IN SEARCH OF SAMBHU MAGAR
After over a year of being with my Nepali partner, Arjun Magar, I knew that I had been totally accepted by his immediate family, who loved and cherished me dearly. And as Arjun himself voluntarily shared more and more about his past with me, I was finally able to gently ask about his elder brother, Sambhu Magar, who disappeared and became little more than a vague memory for his siblings and a much-mourned eldest child in his mother’s heart. This is the story I uncovered, complete with wicked uncle and compassionate mother.
In about 1970 an arranged marriage took place between Ramesh Magar (Bouja sub-caste) and Mitae Magar (Rajaan sub-caste). The groom hailed from Khotang, eastern Nepal, and the bride from a village in Solukhumbu, a seven to eight hours’ walk away. With a lawyer as a father, the bride’s family was regarded as more socially respectable and sound: Ramesh’s father was a farmer and after he passed away, the land divided and sold, the family’s fortunes plunged.
Ramesh himself worked as a porter, carrying provisions primarily on the Jiri-Namche Bazaar route and sometimes, more profitably and enjoyably, the baggage of tourists on the Everest Base Camp trek. After their marriage Ramesh and Mitae lived mainly in Khotang, Ramesh continuing to work as a porter and often staying away from home for up to five months at a time. Mitae gave birth to seven children: four sons — Sambhu, Buddha (who on the spur of the moment changed his name to Arjun when applying for his national ID card), a boy who died within weeks of his birth and whose name is now totally forgotten, and Sukra; and three daughters — Kali, Muna and Puspa. The six children grew up healthy and strong in spite of living in relative hardship and having a frugal diet.
Then tragedy struck: in about 1990 when the youngest child, Sukra, was little more than a year old, Ramesh died. He had habitually drunk and smoked excessively in an attempt to relieve the stress of his harsh life. With lungs already irreparably weakened, he finally contracted pneumonia while staying in Kathmandu with his younger brother Abhir. Abhir, uncle to Sambhu, Arjun and the rest of the family, had managed to carve a career for himself as a mountain guide. He did the unthinkable — and sinful — and left Ramesh sick and alone to go trekking with clients. By the time he returned, Ramesh had died and his cremation at Pashupatinath had been managed by some distant cousins with the aid of donations intended for paupers to cover the basic charges.
Soon after this Sambhu came to live with Uncle Abhir in Kathmandu. Abhir had gained a reputation as a skillful guide — and an incorrigible profligate: he seemed happy for his personable nephew to work with him in the trekking season as a porter.
In the mid-nineties, uncle and nephew were together on a camping trek with a group of German travellers. One member of the group, impressed by Sambhu’s helpful ways, politeness and charm, wanted to know more about his family background. On learning that his five fatherless younger siblings were struggling and in need of an education, the man, unmarried and childless, kindly offered to be their sponsor to ensure they had a basic schooling. True to his word, on his return home the honest and trusting German man started to transfer money regularly to Uncle Abhir for this purpose. However, Abhir surreptitiously used the money to fund his own libertine lifestyle, which revolved around women, liquor and gambling.
Somehow Sambhu finally discovered Abhir’s treachery: uncle and nephew had a major disagreement after which their lives diverged and they ignored each other as much as possible. The honest Sambhu did, however, arrange for Puspa and Sukra to come to Kathmandu to enrol in school before disassociating himself from the family: perhaps he never knew that in the end, for whatever reason, there was only enough money for Puspa’s education: Sukra, still a small child, had to start work as a jack of all trades at a modest Thamel tea-shop run by a relative before, lacking guidance and mentorship, eventually going over to the dark side.
It was soon after this that Sambhu effectively disappeared. Over the course of the following several years, letters with an Indian postmark were spasmodically delivered to the family home in Khotang where Mitae and Arjun were still living. Those letters are no longer extant and Arjun cannot recall their content in detail, except that Sambhu always expressed a wish to return to Nepal and asked for bank account details or some other means of transferring money to his family. However, no funds were ever received and after Arjun and his mother moved to permanently settle in Kathmandu the final tenuous point of contact between Sambhu and his family was severed.
Twenty years and more have passed since then: listening to Arjun tell Sambhu’s story and seeing the sadness in his eyes I mentally reviewed what I already knew had happened to the key players in my tale.
Uncle Abhir, who had also, incidentally, failed to attend his own mother’s funeral as well as that of another brother, married an extremely wealthy and highly educated French lady, Michelle, and has been living an utterly meaningless, egocentric life in France ever since. He did precious little on his holidays back in Nepal to help his nephews and nieces, nor does he seem to have tried to integrate himself into the French bed of roses on which he had so fortuitously fallen. Maybe it is karma that he is childless. I have indicated to Arjun in no uncertain terms that I have no desire to meet him when the pandemic allows him to return to Nepal on a visit.
Sukra, with some assistance from Aunty Michelle, got back on the straight and narrow and is living and working as a barista in Portugal. His dream of joining the French or even Portuguese army had come to nothing as a result of lack of support and assistance from his uncle.
Puspa, married with a daughter. lost several good opportunities, partly as a result of her own flightiness, partly due to lack of clarity about the legacy left to her in the hands of friends by her German sponsor. She still dreams of working in Germany.
Mitae, my beloved ama-lae, will be celebrating her 71st birthday this coming Lakshmi Puja day: it seems that having been born on this most beautiful Tihar festival day, which shifts from year to year over a span of weeks, she prefers to regard this as her birthday rather than any specific date in either the Nepali Bikram Sambat or Western Gregorian calendars. Her life has been a constant struggle, full of hardships and disappointments and yet the keen spark of energy and humour still shines brightly in her eyes. Arjun tells me that in recent years she has been grieving anew for the loss of her firstborn and believes that he is no longer alive: if he was, she is certain, he would have found his way back to her by now.
And Sambhu… Where is he? India? Nepal? No longer in this world? At the time of his disappearance internet was still in its infancy, email the privilege of the well-educated few, social media was yet to be ‘invented’.
Would it be possible, I wondered, to trace Sambhu using the power of social media, the widespread web of contacts that covers countries and continents? For the sake of my beautiful ama-lae, was it worth trying, in secret of course, to trace him? I asked Arjun if he knew Sambhu’s national ID card number? The name he used to register for it?
Arjun answered in the negative to both questions: he was highly sceptical that my plan could work, and yet….and yet, proud of my determination, “Let’s hope for a miracle, he said.
Do you know anyone would could possibly be Sambhu Magar? Born in Khotang to Ramesh and Mitae Magar, the eldest of 6 surviving children. Now almost 50 years old, about 165cm tall and, when last seen, strongly built and fit. If you do or have any possible leads, please contact Arjun Magar (+977–9803519162, Arjunlovenepal1@gmail.com) in Nepali or English.