. And with the power cuts, she has to buy fuel for the lights. This is so expensive as the fuel is currently being rationed. Rationed away from her.
In the midst of the conversation, I feel a presence behind me. Her husband appears. He is a small, dark man, with grey stubble on his face. He watches us closely with his powerful eyes, sucking on the paan in the side of his mouth. He seems curious rather than annoyed. The women quieten momentarily in acknowledgement of his presence, but then quickly pick up the volume again.
The main problem for all the women is getting the fuel. It takes about an hour and half to go to get wood. For the best wood they usually go to the forest around the cigarette factory but crucially success depends on the mood of the security guard. So some days Sita wastes an hour of walking and does not get anything. Recently she has had the luxury of buying wood. But this depends on how much work her husband gets. He is a labourer who lives precariously on a daily wage. She tells me he has just become ill with TB so her trips to the cigarette factory have started again. We all turn to him but he shows no response. Sita does not want to dwell on this.
I want to bring her back to the smoke.
“Do you know how the smoke can harm you?” I ask innocently. Thoughtlessly.
She knows it is a leading question and smiles with a quizzical look of someone unsure of how she is meant to react. I did not mean to make her uncomfortable.
I incompetently try to reframe the question: “Umm, do you think, maybe the smoke might not be good for you?” But it is too late.
“What does it do? Will it be harmful to me? To my children?”
I find myself backed into a corner. There are now four women sat in a semi-circle around me waiting expectantly. Do I tell them about all the nasty particles and chemicals at concentrations so much higher than any guideline allows? Is knowledge without opportunity really helpful? I decide I have to tell her and we talk at length about what they might be able to do. They come up with a simple plan of kitchen redesign. Seeking my approval two of her friends offer to move their stoves. This provokes another round of head swaying. Her husband then suggests creating a hole in the wall. To seize the moment, Sita jumps up and starts moving things straight away.
But this is only the start. Sita has another issue to discuss. She knows I cannot help but I think she wants to take advantage of the audience that has built up around us. We move on to the broken tap. About the problems with getting it fixed even though it is easy to do. She tells me how she joined a demonstration to the regional office to sort it out. She complains about the local ruling party, telling me what they could do better. Despite her political interests, to my surprise she even longs for the return of the king. I am curious, would she consider going into politics? I tell her that she would be good at this, as she seems to know what to do. She laughs and shakes her head. “Not possible. I am uneducated. And anyway, I have no time.” Sita spends five hours a day preparing meals.
The women have more pressing matters to attend to so, saddened and inspired, I get up to leave. Sita invites me to help her collect some firewood. I don’t know whether it is just the novelty of having me around but I guess she probably wants me to carry the wood. She’ll call me next time she is going.
Soon after I return to Kathmandu things worsen. A bomb is planted close to our office, in the middle of a demonstration, killing four people. It is a clash between two separatist groups who both want similar, but crucially, slightly different things. A ghastly rarity or the beginning of a heightened period of violence? We don’t know the answer yet. So the political turmoil continues. The answers may be clear to those who know. But those who know are usually not asked.