At the beginning of the 1970s, the place I was going to call my home for much of my life got a new name. My grandfather migrated to Chitwan’s fertile plain around the same time. That was also the time when the initial trickle of migrants from Nepal’s mountains to many of these places along the east-west stretch was turning into a torrent. The name change was a simple story: The then king’s mother had visited this place around the same time. That was when it got its new name. Instead of Bakulahar, it became Ratnanagar Tadi, after that day’s royal visitor. During that same visit, the Chepangs were told they were no longer Chepangs. That was too uncivilised. They are Prajas from now onwards, or subjects of their beloved royal rulers. Some of them were assembled down from their hill homes to get new citizenship cards with their new name. This was a time of royal frenzy of naming places after kings, queens and their predecessors and progeny. The royal rulers wanted to immortalise themselves in places and peoples.
Bakulahar means wave of cranes (“baku” means crane in the local Tharu language, and “lahar” means wave). In those days, it was very common to see white lines of these birds against the background of a clear, blue sky sail by with spectacular glides. It was also common for kids to see them waiting for their prized fish in the marshes and ghols that dotted the landscape. Local Tharus collected ghungis (marsh snails) and fished with their nets and traps. Most of Chitwan was under thick forest until the early years of the 1950s. The forest had scattered patches of wetlands, ponds, marshes, small streams and springs. By the 1970s, a large part of the forest had come under the plough.
Nepal began its tryst with progress in the early 1950s. As the first step, Americans brought in DDT. Once malaria was largely under control, there was no stopping the waves of land-hungry migrants. DDT was part of a bigger package that included plans of converting these malarial and “unproductive” forests into vibrant and productive agriculture, modeled as a miniature version of some of the mid-western agricultural towns in the U.S. The Americans came with some of the agricultural know-how they had developed. They had been reaping bumper harvests of corn from the prairie soil. They thought, with expected bits of arrogance, that somehow hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers, multi-horsepower tractors and combine harvesters were responsible for the mega-tonnage of corn they were harvesting. They did not want to believe that they were essentially mining the many-feet deep fertile soil built by nature’s cycles over millions of years.
The forests of Chitwan fell to bulldozers. The undulating hills that characterised Chitwan’s forest landscapes were leveled. Many of the marshes and wetlands were filled with forest-floor soil. The huge sal trees (Shorea robusta) made the hearths burn and gave much needed wood for the new homes of the migrants. The migrants laboured and harvested bumper crops of maize and canola. The Americans helped set up Nepal’s major agricultural training and research centre in the western part of Chitwan. Much of the trees were gone. Chitwan became famous for bicycle-riding, sari-clad women. Even with all this, networks of water bodies still adorned the edges of the fields, settlements and forests until the mid-1980s. The price of land still depended on how much it could produce.
In 2008, I visited my home after several years of living outside the country. I met one of my college friends who told me that the land value in Chitwan had been skyrocketing. “I bought one bigha for 20 lakh six months ago,” he told me, “and people are asking me if I would sell it for 60 lakh now!” He also told me that they had been filling up little marshlands we used to call “budhikulo”. Land prices had shot into the sky as every bit of land where houses could be built brought in money. That same day, I asked one of my neighbors if they see those white cranes in the fields when the tractors turn the soil over.
“Yes, but not like in the past. There are so few of them these days. And earthworms have become rare.” He was speaking with characteristic calmness and lack of perturbation, as if it was all normal. By now, the land in Chitwan including in my little village no longer sees those bumper harvests. Chitwan used to be called canola country in the 1970s and 1980s. These days, most of the people there rush down to the retail store to buy their cooking oil. I went to the edge of our own field that overlooked rice fields down below which formerly was marshland where we used to fish when we were in school. Everywhere around me, I saw smaller and smaller parcels of land.
The land speculation frenzy is in full swing right now. Those who made themselves a lot of wealth in Kathmandu are in search of cleaner and fresher air. Some of them are driving down to the plains to find a place for their second winter homes. The Tarai agitation of the last two years has led to one of the biggest reverse migrations out of many Tarai towns. They are in search of safer places. The banks who mobilise investment are rushing to pour their liquidity into the real estate bonanza. One of my cousins called me last week. “No land remains `for sale` for more than a day,” he told me. You don’t have to farm. It’s easy money these days. Nobody knows how long this real estate party is going to last, but everybody knows for sure that it will come to an end soon. For now, every bit of land is up for sale.
Back in those old days, Bakulahar still marked highway milestones. I saw those inscriptions fade away over the years. In 2008, that had already been replaced with Ratnanagar Tandi. The erasure had become complete. The canola does not have to grow. The cranes do not have to be around. The marshlands that sustained the underground aquifers and kept the surrounding lands cool do not bring big bucks. Therefore, they have become dispensable.
The monarchy has been gone for two years. It might be that Ratnanagar is here to stay. Or maybe the local people including the Tharus will realise some day that this name symbolises how local, indigenous land markings gave way to the desire of rulers for immortality. That might lead to restoring the name Bakulahar to my hometown some day. It will not be any difficult to restore the old name. But most of the bakus (cranes) are gone by now. I am not sure if anybody had thought that the erasure that occurred back in the 1970s would be so total.