The price of sacrifice

“The mouse is almost here. He is almost here. Here he is. I have to run. You go hide.”

That’s the story the mother would tell her child every time she needed to leave.

The girl would run into hiding. The mother would leave for war.

When her child turned four, this was how Amrita Thapa Magar, former brigade commissar of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was able to vanish into oblivion—from right under her daughter’s nose. Leaving her child behind was difficult, but Amrita had to answer the greater call of liberating the masses.

In another time, when politics was not a free profession, in the early 1980s, Astalakshmi Shakya, an underground CPN-UML member, had made a similar decision.  Astalakshmi gave birth to a daughter in 1981, followed by a son two years later. Hiding from the prying eyes of the Panchayati regime was already a difficult task; doing so with kids was next to impossible. So the party asked Astalakshmi if she wanted to continue with politics or get into a different profession while remaining affiliated to the party. She replied, “My kids are the party’s responsibility too. I will continue with the politics. Why else would I have left my home in the first place?”

Astalakshmi told no stories to her kids. They were too small to understand. What she did was leave both her son and daughter, when each turned 15 months old, in the care of party sympathisers and other cadre members.

Amrita did not need to choose that option. In fact, she had never toyed with the idea of having a child while still a full-time member of the Maoist party. A year after she got married to another Maoist leader Hitman Shakya, the war broke out. Female Maoists were frequently told, even by her own comrades, “We will see what happens to all this strutting around you do once you get married and have a child.” But with her paternal grandaunt’s frequent complaints of being lonely and, more importantly, with the old woman willing to look after Amrita’s child, she decided to have a child.

So in 1997, sometime during Dashain, she went to her house in Pokhara to give birth to her daughter. But while the party permitted her to stay there, even as she was stationed in Dharan, it demoted her from a District Committee Member to an Area Committee Member. When Amrita left her two-year-old daughter in the care of her grandaunt and returned to rejoin the PLA, new faces outranked her. She had to now take orders from those who were juniors to her two years earlier.

“Once I lost command, it made me feel crushed. I realised that things had changed and I was not updated about the state of affairs either,” she says.

Humiliated, Amrita fought within the party and ensured that no woman after her would ever be demoted for bearing a child. After Amrita, all women Maoists could rejoin work in the same position they had held before childbirth.

Regardless, and oblivious of Amrita’s political and military ambitions, her daughter wanted her close. And the mouse had stopped being scary. Amrita needed new stories.

“I have to make money to buy you a tie, a tumlet (a waterbottle), your school dress,” she would say and wait for the little girl to go out to play so that she could leave.

“Mother and father could not stay with the child because the king was after them. The monarch would kill them. “

When the girl was around five, she once told Amrita that she had another mom as well–a woman, who had visited her a year ago and seemed to equally love her. That another woman was Amrita herself, but, with the intermittent presence–once in a year–of Amrita in her life, the little girl had forgotten.

The only constant in the daughter’s life was the great-grandaunt, who she stayed with until she was 11, except for a year spent in a hostel in Kathmandu when she was five. When the peace process started, she was sent back to the Capital to stay with the family of her dad’s older brother.  Amrita was reunited with her daughter only five years ago. The daughter is now 17.

Just as Amrita’s daughter mistook her for another woman, Astalakshmi’s children had been extremely confused about whom to call their parents. Mostly because people did not want to shelter a mother and two kids together in one place—it was simply too risky. And when they allowed, Astalakshmi always ran into one problem or the other. Once, her neigbhours thought she was the second wife of the landlord, and it caused great distress to the landlord’s wife despite her knowing the truth. It was equally hard on the kids. They had to be kept hidden within the house at all times. This hampered their growth. The party doctor told Astalakshmi that she needed to leave her children in one place for them to feel at home.

But life underground was already beginning to exact toll on Astalakshmi’s kids. According to Hasina Shrestha, a Kathmandu-based psychologist, “When children reach a certain age, they begin to perceive one among the people around them as a protective figure. When that person is no longer around them, or is frequently replaced by another, the child gets confused as that breaks a pattern in the child’s mind. Grownups often fail to understand this confusion in a child.”

The Panchayat was overthrown in 1990. The People’s War is over. But the years of estrangement still cannot be wished away from the memories. Astalakshmi’s daughter, now in her early-thirties, does not wish to talk about her experiences. For the mother, there is no option but to forget those dark days. “And if need be, to seek help, to cope with its aftereffects,” says Astalakshmi.

Amrita’s daughter admits that it was initially tough living with her mother. “Both of us had difficulty understanding one another,” she says. “But I now understand that my mother is a politician who had to make sacrifices to make Nepal independent.”

Even then, the past will not leave them. When Amrita asks her daughter to do things a certain way, she will sometimes retort with lines such as, “When you were supposed to teach me these things, you left and ran away.”

Amrita can no longer come up with the stories to explain why she did what she did.

Published in The Kathmandu post December 6, 2014.

The price of sacrifice

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