By Frances Bulathsinghala/South Asian Monitor
The airport of Kathmandu has gone through the mill of change in recent years as with much of Nepal, politics or otherwise. Where once was a flurry of elbowing for access for immigration documentation clearance manually, there is now a flurry of competition for the snazzy machines where one enters the needed information without any hassle. Once out of the confines of the homely airport (which one hopes will never become gigantic and impersonal as most airports are), the roads are the usual web of chaos that one strangely develops an affection for, as with most things in Nepal.
But the roads are no longer brown snaking tangles that ends up at a Hindu temple whatever which way you go. They are now tarred but covered in a mist of dust because there are many roadways still under construction and one often comes across an irate shopkeeper throwing buckets of water onto the road in an attempt at keeping his wares at least temporarily dust free.
While one does notice that temperatures have been soaring higher(in keeping with the political temperatures of November one may add), one also observes that the fashions of the times have changed; where fifteen years ago women were only clad in the traditional shalwar kameez today it is commonplace to find females, especially of the younger generation,sporting modern western attire.
And the roads which once were a relief from some of the South Asian countries and their maze of traffic, are now a near torture if one were in a hurry to get from A to B, especially during office and school times, because with each passing year, in the past five years, Nepal’s middle class seems to have acquired an increased need for vehicles, especially cars.
Interestingly a comment from a city dwelling man in Kathmandu revealed much about the social-economic psychology emerging in the city. ‘What’, queried this middle-aged businessman, ‘is the need of the government to provide public transport when more people can buy their own vehicles. One would dare not think what the millions in villages who cannot even afford a bicycle would say, and we would leave aside the basic argument that no government in their right mind could fail to see the absolute need for a proper public transport system, especially if the class divide of a developing country such as Nepal is to be kept in check.
But the comment of the businessman helps us to understand that Nepal is progressing, albeit with a slant towards inequality, one could add, although there is evidence that Nepal is progressing as a hardworking nation, with signs of entrepreneurship by youth visible in every street corner.
Begging which is visible in large numbers in India and somewhat in Sri Lanka seemed almost completely absent in Nepal. In my visit of nearly two weeks in the country I never saw a single beggar in the city of Kathmandu. When I mentioned this to my Nepali friend, her comment was typical of the social psychology of the civilians of Nepal. “People are too busy- battling poverty,” was her enigmatic answer.
Meanwhile, mobbed by an election communist rally (my visit was in November, prior to the local legislative election) and the driver of the cab I was travelling in gets talkative. He is from the Terai region. He has studied up to grade 8. His English tutorials have entirely taken place in the confines of his vehicle with the diverse foreigners he has attempted to converse with (and obviously succeeded enough to the effect that one generous tourist has helped him buy a better cab – the one he is currently driving).
After 15 years of learning English ‘at the wheel’ he today speaks as good English as he would have if he had got himself a fancy diploma in English. His wife, he informs, has never gone to school at all and can neither read nor write while his two children are pursuing two technical related degrees in Australia and Japan respectively. Having given this information, he stares out of his car window as a procession saunters past and a larger than life poster of Lenin almost collides with the window of the car.
That jolts him into speech. “Lenin won’t get this country far,” he mutters, sinks into silence and then says that he owes a bank 45 lakhs of Nepalese rupees that he has borrowed to send his two children abroad to study. In the same breadth he adds “What I really want to ask these politicians is how they have amassed their wealth – especially these revolutionary leaders –,” but changes topic stating that he acutely dislikes politics and instead would like to focus his thoughts on how he could improve the social mobility of his family.
He explains that if his children had remained in the village, and not abroad, they would never have had a chance of getting a job of their choice. “In the village people are against education because they see no practicality in it. They spend all their money and get their children educated and after that there is nothing – no job – and the youth get little State assistance to start a business,” he adds.
Before dropping me to my destination, he states that his dream is to see one or two countries in the West and hopes that his children who are abroad will be successful enough in their new adopted countries to fund an overseas trip for him.
In a central area in Kathmandu in a locale where the upper middle-class lives, a twenty-four-year-old has just finished washing the last lot of dishes of the family he works for. He is a graduate in IT studies and the first in his family to get that kind of qualification, or any kind of qualification for that matter. Having been born to a family of bonded laborers, his uncle had worked in the same household before him without gaining any skill except driving. The upper-class family he works for is neither socialist, Marxist or Maoist by ideology – they firmly believe in the accumulation of capital and unreservedly share their belief but stresses that they believe in a liberal kind of equality.
They insist that they are happy that the 24-year-old who has worked in their house will soon be a graduate and will be able to move into the world with confidence. He will be a free man then and no longer sharing the bonded heritage of his family, they say.
On the walls of the kitchen is list of reminders of daily tasks to be done and what vegetables to buy and they are all written in English – “Yes, I read in English. I have a small library of about 20 English books,” says the youth who is credited by the family for keeping the kitchen and house spic and span. The lady of the house quips that he is lucky and declares that if he was in his village he would have back-breaking work to do and not just clean the car, do the cooking, wash the dishes and clean the house. She agrees that the inequality that continues in the country, despite the abandoning of the Monarchy and the Maoist entry into politics,is not morally correct but feels that the past ten years has been fruitless and have only fostered corruption, lack of accountability and hypocrisy. She is skeptical as to how the unfolding saga of Nepal’s political scenario would augur for the people in terms of seeing a visible shift in human development.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, in a café in the city, a Nepali Professor of Development Studies vents his anger at what he sees as ‘Christianization’ of Nepal through ‘Western influence.’ The Professor is distinctly uncomfortable with Nepal’s ‘secular’ constitution and feels that changes such as these have been influenced by the West.
A senior Nepali NGO practitioner sharing the conversation vehemently disagrees and reminds the professor that he too is a ‘Christian’ product so to speak, having studied at a missionary school run by American missionaries in the 1970s.
“Do you think you would have become a consultant at a leading international economic entity and be posted to Washington in the 1990s (and become the professor you are today) if you were not given a quality education by the Christian missionaries?” the NGO worker asks, half in jest, and reminds the professor that he is still an ‘unconverted’ Hindu! The professor smiles but speaks of various ‘interference’ by the West and laments that there is an ‘United’ effort to bring about ‘Unlimited Notions’ concerning Nepal and ‘complicate an already difficult decade of Nepal’s transition from a monarchy to a democracy.
Interestingly, the Professor lapses into a monologue on why Nepal needs a King. The conversation shifts to secularism in Nepal. A garrulous foreigner at the next table leans across and interjects that he believes it is ‘ironic’ that Nepal could be secular. “It could affect your tourism, you know,” he laughs. The Professor and the NGO worker do agree that it is a tad ‘strange’ for Nepal, which was for centuries considered a Hindu kingdom, to suddenly be transformed into a secular nation.
“Many of the temple rituals were associated with the Royal family and after the end of the monarchy the Prime Minister was compelled to fulfill the ritualistic tasks which were carried out by the King,” the NGO worker points out. ‘The demand for secularism was influenced by the ideological link between Hindu festivals and rituals connected to the Royal family,” adds the NGO representative.
Nepal has a minuscule number of Muslims and Christians, these groups largely blend with rest of the populace but some fear that ‘all sorts of issues’ by a ‘secularism’ ‘artificially injected’ into the country may invade the country.
To sift through the arguments, debates and discourses on Nepal from the different strata of society is indeed an interesting phenomena.
This writer recalls that the last time she was in Nepal, about 5 years ago, the local newspapers were full of public debates and concerns on matters such as getting the children of Maoist leaders out of international schools and dealing with alleged corruption charges against the then rulers – and at that time it looked very much as if the Maoist leaders had replaced the monarchy.
But given that the Nepal legislative election is now over and the Communist party and the Maoists are back in power, the question is whether the victory of the left alliance will usher in the much hyped equality that the Maoist insurgency was all about. Or will political and socio-economic stability have the fate of a fly stuck in a clammy state of unrest as the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) and CPN (Maoist Center) take up political reins. Indeed, only time can tell.
But for the millions of ordinary people who sweat out on streets and in fields working towards one day of progress at a time (which could mean just three-square meals and earning enough money to keep their children one more day in school), one could say that Nepal is in good hands – of a people who are daily progressing, whatever the odds.
(The featured image at the top shows the changing face of Kathmandu)