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The chauffeur of last journeys

The chauffeur of last journeys

More than a decade ago, it would be news when coffins arrived at Tribhuvan International Airport on the cargo hold of airliners, bearing migrant workers who had died in the Gulf or Malaysia. The plywood boxes would be carried by grieving relatives to Aryaghat, the bodies in plastic sheeting unwrapped for cremation.

The numbers escalated from the occasional coffin to two, three, then several a day. As the far-flung regions also started sending out migrants, the returning bodies had to be taken for cremation or burial to the home villages. Even as the returning dead stopped making news, a transport industry sprang to provide delivery service from TIA.

The Red Suitcase is a film of short dialogues and long silences, tracing the journey of one driver (Saugat Malla) on his Bolero pick-up as he picks up a body and carries it along the Sindhuli Highway and scenic backroads to deliver it to the village of Beyul.

Among the many fascinating elements in the film is the choice of name for the hamlet. In the Himalayan Buddhist belief system, ‘beyul’ is a valley of refuge for those escaping sectarian strife, political subjugation or failed crops. Here Beyul is an idyll of a bhitri madhes village, and the Bolero breaks the peace as it arrives, spewing diesel and churning up the gravel, arriving at the house kept by a young mother (Shristi Shrestha) and her newborn infant.

Along the way, Saugat’s character meets a disabled veteran of the Indian Gorkha battalion (Bipin Karki), who served and was wounded in Kashmir. A bitter man, he lives alone in a roadside hut in whose driveway the pick-up parks for the night. We learn that the driver fled his village after his beloved school-teacher was murdered by insurgents. Seeking survival in the metropolis, he ends up as the chauffeur of last journeys.

Between sips of raksi, the conversation between the demobilized soldier and the driver encapsulates the concerns of the times: a polity that forces its youth outward, a nation-state which sends its citizens to fight for another country, and a rural society devastated by internal conflict. But nothing is overplayed in writer-director Fidel Devkota’s expert script and cinematography.

Two spectral episodes bracket the story of the traveling coffin, one involving the wife and another the Bolero sarathi. These are best left for the reader to observe and reach an understanding at the cinema hall.

Whether you are carried away by the story of The Red Suitcase or not depends on your mental conditioning as regards the emptying villages of Nepal, including Beyul where only the women are left to tend the homesteads. The extended silences in darkness and half-shadows allow for reflection on the fate of the characters, and what happened to their resource-rich country.

In the screening this writer attended, a few in the audience were clearly uncomfortable with Devkota’s technique. At the half-time break, some giggled self-consciously and a man asked someone in the next row, ‘Ae bhatija, nidaeko ho?!’ But by the time the end credits came up, he had gone pensive as had others in the hall.

As an aside, perhaps The Red Suitcase can sensitize the Department of Civil  Aviation to provide a more dignified arrival for the migrant dead at TIA. While the earlier practice of the coffins emerging into the regular baggage collection area has ended, the Department must customize special pushcarts for transport to where the grieving families await. Till today, relatives have to lay the coffins sideways across two regular airport trolleys and awkwardly push them in tandem.

The Red Suitcase, meanwhile, does its bit to provide respect to the dead and living. At the village Beyul, the newborn’s name, Asha, holds out the possibility of a better tomorrow.