photo of person from Nepal Sindhulpalchok
Nepal glossary

Lal Bahadur

(NEPAL 21)









Melamchi, Sindhupalchok





Section 1
"After my time, I don't know if my son will operate the mill or sell it off."

I am known as Saila Bajey (third eldest grandfather) in the village. My registered name is Lal Bahadur Majhi. I must be between 60 and 65 years old. Born before the 1990 earthquake, I must have been about seven then. I have a family of nine. My son and daughter-in-law, grandchildren, my brother and his wife stay at home. I look after this ghatta (water mill). I cannot stand the rigours of work at home.
This water mill was registered in 1952. As a small boy, I enjoyed following my father to this place. I am now old and long for the comforts of home. This place is cold and I have no bed. As a child, of course, I could fall asleep anywhere.
Earlier, on some days up to 20-25 people came here. This number has gone down considerably since numerous motor-driven mills were installed in the area. These mills are ten times faster than our grinding mill. Obviously, they would be; a mill is a mill, after all. Ours is a stone mill. And last night the water canal got damaged. One cannot undertake repairs at night. Only this morning could the water be directed to the water mill.
Running the mill involves a lot of hard work. The wooden trough has to be cut, wooden pegs have to be made, the central pivot has to be placed to support the rotating grinder, ploughshares and levers have to be obtained, and the ground has to be levelled. And, of course, we have to have a pair of stone grinders. Water has to be channelled to the grinder through the wooden trough and the grinder is ready to rotate. We can then feed the corn into the grinder. It does not end there. We have to constantly monitor the quality of the final product. Is it coarse and rough, or smooth and fine? The force of the water has to be monitored. In case the force is not strong, water flow has to be increased. This may require diverting more water from the river to the mill. This would involve putting clods of earth and tree branches to block the water. We have to engage labourers. Water is what we need throughout the year. Also, water flow decreases during the planting season because the farmers, too, need water. We have to jointly work out our shares through negotiations. We have to block the river to divert the water. Diversion dams have to be made. Stones have to be lifted and carried. There is always the risk of injury. Work in the mill is backbreaking. And, after all that, people often divert your canal somewhere else. Your labour is lost. This results in quarrels leading, often, to physical brawls. The strong win.
The mill does not require much water - one embrace (armful – arms forming a circle in front as if embracing an imaginary person to indicate size) is enough. The speed of the grinder is directly proportional to the force of the water. The stronger the force, the faster it rotates and vice-versa. And the quality of the output depends on the rotation speed. The faster the rotation, the better and smoother the flour. The flour is rough and coarse when the grinder rotates slowly. And it also takes more time.
My father and uncle were two in their family. Both worked in this mill. This mill then had three shares. With a son and grandson, there were more divisions and now the mill is shared among five. We charge one pathi (approx. 3.2 kg) for every muri (20 pathis) we grind. This is shared among five. That is enough for here, but it is not adequate for the home. People at home work on the farm. There is little land. That's how it is; it's not like in the Terai (plains) here in the hills. You farm two to four terraces; you start off from one end harvesting maize but there isn't even a basketful when you get to the other end. Working on the farm is tough. It is a lot of hard work, but there is very little crop to harvest. Running the water mill is not easy either. It is only because it is said that a son must follow in the footsteps of the father; it isn't easy to run a mill. After all, everyone aspires to pursue the family trade. That's all. I lived here at the mill. Now my son and grandson will stay here. What to do, there's nowhere else to go.
Everyone, not just Majhis, operates water mills. Now if they know how, just about anybody runs them. Even Bhotes, Danwars, Chhetris and Bahuns operate them. In the old days, since Majhis lived near rivers it seemed as if it was the vocation of only the Majhis. The mills are operated by whoever sets them up in these streams and rivulets.
Earnings depend on the amount of work. If we get customers, if the mill is fully functional and things are done quickly, we can earn as much as 5-6 pathis a day. Otherwise, we cannot make even 1-2 pathis.
This mill grinds other grain besides maize and wheat. It grinds millet, beans, and soya beans. If there are insects around, it grinds them, too! It cannot, however, husk rice.
As far as I can remember there were many water mills here; up there, up there, on the other side there, this side near the stream, behind the village. But most have been abandoned. In our case, we just can't afford to leave.
Now people earn 100-150 rupees if they do some other work, whereas when you stay at the mill you get two manas (one mana is 10 handfuls) of flour and the rest of the day is dry. Some have, therefore, sought permission from the department to close the mill down, and others have done something else. Yet others are still paying taxes. We are somehow bumbling and stumbling along.
Taxes on this water mill have to be paid. During Father's time it was either one rupee or five rupees. Now we have to pay Rs. 40.00 annually. They do not come to collect it. Once they did not come for four or eight years, and when they came after four years we had to pay 16 twenties (Rs. 320.00). It is difficult to pay large sums at one time. For poor people like us, instead of paying such large amounts we would pay only Rs. 40.00 if they came every year.
During my time, with great hardship, I managed this two manas’ chore. After my time, I don't know if my son will operate the mill or sell it off. There are many shares in this mill. He could decide to sell it, or he might even keep it after realising that he would lose his livelihood. After I am gone, he can do as he pleases.