The Attack on Khalanga, Jumla: The Memoirs of Radha Paudel

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Khalangama Hamala is a memoir by Radha Paudel about the attack on Khalanga, Jumla by the Maoist rebels on 14 November, 2002. The book was awarded the prestigious Madan Puraskar for the year 2070 BS. The author is a nurse who details her childhood, her decision to go to Jumla, her life there, the attack and its aftermath. This book is short at 132 pages and is a smooth read over nine chapters, along with a prologue and epilogue. The eventfulness of the author`s life makes for a gripping story.

The prologue introduces the themes and the author herself. Following the attack, dead bodies were dumped in a river causing a diarrhea epidemic in Jumla. The author is enthusiastic in joining the cleanup process of the corpses. Four bodies were collected and buried in all. Unlike her colleagues, the author works without any disgust or hesitation.

In chapter one, the author flashes back to her childhood in Chitwan. She shares a memory from her childhood, of her father, a cook by profession, telling her about how poor the people of Jumla were. She describes her father as an accomplished storyteller. Her education was encouraged by her parents, and after finishing high school, Paudel went to Kathmandu to study nursing in 2048 BS. After working at hospitals in Kathmandu and Bharatpur, she applied for a job in a maternity program supported by the DFID (Department for International Development, UK) and was offered a position in Jumla, which she immediately took.

The author paints herself as compassionate toward those around her, especially those worse off. She is repeatedly asked why she came to Jumla; every time she answers the people there need her. She expresses guilt about using her connections in Jumla to get a helicopter ticket to get there from Surkhet, ahead of the people who had been waiting for longer. Arriving in Jumla, the author sees that there are several problems: gender disparity, irresponsible workers and regular consumption of alcohol.

She soon gets to the climax of the story, the attack, which happened less than a year after she got to Jumla. This (chapter four) is the best part of the book. The writer describes the events and her feelings vividly: first a sense of disbelief, then fear, and finally relief at surviving. The author uses onomatopoeic words effectively to portray gunfire, bombs and general noise. The book then moves toward descriptions of other people’s experiences of the attack. This provides different perspectives, including that of a person whose home was used by the Maoists as a health camp during the attack. I found this interesting because it shows the rebels in a different light. They rescued, treated and protected their wounded comrades carefully. The Maoist’ self-belief is particularly impressive: they remained upbeat throughout the night even while helicopters were bombing the area.

In the following three chapters, the author describes the three days following the attack. She went throughout Jumla, talking to various people about the attack. The author was distraught because of the damage to the various buildings which had become dear to her. Only on the third day did people start coming out of their houses and into the streets. The author learned that a helicopter was sent by her employers to get her to Nepalgunj, from where she will travel home to Chitwan. Only now did the full shock of the Maoist attack hit her. On a few occasions she got emotional; she called her family from Nepalgunj but could not bring herself to talk to them.

In chapter eight, when she got home, the description of her reunion with her family is surprisingly subdued. Although her younger sister cried, both her parents and she showed very little emotion. This lack of concern feels like the author is playing down the actual feelings about the attack, both from her and her parents. Only when asked by a friend about her future in Jumla does the author react. She wants to show that the attack will not affect her goal of helping Jumla. The ninth chapter tells of the events that happened in the years following the attack. The author speaks about the construction of a surgery center in Jumla in a proud, but matter-of-fact way. It is clear that she is still sad about the attack. This chapter consists of the author listing out achievements of various projects conducted in Jumla, which is significant but not great fun to read.

The last chapter of the book is particularly strong and touches on various topics, including her mother`s death. Despite having a son, her mother instructed her to break the age-old tradition of sons performing the last rites of parents. The author and her four sisters followed up on this wish. However, Paudel seems genuinely regretful about never being with her chronically ill mother. On a happier note, she mentions that basic surgery services like cesarean sections have been started in Jumla. Her father, now 76, comes to visit her, and she ends the book with his words: “Jumla is still poorer than us. There is still much to do.” The ending is compelling because after the attack, the author reiterates the message that Jumla still requires a lot of work.

The author presents a very moral, disciplined and strong picture of herself throughout the book, making her seem slightly one-dimensional. Even during the attack she does not elaborate on the fear or on the relief when she sees her parents afterwards. Perhaps she didn’t feel these things at all, but including these would have made her more relatable. Overall, it is an insightful and well-paced book that is informative and enjoyable. The book demonstrates that people were still trying to better the country in the face of war.

Book details:

Radha Paudel. 2013Khalangama Hamala. Kathmandu: Nepa~laya.

(An expanded English translation published by the same publisher in 2017 as JUMLA – A Nurse’s Story)

Vishad Raj Onta is a first year A-Level Student at Rato Bangala School