Every time I woke up in the cosy small room in this traditional house in hillside Pokhara, I felt the aura of ‘Sandhya’.
In a Nepali language, sandhya aptly means evening, between day and night.
I had been offered Sandhya’s bedroom for my stay in Pokhara where I was for a party-building project in Gandaki Province. Her home was adorned with her paintings on the walls and artefacts hanging here and there.
Every morning I woke up I’d see a huge oil painting on the wall framed just above the side of the bed. The painting, which was predominantly blue in colour, made me contemplative. In the painting, there was a teenage girl who was sitting in a meditative pose with rivers, jungle and animals enveloping her. And there was a contemplative Buddha immerging out of the clouds as if blessing her.
This painting was made to commemorate her. Indeed it did that job quite well.
Each wall had her paintings and drawings, which further enveloped the room with her aura.
In a cabinet, there were half empty nail polish bottles, sunblock creams and oil bottles as if waiting to be emptied. In one corner were stacks of her sketchbooks.
I went through them and found that she had been drawing cartoons, still pictures and complex paintings. There were empty pages as if waiting to be filled.
Flipping through the drawings, what struck me was a pencil sketch she had drawn of a teenage girl. Her eyes were full of tears and the mask she wore had the words: ‘If you tell anyone’. She looked afraid. And then I saw an oil painting of a tree on the wall. The tree had a swing, an empty swing hanging from a branch … as if saying aloud: “Read the writings on the wall!”… as if to convey that she was ending her life!
Sandhya died by suicide in July 2021 in that very house. She was only 21 years old. She not only left behind her own story but that of the People’s War too.
Sandhya and her younger brother Sangam had come to visit us with their parents Raju Chhetri and Sarita Baral around 2007.
Sandhya was eight and Sangam was six years old then. I was shocked to know that both were speech-impaired.
Sandhya went deaf from the age of four when her mother Sarita found that the nerve leading to her ear was drying up. What made it all the more painful for Sarita was when her second child Sangam too went deaf at nine months of age when he had a high fever due to measles. Both events took place when the People’s War was going on, and while Raju, Sarita’s husband, was being detained and tortured for being a journalist, a journalist with a mission to expose the fallacy of monolithic rule imposed on a multinational, lingual and cultural country.
When Raju escaped the military barrack, life became unbearable for Sarita as she was hunted, taunted and harassed by the military force. They also tortured the children, two and four years old then, not knowing that they could not speak.
Sarita became a full-time Maoist, leaving her teaching job and her children in the hands of her in-laws.
With the peace negotiation in 2006 between the government and the Maoists, they got an opportunity to get their children operated upon. It took nearly four years for them to hear and communicate.
However, both were still getting counselling. They were shifted from the deaf school to normal government-run school where they were learning socialisation.
However, COVID-19 made life difficult and they stopped going to school.
Meanwhile, the teachers in the deaf school had identified a talent in Sandhya – sketching and painting. She was drawing and painting during COVID-19 period too. She wanted to hone her skills further. Sarita and Raju decided to send her to Kathmandu to get coached in painting. They found a woman painter in Patan, who was running her own art gallery. Sandhya started staying in a paying guest house near the art gallery.
Being an architect and a friend of Raju and Sarita, I had gone to meet her in the gallery. I found her happy and engaged in her sketching and painting. Along with her blossoming age, she was discovering new skills in her painting.
She showed off her paintings which were very colourful and unique. I encouraged her knowing her past background.
Then Baburam Bhattarai, my husband, got a sudden call from Raju informing that Sandhya was no more. She passed away in her house in Pokhara.
He was shocked as he was the one who had mobilised the funds to get both the children operated on when he was the Prime Minister in 2011.
I was shocked as I had visited her recently in the studio. I had been reading and writing on the effects of COVID-19 on health, and particularly on domestic violence.
I had also read about how it was affecting differently-abled people, particularly women. I had never imagined it would hit so close to home, my own friends.
I was told that another paying guest, who was married and had children of his own, had attempted to rape her.
Upon hearing this, her parents immediately called her back to Pokhara. She died within a week of her return home.
Unable to bear the shock of losing her, both Sarita and Raju, who were hardcore Marxists, took to chanting ‘Om Shanti’ to seek solace for their loss.
As I lie in her bed, Sandhya envelopes me making me wonder about life and death, light and darkness, new and old.
Her death leaves me wondering about the Maoist Party … the party which started the People’s War, amidst revolution and counterrevolution.
(Hisila Yami is a former minister and a leader of Janata Samajbadi Party. She can be reached at [email protected])
A version of this article appears in the print on January 22, 2022, of The Himalayan Times.