Saturday, September 22, 2012

Review on "The Lives We Have Lost: Essays and Opinions on Nepal" by Manjushree Thapa

Manjushree is the daughter of a high-ranking Nepali official who served in various capacities under three Nepali kings (Mahendra, Birendra, and Gyanendra). Much of her own higher education was abroad, and she has split much of her recent time between Nepal, India, Canada and the United States. She is one of the generation of younger Nepali elite who has seen Nepal from inside and outside, growing up in an almost ethereal third-space. Her writings—fiction, opinion pieces, literary reportage—are not only vibrant and engaging but resound with and give voice to much of how those of her generation have experienced Nepal. As an adult third-culture kid (ATCK) from Nepal, I count myself among those.

One of her more recent works is a collection of her opinion pieces written and published in various newspapers, journals, or magazines from 2003 to 2010. This work can be seen as a follow-up to probably her best-known non-fiction work Forget Kathmandu: Eulogy for Democracy (2005), which traces the history of Nepal. These opinion pieces follow the events leading out of Nepal’s Maoist insurgency: ending the war in 2006, deposing the 240-year-old monarchy, the drawn-out process of electing a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution, the Maoists moving from a geurilla force to the elected leading political party in Nepal, the integration/non-integration of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) into the Nepal Army; and the roles of foreign aid, the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), and (begrudged) big-brother India in the (non-existent?) peace process. In these pieces, she not only touches on what democracy, republicanism, and ethnic federalization, mean for Nepal, but weaves or unravels her own thoughts, reactions, and personal actions during these unfolding events.

While these pieces themselves are well written, the book itself transparent in its construction. The introduction provides a chronological overview of the events in which these pieces were written. Each piece then is bookmarked with a summary of the context in which in was written, and the date and publication in which it was originally published. The result is a well-framed a commentary on the overarching Nepali political situation, grounded in distinct personalities and events. The collection ends with a piece recounting and reflecting on Manjushree’s visit to the Narayanhiti Palace Museum—the former residence of Nepal’s monarch, turned into a museum upon their deposition. This piece serves to reorient the events in the book back on her and her family’s experiences. While Manjushree in no way sets up herself or her family as representative of how other Nepalis have internalized these events, it provides the reader with a picture of how these events have affected a Nepali family.

Two essays that I found particularly applicable to my own situation as a foreigner in Nepal were “Educating the Influential Foreigner” and “Some Home Truths for the Donors.” Her biggest critique is that these influential foreigners, be they diplomats, donors, or aid workers, do not inform themselves about Nepal’s complex history and current cultural and political situation. Most of their information comes from “cocktail-hour chatter [rather] than…in-depth study” (pg. 79). She quotes one aid industry consultant who described this situation as the development sector in Nepal having “no historical memory” (pg. 80). That bodes bad when the majority of Nepal’s GNP comes from foreign aid (with family remittances in close running). Manjushree shows that this lack of historical memory causes diplomats and aid workers to misread where the majority of Nepalis stand, and end up on the wrong side of political situations. For example, the international community in Nepal had much of its weight thrown behind the monarchy—Manjushree described them as “cooperating with a repressive absolute monarchy, helping to uphold it against the interests of peace and democracy in Nepal” (pg. 84)—and were shocked to realize that the majority of Nepalis thought differently when that monarchy was deposed. Manjushree’s solution to this lack is for “influential foreigners here to read, read, read—and not just newspapers [the English-language ones read like bad gossip columns--TD]. Actual books. And if there aren’t enough good books around, then support the intellectual ferment gathering force today: invest in new scholarship” (pg. 81). She also indirectly tells donors to get out of Kathmandu and see for themselves how things are in other parts of Nepal, rather than just hob-nobbing with the Nepalese elite in Kathmandu. Manjushree herself has traveled widely in Nepal. Many of the pieces included in this collection are from visits she made out West, and she has another collection of writings commenting on development in the Mustang region of Nepal, entitled Mustang Bhot in Fragments.

A foreign friend recommended Manjushree Thapa’s work to me when I asked for something to read during my stay in Nepal in 2010. Manjushree quickly became one of my favorite commentators on Nepal. There is a growing number of good scholarly works on Nepal, but I find Manjushree’s candid and considerate observations and opinions, not veiled or overwhelmed by anthropological theory, to be refreshing. They both confirm and challenge my own thoughts on where Nepal is going as a country, and what role I, as a foreigner, should or should not have in these developments.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Many Aspects of Teej

Kanchi and I had just finished putting on our red saris when a neighbor woman began yelling for Kanchi from the road. The rapid-fire Nepali was incomprehensible to me, but Kanchi spit some phrases back, told me to “Jaum! Jaum! [Go! Go!]” and grabbed a handful of rupees as we sprinted out the door.  Down at the bazaar, we joined a group of women from the community, all dressed in red saris and gold jewelry. Many of the recently married girls had returned to their maternal home to celebrate Teej, a Hindu women’s festival, with their mothers and sisters.

“Where are we going?” I asked Kanchi.

“To Koteshwar [an area of town]; we’ll go there and come right back.”

“Why?” I was rather perplexed: there was no major temple in Koteshwar; weren’t they going to do puja [worship] to Shiva on behalf of their husbands, as the holiday dictated?

She said something about the jhagada [fight] and going to the person it concerned. There had been a disturbance in the village that morning, which Kanchi had just described to me as “jhagada.” I assumed fist-fight and didn’t think about it again. But now it looked like the women of the community were going to show up somewhere and give a person their two cents about whatever the fight had been about—dressed in their red and gold finery not less. They would make a firey sight.  

A few minutes later, the women piled into a bus—young, old, married, unmarried, a few widows, and not a few young boys coming with their mothers—and we made our way to Koteshwar, a large transportation hub on the edge of Kathmandu.

When the bus stopped in front of the Koteshwar police post, my stomach flipped. The women all piled out of the bus and into the police station. I was swept along with the crowd, and steered in specific directions by Kanchi. Soon, the women were yelling various phrases at the police chief standing on the porch, and began to push inward towards the police station office door. I stayed in the back of the crowd, trying to get out of the thick of the movement of people.

As I was unable to understand her answers to my many questions, Kanchi directed me to some of her female relatives who could explain the situation to me in English. “Last night, a woman’s husband beat her,” one young woman explained, “the husband and father-in-law are inside [the jail].” She asked Kanchi, in Nepali, who I was. Kanchi explained that I was the doctor’s daughter, who had diagnosed her son’s disease; as a close family friend, I was here celebrate Teej. “We’re her daughters,” the young woman described her relationship, and the women with whom she was standing, to Kanchi. I assumed she meant nieces, or the wives of Kanchi’s nephews, as Ashok was her only son. “You look very nice in that red sari,” she smiled at me.

Turning the conversation back to the issue at hand, I asked Kanchi why we were here. “Samajko laagi! [for the community!]” was her reply, and looked at me like it should all make sense now. The crowd continued to shout incomprehensible Nepali phrases in unison at the police chief and other officers gathered on the porch.

The crowd was not only made up of women—a number of men had shown up as well. “These are men from [our village]” Kanchi told me, “and from the woman’s maithi [maternal home/village]. We’re all here to support her [sahayog dine ko laagi].” It appeared that it was the woman’s word against those of her in-laws, and the community was there to vouch for the woman. The sea of women in red and gold—many of them in their wedding saris, and all their gold jewelry designating them as married women—made a bright contrast to the overcast day and dreary, muddied police station yard. Raising fists in the air, shouting phrases together, and pushing in on the police, these women made an intimidating force.

There were a few journalists and television reporters present. I did my best to stay out of the cameras’ eyes as they interviewed the woman who had been beaten. The women had all pushed her to the front of the camera, and handed her a bottle of water to drink—all the women present were sitting a complete fast that day; by drinking water, this woman was breaking her fast, and doing her husband a disfavor.

While all that was going on, various women of the community recognized me and came over to talk—when did I get back in Nepal? How long would I be here for? How was my family? And I looked really nice in that red sari, by the way; it really became me.

A number of policemen in blue fatigues began gathering on the upper levels of the police station, watching the crowd and particularly honing in on me. Their relentless stares from behind a line of heavy black boots along the balcony edges made me feel small. I had my back to a TaTa truck used for transporting these police to various places around the city; inside various riot gear—padding, helmets, bamboo sticks—hung at the ready.

The women began to sit down in convenient places to gossip and socialize. The younger children who had come along with their mothers ran around the police yard, chasing each other and munching on chips or snack noodles, holding the colorful packages in their fists. Some of the more restless members of the group ran to the main road and threatened to enforce a chakka jam [traffic strike]. A few of the policemen put on riot gear and meandered to the street to make sure that didn’t happen. I rather suddenly noticed that there were no women police at the station. I also finally registered that none of the police were in the blue traffic uniforms either, but in the armed police fatigues.

“So why are we still here?” I asked Kanchi. “Oh, I don’t know; we’ll see,” was her reply. She began to discuss the situation on rapid village slang with the women sitting next to her. She obviously did not share my consternation, and was glad of the opportunity to socialize with relatives and neighbors and take a break from the manual labor daily required by her family's farm. I was seriously considering going back to the village, but for some reason, felt safer staying with Kanchi. I continued to sit on the porch next to her, and hopelessly follow the conversations around me.

Soon, a truckload of police in riot gear showed up. The police chief told the women that they had just come from a routine round. The police got out of the truck, but did not take their gear off—they began to just wander around the compound. A few struck up conversation with the women, who were glad to inform them why their community was at the police station.

We waited at the police station for four hours. Nobody seemed bored though; everyone but me had a rather festive attitude. The women began to make jokes about how they didn’t have the opportunity to make merry [raimailo garne] today—usually, they’d be doing puja at the temple, then singing and dancing as they sat out their fast. They would have fun the day after tomorrow, on rishi panchami, the final day of Teej. Kanchi was kept just as busy explaining who I was as she was gossiping about the current situation.

Suddenly, a police truck showed up and everyone became roused from their more relaxed positions to merge as a crowd again. Kanchi pulled me off the bench we had been sitting on, and pushed me off the porch. I turned around to see the police, in their riot gear, make a human barrier with themselves all along the open porch on which most of us had been sitting. The truck had apparently brought another family member; whether they were complicit in the beating or here to vouch for the woman, I wasn’t sure. The crowd began to shout again, but after a while, they seemed satisfied.

As quickly as we had arrived, we left. All the women piled back into the bus—which was waiting for us outside the station—and we made our way back to the village. As the women lamented the fact that they had not had opportunity to make merry as usually, the bus driver put on the latest Teej tunes, and the women standing in the bus aisle began to dance, as much as they could, in that crowded, moving bus. The women who were seated clapped and sang to the lyrics.

When we got home, I smothered Ashok—Kanchi’s son—with questions in English. What had I just been unknowingly complicit in?! He explained that the woman in question had been habitually abused by her in-laws; she had been beaten again last night and the husband and father in law had been taken to the Koteshwar jail. The whole village knew about the situation—they were neighbors after all—and they had gone to support her case. One of his female cousins then showed up to gossip more about the incident. After a while, I gave up trying to follow her rapid village slang, punctuated with hand motions, laughter and giggles, and hushed tones.

Kanchi and I eventually made it to the local mandir [temple], where Kanchi performed the required oblations to Shiva. Many of the women had gathered to sing and dance. There was a large speaker from which issued the latest Teej songs, ranging in genre from dohori git [song-duels], lok git [folk songs] to disco teej (which many of the younger school girls were excited about). Kanchi danced, and the younger girls eventually persuaded me to hand my camera to one of them so they could take pictures of me dancing.

While these are the more typical scenes of Teej—dancing and singing at the mandir while sitting out a complete fast on behalf of your husband’s wellbeing (and if you’re unmarried, then as part of requesting a good husband)—the movement at the police station was not exactly out of place either. Teej has become a platform for voicing women’s rights, especially in line with social justice. Most of the abuses women endure in Nepal come from the hands of family members, most commonly in-laws. Showing up to support a woman’s case against her husband and in-laws for beating her is now just as in line with the spirit of Teej as is taking time off from housework and labor to socialize, have fun with female friends and relatives, and pray to a deity on behalf of your husband or husband-to-be. I happened to experience both in one day. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

House Hunters International, Nepali style

I’ve never watched the reality TV show that this blog post’s title references, though I did Google it  just to give myself an idea of what its about. One of my colleagues made reference to this show in the midst of a rather hectic day of examining four different places in Patan. I guess the show makes it sound exotic (with the “international” designation). I’d say its just plain hard to look for a place wherever you are.

My colleagues found a place posted on the KTM KTM list serve—where vacancies are posted and advertised—right by Patan Dhoka, in the middle of the city we wanted to live in. I was unable to go with them on the first visit, but they came back with pictures of the spacious apartment, and described how pleased they were with the landlord. He was a young guy beginning his career in property management, and he was looking to furnish and rent this place. It was a bit pricy, but included everything—water, electricity, one gas cylinder per month, even someone to clean and do laundry—and split between the four of us, it would be affordable. As a landlord, he seemed helpful and accessible. We decided to continue looking, but keep this place in mind. We were still a little put off by the price, as it was at the higher end of what we were each looking to spend.

We were referred to a landlord through a former grantee, who potentially had rooms for rent in the middle of Patan. This landlord was more than happy to chat with us in Nepali on the details of accommodation—over a few glasses of raksi (home made rice wine) and cucumber sprinkled with cayenne pepper, provided by his wife. He was also up front that they did host parties every week, with artists, musicians, and other artsy people in attendance. That’s what came with housing fine arts students and the practice space for your son’s fusion band. I asked if a certain ethnomusicologist had also lived at this residence while conducting fieldwork. He replied the affirmative—and his wife added that this scholar also loved raksi, and ate lots of momos. And by the way, why wasn’t I drinking the raksi? I replied that I hadn’t eaten all day. She nodded her head, assenting that I was smart for not putting that hard stuff in an empty stomach. One of my colleagues discreetly poured out her alcohol under the table as this conversation ensued.

After talking among ourselves, we decided that we would rather rent a flat together than separate rooms. Though, we could still show up to this guy’s parties and go home at whatever hour we turned into pumpkins.

Working through a realtor proved to be more of a headache than a help. We were shown rather lavish apartments just outside Ring Road. With our white skin, we had a hard time making these middlemen believe that we were on a budget. Other apartments were a little more demur, like the one owned by a Nepali friend of mine in the States. She was looking for sub-letters, and asked if we might be interested. I told her we’d look. She put us in contact with her sister, who showed us the place. She couldn’t answer our questions about utilities, so took us down to the complex office to talk to a staff member.

The office was a dark, dank basement room, furnished with cast-off couches, a dinged-up desk, and a line phone. The fluorescent lights cast shadows that made me think we were either in a Dr. Who episode or a James Bond flick. We began to ask our questions to the woman at the desk: what was the average water/electricity bill per month? Oh, that depends on how much you use…

But before we got far, a tall elderly man wearing what looked like, to us, bright blue pajamas, sauntered in and began talking rapidly to the woman behind the desk. When he noticed us, he barraged her with questions in Nepali about our business: why were we here? Well, there weren’t any empty apartments now, were there; tell them so. Get their contact information so we can let them know when we do have a vacancy. We stayed silent, wondering if we should tell the guy—who turned out to be the complex owner—that we were subletting. The sister answered that she had an empty apartment; she had been showing it to us and we had questions about utilities. That’s why she had brought us to the office. The man told her she should have informed him first about the vacancy before showing it to people. He was then informed that we all spoke and understood Nepali. “Oh, you all speak Nepali?” he asked in English. He rehashed in English all that had been said in Nepali.

I decided to ask the utility bill question. Oh, that depends on how much you use per month. He went on to tell us that there was a back up generator for evening and night-time loadshedding, and if there was a shortage of water we would be notified and they would take care to order more. Yes, but how much does it all cost? I asked again. He just kept making motions with his hands, and reified that they really didn’t have any vacancies. We thanked them and left. I told the sister that I’d contact her about our final decision. 

We decided among ourselves that, as attractive as the price was, that landlord might provide a little too much drama for our tastes. I called the sister later, thanking her for her time but we had decided to continue looking elsewhere.

We revisited the “Patan Palace,” as we had termed the rather spacious place by Patan Dhoka. The landlord turned out to be a young urbanite educated at the famed Rato Bangala school, and had spent much time abroad. He wanted to go into property management, and he was starting with some family holdings. He patiently answered my questions about water (the supply was city water, but in case of a shortage, he would order a tanker), electricity (there were back-up lights in case of a power outage), and flat/compound security (his office was on the level below our apartment, and there was an arts institute and polyclinic next door so people would always be in the compound; the gate was locked at dark by the neighbors and we would be provided keys). The flat needed cleaning and furnishing, and he had a list of what would be provided. It was just the essentials, but that’s all we needed. He was ok with three of us signing the lease, and then leasing the extra room to friends of ours who would be coming through Nepal for a few months at a time. We came the next day to sign the lease—which happened to include a clause that, should an earthquake occur and the place become unlivable, we would be released from our contract. How considerate!

So my first hunt for an apartment, and signing the lease, was done in Nepal. Go figure =)