Saturday, 25 April 2009

Chronicling the truth


The essay form--now fancifully called literary nonfiction or creative nonfiction�has had a very distinguished history in Nepali literature. Within the genre, jail journals have come to occupy an esteemed niche. Whether it is BP Koirala writing from incarceration in Sundarijal or RK Mainali writing about jail time spent under the Panchayat system, literary-minded political activists have shed light on one of the darkest corners of our society, our detention centers and jail cells (or what pass for such), and they have shown us the brutal, and
usually illegal, means by which our governments have suppressed opposition.

Jitman Basnet's jail journal, Andhyaaraa 258 Dinharu (258 Dark Days) is an important addition to this body of writing. The book is a chronicle of the time he spent as one of the hundreds of people 'disappeared' by the state during the counter-insurgency�in this case, via illegal, and secret, detention at the Bhairavnath Gana in Maharajgunj.
Basnet's run-in with the military began after he published an Op-Ed in Mangsir of 2060 Bikram Sambat in the Sagarmatha Times, where he was an editor. In the mock-sincere style of 'A Modest Proposal,' he appealed to Gyanendra Shah to give away the assets he had inherited from his murdered family members, as a way to boost his waning popularity. Readable, spirited and entertaining, the Op-Ed attracted a great deal of attention�including from the military.
Shortly afterwards, several men in plainclothes came to a tea shop that Basnet frequented, and�without an arrest warrant�whisked him off in a waiting van to the Bhairavnath Gana. There began his harrowing ordeal of surviving beating, caning, water-boarding, humiliation, starvation, isolation, and threats to be shot or buried alive. The military was convinced that under torture, Basnet would give them information about the Maoists. The only thing they succeeded in doing was entrenching in him a belief in the inviolability of human rights law.
Basnet has the intellectual rigor of a lawyer and the language skills of a writer. This makes his book valuable as a legal testimonial, as well as very moving as the story of one man. It will be a rare reader who will not forever shudder, after reading this book, at the Bhairavnath Gana. This is a brave book. Basnet names names and exposes the barbarism (and rare kindnesses) of colonels, soldiers and jailers alike, revealing, also, the lies that the military systematically offered to those inquiring after their captives. Particularly appalling is the cat-and-mouse game that the military played with the ICRC, lying shamelessly, falsifying documents, and hiding scores of blindfolded detainees in wayside trenches during barracks inspections. The OHCHR, and anyone hoping that the military can be reformed by a few cosmetic changes and a few human rights training courses needs, very urgently, to read this book, to understand what an immature, unprofessional and dissembling organization this is.
It is impossible not to wonder, upon reading Basnet's book, about the lies that Kathmandu has maintained (and still maintains) about the war. Over 900 people remain missing today. Basnet's descriptions of a few fleeting captives at the Bhairavnath Gana�people brought into the barracks, tortured, and evacuated to god-knows where�are among the most harrowing passages in the book. Could these captives have been some of those still missing?
And surely a good-faith investigation into all that took place at the Bhairavnath Gana (and the barracks at Chisapani, Panchkhal and other sites of state crimes) would help us understand, at last, what we have been through. We are at an extremely formative time in our history; we are trying, collectively and not without psychological trauma, to understand who we are, and decide who we want to be. This cannot happen till we understand who we have been. Just as the Maoists must be made to take responsibility for the violence they have perpetrated, the state must take responsibility for its crimes. It can begin by preserving the physical infrastructure�at the Bhairavnath Gana, this could be the squash hall, inquiry tents, garage and mass detention centers, and vehicles used to abduct captives�as public memorials. We should be made to look at, and ponder over, these honest artifacts of our society.
There appears to be, though, a wish on the part of many political leaders and social activists, not to mention bilateral aid-industry and INGO/NGO employees, to emphasize reconciliation, while glossing over the little problem of an absence of truth. Andhyaaraa 258 Dinharu makes for instructive reading for such people. The one message that comes across clearly is that there can be no reconciliation for the victims of a dirty war without first acknowledging the truth.
The book is equally instructive for writers. There has been, in Central America, a vibrant tradition of testimonios, of which Rigoberta Mench�'s Nobel-winning account, I, Rigoberta Mench�, is the most well-known. Basnet has had the considerable advantage of language: He wrote his own story. But in the case of most of our war's victims (as in Mechu's case) it would take a writer to venture out, meet victims, record their stories and write what they find.
In present-day Nepali poetry, there is much emoting about republicanism. But here, as in prose�both fiction and nonfiction�the war is a scarcer presence. The war did not in fact appear in Nepali literature till Govinda Bartaman's 2004 Sohra Saanjh. It reappeared in Narayan Wagle�s Palpasa Caf�. And it should not go away so soon. Nepali writers can learn from Jitman Basnet how to be witness to the war.