On the 29th morning of July 2012, the sun was just a nascent orange glow above the eastern horizon when dozens of relatives gathered at septuagenarian Ranjit Chhetri’s hut in Beldangi-II. The purpose of the gathering was to receive blessings from the old man, before they could see him off forever. He was to board the IOM (International Organization for Migration) bus that would carry him to Damak, and then to the Bhadrapur Airport to fly him to Kathmandu.
Like his contemporary friends, Ranjit became a silent onlooker for thousands of fellow-countrymen who departed for various western countries from the refugee camps in Nepal. He had never imagined that one day he would also choose to leave his ramshackle hut that housed him for over two decades.
The usual face turned to a stranger for several who had gathered to see him off. Attired in his dark suit and white shirt, he looked young enough with the traditional Nepalese cap studded with two crossed-knife emblem symbolizing the Gorkha warriors. More than two dozen of his relatives and neighbours walked to Runche Chowk to bid good-bye to the legendary fellow. A four-member family of his second son accompanied Ranjit. They were bound to Cleveland, Ohio where the other family members were waiting them to join.
A day before his pre-medical examinations at the IOM, he was busy scanning some of the documents he had carried all the way from his hometown in Lapshibotey, Chirang and had secured them throughout his stay in camp.
“I am not going to carry all that I possess,” explained Ranjit, showing the charter of the first political party – Bhutan State Congress. “This document will go along with me since my father had sacrificed his life for initiating the congress party in Bhutan.”
Two days earlier, he visited an ophthalmologist in Damak and had his eyes examined. Showing the spectacles that he newly purchased, he said, “I bought these glasses from Damak. However, I could not afford a thermo flask that I wish to carry to ease my journey to the United States.” He has been under medication for his chronic asthma since a long time.
Unlike in other days, the Runche Chowk was seen less crowded. Including Ranjit, there were just 29 people to depart for America. Ranjit stood calm and quiet at a corner, just opposite to Armed Police Force (APF) camp, waiting for the IOM bus.
Except for his family members and close relatives, no one knew Ranjit as the only living member of late Mahasur Chhetri, who was packed inside a leather bag and dropped alive into the river Sunkosh. The community was unaware that Ranjit’s resettlement in the west would not only resettle himself and his family, but would also be carrying the history of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, millions of miles away from them, and might go unrecorded forever!
“I am never happy to move to a completely strange place. My dream to die in Bhutan, where my father ended his life for the common cause, is going to shatter,” Ranjit lamented, a few minutes before he stepped into the IOM bus. Tears trickled down his cheeks as he waved hands to bid farewell to his relatives and neighbors among those spectators. The bus moved away quickly, leaving a cloud of dust behind, aboard the living luminary, Ranjit and the family.
Ranjit Chhetri was born to his father of unparalleled valor, Mahasur Chhetri, and mother Pabitra in 1936 in Labshibotey of Chirang district. His father, a trusted servant of the first Prime Minister, Jigmi Palden Dorji, was in Bhutan House at Kalimpong, India when a messenger relayed him news about birth of Ranjit in Labshibotey.
Friends and locals received Mahasur, who instantly decided to leave for Bhutan to see the baby boy, at his residence with a formal ceremony to rejoice the birth. The celebrations continued until the child was christened as Ranjit following Hindu traditions on the eleventh day.
“My mother used to tell me that hundreds of locals, dozens of chaprasis and mandals were a part of the naming ceremony which was observed with panche baja, traditional dances and several rounds of gunfire,” Ranjit recalled.
Ranjit was lucky to have an opportunity to get enrolled in a private school in Kalimpong. However, he decided to discontinue his studies from grade six when he was enticed by various facilities that he used to get at the Bhutan House, the official residence of the Dorji family.
According to him, the then prime minister was very unhappy when Ranjit decided to remain completely aloof from his studies. “He wanted me to become a great man like my father and always motivated me towards studies. But, I always tried to ignore his words as I found that regular study was not an easy task to do,” says Ranjit, as he recalls his early days of Kalimpong.
At the age of eight, Ranjit married Pabitra Khadka, who was two years older. The marriage ceremony that lasted almost for a week was regarded as the greatest and most expensive function in Bhutan during that time. The claim for total expenses for the whole ceremony is Nu 9,000 in 1944.
“Many take my marriage as a fairytale,” elaborates he, “There were 84 Damais with seven commanders for panche bajas and over 300 hundred horses during the marriage procession to the girl’s house.” His claim of the extravagant marriage party is itself a dubious description, unlikely to command belief. “The party meal included 1,120 kilogram of rice, 14 goats and one seven-year-old he-buffalo,” claimed he.
Not only the invitees but also the hoipolloi who heard about such a function attended the ceremony fearing that Mahasur would take actions against those who failed to express their presence. Ranjit’s wife, who was welcomed as new bride to Mahasur’s home by a queue of hundreds of women in 1946, passed away three years back leaving him all alone in this world.
Ranjit and his stepmother traveled to India and Nepal the very next day when the then Prime Minister Jigmi Palden Dorji and his coterie packed Mahasur in a leather sack and threw alive into the torrential Sunkosh River early morning of March 8, 1951 accusing him of initiating the formation of Bhutan State Congress. The Bhutanese authority that agreed to bear funeral costs, compensate some losses and return properties seized by the authority, took Mahasur’s family to Bhutan only after 18 months of exile in India. The decision was taken following a negotiation deal between the Prime Minister’s father S.T. Dorji and the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Kalimpong, being pressurized by the Indian Congress.
Upon his return to Bhutan, Ranjit had to accept a job at the department of forest where he worked for 20 years although his mother and stepmother were not in favor of his taking the job.
(The writer, who has been following the life history of martyr Mahasur Chhetri, can be reached for comments at [email protected])