Sari Soldiers, 2008

The national unrest and confusion following the massacre of King Birendra and the Nepalese royal family by his son, Crown Prince Dipendra in 2001, and the subsequent dissolution of parliament by the ascended king, Gyanendra in response to an escalating Maoist insurgency, set the tone for Julie Bridgham’s compelling and incisive portrait of a broad spectrum of women who collectively embody the country’s cross-cultural struggle for peace, justice, freedom, representation, and accountability. In Kathmandu, a poor, uneducated, middle-aged woman from the province named Devi lives in self-imposed exile from her village after speaking out publicly against the rape and execution of her teenaged niece by royal army soldiers and, in the process, also becomes a victim when her daughter is taken away by soldiers in retaliation for her outspoken criticism. Having worked with representatives from international organizations such as human rights lawyer, Mandira to document the atrocities committed by the government in their campaign to root out Maoist insurgents from their strongholds in the countryside, Devi’s traumatic experience only galvanizes her resolve in exposing the truth at all cost.

However, the face of the royal army is also changing in response to the Maoists’ large number of women recruits, a transformation towards a more disciplined, regimented (and implicitly, more humane) one that Officer Rajani represents, as motivated equally by a desire for peace as she is to commemorating her brother who died fighting the decade-long insurgency. For a Maoist insurgent commander who assumed the pseudonym Kranti (“Revolution”), true humanity lies in dismantling the socially entrenched caste system, and the deep-rooted discrimination, arbitrary privilege, and oppression that it engenders. Nevertheless, despite the egalitarian values espoused by the Maoists, their ideological radicalism still proves to be a source of friction within the villages that they seek to convert, often using strong-arm tactics to recruit people into their campaign, and resorting to intimidation, brutality, and even assassinations against those who refuse to take up their cause. In one community, village elder and monarchist, Krishna defies the insurgents and stages her own rebellion to successfully drive away the Maoist agitators. In contrast, for nursing student turned activist Ram Kumari, the only way to move the country forward beyond the cycle of violence is by joining the daily, street level demonstrations organized by the pro-democracy movement. Interweaving the stories of these women into an intimate cultural mosaic of national struggle, Sari Soldiers is also an indelible image of national and personal transformation, the renewed hope of a figurative rebirth that Devi’s husband eloquently expresses in their mutual grief: the idea that people are born twice, once when they enter the world, and again when they make a difference in it.

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