When I returned to Janakpur after five years, I was surprised to see that not much had changed in the city. True, new houses were being built in the outskirts of the city which was slowly but surely sprawling towards the outlying villages. A few new shops with large glass windows decorated with fashionably clothed mannequins had opened up in the heart of the city. There were more commercial banks, private schools, and cyber cafes. But that the pace of change had been slow became evident if you took a rickshaw ride through the main streets and chowks of the city – the same dusty asphalt road, murky green ponds, scattered paan-stalls every ten steps you took, and colorful posters of cheap Hindi films.
It was only when I had spent some time and traveled outside the city that I realized beneath the seeming stillness a profound change had been taking place, a change that will undoubtedly affect the traditional essence of Janakpur. But before we examine further these changes, it must be understood that Janakpur and its nearby villages are divided by sharp class boundaries, which are drawn more or less along caste and religious lines. The upper castes form the middle class, while the Muslims and the lower castes are predominantly working class. In this article, I will focus on the changes happening among the working class.
Janakpur has, for long, been a cultural centre for the ethnic population of eastern Terai. The city owes its vibrancy more to the people of the villages around the city than to its core inhabitants. Every festival, every major event sees hordes of people coming to the city to worship, to shop. The city centre is designed with these villagers in mind. A change in the economic standards of these villagers will inevitably change the nature of the city itself. And that is precisely what is happening. A new door has opened up for the working class population – foreign employment, particularly in the Gulf states. While they earn attractive salaries (by Nepali standards) and are quickly breaking the shackles of caste oppression, the middle class, who have traditionally held government jobs and owned small businesses, have seen little or no change due to steady or dwindling incomes in the face of rising expenditures. The middle classes have begun to sell the lands they owned in their villages, which are being bought by the working class, who had in the past tilled these same fields for miserable amounts. The expatriate workers are helping their families get proper education, health care, new business opportunities, and above all gain dignity.
The story of these workers is heart-warming. Usually, starting with money borrowed from wealthier individuals (mostly from the land-owning upper castes) at extremely high interest rates (sometimes more than fifty percent), they secure a job in a foreign country with the help of manpower agencies. Most of these jobs are menial labor, the same kind of work that they had been doing for meager salaries at home – as bricklayers and barbers, as hired hands and carpenters, but now for a lot more money.
Once they reach their destinations, they are greeted by a close community comprising mostly of people from the same area and similar class, who collectively raise money so that the individual can pay back his initial debts, which otherwise would keep on adding up at a fast rate. Instead of finding oneself alone in an unknown land, the individual is among friends. The person repays the money once he starts earning, and helps other newcomers by chipping in money just as he had been helped. This close communal feeling, inevitable in foreign lands, also brings together communities at home due to reciprocal help. The resurgence of community life among the working class contrasts sharply with the division prevalent among upper-caste/middle class communities.
The rapid increase in economic standards, communal harmony, education, and opportunities among the working class population of Janakpur and its outlying villages has already expressed itself in numerous small changes in the city. More people are moving in the urban centre; most of the new houses being built belong to them. The changes will become even more pronounced when a new generation that is better educated and more exposed to the outside world comes of age. Traditional boundaries drawn by religion and economics will either disappear or reshuffle. Janakpur looks ready for a much needed revitalization that will inject life into its veins, and resurrect the once vibrant, now ailing city.