The spirit that is fire
Laxman Ranjit walks on past the Kasthamandap, one of the Valley’s oldest buildings, from which the city gets its name. There are days when he stops by it briefly.
The structure that dates back to the 7th century is in scaffolding as it is being rebuilt after being destroyed on 25 April 2015 earthquake.
It was here that Ranjit, his wife Nilu and five-year-old son, Aryan, found themselves during a blood donation drive when the earthquake struck.
When the earth started trembling, and the wooden beams and columns of the structure started to shake, Ranjit immediately clasped Aryan to his chest and leapt out of the balcony.
He saved his son’s life, but could not save his wife Nilu, whose body was pulled out of the rubble with nine other blood donors who died that day at Kasthamandap. A national level athlete, Ranjit had had the presence of mind and the agility to pick his son up and jump out as the ancient structure collapsed behind them, breaking his leg at several places during the fall.
“I never thought Nilu would die,” he recalls. “As they rushed me to hospital I was in excruciating pain, but I remember thinking they must have taken her to hospital as well.”
When the dust from the earthquakes had settled, Ranjit suddenly found himself a widower, a single father, left to care for his son and an ageing father. He would spend several months recuperating at the National Trauma Centre, undergoing surgery and counselling.
Every time Ranjit leaves his home in Chikamuga in the past six years, he has had to walk past Kasthamandap, and this has become a constant reminder to him of that tragic day.
Laxman is a torch bearer of the Ranjit clan, which has to perform the Majipa Lakhe ritual mask dance during the Indra Jatra festival every year. Aside from that, he also leads a parallel mortal existence as a policeman and a national level weight lifting champion in the feather weight category.
In his guise of the Majipa Lakhe he used to put on a memorable performance every year, making him the undisputed, celebrated member of the clan of masked dancers. But 25 April 2015 changed his life.
The days in hospital were an awakening. He recalls how impatient he was to get out into the world again, and how he would walk around the wards, raising the spirits of other injured survivors like himself.
“There was this bahini who had injured her back. I said to her, you have a life ahead of you, look at me, I lost my wife, I have a child and I might no longer be able to do my job. It is the spirit that keeps us alive, life is not over,” he recalls.
Ranjit was not going to let a broken leg strap him, and he knew he would have to don his mask and go back gyrating into the Indra Jatra throng. He missed being behind the ferocious mask, the flowing brocade frock, with the bells clanking around his waist, and dashing through the streets without restraint. He also missed his life as an athlete.
Even while recovering from his injury, the next Indra Jatra saw him supporting his brothers who were upholding the responsibility of performing the mask dance. And that is when he met Amrita Maharjan, who he would eventually marry.
“I had heard about what he had been through,” Maharjan tells us. “We met through a cousin. I finally saw who the lakhe really was, and he was a child.”
As Amrita spent more time with the father and son, she understood that she would soon have a role to play in their lives. They had a small wedding on the side of Aryan’s Bratabandha ceremony last year.
“She has filled a void in our lives,” says Ranjit. “Nilu left me because I spent too much time at work. I will try to spend more time with my family now.”
Ranjit is now back to work as the red-haired masked demon at Indra Jatra. He says, “Once I wore my gear, I was the lakhe. My body found the rhythm again.”
Because of his injuries, the 41-year-old finds that he can no longer compete as a weight lifter and is considering other professional options.
“I could remain a policeman until I retire and wait for a pension, but that will not be enough to give my son a good education,” says Ranjit, who has turned down offers to cameo as Lakhey at national events.
Ranjit is troubled by the projection of lakhe as characters in YouTube videos, which have been criticised as cultural misappropriation. “There’s nothing wrong with culture. One needs to understand the history of the land and its connection to the people first,” he says.
Like all boys in the Ranjit clan, someday Aryan will inherit the mask and fiery attire, which the family regards as a source of strength, but until then the father hopes to build his son’s emotional resilience.
“The spirit of the lakhe is indomitable, it does not cower down to anything. The demon is actually a representation of who we are as humans,” Ranjit explains. “We fall, but we have to rise and we have to keep going. It is all about will power.”