Whenever you visit the Bhutanese refugee camps at Jhapa and Morang districts in Eastern Nepal, you will meet senior citizens, who have long way carried stories of various natures. Such stories vary from the most courageous works they had undertaken during their youth to the hardship they had faced in their initial stage of settlement in Bhutan. However, if you happen to see a Majhi family in Beldangi-II, Sector A1, Hut Number 36, you will be flabbergasted to listen at a story of one, Dhan Bir Majhi, who spent 40 years in forests of Bhutan while providing service to the former monarchs and their family members.
Initially recruited as a ghasi (grass cutter) in 1947, he had opportunities to serve the third and fourth kings of Bhutan when he was granted promotion to the post of a mahut (elephant driver) in 1967. Dhan Bir was forced to accept a compulsory retirement in 1986 when officials at the Manas Game Sanctuary decided to let his elephant Champakali, which he had been riding for years, into forest considering her old age.
While in Timai refugee camp, he also worked as a night security guard for 18 years, first with Save the Children (SCF) UK and later at camp health post of AMDA Nepal. Unable to accomplish his dream to resettle in the west, Dhan Bir died at the age of 83 in August this year while this writer was recording his life history. This story of Dhan Bir could be completed with inputs from his daughter-in-law, who also did the similar job for around nine years.
Born in 1929, I was just 18 when a special team from the department of forest from Sarbhang district reached my village, Majhitar, in search of a young and energetic fellow to be recruited as a ghasi. With recommendations from several villagers, the forest team requested me to accept the job. The offer brought unexpected joys in my poverty-driven family that was struggling to earn daily breads.
The memory is still vivid to me. When forest officials reached my home in September 1947, one of the Indian cloth merchants was informing our family about India’s independence from the British rule. However, the word ‘independence’ was completely new to me or my aged parents.
I never had an opportunity to attend schooling in my youth since my family was solely focused in farming. Educating children like me in the village was a real challenge as there were no or very few schools in the district, even there had been desire in my parents for my schooling. For the same I had to either move to near by town or neighboring Indian state Assam, which was impossible for a family like ours. I did not understand what the Indian fellow was explaining about independence in his country. Fortunately, I understood gist of the statement only after three years when I was sent to Assam of India for a short training. While in Assam, I interacted with locals and officials at department of forest, and knew that everybody was rejoicing the long awaited liberation from the British imperialism. The celebrations lasted for weeks, and I was a part of them during my weekends.
Upon completing the training in Assam, I returned to Bhutan. The training helped me a lot to familiarize with elephants, and accordingly I started developing the job satisfaction. More interesting part that still come fresh in my memory is, that my ever first exposure to outside world from a framer’s farm. Return to my village after the training, added smiles and hope to my family. In the eye of my peer group and villagers I was a government employee. Throughout my service as a ghasi, I simply received a nominal stipend, and occasional tips from royal visitors that the department received for hunting or elephant ride during summer. There wasn’t a regular pay system that time for all ghasi and mahuts. Still, I decided to continue my job as I eyed a promotion as a Royal Mahut.
As compared to my co-workers, I was very eager to learn new skills and techniques. I waited for promotion each year, but nothing appeared as I wished despite my firm dedication and strong commitment towards the job. Instead, the department kept on transferring me to various places, and the posting ranged from one to four years. It was during my postings to different forests in Bhutan I could see and feel the vastness of natural heritage of my land. The types of medicinal herbs and timber trees are of unbelievable nature. Bhutan is equally unique in wildlife. It took almost 20 years to bring my dream into reality when the department offered me an official promotion letter on June 14, 1967.
Even the monthly pay scale of Indian Currency (IC) 80-100 and dearness allowance of Rs 30 brought me a lot of joys in my personal life and the family. Prior to my promotion, I was the ghasi of elephant ‘Sonmaya’. The department decided to promote me when the former mahut Passang Tamang resigned due his poor visibility and aging factor.
Along with me, the department also promoted my longtime co-worker, Krishna Bahadur Subba, to the same post and became the driver of elephant ‘Sunderkali’. The department kept on giving some perks to our salaries. In the first lift, it doubled the salary, continued for three consecutive years, before it was raised to Rs 320, and then to Rs 470.
When the Royal Government of Bhutan introduced Ngultrum (Nu.), replacing the rupee at par in 1974, I was given 50 notes of 10 denominations each. Those monetary notes were brand new, and I kept in my pocket for the whole month without spending a penny out of it. At the time of my compulsory retirement in 1986, my salary and dearness allowance was a sum of Nu. 2500.
Through my personal referral, our son-in-law Suk Bahadur Tamang was also recruited in the department as Ghasi in 1978. Initially, his gross salary was Nu. 200 per month. He continued his job as a Mahut even after my retirement, and was laid off in 1989. He was drawing Nu. 1500 per month during that time. Altogether there were 10 tamed elephants at the Manas Game Sanctuary. The department had christened them as Bramarkalli, Rani, Madhukalli, Michael, Jinadevi, Manikalli, Pema, Champakalli, Kamaladevi and Manas. The Manas was a tusker, and was mostly used by the Kings when they arrived in the sanctuary for hunting.
Often my heart aches and mind cries, after having been served my tiny great nation with utmost dedications, Royal Government of Bhutan rewarded our families by forcefully evicting in 1992 with no fault on our side.
Dhan Bir Majhi narrated this story to Vidhyapati Mishra earlier in August. His son-in-law, Suk Bahadur Tamang, provided the additional inputs to the story after the octogenarian Majhi passed away while the story was being recorded. The article will be completed in two parts as the second half awaits finalization.