x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Pushpa Kamal Dahal: a name never to forget

On becoming Nepal's prime minister last month, he wasted no time in dogging the media with one burning question: What to call him?

The piece of paper that confirms the name of the Nepalese prime minister.
The piece of paper that confirms the name of the Nepalese prime minister.

NEW DELHI // The driver warned that his engine could not handle any more water. If the waves washing over his motorised rickshaw got any bigger, he would have to stop. It was the usual kind of monsoon in New Delhi. Black clouds had suddenly swirled above, issued a token drop or two - and then let loose the flood. While torrential downpours are nothing new this time of year in the Indian capital, the situation was especially critical because of a crumpled sheet of paper being carried.

On that piece of paper was stamped a very plain, but vital fact - the official identity of the prime minister of Nepal. For years, the man had simply been known as Prachanda, a Nepalese word meaning, "The Fierce One". But when the revolutionary guerrilla stopped dogging the government and actually became Nepal's prime minister last month, he wasted no time in dogging the media with one burning question:

What to call him? Would it be his guerrilla name? Or the one he was born with, but subsequently disavowed because of its caste overtones - Pushpa Kamal Dahal. With Prachanda - we shall call him that for now - visiting India this month, it seemed the perfect opportunity to get to the bottom of it. After all, the Indian government would have to call him something. It is difficult to get hold of anyone in the India prime minister's office by phone. There are dozens of phone numbers starting with 2301 - and if someone actually picks up, they invariably tell you to call another 2301 number.

Instead, a personal visit to the PMO was in order. But after serial bombings that claimed nearly 20 lives across New Delhi this month, killing at least 20 people, the office had become a bunker. Motor vehicles were prohibited from coming anywhere near the complex - a lesson the rickshaw driver soon learnt when police, armed with machine guns, descended on his vehicle. He was mightily abused, vehemently directed to turn around and, for a moment, it seemed he would still be shot for good measure.

"You have to walk," the breathless driver said. So, the road winded up a gentle slope, past checkpoint after checkpoint. Eyeing the sole civilian warily, guards were quick to rein him in. You need to call ahead. You need an appointment. You cannot come inside. But since every guard had his own answer to whether one could enter the prime minister's office, it seemed like a good idea to keep shambling from guard to guard, until the right answer came along.

"You won't find the answer at the PMO," said one knife-wielding Gurka. "Go to the ministry of external affairs." Luckily, that hulking structure sat plumb beside the PMO. Of course, rifles barred the way. But sometimes, if you keep showing a business card and repeating the same mantra - "reception" - you can at least get to a certain point. History may judge clerks unfairly - always the bit players in office lobbies, directing visitors to have a seat, and having to pretend to read a newspaper while absolutely nothing happens. They are saddled with the staggering responsibility of having to be the human face of Indian bureaucracy.

But the kindly man in reception stood tall that day. He was not sure what the India government called the Nepalese prime minister. He would certainly find out. Then he unleashed a telephonic typhoon, dialling up dozens of numbers, making short grunts that always included the word Nepal. "One minute," he said. "Someone will come down and see you." Here is the remarkable part. Someone actually did come down.

A young man scurried down the steps to deliver a single sheet of paper. It was a photo-copy of a name tag used for the prime minister's visit. "This is his official name," the young man said, reading the sheet. "Pushpa Kamal Dahal." Aha! But wait, what is that just below his name? Is that ? Prachanda? "There are two names here," the reporter protested. "No, no," the clerk said. "Prachanda is his Maoist name. The media use it. But we call him 'Pushpa Kamal Dahal'."

Good enough! With the paper tucked away, it was back outside to the barren courtyard. Overhead, a hawk was homing in on a dove. And a tiny drop of rain fell from the sky. "Where can I catch a taxi?" a soldier behind a bunker was asked. The soldier appeared confused at first, before mumbling: "No taxi." Another drop of rain. Then another. Then the sky dropped. About 15 minutes later, a bone-soaked foreign correspondent leapt into a passing auto rickshaw.

The driver had a hearty laugh before explaining he was on his way home. He could not drive to the other end of town. Especially in this torrent. How about 100 rupees? 200? 300? Moments later, the flimsy machine was treading water. Although a tarpaulin cover held most of the rain at bay, the storm sewers were immediately overwhelmed. Streets became rivers, cars were submerged up to their bumpers. Water poured in from the rickshaw's open sides.

Must. Keep. That. Paper. Dry. Already, the Nepalese prime minister was disappearing into a wet, inky blob. The name may have appeared like a bruise on the paper. But it was clear enough. Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Yes, the name is Pushpa Kamal Dahal. May we never forget it. ccotroneo@thenational.ae