Editing Rizal's Jail Journal

Published on Jan 16 2011 // Opinion
By Deepak Adhikari

In a talk program a year ago, I met Tek Nath Rizal, the Bhutanese human rights leader. The program titled “India’s Role in Refugee Problem” was marked by slim turn out and the late-arriving speakers. Nonetheless, a Maoist leader gave a fiery talk in which he instigated the Bhutanese refugees to take up arms against the monarch. “We ended the feudal monarchy in Nepal. Now, we should work for the same in Bhutan,” Maoist leader CP Gajurel had said: “The revolution must be launched in the very country. We’re ready to help. But, talking about it from exile and stressing on human rights issue will not help solve the problem.”

The audience seemed unsure of what to make up of this ‘revolutionary rhetoric’.

Rizal's book front cover

Then, it was Tek Nath Rizal who spoke in a soft, lilting voice which at times sounded like he was almost crying. Indeed, it was a cry for help. “It was India which helped Bhutan come out of its isolation,” Rizal had said: “So, it must play a positive role for our repatriation.” Dr. Anand Kumar, a professor from JNU (India) assured that the Indo-Bhutan  Friendship Society, after lobbying for the release of Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi (Indeed, her husband late Michael Aris has left behind three books on Bhutan), would focus on Bhutan. These all then sounded quite optimistic. But, recalling them a year later, I feel that they were one of such sweet talks that yield nothing.

After the end of the program, I met Rizal in the parking lot, where I congratulated him for his book Torture Killing Me Softly which I had reviewed at Nepal Monitor as well as Kantipur Daily. I also told him that though the book chronicled his harrowing jail experience in Bhutan, it could have been written better. I offered my help in case he would work on a revised second edition.

I also have another memory of meeting Rizal. In the summer of 2007, I was working on a cover story on the Maoist insurgency in Bhutan. After talking to his son who invited me to Rizal’s residence in Dhobighat, Lalitpur, I left my office at Nepal Weekly magazine. While in Ring Road, heavy rains started to lash. I was drenched by the downpour when I made it to Rizal’s residence. On the ground floor of that four-storey building with red bricks, his pictures from a visit to Switzerland adorned the walls. But I got almost nothing for my story. All he said was if refugees were forced to wait endlessly, they will take up arms. Nevertheless, the story titled “People’s War in Bhutan” was published in September 2007 as a cover story at Nepal Weekly (It’s another story that the Maoist movement which was based on the refugee camps fizzled out due to lack of support base and factionalism in the party).

Then, in spring last year, I received a call from Uttam Dhungel, Rizal’s aide. He asked me if I was still willing to work on the book. As I discovered later, Nityananda Timsina, a journalist-friend who had just arrived in Nepal after completing his postgraduate study in Europe, had begun the work on it.

One morning, I went to see Rizal in his residence at Mountain View apartments in Hattiban, a cluster of residential homes in Lalitpur district. Rizal welcomed me into his abode, a two-bedroom apartment where he, his wife Kaushila and a housemaid lived. Several pictures adorned the walls of the living room: It had a picture of Thimpu of 1960s, a framed map of Bhutan, framed pictures of late BP Koirala, poets Bhanubhakta Acharya and Parijat, and a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.

I would leave my apartment at Kaushaltar (Bhaktapur) and head off to Hattiban via Ring Road, a routine that continued for several months. In the summer months last year, I spent many days in Rizal’s residence where we would start work in the morning, calling it a day in the late afternoon. I found Rizal a kind hearted person who deeply believed in human rights, justice and freedom. As an author of the book, he scrutinized every detail, correcting it meticulously, questioning me whenever he noticed an awkward sentence or a phrase.

During the day, food would be served and occasional break would be taken. Tea arrived constantly and most of the talk hovered around a country (Bhutan) I had never been to. But, for Rizal, Bhutan and the Bhutanese was all that mattered. His heart danced when he was asked to recall the bygone days in his home country.

I would go through the chapters first. Then, I revised them, rewrote them and showed the final version to him. All through these processes,  I made sure that the author was satisfied with the outcome. My idea was it was his book and his story, and I was there to help him tell it better.  And, what a tale he had!

Devi Maya displays a book authored by Tek Nath Rizal at IOM transit/VPM

The Nepali-speaking society (what is now pompously called Diaspora) be that in Bhutan, India, Burma or Nepal, has so far relied on oral tradition of story telling. Grandmothers tell stories to grand children. There’s  very little literature in the form of lived experiences and testimony coming from the refugees. I thought: An account of a decade-long  jail term by a leader of the movement would serve as a historical document for future generation of Bhutanese as they scatter around the globe under the third country resettlement program.

What genre does the book fit into? With the blurred boundaries and experimental writing in vogue, it’s hard to classify a work. But, Torture covers a number of genres: memoir, autobiography, narrative non-fiction, and above all, a witness account.

Here’s an evocative paragraph from the book:
It was drizzling and the night was pitch-dark. We walked in silence. As they marched, the constables’ boots pounded on the road, its sound penetrating deep into our ears. At times, the stones tossed off by the boots hit on my ankles causing severe pain. Worse, the guards with their heavy boots, recklessly pounded on my feet. Failing to keep pace with the marching soldiers would fetch me extra penalty. So, I struggled to move my shackled legs as quickly as I could. The constantly blowing wind further exasperated the precariousness of our journey. Drenched to the skin and chilled to the bone, I stumbled along the slippery road. The sole voices echoing in my ears were waves of the river Wangdichhu generating its own rhythmic noise, the rustling of the trees in the breeze producing mystic sound in the adjoining forests, and dogs crying and whining at full throttle.

The book now looks elegant with good cover picture (thanks to Amrit Gurung), a nice blurb and the author’s brief biography. It has been updated, revised and re-written. Map of Bhutan, a subtitle (Bhutan Through the Eyes of a Mind-Control Victim), the reviews of first edition and an afterword have been added.

What about the mind-control? Initially, I was skeptical about it. At times, I even thought that my association with the book which had an almost impossible story—that of a cutting edge technology employed by an isolated, hermit South Asian kingdom—will diminish whatever little reputation I had earned.

Judging by how authoritarian regime functions (Burma, Iran, North Korea comes to mind), it’s not entirely impossible. But then, as I have written in my review, the onus to prove it lies on Rizal himself.

(The writer is a Nepali journalist and has been regularly reporting on Bhutanese refugee issue. He blogs at http://deepakadhikari.net)