Monday, 7:30 pm
Carrying large sacs on their backs and heads, a group of men walk along the main road in Koteshwor.
One of the younger men plops himself down in front of a shuttered pharmacy and sighs. “How much longer do we have to walk? Let’s just stay somewhere around here today. I’m very hungry,” he says.
He touches his knee that is throbbing with pain. Even his own touch stings, he feels half dead.
He turns his head towards the pharmacy. If only I could just lie down and have something sprayed over my knees to make the pain go away! This is what 20-year-old Aditya Khatri is thinking.
The rest of the men sit down on the storefront belt next to Aditya. They rest their load.
All 15 of them huddle in a circle to discuss – Where to next?
After a little while, they agree on a destination. Tonight, they will sleep at the Pashupatinath temple. One amongst them gets up and throws his load on his back and starts walking. The rest, like a line of ants, follow him past Sinamangal, past the airport and toward Pashupati.
They walk, cutting through the unusual silence of Kathmandu, and I follow them. I ask myself: In this time of a nationwide lockdown, where did these men come from and where are they going?
The one who leads the pack is 36-year-old Asharam Chaudhary.
Later, Asharam tells me the story of their journey. They had been walking since April 2 from Likhupike in Solukhumbu, where they had been working for the Marbhudovan Hydropower Company.
“We didn’t know what to do, or what to eat...we began to panic,” Asharam says, referring to the closure of the company after lockdown. “I also began to miss my family.” The desire to go home arose, but the question remained, how?
Eventually, everyone agreed to walk all the way: walk from Solukhumbu to Kathmandu and then from Kathmandu to Kailali.
A native of Belar in Kailali, Asharam had reached Solukhumbu in hopes of making money. At home he has a wife and they have two sons, one is 12 and the other five.
“A friend from my village said that there’s money to be made in hydropower projects. I listened to him and came to Kathmandu, and from here, we went directly to Solukhumbu,” he tells me as he walks uphill at Sinamangal.
His plan was to work until mid-May, but he is being forced to return home now. It hasn’t even been three months since he left for work.
But Asharam is not alone in his plight. Suman Chaudhary, who left his single, unemployed father at home, is also carrying broken dreams. It had only been two months since the 21-year-old had left for Solukhumbu. Before this, he used to work in India hauling plywood.
“To live in another country is not like living in your own,” says Suman. “These dais were headed to Solukhumbu to work, so I followed them. I was happy that I could work in my own country. I wanted to save enough money to buy myself a good camera phone, one that costs around 20 to 25 thousand rupees. But that didn’t happen.”
This is also Suman’s first time in Kathmandu and it has turned unlucky for him. “I won’t ever come back again,” he says.
Akash Chaudhary, who is walking beside him, looks distressed. His legs are swollen from the long journey.
For 24-year-old Akash, he had only been working in Solukhumbu for two days when he had to leave with the others. He has a big family and he had come to Solukhumbu to make money and support them. When he left home, he just had the money the company had sent for fare. Now, he doesn’t even have that.
“I have a lot of mouths to feed at home so I have to work. Right now they are struggling on the other side while I am here in this state,” Akash says, almost breaking into tears. “They can’t come to me. I can’t go to them.”
There is no peace for the body, the heart or the mind. These men have no idea where they will end up, or what they will eat. Meanwhile, their legs are aching, and they yearn for their families.
Asharam tells me that he would have easily caught a bus home now had the lockdown been announced giving a wide enough window.
“We had heard that people were getting something called ‘corona,’ but how would laborers like us know if corona was the name of a bird or a disease. Our boss didn’t breathe a word about corona, we only found out when we were suddenly told to stop working,” Asharam says.
“As it is, I’ve been separated from my family. And during a time like this, I haven’t even been able to communicate properly with them,” he continues, sounding defeated.
His work at the hydropower company closed on March 23. At the job, his daily wage was Rs 600 and he got Rs 5,000 to Rs. 6,000 for monthly ration. He worked a total of 24-25 days a month, which meant he earned around Rs 20,000. The company gave a small room to live, but he had to cover his own expenses for food.
These men went to Solukhumbu to save around Rs 10,000 a month. But even that seems to be running out in this lockdown.
“A packet of noodles costs 30-40 rupees in Solu,” he says. “Without a job how many days would I have lasted there? So, I left. I figured, if I am still alive, I can always work again.”
In the beginning, they braced themselves for seven days of lockdown in Solukhumbu. But when the lockdown was extended, they began to panic.
Asharam shares a moment of hope he had had, “I don’t know who it was, it could have been someone important from the company, or somebody from the rural municipality, but they told us they would arrange for us to go home on March 31. They even asked us to send our names and addresses.”
They sent their names but did not hear back. On March 23, they even set out to meet the person who had made them the promise but nothing transpired. This ‘important’ person told them that their names never reached him.
“What could we really do when they told us they couldn’t get a CDO pass to send us?” He asks.
Asharam remembers how his heart soured in that moment. His friends felt the same way. After this disappointment, they went to the police to share their grievances.
“The police yelled at us and told us to stop crowding the place. One of them said, ‘Lots of people have been walking home, you all should walk home, too,’’’ Asharam remembers.
They saw no option but to walk. They thought: There are no cases of coronavirus in Solukhumbu yet, but if even one person were to get infected, we could all die. If we must die, it’s better to die at home. Besides, at this rate, we will run out of money. And then, even if we wanted to, we won’t be able to return home.
They decided to walk, but they were also aware of the troubles they might face along the way: police interrogation, people’s curiosities.
To ensure that they wouldn’t get into unnecessary trouble, they had asked the police in Solukhumbu to make a document of sorts stating why and where they were travelling to, but instead, the police had told them: “Nothing will happen, go ahead.”
With the police’s assurance, they got an extra boost of courage to move.
On April 2, when evening set, they packed their bags. They packed some utensils, pots and pans, a little bit of rice and daal (lentils), salt, chiura (beaten rice), and bhujiya (spicy snack) in a large sac. At 2 am, they set out for Kathmandu.
Turns out, it wasn’t as easy as the Solukhumbu police had told them it would be. They were stopped and interrogated many times on their journey. They only had one answer – We’re going home.
Many times, the police threatened to arrest them, asking, “Shall we quarantine you?” But since they could not accommodate all 15 men, they let them go.
But the fear these men held wasn’t only about being interrogated by the police, Asharam tells me. It was about taking a road they have never travelled, being in places they have never known, and encountering people they had never seen. Even if they were 15 of them, they carried deep fear in their hearts.
“For us, all the roads were new. We had gone to Solu in a vehicle, never once thinking that we would have to return back on foot,” says 50-year-old Jagatram Chaudhary.
With no knowledge of the way, they suffered. How would they know which way leads to which place? If they saw a long road stretched out ahead of them, they would send one person from the group to track the road. Once he confirmed the way, the rest followed. In the forest, who could they ask anyway?
If they saw villages along the way, no one in the group had the courage to go and ask for directions. They feared what the villagers would say once they neared their homes. Some with helpful hearts told them the way. Some even drew maps to explain the shortest routes.
Their feet that searched for all sorts of shortcuts would rest at 11 in the morning. One of them would collect firewood, another would fetch water from the river, a spout, or a spring in a gorge. Someone would take all the food out from the sac, another would cook rice and daal in a large bowl at once and make khichadi (porridge). Some days, they depended only on dry chiura.
In the evening, they struggled to find a safe spot to rest for the night. The forest, the road, the river… these were their options. Perhaps those on a mission to get home cannot afford to fear as they set up temporary homes at dangerous places.
“We don’t even know where we stayed on the first few nights. We spent the first night in the jungle, the second night, we slept on a river bank, and the third night, I remember sleeping on the roadside,” says Asharam.
Every time they came across a village, hopes of being able to find shelter sprung in them. But by then, they knew that the fear of contracting the coronavirus had drawn a dangerous red line for many, a line no one dared to cross over to help.
“We were foreigners,” said Asharam, a man who had travelled to the opposite corner of his country. “We couldn’t go near villages. Afraid that they would chase us out, we stayed away from people.”
Asharam and his friends were also afraid of coronavirus. They had made up their mind that even if a local bus were to miraculously stop for them on the way, they would still choose to walk. To squeeze inside a packed vehicle is akin to holding coronavirus' hands.
And what more, they only had a couple of thousand rupees each and that wouldn’t have covered the cost of transportation from Solukhumbu to Kailali.
Every day they tried to talk with their families. To save the phone’s battery, Asharam would switch his phone off. But whenever he made that first phone call of the day, the questions from home would start, “Have you eaten? Where have you reached? Has the journey been easy?”
They tell me that all their families asked the same set of questions, which they could never answer truthfully. When asked about their whereabouts, oftentimes, they couldn’t answer because they themselves didn’t know. No matter how panicked they felt, they consoled their families, “Don’t worry,” they told them. “We’re on our way. We’ll reach Kathmandu tomorrow or the day after.”
“We may be having a hard time, but why put our families in a worry?” Asharam asks. “Even if we slept in the forest, or on the roadside, we didn’t say anything to them. We used to say that the villagers we’ve met have let us stay in their cowsheds and they have given us food to eat.”
But these were just things reserved for the phone conversations. On their journey, they would meet people who scared them saying, “In Kathmandu, the police will hit you with their sticks and chase after you.”
But there were some people who would give them hope, “Go,” they would say, “nothing will happen to you.”
And some were helpful. On the fourth day, they met a woman in Nepalthok who spoke to the local police there and helped them get on a cargo truck to Banepa.
From Banepa, they had left at 12:30 in the afternoon and had reached Koteshwor at 7:30 pm in the evening.
“For 12 of us in the group, it is our first time in Kathmandu. On our way to Solukhumbu, when we had passed through the city, we were shocked to see so many people in one place. And now as we walk through the city, we are shocked to see no one at all. We are visiting Pashupatinath for the first time, perhaps something good will come out of this,” says a hopeful Asharam.
Throughout the journey, they had worried about where they would stay in Kathmandu. “The police won’t let us sleep on the streets, and there are no forests here, just houses upon houses. They won’t let us sleep near homes…”
When they reach Pashupati at 8:30, they look anxious and confused; would they be allowed to stay the night? They are afraid that they will be told off by someone in this new place.
With no humans around, the monkeys have taken over Pashupati. Scared that the monkeys would run away with their bags, they make their way to the nearby Ram Mandir instead.
Heavy sacs, swollen legs, tired bodies stumble up the steps of Ram Mandir.
They plop themselves on the wide temple courtyard, and no one says anything. Either their bodies are too tired or there is nothing left to say.
After a while, the silence is broken by a voice from a corner, “Maybe we can get firewood here. Shall we cook, my friends?”
Another says, “Ah, let it be. We’re too tired. Who’d want to cook? That sac over there has chiura. Let’s just eat that.”
They still have a little rice and daal, gundruk (fermented leafy vegetables), chiura, salt and sugar left.
The younger ones in the group keep saying it would be nice to cook. The older men open the chiura sac and tell them, “Well, if you want to cook, go ahead.” But the young hands don’t move. Some mix chiura and bhujiya on their plates. Some eat just chiura alone. Someone has a packet of noodles they mix in with chiura. Some others add sinki (fermented radish) to their plate.
Asharam stuffs a fistful of chiura in his mouth and says, “If we had a bit of chutney to go with this, how tasty this would be! We, Chaudharys, love our chutney.”
But they only have water to pair with their chiura. Yet, their bodies feel replenished. Perhaps they will sleep well tonight.
Everyone else pulls out the blanket, turns the sacs into pillow and falls right asleep. But Akash Chaudhary starts massaging his swollen legs with oil. “It hurts quite a lot,” he says.
The night darkens, but their sleep doesn't deepen. The fear of having their belongings stolen by the monkeys troubles them.
But the monkeys don’t do anything. Maybe they too have witnessed these men’s hardships. Instead, time and again, the falling leaves from the tree above startle them awake. They toss and turn, but lay safe in the temple courtyard all night.
As dawn breaks on Tuesday, Asharam and another person from the group get ready to move, “We’ll go to Thankot and arrange for a vehicle,” they say.
After a while, Suhiram Chaudhary’s phone rings. He heads off to see his son-in-law who lives in Kathmandu. The rest of them stay put.
People walking outside the temple begin to get anxious. They look at this group of men and ask each other: “Who are they? Where did they come from?” Some even try to chase them away. But the men don’t move. They sit in silence without answering a single question.
A priest from the temple’s Bhagwat Sanyaas Ashram Gurukul arranges for tea and chiura for them. “It has been days since we last had tea,” one of them says as he sips from his cup.
Just then, Asharam and his friend who had headed out in the morning, come back. They look distraught. Apparently, they weren’t even able to cross Ratopul. “The police chased us threatening to place us under quarantine,” Asharam reports back.
They worry about how they were chased away even before they could explain their situation.
The faces that the tea had brightened now begin to darken; they despair. The men look like they did when they arrived tired the night before. “I don’t know how, but we’ve reached Kathmandu. Now, will we be able to go beyond?” One of them wonders out loud.
Jagatram Chaudhary feels frustrated. He sets aside the tea and chiura, puts his hand over his head and lets out a sigh. After a while, he takes out his phone and dials a number.
The usual ringtone is now replaced by an automated recording of public health information on the coronavirus. This fuels Jagatram’s rage, he begins to scream at the recording, “If we had enough to eat and if we survived, then we’ll get this corona or corola, whatever it is. It doesn’t even look like we’ll survive this moment, how will we survive corona?!”
Apparently, he was trying to call his daughter. One of his four daughters is married and lives in Kathmandu.
“I didn’t want to bother my married daughter and son-in-law. I hadn’t even told them that I was on my way here. I haven’t had the chance to meet them, either,” Jagatram shares. “They’ve also stopped working and are now staying at home. If I go there, I will only become a burden on them.”
His daughter picks up. But by the time he tells her where he is and what he has eaten, his phone runs out of money. He sits down and lets out another sigh.
All of them are in a fix– What to do now? They had thought about talking to the mayor of Ghodaghodi municipality in Kailali. “But we didn’t know how to talk to an important person like that. So we didn’t call,” Asharam says.
After a small discussion, they decide that just like they had left Solu in the dark, they should leave Kathmandu at night.
Although they have just finished drinking their morning tea, they are impatient for night to fall.
Suman Chaudhary, Suraj Chaudhary and Aditya Khatri’s phones begin to run out of battery. The older men of the group say the young men’s phones run out of charge because they use it too much. Near the arati area, there is a charging station where the young men charge their phones while the older men sit back and say, “We have enough to last us the journey.”
“Our wheat must be ready for harvest, but there’s no one at home to work the fields,” 21-year-old Suman says. He is one of the 12 in the group who has come to Kathmandu for the first time.
“I had only heard of Kathmandu. When I was working in India, the people there used to ask me, tumhara Kathmandu kaisa hai?” He says. “But I had never been to Kathmandu myself, so I could never tell them what this city was like. And now that I’m finally here, all I want to do is find my way home.”
The unease and impatience on Suman’s face is also reflected on the faces of Suraj, Aditya and Sunil Chaudhary.
Around 10 am, a person carrying a large bag full of warm packed food arrives. He is Durganath Dahal, a member of Nawajiwan Paropakar Samaj, who had apparently just heard about Asharam and his friends.
They haven’t eaten rice for over four days. When the smell of freshly cooked meal wafts in the air, making a trail into their noses, they begin to swarm around the food. Some scarf down one packed meal and take another. Mahabir Chaudhary, 45, eats three of those packed meals.
To satiate hunger alone, I guess, is never fulfilling. While taking in a morsel of food, Prakash Devkota thinks about his family and tears stream down his face. At home, he has a wife and a newborn child. He had called in the morning, but no one had answered.
Prakash, 26, had set out to earn to feed his family. “I’m getting to eat this food here, I wonder what she has eaten... if anything at all,” he says.
Just then, friends from Nepal Scouts arrive with a large sac of rice, 5 kg of daal and a box of biscuits. “At least we won’t have to go hungry on the road,” the men say, their faces brightening again.
After eating, they lean against each other as they decide what to do next. One of them suggests going into the temple.
“I tried going in the morning, but I saw police at the gate, so I turned around,” says Amit Chaudhary.
“We’ve come to Kathmandu, but we aren’t able to see much of the city,” they say, as they begin to talk to each other in Tharu. Some walk about, some sit, and some sleep.
At around 4 in the afternoon, the same ashram serves tea. “Before we leave in the evening, the guru here has promised to feed us roti with vegetables,” Asharam shares the good news.
Asharam had been trying to get a hold of Suhiram, who was still not back from visiting his son-in-law. He thought it was strange that Suhiram wasn’t answering his phone.
“He had said, ‘I’ll come and then we’ll set out,’ and now he isn’t answering his phone. Could something have happened to him? We came together all that way, I can’t just leave him here on his own. I don’t know if he’ll come back or not,” Asharam says to Kalicharan Chaudhary.
Around 6:30 Suhiram finally answers his phone. He has decided not to go with the group, he will stay back with his son-in-law. Asharam speaks to him in Tharu, “It’s okay, be happy,” he says and hangs up.
As darkness shrouds them, they begin packing up their belongings. They divide the gift from the afternoon, the rice, daal and biscuit, amongst them so that it is easier to carry.
At around 7 pm, the students from the ashram serve them rice, daal, roti and cauliflower and potato curry. Since they had set out, they hadn’t eaten two full meals in a single day.
After the meal, one of the students, a little boy, hands them a large bowl of chiura and sugar. “This is for your journey home,” he says.
They look at him and smile. Perhaps, he reminds them of their own children. They are touched by the generosity.
It is eight. They have to start moving.
But Aditya Khatri has something more urgent to attend to. He needs to cut out a piece of the Styrofoam mat to place as extra insoles for his shoes. His feet have turned white from being stuffed in his shoes for all those long walking hours.
“This will make it softer,” he says as he puts on his socks.
Initially, they had been scared of walking in the dark but they don’t have a choice now. As they walk out of Ram Mandir, they remember Pashupatinath. They put their hands together and pray, “May we get home soon.” They share this single wish.
Just the night before, they had been huffing and puffing, looking depleted while walking up the temple stairs. Now, they are bursting with energy as they climb down. Perhaps, they already feel like they are closer to getting home. Or, the two full meals of the day may have filled them with new energy!
They get out to the Ring Road through Jay Bageshwori. They have two ways of getting to Thankot: either follow the Ring Road all the way or opt for the inner roads of the city. They worry that the police will stop them if they take the first option and choose the second option. By the time they walk down Gaushala, cross Ratopul, and come out to Hattisar, it’s 9 pm.
In front of Tri Chandra College, they look up and see Kathmandu's famous clock tower, “Oh… so this is Ghantaghar!” They say to each other.
The few people they see on the street ask them: “Where are you headed?”
They take turns to reply, “Kailali.”
At the mention of “Kailali,” people are dumbstruck. They ask, “Will you even get there? How long will it take?”
Generally, they don’t respond to these questions. But when they are asked by the police who appear on patrol vans, they have no choice but to answer.
“Where are you going? Don’t you know you can’t walk around like this? Do you have a pass?”
Frightened upon seeing the police, their voices become soft, they reply barely above a whisper, “We’re headed to Kailali, hajur (sir). We’ve been walking for the last four days from Solu. We will leave without making any noise, sir. Please, we beg, let us pass.”
When they hear “Kailali,” even the police are taken aback. “Walk a little further apart from each other,” they command.
“The police that didn’t even allow us to cross Ratopul this morning didn’t stop us now!” They murmur, exchanging excitement.
Tundikhel is dark. Everyone is looking ahead, uninterested in anything to the left or right of the road. When they reach Shahid Gate, one of them asks, “What is this?”
Sunil Chaudhary, who is at the back says, “This, I think, is that gate they built in the name of some dead people. They call this marty’s gate.”
“If we die on our way home, will they also declare us martyrs and build a gate for us?” Prakash Chaudhary asks, laughing. The others join. This is the first time they have laughed together since they left Solukhumbu.
Panic sets in when they see the wide roads of Tripureshwor. The police question them, “Where to?” They repeat the same answer.
“Which way will you go?”
“Thankot,” the men reply.
“Follow this road,” the police tell them, pointing toward Teku.
“We thought the police would lock us up and block our way… but they showed us the way instead. This is amazing!” They get less scared. Their pace quickens. Dogs bark at them, but they don’t stop even for a second. From Ram Mandir they reach Kalanki in three hours. It is now 11 pm.
Walking toward Thankot from Kalanki, they notice a bright light approaching them from behind. It is a large truck. They wave, hoping it would stop. It does.
The truck is transporting goods to Bardiya. When the driver learns about their plight, he agrees to give them a lift only as far as he can take them.
However, the driver has terms of his own. “This is a problem we’re all facing, so I’m helping you even though it’s against the law. But if the police stop us, I won’t lie; I’ll tell them exactly what you told me. It’s fine if they let us go, but if they don’t, you’ll have to get off right there.”
Getting the chance to cut out, at minimum, several days’ worth of journeying on foot? They willingly accept the driver’s terms.
“Of course, we agree,” they say, climbing onto the truck. Their faces become bright. Akash Chaudhary, with a swollen foot, and Aditya Khatri, with a piece of mat shoved in his shoes, are the most ecstatic.
From the truck, they wave goodbye. “We’ll meet again, if we live,” they say.
They choose to sit at the back of the truck. Inside, it is dark. The group falls silent as they dream about how lucky they would be if the vehicle could take them all the way to Bardiya.
Once the truck begins to move, the ride becomes rough. “Ouch! Can you stop pushing?” An irritated voice complains.
But the voice does not belong to Asharam or any of his friends. They turn the torchlight on their phones to see better. They realize that besides them, there were 9-10 other people crammed in that space.
“The truck was very long. I thought it was just us but there were others, too,” Asharam says to me over the phone. “Their problem must have been just like ours.”
They don’t ask the others anything because the driver had told them to be as quiet as possible.
They curl up against each other as they try to sleep. All the while, they silently pray for the truck not to stop, and for the police to not get in their way.
“The motion of the truck made us feel like we were in a cradle. Everyone fell fast asleep. But because I suffer from motion sickness, I felt like I was going to vomit anytime,” says Asharam. “However, I held it back as best I could because I knew it would not be good for the others. I don’t remember when I dozed off.”
Their eyes only open when the truck stops.
When they wake up, they see that the tarp covering of the truck is being removed. They hear indistinct voices. After spending long hours in darkness where they could barely see each other, the sunlight is blinding. The police are standing in front of them.
The police make them get off the truck. They have reached Lamahi in Dang. They begin talking to the others who were on the truck, turns out, they are on their way to Tulsipur.
“The police questioned us for quite a while. They even pointed a machine at our foreheads, but none of us had any fever, cough, or cold.”
For the men, their problem is not the coronavirus, but their exhausted bodies, their sore limbs, and their restless minds, consumed by the desperation to get home.
After listening to their story, the police ask the men to wait for a while. They think that some arrangement is being made. They wait a long time. As time passes, they begin to lose hope.
“We still had another 140 kilometers to travel from Lamahi to reach home. On foot, that would take us 5-6 days. We told the police we were heading out,” Asharam says.
They are prepared to walk for not only six days, but even six weeks if they have to.
In fact, while at Ram Mandir, Sunil Chaudhary had said, “We believe that we can and we will walk home.”
I guess it doesn’t matter if you grew up in the flat lands of the tarai, your feet not accustomed to the ups and downs of the hills and mountains, what matters is that your heart grows up. That your courage grows up.
Once they pass Lamahi Bazaar and reach Satbariya, they stop. While cooking their usual khichadi, a stranger comes and sits next to them. He is an Indian man, heading east.
“We shared our khichadi with him,” Asharam says.
Their families call them. Asharam does not feel like picking up his phone. The others talk on their phones as they walk. When not on their phones, the men don’t talk to one another. They walk in silence. Evening sets in and Asharam is hopeful, perhaps a vehicle will stop for them, perhaps they will get a lift.
Just before they reach Banke, they see a truck coming toward them. Everyone waves their hands at it, signaling it to stop. It stops.
“We told the driver our story and he said he could drop us off at Kohalpur but that he would charge us for that. With the hopes of cutting down our travel time, even if it was by a little bit, we gave him Rs 2,000. Our desperation to get home gave us the courage to shell out the amount, the last bit of what we had,” Asharam recalls.
Turns out, the truck driver driving them from Kalanki, who had claimed to be “helping them because they were in need,” had actually asked for money: Rs. 15,000.
“Maybe he thought we were loaded. I took out the single Rs 1,000 note I had in my pocket. After everyone pitched in, we had 12,000 in total. That was how much we paid,” Asharam says.
By the time they get to Kohalpur, it is 11 pm. The khichadi in their bellies have started to wear off. No one has the energy to cook anything. Munching on biscuits, they continue to walk.
Round 1 am, they stop along the side of the road.
“We saw a bike coming from a distance. There were two people on it. They approached and interrogated us. Asking us why we were there and told us to go away,” Asharam says, “We got up and left immediately.”
Walking in the middle of the night is not easy. After a while, they realize that they are physically unable to walk any further. “We had come this far by the grace of god, but now we were in a dilemma. Should we rest or should we keep walking?”
It is getting later in the night, toward early morning. From the road, they see a field. They spread out their mats, wrap themselves up in blankets and sleep.
Asharam just lies down on the open field without unpacking his blankets, thinking, that way, he doesn’t have to pack in the morning, it would be easier to just get up and leave. Sleep doesn’t come to him. His heart is already cold, but the night’s dew makes his body feel colder.
Around 4:30 am when Asharam is just about to fall asleep, Amit calls out to him.
“My friends were asking if we should have tea, but we wanted to get home, so we started walking,” Asharam tells me. “We hardly saw anyone on the road, it wasn’t like in Kathmandu.”
At about 7 am, they reach Bansgadhi. They find their way to the police station and there, they leave their names, addresses, and phone numbers.
“The police there are good people. They even asked us if we wanted breakfast. We were afraid that they would just keep us there for a long time, so we told them that we wanted to leave. But they were not like that, they were trying to help us,” Asharam says.
Soon, some locals approach them and give them biscuits, chiura and water.
“Over tea, we told them the story of our journey,” Asharam remembers. In the open generosity of these people, the hearts of Asharam and his friends find respite and solace.
After 45 minutes or so, they get permission to leave. The police had asked them for the number of the mayor from Ghodaghodi municipality in Kailali.
Asharam had the number written down in his diary.
In the afternoon, feeling much closer to home, Asharam finally decides to call his wife, “I told her I was coming and that I would reach home in a day or two. She was very happy. My heart became lighter too, I thought about all the fresh air I would get to breathe once I got home.”
Right after his phone call home, his phone rings again. It is an unknown number, when he answers, the voice asks, “Where have you reached?”
Asharam is taken aback. Then the voice comes back again from the other end, “I am the mayor, Mamata Prasad Chaudary.”
The mayor of Ghodaghodi is calling? Asharam is shocked.
“Khai (dunno)! I haven’t been able to figure out the name of this place yet, sir,” Asharam says.
“How long has it been since you left Bansgadhi?” The mayor asks.
“About 8-9 hours, hajur.”
“Okay, you are about to reach Chisapani, then. I am sending a truck.” For them, this truck that is going to be sent by mayor Mamata Prasad feels like an offering from the gods.
The police from Bansgadhi, who had asked for the mayor’s number, had apparently called him.
“Ever since Kathmandu, we’ve felt like someone has been watching over us. Even when we decided to walk all the way, we have received help to ease our journey,” Asharam says, feeling deep gratitude toward something divine and everyone who helped them.
Just as they walk into Chisapani, the truck arrives.
“Now, we will definitely reach home,” they sigh. Everyone is overjoyed.
But the truck stops at Bauniya.
“Oh no, do we need to walk again?” They worry. They are brought out of the truck and asked to line up. Two female health workers point a thermal gun on their foreheads. No one has fever. The health workers go over symptoms of the virus and remind them to wash their hands.
“They sounded just like the person who now speaks on our phones when we make phone calls,” Asharam explains.
From there, it is only 7-8 km more before they are home. Feeling light and giddy, they climb back on the truck.
In just a little while, the truck stops. Fourteen men get off the truck. Asharam, Amit, Suman and Sunil’s houses are situated before the river, the rest have to cross over it to get home.
“We ran home smiling. We have no idea where we had this energy to run!” Asharam says, sounding happy. “We never thought we would get home this fast, and that we would get so much help along the way. We were ready for a 20-day long trip, but it ended in a week.”
The men who had left Solukhumbu on April 2 had set foot in their homes in Kailali on the evening of April 9.
There is an air of happiness and tears in Amit Chaudhary’s home. When his wife, Rekha, and their little son see him, they fall into his arms. Their foreheads kiss. Smiling, they cry. Crying, they smile.
“I have never been this happy in my life,” says 21-year-old Rekha. “It was depressing. Our five-year-old would ask about his father. When is he coming? What will he bring for me? He gave our son a packet of biscuits, and now he is happily playing.”
Asharam’s home, which is just a little further down from Amit’s, is also reveling in the same joyful air of reunion. Asharam tells his wife, Lalmati, all about his week-long journey. He tells her things that he had left out in their phone conversations – about all the hardship, the difficulties, the problems, the dangers they faced. He tells them all to her, one-by-one, without leaving out a single detail.
“This morning he had called to say that he would arrive in 2-3 days, but he got here by evening,” Lalmati, 31, says. She had been sleepless with worry and now her happiness knew no bounds.
Initially she had told Asharam to come after the lockdown, but later, she didn’t think it was a good idea. “Food is so expensive there, they didn’t have money, so they slept on empty stomachs. I think they stayed there for a week,” she says. “Later he called to say that they were on their way home. He said, ‘We’ll get there whenever we get there.’”
Lalmati had been feeling both restless and helpless. She sat waiting for the day of his arrival. Where did he sleep? What did he eat?
If Asharam was sleepless in the jungle, his wife was sleepless at home.
“I am very happy he is home. I am making dinner now with his favorite chutney. He likes it very much,” she says.
I realize now, that in Ram Mandir, it was Lalmati’s chutney that Asharam had remembered in between morsels of dry chiura.
(Translated by Bhushan Shilpakar, Dhruba Yonzon (dia), Muna Gurung, Nasala Chitrakar, Natasha Kafle, Sabhyata Timsina, Swasti Uprety, and Vishal Rai.)